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.