Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Should start ups be specialists or generalists?

I’ve spent a lot of my career flipping my mindset between thinking it’s better to be a specialist and do one thing really well or to be a generalist with a broad skill set. My recent experience of starting up Sneaking Duck Eyewear has led me to think more about this.

There are upsides and downsides to each - specialists stand more chance of being genuinely distinctive, but run the risk of being restrictively narrow. Generalists avoid this narrowness but risk becoming the ‘jack of all trades, but master of none’.

Starting up Sneaking Duck has stretched my personal generalist tendencies to the extreme - a single day might include accounting, prioritising strategic initiatives, customer service, copywriting, managing people and more. We get great customer feedback for everything from our product, pricing and customer service. I was therefore becoming convinced that being generalist was the better option.

But then I had an experience that made me stop in my tracks. It’s a bit random, but we needed a selection of nuts for a photoshoot. One of the team went to Coles but couldn’t really find what we wanted. The staff were well-intentioned and had top-level knowledge like where things were, but didn’t know the details. For example, they had no idea why whole walnuts were not available.

A bit of internet research suggested revealed a store called the Nut Shop. I dropped by on my cycle ride to work one day and what a contrast ! The store sold only nuts in all their forms. I asked the assistant about whole walnuts. Apparently she had spoken to the growers the previous day and that the weather was likely to be suitable for harvest later in the week, and therefore we should expect them to be in stock a few days after that - and would I like to order some. Wow! We got exactly what we needed and a whole lot more.

Whilst buying nuts is somewhat trivial part of my life and business, the experience made me think. If I want nuts now, I will certainly be straight on the phone to the Nut Shop and not head to Coles. Their specialist nature means they offer a vastly superior product and service to the generalist. It set me thinking that being a specialist was perhaps the better option - becoming the absolute best in a more narrow field is more compelling in the long-run.

What are your views - is it better for start ups to be specialist or generalist?

Image credit - Specialist Einstein and generalist Franklin


  1. I think "specialist or generalist" is a false dichotomy. There is a spectrum from generalisation to specialisation and whether or not it's a good idea for a company to service a niche at a given level of specialisation depends on the market size.

    I doubt you'll find a Nut Shop outlet in Albury, for example.

    As a startup *founder* it's important to be a generalist, in the same way that a film director needs to be a generalist. The challenge as a personal generalist is hiring specialist skills as you scale the business. If we "do everything ourselves" we can become trapped into thinking that's our only option.

    The challenge is first breaking down each thing you do into discrete, identifiable chunks and then finding which of those things you can affordably hire someone else to do.

    Film directors don't have this problem because the industry has been around for so long. Each and every minute position has been created and accounted for so if you're creating a multi-million dollar film, you hire someone to be the Key Grip, but a good film director can put together a film on their own that will look better than you or I could do.

    We just have to wait 100 years until we've figured out what the equivalent of "Key Grip" is for web based businesses!!

  2. That's a great point Iain. I think one challenge I have personally on this is that I find it easier to measure my success when I'm doing something specialist, as opposed to doing something generalist - but, as you say, it's often more important to be in generalist mode!