Achievements Outweigh Education and Experience

by Tim Knox
Copyright © 2005

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Q: When it comes to succeeding in business, which do you think is more important: education or experience?
-- Regina M.

A: Regina, have you seen the television show, Fear Factor? If you haven't seen it you've probably heard about it. Fear Factor is the show where they put contestants through all sorts of pseudo-death defying feats like bungee jumping off a bridge over a pool of crocodiles and driving a car through a wall of fire (you know, the stuff we did for fun in high school).

The contestant who overcomes their personal fear factor wins the cash and prizes (usually at the cost of their dignity, but I digress).

The highlight of Fear Factor is the eating competition. That's when contestants are invited to partake of all sorts of culinary fare. Yummy stuff like monkey brains, all manner of live bugs and spiders, moose intestines, old fruitcake (the horror!), and my personal favorite, live giant worms. At this point the competition becomes not so much who can overcome their fear actor, but who has the lowest gag reflex.

Your question makes me feel a little like those contestants, Regina, because no matter how I answer I am opening a can of giant worms that I will undoubtedly be forced to eat later.

My highly educated peers will argue that education is much more important than experience, while my highly experienced peers will argue that experience is more important. Either way, it's worms ala carte for me.

Oh well, I've eaten more than my share of crow over the years.

How much worse can worms be?

It's important to understand that the success of an entrepreneur is not measured by how much education he or she has or how many years of experience are under his or her belt. An entrepreneur's success is measured by achievements, not words on a resume.

By definition, an entrepreneur is a risk-taking businessperson: someone who sets up and finances new commercial enterprises to make a profit. Entrepreneurs start businesses. The smart ones then hire MBAs to run them.

Let's start with education. Is a Bachelor's degree or better required to succeed in business? Of course not. An MBA from Harvard might give you a leg up in a job interview, but it certainly doesn't guarantee that you will succeed in business. Nor does it automatically mean that you will be a better business person than someone who didn't finish high school. Knowledge is a good thing - if you know what to do with it.

Perhaps it is the academic environment itself that turns mere mortal nerds into budding entrepreneurs. The late '90s proved that college students with no experience beyond organizing a frat keg party could start businesses that would exceed all expectations.

Many would argue that the key to success for most of these ventures was that the founders (or the VC financing them) were smart enough to know that while they had an abundance of education, they needed experienced managers to really run the show.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin were college students when they started the company that would become Google. They were smart enough to bring in Eric Schmidt to be chairman and CEO when the business took off. Schmidt was the former CEO of Novell and CTO of Sun Microsystems. A PhD, Schmidt is a man of education and experience.

Jerry Yang and David Filo were candidates in Electrical Engineering at Stanford when they started YAHOO (Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle) in 1994. They brought in Tim Koogle from Motorola to run things shortly thereafter and now the company is led by Terry Semel, who previously spent 24 years running Warner Bros.

Now on to experience. Is experience a prerequisite of business success? Again, not at all. Many experienced entrepreneurs gained their experience in failed businesses, so experience does not instantly translate to success.

So, when it comes to succeeding in business, which is more important: education or experience? While neither is as helpful as a rich relative, here's the answer that will hopefully help me avoid those worms: Both education and experience can play a large part in business success.

The more important question is can you succeed in business without one or the other, or even without both? And the answer to that one is: yes. Can I get ketchup with those worms?

Many successful businesses were started by first time entrepreneurs who never went to college. Natural talent, ambition, drive, determination, and good old dumb luck have fueled many success entrepreneurs, myself included. I don't have a degree (I drove past a college once. It looked hard, so I kept going). Would a degree have helped make my business trek easier? Perhaps.

Then again, I know people with advanced degrees who are flipping burgers at McDonalds. It's good experience, I suppose.

A combination of education and experience (and a variety of other things) is the best recipe for success. As the old saying goes, "There is no better education than that which comes from experience."

In the end, it really doesn't matter how much education, experience, talent, luck or money you have. It's what you do with it that matters.

Here's to your success.

Tim Knox, Founder For more information on starting your own online business.


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