7 deep skills for entrepreneurs

Einstein playing violin

You’d be surprised how much The Martian and Einstein have in common. Except from the fate of Einstein’s brain, which was stolen from his body after he died (it’s a bit macabre, I know). Still preserved, the brain surfaced decades later in a hospital lab, and a brain specialist was asked to analyse it, not knowing who it had belonged to. He was able to deduct two things about the person: 1. He had played the violin. 2. He had an extraordinary capacity for processing terrain and other three-dimensional space. Both turned out to be true: Einstein did play the violin, and his theory of relativity is largely based on multi-dimensional thinking.

Brain plasticity is fascinating. Our brain physically changes based on what we do. Einstein played the violin to relax, and it helped him solve fundamental puzzles of physics. It sounds impressive, but instead of seeing it as two distinct accomplishments (how could he have time to learn the violin?), you should see it as synergy between seemingly disparate activities.

An astronaut doesn’t tell Houston “you have problem”:

In flight, every problem is the astronaut’s problem. Moreover, time and resources are scarce. He has to fix problems himself, regardless of expertise, personal preferences or identity. The parallel to entrepreneurs is striking.

T-shaped competency profile

The T-shaped competency profile came in fashion with cross-functional teams. The T indicates that, while you have one deep expertise (typically programming, design, marketing, sales, operations and so on), you also need to expand horizontally, and learn from other experts. However, you still get to program, design or do marketing as long as you are able to collaborate effectively with every other function on your team. You still get to defer tasks outside your area of expertise to the appropriate team members. You still get to identify yourself with other experts in your field.

Sounds good, right? In the world of entrepreneurship, it’s not enough.

First of all, an entrepreneur doesn’t get to be programmer, designer or business modeller full time. Work is to unpredictable, plans are to short-lived, the need for improvisation is too high.  

Secondly, an entrepreneur can’t keep himself from doing what is needed, simply because he doesn’t have the skills. When they’re not available, everyone on the team will have to acquire the skills their product needs continuously. You can stop neither yourself nor others on the team from doing what it takes for everyone to survive, even if the solution, seen in isolation from the big picture, would be inferior to the works of a specialist.

Third, the identity of who you are as a specialist will get in our way. You’re not a trained professional any longer. You can’t afford to be driven by recognition of your peers, or by higher achievements within your domain of knowledge. Those drivers must be replaced, or even consumed by the driver to build a great product; your mission to innovate needs your full attention.

Take Mark Zuckerberg: He has obviously acquired deep skills in many areas beyond programming over the last 10 years. From hacker to founder to growth hacker to CEO of the world’s largest media company. Similarly, astronauts are not specialists in flying and operating space ships alone. They also study biology, so that they can get that extra-terrestrial lab going. They do space walks, fix and maintain advanced equipment and even take amazing photographs of the earth seen from space. Entrepreneurs should aspire to an astronaut’s state of extreme mastery: You need multiple deep skills, and you need that “do whatever it takes to move forward” attitude. No vanity. No hesitation. Just focus and action.

Here’s what we believe to be areas of deep skills for entrepreneurs. You will most likely need to develop your self in several of these areas, if not every single one of them:

  1. Business modelling – It’s about more than mechanisms. Masters of business modelling can instantly envision the dynamics of the model in multiple scenarios, and see where the money comes from, how much money there’s in play, and what the whole eco system looks like.
  2. Pitching – It’s not about kickass presentations to investors. Masters of pitching understand the underlying psychology of making a message come forward as noteworthy and important. Getting and keeping people’s attention is a work of art.
  3. Management – It’s not about administration and organization. Masters of management do understand how to run a tight ship, but their real talent is in inspiring and aligning everybody, while protecting everyone’s autonomy. Masters of management are true leaders, they make us do the things that are important, while thriving together on a shared journey into the unknown.
  4. Accounting – It’s not about cost control. To masters of accounting, there is no separate financial planning. Instead, they understand the development process and operation of the company, and align financial planning with the development initiatives as well as the operation.
  5. Marketing – It’s not about campaigns and slogans. Masters of marketing understand how to make customers become a part of our mission, how to make them identify with our product and recruit more customers that in turn recruit customers into a runaway engine of growth.
  6. Design – It’s about more than look and feel. Masters of design tell stories. They understand us better than we understand ourselves, they know how to trigger emotions and delight us with experiences so meaningful they become almost invisible (why haven’t anyone thought of this before?)
  7. Programming – It’s about more than hacking computers. Masters of programming are able to empathize with users while transforming ideas from design, marketing, finance and technological development into working software. Master of programming switch effortlessly between jazz coding (experimentation) and classical engineering (building for scale), and never stop developing their habits in either universe.

The optional extra: Develop yourself as an artist. It’s not about showing off your intellect (but feel free, if you want to). From painting and singing to climbing and martial arts, masters of art develop themselves personally, in detached exploration of skills and expression, and are later able to take advantage of the resulting versatility in their practical work.

Potatoe scene from movie The Martian

It doesn’t matter that you’re a programmer. Today, you’re learning how to grow potatoes

The book The Martian is about an astronaut left behind on Mars after being presumed dead. His goal is as obvious as it impossible to achieve: Get back to earth. He has to mobilise everything he has, mentally and physically, to survive and get the help he needs. (As the slogan of the Hollywood adaptation says: “Help is only 140 million miles away”.)

The Martian is not a science fiction book. Rather, it’s a business novel about entrepreneurship. Faced with impossible tasks, facing imminent death in a beyond hostile environment, the Martian survives because he builds on a simple mindset, with two distinct features:

  1. Be persistent in reaching the impossible goal
  2. Always, break the next challenge into small problems, and solve them one at a time

As Ash Maurya starts his lessons learned from more than 10 years as an entrepreneur: “At any given point in time, there are only a few key actions that matter. Focus on those and ignore the rest”.

Team work

It’s not about recognition from peers – it’s about recognising what peers can accomplish together

Humans don’t specialize. We’re builders, writers, singers, leaders, cooks, social beings, parents and a lot more. Specialization at work is unnatural. As Robert Heinlein put it: Specialization is for insects.

If you want to become an entrepreneur, look at the astronauts, and look at what great entrepreneurs have done before you. You might be surprised to see how they focused, both in face of  trouble and opportunity, and how they challenged established views on what focus and skills really are about.

So pick up the violin, and start rehearsing. When future success is 140 million miles away, your own diversity and profoundness are the two single most important assets in your possession.

By Kim Leskovsky and Anders Haugeto (@hauge2). Also thanks to Viktor Varland for valuable feedback.

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