Domain Experts and Operators: The Role They Each Play in a Startup



Recently, I wrote about domain experience. While having domain experience is not the end all be all for launching a successful startup, it can give you an “unfair advantage,” as Mark Suster put it, over those without such experience. What I failed to mention though is that just because you have expertise does not mean you have expertise in operating a business.

There are plenty of people that develop deep expertise over the course of their career. If you spend any amount of time in an industry, putting in at least a modicum of effort, chances are you will acquire competency. By competency, I mean displaying confidence in utilizing a variety of skills built upon a base of knowledge honed by daily application. Thus, for the work you were and are engaged in, you can do the work at a consistent level to produce a quality work product. In short, you know your shit.

The skills one learns in the course of gaining domain expertise, however, are not the same skills needed to start and build a company. In fact, these skill sets are rarely present in the same person. It is no different than the dilemma faced by highly skilled coders who can write a program to do just about anything, yet would get lost in reading through contracts or flub a sales pitch or hire the wrong people. They know the language of machines, but not the language of business. Just so it is clear that I am not picking on techies, there are plenty of newly minted MBA’s that are equally clueless when it comes to launching a business. Yet they can usually put together a mean PowerPoint presentation or write a nice looking fifty-page business plan.

The people that start businesses are what I call operators and some might call hustlers. They do not necessarily have ideas, they do not come with a deep wellspring of knowledge, and they may not overwhelm you with their intellectual firepower. What they do possess, however, is an insanely stubborn focus on execution and a no holds barred desire to win. They find a way to get the deal signed, to hire the most sought after talent, to pull a partnership together, to get around the obstacles, and to keep the whole ship together. They lead the strategy but they also roll up the sleeves to get down to the details. In a nutshell, the operator is relentless execution machine.

If you are the domain expert, do you have what it takes to be the operator as well? When the two are in the same person, you have a formidable entrepreneur that has the idea, the knowledge, the relationships, and a strong bias towards getting stuff done. As I mentioned though, it is an extremely rare combination of skills. If you do not have that operations orientation that is not a cause for concern as it is not an uncommon situation in early startups that are more led by vision. At some point, however, once the startup gains a bit of traction, you would be well served to find someone that can be your operator. That does not mean replacing yourself as CEO, but to find a second in command, say a Chief Operating Officer, that can run the ship in your steed while you focus on product and strategy. Over time you can gain more experience and confidence in the operational details, which I highly recommend getting a handle on, especially given the investor predilection for replacing founders (which almost never works out well).

The point is domain expertise is an important advantage that entrepreneurs can bring to the table. However, it is not the only thing or even that important a factor in successfully launching a startup. You need vision and passion and relentless execution more than deep knowledge or experience. As you contemplate your own entrepreneurial journey, do you and your team have the right combination of skill and motivation to march forward?

This article was originally publishing on Strong Opinions, a blog by Birch Ventures for the NYC tech startup community.

Image credit: CC by Official U.S. Navy Page


About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

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