Just Because You Can… Doesn’t Mean You Should

I spent a lot of time watching “This Old House”, back in the day.  I also did my share of small hobby projects for friends and family.  But when I bought my own version of this old house to renovate, I got a rude awaking.  The first project was a bathroom Nuke and Pave.  I was going to save a bundle of money doing it all myself, because it was my house, and because I could.  I had the tools, and knew what to do.  In the end, it took a lot longer than I expected and I ended up bringing in pros for a couple of things anyway.  The main problem was time; I was trying to do this on top of the day job.  The second was experience. I didn’t have the experience to deal with all of the off-the-wall scenarios that come up when digging into a 50+ year old house.  Despite knowing how things were supposed to work, I kept running into all sorts of oddities in prior construction practices.  Figuring how to deal with these out on my own as each one came up resulted in my learning, by trial and error, what the pros already knew like the back of their hands.  As time became more of an issue I ended up settling for, and living with, results that I was never really happy with.

Saving Money / Saving Time

I’ve seen this with startups, lifestyle firms and growing businesses, though most often it pops up with tech companies and their founders.  There is never enough money to do everything you want to do, so tradeoffs have to be made.  In many cases, to divert maximum cash or capital to the core product, the supporting functions get shortchanged.  The owner thinks “I can do it, it’s not that complicated”.  True, it may not be as complicated, but it is new – not your area of core competency.  That means learning and making a few mistakes along the way will take time, time away from where you should be focused.  Adding the new discipline’s tasks also dilutes your focus from your core competency so your prone to oversights and mistakes in that area as well.  And though the principles of the new discipline may be easy to comprehend, knowing how to handle the inevitable outlier conditions and exceptions really does require experience.

Experience Is About Exceptions

Think about the English language.  When you were in school you learned all sorts of silly little rules about spelling, grammar, etc. and they all had exceptions.  The bad news is the English language is not an isolated case.  Every aspect of the business, whether it’s supply chain, human resources, finance, legal… whatever, all have a well defined set of principles and practices and an equally undefined set of things that will jump up an bite you if you don’t know what your looking at.  Figuring out how to handle the inevitable outliers and exceptions is where the frictional losses really pile up.  By the time you run into one of those, you’re already committed to figuring it out on your own. The thought of how much time it would take to find a domain expert, explain where you are and how you got here, and how long it will take them to figure a solution is paralyzing. You never recover fully from such a hit, some don’t recover at all.

When It’s Your Company

When you’ve built a company from thin air, you’re intimately involved with every aspect.  You can do what you want, because it’s your company – because you can.  In the early days there is a very narrow focus on the product or service or underlying core technology.  But before you know it, you have to mix in marketing, operations, finance, legal and human resources.  The art is knowing when to reach out to others who are as passionate about their specialty as you are with yours, so you can focus on what you know best – because you can.

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