Blindness is bliss, ignorance a curse
Yesterday’s world was dominated by the concept of the experience curve.
The more time you spent in a given industry, the more productive and effective you became. You then could make ever higher earnings. Experience was rewarded; ignorance was a cardinal sin. But hasn’t this entire framework been turned upside down in the startup world?
Today, experience is a liability, while newcomers supposedly create the most value.
Too often, an industry Insider is fascinated by the promises of launching their own company, only to fail miserably. Then a newcomer with no prior knowledge in that industry ends up building the most successful company of the new age.
Yet something bothers me here.
Here’s why:The best founders I’ve met know their industry inside out! They know the history, the regulatory context, the previous attempts of new entrants and the reasons why they failed, the specific skills they need to hire for their team, the expectations of their customers. They don’t seem particularly ignorant to me. So what exactly is going on? Two things.
First, don’t confuse ignorance with blindness.
Paul Graham wrote some beautiful lines about how not seeing clearly is an asset when building a startup —you simply wouldn’t do it if you knew all the obstacles you’re bound to encounter along the way. Ignorance, on the other hand, can lead you straight into the ground because:
You’ll have a steeper learning curve when it comes to understanding the microeconomics of your business and the areas where risks are concentrated.
You’ll be unable to pick the skilled employees you need, since you can’t hire and then manage someone if you don’t understand their skills and field of work.
Second, knowledge can turn into an entrepreneur's competitive advantage.
It’s possible that ignorance was a strength back in the 1990s, when the Internet was so new that you had to look at opportunities through a completely different lens. But now that startups are entering more difficult industries (more tangible, more fragmented, more regulated), knowing one’s industry inside out is more an asset than a liability.
For a long time, Silicon Valley was insulated.
It was freed from the influence of the rest of the country—and the world. That isolation was an opportunity: founders could be clueless about history and the old ways of doing things in any industry. In addition, the purpose of making the world a better place encouraged a certain attitude—to “move fast and break things”, without caring too much about the adverse consequences.
But things are different now: everybody cares about tech.
From real estate to healthcare to financial services to shipping to agriculture, software has made tremendous progress in eating the world. We already know that every single industry will one day be dominated by one or several tech companies. So ignorance is not an option for founders anymore. What will make the difference in winning that race is your ability to build and adapt.
Here’s something I’ve learned from great jazz musicians: technical mastery makes you better at improvising because it frees your body and makes it easier to translate what you hear on the inside into music played for others. Conversely, beginners with insufficient control over their instrument won’t be able to go beyond clumsy imitation.
It’s the same for tech founders: your ability to take a fresh look at a given industry is not incompatible with learning everything you can about it. So find the best mentors, attract insightful insiders so that they have your back, make as many iterations as you can to discover your industry through bottom-up trials and errors.
And don’t forget to study history, because that’s where the most valuable secrets are buried, as explained by Ben Horowitz here:
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