Your competitive advantage is not what you think

VCs and various strategy-minded folks ask me all the time what competitive advantage Content Factory has versus a slew of other social analytics vendors. Hey, what if Facebook decides to build a real analytics tool? How about the other players that pop up every day?

Your competitive advantage is the quality of your people. Period.

I heard Bill Gates say that he was ultra-picky about hires in the early days of Microsoft.  Even if you’re desperately understaffed, don’t make the mistake of letting your standards down, he said. You’ll regret it. “A” people attract “A” people, while “B” people bring in “C” people.

And man have I made that mistake many a time. Might as well have Dave Thomas of Wendy’s descend from the sky to brand “Quality is our Recipe” on my forehead.

Do you think high-dollar pros are expensive? Try the cost of incompetence, when you lose projects, sleep, money, and sanity.

The great tech giants all started with their founders being ruthless about keeping the quality bar high.  I witnessed it myself in my days at Yahoo! until they hit a point where the “C”, “D’ and “F” people snuck in, soon to be followed by what we all know has happened.

I look at the times when I’ve succeeded, and it’s when I’ve had a strong team that I would go to the mat for. And when I’ve failed, which is embarrassingly often, you can trace it back to low quality. The cynical will say that it’s really a management problem– allowing unqualified people to be in positions above their skill or not providing enough supervision. Yet I’ve found that if you have bright, eager folks, you can teach them anything.

Jack Welch, who is arguably the greatest manager to have ever lived, would fire the bottom 20% of his staff every year. In banking or consulting, they call this “up or out”. I felt it to be cruelly unfair, as it causes an adversarial work environment, plus penalizes the great teams. Yet if you believe in statistics, you’ll usually have a normal distribution in any of your classes, so the rule works.

So while you as a company founder or entrepreneur care about your baby more than any employee likely would, consider how to never let in unqualified people in the first place. No matter what they say about their skillset or how motivated they are. You will regret it later.

There are no shortcuts to quality. Do you agree?

And if you have the luxury of choosing who you want to work with, don’t you want to be excited to be around those who make you raise your game? I think it was Perot who said his hiring strategy was to find folks who were smarter than him. Or perhaps you can just hire away people from Google and Apple, like Facebook has done. Let others do the screening for you.

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