You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

It occurred to me that I never got around to writing my 2015 year-end review, like I usually do.  Well, instead of hashing out every highlight from last year (which Jordan and I did on the podcast), I thought I’d focus on one theme, which I think defined my last year:

You don’t know what you don’t know.

In some ways, 2015 was the most challenging year of my career so far.  In other ways, it was a breakthrough year. But more than anything, it was a glaring reminder of this simple fact of life for entrepreneurs:  We don’t know as much as we think we know.

This article asks the question:  Can you ever truly validate an idea before moving forward?

Today, I find myself running a company that I love, which at $30k MRR and growing, is larger than anything I’ve built before.   Yet, less than a year ago, I was back to ground zero and completely lost.

Running Blind

It was a dark and cold northeast winter 2015, and I was hitting my head up against the wall.  I was trying to accelerate the growth of my SaaS for the restaurant industry.  This was supposed to be the year I’d “double down” on it.  I told myself the same thing each of the prior 4 years too.

That’s when it occurred to me:  I wasn’t just searching for right marketing formula.  I was searching for a reason to stay energized to keep pushing on this thing.  That reason wasn’t there.  And that’s what ultimately led me to the decision to sell and exit that business.

Summing that up in one sentence makes it sound like it was an easy and quick decision.  But in fact, I killed myself for weeks going back and forth on whether to stick with it or sell.

Now, a year later, I’m able to look back on the decision to sell and know it was absolutely the right one.  I wish I made it sooner and faster.  But at the time, I had no idea.

I was completely blind to what my post-sale outlook would be.  Sure, I had an idea of what the dollar-amount payout I’d stand to receive.  But that did nothing to convince me that “I’d be OK” once I no longer owned my primary source of income.

I wish there was a lesson I can share with you here.  If you happen to find yourself in a place where you’re deciding to move on (or not) from your current business, well, there’s just no easy way through it.  When you’re in it, you just don’t know.

Deciding What’s Next

As hard as it was to finally bring myself to pull the trigger on selling that business, that decision paled in comparison to my next one:

What to do next?

Looking at how successful Audience Ops has been so far, you might think it was one of those obvious light-bulb ideas that was guaranteed to work from the outset.

Actually, I almost didn’t do Audience Ops.  I had 4 other ideas I closely considered for months before landing on AO.

One involved competing against massively established players in the webinars space.  Another idea had me almost sink all of my savings into hiring a development team to build a big SaaS tool.  Another one caused me to spend thousands of dollars on music production equipment, thinking I’d finally return to my roots and build a business in music.

Looking back now, I can clearly see all of these would have been disastrous. They would have burned our savings to shreds, while making an incredibly long and difficult road to build my income back to where it once was in my previous businesses. Yet at the time, with every one of those ideas, I thought I was onto something.

Scary shit.

Your gut still matters

I can dwell in how incredibly stupid some of these decisions could have been for me last year.  Or I can look at the bright side.

That is: Your gut still matters.

Any smart entrepreneur knows how important the process of validation is. You must take an idea past “just an idea” and back it up with some form of real evidence that there is a market willing to pay for this thing.

But as I have talked about before, I think there are many degrees of validation.  And for every piece of hard evidence you find that says this thing is “valid”, there’s also a piece of doubt.  Only your gut will help you push your way through.

I can look back on 2015 and say it was the year I had my first exit from a business.  I can look back and say it was the year I launched Audience Ops.  It was also the year my family sold our home and decided to live on the road for almost a year.  Those things are true.

But what really happened in 2015 was I put my gut instincts to the test.  I’m happy with the outcome.  And the (grueling) process of making what seemed like impossible and risky decisions at the time has made me a better decision maker, largely because I’ve sharpened the best tool in my belt:  My gut.

A couple reminders:

So let me conclude with a few reminders that might help you make use of this article:

  • Blogs, podcasts, courses, and books won’t do the job for you.  Use them to support the job you’re already doing (tweet).
  • Make as many decisions as possible, as fast as possible.  Waiting around for more information won’t make the decision any easier. (tweet)
  • What got you here, won’t get you there.  If you’re not continuously taking risks, you’re not doing it right. (tweet)
  • Yes, external validation matters.  But your gut has an opinion too.  Trust it. (tweet)
  • Great read. Isn’t it possible that if you had persued any one of the other ideas listed above, you would have a more successful business today than Audience Ops? How’s that for uncertainty (you don’t know what you don’t know).

    • Possible, but I don’t think so. The cost of starting those up would have been much higher and a lot less certain than the productized service model with AO 🙂

  • bluebridgedev

    Interesting read Brian and inspiring year. 🙂 I’m sort of curious though…

    There’s this concept called results oriented thinking where you think the decision was good only because it worked out in your favor. For example, you change some sales copy based off of one conversation you have with a prospect and triple your sales. If you think that’s a “good” decision you’ll be changing your sales copy every time you talk to someone who has a differing need.

    Really, the quality of the decision is independent of the outcome. Smart decisions can have bad outcomes and vice versa. Over time being able to identify and make smart decisions does lead to positive outcomes, but a decision isn’t good simply because it works out or fails. All this to say… was choosing between one of these routes really a “gut” decision? Were you at a point where you could’ve almost rolled the dice and said, “Okay let’s do it”? A year later it seems very clear that the other three were poor decisions. Is this clear now only in contrast to the success of Audience Ops?

    The fourth quadrant of “You don’t know what you don’t know” is fascinating to me. I’ve been trying to think of ways to shine light into this area of my life. It’s interesting to consider whether your “gut”, subconsciousness, etc. etc. might have some more insight into this area than your higher-level thinking.

    • Interesting thoughts John.

      I don’t think the decision (to sell the business or which new business to start) was a roll the dice thing. I heavily consulted with advisors, friends and family.

      But the deciding factor was that AO seemed to be the path of least resistance. Also, it was the only idea that didn’t seem “forced” and seemed to just make sense on all fronts very quickly, unlike the other ones where I had some doubts (it took a while for me to fully admit those doubts). So I think it was my gut that recognized this idea had the least resistance. But still, at the time, nothing was a “sure thing”.

      • bluebridgedev

        I totally get that it was an agonizing decision, and that’s what prompted my question about whether it was a rational decision among options or a true gut call. It seems like maybe it was both, but not necessarily super clear in the moment, and it was your gut that ultimately helped guide you.

        For me, it seems like I often have to check my thoughts for emotional self sabotage. Instead of being a positive force they’re destructive… Fear of losing out, sunk cost, behind the ball, loss aversion, fear of failure, and etc etc. “Am I making a good decision or am I making an emotional decision?”

        • Great point about emotional sabotage. I get it too (everyone does).

          Generally I find I make much better decisions if I sleep on it and revisit in the morning. I make really dumb choices when I lack sleep.

  • Brian, that’s Breckenridge. I hope you had great time here. 😉

    “Blogs, podcasts, courses, and books won’t do the job for you. Use them to support the job you’re already doing (tweet).”

    Nothing can substitute or replace taking action. Success depends on your ability to act/move forward despite any and all circumstances around you. Fear, lack of skill, not enough time/money, usually don’t even make a good stories nor get you closer to your goal.

    Last year I would look you in the eye and tell you that I focused on taking action and that I made a lot of things happen. The thing is that this year I discovered that there is a whole another level. 😉

  • 不错,不错,看看了!