When controlled properly, ignorance can be bliss

Thomas Edison, father of the electric light, started as a newspaper salesman and telegraph operator. Walt Disney, the creator of Mickey Mouse and founder of an entertainment dynasty, originally survived on a string of odd jobs. Debbi Fields was a ball girl for the Oakland Athletics prior to founding Mrs. Fields Cookies. Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook in his Harvard dorm room. Jeff Bezos started on Wall Street before conceiving of Amazon, the online behemoth that sells everything from diapers to caskets.

What’s the common thread between these titans of industry and others among their ranks? None of these entrepreneurs had any prior experience relating to the field in which they chose to make their mark on the world.

In my research, I found that not all, but certainly a majority, of these then-wannabes probably didn’t have a clue what they were up against or were too young and inexperienced to care. Today, I work with startup entrepreneurs to translate their ideas into functioning strategies and plans. What I find is that they don’t know fear yet or haven’t experienced failure. This emboldens them to go where others have not gone before simply because they don’t comprehend the odds against their achieving success. As they say, “ignorance is bliss.”

Typically, when working with budding capitalists, I become a sounding board, adding discipline, process and cautionary lessons of missteps I learned building my first company, OfficeMax, from one store to more than a 1,000. I often suggest that it’s best to not dwell on the odds of succeeding, but to focus on what their customers may want that they can’t get elsewhere or that doesn’t even yet exist —think of previous breakthrough concepts such as Uber, Airbnb and the mobile payment service Square.

I’ve found that initially, the naivety and enthusiasm of promising entrepreneurs negates the looming terror of possibly failing. Of course, not every aspect of their concepts will pan out, but the smart ones figure it out as they go and make the necessary corrections on the fly. If they knew upfront of these inevitable pitfalls, however, they probably would’ve been too scared to even start.

For established businesses, the trick is to instill some of the boundless uninhibited thinking and energy for the unknown found with newbies in those employees who have been around for years.

Knowing too much in both a startup and a mature company can stifle growth and breakthroughs. Management must know how to motivate and point a team in the right direction, and then let the chips fall where they may. At the same time, an effective boss also needs to ensure the business doesn’t go off the rails during the discovery process, prevent aimless diversions and recognize when it’s time to pull the plug on an idea that likely isn’t going to work. Not always knowing what to expect and not fearing failure can be components of success.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide. Today, as founder/CEO of Max-Ventures, his firm invests in and consults for retail businesses.