People in early stage startups tend to be generalists

Sean Murphy is the CEO of SKMurphy, and offers customer development services for software entrepreneurs. The interviewer is Floyd Tucker from DreamSimplicity. Here’s a quote I found interesting from the video:

People who do well in early stage startups tend to be generalists.
To prosper, to scale up you’ve actually got to hire specialists.

Now I don’t have anything against specialists or the idea of specialising in one field. That’s great, and we need those people. My gripe is that we don’t have enough generalists.

I believe having more Leonardo da Vinci’s will help solve a lot of world problems. You and I might not envision a solution, but that might be because we’re tunnel-visioned. They aren’t.

The Inverted PI Polymath

There’s a war going on in my mind. The Specialists, numbering in their millions, were wielding their sharpened, highly honed spears. The Generalists, a motley group in the dozens, stood fast, holding their battered shields and battleaxes.

“Charge!” shouted a Specialist.

A ripple fragmented the front line of the Specialists. In a strangely beautiful pattern, the Specialists swarmed towards the Generalists, an undulating wave upon wave of clanking moving bodies. “Hold tight!” cried a Generalist, as she levitated effortlessly into the air, and materialised a volley of icicles shooting towards the Specialists. Another Generalist moved forward, forsook his axe and shield, and clapped his hands to unleash a thundering tremor, toppling the front line of the approaching Specialists.

“Archers!” And a sleet of arrows flew into the air, formed a graceful arc, and rained on the Generalists. Just before the the arrows hit, shields faced skywards to deflect most of the arrows. A sudden gust of wind blew to disrupt the flight path of the arrows, sweeping them harmlessly to the side.

Then the clash came.

Spears were thrusted, aiming for the head. Battleaxes were swung, some to break spears, some to bash heads, some to disembowel, some to clear a path for others. The Specialists used everything they knew, which was to thrust a spear unerringly into the head, or shoot an arrow unerringly to the eye. The Generalists used everything they knew, which meant using the flat end of the axe to increase surface contact with the head, or the blunt end to smash spears, or the sharp end to slice.

“NOW! Everyone together!” That Specialist appeared to be the leader. The Specialists moved closer to the leader and started charging in an arrow-like formation, intent on splitting the Generalists.

One Generalist near the point of the formation reversed his battleaxe and thrust it downwards. The ground exploded. Another Generalist took the opportunity to blow the dirt towards the Specialists. Yet another Generalist sliced her hand in the air and formed a fire barrier. The front line of the Generalists held their shields together, propped them on the ground, enlarged them, and directed some of the heat from the fire onto their shields and melded them together.


That war is still waging. Everyone says to specialise. To find a niche. To go ever deeper into something. A part of me agrees. Another part of me also says that something is wrong. If everyone goes into a deep hole, how are they going to talk to each other? If there’s an ambiguous problem, who’s to come forth and solve it?

And ambiguous problems we will have, given the increasing complexity of our problems. I envision problem solving then to start similarly to medical diagnosis. Maybe you feel an erratic inability to breathe. You might want to go directly to a Specialist. Which one then? A lung Specialist? Probably a good choice. What if it’s not your lungs, given that you probably don’t know much about the human body? What if it’s your trachea, or a fungal infection, or the ginseng tonic you drank 3 days ago?

My friend had a compromise. It was originally called “PI expertise” or something like that. I can’t remember what’s the vertical axis, so I’m calling it the inverted PI.

Inverted PI Polymath

Out of the range of topics you know, you master 2 (instead of just 1) topics. For the other topics, you maintain a passable level of knowledge. I’ll leave you to decide what “passable” means, since I believe it’s up to the individual.

It just so happens that I write about maths and programming here on the blog. Ok, I’m topic-wandering lately, but I originally just wrote about those 2 topics.

I will also tell you that I’ve met mathematicians who can’t program for biscuits, and programmers can’t do math logic to save their lives. For me, these 2 topics complement each other. If I didn’t write code, I wouldn’t know that for some maths concepts, a workaround is needed (such as “1/3 cannot be represented exactly with floating point numbers”). If I didn’t do maths, forming complicated if-else statements might be tough (I’ve seen programmers who don’t understand De Morgan’s laws, even if they don’t know the name of the concept).

Maybe I just happen to like 2 topics that can work symbiotically.

