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How to Be Successful Even When You Don't Know What You're Doing

How to Be Successful Even When You Don't Know What You're Doing
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Have you ever passed on a business idea because you lacked deep expertise? You’re not alone. Being an outsider means there’s a lot you don’t know (known unknowns). And a lot that you don’t know that you don’t know (unknown unknowns).

Related: The Framework That Transformed the U.S. Wine Industry

But, bear with me, because these are actually good things. I should know: When it comes to building a business, I’ve learned firsthand that a little naiveté goes a long way.

Six years ago, I founded Vivino with my co-founder, Theis Søndergaard. Since then, 18 million wine drinkers have downloaded our Vivino app, which can look at the label of any bottle of wine and offer its rating, review and average price. Along the way, Vivino has become the world’s largest wine community and changed the way people discover and buy wine.

I’m often asked if deep wine expertise fueled our growth -- after all, ours is a pretty insular industry. But, when I respond, people are surprised to hear that I spent decades -- not out toiling in some vineyard -- but in the world of internet security.

In fact, I had zero experience with wine, beyond feeling clueless trying to choose a good Cabernet at the wine store. But I had an idea: I saw how crowd-sourced reviews were driving growth in the categories of music, books and movies; and it didn’t make sense to me that wine, now a $300 billion dollar industry, wasn’t following suit.

That's why I believe that my being "green" -- naive -- when it came to wine was one of the biggest reasons our company has seen such rapid growth. How is that possible? The answer is that it’s very easy to get too close to a project, focusing on the wrong thing entirely or approaching it with built-in prejudices that can be blinding roadblocks to creativity.

But, being on the outside, as I was, you’re without industry blinders, and free to approach problems in ways that simply aren’t possible from a place of familiarity. Here are a few things I’ve learned about how to put an "outsider" perspective to work in building a new business.

1. Don’t get bogged down by the old way.

Trust your instincts in making a product you love, not a product that pleases industry insiders. Just because things have always been done one way doesn’t mean that that’s the best way to do them.

Take the wine industry, for example: When I entered the scene, its sales and marketing mechanisms were decades old; many of them had been set in stone years ago, back when family ownership and organized crime were king. Needless to say, they didn't reflect the way customers find or buy products today. Clearly, an easier way to discover great wine was needed.

Related: 10 Business Lessons Learned From the Founders of America's Biggest Wine Brand

That's how we came to develop Vivino as a tool to untangle the intimidating experience of buying wine. And that didn't always go over well: Many in the industry weren’t shy about challenging our approach. From their vantage point, it was obvious we needed to focus on engaging them -- the experts, retailers and wineries -- and start small. They said we should focus on just one region, one wine style.

We didn't do that. Instead, unburdened by the weight of legacy, and beholden to no one, we moved forward with the people who mattered the most to us: wine drinkers at every level of expertise. We focused on building a community that provided valuable information to the entire world of wine.

Another industry with a similar, weighty legacy? Automobiles. The car industry needed disrupting, as well: When Elon Musk launched Tesla Motors in 2003, the last successful American car company to “make it” had been Ford -- more than 100 years earlier.

Musk took an audacious bet, with an all-electric vehicle lineup, when everyone else was still knee-deep in traditional technology. Tesla also cast aside the industry-standard dealership model in favor of direct sales. By ignoring the way things had always been done and trusting his instincts, Musk isn’t just remaking an industry, he’s changing the world.

2. Don’t wait for the 'perfect' opportunity.

When we set out, people would ask, "Why don’t you wait for wineries to give your their data?” And my response was, why? We didn’t have time to wait; the need was there and the moment was now. Against the advice of trusted advisors, we created our wine app and database ourselves. I knew that if we built something that connected with wine drinkers, the industry would have no choice but to pay attention.

So far, that’s working out.

I am also committed to not looking back. I always make the right decision, even if I make the wrong one. That’s because I firmly believe in adjusting, optimizing and making things work. So, of course, while I don’t really always make the right decision, once it’s made, we accept it, work with it and move on.

This approach isn’t the comfortable one: It’s what works. And, if you follow it, it’s what will set you apart.

3. Think like your consumers.

Thinking like an outsider helps you “fish where the fish are.” Know your ideal customer inside and out -- not just who they are, but what communities they’re a part of, where they go for information, what they do in their spare time.

While I’m curious by nature, I’ve never tried to become a wine expert. How would that help? I’d rather see things from a consumer’s viewpoint, experiencing and using our product just like they do.

What new feature would make their discovery of a new wine easier? What are my own pain points when I buy wine at the grocery store? That perspective is what improves Vivino every single day.

4. Pushback is good (. . .  with education and dialogue).

Once you break into an industry, you will get pushback. Guaranteed. Those ingrained in a certain world may not understand your idea or may say it can’t be done. The history of innovation is full of critics who didn’t believe.

So, don’t be discouraged by hearing "no." Many investors turned us down: They thought we needed an insider. We understood their perspective: Sometimes insiders see things that need fixing, and that leads to great innovation. But that wasn't our path. So, we looked for, and eventually found, people who believed in our approach.

We also learned some things along the way.

What we learned.

Bridges between old and new ways of thinking are worthwhile; and you build them through education, open dialogue and trial and error. Certainly, people are skeptical of change. But once you listen and take opposing opinions into account, you’ll be better informed, better able to show critics why your idea works and better schooled in what the business imperative will be.

Yelp is a great example. It’s dedicated to engaging with business owners, hosting free webinars, for instance, that educate traditional industries on how to use the platform to grow their businesses.

Yelp also maintains an open dialogue through its Small Business Advisory Council. Each year, the company selects a diverse group of business owners to be on the Council, which serves as the voice of small businesses in the Yelp community. This dialogue isn’t just for show; the company takes the Council’s feedback into account for shaping new business initiatives; and members collaborate with Yelp to brainstorm new ideas.

We decided to emulate that example. The wine industry as we found it was tech-averse, but Vivino worked with retailers and wineries to build connections directly to consumers, in a way that had never before been possible. This translated to more consumer awareness, more wine sales for wine-makers and more Vivino users. Everybody could win.

So, that's been the lesson we've learned: Once you have an engaged audience, keep an open dialogue. Constantly push yourself to be better and to integrate new thinking into your business. The more input you get from consumers, partners and others, the smarter you’ll be.

And the "outsider’s perspective"? It isn’t just about you -- it’s about everyone around you. We built Vivino for consumers to have as much wine information at their fingertips as possible. We made mistakes, got pushback and gained industry knowledge in real-time. But ultimately we made a product for people just like us: everyday wine drinkers simply searching for their next great bottle.

Related: A Storied Winery Runs Toward Tech, Reaps the Rewards

These lessons work no matter what you’re building. Don’t wait for it to be perfect and don’t let industry barriers hold you back. Make something better than all those insiders can imagine. They'll come around. You'll see.