The Startup Valley of Death: 8 Tips to Overcome The Death Valley Curve

The thrill of starting a new business, being your own boss and watching your company grow is exciting, no doubt. But between dream and reality lies a treacherous path - the startup Valley of Death. Put simply, the startup Valley of Death is where you run out of cash before any profits roll in.

But here's the good news: with careful planning and clever strategies, you can overcome the startup Valley of Death and make your business a success!

In this article, you will learn how the Death Valley Curve works, how you can navigate this challenging period, and 8 pro tips for overcoming it.
What is the startup valley of death?
The period when a startup is already in business but does not have any revenue from customers
You run out of cash ...
... before you start making a profit

What is the startup Valley of Death and what is the Death Valley Curve?

The startup Valley of Death is the period when a startup is already in business but doesn't have any revenue from customers. Basically, you run out of cash before you start making a profit.

But why does this happen?

Well, in the early business stages, you're busy building your product or service, and all that hard work requires funding. But customers haven't discovered your brilliance yet, so there's no revenue. This lack of cashflow creates the Valley of Death - a period when your initial investment dwindles with no way to replenish it. And the longer you stay in this valley, the more likely your business will fail.

The reason for this lies in the way investors view risk.

Investors are typically cautious and prefer to back businesses with a proven track record. Any unproven business means high risk to investors. That's why they want to see a clear path to profitability before they put their money behind an idea, no matter how innovative.

Traditionally, angel investors provide seed funding for early-stage businesses. These are smaller investments that help the startup get to the next milestone. Because early-stage startups are usually not backed by venture capitalists (with huge investments), you need to generate revenue and profits as soon as possible. Otherwise, you will quickly run out of money.

The good news is that more VCs are moving into the early-stage space, but the gap remains and may widen again due to the global economic situation.
Startup Death Valley Curve

The Death Valley Curve

This death value curve shows the cashflow of your startup. On the Y-axis you have cash. On the X-axis you have time. As a new startup, you start with a pool of cash from investors or your own savings (bootstrapping). This initial investment fuels your operations. What many people overlook is that you have a lot of expenses right from the start. Renting office space, hiring staff, paying your development team or doing marketing - just to name a few.

But there's a catch - you're not generating any income yet. So, with each passing month, your cash pile dwindles, creating a steep downward slope on your graph - the valley.

The goal, you ask?

To get to the other side of the valley - the upward slope. This is where you finally start making sales and your cashflow becomes positive. The sooner you get there, the better. The longer you stay in the valley, the greater your chances of running out of cash and failing, easy as that.
How many startups face the valley of death?
90% of startups fail
The odds against new startups
First year
Next few years
Long term

How many startups face the Valley of Death?

Building a startup is no easy task and I am sure you have read this statistic: 90% of startups fail. There are many reasons for this, but one of the reasons why startups fail within the first 3 years is exactly this - the Valley of Death. They fail to secure funding from investors. Here's a quick breakdown of the odds against new startups:

First year

While some entrepreneurs see early success, a significant proportion stumble and fail within the first year. The main reasons are that they don't have a market fit, they can't find new customers, or they find that their idea isn't that valuable (because they haven't validated it) and people aren't willing to pay for it.

The next few years

The risk remains high over the following years. By the fifth year, almost half (45%) of startups have closed their doors. The main problems are customer retention (which means they cannot keep their customers) or growing too early and too fast, making it difficult to sustain the business without a steady cashflow.

The Long Term

As time goes on, the landscape becomes even more unforgiving. A staggering 65% of startups fail by their tenth year, and a whopping 75% are out of business by their fifteenth year. Again, customer retention is a key challenge - or competitors entering the market and doing something better (due to better funding and scalability).
Resources to build a successful business
The challenges faced in the death valley curve
Market validation
Low morale

Challenges faced in the Death Valley Curve

The startup Valley of Death is unforgiving and if you are not prepared for the hurdles, you are in for a rough time. To make your life easier, here are some of the specific challenges you're likely to face:

Cashflow & the pressure of the valley

This is the biggest hurdle. You're constantly burning through cash with operational expenses like salaries, rent, essential software subscriptions and marketing. Every penny counts and the pressure to generate revenue increases with each passing day. The longer you stay in the valley, the greater the risk of failure. The pressure to find product-market fit and achieve profitability is immense.

To avoid or overcome this, you need to generate revenue as quickly as possible.


Venture capitalists typically invest in companies with a proven track record. Because you're in the early stages, the challenge will be to demonstrate a viable business model and secure additional funding. It's hard to convince investors to part with their money based on an idea alone.