I’m also not a master of maths and programming. Far from it. In fact, I feel my skill levels in both diluting. But my interest in both is still there. I just happen to like exploring other topics too.

I don’t think that struggle will go away. I’m neither interested enough to only hone just one skill, nor clever enough to master several skills. It’s like neither the Specialists nor the Generalists can accept me. It’s a war I tell ya.

Now I need to get back to experiencing that war again. Tell me what you think though.


I am humbly asking you to be my patron. This will be a long read, so if you want to skip to where the party is, click here. So what’s micropatronage, and how is it different from plain patronage? I’ll explain that in a while, but first I want to share a story with you.

Bread ecstasy

My mom told me that when she was young, she travelled to France. Being frugal, she found she couldn’t afford anything other than bread. The baguettes there were the cheapest food she could find. So she ate that every day while she was in France.

Well, history seemed to have repeated itself. A few days ago, I was doing grocery shopping in the supermarket. Like a man on a mission, I went straight for the kill. My target? A pack of muesli and a giant bottle of fresh milk.

Well, along that unerring route from where I picked up the shopping basket and where my muesli was, was the bakery section. For some reason, I glanced ever so slightly at the rows of loaves of bread and stopped. Hmm. I could check out the bread spread.

As I slipped into the alley of bakery delights, something clicked in my mind. I could eat bread! As a meal! What a novel idea! (I promise to cut down on the exclamation marks) I was ecstatic. Doing some mental calculations, I found that a meal comprising of 2 or 3 slices of bread with some peanut butter or some other spread on it, was cheap! (I’m sorry, that’s the very last exclamation mark, I promise)

I was dancing. There were squeals of delight. I was head banging as was appropriate in a rock concert. I hugged a loaf of bread (it was squishy, and smelt nice). I also scared the living daylights out of the genial grandma beside me.

Ok, I didn’t actually dance. But it happened in my head. The grandma was really there though.

Well, I’m not at the point of stealing bread. Yet. But it would be a sad day if the headlines read

33 year old wrestles McDonald's Happy Meal from 5 year old

Yes, a very sad day indeed. Abraham Maslow (sort of) said it in 1943, Chris Guillebeau said it in 2010,

It’s hard to sit around thinking big thoughts when you’re wondering if you’ll have enough to eat next week.

When you're starving, even bread and peanut butter tastes heavenly. Unless you're allergic to nuts, of course.

Although to be fair, my current lack of freedom is due in some part to a personal choice…

So what’s micropatronage?

Patronage was a word associated most importantly with the Renaissance period. A patron was simply someone who financially supported artists, musicians, writers, philosophers and other persons of scholarly pursuits. Patrons supported the work of the people they admire, typically artists. (There were other types of patrons, such as political ones, but we’ll ignore those in our context)

Patrons then were powerful and extremely wealthy. For example, Lorenzo de’ Medici of the House of Medici, was a patron of Leonardo da Vinci.

And micropatronage? Instead of one powerful patron supporting one artist, think of many less wealthier Medici’s supporting one da Vinci. Yes, I know I’m holding myself up against Leonardo himself, but I also draw now. I’m getting closer to that ideal polymath… Besides, after Seth Godin redefined the word “artist” in his book Linchpin (Amazon affiliate link), I feel I’m up to the task now.

Just to set things straight, no, I will not call you a micropatron. That is like diminishing the value of the support you’re giving me. You’re a patron, regardless of the amount of support. You’re a patron, whether your support is macho or minor, monetary or metaphysical, moral or motivational, mythical or medical, miraculous or mute. You’re my patron. Besides, you can tell your girlfriend (or boyfriend) that you’re a patron. It sounds sexy. It is sexy.

“Honey, I’m home.”
“Hey sweetie, how was your day?”
“It was great. I became a patron.”
“Ooh, that’s sexy. Come here so I can give you some love.”

Or something like that.

Sweet! I'm a patron.

I’m sold. Sign me up.

