“Wheelhouse” weighed in at No. 10 on the Inc. 2017 list “25 Buzzwords That You Really Need to Stop Using Right Now.” This is not the first time it made such a list, and it probably won’t be the last. Wheelhouse has been persistent throughout time.
The word has nautical roots as the pilothouse of a boat. It evolved in the 20th century, taking on new meaning as the section of the strike zone in baseball where it is easiest for the batter to hit the ball well. Business loves its sports metaphors (which may be worthy of its own column), so it’s no surprise the term has wormed its way into startup lexicon, now synonymous with area of expertise.
The term wheelhouse has a shaky track record in Google Trends, spiking and dropping throughout the last decade, though somehow consistently trending up. Which begs the question: Can the incessant phrase go down and stay down?
Tim Keller agrees the phrase is dated. You certainly won’t hear it within the walls of the high-tech makerspace at Davis-based Inventopia, which Keller founded. Inventopia is a business incubator that offers entrepreneurs and scientists access to industrial fabrication equipment — such as laser cutters, 3D printers and other high-tech tools — to get products to market faster.
Though team members at lean startups inevitably “wear a lot of hats” and have to move outside of their comfort zones, Keller says, “wheelhouse” is a bit irrelevant. “I think people talk more about experience and qualifications,” he says.
Tech capabilities, like 3D printing and AI, are breaking down the barriers of our individual capabilities. Is it wise to stay hyper-focused in this era of endless opportunity, or could someone swing at a wild pitch and hit the ball out of the park? Do we really need to stay in our perceived wheelhouse?
“I definitely think that entrepreneurs need to stick to business ideas where they understand the problem — and especially the customer — extremely well. That is critical,” Keller says.
Keller saw this in action in his last venture, VinPerfect. “I was not the only person working on an oxygen-permeable wine closure,” he says. However, as a winemaker competing against packaging engineers, he says he understood the problem better because it was in his wheelhouse. “We approached the problem from a fundamentally different angle.”
Hustling by itself may have a negative connotation, but co-opting the term seems to mirror the millennial tendency to reclaim edgy words.
A problem thought to be facing a person or group of people that entrepreneurs are looking to solve through goods and/or services.