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📖 The Beginner Mindset (6 min read)

This week I was reminded of the importance of the beginner mindset in entrepreneurship. The punchline
📖 The Beginner Mindset (6 min read)
By Phil Hayes-St Clair • Issue #54 • View online
This week I was reminded of the importance of the beginner mindset in entrepreneurship. The punchline is that you don’t need domain expertise to start a business but you do have to acquire it and fast. Here’s how I think about the beginner mindset and I hope it helps you too.
Also, this week I spoke with Sidney Minassian on his new Sales Native podcast (scroll down!). Sidney is creating a terrific set of resources for anyone who sells as part of their job and I encourage you to take a look.
Have a great week!
- Phil

The Beginner Mindset
Lego. Where most of us begin making...
Lego. Where most of us begin making...
The beginner mindset is an essential belief system for entrepreneurs.
It’s equal parts naivety, courage and vision.
Add a ‘do what it takes’ attitude and this mix is often responsible for why entrepreneurs attack problems in industries they have no experience in.
The punchline is that deep domain expertise is not a prerequisite for building a great company. Entrepreneurs know this and first-time founders should know it too.
History is littered with examples where the founder didn’t have the domain or technical expertise in the beginning that you would expect them to have given the business they built. Just look at Apple.
When I think back to my first business, I had the knowledge of a scientist and that of a soldier. I had no domain expertise. And in every business since the only real layer of knowledge that has been added to science and soldiering is how to build businesses.
While being naive, having a big vision and being courageous (to start a new business after one that failed) is essential, the capacity for learning is usually what makes or breaks entrepreneurs.
The learning superpower
The lead indicator I look at in determining the future success of an entrepreneur is their rate of learning. The higher their rate of learning, the higher the quality of their decision making.
When a founder enters a new domain the beginner mindset puts their rate of learning to the test.
This happens in two dimensions.
The first is that they need to acquire as much knowledge as possible to understand market dynamics, navigate incumbents and capture the opportunity.
The second dimension involves tracking the knowledge of the team you build to supplement your deficiencies in domain expertise. 
The point here isn’t that you need to know exactly what your team know. You need to know enough to maintain high-quality decision making (and this usually means you need to know a fair bit of what they know).
6 tactics to accelerate learning when you’re a beginner
1. Maintain a ‘grow the pie’ mindset
I’ve often found that the term ‘disruption’ inspires binary behaviours. Entrepreneurs are often doing the disrupting and if they are not creating an entirely new product category they perceived to be people determined to dismantle or reorganise an industry.
If, on the other hand, you are part of an industry being disrupted, there’s a good chance you’ll be part of an effort to defend value that’s been created.
There are few winners in this scenario.
The alternative is maintaining a ‘grow the pie’ mindset. This might not remain the prevailing mindset as the business grows but if you don’t start this way, you will miss insight that will be important to the future success of your business model.
2. Find the talkers
I have learned a significant amount as a beginner by listening to people who just wanted to talk.
And there are few people who love to talk more about their work than veterans whose livelihood is a byproduct of their standing in their industry.
They have such conviction in their industries future that they will speak from a place of authority that at times can be borderline condescending.
I’ve found these people to quite happily lay out playbooks and existing processes in meticulous detail. For the most part, they are happy to do this because they do not view you as any kind of threat.
3. Identify canaries in the mine
The analogue of a canary in a mine are people who become allies and advisors to your business.
They are also industry veterans. They may have moved on or they may still be trying to champion change internally. In any case, they are prepared to be honest about the innovation their industry could enjoy and benefit from.
They also know what needs to change and will provide early warning if you’re headed towards it. I can think of eight people who played these roles for Opher and me at AirShr. They were invaluable then and we’re good friends today.
4. Beware of the surface layer
Every business in every industry, old or new, presents an element of spin. In other words, what you see on the surface through websites, PR and initial meetings might appear elegant and well-organised but it’s important not to accept what you see on the surface.
Every business also has an engine room. It’s where design and manufacturing take place or where paperwork is processed. It’s where manual work is done. And it’s where entrepreneurs’ solutions become more complicated than originally expected.
Always look for the engine room from the beginning. It will save you an enormous amount of future lost time.
5. Look for transition incentives
These aren’t the incentives for the future. They are catalysts that will help people gain the conviction needed to move from today’s environment to the tomorrow’s paradigm.
This is probably one of the most difficult problems for entrepreneurs to solve. That’s because from the outset it’s hard to understand the relationships between all the incentives in play.
I’ve found that determining the financial and cultural incentives of people in organisations to be relatively straightforward. It’s the systems-level incentives which are often complex. In media, for example, there are relationships between content creators, agencies, distributors and advertisers that are opaque and ever-changing. The same is true for other mature industries.
The point is that continuously mapping and probing for transition incentives is an essential part of shifting a paradigm.
6. Have mentors
This is essential and I talk about it a lot (like here, here and here). The punchline: Don’t go it alone.
One last thing...
The beginner mindset is as important to entrepreneurs starting a new venture as it is to people undertaking wholesale professional or lifestyle reinvention.
You might be naive, courageous and full of vision but the key is how quickly you can learn.
I’ve come to rely on these six tactics to accelerate learning and I hope they help you too.
🎧 New Episode Available
If you’re in sales, I courage you to take a listen and more importantly, explore how Sidney works with entrepreneurs to elevate sales performance through his new venture, Sales Native. Highly recommended.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Phil Hayes-St Clair

My weekly diary of what I learn from building companies.

Family first. Serial entrepreneur. I share lessons on Youtube and on the Founder To Founder Podcast 🎧 - available everywhere you listen to podcasts.

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