So it might seem strange that someone like me, who seems mediocre on paper, could have founded two high-growth internet companies in the last three years. One, Crew, hosts millions of dollars in transactions a year. And the other, Unsplash, is one of the fastest growing photography communities ever.
Good timing likely has something to do with it. But is there something else going on?
Scott Adams, best-selling author and creator of the world-famous comic series Dilbert, has a theory: success comes from a collection of mediocre skills, not just one exceptional talent. He calls this his 'talent stack'.
For example, although Dilbert is a comic strip, Adams says his success didn't come from him being a great artist, but from how he pairs his mediocre drawing skills with other average-to-good skills like:
- Writing (Simple and persuasive, but not Pulitzer-worthy)
- Business (Good, not amazing)
- Marketing and PR (Good, not great)
- Social media (Mediocre)
- Persuasion (Above average, but not Trump-like)
Many comic artists may draw better than Adams. But not many can draw and understand business, marketing, social, media, and persuasion at his level. So while you might be a better artist than Adams, his combination of skills is what makes him stand out from the pack.
This got me thinking. Since the 'talent stack' philosophy seems to work so well for Adams, what if we applied the same philosophy to a company?
If optimizing your 'talent stack' results in creating value and fighting off competition, then you should have a recipe for building a great, lasting company.
Why building the right mix of mediocre talents can make you great
Ultimately, everything your company creates is a result of the skills your team has. For example, when I look at our company, I see our 'talent stack' including:
- Design/Development (Good)
- Writing (Good)
- Marketing (Good)
But a lot of companies in our industry have those skills. What makes our 'talent stack' much stronger is when we chose to mix in our more unique skills like:
- Ability to come up with clever ideas (Good)
- Community building and customer service (Good)
- Psychology (Above average. Many of our team members have psychology degrees and/or a strong interest in it.)
- Humor (Above average and getting better now that we keep hiring funny people including a comedian.)
- Grit/endurance (Great. We look for people who have experience performing at a high level for long hours (e.g. marathoners).
Though we may not be the best at any one of these skills, it's not being great at a single skill that matters. It's the combination of skills that makes the difference.
You can also build smaller talent stacks within your company. For example, our social media team is lead by people who understand social media but may not have the experience to be considered industry experts. Yet, we've more than doubled our social media following since they were hired. Though we may not be considered experts, we've built a top-performing team by pairing an understanding of social media, with three other skills that optimize this team for success:
1. Endurance (Can reply quickly to many messages with high quality)
2. A good eye for design
3. A good sense of humor
When these three skills are paired with even a little social media experience, we get exceptional results.
Where to look for skills that make your company hard to compete with
The beauty of applying this 'talent stack' philosophy to a company is you don't have to learn every skill yourself. Instead, you can improve your 'talent stack' simply by adding people to your team that bring optimal skills. Be sure to also look within your team to understand what skills you may already have to work with and focus on hiring people with skills that you feel are missing from your stack of talents.
By relying on your team's 'talent stack' you don't have to be great at a single thing to build a great company. The sum of your team's skills, even if mediocre, can add up to greatness.