Those 3 Little Words I Love to Hear: “I don’t know.”

Hey startup founders, let me save you the suspense: you don’t know everything. You never will. And no reasonable person expects you to. Even when you’re talking to investors, customers, or partners. 

Yes you should be as knowledgable about your business as humanly possible. You should research the hell out of every scrap of study, article, blog post, speech, interview and tweetstorm relating to your technology, market and competition. But invariably there will be questions you don’t know the answers to. What should you say if someone asks you?

“I don’t know.” That’s what you should say. Be honest. It’s okay. 

Of course, it’s always good to follow it up with a qualifier. If it’s a question about a fact, it’s usually good to say something like “… but I’m going to find out and I’ll let you know as soon as I do.” (Note the “I” in the qualifier vs. delegating it to someone else.) If it’s a question about one of the million future scenarios that may or may not occur in your market, then maybe “… but thanks for bringing that up. I hadn’t considered that but will give it some thought and get back to you.” Then do that. 

Now you’re thinking: “I can’t say that! It’ll make me sound weak, stupid, like I’m a bad founder!”

No it won’t. It’ll make you sound honest and interested in figuring out the answer. 

If instead of saying “I don’t know” you try to wing it with an answer on the spot, how do you think you’ll sound? Probably somewhere between bad and barely mediocre. 

In this age of false-confident, self-promoting “experts”, it’s the honest, humbly confident, and curious that stand out as quality leaders. Investors, customers, and partners want to have faith in you. Be as informed as you possibly can all the time – don’t ever cut corners on that. But admitting you don’t know something shows integrity and also real confidence. Saying you’re interested in figuring it out shows curiosity. Those are a hell of a lot better than bluster and bullshit. 

(For more on the relationship between confidence and competence, see an awesome Brad Feld post here.)

I’d much rather invest in a founder that is confident enough to say “I don’t know” once in a while. Because admitting you don’t know everything really shows you know something. 

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