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
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?