Market validation

Are you solving a real problem for your target audience, or are you just building something you think people will like?  This is a critical question you need to answer - BEFORE you do anything. You would not believe how many startups fail because they have not properly validated their idea (been there, done that).

They start their business, get investors on board, only to find that their idea does not solve a real problem and none of their potential customers are willing to pay for it. Ouch. Don't make the same mistake I did. Don't invest your time and money without first validating your idea!

Keeping morale high

When you start your business and get people excited about your idea, everyone is hyped. But after a few weeks or months, when challenges arise, the pressure can wear down even the most enthusiastic team. Maintaining morale, focus and a sense of purpose when the future seems uncertain is something I cannot stress enough.

So, don't neglect this important part of your startup, even if you have a lot of other things to do.
Potential causes for the valley of death
Limited experience
Financial constraints
Skills deficiency across key areas
Unclear strategic vision
Misguided focus on metrics
Avoiding risks

Potential causes for the Valley of Death

As you build your business, you will encounter challenges. There is no way around it. While the challenges are endless, there are some patterns that are more common. So, let's take a look at the most common causes of this struggle:

Limited entrepreneurial experience

Many startups struggle because the founders have limited experience of running a business. Starting a business is easy, but running it and making it profitable is the real challenge. You need to excel in many different areas. These include the challenges of managing finances, making strategic decisions and navigating the complexities of the market.

Industry knowledge gap

This is a challenge I have seen many times. If you don't understand your market (and the industry you're in), you won't be successful. But reading a few books or articles online isn't enough. You need to understand the industry, including market trends, customer preferences and competitive dynamics.

You need to understand how your potential customers think (your Personas), what they believe in and what success looks like to them. If you don't, it can lead to misguided strategies and missed opportunities.

Financial constraints and cashflow issues

The definition of the startup Valley of Death. Lack of funding or poor cashflow management can lead to operational hurdles. If you cannot make your business profitable, you will run out of cash. At the same time, if you fail to get investors on board, you will delay growth initiatives and be unable to take advantage of market opportunities or respond to unexpected challenges.
If you cannot make your business profitable, you will run out of cash.

Skills deficiency across key areas

Startups often struggle when key team members lack essential skills in critical areas such as marketing, technology, sales and product development. You often see this when two friends start a company with a cool business idea. If neither of them has a background in these key areas and they don't hire experts, they will miss out and sooner or later run into huge challenges.

Unclear strategic vision

When you read (almost) any business book, the first chapter is about defining your vision. And it makes sense to do so. Because if you don't, you'll not only leave your team members confused, but also your investors and stakeholders. Remember, to get things going, you need investors on board to give you the initial cash boost to reach your first big milestone.

For me personally, the biggest benefit of having a clear vision is that it gives you direction and helps you find the best decisions when things get tough.

Misguided focus on metrics

There are more than 50 metrics you could measure. But you need to understand which metrics are truly relevant to your business success and which have no impact at all. If you focus on vanity metrics or metrics that don't align with your business goals, you won't be able to make the right decisions when things get tough, and you won't be able to see what's working and what's not. You need to focus on meaningful metrics that drive growth and sustainability.

Avoiding risks

While caution is essential, if you don't take any risks at all, you won't be able to seize opportunities when they are right in front of you. Don’t get me wrong – I am also not a fan of taking just any risk. But I think there is a difference between just any risk and calculated risks.

Calculated risks are often necessary to stay competitive and achieve breakthroughs. So, I recommend that you do a lot of research before you make a tough decision, and then measure your return and the risk you are taking.
Worksheets, templates & courses to build a successful business
8 tips to survive the startup valley of death
Accumulate some resources before you start
Keep your day job (if possible)
Seek support from friends and family
Consider joining a startup incubator
Explore bartering for services
Explore joint ventures and partnerships
Secure commitment from a major customer
Validate product market fit

8 Tips to survive the startup Valley of Death

We have established that getting out of the Valley of Death is the goal. Now let's look at the pro tips for surviving this challenging phase and making your business a success:

1. Accumulate some resources before you start

This is probably the most important tip of all. At the beginning of your business journey, you will have expenses - and more often than not, they will be higher than you think. So, you need to plan your business finances accordingly to reduce your risk. This involves calculating how much money you'll need to reach the revenue stage and to cover any potential financial setbacks. The more resources you have saved up, the better prepared you'll be to deal with unexpected challenges.

Self-funding or bootstrapping, where you use your own money, is a common and safe approach for startups. Once you've bootstrapped, friends and family often become your next source of funding. It's a necessary step, as outside investors tend to be more hesitant and harder to come by if you don't have a proven track record.

