Experts can save you 9,999 hours of pain
Don't make the mistake of not listening to experts. Columnist David Rodnitzky says that whether you're looking for a doctor or an SEM, you need to keep the "10,000 hours" of experience rule in mind.
A few weeks ago, I had an excruciating pain in the back of my head. I went to see a neurologist who diagnosed me with occipital neuralgia, which is basically a pinched nerve in your head. She prescribed a very specific medication that is clinically proven to reduce pain caused by the condition.
But I decided not to take the medication. Instead, I went onto Google, did a few searches for “head pain” and found a few chat boards which recommended stuff like boysenberry tea and fried bananas covered with fleur de sel. The commenters also suggested throwing some salt at a pigeon and buying green socks. Of course, I did those, too.
Okay, not really. I followed the doctor’s advice, got the prescription, and in less than 24 hours, the electric shocks in the back of my head were gone.
Now let me give you another story, one with a different ending. I recently met with a company that was hell-bent on building their own SEM (search engine marketing) bid management system for their e-commerce business. Oh, and they don’t have any SEM experts on staff, just very smart engineers.
I told the founder of the company I had deep doubts about this strategy. In my 16+ years of SEM experience, I had seen many companies try and fail to build in-house technology.
On top of that, there was great tech already out there that would cost a fraction of the price of an army of in-house engineers. And I noted that the few companies that did build successful tech did so with a combination of great engineers and in-house SEM pros.
The founder politely thanked me for the feedback but did not waver; he was confident that whatever missteps I had observed in the past would not happen at his company.
So what do a neurologist and I have in common? If you assume the average person works 2,000 hours a year, both the doctor and I meet Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” rule — the concept that you need that many hours of experience to truly become an expert.
Technology, medicine, transportation — all of these fields have advanced exponentially over the last couple of centuries because human experience can now be recorded (in books, in film, in photos) and distributed (printing presses, the internet, mobility). Society continues to evolve as we build upon an ever-increasing record of human trial and error.
Why we don’t listen to the voice of experience
And yet, we continue to make the fundamental mistake of not listening to the voice of experience. I think there are three primary reasons for this:
- Hubris. The average person thinks he isn’t overconfident, and this is especially so in fields like online marketing, where most practitioners have graduated from good colleges, often with challenging degrees. A lot of people in our field have been told they are geniuses their entire lives, so of course that means that the past experiences of others are not relevant to them!
- Greed. Many amazing entrepreneurs have succeeded by ignoring conventional wisdom. In other words, explicitly ignoring the experience of others can sometimes be the right decision and lead to incredible business success.
- Excitement. It’s fun to try to do something new or to solve a problem where so many others have previously failed.
Of these three reasons, the only one that is justified is greed. Business, after all, is about making money, so any decision that doesn’t have greed at its core is misguided.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that business should act without a moral compass and optimize only for money. For example, at my agency, we put a lot of emphasis on client and team satisfaction. Giving team members great perks at the office doesn’t directly drive revenue, but it does increase team retention and productivity, which eventually drives revenue.
People who make decisions based on greed generally quantify and test their assumptions. The correlation between free lunches at the office and team retention, the performance of online marketing before and after an agency was hired, the number of new clients signed after hiring a sales rep — all of these decisions are measurable.
By contrast, decisions based on hubris or excitement are made without quantifiable benchmarks. The entrepreneur who ignores experience because “his engineers are better” (as this founder told me) is not making a financial argument, but one based on confidence — most likely overconfidence.
Indeed, the best assumption to make is that your team is neither better nor worse than past teams that have tried to attack a given problem. (I am not even sure how one would go about measuring the relative strength of different teams anyway.)
In conversion rate optimization, there’s a decision-making process called HIPPO, the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. In other words, the boss ignores data and expertise and decides what landing page to run. The results are usually not pretty, but what do you expect when rationality is not the driving factor?
The point here is pretty simple: Whether you are talking to a doctor, a lawyer or a search engine marketer, experience matters. There are no short cuts to 10,000 hours. Ignoring the advice of an expert will often result in pain — sometimes to your head, sometimes to your bottom line.