Are “Utility Players” a Startup’s Secret Weapon?

Whitney Durmick
4 min readAug 29, 2019


Photo by Jimmy Chang on Unsplash

It’s Friday, and I just used a marketing automation platform to launch a multi-step email campaign. The process required writing copy, coordinating and uploading audience segmentation, and working with my designer to make sure it was branded and beautiful. In a few days, I’ll report on how the campaign is doing, delivering strategic analytics to our VP, and tactical follow-up intel to biz dev. Between now and then, I’ll revamp some slides for a keynote presentation overseas, help revise a line of questioning for a new program, and edit the video and blog content that slides across my desk from a global team of content contributors. I am a utility player, and variety is the spice of my work life.

A utility player, in baseball terms, is the guy who can just as easily play shortstop as step in to pitch. He may not be the superstar home run hitter, but he reliably gets on base. You can put him anywhere and count on him to get the job done. In context of the workplace, your office utility player traverses functional lines, creating connections and solving problems that someone with a deeper focus might not recognize.

I work for Oracle for Startups, an entrepreneurial program within the monolithic tech giant that caters to new tech companies seeking to scale to sell into bigger clients. We help them scale their product offering and get the global exposure they need to establish credibility with the Fortune 500 companies we both sell to. We call it a ‘virtuous cycle of innovation’ and bringing the pieces together to make it happen IRL is incredibly rewarding and often exhausting.

We function like a startup within Oracle, which means that each contributor to this small team often needs to forego specialization in favor of agility. This is where being a utility player comes in handy. I lean in eagerly when a new project, with lots of moving parts, rears its head on the horizon. Entrepreneurship and a multi-disciplinary approach go together like chocolate and peanut butter, like PaaS infrastructure and SaaS applications.

I come by the skillset naturally. In college, I majored in Comparative Literature (an ideal choice for the commitment-averse). I took classes like Travel Writing, Nietzschean Philosophy and History of Maritime Peoples. At our graduation ceremony, a professor waxed in a thick Italian accent about the “agile minds” created by the course load. We were good thinkers, but were we employable?

By an absolute stroke of luck, I landed a job at a small startup in Boulder, CO, analyzing social media data for customers with very recognizable names in the CPG, media and retail spaces. I’d never been able to nail down a desired career path — all of the obvious options felt limiting. But a day at the startup could start with deep-data analysis before transitioning into a product design brainstorm, followed by a goal planning session with a customer before a product demo with an analyst. Shutting off the lights in the office on the way out felt like a cherry on top of a whirlwind day.

My career has led me to traverse the tech world, dabbling in product management, customer success and product marketing before landing as a content strategist with Oracle for Startups. These diverse roles each called for strong generalist skills — communication for impact, persistence, and problem solving. So, while I can’t code and my product knowledge falls squarely into the “enough to be dangerous” category, my abilities to pivot, problem-solve and remain focused make me an asset.

How to Care for Your Utility Players

Entrepreneurs may recognize the spirit in themselves. A successful CEO is probably at least a little bit of a utility player, and if not, should consider bringing a few on board. But be warned, utility players come with their own set of needs.

We Need Management, Sort Of

Ambiguity or stall timelines are invitations to flit off to the next project, so be clear with your utility players on what you expect from them, then let them fly. We do best with a combination of short term, long term, simple and complex tasks. (Think of us like golden retrievers — we need something to occupy us or we might chew up the furniture.)

Cultivate Trust

We know a little bit about a lot of things, so we feel like we need to handle everything, end-to-end. In the worst case scenario that means we can be control freaks. To avoid an unsustainable independence, make sure your teams trust each other enough to delegate tasks where appropriate and share the workload. Draw clear swim lanes with room for collaboration.

Remind Us It’s Okay to Say No

We get excited easily. It’s easy to get sucked into cool new projects that don’t necessarily need us, and the action items stack up. Help us avoid burnout by reminding your utility players that they really don’t need to be involved in everything.

Have a Closer in the Bullpen

We have a tendency to start projects but easily fall victim to “shiny new toy” syndrome. Especially if progress on a project slows or we encounter a major roadblock (bureaucracy is the sworn enemy of utility players), we might feel extra tempted to pivot to the next thing. Sometimes it just takes a shared brainstorm to reignite interest. Set clear, tangible priorities, but have a closer, if needed, to help see things across the finish line..

To Bring it Home

To specialists, a utility player may sound like someone who lacks focus, but I think our ability to switch gears and fill gaps make us an ideal fit for a startup environment or small, scrappy team.

You’re not going to ask your most talented coder to write sales emails and plan the holiday party. But the utility player will be all over it.



Whitney Durmick

Mostly writing about travel.