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Startups are built by generalists and scaled by specialists

Hey. I've stopped posting as frequently here because I'm doing most of my writing on Chasing Melody nowadays. Each week I write about what we can learn from founders that have built insanely great companies and products. I go deep into their thinking and aim to extract general and repeating lessons.

I write with lots of anecdotes. Partially because I find that kind of writing more entertaining, but mainly because they help develop an intuition for how to build wonderful things.

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Gates had no taste

There's a funny part of 'Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson where Jobs says that Bill Gates was more a copier than an innovator:

“Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology. He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas....He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”

Gates had no taste. Their products might have been good, but nobody ever got excited about a Microsoft launch. Jobs, on the other hand, had the best product taste the world has ever seen. It’s the difference between Apple and Microsoft.

A CEO's core job functions are all driven by taste: recruiting requires good taste in people, a vision requires good taste in business strategy, and leading company culture requires good taste for what a productive work environment feels like. Depending on the type of company you want to build, it’s good to know where you lie on the Microsoft to Apple spectrum.

And so the question you might ask becomes: what can you do to acquire better product judgment? How might you develop taste?

Taste and Iterate

Product building seems to follow one of two parallel paths: the ‘customer obsession’ path and the ‘taste and iterate’ path.

The ‘customer obsession’ path is where you ask customers what problems they have and build solutions for them. Frameworks like the Lean Startup are your guidebook on this path, telling you what you need to build at each step of the way.

On the 'taste and iterate' path, you don’t ask the customer anything. Instead, you iterate internally and rely on the taste and judgment of internal product leaders.

Ken Kocienda explains this way of building in his book Creative Selection. In the Creative Selection process, you iterate on demos and present those demos to a hierarchy of product leaders. First you present to your boss, then your boss presents to their boss, and so on up, with the top level being Steve Jobs himself. You are invited to be an evaluator on these product panels if you have proven yourself to have good product taste.

The iPhone is one of the best examples of following this path. Consumers could have never asked for an iPhone until they actually saw one first. If you were trying to build it, the customer obsession path wouldn't have taken you very far simply because people that bought iPhones never knew they wanted one.

Ben Horowitz, in ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things’ points out:

“It turns out that is exactly what product strategy is all about—figuring out the right product is the innovator’s job, not the customer’s job. The customer only knows what she thinks she wants based on her experience with the current product. The innovator can take into account everything that’s possible, but often must go against what she knows to be true. As a result, innovation requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and courage.“

The primary difference between the two paths is that one solves a problem the customer knows they're experiencing, and the other solves a problem they never knew they had. Instead of "let me ask this person what they want and then build it,” you adopt an attitude of "I'm going to observe the shit out of this person and surprise them with something they never knew they needed.”

The latter is far more challenging. It's also far more valuable, which is why Apple is the most valuable company in the world. Perhaps most importantly, it changes industries forever.

If you want to build products that are significantly better than anyone else - the iPhone of your industry - taste is what takes you there.

How to Develop Good Taste

I. Join a company with good taste

Building great companies is an exercise in taste, with the rewards given to people with the best taste in products, markets and people. People with taste have an intuitive sense of quality, even when they can't describe it. Taste is what lies beyond what can be written down. You have to learn it by feel.

Perhaps the best way to develop the taste needed to build a great company is to move yourself into a community that is already doing the things you want to do. Most knowledge that is useful for company building is tacit.

Joining a company you want to emulate is the best way to do this because it allows you to throw yourself into the details and learn how it works from the inside. It gives you an intuitive sense of the internal patterns. It’s no coincidence that so many successful founders tend to come from already-successful companies.

Ultimately, consumption shapes your taste. If you want to refine it, surround yourself with excellence. This is why restauranteurs travel to dine at the world's best restaurants and serious painters do a tour of duty in Paris or New York. It's why you'll benefit from joining a company that seems to have great taste.

II. Have a diverse set of interests

"Edwin Land of Polaroid talked about the intersection of the humanities and science. I like that intersection. There's something magical about that place… The reason Apple resonates with people is that there's a deep current of humanity in our innovation. I think great artists and great engineers are similar, in that they both have a desire to express themselves." - Steve Jobs

I only stumbled upon Edwin Land recently. Jobs called Land "a national treasure," and modelled much of his career after his. When you learn that Land was the inspiration for many products built at Apple, it makes sense.

In 'A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War' the author points out:

"Land was introverted in person, but supremely confident when he came to his ideas... Alongside his scientific passions, lay knowledge of art, music, and literature. He was a cultured person growing even more so as he got older, and his interests filtered into the ethos of Polaroid."

Companies take on the ethos of their founders. Jobs and Land had vast interests. They had a passion for art and beauty and it revealed itself in the products that their companies built. Gates was different. His obsession lay in distributing Microsoft software to every corner of the globe. It’s the reason Microsoft is so successful, but it's also why their products are bland and boring.

Breadth of experience is valuable. I suspect it’s the driving force behind the idea that startups are built by generalists and scaled by specialists.

Jobs had wonderful design, typography, storytelling and product taste and he combined those to create products at Apple. He said that “some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musicians on the side.” The book about Edwin Land says "Land liked people who had breadth, as well as depth. Chemists, who were also musicians or photographers who understood physics."

Leonardo Da Vinci was a master of the arts - painting, drawing, sculpting, engineering, architecture and anatomy. He wrote literature and drew designs for the helicopter at the same desk. He was the kind of genius that gets spoken about centuries after his death. If the intersection of humanities and science were a real place, a statue of Da Vinci would stand at the centre.

At this intersection, we find people who are unbelievably creative. People capable of incredible feats. People who are designing, creating and improving the world around them. These are the people we need to act as the navigators of the battering ram that is technology, leading the companies that change the world. Generalists set the direction.

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