Why do startups keep hiring people who “break things”?


A recent article by the Harvard Business Review declared “The Era of Move Fast and Break Things is Over”. The author looks at this from a macro point of view for startups and asks questions like, “How will you keep yourself accountable at scale?” and “How will the company leverage data responsibly?” All fantastic questions for a startup to ask as they’re facing multiple pressures to get a product or service to market. But what about this idea on a smaller scale?

Since this is a blog about marketing, my focus will be on the individuals who tout they “move fast and break things” and why your startup should avoid the self-described “disruptor”.

Who is the “disruptor” in marketing?
The “marketing disruptor” can be easy to spot but the antennae need to be up, so let me outline the profile. When you first meet them, you’ll notice they have more answers than questions (a red flag, considering this is real life and not a game of Jeopardy!). Because they don’t take one moment to listen to your story, they offer a one-size-fits-all solution for your business. While there are some best practices and processes a marketer could bring to the table, there are almost certainly customizations that will need to be made for you. A newcomer can only hone in on those customizations by listening to you. If they have access to your current campaigns, creative, etc. they will default to shitting on the work of others. After all, if you bring them on, this will lower the bar for them (“I would be knocking it out of the park, but my predecessor left me a complete mess.”) This is especially visible when they critique campaign setups or creative. Have you ever met a creative person that loves the work their predecessor created? The most obvious sign of all? They describe themselves on LinkedIn as a “Disruptor” or someone who “likes to break things.” If you read that on a candidate’s profile, run.

What happens when the “disruptor” joins your team?
Not much changes about them when they come on board. They pay lip service to your on-boarding. In my experience, they tend to talk over you while they are being downloaded on how things work. They impress the higher-ups by “jumping right in” and start making immediate changes. They problem is that they don’t know which changes to make yet. You start hearing complaints from others about how this person or agency is making their lives harder. Typically, they start a land grab for recognition without the responsibility and accountability that comes along with it. In essence, they begin positioning themselves for looking good rather than just doing a good job. And they do this at the expense of you and the rest of your team.

Why do startups keep falling for this archetype?
In short, I think the sizable gap between what investors demand and the realities of the business are largely to blame. Startups are routinely asked to do more with less, so naturally they feel the need to bring on people who will disrupt the current state of affairs. It all looks great on paper and sounds great during a pitch. These folks are usually great interviewers or pitch people – matching your current need for quick fixes with their ability to say the right thing.

The reality is that it takes far less time and thought to destroy something than it does to create programs or campaigns that work specifically for your business. This requires active listening, understanding, and empathy.

Here are a few questions I recommend asking yourself to avoid bringing on the person or agency that will infect your startup while you have a chance:

  • Have your antennae up for the warning signs listed above. Are they not listening? Are they positioning themselves as your savior? If so, get out while you can.
  • Ask them to repeat back key information you’ve told them during the vetting phase to see if they’re taking it into account.
  • Know what is realistic for you. If you’ve never been a part of a business that achieved a 10x growth rate in a month, then why would this person tell you it’s possible?
  • If you begin hearing negative comments about your hire, do not be afraid to pull the plug and move on. I wish I had done this a couple times. Hoping they fall in line with coaching will just add to the time it takes to fix what’s been disrupted.

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