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What Not to Do: 5 Lessons From Failed Unicorns

This post was originally featured on Entrepreneur.com

Image credit: looseleaf2006 | Getty Images

The name unicorn — a burgeoning company valued at over $1 billion — turns heads in the business world, but in actuality is far from a guarantee of sustained success, or even survival.

Many companies with the requisite amount of passion, planning and smarts have fallen by the wayside due to hazards, both internal and external. When you run a business, you must constantly learn from the mistakes of others, even those outside of your industry. This is a unique time to build a business, and even though you may not be in the tech sphere like most of these companies, there are real lessons for enterprises of every stripe to learn from, and hopefully, avoid.

1. Don’t overpromise.

Lofty goals are an important thing to have, but your business can’t be based on something you’re not ready to deliver. One of the biggest stories to come out of Silicon Valley last year was the startup Theranos, which promised a quantum leap forward in blood testing technology. Their tests, Theranos claimed, could perform a number of health assessments far beyond what was already possible. People are always eager to find the next big leap in tech, and one tied to the field of healthcare carried extra attraction.

Unfortunately, the facts of the tech didn’t bear out their lofty promises, and the company is facing the ire of investors and even Congress in order to answer for their false promises. It’s not impossible to imagine that Theranos might have been a successful company if not for the blind ambition that led them to overstate what they were truly capable of. Desire is a powerful fuel for any company, but you can’t let it drive you off a cliff.

2. Value your workforce.

The public’s trust is just one of the many intangible assets of your venture whose value can’t be overstated. One slightly more tangible one would be your workforce. Whether a startup with a handful of employees, or a massive conglomerate employing thousands, the people on the payroll are the ones who keep the engine moving, and to abuse them only hurts you.

The coworking spaces run by unicorn startup WeWork (52 locations in 16 cities worldwide), a glittering lure for young businesses, were the subject of some serious labor disputes from cleaners looking to improve their working conditions. The company responded by firing everyone in one fell swoop, showing a drastic misreading of the situation that caused irreparable damage to their image. In the drive to expand, the company sadly neglected to properly value the people who helped make it great, and they continue to pay a heavy PR price.

3. Be realistic.

After receiving huge valuations, it’s understandable that many of these companies have gotten carried away with their optimism. The temptation to spend like you’re already one of the big boys can take you down if you’re not quite at that level yet. Growing realistically and incrementally gives you and your organization the strong foundation necessary to avoid toppling over as you grow. Patience is a virtue, and a lack of it can bring you to the end.

Fuhu was a fast-growing children’s tech outfit which successfully made the leap from software to hardware but went off running a bit too far when their revenue projections outstripped their accounting department’s more realistic estimates. The pressure to meet these predictions was too strong, and new products aimed at bridging the revenue gap flopped, leaving them $100 million in debt to their supplier. After declaring bankruptcy, they were bought out by Mattel at a tiny fraction of their original valuation.

4. Honesty is paramount.

Your customers and clients are the most valuable assets of your company. If you’re not honest with them, you’ll inevitably come to regret it. Just a few years ago, the daily fantasy sports companies DraftKings and FanDuel, two competitors selling a virtually identical product, blasted sports fans with advertisements featuring people who had won huge amounts of money from their services and promising that these riches were well within reach of every user.

The fact, of course, was that a small minority of obsessed players were making the big bucks, while the casual users that the ads were aimed at ended up being taken for a ride. Not only that, but employees were using internal information about playing patterns in order to win money on the competitor’s site, showing a grievous top-down failure to police company culture. Not to mention the negative attention for their pseudo-gambling practice that drew ire from multiple state attorneys general. This fundamentally dishonest business practices gave these companies some astronomical success in the short term, but their influence and reach has dwindled today, less than three years later, to nearly nothing.

5. Get ready for serious competition.

You can have a great idea, but when you’re beginning as a startup, it might not occur to you that you’ve got enormous potential competitors in your future. As you get bigger, you must be ready to confront the entrenched interests that are already in your field. Don’t be surprised when they strike back in a big way.

This lesson was learned by Evernote, famously called “the first dead unicorn” by Business Insider. Their business software products gained them heaps of attention and venture capital, but stagnant growth meant that by the time they were on most people’s radar, their products were already being undercut by new offerings from Google, Microsoft and Apple. Even in tech, where a small organization can establish themselves among the bigger players faster than most industries, name recognition goes a long way, and now Microsoft’s OneNote and Google Docs have overtaken Evernote’s product suite and left them behind.

These companies are, of course, only a small sampling of the many highly-valued firms that have popped up in the past decade. The “unicorn” label doesn’t have to be an albatross for growing businesses to wear around their necks, but it does provide an unwelcome spotlight when they slip up. By not letting your revenue-based dreams interfere with smart business practices, you can ensure you’ll stay alive and relevant, unicorn or not.