What constitutes a “Rock star startup team” ?

Here’s another question I have been pondering over the last few weeks.

I am personally not very fond of the word “rock star”, but have heard it from several investors in particular. They all claim to have invested in rock star teams.

So it begs the question – What is a Rockstar startup team?

It would be impossible to list all skills, qualities, attributes and traits of the individuals in that team because the list would be endless.

Let me first write down a set of things I’d like to think that its not, but I am open to be challenged on these.

1. Bunch of guys who have all graduated from the same “top schools and colleges”.

2. A team of people who had CXO title’s at large companies and have never worked together.

3. A set of high IQ mensa-type individual contributors who dont work well in teams.

If I were to put a set of things I believe they should have before with the attempt to put a 1 line definition before it would be:

1. They have spent time together and understand each other well.

2. They have previously solved a similar type of problem before.

3. They have great communication among themselves.

4. They have a very good understanding of the market they are looking to operate in.

5. They execute crisply and meet their deadlines consistently.

If I were to simplify the definition of a rock star team, I’d say a team that’s worked together and solved the same type of problem a startup would face at their current stage before in their career.

Or people that have been there and done that – together.

But this definition does not cover a team of co founders who were fresh out of college.They may have certainly worked together, but not have solved the same type of problem before.

I am open to a more crisp definition.

Here are some others that I reached out to who have defined it in their own words.

Shekhar Kirani from Accel

“Deep insights, exceptional performance in their previous jobs, pedigree as an indicator of competitive spirit, and commitment not to give up.”

Ashish Gupta from Helion,

Customer focused, Iterative, Nimble

Sameer V from Nexus,

Scrappy, Hyper-efficient (multi-taskers) with a solid focus on customer needs

Abhijeet M from BVP,

Somebody who knows the market quality, competition, his product, and its value proposition inside out and backwards.

Kiran B Nag from Saama Capital,

Experienced, Synergestic, Adaptive

Raj Chinai from Kalaari,

Exceptional track record, passionate, creative and execution oriented

Gautam B from Ojas,

Energetic, Honest, Complimentary skills, Go-getters, Though not necessary, would help to have relevant backgrounds, Good understanding between themselves

Ashwin R of India Innovation Fund.

Driven, Make things happen, Visionary, And of course the cliched term X factor comes to mind

Mukul Arora from Saif partners,

Super passionate about the idea, ideally with relevant and complementary skills/expertise, and capable of hiring high quality talent.

Rahul Khanna from Canaaan,

Bejul Somiah from Lightspeed,

Passionate, Force of will, Outliers, Unusual

Shailendra S from Sequoia

Bharati J from SeedFund

Rock star team – that finds unique idea and executes brilliantly

have also been asked to contribute to this definition.

I will update this post as they provide me their answers.

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19 thoughts on “What constitutes a “Rock star startup team” ?”

  1. The writer in you is going full steam these days, Mukund. Keep it up!

    People with “… exceptional performance in their previous jobs, pedigree as an indicator of competitive spirit…” is the only thing that seems misplaced in the whole article. Sure pedegree/qualification/record could help from positivity point of view; but chances of startup success (and thus anointing oneself to be called a rock star team later on) depends only on the unfulfilled hunger to achieve/execute something.

    An Urdu couplet by Muhammad Iqbal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_Iqbal) fits the bill of such a team:

    “Khudi ko kar buland itna, ke har takdeer se pehlay
    Khuda bande se khud puche, bata teri raza kiya hai.”

    he he, Arvind.

  2. There is this story about Led Zeppelin when they got together and drummer Jon Bonham was introduced to the ex Yardbirds star. They jammed briefly, paused and laughed, they knew they would work well together. This instinct is key to rock stars – some sort of shared purpose. To add to your definition, I think a rock star team is, like a band, multi-disciplinary and complement each other well – the lead vocal, the lead guitar, the rhythm, the percussion setting the pace behind.

    1. Brilliant example Sridhar. Couldn’t have thought a better one myself. 🙂

      Mind you though that the ‘idea’ – Led Zeppelin – died with the death of Bonham. They couldn’t do what they so well did earlier. Their individual brilliance turned out to be their idea’s nemesis.

      THIS is (should be) a problem for someone who’s expecting a certain integrity to the on-stage performance. Wouldn’t you agree?

