Originally posted on my LinkedIn page
Small start ups, powered by big dreams, or established players trying to retain their market position and deliver the goods – what can the business world learn from these iconic rock groups?
One of the things I like about working for Red Hat is that the solutions we sell emerge from a creative process quite different to that followed by most of the other IT companies out there. Having cool software is one thing though, there’s still a business to be run if you’re going to keep going, make a living and still be able to keep the passion and enjoyment alive.
The same goes for any business out there and…
…it’s exactly the same position a rock band finds itself in.
Perhaps these three great titans of rock have something to teach us all?
All three b(r)ands have several unifying themes we can learn from, so let’s take a look at the lessons grizzled rockers can teach people in business.
Motörhead kick off with stand out examples to follow, covering customer focus, the engineering/creative process and general attitude.
Lemmy’s Rules – laser focus on your customers. No matter what, keep your customers and their experience at the forefront of your thinking.
In his autobiography, White Lines, Motörhead’s founder, Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister, frequently mentions the importance of delivering the goods, no matter what.
Hungover, wired on amphetamines, haven’t slept for three days, tour bus held up by customs officers? Regardless, you make it to the gig on time and rock your hardest for your fans.
Lemmy demonstrated this by continuing to perform, despite illness, right up to his sad demise at the end of 2016, just after his 70th birthday.
I summarise this approach as ‘Lemmy’s Rules’.
If you find yourself waking up in yet another hotel room facing yet another day of customer meetings, tired, dehydrated and frankly demotivated, try whispering ‘Lemmy’s Rules’ to yourself before springing out of bed and getting out there to do what you do. It’s also a good thing to shout at colleagues who can’t face another day at a sales kick off after the previous night’s party.
It’s important to note that Lemmy’s Rules differs from the well known phrase ‘the show must go on’. ‘The show must go on’ is a perfectly good maxim to live by, but implies, to my mind, continuing in the face of external adversity – someone else burnt down the theatre, so you host the production in the car park, for example.
Lemmy’s Rules speak directly to personal responsibility. The reason you may not want to go on is because you did something yourself that is stopping you. Drinking a litre of Jack Daniel’s on the way to a gig for example. Or sitting up late with colleagues the night before a customer presentation. Regardless of what you have done for fun or for other reasons, you do not let that affect the product or service you deliver to your customers. You get to the gig and you perform.
Motörhead’s drummer, Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor’s neck injury is an excellent example. Granted, someone else dropped him on his head, but I suspect Philthy encouraged the whole thing. From Wikipedia –
“Shortly after recording the classic Ace of Spades album in 1980, Taylor broke his neck after being lifted above the head of a friend in a test of strength, only to be dropped upon his head. Taylor continued to play in Motörhead with the aid of a neck brace, as is visible in the music video for “Ace of Spades”. As a result, Taylor had a prominent lump located on the back of his neck (affectionately referred to as his “knob”)”
Give space to your product teams to be creative and give them access to the right equipment. If they are not able to be creative, you won’t have anything to sell. Capitalise quickly on the initial results of experimentation.
In 1979, Philthy Animal was mucking about with some new drum kit he’d acquired. The double time kick-drum pattern he found himself playing by accident inspired his band-mates and Lemmy and ‘Fast Eddie’ Clark to write the song ‘Overkill’ on the spot.
Philthy Animal’s experimentation and access to quality tools, coupled with collaborative colleagues, meant he accidentally invented thrash metal. The resulting tune went on to inspire countless bands and change the face of popular music. Whilst those other bands adopted and adapted Philthy’s innovation, the resulting rising tide also continued to lift Motörhead’s boat.
Believe in what you do and don’t change for change’s sake or because others tell you to.
Says it all.
Innovate by all means, but don’t innovate away from the core product. Innovation is often incremental.
Innovation is the buzzword, bordering on cliche, of the moment. The way innovation is talked about often seems to focus on radical change, eye-popping new features and radical new business ideas.
The challenge, however, is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. How do you keep momentum and interest without alienating the people buying what you are producing?
When AC/DC’s lead guitarist Angus Young was asked in an interview about having made the same album 16 times, Young was quick to jump in and correct the journalist asking the question.
They had made the same album 17 times, he said.
AC/DC have focused, with great success, on consistently knocking out what their customers want. If they had changed their style excessively they would have lost their fan base. Whilst none of the members have had significant side projects, if, for example, Malcolm Young had wanted to follow his softer side and make an album with strings and jazz feel, a separate project would have been suitable. Such as this.
