Ok, fine, we weren’t really that punk and our “tours” consisted of playing out of town shows over extended weekends. But after 18 months of living the startup life I’ve realized that all those years I spent breaking guitar strings in front of strangers taught me a lot of what I needed to know to run a startup. For example, that time I was frantically editing code on the server during a live demo was a lot like that freezing cold night I hacked together our van’s broken fan belt with some tape and a few beer cans (no shit, that happened.) So, here it goes, 5 things I learned about startups by touring in a dirty punk band.
The bass player is always late and the drummer drinks too much. You wind up carrying most of the gear but, you know what? That good for nothing bass player somehow manages to book amazing gigs and always writes a good hook. When you’re on tour, the drummer, who is always doing shots at the bar, is a lot of fun and almost always gets the band an invite to crash on a couch. He’s also a social media junkie with a ton of followers. The lesson here is simple. Sure, you might have to clean up a pile of vomit here and there, but the value added by a diverse team usually outweighs each individual’s annoying quirks.
The same goes for songwriting. Face it. If you’re not the next (insert the name of your favorite, insanely talented artist here) the songs you write won’t be very good. However, shove a bunch of mediocre musicians together and someone is bound to say, “Hey, I’ve got something that would sound really good right here!” And, “What if instead we play the song twice as fast and make it start with the chorus?” These are creative ideas that, if managed properly, can create an end product that is lightyears beyond what a single individual could produce.
In other words, there’s a lot you can do on your own, but having a diverse group of passionate people who each are able to contribute a unique facet conjures some sort of magic that will drive your startup to success.
It is August. You just drove 600 miles in an un air-conditioned van to a “show” that got moved to an abandoned K-Mart. You walk inside and are immediately told the guarantee fell through. “Don’t worry, they say, you’ll get a cut of the door.” What a nightmare.
To your surprise, kids start flowing through that door. You start playing and notice this girl is singing along and somehow knows the words to every song, even the new one. After the show she comes up and says, “I can’t believe you came to my town! I dragged all my friends to the show and they loved it. Do you have anything for sale?” You give her a stack of stickers and sell 15 shirts to her friends.
This is the super fan. These are the early adopters who force their friends to use your service. These are the people who retweet your release announcements and put your blog posts on hacker news. They are the drivers of growth. Find these people and give them things. Give them free invites for their friends, fun merchandise, some sort of gold status on your service. I don't care what it is, just give them something. Just make them know they’re special. And remember, you need them more than they need you.
Probably the most important thing being in a dirty punk band taught me is that everything wants to destroy you. Tires blow out, amplifiers catch fire, and people will steal your shit. My personal favorite is when some kid decides he wants some retweets. So, he writes something clever that makes you look like shit. Thanks brother! We appreciate it!
You need a thick skin. You need to react calmly to crisis. You need let things go. Most importantly, you need to act on real criticism and blow off the trolls. That means you have to be good at telling the difference between the two. If that isn’t enough to worry about, you also have to keep your cool in every situation. There’s nothing worse than the regret that inevitably comes after overreacting in public.
What do you do when the low fuel light is on and you're 500 miles away from the show? If your wallet is empty, you are fucked. The same goes for running a startup. If you mismanage your cashflow, you’re fucked. There isn't much more to say. Simply do not let cash-flow get away from you.
You could spend 2 days in the studio getting a good sounding snare track but you’ll probably run out of money before you have anything to show for it. I call that paralysis by perfection. Any band who plans it well can record a rough but passable EP in 2 days. Why would you do that? Well, because something is better than nothing and you can spend your leftover money on what is important - getting yourself in front of the people who matter. Read: Grind out a ruthless multi-city tour.
I guess what I am saying is get an MVP out there in front of your customers as soon as possible then grind out some sales and get customer feedback.
So, there it is. Does this mean you should pick up a guitar and go play some shows? No. I think it means you should realize all that advice you read about how to build successful products applies to more than just startups. Also, look at your past experiences, no matter how unrelated to your business, and think about how those lessons learned can prevent you from making a similar mistake in your business. Oh, and take a shower. You smell like soup.