Do Startups Need Rockstars?

I was meeting with a fellow founder recently. He was recruiting for a role in his company. An VC advised him to find a rockstar employee who could “move the needle.”

Rockstars are those hotshot employees that founders and investors crave. They are the unicorn CRO, CMO, or Product Managers that promise big ideas, big connections, and big sales to the company.

“Do I need to hire rockstars at this point?” pondered my founder friend.

“Fuck no!” I exclaimed with usual tact. “They are way more trouble than they are ever worth,” I continued. This kicked off a lively discussion (with fewer f-bombs.)

Rockstars are distractions. They feed egos not growth. What startups need are experts.

Rockstars vs. Experts

When you are in that tenuous early phase of a startup, you need people who are agile, creative, and can execute effectively against less-than-ideal plans. You want experience. However, many of the people who sell themselves as experienced startup rockstars, are merely frauds cashing in on a single success years (or decades) ago.

What startups need are experts who have experience sans the attitude.

How do you differentiate rockstars from experts?

  • Rockstars are always telling stories about their amazing accomplishments of the past as a method to impress you. Conversely, experts use the past as an example of when they learned something.
  • Rockstars routinely drop names of all the big shots they know. They will become especially name-droppy when under stress. Experts are more interested in ideas and goals, than personalities.
  • Rockstars show minimal interest in the company’s plans or vision. Experts want to discuss the plans and goals all the time. They want to make sure they are meeting expectations.
  • Rockstars demand a big compensation package and a lofty title. Experts want fair pay and a reasonable title that reflects their role, duties, and authority.
  • Rockstars believe they are exempt from the company’s hiring practices, policies, or procedures. They expect “short cuts” on the way to getting an offer. Experts may not like all the procedures, but respect them as a necessary part of running a business.
  • Rockstars tell you they know everything and have “been there done that.” Experts are quick to tell you what they do not know and want to learn.
  • Rockstars ignore the founder when it suits them. Experts challenge the founder when it makes sense.
  • Rockstars are overqualified. Experts are slightly underqualified.

Rockstars are not necessarily arrogant, self-absorbed jerks. They are usually quite personable and likable. They are after all, selling you on themselves. Difficult to do that if you are unlikable. Likewise, experts are not all humble, self-aware monks. They often have coarse personalities. The difference is how these two candidates approach their role. Rockstars coast on their previous success, experts want to build new success.

Rockstars Feed the Ego

Why are startups so enamored with rockstars?

When a startup is in its early stages, it is desperate for credibility. This is especially true in the early funding rounds. The founder(s) and investor(s) want to validate that the company, its products, and its market are all viable. They are desperate to get the company on the map and make a name for themselves (so they can all exit with big paydays.)

The responsible way to do this is to focus on building a great product, creating loyal customers, and cultivating valued partners. Those are all “heads-down” activities that take time. They are not sexy. They are the nuts and bolts grind of everyday.

Rockstars promise a shortcut. They are the Billy McFarland’s of Startup world. They make promises of great successes using their huge network and vast experiences, in exchange for a giant comp package. Foolish founders and weak investors fall for this, as they are desperate to validate the business. As such, the rockstars feed the egos and make everybody feel important.

Of course, the same thing always happens. These rockstars waste time and money, dancing and waving their hands, constantly telling everybody of what a genius they are. Eventually the walls close in and they jump ship, to the next startup desperate for credibility.

People do not magically give a company credibility. Those people must be able to execute the company’s mission. If they cannot do that, then it does not matter who they know or what successes they had in the past.

What About All Those Startup Rockstars?

They did not start as rockstars. The people who become real rockstars, started out as experts. They applied themselves, stuck to a vision, and generated success iteratively. Also, most rockstars had tremendous help on their path to fame. You do not build the next ChatGPT alone in your garage. It takes the contributions of numerous people, united around a set of common goals.

Think Past Your Ego

The rockstar issue is one of the many issues you will face as a founder where you must think past your own ego. The ego-centric thing to do is to hire rockstars, as they will make you feel good about your company. The intelligent thing to do is to hire people who will challenge you and bring creativity to the company. These people may not always make you feel comfortable, but they are much more likely to execute against the company’s vision and mission.

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