Mark Zuckerberg famously commented that a great engineer is worth a 100 average engineers (something every developer knows deep in her heart). He was talking about A-players, and in our opinion the worst thing any startup can do is accept less than the best and brightest.
Think of Jony Ive at Apple (Sir Jonathan as of December). Compare his impact to that of an average designer.
Supporting rapid growth at a company requires the rapid growth of human capital. New engineers and product managers come on board to build out a company’s product. Service and support staffs expand the customer base. Settling for B-players is the same as inviting mediocrity.
Entrepreneur turned Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban once said a company should hire A-players in only core positions and pay market rates for anything non-core. We disagree. This may be true for a fully scaled company. But at the early stage, a company may not even realize what its true core is.
One good example of this is Groupon. Groupon started to focus on the daily-deal market, but when the company experienced early success, the space became very competitive. New competitor LivingSocial, even eBay and Amazon, offered daily deals. What separates Groupon from the pack and what has become its core competency is its powerful sales machine. This wasn’t anticipated at first. There should be no room in a company’s early development for B-players.
What is an A-Player?
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins said the highest expression of leadership is the combination of humility and will. These are traits A-players possess. Their strength of will assures motivation. They never point fingers. The ball stops with them. A-players don’t need to be micro-managed or proactively motivated. They only need to be pointed in the right direction.
Humility is often overlooked and equally important. Humble people do not seek personal credit and gladly give it to those who deserve it. They don’t engage in politics. The simply have no interest. When they voice an opinion, whatever you may think of it, you can always be sure that it is what they believe. They have no ulterior personal motives. Humility assures that a company is not overrun with attention-seeking prima donnas.
Some of the best A-players you will hire have had a failure or two, but accomplished a lot and took risks as part of that failure. A-players aren’t always great leaders. But that doesn’t matter. You want humble people with the will to succeed not only as executives, but as your “doers.” Startups need not just A-level strategy and A-level vision, but A-level execution.
MerchantCircle found an A -player in an unlikely spot: working on his struggling startup and a political campaign in northwest Florida. He was not from Harvard. He was from the University of West Florida. He did not come in as a strategist; he was a support person. He was even told by someone he should go to a big company to learn how to be an A-player, whatever that means. He executed, he listened, he read, he analyzed, and most importantly he learned. Five years later he had risen to head of product for MerchantCircle and drove some of the company’s biggest innovations and in doing so helped set strategy. Ryan Osilla has now helped created Peixe Urbano, one of the fastest growing Internet companies in Brazil.
In Silicon Valley, the job market is very competitive and companies such as Facebook, Google and Zynga pay top dollar. So startups, such as MixRank, have to be clever to keep up. That means using company culture – bright, driven people working together on big things – to set themselves apart.
Last year after graduating from Y Combinator, MixRank co-founders Ilya Lichtenstein and Scott Milliken raised an angel round and set out to expand their team. At first they were unimpressed with the vast majority of the resumes. So they began to reach out into the community using Twitter, Hacker News, technical forums and open-source mailing lists to engage talented, passionate engineers. They wanted independent thinkers with a healthy disrespect for rigid rules and authority. What attracted the “right” candidates wasn’t the money, even though they offered market-based salaries and equity, but rather the vision and culture.
Good engineers like to work on difficult problems that keep them interested and engage their creativity, said Ilya. They are excited about the big data problems that MixRank is tackling and the opportunity to have a significant impact on the technical direction of the company.
Keeping A-Players Happy
In the 1980s, Benjamin Schneider developed the “attraction – selection – attrition” framework and the notion that organizations tend to become homogenous over time because they attract and select people who fit in. Those who don’t fit in tend to leave. The implication is that as long as a company has a somewhat homogenous group of A-players, it will remain a largely A-class organization.
But this is only part of the story. A-players need a pat on the back now and again. What’s interesting is that they only value pats on the back from other A-players. They don’t value the approval unless they respect and admire the person giving it. So developing a critical mass of A-players has an added benefit: the company tends to repel B-players and attract other A-players, reinforcing what it has built. Zappos employed this theory when it famously offered its employees $2,000 to quit under the assumption that A-players aren’t motivated by money and only B-players would take the deal.
The bottom line is this: B-players tend to be more vain and less secure. They want to be admired, regardless by whom, to make themselves feel superior. So B-players often attract other B-players and more commonly C-Players, who look up to them. In other words, A-players beget even more thoroughly A-companies and B-players eventually beget C companies.
A few things to consider:
- A-players are not just from big name companies. They come from failed startups as well.
- A-players don’t only come from the top schools. But they can learn just as quickly.
- A-players are motivated by winning and being around other A-players.
- A-players are not always the smartest, but they want to win and know that learning and execution are two of the key factors to making that happen.
- A-players leave, but generally don’t want to. Find ways to keep them if they are aligned with your direction. If they are not aligned with the direction, they can kill you.
- A-players are not always motivated by recognition and financial rewards, but give them both. Then other A-players will come.
By now, we’re sure you get the point. Don’t let down your hiring standards and your company will be better off for it.
(Victor Belfor (pictured top) is an entrepreneur and investor and currently runs strategic alliances at RingCentral. He can be found on Twitter @vbelfor. Ben T. Smith IV (pictured above with Ryan Osilla) is a serial entrepreneur and investor and the co-founder of MerchantCircle and Spoke. He is available on Twitter @bentsmithfour)