You don’t need an extensive background within a sector to seek to improve it.
Two years ago, when I was thinking about what my next startup was going to be, I knew only one thing for certain: I wanted to do something that would have a broad social impact. After taking a hard look at the variety of challenges affecting the world today and doing my best to identify a common denominator or root cause, the problem I wanted to try and solve for became clear. I thought to myself, isn’t a lack of education the root cause of most—if not all—world problems? My co-founder and I wanted to address the issue of affordability, access, and the need to teach students skills that employers are actually looking for and that would benefit them for life.
A lack of this kind of quality education, so far as I could see, was a root cause for many of the world’s most persistent problems––from extremism and intolerance, to poverty and healthcare issues.
There was just one problem: I had no experience in the education sector.
To compensate for that, my co-founder and I dedicated the next few months to learning everything we could about the world of higher education. We spent hours each night researching the published insights of industry experts. Then, I reached out personally to a few of those experts, accompanied them to industry conferences––such as the Distance Education Conference in Madison, WI––partnered with Huron Consulting, and conducted research using the globally reputed IPSOS to help us fine-tune our larger strategy. All told, I was building a sort of foundational understanding of the world I wanted to impact. In a way, I was earning my own Masters in Education.
Ultimately, it proved transformational.
Before embarking on this journey, I’d planned on building a technology company which would automate the gathering and analysis of employer needs and present that to universities so they could design curricula accordingly. Based on my initial understanding of the issues at hand, this was my first instinct. But just a few months into my research––and after attending that conference in Wisconsin, specifically––it became clear to me that my ability to create social impact would be entirely reliant on whether these universities adopted my technology, which wasn’t ideal. On top of that, I realized that many traditional universities are not really incentivized to innovate––and those who are prove largely incapable of it.
I knew that I needed, instead, to start a school of my own. And that’s how Nexford University was born.
But I learned a few other things along the way, as well—things that other entrepreneurs looking to break into unfamiliar sectors might benefit from, too.
First, it’s difficult to deliver change by staying loyal to the status quo.
For example, my team and I could have become yet another ed-tech company joining the long list of folks trying to sell technology to schools.
But we knew the only way to truly create something valuable was to take our product and our ideas directly to consumers as opposed to going through the existing players in the space, which we knew wouldn’t yield the same results.
Another, more fundamental lesson I learned was this: you don’t need an extensive background in a subject area to seek to improve it.
In fact, a lack of such a background might even give you an edge.
You need an in-depth understanding, yes, but not necessarily a background.
Here are just a few advantages my not having a background in education allowed me:
- I wasn’t held back by preconceived notions. When you endeavor to bring change to an industry, it can help if you’re not wed or overly comfortable with the “old way of doing things.” When you’ve been engaging with a network or operating in a certain way for 10 or 20 years, the means of disruption or innovation you design are more likely to be skewed by your previous experience. When you’re trying to accomplish game-changing innovation, that can be limiting.
- Perceiving and studying the challenges of an industry from an “outsider’s perspective” allows you to conceive of solutions from a consumer’s point of view. It allows you the ability to ideate more creatively with less fear of typical limitations. In education, especially, where dogma can be so deeply rooted, this can prove essential. To think purely as a solutions provider puts you in a box.
- Tech experience proves beneficial when it comes to product design. This may seem like a general truth, but that I possessed experience in the tech industry benefited my team early on. We operate, in many ways, like a tech startup. We have members on the team who are experts in education, curriculum design, etc. But we prioritized from day one the importance of building something uniquely customer-centric, which is an ethos familiar to many tech companies today. It empowered us to act boldly. People ask me even today whether we are a university or a tech startup. I say we’re a next-generation university, which is a fusion between a tech startup and an online university.
Yet even more so than experience, what you really need to succeed in a new field are certain intangibles.
You’ll need, for example:
- The ability to learn quickly. Despite what I’ve said above, there are certain crucial challenges you have to overcome when you start in an industry and lack experience within it. One of those is the education/experience gap. You simply have to be able to catch up with your new peers intellectually. That means learning a lot of stuff in a limited amount of time––and learning how to trust the team you surround yourself with when they make astute, compelling points.
- The ability to differentiate between noise and actionable advice. When entering a new industry, you’re much more susceptible to bad advice, mostly because you’re eager to learn. So it can be trickier distilling bad advice or noise from sound advice. And who are you to determine that the industry expert on the other side of the table––with his or her 20 years of experience––is wrong, and that you’re right? It’s hard. To actively identify when the advice you’re receiving might be suspect, and to then resist it, requires grit, research, and supreme self-assuredness. It’s crucial, though, because you’re going to hear a lot of advice when attempting to disrupt a new industry, and not all of it will be wise.
- The ability to surround yourself with a team possessing of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. This is a key component of building any great business, but it’s especially important when attempting to innovate: you simply have to surround yourself with the right mix of people. As a founder or team leader, you yourself are not going to have all the key ingredients required of building something impactful. I, for example, lacked expertise in the science of teaching itself––curriculum design, accreditation, etc. So I made sure to hire people who had such expertise, such as Dr. Robin Johnston, who had worked with organizations such as McGraw Hill.
This last point serves as the chief reason you don’t need experience in a specific industry or sector to impact it.
The key to success isn’t knowing more than other people––it’s putting together the best team possible to help you drive toward success.
In other words––as Warren Buffett once said––you need to surround yourself with people who are, in fact, smarter and better than you.
Every business, across industries, is ultimately a reflection of the core team driving it. And that’s why your ultimate job when building any kind of company is assembling the right team. It comes down to attracting the right talent and creating an environment which extracts the most value from each member possible.
You don’t need to be the best software developer to start a software company. Boards are increasingly looking to hire CEOs who lack concrete executive experience, in fact. Accordingly, you don’t need to be a professor or chancellor or even a teacher to start a school, either.
But you do have to appreciate the importance of surrounding yourself with people who are great––who are, in at least some respects, the best at what they do. And the more diverse they are, the better. At Nexford, for example, our team represents more than 12 different nationalities. Often, the best teams which produce the best ideas are made of people with divergent views.
The ability to execute, in this sense––as a team, a company, or even a university––is more important than experience.
And, of course, equally critical is that you as a founder can rally your team behind the importance of your mission. Everyone must be mission-aligned for this recipe to work.
Don’t let a lack of experience stop you from trying something audacious if you believe yourself equipped to give the world audacious solutions. Just be ready for lots of “NOs” and “Can’t Dos” along the way.