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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

The Problem with Being M-Shaped

There’s a lot of noise these days about being “T-shaped.” It’s possessing that great blend of depth in a particular skill area with the ability to see the bigger picture and to work cross-disciplinarily. It’s much better than being “lower-case-l-shaped”, with depth but little versatility, or perhaps “apostrophe-shaped”… okay we’re stretching it too far.

I am M-shaped. I see people all around me who have discovered their love for a particular field, be it database engineering or social media advertising or User Happiness Management, and they’ve spent years immersing themselves in the joy of it. I tried that in energy trading but never found my nirvana and left to build something real. I now find myself at a feast of 1000 dishes and, perhaps ill-advisedly, I’ve launched into it like a starving man possessed. Of the three major startup skills categories [“business”, design, and development], I’m actively learning them all.

I take entrepreneurship courses, read great business blogs daily, listen to Mixergy and spend way too much spare time on Hacker News because I’m fascinated by successful entrepreneurship and leadership. I picked up front-end web design and have started branching out into UX because I love the power of great design to drive function. And I’ve found my way into the back end as well, learning enough PHP to be dangerous (to myself) and enlisting with a Rails bootcamp because I’m a details guy who really wants to learn the skills to build my own web apps from the ground up.

My interests are also M-shaped. Where some of my friends have discovered a particular hobby that consumes their spare time, I love engaging as many new experiences as possible. I’ll dive into photography or cycling or hiking or soccer or dancing for a time before moving on to the next one in the rotation. I love each in turn, but never quite get to that “post constantly on all the forums and attend all the meetups” level.

Someone like that probably sounds a bit too schitzo to work Corporate and may just have to be a founder by default… Great! But it’s presented some challenges since I got out to the Bay Area because I don’t think people really know what to do with that kind of story. They love to help but you’re not really giving them much when you say you’re interested in “EdTech… or the photography industry… or pretty much anything where great design can drive an awesome product… and I’ll run the marketing campaigns, throw together some analytics, or hack away at the code, or really whatever is needed…” Okay, um, that’s nice, so you want me to put you in touch with *who* exactly?

The best way to build a successful business is to stick with something you know well. The best way to network is to have an area of focus or a specific ask. The best way to build a user base is to be deeply ingrained in a particular community. None of those things are easy for the truly M-shaped.

So what is the best path forward? Being M-shaped is a loose synonym for “startup generalist” and there are plenty of those who have been successful in the past. But it’s not as simple without a couple of victories under the belt and the resulting validation to justify “looking around for the next interesting problem to solve”. I may have had credit in my last professional life but I’m a totally unknown quantity to others as a potential entrepreneur. *I* know that I can get inspired by an infinite range of ideas, any of which I’d devote myself to tirelessly. The problem, as I’ve found it, is getting TO those ideas without having a specific vertical and sector already chosen.

Does that mean it’s time to pick a skillset/interest to specialize in? That, to a degree, ignores the great FUN of being M-shaped… Straddling the line between many disciplines and interests can give a fantastic perspective! Or is it about grinding it out until eventually gelling with someone who’s deeply ingrained in a particular space and looking to make a difference? I wish I knew. The hardest step forward is the first one, particularly when you’re equally tantalized by the possibilities down every path.