Abstract: When starting a business we start by checking all available information. We analyse the market, look at the competition and check if it could be profitable to proceed. Once you start something new however, you soon realise not ALL information is there ready for you to simply download. If it were, someone would have already done it, and starting your own business would potentially be far less attractive. So when starting something new, we don’t know everything. We have to live and deal with insecurity. This affects mainly two types of information. 1) What is the consequence of my decision, if based also on gut feeling and assumptions? and 2) What is it that I don’t know yet?
The answer to this is 1) No one can tell with certainty. You have to try. And 2) This is what is called experience. But as you will see in the article, this is also exactly the reason why it has so much potential for great experience and success.
Since the year 2017 I have been working on developing a foldable wheelbarrow. A project I always liked very much. Coming from financial consulting background and leaving this career path to make a true change in my professional career, this was a very challenging experience. Although further developing a product which has been around for centuries, as in this case, is a rather low-tech topic, the obstacles to overcame were massive, and lessons learned reached an unexpected dimension.
Here I would like to share one of the most important lessons which refers to missing information and still having to make decisions to progress.
When waiting for 100% secured data, the window of opportunity has most likely closed.
Dependent on where and how you work, you either can live with having only little information or require all data there is to make the right decision. When being an artist, who is used to going with the flow, you might produce a painting or a song for the sake of doing it. You might do it, even if you end up not selling whatever your master piece is. So not having information if someone is willing to actually listen or buy your music or painting is not that important. On the other side, if you are a tax lawyer, you will ask your client to provide all relevant information. Really all relevant data. If in doubt if relevant, you will tell the client to provide the data and you will screen and decide if you have to consider this bit of information or not. In order to get the best result the recommendation is “never lie to your lawyer!”. So having all relevant information gathered to make the right decision is definitely very important in this case.
Whereby I hugely sympathise with the going-easy-flow approach, as an entrepreneur I truly treasure every bit of data and information I can get hold of, which helps me to make better decisions.
And decisions have to be made in order to get a project moving. No matter how much time I planned for a certain task, when you depend on people to get some work done, most of the time the state of “we have got plenty of time, no need to worry.” to “that’s not possible, this plan will be missed by several weeks, at least.” often is a question of only one day.
I will never understand how a partner on the day before agreed and expected delivery can come up and say “we need another two weeks.”
But let’s step back and look at the situation. When starting your own business, information becomes a truly delicate topic, which I have just repeatedly experienced first hand with my own projects. This is the case for two main reasons all entrepreneurs face. 1) You have to decide on what to do next, which partner to rely on, or how to invest the available funds, without knowing, if the steps taken lead to the desired outcome. And 2) you simply don’t know, what you don’t know. (sounds dull, but bear with me.)
Referring 1): When working on my foldable-wheelbarrow project, I very soon understood that I can’t successfully proceed on my own. For instance, it does not make sense for me to dive deep into 3D drawing software. This is mainly the reason due to a) it takes too long to truly master the software. It is more cost and time efficient to get an expert for this. And b) every product also has got a very important style and design dimension. If the final product is not also nicely and beautifully done, sales numbers will suffer. People tend to buy products they also find appealing. And if you don’t have a design background, also here get someone to do this for you. Once we agree on that it needs other people to get involved, the question arises, how to find and engage them?
Finding the right people is the single most important thing you have to do as an entrepreneur. Full stop.
From my experience I see three solutions to this. #1: Screen the market and find the right service provider for whatever you need. Get to know him or her, agree on scope and conditions, and sign the contract. #2: Get yourself connected to potential operative co-founders who can take over a certain role. From what I have seen and experienced, this is very time critical. Once a sole entrepreneur on his or her own has overcome certain problems and managed to reach some relevant state, a co-founder will find it challenging to get a fair vote. I have seen that in case of disagreement, the initial founder gets the final say. If this regularly is the case, it simply is not an equal-right partnership anymore. Or #3: Get a volunteer who has got the right skills to support you for free or if you have got a great thing going on, in exchange for a certain share going forward.
But whatever you do, no matter which of these steps you take, you don’t know if it was a good decision, until you take it and see the outcome. No matter how much you analyse the required activity/market/customer need, etc., the real outcome might be different. This simply is the case because we act in a socio-economic environment which is too complex to fully understand. For that reason great approaches like the MVP (minimum viable product) and others are so important to know. The idea is, whatever you think works, create it quickly and get feedback from the real users, rather than investing endless time in development cycles, for details a user might not be willing to pay for. Also beware of the “Mom Test”-mistake, where you try to get feedback from people not wanting to hurt you.
