Successful Entrepreneurs Know Less Than You Think

Quick and AgileMeet Chad

Chad is a 31-year old sales manager with an MBA. He’s fairly successful, but wants to start his own business.

He shows me his 50-page business plan that outlines his new-media marketing idea. He’s been working on it for 8 months (the plan, that is), and it’s a pretty in-depth document. He even has it in a nice leather-bound binder.

Ooo… Fancy…

Meet Nan-in

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

[From 101 Zen Stories compilation and Collection of Stone and Sand]

Back to Chad

As we begin to talk, he explains why his company will take the market by storm, and turn the industry on its head. He’s been in the corporate world long enough to understand how business works, and now he’s going to be the next Web 2.0 Joe Internet-Millionaire.

I don’t have the heart to bet him a gentleman’s wager of a dollar, that he’s wrong. That he’ll never get it off the ground.

He wouldn’t listen anyway, his cup is too full.

Forget What You Know — Especially the BS

There are lots of differences between a home-based entrepreneur and big business. My favorite is the agility. Move quickly, listen and learn as you go, shift gears as needed — high speed, low drag.

No committees, no huge documents that are never read, no 4-levels of red tape to approve a new idea.

Just agile planning, and action.

But this can be hard for some folks. They don’t like doing things a different way. They think like a corporate drone, rather than an entrepreneur. They think that all businesses should be launched and run according to Business Theory 101.

Frankly, I’ve found that those that don’t know much about business, but know their niche as well as they know themselves, are the best equipped for success as a home-based entrepreneur. It’s counterintuitive, but they have less to unlearn.

Their cup is empty, and ready to be filled with useful knowledge.


  1. Amen, brother. I learned more about business AFTER I graduated college. The nice thing about it is I didn’t have to UNlearn all the stupid things they teach you in biz school.

  2. Oh THANK YOU. And here I was thinking I just wasn’t “getting it” and consequently wouldn’t be successful. I just KNEW most of what came with my Business Minor was common sense wrapped up in a different and way-too-complicated overcoat. I once described plowing through my business courses to one of my instructors as akin to having to learn a whole new language. He nodded and said “that’s pretty accurate, actually.”

    I’m feeling more determined these days to continue the way I have been and to do so diligently.

    We are navigating through the goal-setting posts from a few weeks ago and finding out some interesting things. Thank you so much for you time and recommendations.

    Charon* (who is not ignoring you either)

  3. Tony – It might be the fact that I’m living on 3-4 hours of sleep per night, but as I read about that cup overflowing, all I could think about is how much that guy would have to use the washroom. *sigh*

    In my experience your initial plan is so far from what you actually end up doing that you can almost scrap the original plan altogether. But there’s still value in putting together some kind of plan – just not a huge, overburdened, buzzword-laden business plan document. Take an agile, iterative approach to planning…because things WILL change, so there’s no reason to put yourself in a box and lock the lid.

  4. Awesome! One of my favorite posts in your blog so far.
    Interesting to try to understand how different people have different ways of thinking.

    Well, I wonder how this guy have been doing ever since his plan is unveiled to you. 🙂

  5. I just recently stumbled onto your blog & absolutely love it. I wish I had learned this lesson years ago–but better late than never! You’re so on-target with this post.

    In the military, a common saying that rings true with me is “a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow”. You could spend a lifetime just learning about how to do things well without ever putting those things into action. I’ve been reading about starting my own business for 15 years–but last week I pulled the trigger! It’s a great feeling when you stop just thinking about something and start doing it.

  6. You slipped something very critical in there:

    “…know their niche as well as they know themselves…”

    Entrepreneurship requires self-awareness. You have to be really aware of the thoughts, reactions, beliefs, etc. that drive your actions (and reactions). You can have all the “how to” lined up, but if you have serious self-limiting beliefs that you’re not aware of, you’ll continue to hit a brick wall.

  7. Overall, you make a good point but you miss the bigger picture. Far too many people start a company with no plan and no goals in mind.

    The best entrepreneurs are those who see/experience a problem and fix it. That should be the starting point for any start-up: fix/make something better. If you don’t do that, then you’re worthless.

    At least writing a business plan forces people to ask “Am I addressing a problem that people will pay for? How big is the market?” These are all valuable points of information that one should have.

    That being said, the best way to figure out if your company will work (after a little initial market research) is to go out and do it. You can’t overanalyze the market – you have to go with your gut to be a successful entrepreneur.

  8. TechDumpster – Though that’s the first time I’ve been accused of not seeing the big picture (it’s usually the opposite :)), you make a good point that I’ve covered here elsewhere. It’s the other extreme of having NO plan. The focus of this article is on those who waste time planning instead of actually doing. One of the many benefits of being a solo or small team home-based startup is the flexibility. A concise business model, that clearly defines objective, market, and realistic revenue sources becomes a foundation. Then the agility kicks in allowing you to adjust to the ACTUAL market — rather than basing everything on a paper market. Knowing your niche and market is what’s important.

  9. Chad is also a straw man, set up to take a fall for you while you make a good point. And it is a good point to make. I’ve been a business planner all my professional life and have always seen it as the planning, not the plan. I have an MBA and I teach entrepreneurship but I also run my own company and I know that your essential point is valid. It’s the planning, not the plan.

    There is a lot of paradox in business planning, like “a good business plan is never done” and your business plana are always wrong, but not planning is worse, and not doing anything using a plan as an excuse is also just not acceptable. and you simply don’t wait until it’s done to do anything else. You do avoid the trap of suggesting that because some people misuse the plan and obsess over it, that planning isn’t a good idea. There’s a lot of sloppy thinking around that gets caught in that one.

    Well done.

    — Tim Berry

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