If there’s one piece of advice every founder has to take to heart, it’s this: as you build your company, you don’t want to be working in your business — you want to work on your business.
To do this, you need not just a skillset but a mindset to bring the level of flexibility, adaptability, practicality, and agility necessary to lead your team through challenges at every level, from a simple design decision to a strategic pivot.
In other words, you need to be a human Swiss Army knife in business.
You know, the tool that’s synonymous with versatility, efficiency, and reliability. The first Swiss Army knife was created in 1891 by cutler Karl Elsener, who took the typical multi-blade knife assigned to Swiss soldiers and added useful tools to handle anything the troops faced, including a reamer (for cutting holes), screwdriver, and can opener. The iconic knife has evolved with the times, serving not just soldiers but anyone who wants to be prepared to meet the challenges of modern daily life with everything from the basics — blade, toothpick, file, and tweezers — to specialized tools, like a fish scaler, ski wax scraper, laser pointer, or a removable flash drive.
Nowadays, it’s also a valuable metaphor in the business world that speaks to the versatility, resourcefulness, speed, and efficiency necessary to win in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace.
Now, pile on the fact that everyone is panicking about an economic downturn and focusing on trying to do more with less. As I’m hitting publish on this post, news of tens of thousands of layoffs in big tech alone is rocking the headlines, and it’s showing no sign of slowing down.
Walking the tightrope of efficiency and effectiveness in business is becoming quite the feat.
So I asked a friend who’s worked for years in people operations for big tech companies about the process she goes through when thinking about layoffs. At first, she gave me kind of a stock corporate answer: “It’s about the value they contribute.”
I wanted to go deeper, so I asked her, “What do all the high-value, high-performing people have in common?”
And what she said next surprised me: “They are the most resourceful.”
There it is — the crux of the Swiss Army knife mindset, which says ingenuity combined with efficiency is everything.
Now, this doesn’t mean founders should default to the old standby: It’s [easier/faster/cheaper] if I do it myself. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
The Swiss Army knife mindset will empower you to be a potent leader who’s always ready to make incisive moves (i.e., offer a solution, make a decision) at critical moments to keep your business growing and scaling. And it will help ensure you recognize people who rock the same mindset, as they are the MacGyver types you need on your team.
In this article, I’ll give you a real-life example of how this mindset can save you $20,000 in 20 minutes, and I’ll give you an overview of its attributes and a quick framework to grok the concept. I’ll also explain why I think having a Swiss Army knife mentality will become even more crucial in the future.
20 Minutes to Save $20K
I’ve always fancied myself a creative generalist. When you bootstrap a company by yourself and have never done it before it, you have to be. Leadership advice like “get the right people in the right seats on the bus” isn’t possible when you are feeding yourself ramen noodles to survive.
If you’re like me, the good news is your status as a generalist means you’re skilled (enough) at doing whatever the position you’re hiring for entails. For example, thanks to my engineering background, I can quickly cut through the BS to solve problems, make good hires, and generally take care of business.
Here’s a great example: we had a new product launch go live the other day, and somehow the specs totally forgot to include building a notification system to alert the sales team when leads came in. Obviously, a pretty big miss, but things like this happen all the time. Kinda like when Citi lost $900M because of a UI mistake.
My team and my client are brilliant and super competent but sometimes, in business, doing things the “right” way isn’t always the best path. So, to properly integrate this feature into the CRM, the product team projected it would take a few weeks to refactor the codebase, test, and deploy this new feature. This might sound trivial, but when it comes to how data is captured and works with third-party systems, you have to be meticulous. For a project like that, I knew that between programming costs and opportunity costs, it would cost around $20,000 all in.
A few tools in my Swiss Army knife mindset popped out immediately: skill, speed, and innovation. Because of my background, fascination with technology, and obsession with staying current, I knew I could use low-code tools like Airtable and Zapier to automate the notification system. And then it was just a simple webhook between one of our apps and an API, and voila!
The problem was solved in about 20 minutes, and the team had what it needed to get the job done and keep moving the ball forward for our client.
The Basic Tools
Going back to the etymology of the Swiss Army knife, there was already an existing multi-blade knife that Elsener used as the basis for his new and improved model. Without the basics that the tool hinged on, there wouldn’t have been the utility device that’s used by millions of people worldwide to this day.
