5 Project Management Mistakes Startups Make

When it comes to delivering projects on time and within budget, startups have little margin for error.   Many people assume that startups do not need the same level of project management discipline that larger companies do.

However, after working with many early stage startups, we see the opposite:  the success of a startup is dependent on setting expectations, careful planning, understanding risk and delivering value to all stakeholder, whether they be customers, partners or investors.

Project planning should be as important to startups as any other business. Without  proper project planning the startup will more likely fail.

The following is a list of common project management mistakes that startups often make and how to avoid these scenarios.

1.   Not knowing how to say “no”

“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.”

―Tony Blair


Startup teams are often small and intimate, reflecting the informal startup culture.    Taking on a startup project management role in a flat organization brings many challenges.   

With little formal hierarchy, it is often difficult for a project manager to say “no” to his or her team members, especially since everyone is like to be wearing multiple hats and to be thinly spread. 

By acquiescing to a team member’s request, short term conflict is avoided.  As tempting (and convenient) as it may be for the project manager to delegate responsibility and to empower his or her team, it is also the role of the project manager to filter and challenge team requirements. 

 Of course, it is not always easy or pleasant to balance team comradely with project discipline and a skilled project manager in a startup needs to develop the ability to listen well, understand a request and have the confidence to give push back. 

 2.  Not planning for risk

“Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.”

Ray Bradbury

 Risk is part of the startup DNA and it is not uncommon for startups to underestimate or ignore risk.   Because of the inherent risk of a bringing new and disruptive products to market, risk aversion is not part of the startup culture.

However, when it comes to successful project management, risk should not and cannot be taken for granted. A disciplined project manager assesses all risk to a project with the team and management and then creates a plan to counter the risk as it arises.   

In fact, given all the other risks that startups face (including funding, product launch and business model sustainability), steps taken to identify and mitigate risk can be more important for a startup than for a mature business. 

3.  Ignoring mistakes and deemphasizing Quality Control

“Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.”
Henry Ford

Many startups work at capacity and are in a rush to go to market.   But sacrificing quality at the expense of “results” can create a false impression of progress with potentially disastrous consequences.   

Startup project managers who are under pressure to deliver on-time, often look the other way when faced with the unpleasant reality of poor quality work.

With only one in twenty startups succeeding, one would think that quality should be the number one and number two priority for a startup.  Ignoring a mistake does not make it go away. 

If one team member finishes fast and is free to work on another project, is not helping the startup if his or her work causes delays downstream.

Startup project managers should require the same level of performance from their team members as project managers in mature and large companies.  If a team member is delivering sloppy work, the project manager needs to sit down and deal directly with the issue.  

We are only as strong as our weakest link.  Replacing a team member who consistently produces sub-par work may not be a popular decision, but it could mean the difference between project failure and success.

4.  Failing to create a detailed schedule

“I don’t think that scheduling is uncreative. I think that structure is required for creativity.”

-Twyla Tharp

Scheduling a project is always hard, but it is especially challenging in a startup environment where people are developing new solutions or implement initiatives for the first time.  

Without historic data and a team that has done similar projects in the past, many startup project managers do not have sufficient information to estimate a project duration. 

That is why work breakdown structure is so important, even for projects that use Agile project management methodologies such as Scrum and Kanban.   

Before starting the project and first sprint, a startup project manager should take the time to break down the project to the smallest activity or task possible.    

Let’s not forgot that no matter what methodology you use, it is important to use a project management tool – whether it be an online project management software, an excel spreadsheet or even Microsoft Project. 

5.  Poor resource planning

“You will launch many projects, but have time to finish only a few. So think, plan, develop, launch and tap good people to be responsible. Give them authority and hold them accountable.”  

– Donald Rumsfeld

Startup employees tend to multi-task, overcommit and often burn out.  Whereas larger and more mature companies can assign resources (people, equipment, office space) to a project, the nature of startup requires much more of a demand of resources.  

There are two common challenges that startups face when staffing projects. First, because of staff bandwidth constraints, projects lack people with the right qualification to do the work. 

Second, even when people have the right qualifications, they do not necessarily have the right experience to perform on task. 

In order to mitigate against a lack of resources, startup project managers need to be realistic about what can be achieve with the team that they are given and set expectations with management so that there are fewer surprises downline.  

The art of compromise is exponentially more important in a startup than a mature company and as is the ability to beg, borrow and (possibly) steal team members in a constrained environment.

Did you find this article useful?  We’d love to hear your comments or questions about the subject of project managemenet for startups.

David Robins


David Robins is the founder and CEO of Binfire. David studied at both Cornell and MIT, and was the Director of Software Engineering at Polaroid for 11 years.

1 Comment
  1. Great post sir, coordinating the many facets of a new business can be a bit of a juggling act. As a startup begins to grow, keeping all of these processes going can become almost impossible. Project management is a crucial part of business today.

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