The Renaissance Founder

Dirck_Hals_-_Banquet_Scene_in_a_Renaissance_Hall_-_WGA11035

When I show people prototypes of projects I am working on these days, the most common response is: “You built this? You still code?” I used to wish they would focus on the prototype rather than my coding skills, but as of late I have found the question flattering. It means that I have succeed in my goal of staying well rounded.

As a founder, especially at the beginning, you need to do everything for your company. You need to build a product, market the product, sell customers, recruit more employees, maybe raise funding and then repeat. It is tough to find time for all those things with the limited number of hours in the day (See The Founder’s Schedule) but it is even more difficult to do them well. It is impossible to master every possible discipline required of you in those early days since it would take multiple lifetimes.

Many founders are experts in one particular area of their new company, such as an engineer building a prototype, a salesperson lining up potential customers or a marketer designing a great new brand. In these cases, you often need to outsource the functions you cannot do yourself. Engineers find sales people, Sales people find engineers and everyone tries to find marketers. Sometimes you get lucky and your founding team has all the skills you need.

But since that rarely happens, you can easily see how it is a critical advantage for the founders to be able to cover as many functions as possible. You may not be a master at everything, but being able to do many things well allows you to run faster and learn more in those early days. I refer to such people as Renaissance Founders – people who are good (but not great) at many things.

Becoming a Renaissance Founder

So, how do you become a Renaissance Founder? You practice skills you lack before you even become a founder.

  • Can’t build a prototype? Learn how. There are a wealth of both online and offline courses and learning materials that you can use to learn what you need. In a matter of months you can learn the basics of software development (Codecademy), hardware (TechShop), electronics (Arduino) or design (HackDesign). You don’t need to become a professional engineer, just proficient enough to demonstrate your idea.
  • Never marketed anything? Start now. Marketing is the art of knowing what your customers want, who your customers are and reaching them with your message. You can practice marketing right now by starting a crowdfunding project on Teespring, Kickstarter or Inkshares and trying to make it a success. You’ll learn quickly how hard it is to reach customers and quickly build some valuable skills. Experiment with Social Media (Twitter, Facebook), Advertising (Google Adwords, Facebook Ads) and other channels.
  • Never sold anything? Sell something. Selling is the act of convincing another person to give you money for a product or service. In comparison to marketing, sales is typically done in person or on the phone and requires you to be persuasive. If you have never sold anything, you can get started immediately by not throwing away your old table, couch or trading in your old car. Instead, post it on Craigslist and start negotiating with people who are interested in buying it. Try to get the highest price possible.

You will, eventually, hire experts in each discipline to work for your company and do these tasks extremely well. But your ability to do them at first will get you far enough that you will be in a position to hire them.

The Superman Trap

As a Renaissance Founder, your ability to do many things can tempt you to do everything. This is a very dangerous trap, since even a well rounded person cannot do everything. Stay very focused on only the most important things that need to get done and ignore everything else (See The Only Thing that Matters). When you do hire experts onto your team, trust them to complete the tasks you give them and do not look over their shoulder as they do.

The good news, is that you should be able to identify the best experts to add to your team since you are, at least somewhat, familiar with what they do. It is tough to hire an engineer if you’ve never done engineering, or to hire a sales person if you have never done sales. If you have done those things, you should have a good sense for the right person who will be much better at the job than you are.

Remember, you cannot be great at everything, but being good at a variety of skills can be a critical advantage when you are getting started. Besides, it’s fun to learn new things!

Image is a reproduction of a public domain painting (“Dirck Hals – Banquet Scene in a Renaissance Hall”) made available by Wikipedia. “Renaissance Founder” is a play on “Renaissance Man”, a phrase used to refer to Polymaths who are people skills in a wide variety of areas of knowledge.

3 thoughts on “The Renaissance Founder

  1. chrisdavis2

    Thanks for sharing. This is especially true for first-time entrepreneurs and intrapraneurs in bureaucratic organizations.

    Re: Learning to build a prototype –
    Technology is quickly driving the time to create a minimally functioning product to zero. As you mention, learning enough code to become proficient can take months, and while that can be useful to a degree, many people are unable to overcome what I call “blank screen anxiety” (not knowing how to go from zero to working code without copious referencing to tutorial materials.)

    On the other hand, there are a number of hackable solutions that non-programmers can use to bootstrap their own ideas in a short amount of time. For instance, one could embed a database from a service like Knack into a website builder like Weebly, or for a more robust, integrated experience build with a platform like Bubble.is.

    Reply
  2. mikewchan

    Great post, Sean! Entrepreneurs have to be well-rounded and even more importantly know when to hand off those tasks, as difficult as it may be to do so.

    And I’ve been learning to code, which is pretty difficult. But even before that stage, founders can create mockups with Invision or even Balsamiq and Mockflow to demonstrate how the app would work. That has lots of value as well.

    Thanks for the great article!

    Reply

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