Are generalists or specialists better startup founders?

We undoubtedly live in a world of ever-increasing hyperspecialization. The benefits of being a specialist rather than a generalist have become more than apparent since Henry Ford innovated the production line. However, the trend towards specialization is much older.

In ancient times, most intellectuals (mostly philosophers) were scholars. But as knowledge accumulates and the complexity of each field increases, it becomes increasingly difficult to be informed and to understand all branches deeply enough to be competent and productive.

Consequently, most modern professionals specialize in very limited areas of expertise and true generalists are extremely rare.

The effects of this trend are fully at work in the field of tech startups. Founders often specialize in particular technologies or markets, giving them the in-depth knowledge needed to lead an industry to innovate effectively.

Still, being a startup founder is one of the last remaining jobs that forces you to be a generalist as well.

The first reason for this is that early in the life of a project you usually don’t have the resources needed to hire specialists for each specific need of your startup. You would have to do a lot of diverse work on your own, which means gaining different knowledge and different practical start-up skills. If you don’t, you risk making your project too dependent on outside help at an early stage.

You should have a decent understanding of sales and marketing, financial planning and reporting, product research and development, technical skills applicable to your project and of course – domain knowledge.

That said, there is a second, less intuitive, but equally important reason why it helps to be a generalist. It goes without saying that startups depend on innovation, and innovation requires creativity. Having a broad knowledge makes it much easier to be creative.

In the 1990s, neuroscientist Kevin Dunbar tried to understand how scientific discoveries are made in practice. In a longitudinal analysis from numerous research labs, he determined which could produce new knowledge – a scientific breakthrough – by taking advantage of unexpected results (anomalies).

He found that the most inventive labs were those that used various analogies from other scientific fields with the subject in question. The teams in the experiment turned out to be less innovative if they were more specialized.

This finding is very useful when it comes to building creative startup teams as a whole, but it also applies to founders. As a generalist (ideally with various hands-on experience) you could apply the mental models and practices from different disciplines to your project, which would help you make your startup not only new, but also effectively innovative.

As your project becomes more successful and grows, you will have to do much less specialized work alone because you can hire people who are much better specialists than you. However, what you should always do is integrate the unique knowledge of all aspects of your business to make optimal decisions.

To do this, you need to generate an impressive array of theoretical knowledge and practical competence, not typical of our modern world.

“You have people walking around with all of humanity’s knowledge on their phones, but they have no idea how to integrate it.” – David Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

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