Micro Experts

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” - Socrates

It feels like everybody is an expert these days -- actually, more like what I call a “micro expert” because their “expertise” usually only covers a niche within a niche.

I was reminded of this recently while reading a piece in the New York Times. In an online conversation between two Times writers who have recently left San Francisco after many years of living there, one of them recalled a colleague walking out of a popular coffee shop because:

“I was just standing in line behind two entrepreneurs that couldn’t be more than 19 years old and they were giving each other advice on how to fire people and run a company...”

I’ve overheard many similar conversations recently. Maybe we were always surrounded by “micro experts,” "growth hackers," "talent hackers," and the like. It could be that social media has just amplified the phenomena or maybe social media actually helped create it. Regardless, it is interesting to see the surge during this period in my life, especially since I personally am moving in the opposite direction: as I’ve accumulated more experience (AKA grown older), I realize each day how little I know.

I’ve been fortunate to work on projects about which I am passionate, and to spend my time learning new things on a regular basis. Originally, that meant writing software; more recently I have continued in creating products, starting companies, and, most importantly, helping to build and develop great teams and leaders who embody the principles of servant leadership.

It’s taken me five startups and many years to finally see my own pattern of when I start, and later leave, companies. Looking back, I always started a company when I was obsessed about learning how to solve a market problem, and I always left when I felt that I had stopped learning. It’s so clear now but it wasn’t during all those startups. I figured my timing was random. It wasn’t. All my decisions were based around learning opportunities. They still are.

Continuous learning has always been my main focus -- the kind of learning you can’t get from just ingesting information on Twitter or from reading blogs (including this one). True learning is acquired through constant practice and reflection over a long period of time.

I guess that’s why the idea of so many “micro-experts” irks me. The idea that you could become an expert in anything overnight, or even over a year or two, just doesn’t exist in my world. More specifically, the idea that someone would think they could become an expert misses the whole point. Becoming an expert shouldn’t be the goal; always learning and practicing should be.


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My Golden Rule for Pitching Your Startup or Product

There's a simple rule I use when pitching a product or even a company to someone. I call it "No Ands."

The "No Ands" rule is simple: You have to be able to describe your idea in a single sentence without using the word "and."

I believe "ands" are crutches -- they add confusion and show you don't really understand your value proposition.

The reason I've used this crutch in the past is probably the same reason that you've used it: I'm so excited about how big an idea can be that I want to share my excitement with everyone I talk to. I never want someone to walk away from a pitch unimpressed. I want them to see the same big idea that I see. So I try to convince them with lots of "ands."

But the problem with using "ands" is that they often confuse ideas instead of clarifying them. What's a better way to describe Amazon.com?

a. The largest online store on the planet for almost any product you'd want to buy.
b. An ecommerce store and a maker of hardware devices (Kindle, etc) and also a cloud computing provider and a marketplace where you can sell goods (digital and physical) and ...

As ridiculous as that example may seem, it's not far off from the pitches I've heard from entrepreneurs describing their company or someone describing the product they are building.

The "No Ands" rule is a simple constraint that you can use to focus your pitch. Constraints in my opinion are a critical ingredient for innovation and creativity. Try introducing this constraint the next time you pitch an idea to someone. I think it will teach you to clarify your positioning and, hopefully, result in fewer glazed-over eyes and confused recipients.

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Should Entrepreneurs Get an MBA? Hell No.

Should you get an MBA before founding a startup?

Hell no.

If you intend to found a tech startup I believe that an MBA is a complete waste of money.

There is one exception to that rule. An MBA from Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Wharton, and maybe 1 or 2 other schools in the entire world might be somewhat useful. An MBA from one of these schools may be useful not for what you learned at those schools but because of the social connections you made with some of your fellow students and professors. If you’re lucky you might make some alumni connections to people not in the startup world but working at potential acquirers and partners during your time at one of these schools.

If the possibility of making a couple of interesting alumni connections is worth enough to you that you’re willing to spend two years of your life and accumulating an average of $88,000 in debt, go nuts. It isn’t to me, nor I have I seen it payoff for anyone I’ve encountered during the last 15 years.

Coming out of school with a ton of debt would make anyone more risk-averse. That’s not a quality you want in a startup founder. I recommend that you try everything in your power to be entirely debt-free before founding a startup. It’s hard enough to sleep at night as a startup founder without being in personal debt, don’t add any unnecessary pressure on yourself.

Wait, isn’t it easier to raise capital if you learned how-to analyze spreadsheets and dissect a business case at school? Nope.

As an angel investor I’ve never given any advantage to a start-up because one of its founders had an MBA. Recruiting a talented engineering team is far harder, and more impressive, than recruiting a building full of MBAs.

What if none of the founders are MBAs. Should they hire any MBAs into their companies?

For me an MBA wanting to join a startup has always been a worrisome sign. I guess this is because when I see this happening it makes me feel that MBAs are starting to think there’s a short-term possibility that joining a startup is going to make them rich. If you’re interested in making money then please don’t start or join a startup. Anyone who has started a business will tell you there are far easier ways to make money in this world than founding a startup. Despite the urban legends you hear about very, very few startup founders ever make any money let alone get rich from their startup.

Marc Andreessen, a superstar entrepreneur and startup investor, says that when MBA graduating classes start wanting to go into tech startups we’re seeing a leading indicator of a bubble forming.

If you’re a seasoned entrepreneur, were lucky enough to make some money, and you feel like going back to school to get your MBA for fun, go for it. I have many friends who have done just that. But these friends were already successful entrepreneurs, they never rested their hopes on an MBA helping them found a business and neither should you.


"You can't learn in school what the world is going to do next year." - Henry Ford

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