Startup Wisdom: Knowing What You Don’t Know
Being coachable isn’t a bad thing
One of the most powerful traits any entrepreneur can have is the ability to know what he or she doesn’t know. Recently I was asked by a potential partner why I made the choice to become a Philosophy major in college. I said I wanted to learn wisdom, not knowledge. When one becomes wise through experience, one can use that wisdom to learn any aspect of human knowledge with some will power and determination. I was then asked what I thought wisdom was.
To me wisdom is being humble enough to know what you don’t know, while also surrounding yourself with experienced people who can teach you.
As I thought more on this conversation I couldn’t help but recognize that I had employed that very method in building our company’s board of advisors. People like to write on VC firms, angel investing, and employees, but rarely do I find an article about the importance of assembling a board of advisors. I think this is arguably one of the most important resources for any inexperienced founder.
While I was building our company’s board of advisors I pieced together a group of individuals that complimented my every weakness as an entrepreneur. There are many things I don’t know, let alone everything about how to be a great CEO. This is why I surrounded myself with over 60 years of combined chief executive experience through my board of investors and advisors.
Their combined wisdom has been a guiding light on my entrepreneurial journey. I think all too often many founders are overly focused on attracting large amounts of money to their product or idea. What they don’t realize is that if they surround themselves with advisors they can take a completely different approach that is guided by experience. Instead of focusing on fundraising: ship a product, acquire customers, and raise money as you need it to grow under experienced supervision. A lot of the success in any startup is determined by timing and strategic positioning. These are two areas that inexperienced founders couldn’t possibly know anything about. It’s not something that can be taught in any MBA class, it needs to be taught by people who have lived it and seen it happen on the front lines.
I’ve come across many pigheaded founders who let ego get in the way of their ultimate success. It’s ok to not know the answer to something, but it’s not ok to try to bullshit me and pretend you know what you are talking about when you don’t.
My advice to inexperienced founders is simple: humble yourself, listen, and become coachable. This doesn’t mean you are giving up control of “your vision.” You still make the final decisions at the end of the day, but seeking counsel on things you know nothing about is a true sign of wisdom. Surround yourself with people who compliment the skills you lack.
For me it was simple: I’m a marketer. I’m great at marketing. I’m not so great at accounting, or the law, or financing. I’m more than capable of learning these things, but in order to do so I needed to surround myself with experienced experts and not be afraid to admit that I had no idea what I was doing.
In other words, leave your ego at home.
Obviously this process is what worked for me personally. I’m still learning something new on a daily basis myself. Do what works for you, but be open to learning something from someone wise and experienced.