Don’t Hire Startup Expertise, Hire Startup Experience
You want the mechanic, not the visionary
There are three types of people an entrepreneur needs to build a successful business.
- Talent to build the company.
- Advisors to influence the direction of the business.
- Investors to provide the fuel and connections.
First, let me state that they are listed in order of importance.
Within each of these three groups, there are a lot of folks who will call themselves startup experts, but there are very few with the experience to help you build something from idea to reality and generate revenue.
If I had to pick one adage that I rely on most often as a startup founder, it’s this: There is no single best practice for any aspect of building a new company. Thus, even after 20-plus years and 12 startups, even after millions raised and more millions returned, I don’t call myself a startup expert. Because in my mind, there is no such thing.
When I build something, I’m not relying on my expertise, I’m relying on my experience. It may seem like a trivial difference. It’s not.
Here’s how to make the right choice.
Defining the difference between expertise and experience
I’m not here to disparage one kind of hire, advisor, or investor over another. I’m here to tell you that as you build out your business, there will be unlimited decisions YOU need to make, there will be unlimited choices for each of those decisions, and the right choice can be different for each startup.
When YOU need help taking your company in the right direction — whether that’s an employee to elevate the talent and gravitas of your venture, an advisor to get you from point A to point B, or an investor to open doors and wallets for you — you need to know this:
Experience is about doing, expertise is about knowing. Both are important. But the people you need working with you aren’t the ones who know everything there is to know about starting up, they’re the ones who have the experience to help YOU shape your company.
Here’s who they are and how to engage them.
Ignore the visionary, hire the mechanic
You have to wonder if anyone at SoftBank who was writing those incredibly large checks to visionaries had the experience to help mold that vision into a sustainable and profitable business.
There are two sides to every startup: Idea and execution. I happen to dabble in both, so I can state the following beyond the shadow of a doubt. If you want an awesome, motivational, inspirational TED Talk, hire my visionary side. If you want help bringing your startup idea to reality, hire my mechanic side.
In other words: If you’re the idea person, don’t hire another idea person for help with your idea.
The visionary is the leader who sees value in a solution that tackles a problem in a different way to produce completely different results — and hopefully much better results. But the strength of the visionary is the ability to stay locked into their vision, never being swayed by external forces like the state of the current market, shifts in the economy, or a lack of initial acceptance of their idea.
What happens when a visionary surrounds themselves with other visionaries? Simple. Everyone involved gets hell bent on seeing the vision through, regardless of market forces, economic shifts, or acceptance from their target market.
Not to pick too much on SoftBank, but in retrospect, WeWork seemed like a room full of visionaries. The leadership of that company funneled a very acute vision of the future of work into every aspect of the company, from the mission statement to the space layout to the chrome fixtures.
What they didn’t have was enough people trying to mold that vision into an economically viable model.
The visionary is always going to have a problem assisting in the success of anyone else’s vision, namely, YOUR vision. Because it’s not their vision. The visionary is going to tell you to do it the way they did it, because what they did worked for them.
The mechanic, on the other hand, is the leader who has seen it all, done it all, and worked on every problem for every variant of your solution. They’re the ones who will not only help shape the idea into something that generates revenue, but can also build the machine around it to make it scale.
The mechanic doesn’t just turn wrenches, they’re just as likely to be a sole founder or CEO or have as many successes as the visionary. But the mechanic’s strengths come from a different place. They’re more focused on the execution of the idea than the idea itself, and this is who you want helping you.
Ignore what they say, pay attention to what they do
If I’m sick, I’m going to a doctor, not a person who works with a lot of doctors, and certainly not a “doctor enthusiast.”
You’ll find a lot of startup expertise in organizations that support startups. Again, there is nothing wrong with this. Going back to the medical metaphor, these people are very good for wellness, not so great at diagnosis and cure.
So do you need a doctor or a trainer? There’s a time for both, and when you’re seeking help, you should always know what time it is.
There are three kinds of “do what I say” advisor variants that I see the most:
- Buzzword generators: These are the most obvious. They’re the ones who follow all the current trends, have read all the current books, and can roll out the right buzzword or adage at the right time. You don’t need someone with book smarts, you need someone with street smarts.
- The Uberadvisor: No, not an advisor who formerly worked at Uber, the advisor who knows everything about everything. For example, I’m a builder, a maker, and a seller. I’m not going to help you buff up your pitch deck. But I’m going to tell you that. I’m not going to tell you to do what someone else did, because I read somewhere that what they did worked.
- The economic developer: Unless you’re looking to restrict your business to a locality or region, you want to take with a grain of salt any help you get from supporters with an economic development interest. Their goal is to raise the profile of a location. Sure, if you’re building something that will live in a single place, like a restaurant, they’re the experts on that. Otherwise, their experience is probably limited to the local machine.
Ignore industry expertise, listen to builder expertise
I see this move a lot, and sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. The founding team has an idea in a field or industry in which none of them are experts, so they make an expensive hire to bring in a veteran from that industry, usually hiring them away from an incumbent.
Remember, when you’re disrupting an industry, your focus constantly needs to be on how that industry should work. Unless your hire is truly a revolutionary working from the inside, you’re going to hear a lot about why things are the way they are. There’s no good way to determine if this person’s skills are going to translate out of the status quo and into your brave new world until that person is knee deep in that world.
It’s a super risky move. If it works, you’ve got yourself an insider and an asset who might be able to move obstacles for you. If it doesn’t work, you’ve got a malcontent with a chip on their shoulder and the “expertise” to mold the direction of the business back to the current state of the industry.
I’d prefer the opposite. I want someone who can take a new idea and figure out how to make it work in any industry. This is especially helpful in the growth stage, because one good way to foster high growth is to make your solution industry-agnostic.
Ignore passion for the idea, listen to passion for the details
Despite conventional wisdom, you don’t want to bring on that hire, advisor, or investor who is as passionate about the idea as you are. Well, not the idea alone. You want to look for passion, sure. You want people who live, eat, and breathe what you want to do. But look for people who have passion for the details.
From my personal experience, I know when to take on a new project. As a founder, it’s when I’ve nailed the idea, and I can’t stop thinking about what needs to come next to turn that idea into reality.
As an advisor, it’s when I’m talking to a founder and we go an hour past our scheduled 15-minute intro call. It’s when they have as much input for me as I have for them, and I’m not just relaying stories from my past. In those situations, an hour of advisor time can be worth a week of some other advisor’s time. And time is your most important asset as a founder.
You’ll know you’ve found the right person when the discussion is productive and easy. When they tell you about what they’ve done and it sparks options that you can try. When they narrow down the unlimited options for those unlimited decisions, and instead of telling you to chase a “tried and true” strategy, they help you choose your own path.
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