What Rockers Can Teach Entrepreneurs
Embarking on a career in popular music is in many ways like starting a business. You develop a brand, a distinct identity in the marketplace, and try to get people excited about it. What can entrepreneurs learn from musicians about getting a new business off the ground?
The 10-Year Journey to Overnight Success
Any musician you’ve ever heard of has worked countless hours to master his or her instrument and has endured humiliation after humiliation in the form of small and apathetic audiences, discouraging label executives, and dismissive incumbents. It takes hard work, commitment and determination to succeed as a musician.
The same goes for people who want to start a business. Entrepreneurs can get impatient when all they hear about are overnight successes and young self-made billionaires. Overnight success stories make for good headlines. But they are misleading.
In both music and entrepreneurship you need to commit fully and decisively, and then stick it out through the long haul. You have to be willing to make personal sacrifices, and you have to be persistent in your pursuit of excellence.
When I interviewed super-producer Rick Rubin for an article about meditation, I asked him why so many musicians meditate. He told me meditation is good for musicians because it reinforces the lifestyle of consistent practice and discipline. People tend to focus on the inspiration aspects of the arts (and the inspiration aspect of entrepreneurship). What we don’t see is the tedious disciplined practice involved in translating that inspiration into a success in the marketplace.
Persistence means overcoming the deeply personal pain of failures. We all know that you need to fail to learn. But what rockers can teach entrepreneurs is that failing is like mourning the death of a loved one. Your business, like your art, is your baby. You are personally attached to it. You love it. It is part of who you are and its success is tied into your feelings of self-worth. How must Robin Thicke feel around now that his deeply personal album about his failed relationship with his wife sold only 530 copies in the UK in its first week? That’s how entrepreneurs feel every time they fail.
Musicians have been told their entire career that their babies are ugly, stupid, and boring. Jimi Hendrix was kicked out of every band he played in until he started his own. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. It just means that it’s part of the deal.
The same goes in business. Starbucks founder Howard Schultz was passionate about his vision of bringing Italian coffee bar culture to the US. He approached 242 investors. 217 said, “No.” That’s 217 times that his baby was insulted. Then he couldn’t show a profit for three years. That’s rock star persistence.
Charles Darwin said that it is not the strongest or the most intelligent who survive, but those who can best manage change.
Rockers are masters of change, flexibility, and adaptability. Madonna, one of the only women in popular music to have a consistently successful career into her fifties, has done it by constantly changing and adapting. She didn’t lose her brand of empowered sexuality, but she changed with the times. In fact, she sometimes changed ahead of the times. Now making her thirteenth album, she’s getting today’s hottest producers to give her their most exciting tracks.
When U2 transitioned from their signature sound, epitomized on The Joshua Tree, to the dark electronic sound of Achtung Baby, they proved that they were agile. Likewise, Radiohead transitioned away from guitar-based songs after their hit album OK Computer to a more electronic sound for its follow-up, Kid A. It wasn’t easy to make the changes, but it paid off. Achtung Baby was a commercial smash for U2, selling 18 million copies, while Radiohead’s Kid A topped the Billboard chart, won the Grammy award for best alternative album, and went platinum.
Any team should be wary of abandoning its core strength to superficially adopt a trend. But that wasn’t the case with U2 and Radiohead. What they were doing was growing together. They were able to interrupt their habits of thought and their habits of action. They were innovating.
It’s not the strongest or most intelligent that survives but the one that is most adaptable to change. Startups need to keep changing if they are going to hold their customers’ interest, adapt to changing market, and outperform competitors.
Everyone is a Rapper
In both music and entrepreneurship you need powers of persuasion. You need to get people excited about what you’re doing so that they can give you money to keep doing it. You need to rap.
The original meaning of the word rap was talking. But it was more than that. It was your ability to talk smoothly, to talk yourself out of trouble, to use talking to get your way. It was a smart way of talking, a way of talking that impressed other people. Rapping was selling. That’s why rappers are such good entrepreneurs.
When rap started, there was no institutional support for the genre. So rappers learned salesmanship. Rap culture was about proving you were better than the rest. It was about distinguishing yourself and your originality above the crowd.
Startups need to do that. Just like rappers, they need to convince people that they are better and bolder than the rest. That they can rise to any challenge and circumstances. Entrepreneurs can learn from rappers that stepping up to the mic with confidence can go a long way.
Entrepreneurs can also learn from rockers to make an emotional connection to their audience through body language and stories. As I’ve written before, you can learn techniques that will strengthen the effectiveness of your communication.
But most importantly, rockers teach entrepreneurs the importance of finding your unique voice and expressing it. As an artist, you have to differentiate yourself from others. Doing well in business requires the same thing. To stand out, you need to put yourself on the line and express yourself with confidence and passion.
Nurture the Team
A startup company I once interviewed faced a situation where one partner wanted the company to always be small enough to all fit in an elevator. But the other partner wanted world domination. One wanted to be Zuckerburg, the other wanted to be Zingerman’s. It collapsed. Another company had a partner who didn’t feel like he got a fare share of the equity split. So he split, right as they were about to be approved for a grant on which he was the primary investigator. The grant fell through.
Partners are a major source of uncertainty. They are also the most important factor for your startup’s success. What can we learn from rockers about minimizing partner risk? Invest in the connection with your partners.
In 1995 Anthony Kiedis, singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was in rehab for heroin addiction. He was the singer of one of the biggest bands in the world, with a new album coming out and a tour to embark on. His band mates needed Kiedis to do his job.
Part of the rehab center’s recovery process was to invite friends and family for a group session. Flea, The Chili Peppers’ bassist, showed up. When the group session began, the therapist asked Flea, “How does it make you feel when Anthony’s out there using drugs and you have no idea where he is or if he’s ever going to come back?” Kiedis cringed in his seat. He figured Flea was going to rant about how mad he is that Kiedis is ruining all of their hard work. And he would be right.
But Flea burst into tears. “I’m afraid he’s going to die on me,” he sobbed. “I don’t want him to die.” Flea cared about Kiedis as more than a means to an end.
Truly great bands such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers treat each other like family. That’s where their resilience comes from. Flea wasn’t happy about what Kiedis’s behavior was doing for the band. But first and foremost he was worried about him as his friend.
The same goes for startups. Other people are not just there to get the work done. They are not disposable parts. If they are, the team will have zero resilience for when times get tough. Without a strong relational fabric, the team will collapse at the first bump in the road.
Why does caring matter so much? Because it brings out the best in others. It facilitates others by giving them the support they need so that they can contribute at their highest level. It also creates a safe environment for making mistakes and experimenting.
Caring comes with playfulness, which helps with burnout and also opens up the team’s resources and creativity. And caring increases loyalty. When band members look out for each other, they build a reservoir of goodwill that they tap into when times get tough.