Populations of tumour cells display remarkable variability in almost every discernable phenotypic trait, including clinically important phenotypes such as ability to seed metastases and to survive therapy. This phenotypic diversity results from the integration of both genetic and non-genetic influences. Recent technological advances have improved the molecular understanding of cancers and the identification of targets for therapeutic interventions. However, it has become exceedingly apparent that the utility of profiles based on the analysis of tumours en masse is limited by intra-tumour genetic and epigenetic heterogeneity, as characteristics of the most abundant cell type might not necessarily predict the properties of mixed populations. In this Review, we discuss both genetic and non-genetic causes of phenotypic heterogeneity of tumour cells, with an emphasis on heritable phenotypes that serve as a substrate for clonal selection. We discuss the implications of intra-tumour heterogeneity in diagnostics and the development of therapeutic resistance.