LESSON 7: Small teams = big ideas

By January 18, 2016 No Comments

Every few years, a new movement comes along that ends up being a “sea change,” completely changing the face of youth culture forever. They always start small, as a few kids going against the grain because they see the world a little differently than everyone else. Then before you know it, these little pockets of cultural rebellion snowball into global phenomena that leave their fingerprint on a whole generation. And while they might seem like giant movements from the outside, if you look deeper you’ll see that they were really driven by no more than a handful of key people.

Exhibit A: LA graffiti
The Los Angeles graffiti style, once found exclusively in Southern California, is now found on walls all over the world, on clothing, album covers, and packaging in on the shelves of malls everywhere, and corporate giants like Nike are doing collaborations with street legends like BIG SLEEPS. While there are thousands of artists and brands now repping that aesthetic on a global scale, it was pioneered by no more than a couple dozen people.

revok sunset

Top: Xbox game Sunset Overdrive’s logo (right) is essentially a mall-friendly version of a REVOK tag (left). Bottom: Mike Giant’s brand Rebel 8 (right) put the LA-style letters of guys like BIG SLEEPS (left) into Zumiez and Pacsun stores across the country

Crews like AWR, MSK, TKO, CBS, LTS and KOG created the LA graffiti aesthetic as we know it today, putting in work on the streets for decades before the magazines, galleries and filmmakers finally started paying attention. TOOMER, SABER and REVOK are the “big three” who got the majority of media attention (thanks to films like “War 4,” “Infamy” and “Piece By Piece“), and those who have dug deeper into the LA graffiti scene will also know names like AYER, NORM, ZES, RETNA, DEFER, REYES, HAEL, and FATE. There are dozens of of other people in those crews who all deserve credit and respect, but it was this small group of especially prolific, innovative guys who really pushed the medium forward on a global scale.


Awesome profile on the key players in the Syracuse scene that aired on CNN back in 1995 or so

Exhibit B: Syracuse hardcore
Believe it or not, the college town of Syracuse, NY was the mecca of 90s hardcore. The kids up in Syracuse created the blueprint for that whole generation of hardcore, with countless bands and kids carbon-copying the look, sound, and lifestyle that Syracuse created. To this day, you can find kids all over the globe— Poland, Italy, Japan, etc— who take their cues from the 90s Syracuse scene and wouldn’t look at all out of place in a picture of a One King Down show from 1997.

At the time, we all thought of the Syracuse scene as this massive thing, like that one scene in Lord Of The Rings where it shows the vast hordes of Mordor, only full of vegan straightedge hardcore kids instead of orcs and Karl Beuchner instead of Sauron. But in hindsight it wasn’t much bigger than any other regional hardcore scene. There was really only one big band (Earth Crisis), a couple small venues, and one t-shirt company (Cabal). But that relatively small crew of people built something with a global impact through passion, hustle and dedication.


two pizza team

What business can learn from this
In the same way as a handful of LA graffiti writers and Syracuse hardcore kids created these global movements, businesses don’t need a lot of people to bring big ideas to life– they just need the RIGHT people. A handful of smart, dedicated people with an unstoppable work ethic is all you need to start a movement or a great business. In fact, in many/most situations I think a small team is actually BETTER than a big one.

In my experience, adding additional people to a team reaches the point of diminishing marginal utility pretty quickly. In other words, adding 1 or 2 people to a team is awesome because you guys can share the work, each focusing on the thing you’re best at. But add another person and another person and it quickly starts to slow the pace. More opinions means that decisions start to get made by committee, and the creativity gets watered down to “lowest common denominator.”

size of team

Many years ago I remember the founder of some rapidly-growing agency (I think it was Psyop?) saying “How big can we get before we start to suck?” This dynamic is exactly what he was talking about.

With that in mind, I have two specific pieces of advice for applying this to business:

  1. If you want fresh new ideas, keep the team SMALL. Do not assume that bigger is better, because it probably isn’t. Obviously there are no hard and fast rules here because every project is different, but as a rule of thumb I think 2-5 people is a good guideline. If you pick the right people, that’s a big enough crew to do pretty amazing things. If some kids from Syracuse can transform the hardcore scene on a global scale, you don’t need more than 5 people to come up with a new product idea.
  2. Resist the urge to scale up the team. That should be a last resort, because you’ll reach the point on the graph above where the work starts to get shittier more quickly than you think. See if there are other ways to help the team besides increasing headcount: getting them better equipment, outsourcing the shitwork to contractors, etc. When you do eventually need to scale up the team, be EXTREMELY careful about who you bring into the fold because it’s way harder to fire people than to hire them. LISTEN TO THE TEAM on this, like how a graffiti crew has to approve a new member.

Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a time and place for big teams, especially in situations where it’s a mature business with a machine that essentially “runs itself” like a giant consumer goods brand or something. But when it comes to groundbreaking new ideas that will transform an industry, I’ll take a small, tightly knit team of passionate maniacs every time.

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