When you start to think you know it all, something will happen to make you believe you don’t know anything at all.
“You know nothing, Jon Snow.” ~ Ygritte – The Game of Thrones
It is tempting to give people advice on starting a business. Do this and not that. As if everything is black and white, yes or no answers. If we had followed all of that advice 15 years ago, we would not have started our business when we did.
In fact, we might well have never started.
Our Entrepreneurial Seizure
Back in the spring of 2000, Glen, Al and I were working for a large Information Technology company. We built a web-based software tool for gathering the performance data on thousands of servers across multiple clients and then intelligently reporting on them through dashboards. We did it on a shoestring budget. It also met the contractual reporting requirements the company had failed to meet with some customers over several years and even uncovered some issues that could then be fixed.
Then we ran afoul of corporate politics.
As part of a much bigger offering, there was a small, local group and a larger corporate group working on solutions. They had been working on it for several years, and they were still a few years from anything that could be deployed. We presented our solution as a temporary fix to the business problem. One group grudgingly agreed to look at our solution. The bigger corporate group refused to consider it at all.
At that point, we realized that innovation, outside of a select few, was not something the company appreciated. Internally there were other cultural changes, and we were starting to see more signs of fewer opportunities to show any creativity or initiative in the future.
This point in time was also run up to the big dotcom bubble. Companies were raising millions in the markets left and right. Everything related to technology was turning to gold.
So we took the most logical next step. We formed our own consulting company and found our first client.
The three of us tendered our resignation at the same time so none of us could back out. While I would never do that in a small company, the company we were leaving was able to absorb our work easily enough.
One of the executives in the company called us into his office. We thought we were going to get a blast for quitting, but he ended up asking if we needed investors. More than anything, that highlights the optimistic mood in the industry at that the time.
We were bootstrapping so the reality of not having a regular paycheck started to hit pretty fast. When it is your own business, if you don’t sell you don’t get paid.
Then the dotcom bubble burst.
Growing a business turned out to not be so easy. We’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way and even learned a few things. But first we had to learn that we didn’t know it all.
“Most entrepreneurs are merely technicians with an entrepreneurial seizure. Most entrepreneurs fail because you are working IN your business rather than ON your business.” ~ Michael Gerber
I don’t wish we knew more before we started our business. We would never have started if we knew everything that was facing us. We knew enough about our craft, and we thought we could do the business part. Besides, a lot of other people were doing it so why not us?
The classic entrepreneurial seizure got us started.
You can’t really use logic on people who are caught up in the momentum leaping off the cliff into business or any other endeavor they are passionate about.
However, there are some things I wish we had learned a lot faster AFTER we started the business.
What We Didn’t Know
The Entrepreneur versus the Technician
It took me three years in business and reading the E-Myth by Michael Gerber to understand the concept. It took another two years to truly embrace implementing them.
My role as the president of the company is not to be the best technician or consultant. My role is to build a business that does those things well, so I am not trapped in the business.
Working on the Business
On the surface, working on the business appeared to be all about creating documentation. Business plans, procedure, job descriptions, standards, etc.
It turns out that working on the business is more about problem solving, innovation, efficiency and consistency. It is a about figuring out how to deliver value to clients while making a profit in a competitive and changing marketplace. It is about how you build, lead and motivate teams to accomplish that.
The documentation is just one way of sharing the results of working on the business.
The Power of Marketing and Sales Mastery
I think a lot of people starting a business underestimate the impact of mastering sales versus going through the motions. The reality is that one top performing salesperson can generate more revenue than four average or low performers.
Then there is the mysterious black box of marketing. You put money in and you may or may not get clients out.
So you invest sweat equity instead. You network. You ask for referrals. You try to manage our own marketing. But pounding the pavement doesn’t scale very well and it is hard to extend your reach outside of your immediate location.
Once you understand the power of having your ideal clients find you, you don’t want to go back.
Marketing and sales both require talent, skills, process, and training to master. So you need to make a decision; become the expert or find the experts. Then implement a marketing plan that is based on a sound strategy for your specific market and business and build a sales team that gets results.
You Know Nothing
You will never know everything you need to know. You can learn the basics ahead of time and prepare for the level of risk you face. But you can’t stay in learning mode forever.
At times you will feel like you are in control and nothing can stop you. This is probably an illusion.
At times, you will feel like you know nothing.
At least you know that much.
This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project.