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The Key to Startup Success: Three’s Company

When Eleanor decides to move out of a multi-bedroom apartment on Janet Wood and Chrissy Snow, culinary student Jack Tripper crashes her going-away party and is found the next morning, passed out in the bathtub. Needing someone to cover Eleanor’s share of the rent, they offer to let Jack move in with them and a company is founded.

The show, top-ten hit from 1977 to 1983, chronicles the escapades and hijinks of the trio’s constant misunderstandings, social lives, and financial struggles. Sounds rather like a startup, doesn’t it?

I wanted to dig in a bit more to the questions of an ideal startup team and my mind chewed upon the fact that a CEO, a CTO, and a CMO (more or less) seem to distinguish the ideal core team, the Baader Meinhof phenomenon kept kicking in as evidence piled into my brain about great threesomes.

The Baader Meinhof phenomenon??

A cognitive bias in which people tend to see a particular thing everywhere after noticing it for the first time. 

  • Rush (forcing my brain to our great friends at 2112 in Chicago)
  • Green Day
  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience
  • The Police
  • The Supremes
  • Nirvana
  • Bee Gees
  • Peter, Paul, and Mary
  • Depeche Mode
  • Fugees
  • TLC
  • Dixie Chicks

You get the idea… but it didn’t stop for me with music… Harry Potter’s three main characters, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, The Three Amigos, Charlie’s Angels, The Princess Bride, Hocus PocusStar Trek … and it’s there that I paused because I realized a mistake I’ve made…

What Does a CEO Actually Do?

If you’ve watched a season of the original Star Trek, you know Captain Kirk has Spock close at his side. The Captain of a starship might hold the overall responsibility for where they go, the final decisions they make, or their primary communication with encounters, but nothing happens without the team.

The mistake I made was concluding Kirk and Spock, Picard and Number One, or even among the more recent Treks, that Michael Burnham and Saru seem to distinguish two leads when in fact, it was Kirk, Spock, and Bones. I’ve written about the role of three founders with this Trek perspective in mind before, and the mistake I made was showing it off with this great photo from the Original Series.

A startup’s CEO is a key player in that they are the DNA that binds the leadership to the goals of shareholders, but successful ventures are run by the other leadership: the CMO, CTO, etc. just like the Enterprise thrives because of Scotty and Bones, not Kirk deciding everything.

I always liked that notion of three as it’s consistent with economist Peter Drucker’s observation that only two things create value in business: Marketing and Innovation (Drucker also noted that everything else is a cost)

It could be said that the CEO’s job is to overcome and mitigate costs… so that Marketing and Innovation has what it needs to create value. The CEO has responsibility for the overall success, responsibility in that they are accountable to shareholders (by way of Directors), of an entire organization whereas the other roles are responsible for their organization.

And then Baader Meinhof smacked me again

The question of the perfect team is timeless and yet the answer seems obvious as most successful startups are renown with their famous duo, or sole founder.  Larry Page and Sergey Brin come to mind.  Elon Musk seems to have done it alone.  Beyond the famous teams, my mind is immediately drawn to the Founders Dating site or the Co-Founder Meetups which imply that the right team is merely a marriage of two partners.

The Butcher, The Baker, and The Candlestick Maker

Consider the three in a tub; the bravery, the heroics, as they endeavor together to the Faire.

It goes without saying, piling into a tub and rowing out to sea took gumption, passion, and commitment.  More importantly though, keep in mind that most nursery rhymes and fairy tales were tools that teach; born of an age still flush with mystery and mystic, people believed in witchcraft, had no concept of germs, and taught their children to beware of strangers by spinning yarns with hidden messages.  The message implied, I think that it took the three, and their unique talents working together as one, to succeed in spite of the stares from the critics.

Sure, some called them fools but doesn’t it take a bit of foolishness?

