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Startup skills vs startup ideas

There's an interesting but damaging perversion in the startup world, around ideas vs execution. Even among those who believe that "ideas are worthless, execution is everything", there is a practical, observable tendency to rate theory over practice.

If you were advising someone about how to build a top quality web application, and they didn't know how to program, you'd tell them that first they need to learn to program, probably spend a year or more practicing the craft, before they have a chance to build even a mediocre quality application. Programming is a highly complex activity that takes skill (built through experience) to do well. You wouldn't simply explain to someone the technical and architectural pitfalls of the application they want to build, give them a process for how to program, and set them off.

The same is true for most technical fields. There is a skill base that takes many months or years to build, and that skill base determines the success of any non-trivial endeavour, rather than the process they follow or the idea they have. Certainly, having a great process and a great idea is a valuable plus, but without the skill base, process, ideas and theories are mostly worthless.

But somehow, despite their renowned complexity, startups seem to be exempt from this rule. A large portion of the advice given to startups focuses on ideas (you should do this, you should do that) rather than practical skill-building (you should practice that until you're good at it).

Lean startup and the scientific method

One flagrant example of that is the Lean Startup methodology. Lean Startup is a process, a plan for how to go about executing your idea. I love it, because it presents a clear approach for applying skills which I've built over the last few years. It's a great distillation of a very rational process for going about building a startup, and I commend Eric Ries for presenting it in such a clear and cohesive manner. However, by itself it is no more useful than the Scientific Method.

Wait a minute, Daniel, the Scientific Method got us all of modern science! Surely that's pretty damn useful! I don't disagree. The Scientific Method, and the Lean Startup Method, are both very useful... when applied correctly, and with the right skill set to back them up.

If you handed down the Scientific Method to someone who is not a trained scientist, in theory they should be use it to derive new laws of nature. In practice, though, what would most likely happen is that they would mis-apply this method and come up with all sorts of crackpot theories about perpetual motion machines and life-altering magnetic bracelets. There's a good reason why we force wannabe scientists through 5-10 years of training before allowing them to do anything of consequence: it takes that long to build the skills to know how to do it properly.

In some rare cases, an exceptionally brilliant genius might manage to do "real science" without formal training, but the common case for an untrained scientist trying to apply the scientific method is failure. This is not a failure of the method, it's a failure of the person, a failure of skills.

The same is true for startups. No matter how good your method is, if you don't have the core skills needed to build and run a successful business, the great likelihood is that you will fail - not because you have the wrong method, but simply because you have no idea what you're doing and applying the Lean Startup method (or any other approach to company-building) is hard and takes skills.

Core entrepreneurial skills

The good news is, skills can be learnt and practiced. You can go from zero skill, to moderate skill, to high levels of competence. If you have the right framework and support, you might even do so quite quickly. But like all skills, you will learn them more quickly if you're deliberate about it, rather than waiting for chance to teach you the skills in its world-renowned "school of hard knocks".

I'll cover these skills in more detail in another article, but my initial short-list of what the core entrepreneurial skills are is:

  • communication (written, visual, in-person)
  • programming
  • design
  • financial control
  • organisation
  • management
  • recruitment
  • negotiation
  • sales

Someone (or a cofounding team) who is competent in these 8 key areas will be much more likely to be able to successfully build a startup than someone who has major gaps in several of them. If you look at this list and see something that you have no skill in, you should consider either teaching yourself that skill, or pairing up with someone who is competent in that skill.

One final note: of course, skills vary depending on context. You might be great at giving corporate presentations, designing motorcycles or managing a department of 500 people in an international bank. That doesn't mean those skills will translate to the entrepreneurial context, and so you should be aware of that before ticking them off as "done". However, for each of these areas, there is a commonality between different contexts, which means that some of the skills will carry over, so a corporate salesperson will at least have a good head-start over someone who knows nothing about sales.


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