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What are you uniquely qualified for?

By Michael Skok, Co-Founding Partner, Underscore VC
There is always something you’re uniquely qualified to do. After all, each of us is unique in some way. And it literally starts from birth, so it’s exciting to stop and think about what that set us up to do successfully.
The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
-Mark Twain
As an investor, I'm always looking for people who are uniquely qualified to address the problem or opportunity they are going after. And it’s obvious why; it gives you an advantage over the next person who might come along to compete with you. But you might be surprised what I think qualifies for a great entrepreneur, and it might help you ask the question for yourself. What are you uniquely qualified for?
There’s no one answer, of course, and that's good because there are a myriad of possibilities based on who you are and what opportunities you see! I do feel, however, that there are some key attributes worth thinking through that will help you filter and screen.
Start by separating your experience from your ability, attitude, aptitude. And think of other key attributes, which I'll try to highlight throughout this piece.

Experience

When experience holds you back . . .

How many times have you heard things like, “we’ve always done it this way” or, “we’re used to this” or, “in my last job we did…” This can be great for rote tasks, but experience can get in the way when new challenges and opportunities present themselves.
For startups who want to make real breakthroughs, the key word in breakthrough is "break". And if you really break stuff, you should find yourself in unchartered territory where experience could actually hinder you!
Just this last week when invited to one of my company’s product offsites, I found myself needing to be quiet as I saw young talented people, uninhibited by experience, at work inventing the future. And when one young woman who is a rising star told me afterward that she feared her inexperience, I laughed and told her I feared stifling her creativity!
The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented
-Dennis Gabor, Nobel Physicist

When experience is essential…

Obviously if you’ve been working in a job or sector for a long time and your experience has built up to give you a special vantage point it can be a great distinction. The really can set you up for success, and in some instances, there’s no substitute for it such as in a specialized domain. I'm a big believer in pairing experience with fresh youthful thinking in my investments, but the key is enabling and empowering them both.
For example, I'm lucky enough to work on a board with a team that has spent their lives in the complex Telco space. They've engineered some of the most complex equipment that has to operate at carrier grade, with 5 nines reliability to attract big customers like AT&T. If you're reading this on your phone, there's a good chance the data that brought it to you travelled thorough some of their inventions. This is not a space that I’d recommend a first time entrepreneur tackle.
Without deep experience of both how to solve their problems and how to manage the complex sales process, you're at a major disadvantage. They too, however, are also learning as the industry is being disrupted by the cloud. So even here we have to be careful not to assume anything based on past experience, and one of the reasons this team will win again is that they recognize this and are bringing in fresh thinkers to challenge them.

1 in a Million?

In another example, the story is even more nuanced. For several years, I’ve been working with a brilliant innovator and entrepreneur who has literally spent his whole professional life building the largest open source project on the planet. Over a million people are involved today. Yet when he first started his project, he had zero experience, and open source itself wasn’t widespread, so there wasn’t much to study from, and experts were mostly self-proclaimed.
Indeed, I originally followed his work because I was still trying to learn myself. Furthermore, the project itself was creating a new market where no one could really have had much ability to predict the potential. (He recently told me that looking back, his “lack of experience” in that market was an advantage as he was not constrained or daunted by competitive approaches.) That’s again where other attributes come in. He for example shows vision, curiosity, humility, and many other great traits suited to leadership and entrepreneurship.

Ability

In my experience, everyone has a unique ability of some sort; whether it’s problem solving or seeing things differently or building relationships. We all have innate abilities or develop personal skills based on our environment. And the role of a great organization is to recognize or uncover and polish these gems. Then place them where they can be most impactful, fully appreciated and rewarded. All the while complementing others on the team. This is also where the role of mentorship can be so important. Great mentors and coaches help uncover not only people's abilities, but their passions, potential, and of course attributes.

Attitude, Aptitude and Other Key Attributes

Early in my career I gave a chance to an 18 year old who was part of a team I was acquiring in one of my first businesses. I had very little experience myself, being in my early 20s. So it was pretty much the blind leading the blind! But I recognized in him some of the same attributes that drove me; in particular, he was hungry, with a very positive attitude. He also possessed something I never had, a natural confidence that I admired and saw would be perfect in sales, and we started him in telesales.
He quickly became one of the most successful inside sales people, and then in outside sales he went on to become the top salesperson at Symantec for five straight years as the business went public, and soared through hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue. During this time we kept promoting him until it was obvious that because of his aptitude, whatever job we challenged him to, he would rise to the top. And even as the business itself scaled he outran us and became a great entrepreneur himself and is now the CEO of a an exciting growing and global security business with top tier investors behind him.
I could tell this story for many of the great people and teams I’ve been lucky enough to work with. All of whom I’d be overjoyed to back over and over again, and not because of the experience they had but because of the attitude or aptitude or other key attributes that they showed. Particularly a hunger to learn, grow and make a difference. And just to keep it real, I’ll also say that those that appeared to “fail” at some point often had the last laugh as they proved that it was just learning, and went on to do bigger and better things. They usually showed two of my other favorite attributes in combination: Passion and Persistence. So even if you can’t figure out what you’re uniquely qualified to do yet . . . remember there’s .
But what can you do to be smart about your learning? Even if you're not an entrepreneur, start by looking at your “self”.

Self awareness and self respect - 3 reasons we need them...

Even if you don’t have self confidence yet, develop self awareness and self respect for at least three reasons.
The key is to learn and know your abilities so you find alignment with the opportunity to apply them, and you need to respect yourself and your abilities before you expect anyone else to do the same.
To team with others it’s vital to understand who can complement you and vice versa.
Last, but often most importantly, know your principles and values, so you can find a cultural fit. this is too often overlooked and in many instances is the key to sustaining a real connection for an enduring role.
As an investor, I’m lucky enough to see amazing founders all the time who are off the charts in some ability or other, but the best of them have developed their self awareness to realize what they need. Money is usually the last thing they care about, and a close second is advice. And if that’s why people approach me, my guard is way up. Great entrepreneurs cut their own path and want a fellow explorer for the journey, so in everything I do with them I try to leave room for them to use their unique qualities as I've described above.
Hire and promote first on the basis of integrity; second, motivation; third, capacity; fourth, understanding; fifth, knowledge; and last and least, experience. Without integrity, motivation is dangerous; without motivation, capacity is impotent; without capacity, understanding is limited; without understanding, knowledge is meaningless; without knowledge, experience is blind. Experience is easy to provide and quickly put to good use by people with all the other qualities." -
-Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of the VISA credit card association
From all this I’ve found that everyone is uniquely qualified for something. I encourage you to fully explore, enjoy and celebrate whoever you are. It will help you find what's right for you. And don’t feel it’s got to be perfect - just keep fearlessly learning. These days that’s the only thing I know I’m uniquely qualified to do, as I now realize that the older I get the more I have to learn - and I love it!
You are not 1 in a million. You are 1 in 8 billion!
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