Why Experience is Overrated

Last Updated Feb 28, 2011 8:27 PM EST

Why Experience is OverratedThis may be one of the great reversals of all time, but in a few seconds, I'm going to say something I never thought I'd say. Here it comes.
Experience is overrated.

That's a big change coming from me. I mean, I wrote Power Comes From Experience and, in the Top 10 Pitfalls of Inexperienced Management Teams, said, "In light of [the pitfalls], you'd almost be tempted to avoid inexperienced entrepreneurs and executives."

But wait; the big caveat came in the next sentence, "But that, my friend, would be a mistake. Anecdotally speaking, those with experience don't necessarily do any better than their novice counterparts. I guess experience has its own pitfalls."

And therein lies the rub. With all the value that experience brings, the evidence supporting experience as a key ingredient to business or management success simply isn't there. And if you think this is limited to entrepreneurs, founding CEOs, or any particular generation, industry, or discipline, I've got five reasons that say you're wrong.

5 Reasons Why Experience is Overrated
  1. Hundreds of highly successful companies were founded and run by inexperienced entrepreneurs-turned CEOs. Bill Gates was 21 when he founded Microsoft that, as CEO, he grew to be the most valuable technology company in the world. Then there's Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and hundreds of other technology stories going back decades.
  2. Virtually every major Interrnet company was founded and, in many cases, run by young, inexperienced entrepreneurs. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is 26. Groupon CEO Andrew Mason is 29. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were both in their late 20s when they founded Google. The same is true of Yahoo's founders, Jerry Yang and David Filo, and YouTube's founders Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim. Pierre Omidyar was 28 when he founded eBay.
  3. The phenomenon is far from industry-specific. Richard Branson started Virgin Records at 22. His empire, Virgin Group, is now in dozens of industries, from air travel to soft drinks, with revenues of $18 billion. Likewise, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was 28 when he co-founded PayPal.
  4. The concept doesn't appear to be specific to any generation, either. Baby Boomer, Gen-X, Gen-Y, there are dozens of famous examples of each and hundreds of names you've never heard of. The one thing they all have in common is that they had little experience when they founded their companies and many went on to become successful CEOs.
  5. Anecdotally speaking, the phenomenon doesn't appear to be limited to entrepreneurs and executives, either. Come to think of it, I've worked with hundreds of professionals who were short on experience but long on talent in engineering, marketing, sales, finance, HR, pretty much any discipline you can think of.
Bottom line. What all this means is that talented people with limited experience may have the same probability of being successful in their jobs as those with more experience. So using experience as a hiring and promoting criteria might be a big mistake in some, if not most, cases. If you're surprised to hear that, join the club. I'm just as surprised to be saying it. But it appears to be true.
Follow Steve Tobak on Twitter or Facebook
Image: Andrew Feinberg via Flickr

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