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Act Like a Big Kid: The Importance of Being Clueless

  • By Tim Ball


My brother and I started a business we were completely clueless about. It was a coffee business—the UK’s first coffee bar chain, an answer to Starbucks before it hit our shores. Our idea was good, but it wasn’t a market we really knew. I had been a lawyer all my working life and my brother a banker. We knew zero about coffee, about retail, about catering. It didn’t run in our family either. We were complete outsiders.

It was then, and remains now, very much against the grain of standard business advice to start a business in a field you have absolutely no clue about. People normally spin off in areas where they have experience. Let me explain why the usual business advice is wrong, and why cluelessness is not a hindrance but a must-have, whether you’re a founder, a manager at a large company or an employee hoping to be both happier and more innovative at work.

The Case for Cluelessness

When we started Coffee Republic we thought of our inexperience as a disadvantage, and made up for it by immersing ourselves totally in the world of coffee and coffee bars, drinking as many lattes as was physically possible. We almost killed ourselves overdosing on coffee—we had 26 espressos in a morning training class that a big coffee company offered (we went as it was free) learning about the difference between Colombian and Sumatran blends. We were like sponges, starting every morning in an old-style coffee bar, absorbing every little detail, learning with the curiosity of children and without any presuppositions. We didn’t know much about anything. We just had a vision of how we wanted things to be done

I remember when we went to see seasoned players in the field. They all had a million and one reasons why coffee bars wouldn’t work. They had been in the UK coffee business for generations, knew it inside out and categorically believed our coffee bar idea would fail.

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