It’s a kind of cliche that when you enter the startup world – either as the hacker, the hustler, or a whole team – you’ve got to have a Laser-Like Focus on your core activity. For some entrepreneurs this is an idea that works, but it should not be viewed as a commandment written in stone, especially if you’re the hustler. In my experience, bootstrapping a startup is like street fighting: there’s only one rule – No Fucking Rules. So while my own life has proven time and again that wearing multiple hats often pays off, I admit that it’s not for everybody. Yet as long as you have no investors on board trying to shape how your company operates, what do you have to lose by following your own path? After all, the startup world is one with NFR.
The Concept of Asymmetrical Resistance
People are usually approached one particular way, depending on their job, their role in a community, or on their position, power, influence, etc. A VC gets thousands of pitch decks a year, a columnist of Techcrunch is hounded by founders with constant claims of having the the most novel, disruptive, ground-breaking technologies all the time – and nearly all of these are bullshit. Likewise, the old-guard of the dot-com industry are constantly sought out to act as advisors of pre-pre-seed stage dreams, mostly in exchange for worthless stock options of non-existent companies, while PR executives of Fortune 100 ventures receive tons of “irresistible” offers to sponsor various events with zero PR-value. They’re all fed up with this usual crap.
Human beings build immunities, it’s what keeps us healthy and alive, and the same process that makes us resistant to drugs and bugs works for startup pitches as well. However, one of the great parts about the startup world is that those involved tend to be helpful and gracious. So while we have a natural resistance that builds up, most people in the business are still willing to donate time, advice and connections, especially when approached in a novel and unique way. Their resistance is asymmetrical, depending on how typical an approach is. Mark Suster clearly explains this through the story of Sam Rosen in one of his blog posts. Conclusion is, instead of standing in the queue and patiently waiting for your one painfully average one shot, grab another hat and get acquainted with people in less typical situations.
Degrees of Separation
Even if you have a gut feeling that the multiple-hat approach would better fit your personality, try to avoid straying too far from your industry. Running your LA-based half-fashion half-dot-com startup and simultaneously putting tremendous efforts into becoming a key member of the Oklahoma division of the American Lizard Collectors’ Association is probably not going to be particularly effective. Think instead about turning to mentoring or other ways you can support other entrepreneurs.
Even if you don’t have 20+ years of experience, you can easily master one or two startup-related niches and share your knowledge with others. Mentoring generates huge credibility for yourself and can also connect you to the networks of those being mentored. Additionally, while it may sound counterintuitive, the data is absolutely clear that teaching/mentoring is one of the best possible ways to for the teacher to learn more about what they’re teaching. All of this doesn’t even taken into account the karmic benefits built up from the mentoring process. While takes time, it is one of the best investments you can make in yourself and your startup.
Ultimately, it’s all about becoming a unique and trusted voice in all of the communities that you’re a part of. The fashion startup is a good example. Rather than being another fashion junkie trying to build a fashion brand, be a dot-com person who is involved in fashion world – and vice versa. This makes you unique in multiple worlds, and will lead to people in each of those communities seeking you out for understanding of an area they don’t have expertise in. Being able to come by some trendy threads could be priceless for some laser focused geek girls, just as showing some blog promotion tricks to a rookie designer could make you a star amongst the pretty people. These are just examples, but should give you a picture of the type of cross-network skills that people truly value.
Writing articles and publishing industry-related content is also an excellent idea. Wearing the press hat, you might have a chance to interview people you couldn’t even approach otherwise. Check my interview with Gil Penchina, legendary angel investor of LinkedIn, on my blog (in English in the right column). Come on, I’m a Hungarian entrepreneur, how much would you bet on me ever having a chance to chat with an icon like him? In my blogger hat I had much better a chance.
Still hesitating on disavowing the laser focus myth? Check the LinkedIn profile of some real heavy-weight industry professionals: CEO here, founder there, member of the board here, mentor at many (mostly they don’t even bother listing). Laser focus my ass! Being obsessed with laser focus can demonstrate just how green you really are, these pros know exactly how curvy a path business can be and they also know where the curves are – and where the shortcuts are. Being involved in many things at the same time simply means not refusing to use these shortcuts.
Look Into the Mirror
People are constantly looking for interesting stories. Being able to say nothing but “I’m laser focused on customer development at my startup” is not much a story. Wearing multiple hats is good for avoiding asymmetrical resistance and providing more avenues of approach to new connections, and it will also make you more interesting, compelling, and unique to others. While the old saying that opposites attract can be true, like-minded people also tend to attract each other, and if you’re interesting, compelling, and unique, you’ll draw those same people to you. Later on, when your network broadens, connecting the dots with the right timing will be a piece of cake.
Dropping your laser focus to try a new way of hustling might sound good to you, but always keep in mind a core truth about people – we all have an ability to sense when someone isn’t being genuine. That’s why picking up new hats is not a temporary strategy, it must be something that you engage in completely and with conviction. If you engage in a new community or expertise solely for connections or because you think it will pay off in the short-term – You’re doing it wrong. You’ll end up hanging out with people you don’t like, doing things you’re not good at, and failing to build anything of consequence. Wearing multiple hats means discovering unusual ways to meet interesting people you otherwise wouldn’t, and NOT doing stuff you otherwise wouldn’t just to be closer to some a-listers. Mendacity stinks, pretending sympathy is pathetic.
Some say, in order to succeed as a startup hustler, you should follow certain protocols, best practices, or standards – all carved into stone and often pitched by folks who never even managed a fruit stand. I’m suggesting: Win – by any means. Keep those rules that your conscience dictates you keep, but otherwise: NFR! Find your own way. Wear multiple hats, use shortcuts, find non-existing doors – it’s your story, your rules. Just don’t get arrested. Unless it’s part of your PR startegy…