Reader question re “Specialization in life and business​”

Fellow list member Tarrence Davis responded to a recent message where I said that being a generalist is bad for business. An email conversation ensued that I hope you’ll find useful (shared with permission):

Tarrence

Jonathan,

This seems like a strong statement to me:

I have seen time and time again that running a business as a jack-of-all-trades generalist is a recipe for income stagnation and eventual failure.

I see a lot of advice about the need to specialize and I think it’s good advice and it’s great if you happen to be able to figure out some niche, but I’m super uncomfortable with the idea that if you can’t then...that’s it, your business is done.

Is it your view that if my software development business doesn’t specialize it’s basically "destined" to fail?

Sincerely, Tarrence Davis

Jonathan

Yes.

Yours,

—J

Tarrence

Wow, that was strong! :)

So you’re saying that there are no successful generalist software development businesses? Or are you saying that eventually they are going to fail because their leads will dry up or they won’t be able to charge enough because they’re only competing on price?

Jonathan

I knew it was strong when I hit send, sorry about that!

Obviously, there are exceptions to everything and I don’t know every detail about your business.

But there are powerful forces at play that would cause me to bet against the long-term success of a generalist dev shop:

So... one theoretically could keep a generalized business viable over time by ruthlessly decreasing costs to compensate, but I’ve never met a businessperson who wanted to do that.

Is your situation different? What am I missing?

Tarrence

No worries, strong is good! I think it was good for me to hear (or...read) that.

I think that explanation makes sense. I do feel like my skills combined with who I am provide a unique value for businesses that need custom dev work and I also feel that just based on the math that there are enough "fish in the sea" so to speak, but I’m sure most owners feel the same way about their business. So I don’t think you’re missing anything significant enough to outweigh those factors that work against generalists.


If you’re still not convinced that being a generalist is the business equivalent of playing on hard mode, check out Built To Sell by John Warrillow.

Yours,

—J


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