Are you a professional with an incredibly diversified skill set? (Or do you want to be?) Do you wish your boss or client would sidle up to you and say, “You know, I recognize that you are, quite simply, a unicorn. So here’s a cover-all job description. Go play on your strengths in any department you think could benefit from your magic!”
Well, here’s a tip for all you aspiring unicorns: vertical integration. Learning to vertically integrate yourself means that you’ll strategically stack your skills in order to design the most lucrative and fulfilling career path you could possibly have.
What is Vertical Integration?
Vertical integration is what happens when an entity owns or functions at every level of the supply chain. Ikea, Apple, and ExxonMobil are powerful, large-scale examples of vertical integration. Apple designs, develops, manufactures, and distributes its own device software and hardware. Ikea designs, manufactures, and distributes its own furniture. Exxon sources, refines, and sells its own energy products.
Note: Don’t confuse vertical with horizontal integration. Horizontal integration basically means buying out or merging with competitors.
What Does That Mean for Individuals?
To be vertically integrated as an individual means that you become an intellectual supply chain for yourself. Identify your signature intellectual product—Books? Design?—and figure out what your intellectual supply chain looks like. For example:
- Self-published authors like this guy write, edit, and promote their own eBooks.
- YouTubers like this woman write, film, and edit their own vlogs.
- Full-stack designer/developers like this guy host, design, buildout, and optimize websites.
In each of these examples, the verbs (Write! Edit! Promote!) are the components of the intellectual supply chain. Each of these content creators combines and focuses their skillsets to produce a finished, deeply considered product that they themselves handled from conception through execution.
Not a content creator? That’s okay! You can fall anywhere on that intellectual supply chain, so long as you know what you want your final intellectual property (or IP) to be. (Hint: to find your ideal IP, ask yourself a simple question: what am I best at?)
- Developers have built out enough comps to know the basic aesthetic flow of a good website. In fact, you’ve likely dabbled in them from time to time.
- Photographers or Editors: you don’t have to star in your own video for it to remain your finished product.
- Marketers: You’ve probably created and collected enough public-facing content to write a book on the stuff! Go find it and extract an outline from it.
Once you identify your IP, then it’s time to discern what direction you’re integrating in. Companies can integrate forward or backward. Forward integration refers to a place in the supply chain that precedes the final product. For example, Microsoft launched the Surface line of products a few years ago, and is now forward integrating, meaning Windows and the flagship personal devices are now operating in much the same way Apple is.
Backward integration refers to adopting a supply chain component that precedes the consumer-facing end product. If your favorite restaurant, after years of success, starting running its own farm to supply food for all of its menu items, that would be an example of backward integration.
- When a digital copywriter creates her own IP, she has integrated forward from a step in the advertising supply chain to a finished product.
- When a graphic designer learns to code and begins hand coding comps for his own tumblr-esque blog platform, he has integrated backward.
Okay, I’m Inspired. But How Do I Begin?
If you feel like your current job undervalues your unicorn status, or constrains your workflow in such a way that you’re always yearning to pitch in across the hall, then perhaps it’s time to vertically integrate yourself by creating your own intellectual supply chain. Here are a couple of deceptively simple approaches:
Keep a Journal: Every time you think something along the lines of, “Copywriting is cool, but I wish I could go play with the design computer and whip up a Photoshop comp,” or otherwise fantasize about temporarily assuming some other role, jot it down. Eventually, your journal will help you to spot trends in your yearning. (This is especially useful since not every career fantasy should necessarily be pursued. We’ve all had that moment where we thought, “I could definitely make it on Broadway with zero training.”)
Hold Stand-Up Meetings with Yourself: If you’ve worked in an Agile Project Management environment before, you know about stand-up meetings. If not, our guide will help. When you can personify each of the diverse skills in your set as a virtual “team member,” you’ll start to notice your weakness and strengths in a big way.
Find your mentors: Look for some notable vertically-integrated people in addition to those mentioned above. Based on the analogy I used, what makes them vertically integrated? If not, what would make them vertically integrated? Can you guess what their intellectual supply chain is? Where are the gaps in it? Then turn the questions on yourself: Can you identify what finished products you contribute to at work or in contracts? What gaps are in your intellectual supply chain?
Maybe you see how your career is plateauing at your current company, despite the dozens of hats you wear daily that should make you indispensable. Maybe you’re trying to transition into tech but feel like everyone will reject you because of your prior experience in other industries. Maybe you’re haunted by a hundred and one other doubts. Giving vertical integration a shot—becoming your own supply chain—is a bold move, but an exciting way to become both a jack of all trades and a master of one.
Carlos Herbert Hernandez is a Technical and Copywriter at a vertically integrated, non-tech startup in Denver. Talk shop with him on LinkedIn.