Startups Need Fewer Visionaries and More Mechanics
Everyone claims to be an expert, but can they really help you build your business?
There are three types of people an entrepreneur needs to build a successful business: employees to build the company, advisers to influence the direction of the business, and investors to provide the fuel and connections.
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. That’s why, even after 20-plus years working on a dozen startups, I don’t call myself a startup expert. Because in my mind, there is no such thing.
If you’re the idea person, don’t hire another idea person for help.
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.
The difference between expertise and experience
I’m not here to disparage one kind of hire, adviser, or investor over another. I’m here to tell you that as you build out your business, there will be unlimited decisions that 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 adviser to get you from point A to point B, or an investor to open doors and wallets for you — remember that experience is about doing, and expertise is about knowing. Both are important. But the people you need by your side 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 writing those incredibly large checks to visionaries had the hands-on experience to help mold those visions into sustainable and profitable businesses. Why did they condone the cult of personality that fueled WeWork? How far did they let Indian hotel-booking startup Oyo’s leadership overreach before realizing that renting out a million rooms was never a sustainable goal? Was everyone asleep at the wheel advising car-sharing startup Getaround until scaling concerns forced layoffs? One problem they likely ran into was by matching visionaries with other visionaries, when what they really needed was some practical advice.
There are two sides to every startup: idea and execution. If you want big ideas, hire a visionary. If you want help bringing your startup idea to reality, hire a mechanic. In other words: If you’re the idea person, don’t hire another idea person for help.
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.”
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, unswayed by external forces like the state of the current market, shifts in the economy, or a lack of initial acceptance of their idea. Elon Musk, for instance, is going to continue to build Teslas and launch rockets and sell flamethrowers no matter what resistance he meets.
So what happens when a visionary surrounds themselves with other visionaries? 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.
Pay attention to what they do rather than what they say
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.” Startup experts are a lot like doctor enthusiasts — they may be very knowledgeable about wellness and fitness, but maybe not so great at diagnoses and cures.
When it comes to those claiming to offer expertise rather than practical, in-the-weeds help, avoid visionary advisers who are buzzword generators, know-it-alls who lack the personal experience to back up their opinions, and economic development experts whose primary motive is to raise the profile of the location they serve rather than help you build your business.
Ideally, your best kind of startup adviser is someone who is still working as an entrepreneur.
When you’re looking for a good mechanic adviser, they all tend to exhibit the same trait: They can tell you what they’ve done in their careers and would do in your shoes, not just what they think about a given situation. The mechanic’s advice will always be rooted in their own experience, backed up by results.
Their advice will be insightful. You won’t have to parse their words to figure out what they mean. They’ll give you cause and effect. Their advice will also be actionable. They’ll give you tools you can use — instructions instead of platitudes. In my book, the best kind of startup adviser is someone who is still working as an entrepreneur.
Ignore industry expertise
I see this move a lot: 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 a competitor.
When you’re disrupting an industry, your focus constantly needs to be on how that industry should work, not how it currently works.
Remember, when you’re disrupting an industry, your focus constantly needs to be on how that industry should work, not how it currently works. 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 to use so much of your early capital and place so much weight on this kind of hire. 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 to take the opposite approach with my startups: I want someone who can take a new idea and figure out how to make it work in any industry. I’d rather hire someone who has built a company with similar values, goals, and structures to the one I’m building that happened to be in a different industry than someone who has spent a lot of time in my industry building a completely different type of startup. This is especially helpful in the growth stage, because one good way to foster high growth is to make your solution industry-agnostic.
Focus on passion for the details
Despite conventional wisdom, you probably don’t want to bring on a hire, adviser, or investor who is as passionate about your idea as you are. You want to look for passion, sure. But look for people who have passion for the details of your business, specifically. That’s where you need help; you already have passion for the idea and mission covered.
From my personal experience as an adviser, I know when to take on a new project. 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 adviser time can be worth a week of some other adviser’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.
A version of this post was originally published on Built In.