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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Startups

In 1989, professional achievement was as attainable as following seven personality principles as outlined by self-help author Stephen R. Covey. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People has sold over 25 million copies since then, and continues to influence how we identify successful individuals.

But it’s the 21st century now, and we need to track how success is mastered online. For tech startups, there are new rules for achievement. As O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly says, “An invention has to make sense in the world it finishes in, not in the world it started in.” The online world is ever changing, and requires exceptional dedication to understanding user needs.

You want to see your small business or startup gain momentum online, and we want to show you what works for the big players, like Facebook and Pinterest. We’ll offer our findings for free, though 25 million page views would sure be nice.

1. The targeted customer’s opinion comes first.

Entrepreneur.com author Carol Tice says “many startup businesses fail because their owners skip a critical step in development: talking to potential customers before opening the doors.” She cites Robin Chase, the co-founder of car-sharing service Zipcar. Chase handed out index cards with potential brand names to people, asking for their opinion on the names without giving them any background on the business. She was surprised what people were drawn to, based on their first-glance feel of the names. The process aided in developing a memorable, relevant company name.

2. They persist.

Building an online service from the ground up requires larger risks and greater time commitment than a 9-5 job, and the stress of this follows you home. Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann persisted through two slow years of development, when real-time text feeds were popular, and “some observers felt that an image-based pinboard was doomed to fail.” In an interview with CNN, Silbermann says, “A lot of people asked, ‘Why did you keep it going? Why didn’t you bail?’” A nagging pride kept him sharp: “I think the idea of telling people, ‘We blew it,’ was just too embarrassing.”

3. The team rocks.

“It is essential that any team driving a startup have the guts to take the necessary risks involved with creating a truly disruptive product,” says Forbes.com contributor Hadley Harris. A tireless group of innovators, ready to listen humbly to its community of users, forms the backbone of every successful startup.

4. “Wow” moments are planned.

Clout author Colleen Jones notes how startups keep users hooked on their services by calculating “wow” moments that utilize account holder content. Jones points to Mint.com’s new “Goals” feature, which basically combines the user’s personal data and content with goals that the user sets to track for long or short term monitoring. The content was already there, but the repackaging refreshes the service.

5. They control customer service

Maybe your original startup concept needs to be adapted to fit new circumstances. Maybe your content delivery methods look different now that you’ve tested the markets. Maybe there are competitors in your industry doing things in a radical way that unnerves you. These things are out of your control. Customer service, however, is not. Not ever. Successful startups manage customer service with a kind of desperate attentiveness. Our Pinterest guy Silbermann gave his personal phone number to scores of beta users, meeting with them for coffee, and writing to them personally when there were site changes. This attention to customer service closes the gap between online and brick-and-mortar experience.

6. They went undercover.

Before founding YouTube.com, Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim all worked for PayPal. Silbermann started at Google. And Mint.com’s CEO and founder Aaron Patzer developed his online business experience during the Internet boom of 1998-2000, working for Getawebsite.com. These entrepreneurs did not hop into self-employment without understanding the mechanics of online business management. Learning from the big boys enriched their startup strategies.

7. The cracks show, and that’s OK.

When the Facebook News Feed feature was launched in 2006, users were furious. Over 700,000 online signatures demanded that Facebook remove the seemingly intrusive profile setting. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reacted immediately, writing a sincere apology that addressed the company’s wrongdoing and offering solutions for privacy settings. “We really messed this one up,” he said in the post. Human error bled through the online community, and Zuckerberg took it as an opportunity to level with his audience.


Covey’s best-selling self-help book is effective for readers with goals. Cultivating healthy “habits” in growing a business works the same way. As Inc.com contributor Nicole Carter says, “All companies need to have the basics: a solid business model, a viable market, and a brilliant product or service.” Without the foundation, the advice doesn’t make a difference.

Have you got the groundwork for a successful startup?


Carter, Nicole. “6 Secrets to a Successful Start-Up.” 8 February 2012. Inc.com: http://www.inc.com/nicole-carter/6-secrets-to-a-successful-start-up.html

Griggs, Brandon. “Pinterest: Revamped profile pages, iPad app coming soon.” 13 March 2012. Articles.cnn.com: http://articles.cnn.com/2012-03-13/tech/tech_web_pinterest-sxsw_1_ipad-app-profile-pages-users/2?_s=PM:TECH

Harris, Hadley. “3 Features Of Great Startups: How To Make A VC Go All In.” 19 April 2012. Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericsavitz/2012/04/19/3-features-of-great-startups-how-to-make-a-vc-go-all-in/2/

Jones, Colleen. Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content. New Riders: 2011

Sanford, Richard B. “Beating the low startup survival rate requires success by design.” 27 September 2011. Techjournal.org: http://www.techjournal.org/2011/09/beating-the-low-startup-survival-rate-requires-success-by-design/

Tice, Carol. “The One Simple Task That Will Help Your Startup Succeed.” 11 April 2012. Entrepreneur.com: http://www.entrepreneur.com/blog/223315

Photo credit: Flickr.com user marsmet544

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