Blog Post

What Startups Can Learn From Celebrity Meltdowns

Two and a Half Men has been a delicious vice of mine from the first day it came on the air nearly eight years ago. The campy, overgrown, man-child character played by Charlie Sheen was an immensely lovable rascal. Now Sheen’s bad behavior, which looked so cute on the small screen, has unfortunately spilled over into real life, where it’s not so cute and tolerable.

Woody Allen, once said, life doesn’t imitate art, it often imitates bad television. Somehow those words do ring true at the time.

It has been amazing to see Sheen unravel so publicly. His comments about his colleagues eventually became so offensive that CBS (the network which carries his show) and Warner Brothers, the company which produces his show decided to cancel the amazingly popular show – even though they stand to lose a lot of money and face legal action.

Whether you agree with their decision or not, it is undeniable, Sheen’s behavior was selfish, and in the end, it would end-up costing many people their jobs. These are members of the team that helped Two and a Half Men become successful.

Despite the presence of stars, television shows and movies are collective endeavors — like an orchestra. When it works well, you have a television show for the ages. Seinfeld is an example.

Actually, startups are no different. If you put together the right ensemble, you end up building a company that can last a generation. I was there to see Google build an amazing ensemble and that eventually paid off handsomely for one and all. We are seeing Facebook build an amazing team that works in perfect harmony.

Unfortunately, not all technology startups are as lucky. Many of us who have started companies, or have followed them closely, have known of certain employees who develop the spoiled-star syndrome — although it is very different from Sheen’s behavior.

From a tech perspective, the spoiled star-syndrome shows up when an engineer or a product manager or a designer start to act “entitled” and begin believe he is not only awesome, but he is actually superior to others on his team.

From that arrogance follows an inability to communicate and work with others. Then he starts ordering others around and that results in a breakdown of communication. And when that happens, things get ugly. While these problems aren’t isolated to small startups — we know of enough incidents at big companies — when you happen to be a relatively young company, prima-donna behavior can prove to be a death knell.

Let me explain. In the early days of a startup, you don’t have much time. You are resource-constrained — be it money, engineers or time — and you are trying to beat competitors to the market. In other words, you have to basically use your limited resources as effectively and efficiently as possible.

If there are distractions such as a team member who starts to believe he’s superior to others, a large amount of friction is introduced into the system, which leads to the breakdown of the entire production. An employee with a bad attitude can do the same amount of damage as a drunken actor on a television show.

And just like Sheen, perhaps it’s time for those prima-donnas to go — no matter how good or great they are.

What to read on the web:

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10 Responses to “What Startups Can Learn From Celebrity Meltdowns”

  1. I totally agree with the theme of the article . I am myself in a start up n understand all ego should take back seat for the betterment and success of the company . Individualism will only lead to down fall……………

  2. While Sheen’s actions may be selfish, it’s the managers who shut down the show. A lot of folks are blaming Sheen for shutting down the show, but he never had that power. The decision to stop business and put everyone else out of work rests with the CBS and Warner execs.

    I think it’s a bit disingenuous to blame someone for acting the way people love to see him in character – which was in turn based upon his way of life. He is who he is.

  3. Praetor

    I cannot disagree with you more, talent is and always has been the difference. Feel free to purge them from your ranks, I am looking to hire.

    PROTIP: If you do not have the social/people skills to deal with talent, then let them work remote. We have the technology.

    • I think there is a big difference between talent and folks who think they are talented and better than someone else and have a tough time working with others.

      I have seen this multiple times – things almost always go wrong when you got folks which are less willing to work with others.

  4. Um, this article needed to be written? The author must fall into the prima donna “everyone cares about what I think, even the smallest thoughts” category himself.

  5. Two words: manic-depressive. I don’t know why people don’t see it with Sheen, Your point about bad team members with delusions of grandeur, well the hiring process probably rewards those people just because they stand out from the pack with a surplus of confidence.

    • I think that is one of the key things one needs to watch for when hiring such a person. It is an important enough characteristic to try and catch as early as possible. The clues are there — especially when you are interviewing someone and asking them about how they plan to fit into the team.

  6. Local Stain

    “We are seeing Facebook build an amazing team that works in perfect harmony.” While this may be true within the company simply because they have 600mil users does not, in any way, imply harmony. It is also an staggeringly arrogant statement.
    “From a tech perspective, the spoiled star-syndrome shows up when an engineer or a product manager or a designer start to act “entitled” and begin believe he is not only awesome, but he is actually superior to others on his team.”
    Sounds like someone we both know. He was kicked out of his own company. He came back a few fears later and from what I understand has been completely re-inventing what a personal portable computer can be ever since. Jobs, Steve Jobs. In fact I believe you were there this morning when he made history.


    I am with @ciprian the world needs it’s rock stars, prima ballerinas, and its divas. If for no other reason than to leave an example, however bad it may be, for the future generations.