Why Personal Experience is the Only Experience that Matters

You can’t learn how to swim by reading a book; you have to get your feet wet and flail around until every body part is in sync. The same concept applies to entrepreneurship. No matter how many conferences you attend or books you read, the only way to succeed is by jumping in, failing, and applying your knowledge the next time around.

Most entrepreneurs understand this sentiment all too well. In fact, Harvard Business School found that only 18 percent of first-time entrepreneurs succeed. While multiple factors contribute to a startup’s success or failure, Statistic Brain traced many of these back to inadequate knowledge.

With my first startup, I made every mistake in the book. I even avoided these pitfalls in my second startup, and it still didn’t work out. Not until my third try did I strike the right balance with a winning idea, team, and plan.

Happy entrepreneur

Through these trials and errors, I discovered five crucial entrepreneurial skills that you can only acquire through personal experience:

1. Persuasion

Behind every successful entrepreneur is a natural salesperson. From day one, you’ll be selling your idea to investors, the press, early employees, and partners. But don’t mistake this for a stereotypical sales rep role; you have to be authentic, credible, and knowledgeable — as well as a great storyteller — to win over these audiences. The good news is that this is a talent you can cultivate.

2. Tenacity

With a team of starry-eyed hopefuls behind you, it’s exciting to lead your team at the beginning. But once reality sets in — dwindling cash flow or waning market traction — things can quickly change. Not everyone will be committed for the long haul.

Motivating your team members to persevere is one of your core responsibilities as a founder. It takes a relentless attitude to lead by example and go through the ups and downs, pivots, and shake-ups of an early startup. No book can perfectly capture the fear and hopelessness a founder faces when his young company might not survive. Only once you’ve experienced the lowest lows can you find the strength to lead yourself and your team through unexplored territory with confidence.

Business teamwork

3. Delegation

Having the ability to delegate doesn’t mean you can pass along undesirable tasks. To be a great delegator, you have to recognize your own blind spots and find the right people to fill the voids. By acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses, you can recruit people who complement your skills to develop a well-rounded team.

Once you master an early task of the business, whether that’s selling, marketing, or engineering, replace yourself. Someone with more experience can bring a fresh perspective to the table, and handing over the reins allows you to focus on bigger objectives.

4. The Ability to Accept Criticism

No one enjoys hearing negative feedback, but great entrepreneurs actively look for it. By welcoming others’ opinions, you can nurture and grow an imperfect idea into something innovative. Seek honest feedback, and pay attention if multiple people point out the same issue or concern.

The first version of my current business was ugly and basic. That pushed me to go out and talk to prospects with a sales deck that I’d refine after every meeting. Being open to criticism led my team to the right product, customer, and market plan.

5. A Focus on Continuous Learning

Many startups fail because they cling to a core belief without testing it. But without continuous learning and refining, you won’t arrive at an idea that delights your audience.

When my first startup failed because my partners and I didn’t measure risk, we learned firsthand how painful it is to invest a couple of years in an unproven idea. We made sure to test our ideas the second time around and vowed never to make that mistake again.

When starting a company, you should constantly look for new ways to expand your knowledge base. Learning how to program will teach you how to think; writing essays can help you better organize your thoughts. If you dabble in a performance art like acting, music, or comedy, you’ll become a better presenter.

Despite my laundry list of mistakes, I wouldn’t change a thing. Without putting in the legwork, learning valuable lessons the hard way, and adjusting my techniques, I would never have arrived where I am today. Approach every crossroad as an opportunity to learn and improve — in time, you’ll find the sweet spot for entrepreneurial success.