Really? Uh, for the sake of transparency, let me educate you on the ways of making money online, which is my primary means of support. Actually, that sounds kinda sleazy. I make a living through the Internet. Ok, that sounds better. There are 3 main methods:

  • Advertising
  • Affiliate marketing
  • Your own products and services

Personally, I don’t like advertising (on this blog anyway). It uglifies my blog and intrudes on your attention. You don’t really want to read an article on raster to Cartesian coordinate conversion and half way through that, I ask you if you like a particular brand of cologne, do you? The advertisement will have to be relevant, and my years of writing taught me that is hard for this blog. I’m ok with advertising on my magazine, but I’m skipping ahead about the magazine…

Similarly, product relevance is hard to accomplish here for affiliate marketing. If you’re not familiar with the term, it means you’re selling other people’s products for a commission. The typical rate is 50%, with some Internet marketers offering as high as 75% commission if you successfully sell their products. I write about practically anything under the sun, that doesn’t mean every product is relevant here. (Amazon book recommendations are about the only exception, and only rarely do they fit.)

And I don’t want to write an article talking about a product just so I can make a commission. Even if that article’s well balanced on pros and cons. Even if I disclose beforehand that I get a commission if you buy that product through a link I provide (which has some nifty tracking so that the merchant knows the sale came through me).

The routes of both advertising and affiliate products will subtly influence the way I write my articles. I don’t like that. I want to write articles that you might find interesting and helpful. And if they don’t, hopefully the articles at least made you laugh.

So the final method of making money online making a living through the Internet, which many bloggers are already figuring out, is to sell your own products and services. If I’m going to bombard you with advertisements and product sales pitches, it had better be about my own products and services. In this respect, I consider donations and patronage to be in this category. A donor gives money to you because you sell hope, faith, laughter, or relief from boredom. A patron gives money to you because he supports your work.

What’s the number?

So how much do I need? About US$600 per month. I calculated that as a round number, ignoring fluctuations in US to Singapore dollar conversions (assuming US$1 = S$1.40) and ignoring some miscellaneous expenses, and paring down to survival costs and monthly bills. And almost half of that goes to paying my insurance. Insuring my life and health is slowly killing me. Oh the irony.

A word of advice. If you have a stable job, don’t pile monthly expenses such that if you lose that job, you have difficulty paying for those expenses. Quitting my job might turn out to be the dumbest decision I’ve ever made, but I’m much happier now. We’ll see how it goes…

I’m not asking you to support my work with $600 every month (but it’s so awesome if you do). I’m saying I have a low overhead, and every little bit of support you give goes directly to my survival (other than the small admin fees charged by the payment processor site).

Maybe you find it incredulous that I can survive on US$600 a month. Let me give you an idea of how it works. You might be one of those coffee drinkers who unfailingly visit Starbucks every day. Perhaps you always order a tall latte to go. It might cost you $3.50. That latte you had, after converting to Singapore dollars, is enough to buy me a plate of rice with vegetables and maybe a little bit of meat or egg. I’ll probably even be able to buy a cup of tea (I like teh si siu dai, which is Hokkien for tea and evaporated milk mixed together with less sugar). Your morning drink can buy me dinner.

I have stopped lifting weights. Because lifting weights (and vigorous exercise) raises my already high metabolic rate, and makes me burn energy faster, and makes me eat more to compensate, and up my expenses. There goes my bulging biceps, chiselled chest and daunting deltoids…

My transportation costs are practically zero. I walk. I walk over 3 kilometres a day if I get out of the house. I take the bus only when absolutely necessary (like when it’s raining, or when I have a big bag of groceries). I take the train if the destination is far, and I alight at the nearest train station and then walk.

I’m telling you this because I’m committed to keeping the overhead costs low.

“But you’re not enjoying life”

I’ve gone to bed hungry more than a few times now. I remembered what it’s like to go without satisfying my stomach. (I used to starve to save up money so I could buy video games. ‘Twas long time ago. A story for another time.) It’s not fun.

I walk everywhere. In the drizzling rain or in the bloody murderous hot sun.

Zhai nan

I still try to get out of the house. Otherwise, I’d become a true “zhai nan” (ja-ee nahn). It literally means “house man”. It’s usually used in a derogatory tone, typically describing socially inept males who stay at home whose only form of entertainment is video games or the Internet.

Low social stat

When I go out with my friends (because I still need some kind of social life), I don’t have cake, eat ice cream or even a cup of tea when I’m thirsty. “But you’re not enjoying life.”

