Big Business Lessons From Three Rock 'n' Roll Legends

Nearly every successful startup shares three common traits with music stars.

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By Steve Jones

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Growing your business from "idea" to IPO isn't that much different from taking a rock band from neighborhood bar gigs to sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. In fact, as a startup entrepreneur, you might want to brush up on music history and take a few rock "n' roll lessons to heart.

Nearly every successful startup shares three common traits with legendary rock stars. They are dramatically different, thrive on collaboration and never stop adapting and learning as they go.

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Be dramatically different. In the early 1970s, Wicked Lester was just another struggling rock band in New York, about to split up because of a lack of success. Then they came up with a new look, stage persona and name. Within two years the renamed band, Kiss, headlined their first world tour. It didn't happen because they became infinitely better musicians. They were already talented musicians before applying the makeup. Kiss realized that they needed to stand out in order to get noticed. With comic book makeup and wild pyrotechnics, they quickly went from obscurity to world fame because they were dramatically different.

Most startups are afraid to risk being that unique. After all, if you are as different as Kiss, won't you alienate many potential investors and customers? The answer is an enthusiastic yes! In order to demonstrate your startup's unique difference to the world, you need to accept that not everyone will like you. Embrace that fact. The kiss of death in the startup world isn't rejection, it's indifference. Indifference means you are invisible, because you are just like everyone else.

Create perfect harmony. A young boy named David Crosby became captivated by collaboration when his mother brought him to a park to see an outdoor symphony performance. Sitting on his lawn chair, David watched as a dozen musical instruments came together to create one magnificent sound. Later on, as a member of The Byrds, Crosby harmonized on hits like "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "Mr. Tambourine Man". He then went on to form one of the greatest vocal harmony groups in rock history, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. David Crosby sought very little recognition as a solo artist, instead working with Phil Collins, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Elton John and David Gilmour. David Crosby made every song he sang on better.

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Collaboration is to entrepreneurship what harmony is to rock "n' roll. It is the missing ingredient that can make ordinary things incredible. Some partnerships are two-part harmony, like Apple's Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. Others are more complex four-part harmony, like Twitter founders Evan Williams, Biz Stone, Noah Glass and Jack Dorsey. Some collaborations are financial, with investors providing seed money to get great ideas off the ground. Regardless of whether the collaboration is creative or financial, harmony happens when different people with distinct skill sets work together to create something that transcends each individual's abilities.

Never stop learning. When four high school kids started jamming together in Ireland, they quickly realized that they weren't good enough to accurately play cover versions of hit songs. So instead of giving up their rock "n' roll dream, they wrote their own songs that they could play. From day one, U2 was learning how to do things their own way. Even when they became famous, the learning never stopped. When an album didn't sell well, the band analyzed what they could have done better. When their sound got off track in the late 1990s, Bono famously announced that the band was "reapplying for the job as the best band in the world". The result was their album All That You Can't Leave Behind, declared by Rolling Stone as a "masterpiece." It went to number one in 22 countries and won three Grammy Awards. Over the course of nearly 40 years together, U2 became legendary for always learning, growing, refining and perfecting their craft.

On the outside, entrepreneurs often attempt to project an image of confidence and intelligence. Yet deep down inside, all of us struggle with the insecurities that come when we don't have all of the answers that staff, investors and family rely on us to have. The pressure can be overwhelming. It is perfectly acceptable to not have all of the answers, and equally acceptable to admit it. You should strive to be like U2, always learning as you go, adapting to changing times and perpetually reapplying for your own job.

Related: Richard Branson on How Music Can Save Your Business

Steve Jones

Author, Speaker, Marketing & Media Consultant, Broadcaster

Steve Jones has spent 30 years in the music business, and is the author of two business books based on his experiences, Start You Up: Rock Star Secrets To Unleash Your Personal Brand and Set Your Career on Fire and Brand Like a Rock Star: Lessons From Rock ‘n’ Roll To Make Your Business Rich and Famous. Steve blogs about the link between music and business at

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