Let us begin with an anti-definition. Domain expertise does not mean:
- the ability to eat really spicy food
- the ability to learn new things quickly
- the ability to stay up all night coding
- usually being the smartest person in the room
- having great attention to detail
- having won a number of business plan or design competitions
- having gone to MIT or IIT as an undergrad
- being able to memorize pi to 100 or 1,000 digits
- the ability to establish a genuine connection with strangers
- being a natural leader with great charisma
- the ability to sell ice cubes to Eskimos
Those are just table stakes. In the big leagues of entrepreneurship, all the players have those kinds of skills.
Domain expertise means that you are at the forefront of a field:
- you have 10,000 hours in an unusual area of expertise
- you have mastered a difficult body of knowledge
- you are well informed of the history of the field
- you know the current areas of investigation
- you know, or at least know of, most of the individual thought leaders in that field
- you are a thought leader in that field
For example, being an expert programmer may make you a domain expert in programming. But even then, there are grades of expertise. Consider the difference between someone who:
- can program in Ruby very well,
- has written gems used by millions of other Ruby programmers,
- actively contributes to the core libraries used by every Ruby program,
- maintains the Ruby language itself.
It’s like the difference between someone who has read half a dozen books about a field, and someone who has written half a dozen books about a field.
The best source of sustainable competitive advantage is yourself and your team.
The caper analogy illustrates the role of domain expertise.
If you do not have domain expertise in any field, you may want to reconsider founding a startup. One red flag is if you’re not aware of the closest competitor in your field. Another is if you don’t know the name of your chosen industry.
It takes time to gain experience and expertise. While you acquire it, maybe you should go work for someone else for a little while. If startup culture appeals to you, perhaps you could join somebody else’s, as an intern or an employee. Or you could join a big company. Or if you’re the academic type, go back to school and study something until you know it better than anybody else in the world.
That “something” in the previous paragraph can be a combination of separate things: if you have a rare combination of skills, that combination may be sufficient to create a competitive advantage.
That’s why we like to see teams who are good at reading, who have done the research, who know what they’re doing.
Self-awareness is important, too. Some people simply don’t know what they know. They have domain expertise in an unusual field, but like fish in water, they don’t know it!
Domain expertise is not enough. It has to be relevant to the startup. And insight matters too.
- I have a PhD in waferless silicon deposition methods for solar panels, and I hold eighteen patents in the field.
- I am one of the eight people in the world who is both a double amputee and ultramarathoner.
- I did CS before I went to law school. Now I’m both a practicing lawyer and a programmer with a Master’s degree in text mining.
- I’m a surgeon with six years of experience doing tele-operation remote surgeries, and I’m fed up with the tools I’m using.
- I’ve started two Internet companies. I sold one to Google and the other to Facebook.
- I spent the last three years writing high-frequency trading software. Before that, I start and sold an ad network. Now I want to apply those trading algorithms to realtime ad exchanges.
- I used to work for an MMO game developer; the titles I worked on have a total of 50 million users. Now I want to develop my own games.
- I didn’t know anything about expense tracking software when I started four years ago, but now I’ve ground my way to the coal face.
Sometimes, domain expertise can be too much: ignorance is bliss.