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The scariest things in business are those you don’t know that you don’t know


The scariest things in business are those you don’t know that you don’t know


“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfield, former US Secretary of Defense


One thing that always frightens me in running a business is the unknown unknowns. Things that I don’t know I don’t know.

During meetings questions often come up that I don’t know the answer to – such as how many people clicked on the marketing package versus requesting a custom quote – and so I make a point of writing it down. I almost always want to find the answer straight away but at the very least I’ll document these unknown unknowns, things we might not have considered yet.

Everyone has these unknown unknowns. They’re a hidden threat, an unseen risk.

The antidote to the unknown unknown is two-fold.

First, it’s to question all assumptions. To get to the truth behind something you take as reality.

When we’re talking through a new scenario for the business, like if we should add design to our offering, we go through each reason behind why we’re doing it and then how we would do it. All the while checking whether or not it’s an assumption.

For example we assumed that our customers wanted design tweaks. We hadn’t tested the theory but it was a gut feel. To turn it from assumption to fact we would need something simple, like searching our database for previous design requests or emailing a survey to customers.

The second is to discuss your business with smart people who aren’t afraid to ask ‘why?’

Our investors and advisors are great for this. They don’t suffer fools gladly and quickly call out anything not deeply rooted in reality and based in assumptions.

Even with these two antidotes to the unknown unknown you are still going to miss a bunch of things. You can never eliminate them, but what you can do is turn them into known unknowns. The things you know that you don’t know.

For instance we know a lot of things we currently do are unscalable. We do these unscalable things to better understand our customers, our marketing and what needs to be built. The known unknown is how to scale, although we have a few ideas.

Even better than that, we’ve been able to turn known unknowns into known knowns twice in the last couple of weeks through obvious ways.

The biggest was getting a website optimisation report from an expert in that area. We knew we had a leaky sales funnel along with issues on our home page and tagline but we didn’t know the best way to resolve them. We had a couple of ideas but they were mostly guesses.

This expert lives and breathes conversion optimisation so he turned our known unknowns (how to fix our leaky sales funnel) into a known known via a conversion report featuring wireframes, suggested tag lines, and copy changes. We followed it to the letter and increased conversions by 43%. Likewise we’re about to do an SEO audit to work out how we can improve our SEO, something we know that we don’t know.

So ask yourself this: what do you know? What don’t you know?


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Ned Dwyer

Ned Dwyer is the founder of Tweaky.com, a marketplace that helps improve online businesses tweak by tweak. Prior to Tweaky, Ned ran a digital agency with a focus on social media marketing and Facebook applications.

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