This article originally appeared in The Tennessean.
“You don’t know what you don’t know.” – Socrates.
My son mentioned learning about the great philosopher recently, and it got me thinking. Whether it’s leaving home to go to college, becoming a parent for the first time, or starting a business, there are some things in life that you simply have to experience to understand.
In 1992, I quit my day job to start a technology consulting company. I felt pretty good about my tech 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 strike out my own…or so I thought.
In our first year in business, I quickly learned that the “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 came to realize that a lot of business lessons have to come from the school of hard knocks.
In that first year of starting our company, I didn’t know spending too little could be just 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 slow growth. It was news to me that business owners must pay tax estimates quarterly. Foolishly doing my own accounting, I never thought to ask. I wasn’t aware that spending money on advertising is a gamble that can sometimes have zero return.
In hindsight, it makes sense that there are some things you have to just experience to learn. Business is by its very nature unpredictable. Economic cycles, new competitors, pandemics—there are constant external forces that are beyond your control. And even the decisions you can control are often subjective calls that no one can guarantee will pay off.
With Socrates’ wisdom in mind, what’s an entrepreneur to do? How can you prepare for things that aren’t even on your radar?
The first step is to admit you have a problem.
And it’s not just a problem for first time entrepreneurs. The “don’t know what you don’t know factor” never goes away. Thirty years later, it’s something I am keenly aware of every day.
The next step I have found useful is to find a support group of other businesspeople to openly share experiences with. The idea is to learn from others as much as possible who are in the trenches. Listening to others’ challenges in an open, confidential, non-judgmental format can reduce your blind spots.
And finally, it’s helped our company to do a formal “risk management” document that we update every quarter. It’s a simple list of “what could go wrong” and “how we can mitigate it.” It’s a pessimistic person’s dream and optimist’s nightmare. But it’s a healthy exercise to go through because it forces you to be proactive in closing the don’t know what you don’t know gap.
Socrates didn’t give a lot of business advice back in his day. In fact, he didn’t write anything down himself. My son told me he learned one thing that Socrates perhaps should have known: It’s important to write things down. If not for the diligent notetaking of his student Plato, we might not have this sage advice at all. But this one lesson he shared with his student over 2,000 years ago deserves our attention.
JJ Rosen is the founder of Atiba, a Nashville software development and IT support firm. Visit www.atiba.com for more info.