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.

The difference between expertise and experience

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

You need someone who can take a new idea and figure out how to make it work in any industry. Hire someone who has built a company with similar values, goals, and structures.
This is especially helpful in the growth stage, because one good way to foster high growth is to make your solution industry-agnostic.

When you’re disrupting an industry, your focus constantly needs to be on how that industry should work, not how it currently works.

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.

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.

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