There’s no shame in releasing the same album 17 times – AC/DC’s innovation has been to continue to be the best version of AC/DC they can possibly be, as opposed to innovating themselves into something mediocre.
Equally, when Philthy played with his new drum kit and invented thrash metal, as mentioned above, that was an incremental improvement. Yes, it was new, exciting and disruptive, but it didn’t deliver a brand new product. Instead, he made an existing product even better. He helped heavy metal turn into thrash, he didn’t turn Motörhead into a folk music collective.
Team, team, team
When AC/DC’s lead singer, Bon Scott, tragically died after choking on his own vomit after a night drinking with friends, the band could have called it a day. Scott had was electrifying presence on stage, at the top of his game.
In April, AC/DC hired Brian Johnson and the legend continued.
Then Brian Johnson had to stop performing due to fears another concert would leave him permanently deaf, so Axl Rose stepped in.
Losing a CEO or charismatic leader of your engineering team should not mean the whole company ceases to exist.
At some point it is wise to call it a day – Motörhead would not be Motörhead without Lemmy, but don’t accept instant defeat when a trusted colleague leaves your company.
If you really want to boogie, then boogie, regardless of what your investors are telling you
Status Quo may have had their faults in the 80s and 90s, returning to old form and innovating in the 2000s (the Frantic Four reunion and Aquostic) but they’ve managed not to alienate their fan base and have continued to run a viable business. All this despite personnel changes and diverting cash flow towards alcohol and white powder-related self indulgence on a grandiose scale.
In their earliest incarnation, they were sent down to the Carnaby Street by their management, dressed up as a cut-price Sergeant Pepper and turned into a mediocre psychedelic band. Whilst they had moderate success in this form, it wasn’t what the band wanted, so they took a risk and followed their hearts.
Whilst ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men‘ had made money, psychedelia was in vogue and the 60s were still swinging, their hearts weren’t in what their management (investors) wanted them to do – they wanted to boogie. So they changed direction fairly quickly and, thanks to them following their hearts, we have Little Lady and Blue Eyed Lady and countless other very similar tunes.
Doesn’t this contradict the AC/DC rule above regarding deviating from your product? Not a bit of it. If Status Quo had continued in their psychedelic vein and been happy and could have made it better, that would have been fine – but they weren’t. Instead they swapped something mediocre they didn’t enjoy and couldn’t perfect and did something they did enjoy and were very good at.
AC/DC had a similar progression – we all have our early years finding our true following – but they quickly settled into their groove.
It can take time to find your groove, but you’ll know when you have. Don’t listen to the naysayers and follow your heart.
Your brand defines you, you are the brand
Each band’s brand has remained incredibly solid for several decades. The sound, look and attitude that delivered them success hasn’t wavered. Despite being millionaires, despite personal and personnel changes, fans always knew what they were getting.
Whilst Status Quo’s lighter years present a mild exception to the rule, they redeemed themselves with their series of ‘Frantic Four’ reunions in 2013, delighting fans and proving they could still be the b(r)and they were in their 70s heyday.
Be in front of your customers – get out on tour
It is possible to sell dodgy products or rip off gullible and vulnerable people over the telephone, but any real sales organisation has to connect in a meaningful way with customers.
All three bands have toured continuously, something that has kept them going through good and bad years. Touring (customer facing engagement) has guaranteed the upsell that generates real margins – sales of back catalogues, merchandise, raucous backstage parties and so on.
Think of one of your customers who has renewed a significant support contract with you for several years, but who you have never met. When budgets get tight and the economy is tough and spending choices have to be made, who will that person buy from? Not you, if all you’ve done is say hello once a year when an invoice had been sent out.
Get good management
It may be your baby, but you’ll need help in the early years. Don’t let someone cheat you out of your royalties – you’ll need the advice, but read the contract. All three bands have lessons to learn from here.
Build your channel
If concert halls don’t want you back, record shops don’t want to stock your records and studios don’t want you recording in them, you’re stuck, even with the best product. Your channel has to make money too and you have to build those relationships, even if you are a rockstar.
On a similar note, Lemmy once mentioned that the main reason he was always seen drinking Jack Daniel’s is not necessarily because it’s his favourite whiskey but because its excellent distribution network meant it was always available wherever he was on tour. There is no better endorsement of functioning logistics and distribution than that.
And finally… go out and rock