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The Unknown Unknowns

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

There are known-knowns, there are known-unknowns, and then there are the unknown-unknowns. I remember my head spinning when I first heard then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Bush 43) utter these words, but they have stayed with me ever since, as words of wisdom, and a great advice for startup entrepreneurs. The known-knowns are all things you know you need, and you have already acquired the skillset to complete. This could be, as an example, a killer website. The known-unknowns are all other things you are aware of needing, but skillsets for acquisition are still missing; a particular expertise or experience you don’t yet have. This could, as an example, be market research data telling you which demographics form your core audience. You know you need them, but currently they are unknown.

The third one, the unknown-unknown’s, those are the mysterious ones. They are basically everything you don’t know - that you additionally don’t know you don’t know. Think about it for a second, because it is real and it is important. Think of the unknown unknowns as a question you don’t know yet to ask, because you don’t know enough about the subject for the question to pop up in your head. So, how do you become aware of what you don’t know - you don’t know, and how do you acquire this un-knowledge? There is a two part solution to this challenge, both involving acquired learnings. First, acquire the expertise you lack in your team from someone who’s been there and done it before. The new talent will expand the entire team’s horizon of knowledge that benefit the journey and open up a whole world of questions you will ultimately know to ask, and therefore seek their answers. The second learning is a magical one. By developing your business, piece by piece and day by day, new understandings and realizations are made. When you’re lucky, they are discoveries that no other company has ever made before because they never knew to ask the right question. You can only come across those by doing, and over time. They are earned, and may form the foundation for your business advantage and inform the ultimate path to success.

The startup journey is one of learning every day, and what was unknown-unknown to you yesterday moves into the known-unknown column tomorrow, and eventually graduates to become a known-known. I can’t think of a better analogy than Dorothy from Kansas, descending down that rabbit hole into the country of Oz only to realize the only way to get back home is by the help of a Lion, a Tin Man and a Scarecrow, all characters she didn’t even know existed before her journey. With them on board as part of the team, she knows she needs to visit the wizard of Oz, and ask the right questions, leading to answers that become the startups most valuable intellectual properties.


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