Want to Start a Company? Stay as Ignorant as Possible
Maybe ignorance really is bliss. I talk with entrepreneurs all the time who started their businesses without a real understanding of what they were getting into. It sounds crazy, but I actually think it may have been their single greatest asset.
Here's why it pays to know as little as possible.
You're willing to take bigger risks, with bigger rewards.
A little knowledge can make you cautious--and hold you back. So often we're told that something isn't possible, that we won't be successful or that our venture won't work because others have failed. That's daunting. When you go into something new without lots of knowledge about who was there before, you aren't held back by the way it was approached before--by the standard way of doing things. That opens you up to greater possibilities.
When I first started User Insight, many in the research space told me that you "couldn't sell fixed price research and there was no way to turn it into a process"--that it was too risky to approach research that way. But I did it anyway. I turned research into a repeatable process, enabling my company to bid business on a fixed price basis anywhere in the world.
You bring fresh eyes.
If you have no experience in a space, you create new approaches to a problem that others might not have considered. You may bring something from another industry or experience to your current situation that is more appropriate.
I listened a group of entrepreneurs speak at a panel discussion the other night--one of them shared the experience of bringing a product to market. She recalled the moment when she was on the verge of signing off on the purchase of several hundred thousand dollars worth of molds for a bottle to hold the product.
First, she decided to bring everyone involved in the product's manufacturing process into one room and have them talk her through it, from inception to delivery in the consumer's hands. During this meeting, where she openly admitted to being the least knowledgeable person in the room, they identified several breakpoints in the process that would require major modifications to the molds she was ordering. This half-day meeting saved her start-up hundreds of thousands of dollars in mistakes.
The amazing thing--these industry experts, each with about 25 years of experience, said it was the first such meeting they had ever attended that took such a holistic look at the process for a product. All because she was ignorant.
You ask stupid questions.
Entrepreneurs who are new to a space ask questions to try to understand it. By having this outsider view, they can see gaps and opportunities others "on the inside" don't see. As newbies, they have permission to ask questions like "why do you do it that way?" and, "have you ever thought of doing it this way?"
If you have a staff, encourage them to ask the stupid questions when they first start with your company. If the person answering the question can't provide a solid answer with a specific reason, something might be broken: It might be a process or procedure to reconsider. Those so-called stupid questions may end up lending you the unique opportunity to be creative and solve a problem in a new and market-changing way.
ERIC V. HOLTZCLAW is a serial entrepreneur who has founded multiple startup companies, including one of the first profitable Internet enterprises. His last company appeared on the Inc. 5000 three years in a row. Holtzclaw advises clients on the whys of business--why customers buy, why teams work, and the all-important "entrepreneurial" why. He is the author of Laddering, and his weekly radio show, The "Better You" Project, shines a spotlight on entrepreneurs' individual business journeys and successes. To learn more about Holtzclaw, visit ladderingworks.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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