Similarly, there are two underlying mindsets that any successful founder embodies. Think of legends like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard, Honest Company’s Jessica Alba, Spanx’s Sara Blakely, and Oprah, and two words come to mind: grit and growth.
Founders like them (and you) have both the vision and the drive to make their dreams a reality. This is what psychologist Angela Duckworth refers to in her groundbreaking book as “grit”: the passion and perseverance necessary to do hard things day after day.
Growth happens when leaders and their teams push in new directions. And a growth mindset, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck, is what every successful founder wields successfully. As another legendary serial founder Richard Branson once said:
While both of these mindsets are crucial upon launch, they can become a double-edged blade. Like I said before, just because you can jump in and run every aspect of your business doesn’t mean you should. If you spend too much time doing the day-to-day work, you’ll lose your edge — along with the perspective you need to spot new opportunities and foster growth and scale.
So, the trick is to learn how to do everything judiciously — popping in with a smart decision or quick contribution — so you support others in being fearless and adaptable.
The S.W.I.S.S. Framework for a Versatile Mindset
Whether you’re a founder or anyone who wants to lead in business, you’ve got to think and act S.W.I.S.S. That is:
Skill-forward: Always be learning and acquiring new skills.
Like the Swiss Army knife, which continuously evolves over time to include more tools, you and your team need to constantly learn new skills to stay competitive.
Well-rounded: Be adaptable and versatile
The hallmark of the Swiss Army knife is being ready and able to handle multiple tasks; similarly, you’ve got to be prepared to manage a wide variety of challenges and willing to pivot when necessary.
Innovative: Constantly look for ways to change and evolve
From the start, the Swiss Army knife was innovative in its design, form factor, and functionality, but it never stopped — continuous iteration to meet the ever-evolving needs of its users is what makes it perennially in demand. The same goes for you and your business. Always seek new ways to solve problems.
Solid: Lead with reliability and dependability.
Just as a Swiss Army knife is known for being durable and reliable, you should also strive to be an approachable, dependable resource — whether you’re the intern or the CEO.
Synchronize: Think and work collaboratively
Even though every tool serves a slightly different function in a Swiss Army knife, they all work together beautifully to support a successful mission. The same goes for the kind of leadership that yields the best results.
How to Keep Your Edge Sharp
The S.W.I.S.S. mindset framework is critical in our warp-speed world of ever-evolving technology, customer tastes and expectations, and global competition.
Don’t take my word for it — here’s what PepsiCo’s legendary Chief Design Officer, Mauro Porcini, told me in a recent conversation:
“You cannot protect any form of mediocrity anymore.” — Mauro Porcini
The days when a founder can solely be an “idea person” are long gone. Just like the people you hire, you’ve got to keep acquiring new talents and perspectives through experimentation and execution.
Here’s the twist: the one area you need deep expertise in is hiring the right people who can handle the needs of your business while you push your company in bold new directions.
And here’s the double twist: AI is a game changer. But you also need to know enough not to use technology as what I call “AI theater.” You should be leveraging AI capabilities to solve real problems — not just to create marketplace buzz. In other words, if you’re not playing with ChatGPT or experimenting with generative AI solutions like Midjourney to get a feel for AI’s capabilities, you’ll be left behind.
Again, a Swiss Army knife mentality. Know just enough to cut through the BS, swiftly solve problems, and keep going.
Your success heavily factors into your ability to get into what I call your Green Zone — the right balance of your competence and energetic sweet spot. It’s when you’re working in an inspired flow state, creating innovative, next-level work. By prioritizing getting into your Green Zone, you’ll have the space necessary to put your money-making, empire-building creativity into action, unlocking progress and possibilities for growth and scale.
You can truly only get there when you feel 100% confident that you don’t need to step in and save the day. Remember: what got you here won’t get you there. And, one more time for the record, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Ultimately, to be a winning founder, you should aim to find and hire experts and use technology wisely to work on your business, not in it. But never stop expanding your Swiss Army knife because it means you’ll be prepared to scale any obstacle — or take advantage of any opportunity — that comes your way.