There’s a popular saying amongst entrepreneurs:
“Focus on your strengths and outsource your weaknesses”
And it’s mostly true.
A handful of business owners have a tremendous advantage: They know exactly when not to follow thisprinciple. And they rocket ahead of everyone else because they’re seeing the forest despite the trees. They win bigger and quicker… because they’re doing things differently.
This article will show you how to pinpoint precisely which of your strengths you should focus on developing… and which weaknesses you maybe shouldn’t outsource just yet.
Why you should pause for thought before outsourcing all your weaknesses
Think of a startup founder who knows zero about writing code.
They need some code written, so they decide to put out a job ad for a developer.
So what do they write in the ad?
Do they know what programing language they need to hire a specialist in? Are they looking for front-end dev support? Or a back-end systems architect to build a seamless machine?
They don’t know. And if a smart developer reads the job ad this entrepreneur writes… the developer immediately knows that this person has no freaking idea what they’re doing.
Experienced, smart, passionate devs want to do well paid work on interesting projects. They’ll ignore this entrepreneurs job ad like the giant red flag that it is. Instead, opportunistic hacks will be attracted because the entrepreneur looks like an easy mark.
Cheaters and con artists – people leveraging geo-arbitrage to outsource the actual work to engineers in third world countries so they can clip their ticket along the way – they’ll respond to this ad and promise the entrepreneur the world. They’ll take their money and deliver crap.
And here’s the real issue:
Even if an amazingly skilled, high integrity developer applied… how would you know they were any good if you know nothing about code yourself? How would you compare their application to the dozens of totally trash applicants you’re looking at?
If you’ve read this far, my guess is that you’re grateful you’re not hiring a software engineer any time soon!
ThE outsourcing of weakness trap
It happens to small business owners who hire marketing agencies. It happens to anyone hiring a designer to put together a new website they have enormous hopes for.
It’s true even for the ambitious entrepreneur who’s contemplating partnering up with “that friend”.
That person who you hit it off with at that conference last year… That person with what seems like the perfect skill set to go in 50/50 on this idea with. They’re already working on your idea and seem like the yin to your yang, because they appear to be a master of exactly the part of business you are not!
These hastily formed, breathlessly exciting partnerships almost never work out. Because no ones what they’re really getting into…
Outsourcing weakness is difficult because “weakness” in business is a symptom of ignorance and inexperience.
And good outsourcing happens when pros have the knowledge and skills needed to find and identify other pros who’ll hit home runs on their behalf.
Any small business owner – who has gone deep in their specialization at the expense of everything else – has a whole saga of disastrous hires: Contractors, agencies and full blown employees who failed to deliver on promises or were outright scammers.
I’ve had it happen to me. If you’re a specialist, I’m sure you have too.
The real problem with “focus on strength, outsource weakness” is that it lets you off the hook.
It’s too good to be true.
Nervous, aspiring entrepreneurs who are optimistic (but uninformed) heave a sigh of relief when they hear “outsource your weaknesses”. As a principle, it gives you permission not to think. Instead you can simply hope.
Maybe someone will come along and do it all: Fix everything. Make it all work.
Maybe I can close my eyes and this problem will go away.
Believing in the principle of outsourcing weakness is the real psychological problem for entrepreneurs.
If you start telling yourself it’s true, you start insidiously building a special kind of entrepreneurial entitlement: The resentment that comes from following what you believe to be a golden rule only to have it blow up in your face. Again and again.
“I tried to focus on my strengths like I was supposed to, and it was a disaster!”
Now you know why it seldom works.
It’s time to propose an alternative to the outsource-your-weakness golden rule…
Becoming “T Shaped and Dangerous”
Credit to my buddy Nick for first putting this idea in my head and being the living embodiment of it himself.
T Shaped (and Dangerous… in a fun way!) is the concept of going deep into your very specific set of skills. And, having a solid grounding in the fundamentals of a wide range of disciplines needed to succeed in your business.
The idea is to become a jack of all trades and a master of one.
The benefits of being T Shaped are five-fold:
- You can get a lot done – especially in the early stages of any project – on your own.
- You actually know the limits of your skillset and precisely when to bring in help.
- You know what to look for in your outsourcing and how to accurate assess the capabilities of the people you seek help from.
- You have the (criminally underrated) ability to attract top talent that knows to look for a boss who isn’t totally clueless.
- Long term, you can manage and lead your team superbly. Specifically because their work isn’t mysterious wizardry to you, you can engage them and push them in just the right ways.
Number one saves you a ton of money.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how much time number two will save you. So many business owners burn months of their precious time working on stuff that $100 spent on upwork.com will get done in a two days.
Number three saves you from being burned by predatory charlatans. It saves you from hiring and endlessly firing. It’s a magic pill for the worst headaches in business imaginable.
How many entrepreneurs have their biggest projects fatally delayed (or driven horribly over-budget) by an agency, contractor or team member who massively underestimated the complexity of the project?
The T Shaped entrepreneur is enough of a general technologist to spin up their own MVP landing pages.
They install their own WordPress themes.
They can tweak the php so that error on the checkout page – discovered on launch day – doesn’t require waiting for the contractor in another hemisphere to wake up to address.
Being T Shaped means knowing enough about marketing to be able to hire one of the few genuinely good PPC ad agencies. The ones that won’t just take your money to run some crappy ads for three months, only to ultimately conclude that your sales funnel or product “needs work” before ads can be profitable.
The T Shaped startup founder knows how weird it is when regular humans talk with elite programmers.
She gets how computer science minds work, what their values are and what kind work environment they crave. She knows how to position her project as particularly enticing, and knows exactly how to spec out a set of requirements and then get out of the way.
Perhaps most importantly, being T Shaped means having the financial literacy to have an informed conversation with your bookkeeper and accountant.
If one of these professionals is any good, they have hundreds of other clients. And ideally many of them are more successful than you. They’re busy – you want them to be busy – because they’re good. This means they need you to ask them the right questions. Your prompts, curiosity and wacky ideas for tax strategy (how many square feet is your home office??) will push them to do their best work.
You’ll never, ever hire a great salesperson until you’ve proven out a reliable and repeatable sales strategy yourself.
The best salespeople out there in the labor market are actively looking for businesses they can make big money with. They want a job where they can come in – ideally leveraging their existing rolodex – and make a ton of cash very quickly… for both themselves and for their boss.
Expert salespeople don’t want to reinvent the wheel. The number one thing they look for in a job is evidence that sales are already happening in the business. Who is the person who makes those evidence sales happen? It’s you.
- Product Development
- Shipping and Logistics
- … The list keeps going.
Even “management” itself is a big one. After all, what exactly is it that you are looking for when you hire someone to project manage your business… if you’ve never been any good at project management yourself?
How to become T Shaped and Dangerous yourself
The only way to do this is to take yourself back to school. If you’re lusting after entrepreneurial success, you need to allocate both your time and some budget to continued education. And you need to take it seriously.
Seek out those areas that make you uncomfortable. I’ll just call it right now: Sales, Marketing and Technology are the three biggest contenders for most folks.
Go take that hands on, learning-by-doing course. Buy the book. Actually read it. Khan Academy. There is no shortage of options. My buddy Nick took himself to systems architecture school (imagine!) to better understand and manage the complex technical projects he was leading, for his team.
Here at Commit Action, I run a webinar for our members each month hitting on topics from psychology (the down-stroke of my T), to marketing, finances, leadership and everything in between (all my horizontal skills).
It’s never been easier or faster to gain a working knowledge of “the fundamentals”. The fact that so few people are willing to put the work in… is precisely what makes being T Shaped such a tremendous advantage to those who are willing to work at it.