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Q&A: You must be a generalist
Feb 5, 2017  |  Kenelm Tonkin


Callista Ward of Macon, Georgia, asks:
I’m a first-time entrepreneur, 4 months into a venture. It’s not what I expected. I’m a product expert. In fact, I was in this industry as an employee for nearly a decade. As an employer, I am pulled by a million distractions from the product itself. I feel out of my depth. Being at only early-stage, I have the option of exiting. Before I make a decision, I’d like an insider’s view of what it’s really like running a business?

Kenelm Tonkin, Chairman, Tonkin Corporation answers:

It is common for people with solid product knowledge to enter business. Especially for the ambitious, it’s intoxicating to believe mastery of a product equals mastery of a business. It’s that old trap. He knows how to produce a widget. Therefore he knows how to run a widget business.

Here’s the shocking news. Production is only one discipline necessary to create a viable business. No expertly produced good or service will ever sustain an entrepreneur if people are oblivious to it. Even if product-awareness exists, customers might not have access to it. Even with access, buyers may need persuading. Then, after-sales service might be required. Records and payments for all this are needed. This is just a sketch of the areas in which proprietors must be involved.

A business is not a product-centric job with helpers. Imagine a business as a building. Enterprises too are complex and time-consuming to construct, possessing the potential to become saleable assets or even intergenerational legacies. Building developers are not necessarily experts in architecture, engineering and all the trades. The owner is a generalist who brings it all together.

So too, entrepreneurs are generalists not specialists, needing to appreciate, marshal and even practice the entrepreneurial arts: trend-spotting, business modeling, business planning, capital raising, cash flow forecasting, negotiation, property management, cleaning, recruitment, communications, training, management, retention, employment law, contract law, quality control, direct marketing, social media, advertising, sales, public relations, customer service, information technology, accounting, payroll, internal audit, cost control, taxation, treasury, compliance, secretarial, business systems, systems development, expansion management, contraction management, exit strategy, succession planning and, yes, production.

A one-person business means the proprietor is impossibly busy. The larger the company, the more these tasks are delegated to specialists. Whether your widget is real estate, financial planning services or a legal opinion, you need to be a generalist and cover many business disciplines. Production is just one of them.

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