The truth is, not having very important data is part of true entrepreneurship. You can not avoid it. A successful entrepreneur will have a gut feeling and dare to take steps, even if available information is not sufficient.
The answer to insecurity consequently is not to wait and work on more information, rather make a decision and surveil the feedback and results. From what I have seen showing a first high level prototype leads to far better and shorter development cycles then to aim for the perfect result in your private “garage” before asking for feedback.
Referring 2): The second problem with information was the little topic I phrased as “you don’t know, what you don’t know“. This I also refer to as “you don’t know how big the puzzle is!”
When I started my foldable wheelbarrow project, as said above, I came from the financial consulting industry. I have always been very passionate about handcraft stuff. Out of a tree trunk I made my own bed, without any metal in it (not even one nail or screw). This went surprisingly well and perfectly extended my other interests. The more I looked into this, the more I learned about what can be done. Like, just make your own light solution, make you own battery charger and – like so many others – although I live in a city, also grow your own vegetables.
Sounds like an excel-fugitive fleeing the finance and computer industry to do something less demanding. And this might be true, as I was simply tired after almost 15 years as a consultant. However I very soon experienced first hand that only the matter changed. The challenges became even more real and immediate. It was my time, my money and my vision, where quite some people truly questioned my approach.
And now I finally get to the point: being innovative, daring to start something new for yourself, going a new way, implicitly means, you have never done this before. So you don’t have experience with this. You might, like I did, apply previous lessons to this, but a lot is still unknown. You might reduce this amount of information by making use of a network. Talk to people and learn from them. However and most likely what these people can share will be only part of what you need. This is the case for several reasons, they might have opened a trendy barber shop in London, but as you would like to do this in Amsterdam, different rules might apply. Or as in my case, I luckily got amazing support from Ardy Sobhani (CEO and co-founder at Oru Kayak), who shared everything he could referring developing foldable products. This was absolutely amazing and I owe Ardy a lot. But my product still needed some things a bit differently, which I had to find out on my own.
This leads to the fact, that certain decisions entrepreneurs have to take are truly new ground. New in two dimensions. You have not only never done it, for some of it, you have not even heard about this.
For my wheelbarrow project, this was the case when I understood that I need an industry designer to help me with this. When looking for support I got connected with the Budapest-based design team Flying Objects. With Ferenc and Andras, I found two great guys who did a truly amazing job. They not only took care of the design, they – and this was equally important – educated me and explained everything I needed to know about this stage and process. They showed me the right directions and intensively created a great product with all their ideas and design experience. For all coming projects this is an immensely valuable experience I got on top when working with them. This led to a Red Dot Award, so I can truly say “Thank you guys, working with you was and still is a great experience!”.
However after certain weeks of cooperation, they rightly raised the question which constructing engineer would take over for the next phase. Until then I have never thought about this and I did not raise the question if I need this, because I simply did not know. And of course this was not their fault, it was my inexperience which caused this. But until then I was not aware. So I did not know, what I did not know. When I discovered this puzzle piece, it was some kind of set back to learn, more money has to be spent to get this done, but I was also happy to realise, I learned something here. I felt that I am getting there. The picture is getting more and more complete with every day I work on this. Sadly it slowly came to my mind that: I don’t know how big the puzzle actually is. How many pieces does the complete picture finally consist of? How much is there still to learn and consequently, how much money do I still have to invest and how much time will be needed for this. The answer is, I didn’t know.
Everything we learn is a piece of the puzzle. But how many pieces are there? How big actually is the puzzle?
The truth is that as entrepreneurs we don’t know all of it. We have to trust our gut feeling. We have to dare making a time and money investment and put things up for discussion. Only doing and trying leads to better understanding for whatever we want to achieve. We have to be critical and cautious. We have to be aware of things which are certain, and also of what we only assume. This also is part of being an entrepreneur. This led my way to a foldable wheelbarrow, a Red Dot Design Award, appearance on national TV, and holding (if all goes well) a patent.
When starting a new project, be aware you don’t know all you should now. You will not know all details which might be decisive for a successful project yet. But this shall not keep you from starting it. It is only very important to know that you don’t know all of it. And do it anyway! Be aware and be bold!
About the author: Michael Reitinger earned master degreesfrom the Vienna University of Economics and Business specialising in innovation and finance, and a second one from the University of Manchester specialising in Environment and Development. He spent his entire career in consultancy managing international projects all over continental Europe for almost 15 years. He left his job to follow his own vision and develop independent innovative projects, like his foldable wheelbarrow.