Does Your Startup Need a Rockstar Marketer or a B Player?

I read an interesting blog post last week called “The Curve of Talent” by Eric Paley. While I disagree with some parts of this post (his description of “big companies” doesn’t line up with my experiences), I believe his assessment of the gap between what startup folks think they are looking for and what the makeup of their team actually is (or indeed should be) is spot on.

He defines a “A” player this way:

…folks who can “write the book and not just read it.” These are an incredibly rare breed of people who not only have a clear idea how to competently accomplish their functional objectives, but actually lead the organization to innovate and be world class within their functional area.

B players by contrast are the folks that can “execute well on what they are asked to do.” C players look at a lot like B’s but need coaching to get really get the job done well. The majority of folks are C’s. B’s are rare and A’s are super-rare. Given that, startups trying to hire only A players are probably kidding themselves. He says:

Those who suggest that startups should only hire A players are grade inflators.  They’re calling B players A players.  The actual A players are too rare for this to be a practical hiring plan.

I will go a step further and say that there is a time and place for an A player in a certain role but sometimes what you really want is a B.  Most startups like to think they always need rockstars (I translate this to A). If I had a dollar for every email I get from folks looking for a “rockstar head of marketing” for their startup, I could buy you all lunch. But sometimes I look at the makeup of the team and the stage of the company and I wonder if a rockstar is really what they need.

Here are two different scenarios:

Scenario 1:

An early-stage company that I am an advisory for has just raised a seed round of over a million dollars. They have a very solid product, a great understanding of the value of that product and a fairly good understanding of their initial target markets. They have been in market for a few months and although they got decent buzz when the product was first released, user growth has been slower than predicted. It’s not entirely clear to me whether or not they have achieved a great fit between their product and their market yet. They are currently not spending much on customer acquisition and are unsure if they should invest more. The short-term goal is to get to profitability as quickly as possible with a small team so they expand into new markets without additional outside investment.

Scenario 2:

This company is small but they’ve been around for a few years, choosing to grow organically without outside investment. Their product has been through several new releases and is stable. They have a good understanding of the market they are addressing, the types of users that are a good fit for their product and who their competitors are. Their growth was flat through the economic crisis of the past couple of years but they are back to double digit growth. Their short-term goal is to continue that growth and position the company for an exit in the next couple of years.

Do both of these companies need a rockstar head of marketing? I don’t think so.

Scenario 1 requires a marketer who can think strategically about the potential markets the company should pursue, can work with customers to assess product/market fit and the potential need to shift the company positioning or product direction. This person needs to solve problems creatively and can work as a key member of the executive team to shape the business.

In Scenario 2, the marketer might not even be a member of the core executive team. Their job is to execute on a defined strategy in a defined market and hit defined goals. They will need to figure out the tactics they will use to do that and their tactical experience in executing programs will determine how successful they will be in their job.

Scenario 1 in my opinion needs a rockstar A player that can think creatively and strategically, execute, learn, and adjust. This is a big deal job at a critical stage of the company.

In Scenario 2 on the other hand the big decisions have been made, and the strategy and direction are set.  In my opinion Scenario 2 needs a solid B player that executes like a maniac without a ton of supervision (and don’t kid yourself, these folks are hard to find too).

The risks are different for both of these hires as well. In scenario 2, a poor hire at worst fails to grow the business as fast it could otherwise and is quickly replaced because their lack of execution will be obvious. In scenario 1, a poor hire can sink the company before anyone even realized what the heck happened.

What do you think? Are your teams full of A players? How’s that working?

 

96 thoughts on “Does Your Startup Need a Rockstar Marketer or a B Player?”

  1. This is so true. There’s a time and place for someone who is wildly creative and can help with breakthrough new ideas and there’s a time for simple hard-core execution (something the A players aren’t always that great at).

    Hey and welcome back Rocket Girl – we missed you!

  2. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I think the founders need to figure out all the big hard stuff. The folks they surround themselves with need to be great at execution. If you are hiring someone from the outside to figure out the hard stuff, you’ve got the wrong founding team.
    Sanjay

    1. Thanks for the comment Sanjay,
      I partially agree with you. I do think that the founders have a much bigger responsibility than later employees for figuring out what the business is all about and then setting the direction for that. That said, you don’t always have the right mix of skills to do that with just the founders and an injection of outside ideas and smarts can make a huge difference.
      April

    1. Hey thanks Janet!
      It’s good to know that someone out there is reading 🙂
      I’ve literally been on a plan for weeks so I haven’t had much time to post. I’m home for the next 2 weeks though so watch out!
      April

  3. Nice article, as a retired rock musician and now marketeer, I would say that rock-stars are far too high maintenance. They will always be looking for the next marketing gig and if there is a sniff of potential bad news for their CV, they’ll be off to the next great thing.

    Thanks for sharing

    Matthew

  4. Howdy April, nice post. It’s interesting that the “rock star” term has become something of a meme of late; I see it popping up everywhere. Your comment @Matthew is right on, not everyone has the same definition of a rock star, nor would a rock star for one person/company be a good fit at another.

    This dovetails well with a topic that I’ve been exploring at recent ProductCamps, which I call “the Product Management X-Factor: How to be a Rock Star Product Manager.” At the risk of using that phrase out, there are certain skills that many PM/PMMs don’t think of and actively develop which in my observation the stars have figured out how to use to get better results for their company/product/career.

    The core ticket-to-entry skills to call yourself a PM/PMM that we receive via training for (formal or OTJ) aren’t enough. There is a set of softer skills that some people have, others develop, and the rest blissfully ignore to their peril.

    Here is a post I did this week on the topic, would love your thoughts: http://www.productbeautiful.com/2011/05/23/the-product-management-x-factor-how-to-be-a-rock-star-product-manager/

    Paul

  5. Great post April. I’ve been in a number of companies that have both A and B players. My opinion is that you need a decent mix of both. I’ve also seen companies struggle when they have many A players …seems they all want to write the same book a different way!

    Peter

  6. Great post April.

    Ultimately what matters is the team you have in place, not the individuals. An A team is more important and yes it will consists of a few A players and a lot of B players. What you can’t afford are C players. They slow down the pace of the overall team.

    – Bertrand

    1. That’s a really good point – what you are looking for in a new hire depends a lot on the team that you already have because in startups ultimately the lines between roles are always a bit blurry.
      And yeah, there isn’t any room for the C’s in a small company.
      April

  7. Hi April,

    Thoughtful, insightful post – but that’s no surprise. Another consideration here is cultural fit. For the same reason that superstar athletes tend to make poor coaches (their expectations, largely based on their unique physical gifts, tend to exceed the abilities of average players), I wonder if “A” players could be a bad match for a company that’s steeped in “C” talent. It could be a mutually frustrating experience. Like putting a 500 horsepower engine in a family car – won’t take long for the wheels to fall off.

    Your fan,
    Joe

    1. Hi Joe,
      Thanks for the comment. Culture fit is a huge thing in my opinion, especially for startups. In many cases I think it’s THE most important thing and skill (on lots of levels) is really something you only asses after you feel good that the person is going to fit in the culture.
      April

    1. In a perfect world all the founders would be A’s but in reality there is usually at least one A and some B’s. The other thing to consider is skills. The founders might be all A on the technical side but C’s when it comes to selling. In that case you might want to bring in an A to round out the skill set.
      April

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.