      1. Nice of you! LedZep also tried with Jon’s sone Jason, who appeared promising. Never took off. Besides integrity, geniuses seem to come attached with ego too. Consider the most famous super group, psychedelic rock stars – Cream in 1966 with Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton whose metastable equilibrium gave way to one album wonder, Blind Faith with Steve Winwood’s mesemerizing vocals. You are right all these rock stars wear at their seams pretty fast but while they last, they deliver amazing performances.

        I always felt this about software engineering and products too – it is a creative activity, as much as it is like a rock star band, it is also like animation and cooking. Same ingredients/libraries lend themselves to great opportunities.

  3. “Deep insights, exceptional performance in their previous jobs, pedigree as an indicator of competitive spirit, and commitment not to give up.” This is too theoretical and meant only for mental masturbation sort of thing.(sorry if I am too blunt) “exceptional performance” I have a day job boring and night job interesting, I am not an exceptional performer. “competitive spirit” I don’t want to compete, rather create my own niche and I have been doing it this far. “commitment not to give up” If you don’t succeed you need to quit and switch! My 2 cents!

  4. i heard somewhere that each new team member or co-founder must reduce the risk of the company. e.g. there is a great developer founder, he may need a good business co-founder. If you have both of them, the first employee can be a good web designer etc etc. So, all the risks are reduced for the start-up in Question.

    I think it is a good idea to have one person handling the full function in the beginning. That kind of makes them rock-stars. e.g. one founder building the technology, another doing everything else around business. The first employee can be web designer with some coding abilities etc. e.g. too many people(6+) building the product kind of makes them less rock-starish.

    People who have worked together before and now doing this new thing together is ideal but too much to expect in my opinion. If the founders are reasonable people, they will naturally fit.

  5. Startup success as the criteria, here are a few thoughts from an unorthodox seeker.

    Webvan( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webvan) , the epic multi billion failure, had all rock stars in the team by every reasonable definition of the term one could think of.

    More recently, Shaun Parker’s Airtime, funded by who is who of US VC industry, has been a disaster( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444138104578032892855522684.html).

    IMHO, there are no absolute rules for success in entrepreneurship, only best practices (that could go wrong and are to be revised from time to time). VCs are more wrong than right, fail more than succeed on a regular basis.

    It’s a very difficult job to invest right and some investment thesis is to be followed but many opportunities are missed by not being open minded and nimble.

    As an entrepreneur, I long to see VCs that are truly open minded( to discover new things, ideas, models, possibilities etc from entrepreneurs ), unbiased and humble. The moment you meet a VC , they have already formed an opinion about what you are trying to do. Not inspiring/ encouraging.

    In this perspective, am not sure what purpose this particular question would serve other than bring out biases of VCs. I could be wrong.

    I am fascinated to understand what determines success in startups and entrepreneurship and will continue to seek and explore. In my view, there are micro( individual/team, idea/product) factors in your control and macro(environmental: product-market fit, extraneous forces that effect success with customers and investors, being in the right place, right time , with right people, getting plain lucky etc ) factors.

    With the recent lean startup model literature, we are slowly getting there towards smarter and efficient efforts to success ( esply in the intersection between micro and some of the macro areas).

    PS:
    i hate 🙂 the VCs’/invetsors'(India) seeming fixation with e-commerce 🙂 and well worn out biz models and looking forward to correction that is over due.
    May be, their macro factors are influencing this bias 🙂

    Everybody talks about $B product companies from India but sadly, they are not even willing to see new possibilities. They don’t want to see beyond the initial product and the long, choreographed strategy. They say, oh, you need a lot of money for that. You can’t do that from here. It doesn’t work. Haven’t seen work before. Show me traction.

    Bla , bla , bla.

    We need rock star VCs desperately ( by implication, rock star funds, LPs, rock star investment theses )

    And who they are like ?..May be, discussion for another thread.

    Thanks Mukund, for the opportunity to share some thoughts.

  6. Mukund, may i suggest that you post the same question to a few successful startup founders? Not sure if investors are the best people to answer this question. Just my 2 cents.

  7. Suresh, Kanchan – the very fact that a rockstar team has to justify its ‘rockstar-ness’ means they aren’t one.

    So if a ‘rockstar team’ has to really answer this question, you’ll perhaps read an answer like – ‘well.. its another day on the stage for us. We don’t know – we just play the music. People seem to love us.’

    THAT’s a rockstar team. Everything else above is the pre-requisite list.

    To cut a long story short – ‘rockstar’ is a term investors use. Not founders. They shouldn’t anyway.

  8. More often than not, we see investors and other oldies use “rockstar” to sound young and stud-like themselves. Of course, there are exceptions.

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