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4 Reasons It Pays to Be Clueless

Forget an MBA. Or even business experience. Some of the best entrepreneurs never would have launched if they had known better.
The Dame brothers Brooks, Tanner, and Taylor say their business naivete helped their eyewear company succeed.
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Brooks Dame has an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. But when he and his brothers started Proof Wood Eyewear, which offers sunglasses, prescription glasses and accessories made from sustainable woods, they built a successful business by ignoring almost everything he learned there. "Sometimes being a bit naive pays off," he says now.

Here's how knowing too much could be a bad thing:

1. You might be too timid.

Proof Wood started, classically, with Dame in his garage, making glasses for family and friends. People kept telling Dame that he ought to be selling the glasses. Eventually he agreed, and he and his brothers Tanner and Taylor started a small business.

Fifteen days after launching, they arrived at the MAGIC accessories show in Las Vegas. "We walked in to set up our booth not knowing what to expect," Dame says. "The guy in the booth across from us was selling his T-shirts to Urban Outfitters and many other stores. He told us not to get discouraged if we didn't have a lot of visitors to our booth during the show. He said, 'You often don't get a lot of traffic at first--you have to establish your brand.'"

Dame went back to his hotel room that night wishing he hadn't spent the money to come to the show before the company was better known. But the more experienced vendor was wrong: The booth was mobbed for three days. The Dames were so clueless they hadn't even brought an order book with them--they didn't know what one was--but they bought one from a nearby Staples after the first day. By the end of the show, they had signed on 13 stores to carry their products.

2. You might think you know who your customers are.

The Dames created their wooden sunglasses for surfers and skateboarders such as themselves, and they assumed this would be their target market. Fortunately, going to MAGIC gave them the chance to find out they were wrong. "We found we had people interested in the product because it's eco-friendly, and we had hip-hop artists come into the booth and say, 'This reminds me of the wood on my dashboard--I have to have these!' Now we say we have a wide demographic that includes surfers and hip-hop people and housewives." Today, Proof Wood glasses are sold in 120 stores and chains, including Nordstrom, and the company moves up to 1,800 pairs a month.

3. You might make too many plans.

Dame attended an entrepreneurship course that explained how and why a new business needs a business plan. But he didn't write one. "We just did it," he says. "After the company launched, we finally wrote one for a business plan competition, in order to raise money. But the truth is, we've deviated from it so much, we never even refer to it."

Too much planning is dangerous, Dame believes. "I think you can overthink a product. You want to perfect it and make it right, and that stifles you, and by the time you get it out there your time has passed. I think if you believe in your product, you should go for it. That's probably the opposite of everything they teach you in grad school."

4. You might not do it at all.

Early on, Proof Wood naively approached Sunglass Hut, not realizing that the chain was owned by Luxottica, which owns Ray-Ban and many other brands. Proof Wood's only option was to start out selling to small, owner-operated stores and boutiques.

"If we'd realized that, honestly we probably wouldn't have launched at all," he says now. "We're a small group, and we didn't think we'd be able to manage a lot of small shops." Instead, he says, Proof Wood's relationships with smaller shops and boutiques has been a tremendous asset. "Our owner-operated shops are some of our best shops. They're continuous, they support us, and they're always sharing information about us on Facebook and Twitter."

In the end, he says, "We did everything a little backwards. And it seems to have paid off for us."

IMAGE: Courtesy of company
Last updated: Jun 22, 2012

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, 'The Geek Gap'

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Like this post? Sign up here for a once-a-week email and you'll never miss her columns.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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