Foxes and Hedgehogs of the Startup World

By Sam Arbesman, PhD

Most people are aware of the dichotomy between foxes and hedgehogs, based on an aphorism of ancient Greek poet Archilochus of Paros, as popularized by Isaiah Berlin. Archilochus noted that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one thing. The fox is the polymath, interested in using many ideas and concepts to approach our understanding of a system. This is distinct from the hedgehog, who has one big idea and it is related to everything, whether this idea is Marxism, evolutionary theory, or a single mathematical shape that can explain widespread phenomena throughout physics. The fox is the diversifier, reveling in the details, while the hedgehog is the unifier.

So which one do we want? Of course, we need both. We need deep thinkers consumed by a single idea, even if its explanatory power sometimes overreaches, and we need those who bring ideas from multiple areas to bear, depending on the situation. Nate Silver chose a fox as the mascot of FiveThirtyEight, in homage to the latter approach. Personally, I fall on the fox side of the spectrum as well, preferring to have many tools in my intellectual armamentarium, as opposed to being limited to a single hammer where everything looks like a nail.

What about in the world of startups? Where do the individuals involved in an entrepreneurial ecosystem fall within this oversimplified dichotomy? Specifically, should founders be foxes or hedgehogs? In general, I think people want someone at the helm of a startup to be monomaniacally focused on a single idea, with that idea so motivating every one of their waking thoughts that they are simply forced to act in service of this single galvanizing notion. They must be consumed by their single idea. They must be hedgehogs.

But what of venture capital? Here we see variation. Some venture capitalists are similarly consumed by a single idea, or thesis, that guides much of their thinking. For example, there are those who try to examine the entire universe through a single lens, like how the smartphone is bending our world to its forces. But more often, even in the service to a single idea, venture capital is a haven for fox-like activity. For example, Marc Andreessen, though known for the single idea that “software is eating the world,” is much more of a polymathic public intellectual.

We at Lux view ourselves as similarly fox-like. In order to find cutting edge ideas, we must be possessed of a series of intellectual frameworks and ideas — a latticework of mental models, as per Charlie Munger — that guide our thinking. Whether these are ideas from economics, complex systems, or computer science, we are foxes.

But foxes cannot exist alone. They must be part of a larger intellectual ecosystem; they need hedgehogs who can help develop and articulate their single ideas in a singularly focused fashion.

And even more than that, there are fox-like companies that develop ideas that span many disciplines, but pursue them with a hedgehog-like focus. We are particularly drawn to these, such as 3Scan, which bridges cutting-edge pathology hardware with 3d visualization and data science; Orbital Insight, which connects geospatial imagery with massive-scale data analysis; or Shapeways, which combines 3d printing and scanning, software, retail and manufacturing.

Ultimately, in order to make an entrepreneurial ecosystem thrive, we should focus less on the fox/hedgehog distinction as a dichotomy and view it more as a mutualistic symbiosis, allowing everyone to thrive.