The practical guide to the skills you need as an entrepreneur

December 2020


This guide is designed to communicate the skills you need to make a startup succeed; how you can evaluate your level for each skill; and what to do if you are missing certain skills.

The first thing you need understand: Startups are a journey

Startups are a journey. You start with a small founding team. You do all the work: a bit of design, a bit of selling, a bit of customer support and whatever else is needed.

Then you add people to your team. These are usually people who, like you, can wear multiple hats. Their primary job may be to design, but they can give a close a sale when called upon.

As your team grows you start hiring specialists who are experts in their area, but are not as comfortable wearing different hats.

This progression is part due to financial necessity, but more importantly, it increases the chances of success: getting you familiar with all aspects of your business before you start hiring and delegating.

Skills you need on your journey

To succeed on your startup journey you need to be able to design and build your product, analyze its performance and iterate, and be able to market and sell it to your first batch of users.







People have misconceptions about what each of these mean, so let’s define them.

Design: Design is more than making things look pretty. It involves going from an idea to an effective end-product. Making things look pretty is only a small, very small, part of design.

Build: For most digital startups this means coding. Depending on the nature of your startup, coding may merely mean application development, or it may involve advanced machine learning. There are also certain use cases where you can build using a no-code platform like Bubble.

Analyze: What are your goals? Are you reaching them? If not why? That is analysis in a nutshell. It involves quantitative analysis and qualitative analysis. You usually start by analyzing the data to identify areas that need attention and then you talk to users/customers to identify root causes.

Iterate: Once you figure out what needs improving and its root causes, you need to actually improve it, or, in startup speak, you need to iterate. For most digital startups this means more designing, building, marketing and selling.

Market: Marketing is more than ads. Marketing is the collection of all activities you do to first define, then reach and finally convince your target audience to give you a chance. Ads are an option, but they are not your only option.

Sell: Selling is more than pitching. It is all the activities you do to move people through different stages of interest to an eventual purchase. It is closely related to marketing. Sometimes it is fully automated (Netflix), sometimes it involves a lot of manual complexity (Oracle).

How good do you have to be

For each of those skills you can be in one of three levels: Noob, Generalist, Specialist. We think the founding team members, cumulatively, need to have all these skills at a generalist level or higher.

Not qualified: This team has a lot of skills. They can design, market and sell at a generalist level. They can even analyze at a specialist level. However, they cannot build or iterate. As skilled as they are, they are not qualified to run a startup without skilling up or adding others to their core team.

Qualified: Here is the same team as before but now they can build and iterate at a generalist level. The team members may have either skilled up or they may have added new members to their core team.

How to evaluate your skill levels

Here is a rule-of-thumb approach you can use to figure out which level you are in for each skill.

Specialist: Is this skill, or has this skill recently been, a direct element of your full-time job? For instance, is someone paying you, or have they paid you recently, to be a designer for a digital product? If the answer is yes, you can consider yourself a “specialist” for design.

Note that adjacent experience does not count. Maybe your job is designing presentations for a consulting company. That does not make you a “specialist” when it comes to digital product design. It doesn’t even make you a “generalist”.

Generalist: Performing this skill is not the biggest factor in how you earn your living, but you regularly perform it with success. Maybe you are a financial analyst but you code relatively difficult personal projects. That would count as being at a “generalist” level as a builder. Or you are a developer but you also wrote a book on how to pass coding interviews and you are marketing it on Gumroad with success. That would count as being at a “generalist” level as a marketer.

Noob: If you are neither a “specialist” or a “generalist” you are a “noob”. Having adjacent experience, or having an affinity for something, or even having a perceived natural ability for a skill still makes you a “noob”. These are good things to have since they help you learn the skill and become a “generalist” quickly; however, they don't automatically make you a generalist.

Strategies to address missing skills

So what happens if you as a founding team are not at a generalist level or higher for one or more of these skills? In our opinion the correct approach depends on how many skills you are missing.

Missing 1-2 skills: If you are missing 1 or 2 skills you can and should learn them. Usually it takes 2-6 months to pick up a skill at a generalist level. In our experience you can learn up to 2 skills simultaneously.

Missing 3-4 skills: The approach here depends on how many people you have on your founding team. For instance, if you are by yourself, we recommend you recruit a cofounder with 2 or more of the missing skills and learn the rest yourself. If there are 2 of you, then you could each learn 1 or 2 of these skills. If there are 3 or more of you and you are still missing this many skills maybe you should take a closer look at the make up for your team. You are either replicating each other’s skills or some of you have no relevant skills. That is not a recipe for success.

Missing 5+ skills: This is not a good place to start from. We recommend you focus on skilling up at this point and get down to a more manageable number of missing skills.

Practical Startup Guide can help you skill up

These days there are bootcamps for everything and so many online resources to learn from. If you use them effectively you can get to a “generalist” level with any of these skills.

At Practical Startup Guide we are working on a series of guides to help you use online resources to skill up. So far we’ve put together a guide on how you can learn coding: The practical guide to learn coding. We’ll be adding a guide for each of the mentioned skills.

Concluding thoughts

  • As mentioned we will be adding other guides to go into more depth about some of these subjects. You can follow me on twitter to get updates on our progress with these guides.
  • This is not necessarily the only correct approach to building startups. This approach is inline with the lean startup movement. There are other ways to build startups, but they require a lot more capital and at least in our opinion are not as effective.




About the author

I'm Can (pronounced John). I am an entrepreneur with 2 minor exits. I am currently working on I have strong views on how startups should be run. I put together PracticalStartupGuide to share these views.