4 Key Business Mistakes To Avoid

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To err is human – but learning from those mistakes is what makes a successful business. Every entrepreneur has at some stage got something wrong. However, the successful ones learn from that experience. It’s okay to make mistakes – just don’t make the same ones twice. We asked some business owners about mistakes they have made and what they learned from those mistakes. Here are 4 key business mistakes to avoid:


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“Mistakes are an unavoidable part of business,” says Mike Treanor, design director of County Monaghan firm Mullan Lighting. “You need to make them, because they make you less complacent, and ultimately less risk-averse. You take risks to succeed. We couldn’t possibly be the same company if we’d gotten everything right first time.”

Learning lessons has taken Treanor, an architect by trade, from his literal light-bulb moment of manufacturing products in a disused village shoe factory to heading a multimillion-euro international business with a client base including celebrities and the British Royal Family.

1. We didn’t... plan for growth

When Treanor and his wife Edel launched the business in Emyvale over 10 years ago, one stumbling block was not seizing the potential for growth. “I think we focused too much on the domestic market, which limited our expansion in those crucial early years,” he says.

“We’d been going three years before we attended our first trade show abroad. But when we did that, our UK trade grew substantially and we quickly began exhibiting regularly there and in France, then Germany and Sweden. We’d have got there more quickly if we’d spotted the potential.” 

Recommended reading: Choosing the Right Growth Strategy

2. We didn’t... focus properly

Joe Bohan was shocked to discover he and wife Mags were holding their restaurant business back by opening too often. Profits at Dela in Galway’s West End only took off after the couple took the counter-intuitive decision to restrict their hours.

“We were treading water,” says Bohan. “So we called the staff together and had a look at each individual night, the peaks and troughs. We realised we were trying to be all things to all customers – but if you regularly don’t make money on a particular night, what’s the point in opening then?

“So we cut back to opening only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, which gave us the rest of the week to plan properly and get the operation right.”

It was the boost the business needed. “Since that meeting, business has boomed,” says Bohan. “We offered weekend brunches and they took off, so we extended them to Friday, and then gradually opened up the whole week again – but only when we were ready. It was baby steps but it meant we really understood our own capacity and what we could achieve, and it’s really paid off.”

The couple are similarly pragmatic about expanding. “A lot of customers are asking us to open in Dublin, but we’d have to split our focus, which we’re not yet prepared to do. We’ve learned there’s no value in putting all your effort into a plan you can’t sustain.” 

Recommended reading: Tips For Avoiding Burnout at Work

3. We didn't... work out our customers’ needs

Emotion can often get in the way of a good business plan, too. FoodCloud, an app that redistributes businesses’ surplus food to charities, initially stumbled when its founders neglected to factor in the precise needs of the charities.

“We learned you need to understand a problem before solving it,” says co-founder and CEO Iseult Ward, who launched the social enterprise in 2013 with fellow Trinity College Dublin student Aoibheann O’Brien. “We got a few cafés and bakeries using the app to indicate what food surplus they had, but it wasn’t enough. One charity CEO told us he spent 40 minutes driving round Dublin collecting food to feed five people. He was really grateful but the concept wasn’t viable for them.”

So Ward and O’Brien had a rethink and instead targeted supermarkets. Five years on, FoodCloud takes surplus from 2,500 supermarkets and 100 food industry partners and distributes 1.5m “meal equivalents” a month to 6,000 designated charities.

“The key was proper research to understand the issue from both the businesses’ and charities’ point of view,” says Ward. “The concept was a hit immediately, but it was never going to work until we understood each partner’s needs.”

Recommended reading: How To Get Customer Feedback That You Can Take Action On


“Employees are the people best positioned to foresee mistakes before they happen. Make sure you have effective communication so staff can help you catch any issues before they become mistakes”

Mike Treanor, Design Director, Mullan Lighting


4. We didn’t... set realistic goals

Richard Rodger’s error came about as a victim of his own success. Voxgig, a Wikipedia-style platform for technology conference speakers to share information, took off as its founder hit on the idea of a newsletter that would enable customers to validate his content ideas.

“I got 500 subscribers very quickly, the model for attracting them worked, and the content feedback was excellent. So I decided to invest heavily in getting more subscribers. But I got far too carried away and set the next year’s target at 40,000.”

It was, he found, vastly unrealistic. “The strategy had worked so well I wrongly thought a huge jump would be easy, without realising that ticking along as we were would still increase the numbers to a healthy 5,000, whereas the resources needed to increase our followers drastically would have been expended to the detriment of other parts of the business. Just because you know how to make a plan work doesn’t automatically give you the resources to do it.”

So how did he change course? “I realised I had to work out the overall most effective use of my time and money. I pared back, and it also taught me another lesson – to build a team around me to question my madness. Seeking advice keeps you on track.”

Recommended Reading: Outstanding Opportunities for Fintech Innovators in Ireland 

So how do you avoid repeating the same mistake?

“We try to understand how and why it happened,” says Treanor, “then put procedures in place to lessen the chances of it reoccurring, or to mitigate its impact. Despite our best efforts, some product launches do fail. But we’ve learned to design our products to utilise a common set of components where possible, so if it does fail, we’re left with materials that can be used in other light fixtures.”

And, he adds, teamwork is vital. “Employees are the people best positioned to foresee mistakes before they happen. Make sure you have effective communication so staff can help you catch any issues before they become mistakes.

“But it’s often impossible to anticipate a problem or mistake before it happens,” he says. “So learning from it is all you can do.”

By Peter Taylor-Whiffen

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