The startup-powered resurgence of the generalist: A reading list for the overwhelmed first-time founder
The Monday after Easter finds me walking around the streets of Cork, Ireland. I’m on my way to meet with a couple of friends, fellow colleagues on a business acceleration program I’ve been attending for the past three weeks.
When I finally run into one of them, I find her in a small multitude staring open mouthed at the weirdest spectacle of the day: a street performer standing on a tightrope, lightly walking back and forward, playing the violin.
Honestly, I expected violin playing on the streets when I came to Ireland. The tightrope, however, was a surprise.
Next Tuesday we’re back at the office and the program continues. We have workshops ranging from accounting to legal to public speaking to social media. But here’s the catch: most of us are scientists. This might be the first time some of us have ever heard of ROEs and DPOs and SAFEs. Do they honestly expect us to process and apply everything we’ve being taught, considering our background?
Well, yes. This is exactly what you’re in for when you decide to step into the weird tightrope that is Entrepreneurship.
And the thing is, most of us in the program come from Science and Academia: the shrines of specialization. It’s a world where grads scoff at undergrads and degrees are worth more the longer their name runs because you’re either this or that and you either know it or you don’t. The biggest, best thing you can hope for, is to be promoted from specialist to Expert.
We like the idea of being an expert. We like saying “this is what I do”, with “this” being a set of defined actions where we have already received acclaim and validation. It feels safe, it feels true and coherent. You’re not just This because you are saying it, you are because you have a degree or a road behind or something that ultimately proves it. We define ourselves in either one-word terms, by our profession, perhaps, or something a bit more abstract if we’re feeling creative; or we look for frameworks and we see what we feel safe calling ourselves. Be it the hacker/hustler divide or the four temperaments or type A/type B or MTBI or HDBI, we turn to these classifications and drink them up like horoscopes. We feel assessed and validated and of course, we like it.
But we are, generally, much more than what we give ourselves credit for. We’re bigger than a word, capable of more than one specific, ever diminishing thing.
Let’s think back on our violinist friend. About the violin. Entrepreneurship feels like standing on a tight rope and being handed a violin, then a flute, then a bass, and suddenly either a balalaika or a chainsaw or both at the same time. And doing as entrepreneurs do: balancing everything and getting on with it.
Knowing this, does it even make sense to be an expert in playing violin in a tightrope when you don’t even know if they’ll be handling you an instrument at all?
There are too many things to know, and too much to know for each. No point in being the world’s leading expert in balalaika if today you must play the bass. You will be handed roles or you will take them upon yourself by your own initiative, and I can assure you that if you want to start a venture, you’re looking at performing all of the following, at least once:
THE ALMIGHTY STARTUP ROLES.
Even if you have never opened excel in your life, you will need to make a spreadsheet and at the very least, write down the money that comes in and out of your business. If you think you can outsource it, the answer is yes. But how are you planning on sending the money information to the external accountant anyway? Call him up every time you take a client out for coffee or sign a purchase from a supplier and recite the bill for them? Sorry to burst your bubble. And you will need to be your own worst critic too – making sure every expense is precise and necessary and learning how to make ten last twenty. Money will never be on your side, but your accountant (yes, that’s you!) will be. Now get cracking.
Businessperson / administrator.
Maybe you hate business. You are an anti-capitalist at heart and you believe in the thorough destruction of anything cash-related. And yet, here you are. You want to make something. And this something, if you want it to last, must somehow be sustainable. You will need to make business decisions, and you’ll need to be able to tell a good from a bad one if you want your impact to grow. It’s not about selling out if you don’t want it to be – It’s about making sure something can stand on its own two feet. And the hardest part: you will need to manage. The hardest thing to manage? People. Even if you work on your own, you’ll need to manage yourself. Welcome to the weird world of work introspection.
Hello again, my anarchic friend. Before you close this article, consider this: selling is more than getting money in exchange for goods. It runs much deeper. Selling is about convincing, about getting someone to bet on something you propose – either with their money, time, or even attention. This can clearly translate into money, but I personally believe it is linked to something bigger: convincing somebody to bet on you is the quickest way to find out if you’re crazy or if you’re onto something. But then again, you could both just be crazy, I guess.
Speaker / Communicator / Writer.
