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?