How important is it for entrepreneurs to have specific domain experience prior to founding their startup? As an entrepreneur you are bound to run into this question sooner or later. My journey with startups brought me face-to-face with this question right from the start. I joined a group of friends directly after university to found our first startup. We built mobile applications for SMEs and enterprises that allowed them to manage distributed workforces effectively. Based on my experience, if your customers are other businesses, you have two options: either work your ass off to build domain expertise or start off with some.
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A simple definition
Before we go further it is important to understand what I mean by domain experience. Mark Birch defines domain experience as an accumulated body of applied knowledge in a particular field. The important part here is applied knowledge, meaning knowledge that is gained through the process of using that knowledge towards the completion of work.
Why you need domain expertise
Your startup idea probably sucks. Most startups are formed with a well-intentioned but ultimately flawed idea. As a startup CEO it is your job to take that fledgling idea and mould it into something valuable. As it turns out this is a near impossible task. Not to mention the fact that you will be performing this near impossible task with a limited budget, massive time pressure, incomplete data and only lead bullets at your disposal. Expecting that you will be able to do all of this without domain expertise is like attending a Star Wars convention and expecting that you can be an astronaut afterwards.
How to become an expert (or at least stop being a complete noob)
Unfortunately building domain expertise is not something you can hack. It requires that you put in time and effort. However, you don’t need to become an expert before you can start reaping the benefits of domain knowledge.
Short of working in the industry, here are the three best ways to build domain expertise:
Read and write
You should be reading as much as is humanly possible. The amount of content available on any industry is staggering so get started now! A great way to get a feel for a doman is to identify a few authorities and follow them on Twitter and read their blogs. Once a month I write a summary of what I’ve learnt and share it with my team. I find this helps me to fully assimilate what I’ve read into my way of thinking.
Pro tip: Unless your customers are other startups – reading Tech Crunch is not going to help build your domain experience.
Talk to potential customers
Spend as much face time with potential customers are possible. Time and again I’ve found the best way to progress is simply to stop working on the product and get out of the building. At least initially almost all the critical learning you do will come exclusively from talking to potential customers. As an added benefit you are building up a contact network with people in the industry. With my current startup we saved months of work by talking to potential customers first, even before we had a real product. We made fundamental shifts from our original concept because we learnt that some our ideas were not feasible.
Pro tip: Be humble and keep an open mind. To understand an industry you need to respect it.
Get customers as soon as possible
In the end reading and talking will only get you so far. To really understand an industry you need to get a product to market. Build the minimum feature set that a customer will pay for and then ship that. You can always add improvements over time. A product used in the real world is an excuse to call your customers at any time and ask them questions. Not to mention you can start adding these customers to your case studies and website.
Pro tip: If you think your product needs to be perfect before you ship it then you are probably wrong.