Being street smart simply means that one has learnt how to take what has happened to them, good or bad, thought about it and learnt to improve from it.
It is the shrewd resourcefulness needed to survive in an urban environment (be it people management, project management or business management) and comes from experience. On the flip side, being book smart comes from being well-versed with books.
This is not to say that a good education is a bad thing. Being book smart is essential in certain situations. But there are other times where being book smart is useless other than to impress one’s friends with how worldly and intelligent one is.
The prime distinction between street smarts and book smarts is who is at the center of the knowledge. On the street, it’s you. There is no doubt that street smarts beats book smarts hands down.
To be street smart means one has situational awareness, can assess the environment they are in, who is in it and what the available angles are.
Being on the street, in the trenches or whatever low to the ground metaphor you prefer, requires one learn to trust their own judgment about people and what matters. This skill, regardless of where one develops it, is of great value everywhere in life regardless of how far from the streets one is.
Hawkers and Makangas
In an urban setup, being street smart means instinctively knowing how to keep oneself safe from scams and bad guys. It means one knows their way around, how to handle themselves in tough situations and how to “read” people’s intent.
For instance, in the urban centres, there are no better “survivors” than the street vendors (hawkers), matatu crew, the mama mbogas and the jua kali artisans. These group of people will virtually get out of any situation unscathed and can survive in any situation unlike their counterparts in the white-collar jobs and in formal business setups.
These are the type who will build a business empire from merely a thousand shillings. Theirs involves having a basic understanding of the street ‘level’, being on the ground and being in the battle rather than looking down atop of it. Their solutions to problems and tasks are usually more likely to be practical and pragmatic, developed purely from experience and ‘real life’.
Their “smartness” comes from actually doing the task that others read about. From getting their hands dirty, getting ‘stuck in’, either through successes or failures, these first hand experiences develop their knowledge and understanding of the world and their work.
This is the fundamental advantage. They have learnt things one can’t just read about in books. They know the ins and outs that can only be gained by doing. Whereas book smarts knowledge is gained second hand from their readings and learning.
In reality, the startup world contains those same very risky streets, but in the business context.
Initially, it will be tough knowing what has to be done. So many people to talk to, so many things to do, and so many decisions to be made.
With each person, there will be behavioural nuances to take note of. It is not something school could have prepared anyone for.
The constant exposure to varying intense situations makes one accustomed to them. They develop a stronger social intelligence, where they get to know what to do, what to say, how to say/do things and when exactly to speak/act to get the best outcome.
It is something that comes from both raw experience and actively synthesizing lessons from their own experiences.
Here’s a simple guide and key disciplines to train your gut:
1. Work smart.
This means using discipline to get smart before you start working. Find out everything you can about the business domain you are targeting.
In addition, maintain a change-oriented and future-focused mentality, with an actionable execution plan. When someone tells you they are working hard, it’s usually an excuse for not working smart.
2. Don’t back down from stressful, uncomfortable situations.
If anything, immerse yourself in as many of these situations as possible. These are the catalysts of your growth. The more you face them, the better you are going to become.
3. Present everything.
If you are trying to gain commitment or persuade someone, practice the discipline of thinking beyond conversational chatter. The four steps of a successful presentation always include preparation, practice, delivery, and asking for the order. Make these part of every interaction with partners, customers, and team members.
4. Deal with people.
People do business with your people, not your startup. Finely tuned people skills make you more likeable, warm, friendly, open, and effective. Put yourself in their heads to see things from their perspective. Have patience, and listen actively before speaking.
When you know how people think and feel, you will naturally know what to do and how to best work with them. Regular interactions and spending more time with said people will help.
Street smart entrepreneurs practice this discipline until it is not work.
5. Watch your money.
It is not unusual for creative entrepreneurs to find finances difficult to understand, intimidating or just a numbing bore. If you feel that way, find a partner who loves that critical side of the business. In reality, the discipline to manage cash does not require a financial genius. It just requires a discipline of relentless focus.
6. Focus on doing, doing and more doing.
Every field experience will make you socially more intelligent. Make “doing” your modus operandi. It’s okay to acquire social knowledge through books, but remember that it’s from being in the situation that you will develop your intuition and social smarts.
7. Distill lessons for application.
With each situation you face, distill lessons for application. Ask yourself: Why did this happen? (If it was an unfavorable experience.) What can I do to prevent this/make it better? What can I learn from this? How can I do things better the next time?
Then, apply these lessons in the next situation.
8. Get more business.
This discipline is the art of making a constant of new business opportunities, new customers, and new revenue flowing into your startup. Develop an aggressive prospecting mentality, stay close to current and past customers, get referrals, and optimise Internet marketing. If you startup isn’t evolving and growing, you are failing.
9. Manage yourself.
Entrepreneurs will always be wearing many hats in their business and personal life. Even the more important activities can sometimes be excuses to avoid the underlying challenge of working towards your life-changing goals.
Learn and practice time management disciplines. Banish procrastination. Be decisive. Have fun.
10. Everybody sells.
It may not be in their job descriptions, but everyone in a startup should be selling. The very first moment that you have contact with an investor or a customer has contact with your team, an impression and a perception is created. That perception is your reality and you only get one chance to make it a good one.
Basically, being street smart requires that one puts all these things together for problem solving and to dodge and weave effectively through the risky business streets. It means balancing your idealistic vision of how things could be, against the realities of the business world. Confidence and a positive attitude are also required to be a street smart and successful entrepreneur.
But attitude and problem solving are not sufficient, without the basic disciplines outlined above. No one is born with all these disciplines. These represent the knowledge and experience of many successful business people. Study them carefully and practice them religiously. The alternative is a long and painful learning curve, which neither you nor your investors can afford.