The Incredible Intelligence of Asking “Dumb” Questions
Don't be too quick to dismiss the simplest of questions as they can often unlock the most important points
Over my time as a startup founder and venture capital investor, I’ve learned a surprising lesson: there’s tremendous value in asking what some might consider “dumb” (or basic) questions.
Throughout the 1,000+ board meetings I’ve attended, I’ve discovered that there is tremendous power in asking questions that may seem on the surface to have an obvious answer.
A basic question: What is revenue?
One question I often ask that would appear naive to some is, “What do we consider revenue at this company?”:
A person with zero business experience may not know the answer but might be too afraid to ask such a “basic” question.
A person with some level of business experience or knowledge might think the answer is obvious - “revenue is when dollars come in from customers” - and assume that I’m wasting time by even asking.
But a person with deep experience in business would see this question for exactly what it is: an opportunity to ensure that every person attending the meeting is on the same page on a surprisingly nuanced topic.
Revenue in particular has a slightly different definition for every company throughout the world; it could refer to the amount due from a customer when they first sign a contract, receive a physical unit on their doorstep, sign up and create a user account, or something else. The business world is rife with jargon and terminology that doesn’t have a singular meaning, and taking the time to clarify and define a term across a group of people with differing experiences is an example of a “dumb” question with a big payoff.
Contrary to what many may think, asking “dumb” questions isn’t a sign of a lack of intelligence or of weakness. In fact, these kinds of questions can often be used as a tool to unlock an important topic or a deeper concern or uncover something that others are missing. This can be one of the most valuable things you can do in the context of a meeting.
As an example, an article in the Wall Street Journal might say that Toyota made $500M this year. If I asked, “Well, what exactly does this mean?”, a person with only some level of business experience might oversimplify things and think, “That’s a silly question - it means they made five hundred million dollars in 2023.” But a person with a deep level of experience would understand that it’s ENTIRELY unclear whether the article means revenue, profit, or something else. By uncovering this difference in interpretation, we can then move forward with clarity and thus more speed.
Questioning even bigger things
This idea doesn’t only apply to clarifying definitions; there is power in speaking up and questioning basic assumptions, too. A favorite quote of mine from Steve Jobs highlights this well: “Everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it.” Questioning the things that everyone at the table already supposedly knows can often uncover some of the biggest areas of opportunity and lead to positive outcomes.
Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm focused on startups solving real-world physical problems with "software beyond the screen", often using smart hardware or machine learning.
If your startup fits this description, fill out the 60-second Ubiquity pitch form and you’ll hear back within 24 hours.
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