To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.
—Mark Twain, author, humorist.
Pete Kight has a success story that is simply amazing. The company he founded, CheckFree, was acquired in 2007 by Fiserve for approximately $4.4 billion in cash. In many ways, his story sounds like other millionaire success stories that include dropping out of school, being ridiculed for pursuing a big idea, receiving rejection after rejection from prospective customers, having little money to fund his dream, and so on. But one aspect of his story is truly inspiring, and it serves as a profound lesson in entrepreneurship.
I was fortunate to hear Pete relate his fascinating accomplishments in person and in his own words just a few months before his company was acquired. He began telling his story before a crowd of students, entrepreneurs, and dignitaries: “I didn’t do well in school. In fact, I dedicated most of my time and energy to sports. I was a decathlete. After getting injured and becoming frustrated with college, I dropped out. . . .” His delivery was unimpressive, marked by monotony and an awkward cadence, but everyone was still riveted. The nontraditional path he took to success held everyone’s attention. He didn’t need the swagger or panache of a Donald Trump or the enlightenment of a Warren Buffett.
Pete finished his story, talking about how he became a manager of health clubs and began exploring the idea of deducting monthly health-club payments from checking accounts. He was frustrated with a payment system that required high-pressure sales and a lot of manual work to collect payments. Convinced by his vision to change the financial industry, Pete eventually hired a computer programmer and operated his new electronic bill payment business out of his grandmother’s basement in Ohio.
The most compelling part of Pete’s speech was his admission that he knew nothing about computer software. In fact, he emphasized this fact. He commented that he didn’t believe he would be as successful as he was in business if he knew how to program computers. Put another way, his ignorance about computers enabled him to focus on the more important aspects of growing his business. What a profound insight, considering that many of the millionaire or billionaire stories we hear come from individuals whose success largely depended on their technical talents and knowledge of their particular industry.
What do a majority of the top-twenty richest Americans have in common? They worked in the industry that they would eventually dominate. Bill Gates was a computer programmer; Warren Buffett was a trader; Larry Ellison studied computer design; George Soros was a trader; Jeff Bezos studied computer science; Mark Zuckerberg studied computer science as well. I could keep going down the Forbes 400 list, but some wealthy individuals have indeed broken the mold and challenged the assumption that you have to be highly familiar with the industry in which you plan to compete. Pete Kight is one of them. He came from neither a financial services background nor a computer programming background. As one investor who turned him down said, he was “a broken-down ex-jock.” His achievements are that much more impressive.
What is my point? The data indicate that in order to be a wealthy individual or successful entrepreneur, you should probably be an expert in or knowledgeable of the industry you strive to dominate, although there are exceptions to that rule. Look at individuals like Pete Kight, founder of CheckFree; Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx; and Kevin Plank, founder of Under Armour. Conceiving of an idea that puts you outside of your area of expertise or comfort zone does not equal failure. Perhaps your outside perspective enables you to see things in a fresh way, seizing dormant opportunities. As Pete Kight proves, your ignorance could actually be your biggest advantage and account for your ultimate success.