Domain experience: A must have before starting out or simply overrated?

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”

– Henry Ford

The Universal Truth…

I think we can all agree that when it comes to startups, there is no such thing as a universal formula.

However, being in this space for quite a while, I keep hearing that the odds of making it as a new entrepreneur without domain experience is not on your side.

And just to be clear, even though that term can have more than one possible interpretation, in general, when people talk about domain experience they usually are referring to the mixture of hands-on industry experience (e.g. pharmaceutical industry) and relatively deep functional expertise (e.g. digital marketing).

With this covered, let’s jump into the meat of this post and try to answer today’s question: Is domain experience a must have before starting out or simply overrated?

No Domain Experience? Don’t Despair!

Let’s start from what seems to be the dominant view: having domain experience pre-starting is just unnecessary.

The logic behind this argument? Typically it comes down to 2 factors:

Factor #1: Being an outsider can be an advantage in disguise.

Why? Because as they say ‘you come with a fresh pair of eyes’ and that usually helps you see things from a new angle, challenge long-held industry orthodoxies, and bring change.

An entrepreneur that became famous by doing exactly that is Sir Richard Branson. If you carefully examine his entrepreneurship career, you’ll clearly see the pattern. Time and time again, he’s jumped into to the complete unknown and shook things up.

As Branson himself admitted, this way of doing things was central to the creation of Virgin Atlantic. I knew nothing about air travel, but as I’d flown back and forth from Britain to the United States on business for Virgin Records, I’d become convinced that there had to be a better way… Again, with no knowledge of the industry but plenty of ideas… Virgin Atlantic was born and proved its critics wrong.”

Over the last couple of years, this philosophy has gained significant traction after companies the likes of Airbnb, Uber, Facebook, and Stripe, which all came from unknown founders that had literally no prior industry experience, were put in the spotlight by the press.

Factor #2: You can borrow (or buy) domain experience if needed.

An alternative view is the one that says that even if domain experience is required, there is no reason to wait until you one day hit that milestone; but instead, you should jump straight in and when needed, source it externally.

How?

Well, the advocates of this ‘model’ suggest that this can happen almost painlessly by bringing other people on board – e.g. co-founders, advisors, employees, investors, or mentors – that possess what you don’t.

The moral of the story? There is more than one way to skin the cat, or at least that’s what they claim…

Domain Experience – An Absolute Must Have

Now, let’s take a look on the other side of the story!

So, why do many people think that domain experience is an absolute must have?

Here are three reasons to get you started:.

Reason #1: It helps you build a (superior) product based on facts not speculations

Here the assumption is that unless you actually lived that market, have first-hand experience on how things work, and acquired deep subject-matter knowledge;  you’re stabbing in the dark.

Stabbing in the dark? Yes, according to those who favour having domain experience before starting out, by being a newcomer, you’ll naturally start with a set of blurry market hypotheses, and then solely based on what you learned (or think you learned) during the market research phase, you’ll go and build something people want.

Their point in a sentence? When it comes to building a sound product, market research alone doesn’t cut it.

Reason #2: Domain experience brings credibility

This one doesn’t need a lot of explanation.

Unless customers trust that a company has the ability to deliver what it promises, they simply will not buy.

And even though admittedly there are a number of ways to address this customer fear/reservation, truth be told, by bringing concrete domain experience to the table, you immediately boost your credentials and make yourself look more trustworthy.

Reason #3: Domain experience gives you more tries

What is that supposed to mean?

Let me explain…

In an article a couple of years ago, Eric Ries said: Cash on hand is just one important variable in a startup’s life, but it’s not necessarily the most important. What matters most is the number of iterations the company has left.”

His point?

Figuring things out and landing on a plan that works doesn’t come without a deadline.

And again the assumption is that the lack of domain experience is associated with a lot of preventable rookie mistakes. As they say, “You can’t simply Google your way to expertise,” which naturally results in having less tries cracking the code.

So, is it time to admit that newcomers are inevitably at a BIG disadvantage?

Domain experience: A Big Plus But Usually Not Prerequisite

Not really…

Although I do agree that having domain experience comes with a lot of benefits, saying that without it you will inevitably fail sounds like a (BIG) stretch to me.

Time to put things into perspective?

Glad you agree! So, let’s get back to basics…

What’s a business?

Roughly defined, a business is a repeatable process that: a) creates and delivers something of value, b) that other people want or need, c) at a price they’re willing to pay, d) in a way that satisfies the customer’s needs and expectations, e) so that the business brings in enough profit to make it worthwhile for the owners to continue operation.” – Josh Kaufman

If you also think Josh’s definition is quite neat, the question is: does the lack of domain experience make hitting any of these key milestones practically impossible?

I don’t think so. In my opinion, however, it does help in getting right the first two. But do you know what? Domain experience doesn’t have a monopoly on levelling up an entrepreneur’s chances of making something people want. And yes hat’s not even a secret…

So, what’s my prescription for offsetting the lack of domain experience and making things happen?

In a nutshell, it boils down to this: a) go after a vertical market you understand, b) work on a problem that grows organically out of your own experiences, c) keep things simple, and d) start the business on the side to give yourself enough time to figure it out.

That’s all.

And before wrapping things up, let me say this: relying on someone other than yourself to enlighten you on how the market works is RUBBISH advice.

There! I said it!

You can’t imagine how many times I’ve seen new founders fucking things up because they could barely understand their field, and they naively thought the outsiders/experts would save the situation. Anyway, let’s leave that for another episode.

The “big idea” I’d like you to walk away from this post? The lack of domain experience alone is not a deal breaker, but going after a market and business blindly definitely is!

***

Ok guys, that’s all from me for today.

If you enjoyed today’s post, check out my kindle book, The Aspiring Entrepreneur Entry Strategy: A practical Step-by-step guide for finding a validated, winning business idea that stays true to who you are, that is currently available at Amazon.

I hope to see you soon.

Best,

Andreas

“Time is the most valuable asset you don’t own”

– Mark Cuban

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