Starting a business: how to know what you don’t yet know

Sarah Dunwell explains the importance of researching your industry and how to solve the problem of gaining knowledge you didn’t even know you were lacking

I went to the opening of a café today.  It is a new local business and it was their first day open to the public.

My business is a food business; from event catering to street food, from directors dining to a Good Food Guide and Michelin listed restaurant, I like to think that I have built a business that understands food and what the customer wants.

So I went, not to suss out the competition (honestly!) but to lend my support to this new enterprise.  One of the things that I love about the food and hospitality industry is that it is genuinely very collaborative.

We all want our market share, we all want to be the best (obviously!) but our passion for great food and customer service means that food people often sit down together to eat, share our ideas and help each other out.

So I went along on the first day of this new business to lend my support and it was really interesting to reflect, as I ate my lunch, on my journey over the last five years from my first start-up day.

The lunch was good, the set up was ok and although it was a bit rough round the edges it all seemed to be going fine.  I was chatting to the lady who had opened it and mentioned that when we open a new place we always open at least three times before we open to the public.

First to our own staff across the business, then leave it a day, second to family and friends, then leave it a day, third to invited guests (the sort we know we can rely on to be very kind), then the next week we launch ourselves on the general public.

We do it that way because we know we won’t always get things right on the first attempt.  I shared this fairly industry standard approach with the lady who had opened the café and her reply surprised me, “I wish I had known that I would definitely have done it like that, but I didn’t know.”

Everyone learns from someone

The revelation led me to two people and two continents.

One of them was an amazing French man called Auguste Escoffier, the father of modern cooking.  Over a hundred years ago he revolutionised kitchens, restaurants and service and it would be true to say that there wouldn’t be any restaurants as we now know them without him.

He laid the foundations for how you get food to a table in front of a customer.  So however innovative your take on the food industry might be, you will have learnt at least some basics from Escoffier. Everyone at some point learns from those more experienced than them and it is often the case that businesses stem from a set formula, that you either know or you don’t.

The other amazing man is Paulo Freire.  He was an educationalist in Brazil who used education to raise the consciousness of those who were poor and oppressed so that they could recognise the condition of their oppression and injustice and develop the tools to challenge that.

Over and over again, through a process he called ‘conscientiation’, he recognised that those who lived in the shanty towns around the cities, who had no rights and were in desperate situations, just accepted their situation as ‘normal’ until they woke up and realised what they didn’t know.

So there I am, sitting having my lunch thinking about Auguste and Paulo  (sounds like a holiday I once went on…!) and my own start-up and I realised how important it is to know what you don’t know.

But how do you do that?

Well I guess my advice would be:

  • Shadow an expert. Find someone who is in your industry and ask if you can shadow them for a few days.  Most people are happy to share their skills and knowledge.
  • Brush up on technical skills. If you are lacking technical skills in a particular industry discipline, find a business that will let you work on the shop floor for a few days or weeks (in my much earlier business career I would send staff to get jobs with my competitors to find out what they were doing.  This is risky and unprofessional and I’m glad we’ve come a long way since those days.  Much better to be upfront and ask).
  • Learn from the big guys. Identify a company who is doing what you want to be doing but on a big scale and copy their best ideas – everyone does it – don’t believe anyone who says they don’t.
  • Find a mentor. Get a mentor who can provide you with long term, end of the phone support.  But choose someone who’s been there and done it, with actual relevant experience, as opposed to someone simply being paid to offer advice they once read in a book.  You need a relevant practitioner, not a generic advisor.

Most importantly, your lack of knowledge should never stop you starting.  There is never a day when I don’t come across something I don’t know, that could help improve my business. I guess now I just admit it a lot quicker and work smarter, harder and faster at filling in the gaps in my knowledge.

Sarah Dunwell is the founder of the award-winning social enterprise the Create Foundation, an organisation which provides training and employment opportunities to marginalised or vulnerable people. For more information, visit:


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