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Which founder is better for startups: The generalist or the specialist?

Posted by Tasnim Ahmed

November 23, 2022    |     4-minute read (629 words)

In a world of hyperspecialization, true generalists have become rare. Professionals today increasingly specialize in narrow fields of expertise that suit specific purposes. 

Silicon Valley illustrates the effects of this hyperspecialization trend. Founders highly specialized in certain technologies or markets are regarded as central to the area’s famous tech startup scene.

But in addition to skills, entrepreneurs need the ability to pivot quickly in response to unplanned changes. The importance of strategic agility in turn has prompted many founders to spurn the conventional top-down management style, in favor of a flat structure that promotes team communication.

This flat, networked nature of highly successful startups has come to be closely associated with hyperspecialization. However, a growing volume of research shows that when it comes to innovation, generalists — not hyperspecialists — prevail.

Does the entrepreneurial journey favor generalists?


Startup founders, in the early stages in particular, are typically short on cash and manpower. That means they’re forced to fill their fledgling business’s every need, from sales and customer success to marketing and IT. 

To get their startups off the ground, entrepreneurs need to cross-pollinate knowledge from a variety of unrelated fields, tapping on their generalist strengths. Being a generalist also gives them the ability to recruit strong specialists to their team, based on their capacity for understanding every employee’s duties, even those outside their area of expertise.

Conversely, a specialist will be far less willing to wear the multiple hats required of a startup founder. Comfortable only within the confines of their narrow sphere of knowledge, the volatility of the entrepreneurial journey doesn’t suit the nature of the specialist.

Generalist versus specialist: Researchers weigh in


Common sense suggests that it’s a lot easier to be creative when you possess a wide body of knowledge about disparate areas. Research by psychologist Kevin Dunbar seems to confirm this, finding that the more professionals know about other industries, the more creative solutions they come up with to address problems in their own field. 

In 2019, journalist David Epstein published a book exploring commonalities among some of the world’s most acclaimed individuals across an array of different endeavors. In “Range — Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” Epstein writes that for most fields, particularly those that are unpredictable and highly complex, generalists are more apt to excel than specialists.

Separately, Charles Murray wrote in “Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950” that based on his historical research, individuals with many interests are more likely to be successful than specialists who only focus on knowledge from their own field. 

Fifteen of the world’s 20 most influential scientists throughout history — such as Isaac Newton, Aristotle, Louis Pasteur and Charles Darwin — were polymaths, writes Murray. Polymaths are individuals whose knowledge spans a substantial breadth of subjects from which they draw to solve specific problems.

Modern-day generalist entrepreneurs


Perhaps no other entrepreneur embodies the notion of polymath better than Elon Musk. As the founder of SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity (and newfound owner of Twitter) he’s built three multibillion companies in disparate fields by drawing on his expertise in economics, engineering, physics and more.

Founders such as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs, all of whom describe themselves as voracious learners, are among other modern founders who’ve been dubbed polymaths.  

Wrap-up


“If you want to be an entrepreneur, steer away from specialization,” Corporate Rain International CEO Tim Askew writes in Forbes. “It is the enemy of the new and disruptive and the true.”

Research shows generalists are more creative, nimble and capable of drawing connections than their more specialized associates. A generalist can see the forest and the trees, a big-picture sensibility that is essential for entrepreneurs.

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