It has been said many times that founding a startup is similar to launching a rock band. For example:
- You gather a small, talented team with different skills but a common passion.
- You practise for long hours to improve your product.
- You create a demo tape or prototype product to show people.
- You network like crazy to get exposure to the right people.
- You choose a target audience who likes the kind of stuff you produce.
- You need finance so you approach a major record label, which is like a VC, or a small indie producer who is like an angel investor.
- You keep adapting your product – you are in constant beta.
- You start small but think big. You want your song, or video or app to go viral.
- You experience growing pains, ‘creative conflicts’ and disagreements among the team on the best way forward.
In a recent article in the Economist, writer Ian Leslie takes the analogy a step further by describing four models for startup businesses with leading rock groups as examples.
- Friends – The Beatles
The Beatles were four friends who worked intensely closely. They dressed, spoke and looked alike. As Leslie puts it, ‘Working with friends is exhilarating when things go swimmingly but it can be hell when things go wrong.’ During the 1960s the Beatles had fun and produced a fantastic songbook of great hits. But by 1970 the band was riven with disputes. John Lennon was obsessed with involving his new wife, Yoko Ono. Paul McCartney wanted to launch a solo album. George Harrison felt constrained in his role in the group. They broke up. When friends fall out the disagreements can become bitter and personal.
Friends can build successful long-term businesses if they can manage their egos and creative differences. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were pals at Stanford University before founding Google in 1996. They were following in the footsteps of two other friends who were Stanford graduates. Bill Hewlett and David Packard started their company in a garage in Palo Alto in 1938.
- Democracies – REM and Coldplay
REM was founded in 1979. All four members of the band had an equal say in all decisions. Everyone had a veto and each received an equal share regardless of who wrote or contributed to each song. The band collaborated well and enjoyed widespread success. They split amicably after 32 years.
Coldplay are a hugely successful band (and business) which operates on similar principles. All members of the band have an equal say in decisions and an equal share of income.
However, most bands contain some very big egos and many have split up because of disagreements about contributions and remunerations. A democracy is hard to maintain when success brings big rewards and when bad times mean rethinking and hard work.
- Autocracy – Bruce Springsteen
In his autobiography Springsteen says, ‘Democracy in a band is often a ticking time bomb. If I am going to carry the workload and responsibility, I might as well assume the power.’ When it comes to the E Street Band, Springsteen is unquestionably the boss.
Tom Petty and Heartbreakers started as a democracy with everyone getting an equal share but as they became successful that changed. Petty exerted his authority and took a greater share of the responsibility and the rewards.
Autocracy works well when the leader is inspired, say Steve Jobs when he rescued Apple. But it can lead to disaster when a dictatorial boss goes off the rails as Fred Goodwin did leading Royal Bank of Scotland.
- Frenemies – The Rolling Stones
Frenemies argue. They agree to disagree. The Rolling Stones were never great friends but they found a way to work together that has served them well for over 50 years. Mick Jagger is a great front man and singer. He is also a shrewd businessman whereas Keith Richards was never interested in the financial side of the enterprise. One of their most creative early forces, Brian Jones, was forced out of the group. Other band members came and went.
Wrapping it Up
The Beatles were highly creative and innovative but they burned out after seven years at the top. The Stones have become a touring band whose greatest hits and most inventive years are well behind them but they carry on filling stadiums and playing to adoring fans. Leslie compares them to Microsoft.
Most startups, like most new rock bands, fail. They might make a great product but they are unable to sell it to enough people to reach a sustainable business. Those that succeed can be wildly successful and then flare out like Nokia, Blackberry or the Beatles. Those that find a way to work together and meet the needs of their loyal fan base can prosper for years – like Samsung, Microsoft, Coldplay or the Rolling Stones.
It is not enough to have great creativity and endeavour in your highly talented team. You also need to find a corporate philosophy that suits your personalities and enables you to work together through thick and thin.
Image credit: archive.org
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Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation, and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, published both published by Kogan-Page. Follow him @PaulSloane