For most kids, parents are their heroes and they grow up wanting to be like them. This is often reflected in their career choices, too, and it is quite common to see the children of doctors, lawyers and chartered accountants take up a similar academic and career path. This pattern may also be observed in the case of carpenters, painters, plumbers and electricians, where the younger generation wishing to continue in the same line can receive solid apprenticeship under the parent. It’s when kids try to emulate their parents in domains requiring natural talent and ability — such as music, movies, sports or writing — that things can get harder.
Strangely, start-ups face a similar issue. Most first-generation entrepreneurs are happy building something new in the same domain they had worked in earlier. So, if a founder has a few years of experience in banking and finance, logistics and transportation, IT/software services and SaaS, or retail and ecommerce, there’s a good chance the start-up will be in the same area.
On the face of it, this makes eminent sense. Years of experience translates into industry knowledge, operating expertise, and networks, plus there’s the comfort of being in a safe and familiar space.
This, to me, is a sub-optimal approach. Professional careers are built on domain expertise since it allows a person to leverage the experience, expertise and industry contacts to move ahead. On the other hand, if an experienced software developer applies for a consumer marketing role, it can become challenging.
Founders can do stuff like this. An entrepreneur is, by nature, wired differently from a career professional. Career professionals are expertise builders, while entrepreneurs are problem solvers. Entrepreneurs can solve any problem they put their mind to, so long as they are passionate about it, and the domain in which the problem exists is just a matter of detail. Look at it this way. If every founder started a company in their safe domains, how will greenfield ventures get launched? How will innovations happen?
In 1999, when we launched India’s first ecommerce company, no one in the country knew what ecommerce meant; but we went ahead with our plans using first principles. In 2018, I had no background in FMCG, yet we went ahead and launched a range of healthy beverages, which also got awarded some patents. On both occasions, I was passionate about the problem we were solving and my lack of domain knowledge was no hurdle.
This is an important rule founders must remember: Solve the problem. Forget the domain.
(The writer is a serial entrepreneur and best-selling author of the book ‘Failing to Succeed’; @vaitheek on X)