Should an Entrepreneur Be a Jack of All Trades?

Are you a jack of all trades? If so, you may be seriously hurting your business.
March 19, 2013

When I was writing my book Blind Spots, I interviewed Mark Herschberg, the CEO of White Knight Consulting, and asked him if an entrepreneur had to be a jack of all trades to be successful. 

“If you’re a good software developer, you'll be able to get a job as a software developer. But being a good software developer doesn't mean you have what it takes to run a software development company,” Herschberg says. “If you want to do the latter, you have to be good at everything involved with running a business, from designing and manufacturing to hiring and marketing.”

This has been my experience as a workplace consultant. In addition to knowing how to write, speak, conduct research and advise clients (i.e., my bread and butter), I have to understand accounting, public relations, graphic design, online marketing and a host of administrative skills. However, “understand” is the operative word. While possessing a working knowledge of business skills outside my core focus areas is helpful, I don’t need to be—and shouldn’t try to be—spectacular at everything.

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You have inevitably heard the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none.” This idiom originated from the Elizabethan era as “Johannes factotum” (Johnny do-it-all). It became commonplace in the 17th century, with Jack replacing Johannes as the more common name for a man. To date, the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” still describes someone who can do many different things, but is not particularly good at any of them.

This may, in fact, be the kiss of death for an entrepreneur. Self-made individuals, after all, are usually effective because they possess an outstanding talent and have the drive to share that talent with the world. The more they are distracted from that talent, the more the business suffers.

I came to this realization a few years ago. I decided to develop two workbooks for my corporate seminars on recruiting and retaining Gen Y. I designed the first one myself. It looked pretty good. The only trouble was, all the formatting and tweaking and formatting and tweaking some more took me 22 hours over the course of a week.

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Online print firms charge about $500 to design the same type of workbook. My hourly consulting rate was $200, so I spent $4,400 of my own time. That was the moment it occurred to me that doing any and all tasks myself was actually harming my business. I should have been spending those 22 hours doing what I do best.

So for the next workbook, I got smarter. I let an online firm handle the design. Their finished product looked better than my first effort. I saved $3,900 and, more importantly, was able to pour time and energy into activities that grew my operation.

I’m not going to advise that every entrepreneur or startup staff up to the point of unprofitability so they don’t have to dirty their hands doing mundane tasks. But there is a time and a place for being in the trenches. Look carefully at how you're spending your days. If it makes sense to outsource something, do it. If over time it makes sense to hire a full-time employee, take the plunge. While you will relinquish some control, you’ll also keep your head in the game that you’re currently winning—and that’s priceless.

For more time management tips, check out these productivity articles.

Photo: Getty Images