Jack-of-All-Trades: Master of None?

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New research has turned a century-old adage on its head. In fact, being a jack-of-all-trades has profound advantages when starting a business in its inception, according to a recent CUHK study

If you have ever been called a “jack-of-all-trades,” you can rest assured the phrase “master of none” isn’t far behind. At the very least, it is often implied. But how relevant is this old saying in today’s business world?

Unless you are a jack-of-all-trades who works in an organisation that values your broader skill sets, you may feel like your talents are being wasted.

But there is good news! Recent research into individuals with diverse skill sets found that jacks-on-all-trades are more likely to start a business and succeed as entrepreneurs than those who have only a specialised skill. The reason? They can see more opportunities and are more resourceful when solving problems in an uncertain situation like setting up a new business. It doesn’t stop there. Jacks-of-all-trades who are particularly passionate about developing and nurturing startups are more likely to form highly competent and motivated teams.

The study was conducted by Kevin Au, Associate Professor at the Department of Management, as well as directors for both the Centre for Entrepreneurship and the Centre for Family Business at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School. His collaborators included Anna Hsu, his PhD student; Prof. Yingzhao Xiao at Tianjin University; and Prof. Marta Dowejko at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Having a wide variety of skills makes it easier for jack-of-all-trades to explore and exploit opportunities.

Prof. Kevin Au

The researchers were curious about what lay beyond the past findings of human capital research. Such research showed that, as employees, jacks-of-all-trades did not do as good in on-the-job performance as those who had specialized skills. Past research also showed that individuals who gained a variety of skills through training were more likely to start their own business. Yet if a jack-of-all-trades is likely to become an entrepreneur, he or she should also be good at launching start ups.

Delving Deeper Into Startup Development

Wishing to know more how a jack-of-all-trades does in the initial stage of the startup process, the researchers designed their study to investigate how having a broad range of skills contributed to the development of an idea from scratch in an accelerated setting.

The study, entitled Jack-of-all-trades’ with passion: Keener to pursue startup in a team, was longitudinal and used data collected from CUHK Business School’s Empowering Young Entrepreneurs Program. The program’s goal was to awaken the entrepreneurial spirit of young people in Hong Kong. It provided an opportunity for them to engage in training and entrepreneurial activities. A total of 902 students, existing entrepreneurs and full-time employees enrolled in the program. Multiple rounds of questionnaires were sent to the participants during a five-month period, from December 2013 to April 2014. The final results came from an analysis of a smaller subset of working adults who continued the program after the survey. This group was considered the most reliable data set.

The study found evidence that individuals with a greater range of skills are more inclined to start a business. Particularly, they are statistically more likely to follow up on their entrepreneurial intentions and take a more active role of forming a team in the startup process.

“Having a wide variety of skills makes it easier for these individuals to explore and exploit opportunities,” Prof. Au explains. “It’s as if they have more antennae to detect the problems and find resources that nobody has seen. Seeing those problems gives them an edge in finding creative solutions. That’s where the opportunities for new businesses lie.”

The Right Type of Passion

Just as interesting as the variety of skills, passion is a crucial factor that contributes to entrepreneurial success. However, the type of passion matters.

Previous studies have identified three different types of entrepreneurial passion. They are: passion for inventing, which is linked to the initial recognition of opportunities that make entrepreneurial activities possible; passion for founding, which is related to how likely a person is to establish a venture to explore an identified opportunity; and passion for developing, which is concerned with developing a venture so the original vision is brought to fruition.

“Any given entrepreneur may exhibit different levels of passion at different stages of the startup process,” says Prof. Au. He notes that having the intention to start a business is not the same as having the emotional capacity to overcome obstacles that may present themselves in abundance during the startup phase of a business venture.


How does a successful entrepreneur in Chinese society look like?

Specifically, the study found that when entrepreneurs possess a strong passion for developing a venture, there is an even stronger positive relationship between skill variety and team formation. “In other words,” says Prof. Au, “entrepreneurs with a variety of skills are more likely to put their skills into use to form a team if they also possess a strong passion for developing.”

How does that actually work? Prof. Au explains that when multi-talented entrepreneurs exhibit a great sense of passion to develop a venture, they attract like-minded individuals to form teams to turn their ideas into reality. And when potential investors witness solid teamwork and creative synergy within the teams, they are more likely to inject capital into the startups.

“Like attracts like when potential team members witness the passion and confidence of the jack-of-all-trades,” says Prof. Au.

“By contrast, entrepreneurs who are lacklustre in developing their ventures are likely to be unmotivated to form teams. This in spite of the fact that they are multi-talented. As such, jack-of-all-trades must possess a high level of passion for developing their ventures to succeed in the long run,” says Prof. Au.

Here is a formula for entrepreneurial success: If you are a jack-of-all-trades, and you possess a high level of passion for developing a venture, team up with other jacks-of-all-trades who share the same type of passion. The chance of your startup becoming a successful, long-term venture will increase.