And now I salute my fellow lab-rats, hackers and number churners. Those that were told from an early age that people are good at either words or numbers and words didn’t seem to like them. I have news for you: words are still the building blocks of reality, even if your infinite love for numbers seems to have quieted them in your mind. Even if you don’t intend to stand on a stage anytime soon (and trust me, you should) Social Media has made sure everyone has a stage, and you might as well learn to use it. Learn to craft reality from words and see how things change around you. Change your perception of yourself by changing the words you associate with you. To change what the world thinks and how it works, you begin with language.
Creator / Creative / Artist.
At some point in my life, my biggest fear was this: I will never in my life produce a single original idea. While this fear was happening, I wrote around 50 short stories, but I was fixated in business and how I hadn’t been able to come up with a business idea that I liked. My point? You create every day, and you do it so much you’re blind to it. You can force creation and creativity too, which is where the artist side comes out. Again, no need to be an expert, or to be able to paint or write like one to put a bit of aesthetic flair into something. Just thinking about how something could be different can be enough to kickstart a change. Big changes and small details are all needed and welcomed.
Curiosity. Inquisitiveness. A sense of wonder. These are the qualities that lead you to find and explore something new. You will need to delve into topics you have never thought of, you will walk on fields of colors you can’t pronounce and yet you will have to pinpoint which flowers can be of use to you. Grab your scout gear and your magnifying glass and set yourself to go into the deeper meaning of the things you don’t know, until you’re familiar enough to spot brilliance when you find it.
Programmer / Techie / Hacker.
Ah, yes. There are millions of articles telling you how programming is the language of the now, and you won’t get anywhere if you don’t program. I don’t necessarily agree – programming, I believe, is an acquired taste, and it’s not mandatory for you to trouble yourself with the specifics of a language’s syntax if that’s not where you want your time. What’s key for the Programmer, much like in the previous role, is the mindset. Understanding the fundamentals of programming allows you to build a better base to understand human/technology interaction, how most of the things you use actually work on the inside and therefore how they can be changed, and of course, saves you a lot of money if you can at least get your simple website up without having to put up cash upfront.
Hopefully you won’t go around suing people, but at one point or another you will probably have to stop and ask yourself: is this legal? It might sound ridiculous, but do it now. Is it legal for me to say what I say about my product? Is it legal to offer this service the way I do? Is it legal to put this cute puppy picture in my website if I didn’t take it? Is the application of this technology legal in the country I’m thinking to sell in? If you can’t answer all of the previous with a resounding yes, you might need to do some research. If you can, congratulations on your express law degree! Only applies for the Lawyer Role. Not valid in a real life scenario. Also keep in mind you’ll need to speak lawyer, at least enough to understand contracts and hopefully spot any irregularities.
Does it already sound overwhelming to you? It should, because it is. The good news? People have performed these roles before you, and they have written it down. Yay for books! Yay for the internet! Yay for the endless possibilities of learning!
Here’s a short list of sources, either books or websites, related to each of the roles I described previously – my idea of a starter pack for any budding entrepreneur. These are works that have helped me enormously, but again – I’m no expert! Funny! I’d love to hear your recommendations and the things you’d add or modify in this list. What work has been pivotal for you as an entrepreneur? What roles have you taken? Which ones would you add?
ACCOUNTANT: Finance Basics
BUSINESSPERSON/ADMINISTRATOR: The New One Minute Manager. The Lean Startup
SELLER: To sell is human
SPEAKER/WRITER: Anything by e e cummings. Made to stick. That ted talk about nothing.
CONTENT CREATOR/ARTIST: Originals
SCIENTIST/RESEARCHER/SPOTTER: Cosmos. Freakonomics
PROGRAMMER/TECHIE: Hack this site. Minute physics
LAWYER: How to get away with murder (I am not even kidding with this one, go get your dose of legalese).
(Demon cat, from Adventure time)
Learn as you go. Working knowledge is the name of the game. Next time you feel you’re in a tightrope and somebody hands you something else – either a literal violin or a responsibility you think you’re not prepared to assume, an action you can’t perform to perfection, just go with it. Try the violin out because at some point somebody will just come with a full on grand piano and you’re going to have to smile and bear it.
And don’t worry – the small but growing multitude of generalists around you will understand, and we’ll cheer you through.