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On the music biz, IT, the Long Tail of HR and Superstars, plus Northern Irish Football

Just after my last post, which talked to service economics, I came across an interesting idea cloud. (more web serendipity (via Pito Salas via Robin Good).

We’re more interested in relationships than little shiny discs. The medium is not the message:

The music industry, so the argument goes, needs us to buy into the idea of superstars because it is set up for the Short Head rather than the Long Tail. Music industry business models are predicated on the massive success of a few artists, around whom the mega marketing bucks are spent, rather than middling success of many artists. What can the software business learn from this structural imbalance?

Here is a possible truth behind the myth of the Rock God:

It’s difficult to get accurate figures, but one recent estimate I’ve heard suggests that 97% of all musicians with a recording contract make less than $600 a month

Joshua Ellis started this by pointint to a new service called Mperia, which helps musicians to sell directly to their fans.

To my mind there are some pretty obvious implications for the software industry, which throw a somewhat different light on the current hiring frenzy by the likes of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. They are hiring the superstars–the Vint Cerfs, Adam Bosworths, and Kai Fu Lees.

But are these guys really that good? What is expected of them? A mainstream hit- The Emancipation of Mimi.

So Cerf “invented the internet” – can he do it again?

It is not my intention to rubbish industry leviathans, some of whom I have I have a lot of respect for, but rather I want to push back a little against the superstar culture. Hiring more superstars won’t make these firms any more effective in execution. Superstar cultures can reduce productivity. Superstars tend to make great demands, have hordes of followers and retainers fighting their corner, and for obvious reasons have incredible confidence in their own judgement (often at the expense of others). Again I want to stress I am talking GENERALLY here. But suppose you’re Eric Schmidt – how do you tell Adam Bosworth, the “father of Access and IE”,  he is wrong about something?

BEA explicitly ran a superstar stable for a while, but at that point in the company’s history it seems fewer, not more, products got out of the door . BEA is moving faster now some of the personalities have left.

One of the new indie stars in IT is David Heinemeier Hansson, he of Ruby on Rails and 37 signals. But what if he signed for a “major label” like IBM or Microsoft or Google? Would he be more effective there? Would these companies become more effective by hiring him? Its a question worth asking. And I think the answer is pretty obvious. 37 signals is a hit because of constraints not because of infinite resources.

What I am trying to say, I guess, is there is so much talent out there beyond the Short Tail.

People are wonderfully creative. Not stars. Us. Whether its my homegirl Gosia making killer bags and selling them on the web or my mate Matt making some great tunes and remixes or my favorite blogger Stephen O’Grady or any of a million incredible photographers at Flickr. You almost certainly know of at least one artist who is far more talented than those feted in fashion magazines, whose works sell for squillions. Go spend half an hour looking at Vitriolica’s blogroll and you’ll be struck loudly by the creativity on display.

In business there is plenty of talent out there. Its not as if Microsoft or Google doesn’t have some insanely bright folks already. The question though is how to grow the talent and harvest the results. To give the talent enough freedom to succeed. To understand the long tail of skill and creativity. Maybe this is just a bell curve argument in another form, but the point remains.

Superstars can make incredible passes. But they don’t always place like a team, effectively. Earlier this week Northern Ireland beat England 1-0 in a World Cup Qualifier. The England team is worth literally hundreds of millions of pounds. You could probably pick up the entire Irish team, on the other hand, for about five million quid. David Beckham, David Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Sean Wright-Phillips, Wayne Rooney – these guys played like they had never met each other before.

Software companies should take note. Squabbling over a couple of key individuals makes you look desperate. Not effective, not successful, just hoping for the next hit record. Hoping the talent will save you.

Just like Sven Goran Erickson throwing Jermaine Defoe on as a third striker for the last ten minutes against Northern Ireland. It was a ludicrous and injudicious use of superstars. The England team was hopelessly unbalanced.

Oh yeah – did I remember to mention Carly Fiorina?

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5 Responses

  1. There *is* one thing that Star Power is good for — it’s good for attracting investment and pushing up the stock price. That is, Star Power is good for showing that you have Stars.

    And when it comes to the market, the perception of value is more important than value itself.

  2. I am reminder of several tech meme’s while reading this post:

    Bill Joy’s oft quoted assertion that “innovation happens elsewhere” by which he means to say that you just can’t hire ALL the slart people and there’s a long term strategic advantage to interoperating with the new innovations that emerge in tech. Something Sun has not been able to consistently build into it’s DNA as a corporation… Though they’ve done better than many. Google out innovated in this global sense by leveraging massive amounts of open innovation into their stack. As they scale it leadsd to my next meme.

    If you add resources to a large time critical project to typically delay the deliverable…
    (Mythical man Month and the 9 months to make a baby analogies). So, Google needs to keep innovating but they try to do so by turning inward more and more and they slow down significantly.
    Hiring DHH would only serve to drive DHH crazy…
    but he might elect to cash in on the short term fame. That’s his option as a meme of the moment.

    Linus took a few industry jobs and the companies he worked for didn’t seem to gain a world shattering benefit from his association but I do
    like to see the larger companies extending patronage to the more effective OSS leaders…
    so they can afford to remain effective OSS leaders. Someone giving DHH a job to keep leading Rails as a project would be a smart move for say IBM, Google, Sun or Yahoo, just in a PR sense.
    Good PR matters… it appears on the balance sheet
    as “goodwill” in a conjurer’s stroke of accounting that only the Big 5 Accounting fi rms(or is that a Big 3 now?) can appreciate.

    Thanks for the comment facility… I prefer commenting to blogging. At least I know someone will read this.

    McD

  3. Actually, McD, I think the original sentence was “innovation happens everywhere”. But, I agree with you all on the “stars” deal. Not to mention the side effect of the failure.
    When you hire a star, he enters in a pedestral and, if he fails to meet the high standards, the moral effect can be really bad to deal with.

  4. are you sure about the joy quote jaime. certainly the original formulation i saw was indeed “Innovation happens elsewhere…”

  5. Sorry for the late reply. And, to answer your question, no, I am NOT sure but, I’m pretty sure.
    Innovation happens elsewhere is to say that some companies can’t stand that their competition innovates also and, instead of building on top of what other created, they make a new thing that works worst than what the pioneers did.
    Joy quote was intended to say that there will be innovation in all the places and Sun has to be able to detect what is the good innovation and promote the partnership business so the end customer get’s the best technology possible.
    Of course this can all be a rewritten of history (elsewhere, everywhere, to a foreign they look pretty much alike).



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