But hey, if you've got a cool business idea and you're worried about the costs involved, check out Micro SaaS - a business model that's easy to build but still generates a ton of revenue.

2. Keep your day job (if possible)

This kind falls under the first tip. Consider keeping your day job while working on your startup on the side. The idea is the same - to have enough resources & cashflow to keep the business going. Many entrepreneurs do this, especially in the early stages. It provides stability and peace of mind.

You can work on your startup in the evenings and weekends until you feel you are close to the revenue stage. However, be aware that if you choose this approach, it may take longer to see results and it may take up a lot of your time and energy. It's important to manage both roles effectively and set realistic expectations for yourself and others involved.

3. Seek support from friends and family

Friends and family are often the most willing to invest in your vision because they know you personally and understand your commitment to the business. However, approaching friends and family for funding should be done with transparency and professionalism.

Clearly outline your business plan, potential risks and expected returns. Set realistic expectations and discuss the terms of the investment to avoid misunderstandings or conflicts later on.

4. Consider joining a startup incubator

A startup incubator is like a supportive hub for young companies. These incubators are organizations, often associated with universities or established companies. They offer resources in exchange for a stake in your business to help you survive and thrive during the critical early stages.

These resources include cash investment, office space, access to networking opportunities, mentoring and advice. It's a great way to get the support you need while giving your business a solid foundation for growth.

However, it's important to research and choose an incubator that matches your business goals, values and industry focus for maximum impact. Never choose just any incubator.
Research and choose an incubator that matches your business goals.

5. Explore bartering for services

In the beginning, you are short of cash. One strategy to overcome this is bartering, where you exchange your products or services for goods or services you need, essentially replacing money with mutually beneficial arrangements.

For example, you could trade your marketing expertise or services for free office space in a coworking space. Similarly, you can negotiate with legal advisors, accountants, engineers or sales professionals to exchange services instead of traditional cash payments.

Bartering is a win-win situation, allowing you to access critical resources while freeing up cash for other business priorities. But always make sure you have a legal contract in place to ensure clarity, fairness and compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

6. Explore joint ventures and partnerships

Joint ventures are the next step to benefit from other people's knowledge, expertise and even customers. Consider teaming up with a company that sees the potential in what you're offering. If they think your product complements theirs, they might fund some of your initial expenses and give you access to their customer base. You can then either pay them back as your business starts to make money, or you can share the revenue from your sales.

Such a partnership can take various forms, such as licensing your product or allowing them to use your brand (white labelling). It's a smart move that brings in resources early on and sets the stage for future success together.
Consider teaming up with a company that sees the potential in what you're offering.

7. Secure commitment from a major customer

This is a pro tip and one that many people overlook. You don't need to have a lot of customers (especially if you have low costs or are aiming for a Micro SaaS business model). You could partner with a significant customer who has a lot to gain from being an early adopter of your product. They can provide upfront funding for development, leverage their previous experience with your company, and give you feedback that will make your product even more valuable to them.

In return for their investment and commitment, they gain control over the development process, ensuring that the final product meets their exact specifications and delivers the desired results. They also benefit from dedicated support and ongoing collaboration, creating a win-win scenario for both parties.

But bear this in mind:

Having only one or a few customers always carries a lot of risk for you. A change in the market, cost cuts, etc. may cause this customer to stop doing business with you. And if one of your customers accounts for more than 30% of your annual turnover, you will be seriously impacted. So always diversify, even if you use this strategy.

8. Validate product-market fit with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

I've mentioned this before, but before you dive head first into your startup journey, you need to make sure that people actually want what you're offering. You need to validate your idea. It's basically understanding who your potential customers are and then talking to them. You want to understand how they think and what they want to achieve. Without validating your idea, you are essentially gambling.

An excellent way to validate your idea is with an MVP - a simple version of your product or service that lets you see if there's real interest out there. It's like dipping your toes in the water before you dive in. With minimal effort, you can learn from real customers and improve your offering based on their feedback. It's all about making sure your product fits the market and appeals to your audience and potential investors.
Resources for your business success

Come out of the Startup Valley of Death, stronger!

The startup Valley of Death is a challenging but inevitable stage for most startups. However, if you plan your finances carefully, secure resources and validate your product-market fit, you can overcome this hurdle and make your startup a success.

Remember, the key is to be resourceful, adaptable and willing to learn from your mistakes. To learn more about building a successful business, get the AARRR Bundle, where you will learn how to create an effective growth funnel that attracts, converts and retains customers with one of the most powerful 5-step SaaS frameworks.