​​15 Lessons Learned from a Failed Startup

Cat Noone, Founder of Iris Health, transforms failures into opportunities.

Zight | January 07, 2019 | 4 min read time

Article Last Updated: July 22, 2023

​​15 Lessons Learned from a Failed Startup

Since shutting down my first startup, I’ve spent a solid amount of time analyzing what it means to fail.

I’m hard on myself and I always have been. I love to win, I love competition, and I love success in any form. And man, I hate it when people tell me that I can’t do something.

The person I compete against most is myself. And for the first time in a long time, that relationship is a healthy one. Now I still try to avoid failure, but I also embrace it as a tool for change and improvement.

When my first startup failed, I was too embarrassed to talk with anyone about it. I avoided sharing my experiences, and spent the first couple of weeks hiding away to escape startup land. Several years later and the success of many ongoing projects transformed my mindset. I’ve learned to embrace failures and share the ups and downs about building a startup. I hope this list guides founders and creators to keep going. Don’t give up on your dreams. In the end, you have to know what doesn’t work to create something that does.

​​15 Lessons Learned from a Failed Startup

‍1. Build a product to solve problems

Building a product that solves an actual problem for a large group of people is half the battle. You’d be surprised by how many people are willing to get on board when your mission is to help.

2. ​Every decision matters, whether big or small

Treat the small decisions and big decisions the same way

3. Have a vision and follow through

People are meant to be lead, tasks are meant to be managed.

4. Bootstrapping is hard

You must have ultimate focus, be willing to experiment, and understand that lean and frugal is key. But most important is knowing when and where to dump the cash.

5. Tough conversations are inevitable

You have to be able to have the tough conversations. The Harvard Business Review, suggests to begin difficult conversations from a place of curiosity and respect. Listen to their needs and try to remove your personal feelings from the situation.

‍6. Hire slow, fire fast

Make sure the people you bring on board are the right fit. If things aren’t working out the way you planned, take the company into your own hands and get it on the right track.

7. Be open to evolve

Celebrate wins, acknowledge and analyze failures, quick recovery, and positive patterns are critical to growing/developing a culture.

8. Step up when you need to get stuff done

Sometimes you’ll have to work late nights or on the weekend. This isn’t a badge of honor or something to celebrate, but still has to be done. If it becomes a pattern, that should call for some personal or company-wide analysis. One always impacts the other.

9. Get involved in community

Figure out who your product’s community is, tap into it and build around it.

10. Let it go or let it drag

There comes a point where you have to let it go, or let it drag. Letting it drag not only makes it worse for you, but seriously tarnishes the experience you work hard to continually provide for people using the product.

11. It probably didn’t have to be a meeting

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12. You don’t need to fundraise just because you’re a startup

13. Holacracy, when done right, is much more conducive to a successful organization than hierarchy

A holacratic organizational structure gives individuals autonomy to make their own decisions and responsibility for their own actions.

‍14. Hire remote workers

“Remote work with two on-sites annually is truly all you need.

Remote work is equally tough and beneficial. Communication skills are forced and shaped, teams need to collaborate often, and people do work better with long intervals of uninterrupted, focused time. You’ll be able to discern when a meeting is necessary, it will cost you less and increases output. This benefits the well-being of the entire team.‍

I’m at a point where you cannot convince me otherwise. Yes, I know this cannot work for all professions or teams. I wouldn’t expect scientists to cure cancer from their house. But they technically could, so…

15. Work at a steady pace

You break it, you buy it. Make sure your pace allows you to hit goals in a healthy, efficient way that keeps you responsible for what you are creating. The world doesn’t need wrong answers in record time. Or another Facebook scandal. Realistically those all started as fast-moving, well-thought-out and unchallenged ideas which eventually became unnecessarily expensive. The Big Five can afford it—you as a startup cannot.
​​In my time building companies, growing as a leader, and most importantly honing my craft, I’ve learned lessons in business and on a personal level that naturally benefit others. In just the last year alone, I’ve spoken with and had the opportunity to learn from some of the most profound individuals of our time. I’m forever grateful for this, and know that as long as I continually have a beginner’s [student] mindset, there is nothing myself or our team(s) can’t do.

​​Interested in learning more about any of the points listed above?
Follow me on Twitter at iamcatnoone.

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