Curiosity is one of the most essential attributes for any entrepreneur. If you’re willing to ask questions and follow the evidence where it leads, you’ll naturally begin to question the status quo, identify gaps in markets, and discover that many prevailing assumptions are untested. While it takes confidence to challenge the status quo, it also requires recognizing what you don’t know. Entrepreneurs rely on advice from people who know things they don’t, synthesizing what they learn constantly and quickly, and putting those lessons into practice.
Innovation would be impossible without people who recognize that many assumptions are superficial and are open to reconsideration. But even if a person was trying to build a forward-looking company that questions assumptions, it wouldn’t be possible without a team of thoughtful and supportive colleagues who share that desire to learn. This is why entrepreneurs have to foster a culture of curiosity among their colleagues. When companies approach every issue with a beginner’s mindset (in which preconceived notions and biases are checked at the door), they’ll be in a much stronger position to identify market opportunities, approach problems creatively, and ultimately develop better products and services.
Curiosity can lead entrepreneurs in unexpected directions – the world is often counterintuitive, and business leaders have to be open to all the evidence (no matter how surprising or challenging) if they want to understand how things actually work. But even the most incisive and open-minded founders need the right team in place to stress test ideas, provide feedback, and build a culture of constant learning.
While it takes confidence to challenge the status quo, it also requires recognizing what you don’t know.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Both of my parents are entrepreneurs, and they taught me how to make the most of my natural curiosity by searching for evidence, rejecting conventional wisdom when appropriate, and (perhaps most importantly) asking questions. I remember going to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry with my brother, where we were encouraged to run around, touch everything, and ask “why?” again and again.
The astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson often points out
that kids are natural scientists – they’re curious about everything and their demand for knowledge is unquenchable. This is why I’m grateful to have been encouraged by my parents and teachers to continue asking questions and pursuing science as I got older – a passion that has taken me from the White House Science Fair
to the study of human biology and mechanical engineering at Stanford to a career as a trader, investor, and founder.
The scientific method, in which you pose a question, formulate a hypothesis, construct a methodology to test it, and analyze the results has been applicable at every stage of my professional life: working on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs, identifying promising startups at Union Square Ventures, and founding my company, Meet Cute. Entrepreneurs have to think like scientists: they learn about markets, continually test products and messaging strategies, and refuse to accept the status quo. At the most fundamental level, this means asking questions and welcoming the answers – no matter what those answers happen to be.
Where evidence meets experience
While the collection and analysis of data is crucial for any entrepreneur, all the information in the world won’t do much good if you aren’t willing to act on it. Entrepreneurs are vital for the growth and dynamism of the economy because they identify gaps in the market and fill them with innovative products and services. Put more simply: they actively look for gaps in the market and build products to fill those gaps. Information about markets and consumer demand isn’t enough on its own – it has to be coupled with rigorous experimentation, and the resulting insights.
For example, I founded my company after noticing that VC firms didn’t traditionally invest in media and entertainment. This led me to consider how to apply product-oriented thinking to storytelling, which is at the core of what my company does. There are countless examples of founders with years of experience in a field launching companies on the basis of their accumulated knowledge. However, in my case, I’m not bringing entertainment experience to my company but rather VC experience, the experience of other founders I have worked with, my science research background to question assumptions, and product-thinking and engineering to bring processes I’m familiar with to a new industry.
Louis Pasteur once explained that “Chance favors only the prepared mind,” and this is a maxim that all founders can live by. A new company wouldn’t exist without willingness to question the status quo, and that takes research, experimentation, and pulling out conclusions of how your idea could reshape it.
Building a culture of curiosity
Despite the common fear that asking questions makes you appear weak or ill-informed, it often demonstrates the opposite: that you’re eager to learn, easy to work with, and educated enough to know what you don’t know. Questions don’t just help you understand the relevant issues – they encourage colleagues to think about those issues more carefully and remind them that they’re indispensable members of your team. Employees enjoy working with leaders who are genuinely curious and interested in what they have to say.
When founders and other company leaders are inquisitive and open to new information, they create a culture of curiosity. This doesn’t just facilitate transparency and cooperation between team members – it also increases employee engagement. According to Gallup, just one-fifth
of employees say they’re engaged at work. While this proportion is far too low, Gallup also outlines
many of the elements of employee engagement, one of which is asking for employee feedback and input. Employees need to know that their opinions count at work, which is why colleagues shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and have respectful, open discussions about the answers.
According to Gallup, just one-fifth of employees say they’re engaged at work.
Curious entrepreneurs aren’t just well-informed about their markets, customers, and industries – they’re also working to change the status quo and make their companies innovative places to work.