Season 1, episode 23: “We’ll Always Have Paris”
Lesson: know the visionary — builder — operator spectrum: where are you?
This post is part of my ongoing quest to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and pull one startup, entrepreneurship, tech, or investing lesson from each.
The Enterprise picks up a distress signal and starts experiencing anomalies in the flow of time as they approach the signal’s source. It turns out to be coming from a binary star system where a famous scientist, Dr. Manheim, has been experimenting on the space-time continuum. Picard starts thinking about time and parallel paths in several ways, not only because of the literal distortions he’s seeing, but because Dr. Manheim is now married to the woman to whom Picard was engaged before he left her for Starfleet in Paris.
The first description we hear of Dr. Manheim comes from Data, who describes the doctor as “a highly respected scientist, considered a visionary.” I’m fixating on the word “visionary” for this episode’s lesson. Jeff Fagnan, GP and founder of Accomplice, has a method to describe people called VBO, which stands for “visionary, builder, operator.” In this model, everyone is primarily one of these types. Think of them as a spectrum from left to right:
visionary ← → builder ← → operator
👀 Visionary: they’re so passionate about an area that they’re able to evangelize about it. They can see 5+ years in the future around trends in their area of expertise. They’re truly ahead of the curve and can create markets that didn’t exist before. Their thinking is broad and very forward-focused, and they can predict the next systems that will exist.
Potential downfall: they may care more about their vision and the market colliding than the company at times; can be disruptive and distracting as managers or individual contributors.
🛠 Builder: these people care intensely about building and trying new things. They get immense satisfaction from the act of creating and the journey of making, which may be of greater importance to them than the ultimate outcome. They move fast, hack together solutions, and aren’t afraid to fail. Builders are people who like creating the machinery, although not necessarily the results of the machinery. Their thinking is semi-detailed and forward-focused (but not as far forward as visionaries), and they like to build systems.
Potential downfall: getting bored when one of the experiments they’ve built sticks and becomes stable; letting go of projects when they need to go from “good enough” to “near perfect” without technical debt.
📊 Operator: they live in the details of a business. If they can tell you how moving one lever changes another efficiency somewhere else in the company, they’re an operator. They can likely recall metrics and detailed examples with ease. This isn’t about simply memorizing stats; they’re living in the data so much that they know these things effortlessly. They measure anything that can be measured. If they’re founders, they’re best suited to industries that are evolving or improving, not built from the ground up. Their thinking is detailed and present-focused, and they stay within the confines of existing systems.
Potential downfall: not being able to think big enough around what the company could be; not seeing the forest through the trees.
So again, the spectrum is: visionary ← → builder ← → operator
Thus you can be a visionary with a hint of builder, or a builder with a bit of operator. Notice that you can’t be a visionary who’s also great operationally (at least according to this model). If you start filling your head with being an operator, you don’t have the mental space to be a visionary. If you’re a true visionary, you can’t think about things with constraints. But an operator always has to think about constraints because working within existing systems is their day-to-day.
If you’re reading this and you’re thinking “but I’m both a visionary and an operator,” then hey: perhaps you’re an outlier. But Jeff can’t think of any examples of founders he’s worked with who are both. Instead, the operator thinks they are becoming a visionary but only hitting the builder part of spectrum, and same with the reverse. For example, take B2B founder operators trying to do their next company as an ambitious, out-there consumer play: every one we’ve seen has failed miserably and gone back to operating.
In other words, it’s more likely it’s option A: you’re an operator who wants to be thought of as visionary because it sounds cool, and you’re actually bad at thinking that abstractly and far ahead; option B: you’re a visionary who thinks you’re also good at the details but you’re not and you’re driving your team crazy 💅; or option C: you’re a builder and you’re somewhere in the middle.
You can get even more granular in your classification of people on the VBO scale by using a capital letter to show that person’s superpower and a lowercase to show their backup where they have moderate strength. Some examples (tell me if you disagree):
Steve Jobs: V
Steve Wozniak: Bo
Elon Musk: V
Jeff Bezos: B
Bill Gates: Bo
Steve Balmer: O
Exceptional founders and employees can be all types. None is better than another. What matters is how well-suited that person’s type is for the business or role they’re in, and who they choose to surround themselves with.
Can you change your type? Not really. We’re talking about people’s core personalities as founders and workers. Sure, you can augment your weak spots. But you always have a superpower that’ll come more naturally and that draws your energy and attention first. If you’re completely tone deaf and rhythmically challenged, all the tuba lessons in the world won’t turn you into first chair at the New York Philmarmonic Orchestra.
Although your type doesn’t change, your role, company, and industry can be more or a less a fit for you. A visionary won’t go to a pedantic business. A builder can live anywhere, because they’re building machinery. An operator will have a really tough time in a role that’s just focused on vision where there’s no levers to pull to impact the business (like a product that’s in R&D for 3–4 years). E.g., if you’re an expert in augmented reality and human computer interactions, and you’ve been obsessing about how people will interact with holographic projections 5+ years from now and can correctly predict trends leading there, you’re a visionary. You’d probably be an awesome founder of a company doing next-gen AR. But you’d also probably be a terrible operator at a company that’s rethinking the automation of legal documents. On the other hand, a former lawyer who’s a strong operator type would likely be a great founder for the legal document automation business.
It’s useful to know which type you are and the types of those with whom you work closely. I’d say I’m a Bo. What are you?