I Believed Business Folklore

For the last 6+ years I have fell victim to many “business folklore”. One stood out in particular – you don’t need to know the technical details to be successful in business.

Although this is technically true, for example would be you don’t need to know how to fly a plane to run a successful airline. But, you sure need to know logistics and about transportation to run one – and that is an industry specific technical knowledge. And if your airline is running into safety issues, it might be a good time to learn what the pilots are actually doing.

“Don’t Need To Know” As Part of Myth Building

I first came across this mindset in the technology startup literature. Startup guru Steve Blank even included a section in his book “Startup Owner’s Manual” that teaches non-tech founder in tech how to get their startup off the ground.

Which is great, it will definitely get you some where. But from my experience you won’t get as far as you could otherwise. If fact, in the last year I have come to realize that this has become part of the Silicon Valley and American business tycoon myth building tactics.

Henry Ford – A Man With Little Education?

In Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich” there is a chapter that talks at length about Henry Ford’s lack of formal schooling and how specialized knowledge is cheap and plentiful. It basically implies that specialized knowledge is not the key to success.

From the first time I read about the story in 2008 until last year, I believed the story. It added to my belief that I can run successful businesses without being bogged down by technical details.

insightful story about Henry Ford and the Dodge Brothers.

But Henry Ford’s reality is quite far from it. In this well-put-together video by Donut Media not only did I learn about the interesting story between how the Dodge Brothers invested in Ford, I also found out that all three were trained machinist and mechanics. In their era this is roughly the same as being a modern day mechanical engineer. (Mr. Honda had similar training in Japan!)

This put Ford’s most famous invention the assembly line in more context. System design is something we do talk about and are encouraged to explore in engineering training. But most popular business books like to classified this as a business/efficiency innovation.

Suddenly their stories made more sense – car companies with engineering innovations started by mechanical engineers.

The myth they try to present – amazing companies started by no bodies with little educations with lots of hard work and a little something special.

Starting Sunberry Fitness Without Knowing Fitness

At the very beginning of Sunberry Fitness, not needing to know about how to teach fitness was certainly the notion my business partner, Julia and I had – as long as we had business related breakthroughs our business will become successful. We spent a lot of time learning about our customers, what they wanted in terms of classes, instructor styles, what time of the day they wanted to work out, and the type of fitness packages that worked better for them and much more.

We want Sunberry’s customers to have a great class and workout experience. We knew women like Julia and I didn’t have a great place to workout and there often aren’t many suitable classes that were suitable for our fitness level and interests.

Lack of Technical Knowledge In Disguise

Over the years, we synthesized a list of ideal class traits from hundreds of conversations with our customers about fitness. We did our best to communicate to instructors to incorporate these into their classes. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

Bad Communication?

Every time we couldn’t get the class traits across, we went back to the drawing board and tried to improve our communication skills. After all, there is that story about former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, about how being a great communicator can exempt you from having a technical background.

I started creating systematic on boarding processes and learned technical jargons in the hope that if I can talk in a way fitness instructors understands and delivered the same message every time, we will be able to consistence have classes that can WOW the customers. At the very least to the point where they like it enough to come back.

This certainly helps. But, it still won’t get Sunberry to the vision Julia and I know is possible.

Talent Not the Right Fit?

About 3 years into the business we started to realize that to satisfy our customers’ unique fitness needs we would need to design our own unique fitness programs. But, since neither of us knew how to teach or put together a fitness class we started looking for instructors that were willing to work with us.

We tried many times, over many years. None of these attempts panned out.

Only one instructor understood what we were trying to do, but declined to work with us in that capacity. Instead, she recommended me to go and learn how to teach fitness classes. I told her what she said was very funny. And over the years she repeated her recommendations at least 2 to 3 more times.

Now thinking back, she probably had a much deeper insight than either Julia or I did. She does have a PhD in Sports Psychology after all. Our most over-qualified hire to date.

I guess this is akin to knowing what the perfect cup of coffee should taste like, but not knowing how to brew it, and then relaying on your barista to get it right…. it’s much easier to learn how to roast and make coffee and get taste right and tell people how to replicate the same taste.

Maybe It’s A Fitness Thing?

I wish my finger pointing ended there. But, about 2 years ago I started suspecting that maybe the fitness industry was the problem. I thought to myself, “maybe because there are no 4 year degrees in fitness, that’s why we can’t find people to design our ‘dream class'”.

That’s when I started working on MindigoBox and entered the world of the software business. “Surely, people in software are all highly trained”, I thought to myself…

Long story short, similar challenges were occurring and this was working with experienced and highly educated engineers.

When last November came along, there was nothing left to finger point at.

Facing Reality – Learn Your Trade!

I finally came to the conclusion that to get to where I want to be, there is no choice but to learn the technical aspects of each of the businesses – teaching a fitness class, and software engineering.

I started learning how to teach yoga and TRX, and with much encouragement I also enrolled myself into a first year computer science major class. The last time I studied computer science was exactly 13 years ago.

I was surprised by the number of people that told me not to waste my time to learn the technical aspect of the businesses, and just focus on the business side. I guess they too have heard the same business folklore?

Knowledge – Magic & Pixie Dust

I’m only weeks into learning how to teach fitness and programming, but the experience has been like magic and pixie dust so far!

It has given me a complete different perspective about each business. I have a much better understanding on how to interpret the industry landscape, what people are doing, what’s actually working and what’s not. The best part is I feel empowered to carry out the vision that the Sunberry customers have told us over the years.

Next Steps & Takeaways

We tried many times, over many years. None of th ese attempts panned out. t I would be comfortable with. Computer science will take longer than that. I will also continue to add learning subjects to my list.

Meanwhile I have started working on putting together a TRX routine, and we are currently in the process of pivoting MindigoBox.

My Key Takeaways

  1. Myth and stories are sometimes just that. Look into things deeper before integrating it into your decision making process
  2. I highly recommend managers, business owners, and startup founders to learn the technical skills of your industry. You might not be the one to actually do the work, but just the fact you know how it’s done will change how you approach things in a completely different way

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Nancy Lin

I'm an entrepreneur trained in engineering and finance. I enjoy designing systems.
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