When I was a sophomore in high school my family had very little money. My dad was a mechanic with dreams of starting his own business and my mom was fresh out of technical school working as an entry-level programmer.
I knew I wanted to go to college, but I also knew that my family couldn’t afford to send me to a good school. Heck, we would have had trouble just paying for housing and a food plan. I needed to get a scholarship. I checked out books on scholarships from the library, talked to a few seniors, and decided that my best chance of going to a good school on a full ride was some sort of a sports scholarship.
I was not an athletic kid. I had good hand-eye coordination, but I didn’t really run. In fact, I had never run a full mile … EVER. Not even in P.E. classes. Just couldn’t do it. So after narrowing down my choices, I picked basketball. I don’t really remember how I picked it, but I think it had something to do with having a basketball goal in our driveway. I had never really played basketball on a team, let alone tried out for any team — but how hard could it be?
I practiced shooting for a few weeks and got pretty good; I checked some books on basketball out from the library; and my cousin and I played a few games of NBA Hoopz on his Playstation. I was ready.
The first day of the two-day tryouts, I wanted to give myself a little extra boost. Unfortunately, the only nutritional knowledge I had at the time came from the “Milk does a body good” commercials on TV, so I drank a full glass of milk that morning and another cup of milk at lunch. That first day was really tough. There was barely any shooting on the first day, but there was plenty of running. Sprints over and over from one end of the court to the other. I got a huge cramp pretty early on in the practice and had to spend most of the tryout in the trainer’s office trying to understand what a muscle cramp was.
The next day, I knew what I had done wrong. I clearly had not consumed enough milk the previous day. So that morning I drank two and a half glasses of milk before school. And then — just for good measure — I drank two more pints of milk at lunch.
Needless to say, the second day of tryouts didn’t go as I had hoped. I was exhausted even earlier in the workout than the first day. During one of the running drills I felt my mouth start to fill up with a heavy mucus-like substance. I thought I was foaming at the mouth so I went back to the trainer’s office. He asked me what I had to eat that day and quickly diagnosed the problem.
During that second day of tryouts, the coaches finally ordered up some shooting drills. Of course, I never got the chance to showcase my well-honed skills because I was again stuck in the trainer’s office.
Out of what felt like hundreds of girls who tried out for a spot on the Varsity, Junior Varsity, B Team and C team, I was one of TWO cut from the tryouts. Word about my milk consumption got around pretty quickly, so I was both embarrassed and disappointed that I now had to figure out a different way to get a scholarship to college.
As silly as this episode seems, I see countless entrepreneurs repeating my mistake on a regular basis. They choose to start companies in industries in which they have no personal expertise. They think they can just read the market research, talk to a few people, and begin building their product. What they don’t understand is that launching companies outside your area of expertise can be filled with minefields that you never knew existed.
I thought my biggest challenge was going to be making baskets. But I didn’t even get to shoot the ball. There were other parts of being a great basketball player that I didn’t know I needed and that the experts I talked to thought were so obvious, that they didn’t even bother to mention basic fundamentals like running, endurance, or nutrition.
If you are going to build a company outside of your area of expertise, you need to have someone with industry expertise on your team. And you need to take extra steps to make sure you have identified the right customer segment with a clear problem that is interested in your solution.
I didn’t try out again for basketball or any other sport. I just thought it was impossible for me. Instead, I was fortunate that there were scholarships available outside of sports, and got a debate scholarship to go to college.
Later in life I came to understand nutrition and built up my physical endurance. I even started playing basketball for fun. Now, my ability to outrun my opponents is my greatest strength.
Make sure that you turn your lack of industry expertise into a strength by spending as much time with your customer segment as possible. Interview them, sell something to them, join them for happy hour and find out everything you can about their problems, dreams, and goals. That’s the best way to find out whether your startup will be a good fit in the industry and save yourself some embarrassment from getting cut for something you never suspected.