The Early-Stage Specialized Generalist

A friend shared an interesting realization with me today. He had a generalist approach early in his career. He wasn’t someone who grew up saying I want to be an X when I grow up. He wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do, so he learned about a lot of things. He knew a lot about a lot of things but wasn’t an expert on anything. He wishes he’d known earlier what he knows now. He wishes he’d picked something and gone deep into it earlier. Eventually, he went deep and became a domain expert, and it’s served him extremely well.

Early-stage founders are operational generalists by necessity. Resources are too scant to do everything, so founder(s) fill a lot of gaps. They do sales, marketing, HR—whatever is needed. As revenue (or investor capital) increases, they begin to be able to afford help. Until then, they’re the glue holding everything together.

Founders need to be able to do multiple things in the business, but the great ones know their space cold. They have domain knowledge too. They’ve learned so much about a problem and market that they’re qualified to solve the problem better than others are.  They often have a unique insight that will make their solution superior.

If you’re a founder or considering becoming one, take the time to learn your space and your potential customers well so you can make early strategic decisions that set you up for long-term success. Also be ready to jump into areas that you know nothing about. Learning new things on the fly will be key to surviving those early days when you’re wearing multiple hats.