How Important is Experience?

Seeing as I’m becoming more experienced with this whole web business thing, I started to think about the role experience plays in success in business. Then I remembered writing a post about this several years back. It took some searching but I dug it up. This post from 10/4/2006 was mostly about sports, but I did tie it back to business:

[I watched a video with] venture capitalist and author Guy Kawasaki where he discusses his opinion that the “best candidates for a successful start-up are young engineers with no business experience.” It’s so true – think Mark Cuban, Bill Gates, and Michael Dell. How much business experience did Cuban have when he started Micro Solutions? Bill Gates when he dropped out of college and started pitching Windows to companies? Michael Dell when he was sitting in his dorm room assembling PC’s?

There’s a double edge sword with experience when it comes to business – it’s great to have seen things before because it helps you the next time the same thing happens, but it also tends to narrow your focus and cause you to write things off too early BECAUSE of your past experiences. Your world view becomes molded and even warped into something so narrow that you lose perception of the fact that there are MANY different paths to success, and that no two entrepreneurs will travel the same path to greatness.

I pretty much still agree with that almost four years later.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Experience obviously makes a difference. I can get a web venture up and running faster/better than the average guy off the street can. All of the years of programming and SEO work are an advantage. But that doesn’t mean that because of that advantage someone with no experience or no money can’t create a more successful web venture than I can.

I think that experience is an advantage so long as you don’t overvalue your experience and think that your experience entitles you to future successes. The moment you think that your experience gives you a free pass from hard work, or that you write off someone else because they don’t have your experience, is the moment that your experience starts to work against you.

That’s when some kid in a dorm room comes out of nowhere and takes out your business.

The irony in all this – and the reason why this has been on my mind – is that I started out as that kid, but I’m not any more. I’m an adult with a growing, profitable business, and I realize that this is the point when some people let their guard down. Who knows, maybe right now there’s some college kid sitting out there looking at Detailed Image or SportsLizard or LockerPulse and saying “they suck at that, I can do better because…” There is no way to prevent that. In fact, that’s a good thing. That’s the beauty of capitalism. As long as we keep working hard and keep a focus on what our customers want, we naturally will want to keep growing and improving, and we naturally won’t overlook new forms of competition.

And provided we do that, I feel like our experience can only be an advantage.

9 comments on How Important is Experience?

  1. Tim says:

    Interesting post, I have somewhat mixed feelings about this subject but as a whole I think if I had to be on one side of the fence or the other I would probably land on experience being less important than more important. Need, low expenses, drive and a willingness to work much harder(and longer) then their established peers being the main reasons.

    I have seen the holier then though mentality with established entrepreneurs and it’s painful to see. It seems so obvious when you look in from the outside, but when you are in the middle of whatever is going on it is a very different story.

  2. Adam McFarland says:

    It is an interesting topic. I thought a bit more about it today. I also think one of the things that helps us is that we’re always attacking new industries, which by nature keeps you learning and exploring new things. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from LockerPulse that will help us on DetailedImage. With LockerPulse, in a way we’re the little guy going up against Google Reader and ESPN and however else people get their news. There’s always an industry where you can be the little guy. Keeping that mentality by nature I think prevents your experience from biting you in the ass because you’re always somewhat inexperienced in an industry you’re focusing on.

  3. nethy says:

    Very interesting post Adam. You’re good at picking good questions. There’s definitely something unintuitive going on with experience.

    I think there’s an inbuilt problem with experience. It’s prone to lying. Someone with 10 years experience feels that this should give him an edge of some sort in the form of “experience.” Sometimes it’s sensible. You have knowledge and skills that’ll help you. Sometimes it’s not. It’s sort of a feeling of “deserving” to have that edge because of all the time you’ve put in. Since experience is mostly invisible, he can assume (lie) that it is at work giving him what he deserves.

    People will usually assume that they’re in the first category. Of course, one person in an industry for 10 years will have accumulated much more knowledge, skills and other intangibles then another. But, if you see it as something that’s owing to you, you expect it to just come and come equally.

    Interesting you brought up Cuban. I usually don’t like him, but sometimes he’s very worth it. One thing he said that resonated with me was that he started out in the software business and read everything he could about everything software. Within a short time, no salesman knew as much about software as he did. That’s the kind of thing you expect to come from experience, but a lot of times it is available to anyone who will take it.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Definitely Nethy. That Mark Cuban story is very motivating. He just worked his ass off day and night until he became an expert. Not many people are willing to do that.

      I agree with everything you said about sensible/non-sensible experience, but just to play devil’s advocate for a second: I think sometimes even the tangible knowledge and skills of experience (say, web development) can work against you in the sense that you look at only a small subset of all of the possible solutions out there because you’re comfortable with the way you’ve solved a problem in the past…even if it’s not the best solution for the present.

  4. nethy says:

    Sorry, I hit submit by accident.

    That sounds plausible Adam. If you don’t know any better and have to find your own way, you may find valuable but novel ideas. Stick a smart person on a building site with no plans, maybe he’ll engineer something no one thought of before. Especially if it is the kind of construction site (not the best analogy, I know) that’s been restricted and not many people have tinkered with. Makes sense.

    I would be interested in a concrete example though. What did Microsoft or anyone else do that was novel in that kind of way? I can’t think of anything.

    A related idea might be about innovating. An experienced person innovating loses his edge in some ways. If the innovation is far enough away from what he’s got experience doing he is inexperienced in this new area just like everyone else. He reasons that there is no reason to give up his edge and compete shoulder-2-shoulder with the unwashed masses.

    As an analogy, A lawyer might be hesitant to right an article on political science. He’s got 30 years experience in law, but no more than an amateur’s interest in political history. If he imagines some law amateur writing a law article, he can’t believe it would be very good. Better stick to what you’re good at. He knows stuff about law that almost no one knows. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be so hesitant. I don’t have that much experience in law or anything else. My opinions on politics are pretty good, for me anyway.

    The more experienced you are in one area, the less experienced you are, relative to your own standard, in others.

    Honestly Adam, none of these ideas are really convincing me. Experience should matter. Dell should not have happened. But, empirically, it doesn’t seem to. Not always. Dell happened.
    Something unintuitive is going on. I guess that’s why it’s a good question.

  5. I LOVE your post and thoughts about experience. I truly believe that experience is valuable; however, you cannot hang your hat on experiences. You always need to search for new experience and apply new knowledge to previous knowledge; broaden and build your experieces with other’ ideas; and most importantly, leverage the strengths of the inexperienced!

    Thanks for the insight!

  6. Rob says:

    I definitely think experience is important – look how many great companies are second, third or fourth businesses. Yes there are companies like Dell that came from nothing, but to look at only those such businesses is to have survivor bias.

    However, with experience needs to come humility, passion and a good work ethic. I think those are the 4 core attributes one needs to succeed in anything and although you can get by on just 3 of them you are so much stronger with the full suit.

    Nothing unintuitive is going on with Dell, it’s just chance. He was in the right time at the right place and enough of the attributes to succeed.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      “However, with experience needs to come humility, passion and a good work ethic.”

      Exactly. That’s what I was trying to say but couldn’t get the right words to say it 🙂

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