Recently, I watched a few experienced people get up in front of an audience and talk about lessons they’ve learned building companies, investing in companies, buying companies, selling companies, and making products. About five years ago, I watched a similar group of people give the same kinds of talks, on a similar looking stage, with a similar audience. The difference is that, years later, my interpretation of the content has completely changed.
The first few times I went to startup conferences, I thought everything seemed so obvious. Listen to your users, they said. Never settle on hiring, they said. Focus on unrelenting growth, they said. Startup advice seemed so vague. But those things I remember were the wrong things to focus on. The bit of experience I now have has given me the ability to see between the lines of stereotypical advice, and to better interpret lessons that on the surface seemed completely irrelevant.
When I watch experienced people talk today, I catch the little subtle notes in between the obvious pieces of advice, and I find myself constantly thinking–oh shit, yeah, I experienced that, and this person knows what they’re talking about; I wish I had known that two years ago! How is it possible that I missed all of these things in the past?
Being there–in the arena–gives you the clarity of experience; it’s a sixth sense that is the ability to know which pieces of advice are important. Unfortunately, the most important lessons you can learn from people with experience tend to be things you don’t think are important until you have experience. Choose investors based on how well you get along with them, they probably said. Don’t be indecisive with product feature choices, they probably said.
But I ignored those things, because I didn’t have the experience to know that they were important.