Hunters and Farmers; Builders and Operators

hunters and farmers, builders and operatorsThere are two kinds of people in the world: people who like Neil Diamond and people who don't (do you remember this line from “What about Bob?)…

Hunters and Farmers

No seriously, there are two kinds of people when it comes to new product development and startups. At least in my experience. But then, my sense is that there have always been two kinds of people.

If you go way way back, you find that some people were really good as hunters. They would head out, spend days scanning their environment, look for hints of where animals were hanging out, and then pursue their prey.

Hunters didn't always need to act. They would have to wait. But when the timing was right, they'd have to move quickly. They had to seize their opportunities. And they loved that.

Of course, hunting providing one kind of sustenance. And if you remember your days playing computer simulations like Civilization, you'll recall that the other kind was crops. Farmers needed different skill sets.

Farmers also didn't always need to act. But when they did, they'd have to act and then watch. They'd have to monitor. To see if what they did had an impact.

Their pacing was different and their actions were different, but they were just as important. Years ago I remember hearing that the Mayans lost their battles with the Spaniards because when it was crop time, these soldiers all headed back to their fields to manage their harvest.

You can take the farmer out of the field, but you can't take the field out of the farmer. They're going to think about timing, gathering teams to work the harvest, and decisions of what and where to plant next.

Two kinds of people, both essential. Instead of spending a lot of time trying to convince you how similar they actually are, let's just look at this list:

  • Both pay attention to the right timing
  • Both have to work well in teams
  • Both have to be ok with inactivity
  • Both have to work hard

Hunters and farmers have a lot more in common than we often like to talk or hear about. And both are essential. What makes them different is simply their defaults. Put a farmer out on a hunt and it feels uncomfortable. Put a hunter back at a farm, and they're going to get frustrated.

Both are essential. But more importantly, both excel in their own contexts.

Builders and Operators

Much like the dichotomy of hunters and farmers, another exists when it comes to building and launching products and startups. I'm sure others have other names for these two roles, but I call them builders and operators.

Builders are constantly scanning their environment to see trends in the market that they can capitalize on. I once joined a group of guys to start a company specifically at a point in time where there was a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty around the digital mobile space (as we transitioned away from analog cellular). Three years later that company wouldn't have found traction. It was a moment in time.

Another time I got ready to quit my employer for a new startup a buddy and I were building (in our spare time) when the entire market collapsed right under us. The hospitality industry went from a surplus of funds before 9/11 to using all those funds just to stay afloat.

Builders scan their horizons for trends and dynamics in markets that they can capitalize on. When the moment is right, they need to chase it and run hard. They build products and companies this way.

Operators take an existing business and drive its growth. They are constantly making tweaks to processes and operations to drive a better return on investments.

They're the folks that get really good at creating and monitoring key metrics to find leading indicators of success (and failure) and then work hard to make adjustments.

Both are essential. Both are required. Both have a lot in common. But both work in very different contexts.

A builder needs to build. They need an environment where they can test ideas and turn them into something. They're comfortable assessing risks. An operator needs to take the somethings and turn them into somethings that are highly profitable. They're comfortable mitigating risks.

They need each other.

Put a builder on a product or company that just needs refining and needs to focus on better execution and you'll slowly kill them. Put an operator in a context where they have no data and nothing is repeatable and they'll quit.

Every time I work with builders to launch a product, I'm aware I'll need operators to make sure it succeeds. Builders won't be great at it—they'll get bored. And every time I try to talk to operators about building new products, I'm aware that I'm a fish out of water.

In my experience, it's critical that you know which one you are, and in which context you're in, so that you can effectively communicate with others—who may have a different take on how they see the world.

My startup experience was in a wildly different time. Raising funds and building products in the 90's and early 2000's is as similar to today's startups as it was to the 1800's. Everything is different these days. I recognize and understand it.

But some things haven't changed from the 1800's to today. There are still two kinds of people. They need each other. Both are essential. But they're both more comfortable in different contexts.

And you're a lot better off if you know which you are, and use that knowledge to make the decisions in front of you.