in Careers, Entrepreneurship/Life as a founder, Startups

My response to “You need to get experience before starting a startup”

Experience is useful when you can take previous learnings and apply them to new situations.

20 years experience is only valued as such when learning and progression has occurred every year. Otherwise, it could be 1 year experience repeated 20 times.

Experience is a funny thing in entrepreneurship. Of course, it can be extremely valuable but it is not a pre-requisite for success. The value of experience comes down to the type of experience acquired.

There’s a strange phenomenon I’ve noticed amongst startup founders (and wider society for that matter). People tend to fall into one of two camps. Some believe that gaining experience before diving in and founding a company is a necessity. Others believe it bears no impact.

Being one of the founders that started a startup freshly graduated from university, I fall into the latter group, and I wanted to dig deeper into what I see as the pros and cons of ‘getting experience’ before starting up.


A strong network is hugely valuable as a startup founder. You need access to customers, mentors, investors and employees.

But, a wide network ≠ a strong network. Also, a ‘strong’ network can only be defined as such depending on the context. If, in gaining experience, an individual builds a strong network that has relevance to the future company they might one day start, then, of course, this is of value. However, a strong network built over time from a founder’s past experiences might not necessarily be applicable to the new startup the founder is building. Again, only access to customers, mentors, investors and employees really matters. The network could simply be inapplicable to the startup’s needs.

Domain Expertise

It’s certainly true that domain expertise is essential for founders. Either, this expertise comes from previous experience or it has to be acquired by the founder when building the startup.

Those who have gained experience in the industry before starting up, could have a deep understanding of the ecosystem of their domain. The downside of this is that they are prone to adopting all the long-held beliefs that are ripe for disruption. ‘That’s just way things are‘ is not a good reason for not trying to find a better way. This is why founders with less experience are blissfully naive about these ingrained beliefs and systems, and therefore, bring fresh eyes to every problem they encounter.

Clearly some industries are easier to break into than others without prior knowledge and expertise. This is where self-awareness and finding ‘founder-idea fit’ is important.

General ‘business’ knowledge

The final reason one might want to get experience before building a startup is to become knowledgeable about the principles of business. But where does truly valuable business and startup knowledge come from? It comes from being in the trenches. Mostly, it has to be learned-by-doing.

It’s no wonder the Silicon Valley advice for future founders is to should join the fastest growing company they can find. Not McKinsey, not Google (although being an early employee at Google would have been extremely valuable), and certainly not some other generic well-paid job with a training scheme, just to ‘earn experience’.

Being knowledgeable about business is an asset for founders, no doubt. But I somehow doubt that true learning can ever occur when not experiencing the situation first hand, or from a very close viewpoint. Even founders who are said to be experienced are often quoted as saying they “made every mistake in the book” with their first company.


All of the above is something I have often thought about. I (we) certainly came across our fair share of nay-sayers and doubters. People who didn’t believe we had the right to try and start a startup when we hadn’t paid our dues working up the ranks in another company; we had no experience and no track record. Why would we sacrifice a well paying graduate job to earn nothing, live at my co-founder’s parent’s house and work on a startup? A common argument I heard all too many times.

I recently stumbled across the below tweets from Sam Altman, President at Y-Combinator, which partly sparked me to write this post. Sam founded his startup aged just 19. These tweets sum up everything you need to know about getting experience and waiting, or doing it now.

Perhaps starting a startup without experience isn’t a rational decision. In fact, given the chances of success, perhaps it’s not a rational decision full-stop. Yet the desire to ‘strive for better now’ is what makes it a path founders can’t help but choose.


As an afterthought, what type of experience really is valuable for those who eventually want to choose to start a startup? Here’s some ideas:

  • As mentioned above, picking the fastest growing company possible is certainly a good start.
  • I completely subscribe to the notion that you have to surround yourself with good people; this is the easiest way to level up. With this logic, the team, and primarily your boss, will have a huge influence on your learnings and career trajectory.
  • I now realise that side-projects can be invaluable means of learning. Starting and running something, even if a small side-project, is a small step towards preparation.
  • The startup ecosystem is a strange and complex place to find yourself. For those looking to enter, networking with the right people and learning about the ecosystem is hugely valuable (see the first point about the importance of your network). Meetups and hackathons are the easiest entry point to learning about the ecosystem and will give you a leg-up and avoid a standing start.

Other thoughts? I’d love to hear them in the comments or at @ParkerACS. Thanks for reading!