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What Playing In Failed Rock Bands Taught Me About Startups

Startups’ founding teams need to trust each other to play different parts, not vie for each other’s roles.

What Playing In Failed Rock Bands Taught Me About Startups
[Photo: Flickr user Jay Roc]

In the early days of my company, my cofounders and I would joke that if things were all up to me, we’d give away all our profits to our users. If our CEO had all the say, we’d squeeze as much money from them as possible. And if our CTO were in charge, we’d say no to everything.

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Five years in, I’m convinced that this is why our company is in great shape. We’ve weathered many a crisis, currently employ nearly 100 people, and are growing fast enough to get on the Inc. 100 list and win various other awards.

While we’ve been at it, I’ve seen several friends’ companies fold or implode due to issues stemming from the founding team. In them, I’ve observed a few patterns. My favorite analogy to describe them comes from the series of ill-fated rock bands I started back in the day.

A Short History Of My Five Failed Bands

Band #1: High school. Three friends and I would get together to play guitar. Soon after deciding to form a band, we realized that everyone wanted to be the lead guitarist and singer, and no one wanted to play drums. We bumbled our way through two short gigs and broke up.

Band #2: To avoid making the same mistake twice, two of us from the first band decided to form a new band with three guitars, drums, and no singer. Our songs had lots of gratuitous guitar solos, and no one understood our music or wanted to see us play ever again.

Band #3: College. I joined up with some fun people who happened to have access to instruments. This time we formed a proper lineup: bass, guitar, drums, keyboard, one singer. The problem was that most of the band barely knew how to play or read music. And, like a car that runs on half its cylinders, we forced out a couple fun, shaky laps and promptly died.

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Band #4: To avoid making that mistake again, I started yet another “band” in which I simply did everything. I wrote a bunch of electronica songs and recorded all the parts myself. Then I got a couple of friends play keyboards over my prerecorded tracks during live shows. I thought it was great music but exhausting to produce (in an era before easy laptop production software was available); not only did I have to personally teach my gigging partners all the parts, I had to manage the logistics of booking shows, running merchandise sales, and so on. It was impossible.

Band #5: I finally cofounded a group that really clicked. We had a drummer, guitarist, bassist, lead guitarist, and a badass singer with a unique look. All were amazing at their instruments, yet any of us could pitch in on another instrument when that was needed during practice sessions. We blended genres–electronic, dance pop, and punk–with female vocals and heavy breakdowns. We recorded and toured, opening for notable acts around the western U.S.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the parallels between bands and startups. But after getting involved with all those bands, I’m convinced that great musical acts combine people with three characteristics:

  1. They’re similar enough to groove together and get along well through rough patches.
  2. They’re different enough to create tension, which leads to creativity.
  3. They’re each specialists at their own instruments, yet competent at each others’.

The Beatles are a great example of this: four extremely talented musicians and best friends, each with his own specialties, and each of whom could sing harmony and write. Yet they had enough differences between them that their sound was constantly fresh.

My own Band #5 was certainly not the Beatles, but this is exactly what happened with us. And after starting a series of so-so web companies in college and grad school, I’ve finally arrived at much the same place with my current company, Contently. Without similar interests, we founders couldn’t steer our ship together in the right direction. But without a little tension between us, we’d be the same as others and unlikely to really stand out and sharpen our competitive edge. Without our own specialties, we’d fight over who did what. But by respecting and understanding each other’s expertise, we’re able to share burdens and trust one another’s tough calls.

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After all that–and to belabor the music analogy a tad more–I suggest that every entrepreneur looking to build a founding team heed three lessons:

1. You Can’t All Play Guitar

Founding teams need people you can trust to play different parts, and who don’t vie for each other’s roles.

I’m friends with the founding teams of two startups that broke up because their leaders were, well, the same people. In one case, it was four management majors who came up with a great idea while still in school, then proceeded to fight over responsibilities and strategy. Meanwhile, the person doing all the product work was a nonfounding programmer typing away solo. In the other case I saw firsthand, three journalists who shared a passion for what they wanted to build simply had no real business or product expertise. This led to stress, infighting, and a lost opportunity.

2. Solo Acts Rarely Work

Our culture loves to celebrate the myth of the lone inventor who goes into his or her garage and emerges with a flying car. But the reality is that great inventions are rarely pulled off singlehandedly, and great companies are never one-person acts. Even celebrated inventors of late, like Jobs and Musk, had their essential teammates–Woz and Kimbal and others–to motivate, balance, and prevent them from going too far in the quest to push boundaries. Even the top electronic music producers, who can create everything on their laptops now, make their best hits when collaborating with talented singers or other DJs.

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Even if you’re a solo founder, surrounding yourself with early collaborators who can play the instruments you don’t have time for (or expertise in) will make your undertaking 10 times easier than trying to do it all on your own.

3. Great Collaborations Are Unique

According to the FX sitcom It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, great action-hero teams have The Looks, The Brains, and The Wildcard. It’s not a universal truth. But I believe they’re onto something with the wildcard thing. The best founding teams have something in their DNA that helps them bring lateral thinking or a unique quality to their effort. With bands, it’s often a feverish amount of passion, a crazy backstory that helps with recruiting and selling, or an instrument borrowed from another genre that helps them make a breakthrough sound.

The same goes for startups. In our company, the wildcard role is usually played by our CTO, the self-designated devil’s advocate in every important discussion. He’s the one who, when there’s a consensus, tends to take an opposing stance (even if he agrees with the consensus). This forces us to consider all the angles from which we could attack our problems. Without that, we’d likely get stuck in the “too little tension” zone where innovation doesn’t happen:

Image: @shanesnow

That’s how we’ve come up with our most interesting ideas and gotten past not-so-obvious roadblocks. It’s how we’ve spread responsibilities in a way that builds trust, and it’s how we’re able to have lots and lots of debates without losing our cool.

It’s not quite as glamorous as touring in a band, but who wants to spend 10 hours a day in a sweaty van, anyway?

Shane Snow is cofounder of Contently and author of Smartcuts. If you enjoyed this, please share and subscribe to his weekly blog post here!

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