Why the lone genius myth needs to GTFO

A couple of months ago we went to an excellent talk at the V&A by Jean Touitou, the founder of French fashion label A.P.C.

A.P.C. is an interesting brand.

They were founded as a reaction against the OTT Parisian trends of the 1980s and have become world-renowned without ever being part of the fashion elite.

The key point we took away from Jean’s talk is how much the ‘lone genius’ is still highly revered in fashion.

Take Karl Lagerfeld, ‘the most powerful man in fashion’, for example, and his frenetic obsession with doing everything.

Or Alexander McQueen, the controversy-courting ‘hooligan of English fashion.’

For Touitou though, things have always been different.

Even though, as the founder and lead creative, his brand is an extension of him, he recognises that he wouldn’t be anywhere without his team.

In fact, he spoke at length about why he hates the lone genius stereotype within his industry, saying:

I am not a genius who works alone at night, surrounded by worshippers who never eat – and, as a matter of fact, we don’t work at night, and we do eat.

What tech can learn from fashion’s myths

We also see the lone genius hype in the headline-making entrepreneurs of today (Zuckerberg, Travis Kalanick et al.) even when they’re revealed to be far from godlike.

In fact, we believe the ‘lone genius’ is another misguided innovation myth.

There’s no denying that a founder has a certain set of skills which are incredibly important; the vision, the connections and the ability to sell the dream being a few of them.

However, that might not be what is needed in a month, a year or ten years.

It’s just as vital that the founder also knows their limitations and who they’ll need next to help them along.

  • Are they going to be able to keep on top of the books?
  • Are they good at marketing?
  • Who’s going to handle the tech?

When do they need to get a really great design and UX team on board?

Steve Jobs and the cult of the lone genius

Followers of the cult of the lone genius often hold up Steve Jobs as a shining example of their archetype, with insanely great products emerging from him alone.

Well unfortunately for them, that’s just not true.

In the same way that Touitou’s team do things that he isn’t capable of at all, Jobs knew he couldn’t do it all on his own.

He needed engineers, marketers, designers. His genius was in bringing those people together at the right time.

He knew when and how to use others’ talents to accomplish his vision.

As he allegedly said in the 2015 film (whether the “what do you do?” conversation with Woz actually took place or not is another matter) he knew how to ‘play the orchestra.’

His role was to bring all the virtuosos in their individual areas together and get them working in symphony.

Don’t hire rock stars

Just like Apple, as your product grows so will your team. Staying on top of who you might need and when is critical.

Hiring is often one of the hardest jobs you’ll face, and one that can cause entrepreneurs a lot of angst; so having a solid plan for who you’ll need next will make this process easier.

It will also be easier if you know the kind of character you don’t want.

A great piece of advice we once heard from Andy Budd of Clearleft was,

Don’t hire rockstars but build a team that acts like a great rock band.

Whether you’re getting people in full-time, hiring contractors or finding outsourced partners; cultural fit is just as important as the skills people bring.

And whilst we totally appreciate that, for a time-poor entrepreneur, it can seem like there are a million other things you should be doing; the time invested in helping your team understand the goals and needs of any product or company will pay off tenfold in the long run.

Touitou describes his vision for a team as “a group of people lined shoulder to shoulder” and emphasises that “…although I might be leader of the pack here, I wouldn’t be anything if there were no pack.”

Just as there is no room for a lone genius at the top, there’s no room for a solo act at any level.