On November 1st, I’ll be unveiling a new product, one that has spent the last four months under heavy development and testing, including a public beta test that had pretty solid results. The team is me, one other local startup founder who has been quite successful in his own right, and a career engineer whom I’ve always wanted to work with but never had the opportunity until now. We’ve done all of this in our spare time, while keeping our day jobs.
October 23, 2015
When Is a Startup Like a Rock Band?
You'd be surprised
What this really is, is a band. A rock band.
On November 1st, I’ll be playing live in public for the first time with American Titans, a band I put together about four months ago.
It’s scary as hell. And it’s starting to look exactly like a startup launch. Here’s why:
I’m a serial musical entrepreneur. I’ve been putting together bands for as long as I can remember, but I haven’t been serious about one in years. I had the idea for this band during the close of the Automated Insights acquisition. I had just done something big, and I was about to have a little free personal time as a reward after weeks and months of nights and weekends. In other words, I was getting my Sunday nights back.
Plus I needed to get the right side of my brain working again. I think we all need that from time to time.
I shared my idea, for the first time with anyone, with Mark, an engineer at iTron whom I’ve known since high school (coincidentally or not, we were in competing bands, his was better). I told him I wanted to put together a legit band with experienced players, preferably those with an entrepreneurial spirit, to figure out how to make it successful, with the definition of success as yet to be determined but off the traditional path.
I was in no position to tour, sign with a label, release records, go broke, or start a drug habit. But at the same time I didn’t want this to be three not-so-young dudes in Hawaiian shirts playing covers at cookouts. I wanted it to be real. I wanted to disrupt. I wanted to rock.
He got it immediately. So one Sunday night, I dragged my stuff over to his house and set up in his guest room. We worked hard for hours, and came away knowing we had something to offer. It wasn’t pretty or polished, but it was viable.
I didn’t know Eric Boggs, founder of RevBoss (who recently came into some money), played bass until I sheepishly admitted to him that I was starting a band. I’ve always kept my startup universe and my musical universe separate, but I knew this time around that I needed players who had the kind of drive you find in an entrepreneur. Eric put his hand up.
Now I had the right team. I found two very smart, very hard-working, very passionate people whose skill sets were completely different than mine, but who could get behind my idea. They’re probably both more talented than me too, which pushes me to push myself to make sure no one notices.
We started slowly and carefully, but quickly got locked in. Now I feel like if the three of us started a tech company together, we’d be billionaires within a year.
That’s how you want to feel about your team. It’s how I’ve felt about every successful startup I’ve ever started or joined (see Automated Insights). And for every startup I’ve been involved with that failed, that connection was the one missing constant.
One of the primary reasons most bands don’t get off the ground is talent. Another reason is that once the players get into a band and choose a name, they stop there, for the most part. Maybe they get together and practice once in a while, but it becomes like a poker night. Have some fun, blow off some steam, then pat yourself on the back when you get home because, dude, you’re in a band.
Re-read that last paragraph and replace the word “band” with the word “startup.” Does this sound like wantrepreneurism? It does to me.
The three of us come to work. Granted, it’s not mind-numbing spreadsheet and powerpoint work, but then, neither is startup, if you’re doing it right. We love rehearsal, and we have fun, but we’re there for a reason.
We’re all way too busy to waste a few hours each week doing nothing, and we’re all way too entrepreneurial to be doing anything and not try to push that thing to another level.
We’ve invested a lot of time in this (comparatively—we still work 60-hour weeks) and some money. We bring new ideas, we strategize, we compromise. We practice and evolve parts on our own at home. We have a cloud drive and we communicate and collaborate often when we’re not “at work.”
We know we can’t just do what we think is awesome and put it out there and then wonder in six months why nobody ever showed any interest. We know that we have to play not just for ourselves, but for the people we expect to listen to us.
There are songs I’ve written and we’ve worked out, and at some point one of us has said, “Is anyone other than us going to enjoy this?” It gets scrapped and we try something else. We build our act (which I try very hard not to refer to as “product”) piece by piece, focusing on the listener.
For the last month, we’ve been A/B testing, livecasting our weekly rehearsals on YouTube and putting one song from those rehearsals on our website. We take the feedback and we adjust the act based on what people like or what they don’t or, more importantly, what they’re indifferent about.
Once we had about an hour of material, a minimum viable setlist if you will, we went out and found a venue we thought we were ready for. I pulled a few strings (connections!) and got us in at Mystery Brewing Public House. You early ExitEventers will remember Mystery as the original beer provider for the ExitEvent Social.
We’re not getting paid. In fact, doing this show will cost us money. Another reason bands fail is that they expect customers to pay before they know they’re worth paying for. Same with startups.
We picked a date that we thought was comfortable and then settled on another date a few weeks earlier. This is on purpose. It’s forcing us to work harder, not waste time on stuff that isn’t core, and creating a sense of urgency to polish our act. We get three hours a week to do this. So there’s an urgency.
I wish I had known what I know now when I was putting together those first bands. But that’s the Catch-22 of experience, and one career path has taught me so much about the other that I don’t believe I would have been as successful an entrepreneur today without the hard lessons I learned from my musical aspirations.
An hour or so after I finished writing this piece (yesterday, if you’re playing at home), I stumbled upon an article in The Atlantic detailing how the artist is transforming into more of a creative entrepreneur. Patrons are becoming customers, and artists are starting to approach them as such, with a never-before-seen emphasis on branding, networking and sales channels. Selling is no longer selling out, that kind of thing.
That kind of thing still makes me cringe, but I think they got it wrong. I think the same entrepreneurial drive that fuels a startup to success can push the artist to success—it’s just that now with the Internet, artists are learning to do it for themselves.
I also think the same is true with the rise of startup. It’s not as if we’ve all suddenly figured out how to build companies on our own, but rather the pieces are now in place for more of us to have the access to the tools, the talent, and the marketplaces for that to happen.
I think the two pursuits could learn a lot from each other. And I wonder what I’ll learn this time around.