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Recent years have seen the rise of full-stack startups. Like Apple, these companies build an end-to-end offering, owning much of the hardware, software, design, distribution, sales, customer service, and supply chain. Examples include Uber, Tesla, and Nest.

I’ve been thinking that some of the most successful entrepreneurs I know take a similar approach to their skill set.

Skill trees

I think of the entrepreneurial skill set as a video game skill tree. The tree has several categories, each with a series of skills that you can gain at increasing levels. For example, warriors typically focus on gaining strength, dexterity, and use of weapons. Wizards typically focus on intelligence, spellcasting, and use of magical items.

Mass Effect skill tree

Above: Mass Effect skill tree

The entrepreneurial skill tree is terrifyingly large. Below is a simple version. It’s not intended to be complete, every skill could be segmented into sub-skills, and many general skills like communication could apply to each area. Any entrepreneur can evaluate their level in these skills.

Entrepreneur's skill tree

Above: Entrepreneur’s skill tree

Image Credit: Mark Goldenson

Breadth or depth?

Should we as founders try to be jacks of all trades or specialized experts?

My opinion is that founders should aim to gain familiarity in many areas and expertise in just a few, also known as a T-shaped skill set. My rationale:

  1. Early in a startup, founders wear many hats. It’s not atypical for us to lead multiple areas like product, marketing, and fundraising or engineering and design.
  2. Expertise is expensive and not necessary in many areas early on. Better to launch a minimal viable product, iterate, and hire needed expertise as you scale.
  3. Synergies emerge when you have interdisciplinary skills, even if at a lower level. If you can code and know product management, for example, you likely have a decent sense of both the value and difficulty of features. This accelerates your pace of development with less headcount.

Be deliberate in your skill tree

My sense is that many of us do not plan our skill tree. We jump from area to area based on curiosity and urgency. The problem is that most of these skills can’t be learned in a few all-nighters. They take at least months and often years of deliberate practice. A patchwork of skills makes us less able to perform when needed.

It doesn’t take much time to evaluate your skills and decide where your interests and aptitudes lie. I am especially a fan of learning how to code and how to manage people. Software is eating the world so the future belongs to those who can build it.  Management is a lost art among startups but founder CEOs are a lot more likely to scale if they invest in the hard but soft skill of directing people.

Each startup also has its own skill tree of needs based on the customer, market, product, and risks. For example, Breakthrough requires expertise in health care sales, internet security, and building marketplaces. Founders should build their teams and skills around their startup’s needs.

Here’s the Omnigraffle file of the skill tree above if you want to extend it or complete it for yourself. I wish you luck in leveling up!

Mark GoldensonMark Goldenson is CEO of Breakthrough, an online therapy service. He can be reached at

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