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April 8, 2010 / Danny Robinson

Passion vs. Experience – What’s Better?

I sat on a panel at yesterday’s F5 Expo here in Vancouver entitled “The Secret to Success: Avoiding Start-up Pitfalls.”  Someone from the audience had an interesting question, which I will paraphrase: “What’s more important when starting a company, Passion or Experience?”  Ryan Holmes of HootSuite said passion, and Michael Fergusson of Ayogo said experience was more important.  It wasn’t until the question was brought up again in the context of what a VC would prefer to see, that I weighed in with my thoughts…

Really, if you think about it, passion and experience drive the same result: The ability to rely on your intuition to consistently make the right decision.  The difference between the two are subtle but important to recognize, both when hiring employees, or investing in startups.  Let’s break it down:

Passion: When someone is passionate about something, they absorb it completely because they love it. ‘Loving it’ is an emotion that forces them to open their minds and vacuum up every aspect of the subject. They will seek out answers to questions, and eventually challenge the incumbents, just because they can. It’s usually the life-blood of an entrepreneur.  It will convince them to carry on even when all logic tells them to give up.  Think back to high school. If you hated english class as much as I did, then it didn’t matter how much you read books or wrote essays, you were simply not going to be very good at reading and writing.  But, if you wanted me to explain how a computers worked, stand back. – I could tell you what every electron was doing and why.  And I could definitely could explain why a i386 should have a math co-processor.  Once you care about something that much, you’re able to make judgement calls based on your gut intuition.  You might not be able to explain why your decision is the right one, but you just know it is.  My ‘experience’ with passion is that you should trust your instincts.

Experience: By definition, experience is a transcription of the past, and not the view of the present or future.  But from this past, it’s assumed you’ve amassed knowledge along the way that, like passion, also manifests itself in the form of instinct or intuition that you can use to make future decisions.  The difference being that you can probably quantify your reasons for making that decision a bit better. But, experience doesn’t assume that they’re actually any good; It just proves that they’ve spent a lot of time doing it. Beware of the experienced executive at the top of their game who doesn’t enjoy what they do anymore. With many people, once they hit the top, their ego takes over and convinces them that they’ve learned everything they need to know, so they become complacent, or bored. Like Miley Cyrus says, for many of us, “it’s the climb.”  The very process of learning and becoming the best is the foundation of where the passion originates, and once they’ve hit the top, they stop paying attention.

An interesting side note: Nobody is blamed for hiring experienced CEOs who don’t perform, but they’re in trouble when if they hire passionate CEOs who don’t perform.  The problem originates when VCs try to quantify quality.

Conclusion: Passion and experience are not mutually exclusive. Someone who has a long track record of succes and still loves every minute of what they do, is a very rare individual who is worth every penny you can pay them.  But if you have to make the choice to work with someone who is passiate about what they do or someone who has years of experience, I would choose passion every day of the week.

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13 Comments

  1. jonathan ehrlich / Apr 9 2010 3:02 am

    Google, ebay, facebook, apple, microsoft – all started by entrepreneurs with no experience. Enough said. 🙂

  2. @invoker / Apr 9 2010 3:10 am

    I think Michael was playing devils advocate a bit, and it kept the panel fun. Thanks. If you want a doctor, go for experience. If you want a startup innovator, passion. Good points by JE above also.

  3. @kevin_swan / Apr 9 2010 5:05 am

    Great discussion, Danny. I completely agree with you assessment of having both is a special combination. I also have to agree that passion is way more important. However, domain experience (not necessarily experience) has its place. I know that this hurt me in the early days when I first jumped into the internet space.

  4. @fergusson / Apr 9 2010 5:29 am

    Hi Danny. Great topic. I think what I said was that choosing between passion and experience is like choosing between oxygen and food. The lack of either will kill you, the only question is how quickly. What I've seen is that passion is usually what inspires the entrepreneur in the first place, and most startups have it in spades. What they are much more likely to lack is experience.

    Something like 95% of all startups crash. They fail for all kinds of reasons. Lack of passion is not usually one of them.

    In the category of "I shoulda said: I would say the much more significant factor in a startup's success is neither passion nor experience, but talent. Gretzky has a great quote about this: hard work can beat talent, but talent and hard work always beats hard work.

    • DannyRobinson / Apr 9 2010 6:20 am

      Good point. I see what you mean now. And I agree that all things considered, virtually all startups have enough passion, and still fail. What could tip the scale is domain experience, as some have suggested on twitter, or even experience in a failed prior startup.

      Whoa. Hard work is an important factor, but it's a default element of passion. But how do you define talent? I guess what you're saying is that, you could be crazy passionate and super experienced, but still not be very good, so talent is also a requirement. humm

  5. Mark Mawhinney / Apr 9 2010 6:54 pm

    I didn't attend the Expo, so take my comments on the basis that I don't have the experience of enjoying the live conversation. Nonetheless, I do have a passion for this topic.

    I read your thread and the accompanying comments and gather that the question was whether the passion/experience had to be present in the same person – the entrepreneur. I suggest that the most successful startups (I've had two, one successful, the second not so much) have both, but they're not necessarily resident in one person.

    If a entrepreneur has passion and little experience, he or she could be well served by finding good mentors/advisors who have experience the entrepreneur lacks.

    In my first business I no experience, but I was an ambitious and passionate 22 year old – I balanced my weakness out with a partner who had experience in our business. It worked very well.

    In my second business, I had gained experience in starting and successfully building a newco, but I had no passion for the business. It took me eighteen months to find a senior team member to join me with much needed passion. We turned the post shortly thereafter, but it was never a real success.

  6. @geoffdevereux / Apr 13 2010 1:37 am

    These "either or's" are always brutal. Is it nature or nurture? It's a combo. I forgot about the "oxygen or food" comment. Shoot, I should update my blog.

    The fact is, there's no answer. Our feeble minds are prone to a bunch of different errors. Read the book "Nudge" for the sorry list.

    I would replace both experience and passion with "wiley-ness".

    • DannyRobinson / Apr 13 2010 2:53 am

      agreed. it's not an either/or question.

  7. @thejonotron / Apr 13 2010 5:18 pm

    This was a great session to attend and fun to watch everyone debate. I find the "oxygen or food" comment and the "either ors" to be somehow a bit artificial and too "all or nothing". I agree that it should be some combination of both, but under the "oxygen or food" analogy I wonder if the question should be phrased more like this:
    Is it better to breath poor quality air and eat gourmet, or live on plain bread and breath mountain air? (or specifically, am I better off with lots of passion and a little bit of experience or a lot of experience and a little bit of passion)

    But I think that Danny has addressed this quite well. Thanks.

  8. mapquest maps / Apr 15 2010 3:37 am

    i didnt go to the expo, great post

  9. John Muina / Nov 29 2010 2:19 pm

    Hey great post, I love reading your blogs, and lookforward to seeing more interesting posts from you.

  10. CarpalRest / Jun 24 2011 6:36 am

    I do not want to spent my valuable time identifying some of the remains of archeological evidences and this is something we can also. I know this is something beyond what common people can do too.online quoting software

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