The Idiot’s Advantage
I used to own a small company in Kansas that, among other things, sold North Face jackets to ski teams and groups of mountain climbers. I liked the product and enjoyed selling it. It was cool. One day I called them up to place an order only to be informed that my account was no longer active. I was being terminated as a reseller. There was a local retailer in town that had been with them longer so they cut me off.
Five minutes later I got a call from a customer wanting to place a fairly sizable order. “No problem,” I told them having no idea how to fulfill the order.
My search for an alternative supplier was fruitless. Patagonia? No. Columbia? No.
I didn’t have a retail storefront, I didn’t have an established catalog and the Web didn’t yet exist. I was a young, inexperienced college student and I was turned down by pretty much every supplier I called. So, when my client called to add a few more pieces to the order I again said, “sure, no problem.”
I’ve heard a definition of an entrepreneur as someone who moves forward regardless of knowledge or resources. It provides a nice contrast to the corporation that can’t move forward regardless of their deep pockets and vast amounts of knowledge and research.
I’ve held several senior-level marketing positions in my life that put me in charge of product development. I found myself doing market research studies, hiring engineers, patent attorneys, artists and taking trips to China. Of course, I am a team player, so I had to get the input from the other managers, the bosses, the CEOs, CFOs and C-who-knows before I could move forward on a decision. We planned product cycles over a year in advance and organized a full-spectrum of marketing activities to help launch them. It was mind-numbing. I would find myself calculating the dollars per hour that it cost the company for my colleges and me to sit in meetings discussing the product ad nauseam making steps forward that were so small that to attempt to measure them would be futile. Painful.
Somehow we would manage to push a product out the door. Sometimes it would fall on its face and we would be back to the drawing board. Other times it would take flight and surprise us all. Never, however, did it actually perform as expected.
The Bliss of Ignorance
Back in Kansas, when I was passing out promises to deliver outerwear to my customers I had no idea what it took to design a new clothing product, let alone how to manufacturer it. So, armed with a total lack of understanding, I opened the Want Ads to see if I could find a used sewing machine (not that I knew how to actually use one).
Soon I found a truckload of equipment from a retired tailor, I found a woman who could sew, I found several bolts of fleece material and I was given plenty of zippers, grommets and those little spring-loaded bungee-chord gripper things (I still don’t know what they were called). I was now in the outdoor clothing manufacturing business. It took less than a week and I had no problem filling my orders. This is the kind of thing you can accomplish when you have no idea what you’re doing. It was easy, but if I had known how difficult it should have been, I never would have tried it.
Probably the most common question I hear investors ask entrepreneurs is, “if this idea/product/service is so great, why won’t the big guys enter the market?” After all, they conclude, big companies have plenty of market experience, plenty of cash and an army of executives with no shortage of brainpower.
This is exactly the problem. Years of experience has taught us how hard it will be. We are too smart to try. When it comes to action, the idiots have the advantage.