Generalists, Founders and the Impostor Syndrome

As the technical co-founder of a web startup, it’s easy to think of yourself as a software engineer first and a founder second. This is patently wrong and potentially dangerous for your mental health.

To make my case, here is a list of job titles that I could quite easily give myself based on the work I have done this week.

  • Business analyst (considering the benefits and implications of switching payment provider)
  • SysAdmin
  • Data analyst (running analytics on some data to see if it can help us find a solution to “the big problem”)
  • System architect (planning how our application should integrate with a new API)
  • Rails developer (integrating our web application with the new API and a new payment provider)
  • JavaScript developer (building our backbone.js based webapp)
  • Front-end developer (building out the HTML and css for our webapp)
  • UI/UX Developer (trying to improve our sign-up flow)
  • Marketing (improving our pricing plan communications, blogging about our company’s second birthday)
  • Copywriter (both in-app microcopy, and marketing copy on our website)
  • Design (designing/building a page to thank our Founder members:
  • Customer support (interacting with users via email and phone calls)

I don’t say all this to boast or complain, it’s simply a fact. As the technical half of a two-person company, I have to cover a number of different roles.

Truthfully, I love it. I have been, and always will be, a generalist. However, I also push myself to be the best at every individual thing that I do—no small feat given the list above—and this is where the imposter syndrome kicks in. Instead of evaluating my performance holistically, I tend to compare myself against experts in each of the roles I perform.

For example, with my JavaScript developer hat on, I think of myself as a JavaScript developer, not a founder. This means I start comparing myself to other JavaScript developers (like some of the best, in, the, business. At that point I start to feel inadequate. The trouble is, I do this for all my hats: compare myself to the best in the business for each vertical. At that point I start to feel really inadequate.

Having spoken to two other co-founders with similar feelings this week, it’s clear that this is a foolish mindset. A more appropriate perspective is:

I am a capital-f Founder, not a JavaScript developer, or Rails developer, or designer or customer-support guy. I will still strive to be the best in the world at each of my hats, but if I don’t quite make it that’s okay—I’ll just hire them one day instead.

This shift in thinking has a had a massive positive effect on my mental health—but I’d love to hear what other founders think?