Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jack of all Trades

One major factor in entrepreneurial success is often understated, the people. Of course management is paramount to a successful start up business but most business books are dedicated to marketing, six sigma efficiencies and just in time shipping. I believe the 21st Century will be the return of the Cyrano de Bergerac’s, men (and women) with grace will rise. Why? Because millions of people across the world are working with their heads down and it takes the ‘generalist’ to strategically position these skills and create vision. So what does this have to do with entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurs need to deal with EVERYONE. In small business you have an accountant, a banker, employees, marketing specialists, and outside manufacturers. Today most of these people are located in different cities if not countries. Successful entrepreneurs need to be able to relate and manage the business at each level. If you’ve ever talked to an accountant and then called up a machinist you’ll notice a difference. I’m not implying intelligence but rather language and occupational culture. Professions operate on different wavelengths, in some industries deadlines are fixed whereas others tend to be more flexible. In engineering the vocabulary is completely different in comparison to e-marketing, a successful understanding of these differences can be very important. Entrepreneurs act as interpreters knowing just enough about every department to connect the dots in patterns that might not be seen by others. After 4 years in a business school I can’t recall a discussion regarding micro management of different occupations. There were talks regarding geographic workplace styles and how to manage employee conflict, but the concept that people were different was not broached. You may be thinking, we’ll I already know people are different. How often has a manager taken into account how you work effectively to improve his bottom line? At least in large companies employee protocol restricts management creativity but even in small companies most managers don’t realize how to maximize employee value.

So how can young people become a strong ‘generalist’? The simple answer is socializing with different people. Personally I find hanging out with the same type people boring. I’d rather go hiking with an engineer who tells be about the latest in solar panel design and I share my readings about business practice. Then another day hang out with a scientist and learn about recent genetics research. My generalist mantra has a lot to do with my philosophy of perpetual learning (View Read, Absorb, Repeat).

So how does this come in handy as a young entrepreneur? Knowing a little bit about a lot of stuff is very helpful. It’s much easier to call a friend who specializes in that area for a bit of advice than spend hours researching a new subject. This is also where young people have a huge advantage, with social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) it’s easy to stay in touch with A LOT of people. (So maybe all those hours on Facebook will eventually come in handy!) The more people you keep in touch with the more areas from which you can draw information. I’m fairly receptive to providing advice and most of my friends are similar. In the 21st century there is an abundance of information and naturally people will gravitate toward certain pockets. While always learning and refining many skills everyone is naturally more proficient in certain areas.

Team formation: Although my current company has been spun out of a UBC course building a team is something that is more difficult for new entrepreneurs. (The course allowed team’s complete anonymity in group formation. We formed our team by simply chatting about stuff we liked. Having teammates that can work together is very important, the idea will come later. If you’re lacking certain skills you’ll find them either through research or bringing on advisors.) Seasoned veterans or even people with years of experience in the field often know engineers and accountants and lawyers. When you’ve been working for 20 years and see a market niche often it’s easier to great a short list when it come to who would go well with this project. So how do young entrepreneurs compete? Social networks, University provides a great amount of talent in one space and if you have a couple nights a week to visit the local bar you might have a night or two to start up a new venture with a couple friends.

Students have the opportunity to succeed but it’s also the best time to fail. One quote I heard recently is Fail Fast, Fail Often. This is completely backward to the work hard philosophy taught in school, but the truth is no matter what your research there are WHAT IFS in entrepreneurship. So the ability to learn from your mistakes can be a huge advantage. Students have the ideal situation to become entrepreneurs, they have a significant amount of time, they have access to the university’s network & labs, they are used to learning quickly and they are accustomed to having no money. Many entrepreneurs fail on their first venture so why not try your first company while in school what do you have to lose?

This blog post was a way for me to hash out my ideas on Team Development for young entrepreneurs as I’m giving a short speech to SFU’s Venture Meet-Up on October 8th. If you have any ideas about Team Development feel free to post a comment or send me an e-mail.

Great Entrepreneur Training grounds:

Sports Teams (Every play needs a leader and quick decisions build confidence)

Students Council (Brings together people who normally might not be in the same room)

Fraternities (Students from different years, faculties and backgrounds, individuals often share different interests)

Classes (UBC’s New Venture Design course pairs Engineering students with commerce students, blending two different backgrounds requires creative thinking. Arts/Science Course at the 200 level. Increasingly Universities are incorporating interdisciplinary courses into the curriculum. Why, because today’s problems require a variety of different disciplines from anthropologists, economists, engineers and biologists.

The common theme among all these groups is that one underlying theme unites the group and brings together different individuals. For this reason entrepreneurs should try to work in different environments. Professional jobs of tomorrow require outside of the box thinking, and entrepreneurship is the ultimate test.

Great Resource:

Tim Ferris article on Jack of all Trades

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