“He who works all day has no time to make money.”
A great quote from John. D. Rockefeller, a hugely talented and influential entrepreneur who is recorded in the history books as one of the richest people ever, as well as the first billionaire in mankind’s history. I can’t remember when was the first time I read or heard it but by default, there should be plenty of wisdom in his words when it comes to entrepreneurship.
And there is. I find that quote an exact personification of the “width and not depth” mantra I’m advocating. There is a big difference between being a true entrepreneur and being an entrepreneur as a form of employee status (for lack of better phrasing). With the latter, you can’t be as special and valuable as you can in the first place, although you can obtain a significant advantage of being a specialist. However, it won’t help you succeed in the entrepreneurial world.
For me, having specific expertise means depth. But what is depth?
To fill your needs, look at the big picture
Imagine there is a data scientist available for hire. Imagine he/she is amazing at what they do, that they know every variation ever on how to calculate and accumulate data, and get a read on analytics. In itself, it’s a description of a great expert but as an entrepreneur, the problem is you don’t have the luxury to go into depth.
What entrepreneurs continuously do is start businesses, and the smart ones do it by building a team and structure. They have a finite amount of money to do so, meaning they can’t get the best of the best in everything. What helps in these situations is if you understand just enough of each relevant area (let’s say over 50%) instead of excelling in one specific subject. Just like back in school – good enough to pass the exam.
Because while you may gain a major advantage by hiring a data science specialist, you’re probably going to have holes in your structure. When building and accumulating a team, you can absolutely go for the specialist which will help you get money from investors but you won’t have enough left to bring on a great finance person or an amazing heart or any of the other people that comprise a great (or best possible) team.
A really good entrepreneur is sort of a jack of all trades – someone who possesses a little more than a superficial understanding of everything related to the success of a business. They use their knowledge to solve problems and help people who are non-specialists get better. They have the responsibility to push the team forward.
Going beneath the veneer
In addition, when you have a decent knowledge of a lot of different things (I am tempted to call it shallow+ knowledge), it helps you on the management side. You can actually use your empathy with your know-how to step into other people’s shoes and understand even just a little bit about what’s happening and how you can help integrate them. A data science specialist will have no idea what the salespeople need or how they measure because their focus is tied 100% in their own stuff and getting to depth.
On the other hand, an entrepreneur that has width and not depth won’t have a problem understanding what someone else needs. They can operate on a macro level because they can see the entire picture and not just a fragment of it, and be more agile. It’s a lot like a chess game: it will be easier for you to understand how specific pieces move once you get to know both what they’re capable of and not capable of doing.
When investing, I find that entrepreneurs who have a certain level of experience in business (regardless of the industry and whether they failed or succeeded) have a very big advantage over their peers because they were exposed to different kinds of dynamics, infrastructure, and people. Such a background can help make them pretty good leaders, hence better entrepreneurs, while the specialist is going to be busy all day working on that specific thing and won’t have time to think about how he makes money. At least that is how I interpret Rockefeller’s quote in a modern environment.
Width is your lasting advantage
One more thing before I wrap this up. When I was casually talking about this “principle” in a broader manner, someone asked what happens when the focus is reversed: when an entrepreneur has depth, but not width.
My definition of an entrepreneur mandates he/she is also a leader, for reasons I mentioned above and for another reason I’ll mention know. I’m not saying that having a data scientist specialist as a co-founder is wrong. They are amazing at what they do and without that person, there’s no company as their knowledge is what the company will be selling. In a way, they are the pitch.
When you’re becoming a serial entrepreneur and have more companies, the problem is – that same data scientist won’t have the same added value at Company B and C. They can do one thing but as soon as you jump over to the next, it likely won’t be within the same scope of data science. It’s going to be a little bit different, and their superpower becomes a little less of an advantage this time.
A width guy/gal can go wider again because the extent of their capabilities isn’t just one thing, it’s more of them. As a leader, that person is a key component in the entire scheme. Naturally, a data scientist who starts a company is also an entrepreneur but hardly a serial entrepreneur and the kind who has the ability to shape a new path. If there’s one thing particular characteristic that connects most entrepreneurs, it’s the difference in outlook: identifying opportunities and adding a new, valuable dimension most of the time. And it all stems from width.
*Disclaimer: I have no ill feelings whatsoever against data scientists, just be clear.