What Is the Value of Experience as an Entrepreneur?

A while back, I was asked to participate on a panel to speak about entrepreneurialism and evaluate business proposals prepared by college students enrolled in the Bachelors of Innovation program at a local college. The request got me thinking – what could I, a person with no formal academic education, offer to a college student who has attended nearly 4 years of higher education immersed in business and entrepreneurialism? The answer is real-world business experience.

I thought about my own personal business history in an effort to carve out a unique lesson to share. While thinking, a rather profound idea surfaced that I personally believe gets to the heart of small business success- and that can’t be taught in any school.

In nearly every other language besides English, the idea “to know” is described by at least two different verbs based on how the knowledge was gained and the depth of one’s understanding.

In German, there is “Wissenschaft,” which is knowledge gained through secondhand sources, such as through reading a manual or textbook or perhaps listening to a lecture. Then there is “Kenntnis,” which is knowledge gained through firsthand personal experiences.

To amplify this point, Wissenschaft knowledge is like reading a recipe from a cookbook, then looking at the pictures of the finished dish and trying to commit it to memory for recall when you need it later. Kenntnis knowledge is where you would actually prepare the dish to internalize the procedures and techniques necessary to prepare it. By physically preparing the dish, you create a deeper degree of understanding that can more easily be recalled and applied to future recipes, adding to your general understanding of cooking as a whole.

As I reflect on my own personal real-world business experience, I learned about budgeting, finance, and managing people by doing it at a Fortune 500 company. I began as an individual contributor and worked my way up the corporate ladder to line supervisor, then cost center manager, and finally, site manager.

While still employed at this company, I indulged my entrepreneurial spirit by operating an Invisible Fencing franchise where I learned about marketing and salesmanship. While I made many mistakes operating the Invisible Fencing business (which ultimately was not a successful venture for me), none of my mistakes were financially catastrophic since I still had my day job. In essence, this failed step was just another slug of firsthand business experience.

When the time came to leave my corporate job behind and step out on my own, my Kenntnis real-world business experience created a sound knowledge structure that helped paved the way for my future small business success.

The takeaway is not that secondhand Wissenschaft knowledge is bad, but that knowledge gained by actual Kenntnis experience is absolutely vital to business success.

Therefore, I suggest to my clients that have no real firsthand business experience to experiment with a small or non-employer-based business with low startup costs, such as an internet, e-commerce, or service-type business, before launching their ultimate passion business.

Another lesson that I’m acutely aware of and have shared is related to forced learning vs self-directed learning. As college students enrolled in the Bachelors of Innovation program, they were subjected to what I would consider forced learning based on the course curriculum. The content of their classwork was not self-directed but defined by their instructors and represented theory and concepts that are difficult to internalize without real prior Kenntnis experiences to apply them to.

Second-hand Wissenschaft knowledge delivered through college courses, workshops, or books addresses many topics that the recipient of the information did not actively select, and therefore, does not feed their natural curiosity and complement the knowledge they already possess or see as valuable at the time. As Kelly McGrath explained in “A Vision for Every Student: Exploration-Based Learning”, a lack of active, explorative engagement in the subject matter allows students to lose concentration and focus.

I teach a course developed by SCORE on how to start a business. The course includes a series of slides that discuss the pros and cons of different ways of getting into business. The vast majority of students in the workshops want to start a for-profit business from scratch. Forcing students to hear the pros and cons of buying a business or what they need to know about forming a non-profit fall on deaf ears, as the content is not relevant to what they want to learn. The result is that they lose concentration and focus. Moreover, it is a waste of their valuable time which could be used to explore more meaningful content.

Courses, workshops, and books are full of content that is not relevant to the student or reader based on where they are in their own personal journey or their prior knowledge, so they check out mentally when these irrelevant topics are discussed. They are forced to endure hearing or reading content that has no interest or value to them. While delivering generic and watered-down content is efficient from the perspective of the sender, it is not efficient at all from the perspective of the receiver.

Additionally, self-directed learning, as opposed to forced-learning, forces a person to construct a proper query in an attempt to conduct their own research when faced with complex problems. Being engaged in the process of doing one’s own research to discover evidence and create arguments to reach conclusions is another valuable problem-solving experience necessary to be a successful entrepreneur. Rather than passively hearing about another person’s experience, the real-world Kenntnis experience of actively researching a topic of interest to discover its different facets and running mini-experiments to test and expand their knowledge is the basis of the lean startup method.

Firsthand Kenntnis knowledge gained through real-world business experience will become the structural framework that all learned knowledge (some gained through Wissenschaft) can be built upon. The takeaway is to build a solid basis of Kenntnis knowledge through firsthand real-world business experiences before you dive into the deep end of the pool and start your passion business.

Do you have real-world business experience gained through Kenntnis?