I originally penned this piece on Medium but have since moved it here to my own personal blog — you can find the original here.
It’s always intrigued me when folks use the term “full stack” and apply it to X, or Y, or Z, especially if it’s not entirely technical in nature.
A few years ago, Messina attempted to capture this as it relates to an employee:
The conventional seams between disciplines are fraying, and the set of skills necessary to succeed are broader and more nebulous than they’ve been before. These days, you’ve gotta be a real polymath to get ahead; you’ve got to be a full-stack employee.
Hmm. Interesting. Okay…
I thought it was, at the very least, and fascinating way of borrowing a term that had been originally applied to a technical employee (e.g. full stack developer) and it got me thinking critically about not just who I hire when starting a new company but how I think about hiring the right people.
Let’s be clear: Chris’ thesis isn’t perfect by any stretch and my biggest problem with the piece was that it could be interpreted as attempt to describe (and prescribe) the model employee for an organization, what the “best” looks like and should be in today’s modern economy — I don’t agree with this possible sentiment but I’ll expand on this in a bit.
But, that doesn’t diminish the value that the post created: It was important at the time (and even now) because it gave folks an opportunity to discuss an important topic: Hiring.
And that’s good because there’s a ton of room for improvement in that area of doing business; all of us business owners, myself included, can learn a thing or two about how to better hire for their organizations! And, we should always be looking to level-up in this area as things change and as our own companies evolve and grow.
The reality, though, is this: There is a significant amount of need for all types of employees, the specialist, the generalist, and everything in between. We need all types for fully functioning organizations and we should celebrate that. There is no “one type fits all” employee nor is there a “best” type of employee, at least from my perspective, just as there is not a “one type fits all” business or company.
So, the question and issue isn’t about whether you are the right type of employee — the question is whether you are the right person for that job at that company at that specific time. It’s about context, timing, and relevancy.
And, ultimately, hiring is a measurement and reaction to failure, not success.
To be more specific, early-stage startups need employees who can apply skills broadly in and over a wide set of disciplines simply because there is too much work to go around and not enough hands to literally do the work.
This is, for the uninformed, simply based on economics — early stage companies do not have the financing (if any) to pay for more employees to specialize and attack the more separate and discrete business areas.
So what does that mean for founders? What that mean for the future of company builders? I think it provides a bit of a framework for thinking that has, at the very least, helped me think through what it takes to start a company (since I’m kind of in that mode right now with TOMO).
The Full-Stack Founder
After spending time with a great bunch of students at WashU this past week and chatting for a few days about entrepreneurship it dawned on me that many (most?) students are generally unprepared to be a business founder, and, closely tied to that, an entrepreneur.
Most of this is simply because they have yet to experience it, which is fine, and this is not necessarily any fault of their own. Although, I would argue very heavily that those who want to be an entrepreneur should be doing entrepreneurial things which means building and shipping things, learning to work with others well (i.e. building and managing teams), and just “entreprenur-ing” if that word can be used.
There’s no reason that these things can be practiced extensively, daily, in every environment and it’s been proven time and time again that college students can create world-changing companies and businesses.
Unfortunately, many students have only been given a partial story about what it really takes to start a company and then to be a company-builder and sustainer / maintainer of that company.
You see, many people (not just college students) have fallen in love with all of the upside of entrepreneurship (i.e. the rewards) but have not yet encountered or been told as fully about the downside: The hardships, the fears, the anxieties, the loneliness, and how scared shitless you are all the time under a crushing weight of responsibilities.
- The darkest times of my life have been while trying to build companies.
- I have never felt more alone when launching a startup, even with great cofounders.
Sadly, these things cannot be expressed or told or taught to others — you must learn through experience these things for oneself.
And, there is a significant difference between being an entrepreneur (and a person who builds companies) compared to one who is just building an app. Those are not the same thing. Just because you can program or build something does not mean you know what it’s like to build a company.
Building a company means that you’re the first person on the team. Being an entrepreneur and founder means that you have to not only engineer a product (i.e. build an app) but also know about finance and accounting, marketing, sales, customer support, product development / product management, research and development, and any / all administrative tasks.
Take note that I didn’t say you had to be an “expert” at all of these things nor do you have to be overwhelmingly good. Rather, in a somewhat poor and limited metaphor, it’s like being an excellent basketball player (and as a consequence, an athlete) and also being comfortable playing soccer, throwing a football, and jumping into the pool to play water polo recreationally with your friends.
