I was talking with students of a prestigious B-school sometime ago. One of them announced she was planning a start-up with two of her batchmates immediately after completing her course, but none of them had work experience; so, how important is work experience before becoming an entrepreneur, and how difficult is it to succeed without it?

Millions of young Indians are throwing away the security of a steady job to launch a start-up; given the high mortality rate of such ventures, it is important to understand this aspect of work experience. Start-ups by freshers have succeeded and ventures by experienced folks have failed, and the opposite is true as well, which suggests there is no clear rule. While I always encourage young (wo)men fresh out of college, or even those still in college, to start up, my personal view is that entrepreneurs with solid experience under their belt start off with key advantages. 

A corporate stint exposes people to the workings and processes of an organisation made up of various groups, sections and functions. The ability to work well with colleagues across departments, who have different goals in the same company, is so essential for a leader, who must be able to build consensus and drive a diverse team to achieve common objectives. This is a critical management skill and cannot be learned theoretically, even in B-schools.

Managing people is a huge challenge for early-stage start-ups. People come from different socio-economic backgrounds and there’s no one-size-fits-all theory that will work. Interviewing smart talent and getting them to buy into a rosy future vision is no mean feat — it calls for appropriate experience or exposure.

I had 14 years’ work experience in the Murugappa group and Wipro before I became an entrepreneur. I learnt a lot about sales, marketing and business development. Sales is a survival skill for entrepreneurs and it is best built by spending several years in direct and indirect sales. When I co-founded my first start-up, this sales background was instrumental in helping me approach clients, partners, customers and prospects with confidence. I would have been lost trying this straight out of engineering college.

Another invaluable benefit of this corporate stint was my visiting card folder. Across industries, companies, locations and businesses, I built up an amazing network of contacts and acquaintances. Years later, when I no longer had a corporate logo behind me, I reached out to these contacts, who helped in building my first start-up. This network can only be built through years of solid work in the field and is like gold dust.

(The writer is a serial entrepreneur and best-selling author of the book ‘Failing to Succeed’; posts on X @vaitheek)