When a friend who was shopping for a pricey item on eBay asked Robin Smith six years ago if she knew anyone who could go “check it out”, Smith had the kind of a-ha moment entrepreneurs dream about: Why not create a platform that allows people to request an inspection for any item, anywhere, anytime, using a national network of qualified, credentialed professionals?
It sounded straightforward enough, and no one else was doing it, but there was one hitch: Smith wasn’t a programmer, had no background in technology, and virtually no idea how to build a platform like the one she could clearly envision in her head.
But she had something that could potentially be considered even more valuable: she’d identified a clear problem in the marketplace, and she could see the technological solution. The question was, how to build that solution—and perhaps even more importantly—how to ensure that her lack of technological expertise didn’t deter her from doing so.
There are a lot of obstacles to being a woman in tech. There are even more when you’re a woman in tech and you don’t know how to ‘tech.’ At the same time, there’s a movement afoot to include in ICT people who have experience in fields outside of computer science and engineering, and as technology increasingly touches every aspect of our lives, this movement is likely to grow.
Smith didn’t realize it at the time, but she was on the cutting edge of this movement when, in 2010, she founded her Oklahoma City-based startup, WeGoLook, which now dispatches ‘Lookers’ internationally to inspect and report on goods sold online for both consumers and companies that include Tesla, One Main Financial, Hyundai and yes, even eBay. (In fact, WeGoLook is now eBay’s exclusive pre-purchase auto inspection company, and was recently recognized by Inc. as one of 2016’s fastest growing companies in America).
Last month, it was announced that Atlanta-based Crawford & Co. agreed to buy an 85 percent membership interest in WeGoLook for $36.1 million.
It wasn’t easy, and it required a mental resolve that isn’t for the faint of heart—a true test of ‘fake-it-‘til-you-make-it’ fortitude. But as Smith testifies, “it definitely can be done when you are clear about your vision and mission.”
So how do you become an industry leader if you’re not an industry expert? Here are the five key lessons Smith learned along the way.
Lesson 1: Get beyond the fear of failure by focusing on the goal
Smith emphasizes that having a clear vision and mission is foundational to getting beyond a fear of failure when you’re heading down a path you may know little about because this keeps your problem/solution framework at the center of everything you do.
“It was pretty daunting knowing I had to build this mobile technology platform, I had to build this backend CRM tool,” Smith notes, but she had an “ah-ha” moment when she realized that she didn’t need to have a background in software development—only the desire to provide a better experience for customers. And building that better experience for customers was rooted squarely in her understanding of the challenges they faced and how her company could help.
Guided by your problem/solution framework, Smith says you are freer to innovate, and can more easily push outside of your comfort zone to reach a solution that makes the most sense for your customer base. Teaching yourself to go beyond the fear of failure is difficult, but leads to innovative ideas that can help build the business, she says. The technology becomes almost secondary.
Lesson 2: Understand that the lows as a key part of becoming a strong leader
When building a successful company, every entrepreneur will have major victories and daunting defeats. When that entrepreneur isn’t an expert in the field, those defeats can really test your resolve to continue, but Smith emphasizes that every victory and defeat is just another step in the journey.
“Don’t fight it,” she said. “Along the way, there are all kinds of ups and downs. You have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but they balance out. When you are in those low spots, just know that you have to get through it. Instead of shrinking, move forward. Know you’ll get through that part of the journey.” Accepting the “dark places” is as much a part of learning to be a leader as celebrating the victories, Smith notes.
Lesson 3: Listen to your customer and be open to change
The ability to pivot a current business model is another way to expand a business, Smith says. Taking suggestions and ideas from others, learning what works and doesn’t work and being open to changing a belief about the business can create a new model that works even better. This is especially important when you’re operating in an area where you may not have a lot of organic knowledge.
“It’s hard to see someone who isn’t willing to adapt or change in order to get to a certain place,” Smith says. “You do have to take baby steps, and you do have to be flexible with those ideas. I started [WeGoLook] with the consumer marketplace in mind. I had to listen to the marketplace and listen to my business clients who said they needed to customize their solutions, so I started to focus on a B2B model.”
Contracting out WeGoLook’s lookers as labor for major business clients was another mind shift Smith had to be open to.
“It went from dispatching lookers on behalf of individuals to dispatching lookers as part of extending certain corporate clients’ enterprises,” she notes. “That’s what I mean about being flexible, taking all that in and pushing it all back out.”
Lesson 4: There’s no ego in ‘team’
Smith considers herself a “head coach who puts together an All-Star team.” While she may not be an expert on software development, she’s hired employees who are. While she’s not an expert on recruiting certain specialty lookers, she has people who are.
“That’s where that ability to have the skill set to build the right team around you is so important,” she says. “That’s the key to being a successful entrepreneur. I don’t need to be the rock star; I just need a whole team of rock stars, and I can put them all together.”
Smith says she is the coach of her staff, but allows her expert team to do what they do best.
“Surround yourself with leaders and experts,” she adds.
Lesson 5: Don’t be afraid to position yourself as a leader (even if you don’t feel like one yet)
Whatever your field, entrepreneurs need to position themselves as a ‘go-to’ person in the industry, despite lack of expertise, Smith believes. In order to conjure the confidence to do this, Smith says that in addition to staying focused on your vision and mission, you should start by drawing on the knowledge you already have, and then don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty to learn more—as fast as you can.
“When people think about innovation, they think it has to be a process of work, but I really think a lot of it comes down to self-creation,” she says, and your willingness to expand your own knowledge base, the way you think, and your internal and external identity.
She emphasizes the importance of building a thought leadership platform based on high quality content in the areas in which you want to be perceived as a leader, and leveraging social media platforms consistently. It’s a relatively short leap from perception to reality, and acting the part of the industry leader is a crucial first step, she notes.
“You want people to look at you as a viable and solid resource,” she says. “Publish good content that’s relevant that talks about your industry. Know your industry and immerse yourself in it. It all comes down to being a leader, not just an entrepreneur.”