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I Do and I Understand

Industry-specific experience is often a critical attribute of a successful Founder.

Confucius taught: “I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember.  I do and I understand.”
I was reminded of this quote while recently reading a blog post by Mark MacLeod of startupCFO.  In Traits of Successful Founders Mark suggests that one of the common traits of Founders who are finding success are the ones who don’t just know their industry – they understand it from years of experience.
Not only do I think his assessment is correct, but I also struggle to get excited about a new venture when the Founder has little or no experience in the space he/she is trying to occupy.  For example, several years ago I met an entrepreneur who wanted to create a certain kind of vitamin supplement that could be injected into a home’s tap water – supposedly improving absorption and utilization.  As I inquired into his idea, he explained that he had no experience in vitamin supplements, water supply, or distributing such products.  He sensed my concern over this and tried to assure me that he was a fast learner and that it wouldn’t take him long to get up-to-speed.  He was confident he did not need any help and that he could do it all himself.
His effort to subside my concern only fueled its flame.  And that’s where Confucius comes in – I do and I understand.  My recommendation to him was to go and get some industry experience by working in the space, attending trade shows and conferences, subscribing to industry periodicals and newsletters, and doing anything else to immerse his thoughts into the space.  Even with just a couple of years under his belt he could vastly improve the chances of success for his idea.
For fear someone may misunderstand what I am saying, I am not suggesting that a Founder must have gray hair in a particular industry.  I’m only suggesting that even a couple of years will make a huge impact on the viability of the idea and hopeful venture.  It is always easy to sit on the “outside” of an industry and think how easy it is.  The reality is that no business is easy, every industry has its unique challenges, and the thought leaders for each industry are grounded in the day-to-day challenges of that space.
When Confucius says I hear and I forget, I think back to the last seminar I attended.  I remember less than 15% of what I heard.  When Confucius says I see and I remember, I think back to hearing my father teach me about the importance of hard work and then seeing him live his life in congruence with his teaching.  When Confucius says I do and I understand, a flood of memories and lessons-learned come to mind, with particularly acute attention to the failures and mistakes in my past.  There is just no replacement for experience.