Years ago, Andy Elwood shared in Forbes that the dream team consists of the Hipster, the Hacker, and the Hustler.  Before that, Steve Blank pointed out that the best teams are comprised of the Hacker/Hardware, Hustler, Designer, and Visionary adding:

“Great technology skills (hacking/hardware/science) great hustling skills (to search for the business model, customers and market,) great user facing design (if you’re a web/mobile app,) and by having long term vision and product sense. Most people are good at one or maybe two of these, but it’s extremely rare to find someone who can wear all the hats.”

Saul Klein, founder of SeedCamp, is more clear, “My view is the Platonic startup has a founding team of a developer, a designer and a distributor,” but setting my own experiences aside, frankly, I prefer the light-hearted point of view with a touch of philosophy and history: The Butcher, The Baker, and The Candlestick Maker.

How do three a company build?

A hacker, a designer, and the one making the bread.  Woven into the three characteristics, whether Blank’s point of view or Klein’s specific skills, are some fundamentals: passion, disruption, vision, creative, reliability, understanding, and sales, to name just a few.

Saul Klein goes on to explain the three as follows, and I can’t help but place my fairy tale characters in each of these roles:

  • someone who understands how to build technologies and systems to solve problems (the candlestick maker)
  • someone who understands the human factors behind those problems, why they exist, what it takes to fix them and how to shape the experience (the baker)
  • someone who understands how to reach, talk to and sell to the people whose problems are being solved – and keep finding more of them (the butcher)

Your candlestick maker is an artist, designer, and engineer. The maker of something new but more than that, the person capable of working around the problem of having the wrong metals for that candlestick or re-architecting the design when the one envisioned won’t stand straight.

You can rely on the baker for the wheat bread and the hamburger buns. The baker knows what people need and what it takes to serve those needs and mold the dough to precisely the right experience.

And those two founders alone might create a very nice, bread-based candlestick company but something is missing. Sure, people might be seeking a nice candlelit dinner with King’s Hawaiian Sweet Rolls, but would that meal alone be worth much investment? That’s not the ideal team.  We need the butcher.

The one willing to hack, to disrupt, and to grill up a filet.  The butcher knows how to bring home MORE than just the bacon (and spilling a little blood along the way just goes with the territory).

Combined, with some tomatoes thrown in, we have a candlelit chicken pasta primavera dinner.  A romantic result that will assuredly lead to a long and happy marriage for all *ahem* three of you.

The Ideal Startup Team

Looking at it through the lens of a startup (small team), the ideal core leadership in a company is CEO, CMO, CTO

The CMO’s job is to answer why, for whom, with whom, when, and where while a CTO to determines what and how and delivers. The CEO discerns all of that into a vision to align everyone and to draw the resources they need to build a successful company: human resources, capital, and attention.

[Photos: Three’s Company by ABC Television. Used via Public Domain at Wikipedia and Green Day by ECarterSterling and flickr CC BY-SA 2.0]

Paul O'Brien

Silicon Valley technology and startup veteran, Paul O'Brien is affectionately known as SEO'Brien for an extensive past in the search industry. Today as CEO and Founder of MediaTech Ventures, O'Brien works in Venture Capital Economic Development, serving the investment and venture capital economies directly, through thought leadership, consulting, and startup development. More, a regional Director of the Founder Institute incubator and mentor in DivInc, Galvanize, and various startup Accelerators.

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  1. There is a very good film titled Baader Meinhof Complex about the Red Army Faction in Germany. Quite different from the antics of Jack, Janet, and Chrissy.

      1. A friend of mine, when we were kids, met John Ritter at a resort pool once, he said he was the nicest guy. A photo he had of them together imprinted Jack Tripper in my heart a bit. Made it fun to play around with Three’s Company as a lesson

  2. Perfectly on point. The trio/tripod founding team is also my favorite. For tech companies it can be CEO/CMO/CTO, for others like say cpg startup CEO/CMO/COO. Surprisingly I often see CMO role is missing in startups until late stage. Industry still has severe misconception about what marketing actually is. Missed opportunity if you ask me.

    1. You’re my hero for saying so
      Almost all startups that aren’t a failure of the team falling apart, fail because they either think Marketing is merely promotion OR they don’t bother with any of it until they’ve launched.

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