One of the most dangerous mistakes you can make in life is assuming that just because you’re good at one thing, you must be good at everything. History is littered with examples of hubris leading to disaster. Anyone remember Michael Jordan’s stint as a professional baseball player? How about Eddie Murphy’s brief yet incredibly bizarre music career?
It’s easy to poke fun, but the reality is that many of us fall victim the same kind of delusions of grandeur from time to time. The concept behind this is called "illusory superiority," which is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their strengths and underestimate their weaknesses. Entrepreneurs are particularly susceptible to this dangerous cognitive bias and unless they manage to overcome it the business will suffer.
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I’ll be the first to admit that I fell victim to this bias myself. When my co-founder and I first started our company, our mission was to build the best solution for small-business owners looking to make better decisions. We were determined to do this by changing the way businesses interacted with their financial data and built a complex and impressive set of algorithms to make it possible. When it came time to bring our product to market, we were highly confident that we knew our customers well and had a product that would sell itself. We planned on distributing our solution by partnering with financial institutions that served small businesses. Unfortunately, after six months and countless meetings we still had nothing to show for our efforts.
It was a very difficult time for us as a team. We had not idea why our product and message wasn’t resonating with our prospective clients, but after a lot reflection we came to a tough realization. We were simply not very good at sales. Building a product and developing a strategy had been easy. The task of crafting a message that spoke to our customers and finding ways to connect with them on a personal level proved to be difficult. In the end it all came down to arrogance. Just because we were good at building a product we automatically assumed that we’d be good at selling it. We had fallen victim to the bias of illusory superiority.
It wasn’t an easy lesson to learn, but it proved to be invaluable. We backed away from leading the sales efforts and set out to build a team that could compensate for our areas of weakness. We threw out our old approach and empowered our team to start from scratch, leading to a massive acceleration of our sales. My co-founder and I became more comfortable with our limitations and refocused our efforts onto areas where we could add real value.
I’ve often wondered why venture capital firms would rather hire a failed entrepreneur than a smart executive who has never run his or her own business. Now I finally understand their reasoning. The only way to become a successful entrepreneur is to learn lessons for yourself and sometimes that means enduring pain along the way.
The moral of the story is:
1. Be aware of your cognitive biases and limitations. You aren’t -- and don’t have to be -- the best at everything. Try finding a partner or co-founder who complements your skills and makes up for any shortcomings. If you can clearly define roles and help each other focus on strengths you’ll find that success will follow.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If bringing on a partner isn’t an option, try to find other ways to ask for help. Consider taking advantage of mentors, consultants or even taking classes to improve your skill set. In today’s connected world, there are so many amazing resources available at your fingertips. All you have to do is look for help and you’ll undoubtedly find it.
3. Build the right team. Develop a team that compensates for your areas of weakness and then get out of the way. This is often easier said than done. One great way to make sure that you’re bringing the right people on board is to start them off as freelancers and give them a project to own. This real-world test of sorts will quickly show who has the right skills and attitude to help you succeed and who doesn’t. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out into your network to find the right candidates. The people that you trust, respect, and admire will often be able to point you to the right opportunities.