The alternative was to go back to a desk-bound job, coding some software that I had no pride in, working with people scared of losing their jobs and clinging to their frozen ideas of what was work like an intravenous drip, not understanding that their soul, their creativity, their life was slowly dripping away nevertheless. Perhaps your job is nothing like that, and you love your job and is happy. Good for you.

What I’m really terrified of, is that I’ll never get a full opportunity to make a positive impact on the world. And so I go hungry sometimes.

My email queries are non-trivial

I’m sure you’ve heard of bloggers who couldn’t answer their emails any more because of the volume. I don’t know the contents of their emails, but I’m pretty sure their replies could be done in a few minutes. I’m not trivialising their problem. Even if a reply takes only 1 minute, at hundreds of emails, you could still spend hours just answering email.

I have a different problem. I have fewer email queries, much fewer. Sometimes the queries come in the form of a comment to an article I wrote. But each of those queries can take me hours to reply. I have to research on the problem, and if there are any solutions already written out there. I have to check if my math is correct. I might have to write a program, and make sure it runs fine. I consolidate the answer into a coherent whole. My email reply is 5 to 10 times longer than the initial email. 5 sentences per email reply is an extremely hard rule to follow.

This is why that quadratic Bézier article was written. Or the 3D cubic version. Or the one on percentage contribution (I had help from Christopher. See below). Or the one on advanced styling in Excel Open XML.

Those were written at the express request for help from some of my readers. Possibly even you. I want to help. It’s just draining on my psyche. And sometimes, I wonder if I’m making an impact at all to better the world.

Even if I had a job and don’t need your patronage, 5 hours per email reply is still too much. The brain cycles and time lost is hard to justify. I want to help. It’s not like I’m helping to pick up an apple that fell out from a person’s bag. It’s not like I’m helping to give directions to a lost traveller (but I suck at giving directions. I’m a road idiot). It’s 5 hours. Unadulterated gratitude can take me only so far for so long.

That said, words of gratitude and feedback and such are still extremely powerful (my blog is known to run on a single “thank you” comment for weeks without needing nourishment).

For anyone who launches a product, who bravely publishes that first book, who records music, who stands up for ideas of any kind — for anyone who performs for an audience without trackable means for people’s happiness — he or she knows the importance of receiving feedback. And a fan letter, invaluable.
– Liz Danzico

You’re actually helping other people

If you become my patron, you’re not just supporting me, but also helping other people then. By keeping me alive, you’re allowing me to come up with coherent, understandable and clear answers that take me 5 hours. By supporting my work, you inspire me to do greater work, which hopefully inspires others to do greater work.

Your patronage will help keep the already free writings on this blog even freer (if there’s such a thing). And speaking of that, I’ve decided to set my magazine free. The next issue of Singularity (August 2010) will be available for free. I’m sure the participants of my survey will be pleased to know that. The main reasons are that more people will benefit from the magazine, and that micropayments don’t really work on the Internet. Here’s a sneak peek at one of the topic’s header graphic:

Vegetarian continuum

My friend Christopher contributed an article for the July 2010 issue. He said, “Vince, I don’t care if no one reads that article. If they want to read it, they have to buy the magazine from you.” (This was why his full article wasn’t in the free preview. He specifically told me to only put it in the paid version.) I’m touched, and really grateful. The magazine was basically a one-man show. Layout, design, photos, images, topic header graphic, articles were all created by me, aside from the cover photo and article contributed by my friends.

When I told Christopher my decision to set the magazine free, I also told him I’d understand if he didn’t want to continue contributing articles. Well, he’s still willing to contribute. But he has a condition. You have to become my patron. He drives a hard bargain…

Christopher wrote 3 books on personal finance. He has strong philosophical grounds and he’s an IT manager. His insights will be useful to you.

Specialists aren’t enough. We also need generalists for our future.

That’s the big idea I’m pushing.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
– Mahatma Gandhi

I am scared to death at the prospect of having to become a polymath. Do you know how hard that is? That many people think it’s a waste of time? That people tell me to just continue programming (and by implication, only programming), because that’s what I’m apparently good at?

I believe that our future needs generalists. Our future won’t survive the fracturing of knowledge into deeper and deeper specialisation without people who can connect the different spheres of information together. How can they, when their tunnel vision had already excluded the impossible outcomes and the possible ones from their field of vision?

So I’m slowly trying to be a polymath, despite the inherent hardships. To show you, to show the world that we need polymaths, I need to become one.

