How to start a business as a generalist

specialist and generalist

Starting a business as a generalist can be tricky. I got asked this question on Quora a while back. What do you do if you are not particularly good at anything? If you are not a specialist, how do you decide which industry to work in? Jack of all trades, master of none?

Here is a breakdown of what it means to be a generalist vs a specialist, and how to start a business as a generalist.

Generalist vs specialist

A specialist is a person who is focused on perfecting their craft. It can be in any industry: music, medicine, photography, and so on. These days on social media everyone preaches that:

1. One should learn a highly specialised skill.

2. Become the best at it.

3. You will then be in demand as that known “specialist”.

On the other hand, a generalist is someone who has a range of skills which they do not specialise in. Generalists are chronic multitaskers, and often a generalist ends up managing teams of specialists.

Unlike a specialist, a generalist simply does not have the patience or interest to perfect one craft for the rest of their life. It has become increasingly difficult for any person to focus on one subject matter/interest with the rise of internet in the late 90’s/early 2000’s and social media in 2010’s. On a daily basis individuals are bombarded with success stories from different industries, exponentially increasing amount of content and get-rich quickly schemes.

If one manages to beat the above temptations, there is still no guarantee that they will be able to specialise in one field. A generalist (just like a specialist) has their own strengths and weaknesses.

Advantages and disadvantages of being a specialist

A generalist is forever searching for the next interesting project. Today A may be managing a manufacturing plant in Manchester, and tomorrow they end up in New York, where they study to become a stock broker. A year later, they are blogging from Asia.

Generalists are in a constant state of movement. A generalist who wants to start a business would find it harder than a specialist, because of the abundance of choice.

Unlike a specialist, a generalist would also find it more difficult to find a co-founder. Co-founders usually compliment each other’s skills. A generalist might claim to be a jack of all trades, but they would need to narrow that down to convince another person (a specialist) to join them.

Having said that, having multiple skills as a newborn founder is a must. Hence why generalists are better positioned to start and run a startup than a specialist. A master coder may be great at creating the product. However, if they don’t learn sales, marketing, management and other similar skills, they won’t build a successful business.

A generalist may seem all over the place when they start the business. Reading blogs about marketing, selling to customers on the phone and figuring out the product/market fit. However, over time, a generalist can overtake a specialist, by learning about all of the above areas.

A generalist may not become great at every single one of those skills that a founder needs. However, learning about them would help a generalist hire the right people for the job and track their progress.

As a generalist, you can speak the same tongue as specialists in different areas, which would make you an invaluable bridge between different departments in your company. You can also serve as a “link” between a specialist-designed product and the market. A specialist might find it difficult to connect with the general public when advertising their invention. This is where a generalist can step in.

Here are some things a generalist should keep in mind when starting a company.

Choosing your niche

Don’t waste too much time planning and deciding which industry to pick. If you are a generalist, you will have a tendency to live in a fantasy world for as long as possible, dreaming about the next Facebook/Google that you will build. No business can be built big right away. Start small. If you already work in a particular industry, or you find yourself reading/watching the same types of books/videos, then try your hand at the things you enjoy.

However, the key here is starting as soon as possible. Any idea is great in your head, until it isn’t in practice.

Managing your time as a generalist founder

Starting a business as a generalist means multitasking, however that could also mean working on multiple ideas at the same time. Paul Genberg whom I connected with on LinkedIn had a great insight when it came to this (you can checkout his article on “the value of being a generalist“).

“Chunk your time on a weekly/daily/hourly basis to make sure you are “monotasking” and not “multitasking”. I.e. allow different parts of the week to be dedicated to one particular task/job. Don’t try to do it all at once, or in a row. Generalists have a tendency to burn out. If you don’t see results right away, you will become disgruntled with the idea too early, even if it is a great one.

Monotask, don’t multitask.

Find the right specialist co-founder

A generalist works best alongside a specialist. Two generalists or two specialists can make things work. However, Steve Jobs – an undeniable generalist worked best with Wozniak, a brilliant specialist, when they launched Apple.

As a generalist who is starting a business it is your job to quickly identify areas you are not great at. Pick one or two of those that are essential to your company’s survival and find specialists who can do the job 10x better than you. Finding a co-founder is not easy, but it is also key to success.

If you are a lone wolf, you can still succeed when starting a business. However, keep in mind that that would severely limit your options for expansion and growth.

In conclusion

Starting a business as a generalist is just as hard as starting it as a specialist. These three key points should be kept in mind to avoid failure:

  1. Pick a niche and start as soon as possible.
  2. Monotask don’t multitask.
  3. Find a co-founder who is a Wozniak to your Jobs.

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