“You don’t know what you don’t know.” – Socrates.
My son mentioned that he had recently heard of the great philosopher, and that got me thinking. Whether it’s leaving home for college, becoming a first-time parent, or starting a business, there are some things in life you simply have to experience to understand.
In 1992, I left my day job to start a technology consulting company. I felt pretty good about my technical skills. I had thousands of hours under my belt doing everything from setting up networks to writing custom software to fixing printers.
I was ready to hit mine…or so I thought.
During our first year in business, I quickly realized that the “I don’t know what you don’t know” challenge was very real. As much as I tried to learn from business books and mentors, I realized that a lot of business lessons have to come from the school of hard knocks.
During that first year of starting our business, I had no idea that spending too little could be as bad as spending too much. I had assumed it was always best to keep your expenses low and learned the hard way that being a cheapskate can stunt growth. It was news to me that business owners have to pay tax estimates every quarter. Stupidly doing my own accounting, I never thought to ask. I didn’t know that spending money on advertising is a gamble that can sometimes pay off.
In hindsight, it makes sense that there are some things you simply have to experience to learn. Business is inherently unpredictable. Economic cycles, new competitors, pandemics – there are constant external forces beyond your control. And even the decisions you can control are often subjective decisions that no one can guarantee will pay off.
With the wisdom of Socrates in mind, what should an entrepreneur do? How can you prepare for things that aren’t even on your radar?
The first step is to admit that you have a problem.
And it’s not just a problem for new entrepreneurs. The “I don’t know what you don’t know” never goes away. Thirty years later, it’s something I’m deeply aware of every day.
The next step that I have found helpful is to find a support group of other business people to openly share their experiences with. The idea is to learn as much as possible from others who are in the trenches. Listening to the challenges of others in an open, confidential and non-judgmental format can reduce your blind spots.
And finally, it helped our company write a formal “risk management” document that we update quarterly. It’s a simple list of “what could go wrong” and “how we can mitigate it”. It’s a pessimist’s dream and an optimist’s nightmare. But it’s a healthy exercise to do because it forces you to be proactive about closing the “I don’t know what you don’t know” gap.
Socrates didn’t give much business advice in his day. In fact, he didn’t write anything himself. My son told me that he had learned something that Socrates perhaps should have known: it is important to write things down. Without the diligent note-taking of his student Plato, we might not have this sage advice at all. But this one lesson he shared with his pupil over 2,000 years ago deserves our attention.
JJ Rosen is the founder of Atiba, a software development and IT support company in Nashville. Visit www.atiba.com for more information.