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)
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