"What on earth makes you think you're remotely qualified to run your own business?"
Colour that statement with a few choice expletives and you've got a pretty accurate record of a question that's flung - often with more than a tinge of aggression - at almost every young entrepreneur. It's a question which provokes the brash and terrifies the uncertain, but personally it merely highlights the question of what makes anyone think they're qualified to run their own business; is there an age or a level of experience before which you'll sink and after which you'll swim? If you were writing a job description for "Entrepreneur", where on earth would you start?
Many of the people who ask my initial question clearly believe there is, but - while it shouldn't come as a surprise that as a young entrepreneur I'll be fighting the corner of the youth view - for me, dismissing the ambitions and prospects of a budding entrepreneur purely because of their age or corporate experience is at best, shortsighted, and at worst, a view rooted in envy.
At its heart, truly successful entrepreneurship is about risk-taking. It's about doing something that hasn't been done before - not just pushing the boundaries but ripping them up and drawing new ones. (I love Henry Ford's oft-cited quote on this: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses") It's about taking that leap of faith and having the confidence and conviction that your idea might just solve the problem that countless entrepreneurial predecessors failed to address.
All of those core principles are true no matter how many degrees or MBAs you have, and no matter how many years you've spent learning transferable skills in a corporate cubicle. While it's naïve to argue that the contacts, network and experiences you can build up in the process aren't potentially useful assets, hard skills and networks are aspects of start-up life that you can plug as you go along. So long as you have the necessary self-recognition to acknowledge your own skill gaps, you can mitigate these weaknesses with a sensible approach to building your team and - most crucially - a sensible approach to soliciting advice.
What overrides all of these aspects for the aspiring entrepreneur is something much more important - attitude. To really believe that your idea is the one that's going to make it, to do something a bit special, you need something much more than a set of qualifications or a bank of experience to back up this belief. The vision that founds ideas that truly evolve and make a genuine difference are almost uniquely rooted purely in dreams and ambitions rather than an empirical scientific and experiential belief that it will succeed! Dismissing the potential impact of an idea purely based on the years of experience - or lack thereof - of its founders seems shortsighted in the extreme.
Given my natural bias in this area I was delighted to see this view validated in a recent New York Times interview with Laszlo Bock - the guy in charge Google's hiring strategy, no less - who outlined that "the least important attribute they look for is expertise". When faced with a problem:
"The expert will go: 'I've seen this 100 times before; here's what you do.' Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer, because it's not that hard. Sure, once in a while they will mess it up, but once in a while they'll also come up with an answer that is totally new. And there is huge value in that".
Lack of experience therefore becomes an asset, not a liability, because young people do not know 'how things are meant to be done' (my personal bête noire of phrases to hear in a startup environment), nor what is supposed to be impossible. Experience tends to make people more realistic, whereas not knowing what you can't do ensures that everything remains in the realm of the possible.
In other words, "We didn't know we couldn't do it, so we did".