Be the change I wish to see in the world.

That statement scares the heck out of me. Will you support me in that quest, that vision?

How else can you help

Help me spread the word. My definition of the word “patron” isn’t that narrowly defined. I’m giving my help freely. I’m giving the magazine away freely. I ask that you help me tell other people about it. If you know of anyone supportive of my work, ask if they are interested in being a patron of mine.

Awesome is a by-product

You can also sprinkle “Polymath Programmer” or “Singularity magazine” surreptitiously into your daily conversations.

“Sir, do you want a latte?”
“Polymath Programmer”
“Yes, I want a latte.”

“Watch where you’re going, numbskull! Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“Bugger off.”
“What did you say?”
“Singularity magazine.”
“I’m sorry.”

And saying “polymath programmer” is easier than “peter piper picked a pair of pickled peppers”… it trains your pronunciation.

And just in case you’re interested, you can be a patron of Polymath Programmer for US$20 per month.


The amount is automatically deducted from your PayPal account every month, and you can stop the payment at any time from your PayPal account. You can find out more on how to support my work by clicking here. Thanks! (drat, I used another exclamation mark…)

(psst… and remember to slip the words “polymath programmer” or “singularity magazine” into your conversations. Or ask supportive people to be my patrons. You’re an awesome person.)

Should you be a generalist or specialist?

The short answer is: be both.

That seems to cheat you of an interesting discussion, so let’s talk more on it. Let’s define the terms first. Generally speaking (that’s not a personal bias, that’s how the language is used…), a generalist is a person whose interests and skills are varied. A specialist is a person who’s very interested and/or skilled in 1 (maybe 2) area(s).

So why are specialists highly sought after? As a rough benchmark, let’s use Google Trends:
Generalist vs Specialist trend

One possible reason is that people feel safer going to a specialist for help. For example, people would rather see a lung specialist, or heart specialist, or kneecap specialist than a general practitioner. Even for small problems.

I’m not saying it’s wrong. It makes sense.

I’m saying, as the world grows more complex, so does its problems. As the complexity grows, it becomes harder to categorise those problems. Thus making it difficult to know who to consult.

Say the web application has some errors. Is it Javascript? Is it improperly formed HTML? Is it the CSS? Is it the database permission? Is the database down? Is the server down? Is the code wrong? And are you telling me you need to look for a Javascript expert, a web designer, a database administrator and a programmer in order to fix that problem?

The general consensus (there’s the word again) seems to be to focus on your strengths and correct your weaknesses as best as possible (or completely ignore them).

As the world’s problems grow more complex, I propose that the categories start to merge together. You don’t think of them as Javascript or CSS or database problems. You look at them as a web application problem. And you look for someone specialising in developing web applications.

So should you be a generalist or a specialist? I would say be both if you can. The world needs both. As Seth Godin says, specialise in being a generalist.

It feels like an intractable proposition. How do you know many things and know one thing very well at the same time? How do you stand still and move at the same time? How do you clench your fist and unclench your fist at the same time?

Well, don’t think of them as opposite sides of a solution. Think of them as the same solution.

Doing one thing well isn’t enough

It is that time of year when the students begin classes at the local universities. If they behave like what I remembered when I was studying, they’ll choose whatever is most profitable when they start working. Or whatever they excel in, hoping that their chosen degree helps when they start working. Concentrating their efforts on one thing, thinking it’s the best use of their university time.

I think we’re churning out enough specialists. I know of efforts to create well rounded individuals, who study a little bit of knowledge outside of their area of expertise. This is not enough. In this age of information, where knowledge is key, having information from diverse sources is critical. Understanding information from diverse sources is even better. Well rounded doesn’t cut it anymore. We need more polymaths.

Competing to be the best is commendable, and encouraged. The thing is, all the popular fields are taken. You want to be the best golfer? Go ahead. You want to have the largest software company? Go ahead. I just think there’s an alternative. I agree with Scott Adams (of Dilbert), who thinks becoming very good (top 25%) at two or more things is easier.

For example, a company needs a competent programmer. Hey you’re good enough. The company also needs a competent web designer. Well well well, turns out you’re good at web designing too. Match made in heaven.

You don’t have to be the best. Being 2nd best is often good enough, because you only need to be better than most other people.