Defining Domain Expertise

What it means to be an expert in the context of starting a company

In the third lecture of the How To Start a Startup series Paul Graham said something that made be second guess my ambition to start a company:

The component of entrepreneurship that really matters is domain expertise. The way to become Larry Page was to become an expert on search.

I’m not an “expert” in anything. I don’t speak on panels. I don’t have a published book. No years of research or study. I imagine many other young people following the How To Start A Startup series perhaps felt the same way. Its difficult to be an expert when you’re not even 23 years old.

Yet, there are many great examples of young founders who have created huge companies. In fact, Paul Graham has invested in many of them. Was Brian Chesky an expert in the travel industry? Was Patrick Collison an expert in web payments infrastructure? Was Adora Cheung an expert in cleaning services?

None of these founders were experts in the traditional sense of the word. No years in industry, no published books or research papers. Yet they are each CEO of some of the fastest growing tech companies in the world. Paul Graham’s example of Larry Page is perhaps an extreme case because at the time Larry really was an academic studying the field of search. For the other 99% of businesses that are not Google, it seems the definition of expert can be relaxed.

Perhaps having domain expertise, in the context of founding a company, simply means knowing your customers really well. Knowing the pain points. Knowing the opportunities. Knowing how and where the experience can be improved. Using this definition, gaining domain expertise seems like a less crippling challenge.

In the early days of AirBnb, Brian Chesky would stay in many of the listed rooms on the site in order to speak to customers. Adora Cheung joined a professional cleaning company for a few weeks to understand the industry she was entering. Patrick Collison answered customer service calls non-stop in order to listen to customers problems. In their own way, these founders each became experts in their domain.

There are many ways to achieve domain expertise. For Larry Page it was a PHD at Stanford but for many others it was speaking to customers, doing customer support calls or taking a new job for a few weeks. I look forward to hearing about the many other ways young founders became an expert in their domain before building a company.

Thanks for reading. Have you heard of any other novel ways to become a domain expert? I would love to hear them @stevanpopo.  If you enjoyed this post, you can also recommend it on Medium