In other words, you’re not an expert at everything but you have the awareness to grasp the fundamentals and apply them immediately, as best as you can. And you’re motivated to execute because your friends invited you to a local pickup game and you had the interest to do it. You wanted to perform, to help the team win, to have a good game.
The same thing can be said of a founder, a business builder. They may be an expert in one area (or may not be, it really is fairly fluid) but they have the situational awareness and resolve because they have to get shit done. They have to make this thing work.
So, back to my WashU experience this week… I, again, was reminded of how uninformed many of the students were about the difference between building an app (or being a “hobbyist” programmer) and building a company, and during a painful “Open Office Hours” section of my schedule yesterday I met a talented and driven young man who had just spent the last year building an app but confused that with building a company.
I, in the nicest way possible, shared with him that if he was building a real company then he also must spend time learning the other facets of what a business requires, not just engineering a great product.
This was a painful encounter (for him and for me) but an important one. Building an app is not the same thing as building a company. They can be related but do not necessarily have to be.
For instance (and semantics aside), I have built many apps, some that have been successful (like this one) and many more that have done terribly. But even for the ones happened to achieve a modicum of success were never real companies, they were never a real startup venture. They were just personal projects, and I’m comfortable with calling them for what they are.
Finally, for what it’s worth, neither is wrong or better or worse; you can be a “hobbyist” programmer or you can be a programmer who builds a company. Both are great and you should do what is right for you.
So what does this mean, then, for a student (or anyone else) to become a really great founder? I think it means that you should become more of a “polymath,” a person who begins to acquire a number of skills besides becoming exceptionally good at one or two.
And, if I were to honor the original meaning and intent of what polymaths have been throughout history, one would become a student of the entire lifestyle required to not just acquire those skills but to live them out in all areas of life.
Robert Heinlein is well-known for his thoughts on this type of person:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
There’s a lot of good sense here, by the way, logical. As a founder you have the blessed opportunity to do anything and everything to get the company off the ground. Literally everything — you have to. This is a consequence of being the only person on the team when you start. And even if you have cofounder (which you should) everyone does everything all the time.
Therefore, if one was to try to prepare to be a great founder of a company (and to increase one’s odds of success as a company builder) then becoming more equipped in the many areas of business building would be sound advice and counsel.
Remember, the goal isn’t deep-level expertise in all areas of the business — the goal is to know enough to be equipped and dangerous and open and humble enough to do the work necessary to get a company off the ground.
If we can return to the somewhat-poor metaphor of an athlete who professionally plays one sport but can recreationally engage in others, this may be a good and helpful example and metaphor.
Or, put another way, as a founder, there is no task that is too below you, no task too small for you to do it. You do not (should not) outsource much when you start (if anything).
You do it all and that’s important. You are the engineer, the designer, the marketer, the salesman, the product manager, the first-line of customer support, and the gal who puts together the shitty IKEA furniture that you got second-hand via Craigslist, all at the same time.
YOU DO IT ALL.
Why? Because you are a
full-stack founder. You understand that to survive you must be willing and able to do all of it, even when you’re not an expert. Why? Because there is no one else to do it. And your partners, co-founders, are right there with you, building, doing the heavy lifting, and also putting together those shitty IKEA chairs.
SIDEBAR: This is a good “smoke test” for whether that person will be a great cofounder with you: Is that person willing and able and interested and hungry enough to make this venture succeed that they will do any and all of the tasks necessary for success which includes the more menial and mind-numbing tasks ? Are they humble enough to come in on a Saturday morning to build IKEA furniture?
If not, perhaps you’re working with the wrong person. Oh, and this is also self-reflective too — if you are not ready, willing, and able to do the small things because you’re too good or too self-important then you’re probably not ready to start a company, entrepreneurship is probably not the right career and profession.
Well, at least right now.
In summary, the full stack founder is more about one’s interest and openness in doing the tough work necessary to start a company and less about their innate skill set or natural expertise. A full stack founder is relentlessly resourceful, a polymath when it comes to rolling up their sleeves and getting shit done.
I want to work with those types of people. I want to hire those types of people. I want to work for these types of people. I want to be that type of person who always believes that no job is ever too small to be meaningful, important, and life-giving.