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The Jack-of-all-trades vs. The Expert


As far as startups are concerned, there is a lot to discuss around the old question of the balance between two opposite tides: the jack-of-all-trades versus the expert.

We can easily find sailors on both sides of this slim and foggy line who advocate different, yet valid, points of view.

Having posed this question, we asked Sofia Simões de Almeida (Pharmassistant), Ricardo Ribeiro (WalletSaver), Kiruba Shankar (Zaask) and Miguel Ribeiro (Zomato) for their opinions, in order to ship some enlightened points to your shore.

When asked about this duality, Kiruba Shankar (Zaask) categorically stated:

“Start with Jack of all trades and go for experts as company matures.”

This answer epitomises what turned out to be the most common opinion amongst our guests.

 

We believe that in our team we have people who are amazingly talented, but who never consider themselves to be “ultimate experts” with no drive to learn, grow and develop. 

 

Sofia Simões de Almeida dove a bit deeper into the question, and gave us an example from inside PharmAssistant:

“At PharmAssistant we truly believe that you need to find the right balance between the jacks-of-all-trades and the experts. If I can put it like this: we believe in talent. So, when we think about hiring, we try to find someone who is truly passionate about their core talents (be they software development, engineering, design,…) and who is open and flexible enough to learn and grow.

We believe that in our team we have people who are amazingly talented, but who never consider themselves to be “ultimate experts” with no drive to learn, grow and develop.

On the other hand, we don’t hire jacks-of-all-trades, because we like to have structure. All of our team members know exactly what their core responsibilities are. However, we are a small team where each of us has several responsibilities, yet are always willing to help each other out when needed. So in a way, we’re all experts capable of being a jack-of-all-trades when the need for one arises.”

 

Essentially, Sofia has a similar vision to Kiruba, but added her own take on the matter. At PharmAssistant there is an Individual Growth Plan, where each member of the team is asked to think about what the vision for their career path and personal development is. Sofia also believes that “in order to like what you’re doing, you have to feel challenged and motivated”. 

 

Miguel Ribeiro, from Zomato, presented us with another perspective on this question and provided a slightly different opinion:

I value expertise and “culture fit” over trades and CV. I look for people with same DNA: Zomato Culture Fit.” – The experts are always in danger if there is no culture fit.

 The cost of an extra person can be a crucial increase to burn rate, often being what stands between a startup lasting less than a month.

Our final interviewee was Ricardo Ribeiro, from WalletSaver. Ricardo is the youngest among our guests on this post, but is also one of the most promising Portuguese entrepreneurs. He was an integral part of the team that helped Uniplaces get underway, and then set sail to Italy to embrace a new challenge: WalletSaver. Ricardo believes that: “The single most important thing when starting a startup is the team. You can have a brilliant idea, an amazing and ambitious vision, but if you cannot execute it, you’ll get nowhere.”

As soon as we approached Ricardo with our questions, he immediately quipped skeptically that at an early stage, a company should only recruit if there is an absolute need for an extra person aboard:

If founders don’t have an enormous need to hire someone (obviously because they cannot perform everything by themselves), then they should aim to achieve all goals with resources presently available to them. The cost of an extra person can be a crucial increase to burn rate, often being what stands between a startup lasting less than a month, or firmly establishing itself.

the first hires, these are the ones who will set the tone and culture of the startup.

All things considered, he explains his vision regarding the importance of a startup’s first hirings, and the tone such picks set for the entire company:

So for the first hires, these are the ones who will set the tone and culture of the startup, and eventually manage the next people who come on board. Ideally, these will have the same vision as the founders and share the core values implemented in the startup. I would say that it’s more than a question of “jack-of-all-trades vs expert”, and more of a question driven towards finding people who really feel the project as if they were co-founders themselves – which is one of the reasons why I back the idea of giving equity to early employees. Make them feel like they belong to the project and that they too are part of its co-founders.

these people will be able to execute any task required, and more importantly, won’t wait for clear instructions.

The responsibility of hiring the right people for the job is enormous, and can sometimes be a hard path to walk. Nonetheless, Ricardo’s final point goes in line with what our other guests have opined:

“If you get the hiring done right – which can usually take longer than expected (it took Airbnb’s founders five months to hire their first employee) – these people will be able to execute any task required, and more importantly, won’t wait for clear instructions. They will think about what is missing and how things can be improved, so will get shit done in order for the startup to succeed – its ultimate goal. If that is the definition of a “jack-of-all-trades”, then that is the profile founders should go for at an early stage.

As a startup passes its validation stage and begins its growth phase, this is the time for founders to start hiring extremely good people for each of the different teams – the so-called “experts”. To give you a clearer example, it’s completely ok for a startup founder (or a startup CEO, for those who like the “C’s”) to be in charge of growth during the validation stage, even if it’s not their best skill. However, once this stage is over, and business needs to grow as much and as fast as possible, they will need to hire someone with greater experience and who can focus entirely on that task. A lot of startup founders eventually leave their operational roles to focus on strategic tasks such as hiring, investment, setting the vision and managing the team as a whole.”

 

To say we could reach a valid conclusion from this would be to say that pigs can fly. This considered, we can at least highlight the key ideas addressed by our guests regarding both professional types:

  • The jack-of-all-trades is a highly creative professional, with above-average learning capacities, who can normally carry red flags on his CV for any HR manager to see;
  • On the other bank of the river we find a highly skilled professional, usually in a senior position, with a vast knowledge within his own turf;
  • One is highly adaptable and promotes a creative environment, whilst the second tends to be more methodical and detail-oriented due to his experience.

 

The question will remain in the air, regardless of all points of view gathered here. The details around the matter will always be dependent on the environment within each business is set in, and how these personas will fit in with its parameters. If on the one hand they could, and should, be a golden asset, on the other they could just end up being a disastrous fit.

We believe that the under-appreciated Jacks have many qualities prone to be explored and enhanced. In the highly dynamic environment that most early stage startups sprout from, the Jack can become a trump or an easy and valuable Joker.

The bottom line is clear: Use your Jacks wisely, otherwise you might be wasting a whole lot of hidden talent and creativity for nothing.


We would like to thank Kiruba Shankar, Sofia Simões de Almeida, Miguel Ribeiro and Ricardo Ribeiro for sharing their opinions with our Crew.


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About Gonçalo Ribeirinho dos Santos

Born and raised in Lisbon, since 1990 wondering about the origin of all things. As curious as a cat and a self-proclaimed creative Jedi with a passion for Marketing, Brand management and Social media.

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