You Can’t Be All Things to All People…

I read a tweet a few weeks back that had my head meeting my desk repeatedly. The advice was “Don’t build a Swiss army knife, build a scalpel”. I get the sentiment behind the message (i.e. build a focused product), but it’s a message that is easily misinterpreted and misapplied. It closes avenues of thought and experimentation prematurely, it stops people trying things for fear of looking stupid… oh and it’s complete nonsense.

This is one of a thousand pieces of advice you’ll find on Twitter, Facebook and the blogs of founders and “mentors” around the globe (yes, this one included). These snippets of advice have become the proverbs of the startup world, the sort of things that people regurgitate without really thinking about. This sort of advice isn’t judged on its merits, it’s judged on the number of retweets. Please! Stop and think before applying this advice to your business!

Like anything you read on the Internet, most of it is plain bullshit. And the stuff that isn’t bullshit should still come with a lengthy list of disclaimers and more than a little context.

If you’ve studied at school or university, one of the first things you learn about doing research is to always check your sources. Only a fool publishes data from sources that are unverified, and yet in this day of easily digestible and repeatable tidbits, all too often a lot of smart people hit the retweet button without thinking about what it is they’re promoting.

Startup advice - Fail fast

The big problem with any such “startup advice”, is that it comes without context. “Fail Fast” is a classic case of advice often delivered without context. Do you know who originally said it? Do you understand the full extent of what they were talking about? Does it even apply to a business like yours? Or, are you just hitting retweet because it seems catchy? (btw, here’s a great article by Mark Suster on failing fast, go read it!) There are many many problems that cannot and will not be solved quickly but may take months, years or even decades.

If, as a founder, the extent of your ability to focus on a problem is reduced to the commonly accepted definition of “fail fast”, then you may simply end up giving in too soon. In the process you’re probably wasting a lot of people’s time and money by running the race but never finishing. Significant achievements take time, money and effort, and unless you’re working with a deeper understanding of what “fail fast” is really getting at, you could just be using it as an excuse for being lazy. This is just one example of how using these startup proverbs as a mantra can lead you astray.

Startup advice - Sell the sizzle, not the sausage

But the worst way this sort of advice rears its ugly head is when making decisions in a team. There is nothing worse than having an idea or suggesting a course of action and having someone glibly replying something like, “Sell the sizzle, not the sausage”. It is spoken as if it is advice passed down from God himself, and that it is somehow equally infallible. It stunts conversation, and stops people trying out new ideas. The same can be said for those that lean on such truths as “I read it in a blog post”, “I saw a YouTube video” or “I went and saw a talk on it”. Unless you have some unequivocal proof that sizzle is indeed better to sell than sausage, you’re better off just testing it for yourself. Every business is different, and more importantly, every market is different. Some people buy on emotion, and some people buy off a checklist. The latter is very much about the sausage, not the sizzle.

And this is the real problem — there are few, if any, absolute truths in a startup. The whole point of what we do is to find new ways of solving existing problems. For every person who tells you that success is “all about hustle”, there’ll be another that will tell you it’s “all about execution”. Blindly following either path without consideration for how it applies to your business is plain stupid. Any advice without context is worth as much as the effort it took to cut and paste it.

Startup Advice - Don't build a swiss army knife

And that brings me back to the the legendary Swiss army knife. This is a tool that has been around for well over a hundred years, has become synonymous with adaptability and usefulness, and to this day is still actually standard equipment for military personal in countries all over the world. Victorinox alone ship sixty thousand of them every day, and that obviously doesn’t include the dozens of other brands making their own versions. It’s easy to say “it does 20 things and does none of them well”, but when you consider the value of portability to the intended customer, it’s not hard to see exactly why they’re still so damned popular.

By closing your eyes and accepting “build a scalpel” as the ultimate truth, you’re missing out on some important learning opportunities. There is far more to be gained from understanding why the Swiss army knife is actually a fantastic example of focus, rather than simply dismissing it as something that isn’t. For startups, the humble army knife has become a symbol of the typical unfocused product, when it fact it’s a shining example of absolute customer focus. The fact that it is so completely useless to me at home when I have a shed full of tools, is precisely the reason why it is so useful when I’m hundreds of miles from civilisation. The value of its portability far outweighs the value of its individual functions.

So next time you see someone saying “build a scalpel, not a swiss army knife”, don’t just hit the “retweet” button. Start a conversation about focus and value, customers and markets. Then ask them if they own a swiss army knife; with over 23 million being made every year, they probably do.

About Alan - Alan Downie has been working in web for over 20 years. Alan was the founder of Fivesecondtest, UsabilityHub and BugHerd. He participated in the Startmate (Australia) and 500 Startups (US) accelerator programs, before becoming a mentor at partner at Startmate. He recently launched Splitrock Studio, a startup studio based in Melbourne, Australia.


  • Tobias says:

    What is your point here, Alan? I see it like this: Building Software or a Startup is a complex thing which requires you to be good at a thousand things. We live in an environment where we share our experience with other through blogs and twitter. This is important, since trough this sharing we learn to to the building better. So how does good sharing work? By condensing information to a relevant and catchy phrase. Basically the same way advertisement works on the street: They cannot tell you all the context and details, so they start with the catchy slogan an try to pull you in to more information from there (go to the shop or website, learn more there).
    It is the same with twitter and such. Of course you are not supposed to build your stock portfolio based on one tweet. The tweet is just the entry point that pulls you into more relevant information. Same with startup advice. Should this tweet be retweetet anyway? Of course it should, that is the way we build this software: Relevance by mass. But should I blindly retweet: Of course not. But that goes for everything I say publicly: I should only repeat what I believe in.

    That being said, I cannot follow your criticism of catchy phrases. By criticising the catchy phrase you do the same bad thing: You do not check the context that they where provided in (the talk, blogpost, presentation, …) but talk about them out of context.

    I do however agree with you in this: Dont just blindly retweet; only talk about what you really believe in (check this).


    • Alan Downie says:

      I think we mostly agree with each other 🙂 I agree that some of these proverbs are purely linkbait titles to get you through to a nice article, and that (generally) is fine if it gets a few more folks to read a well thought out and educational post. The issue is when those catchy phrases start getting wheeled out without the attached context.

      The point of my criticism, however, is that most people will not research facts or backgrounds (fwiw, I did for this article and in most cases had zero luck finding originating sources for many of the catchphrases I point to). That in itself isn’t the end of the world, but when I see smart people repeating these phrases as advice that’s when there’s a problem. Just because they sound true doesn’t mean they are.