Three Lessons Punk Rock Teaches Us About Being a Business Leader
Inspiration comes in many forms, and as an entrepreneur, I found mine early on in an unusual place: punk rock.
There are strong parallels between the business of punk rock and startups. When you’re starting a new business venture, you wear many hats—leader, innovator, developer, marketer, HR rep—with very little budget or certainty. You might work out of your home, a cafe, or a co-working space. That doesn’t sound all too different from life on the road, living in motels, making little money, and sharing a tour bus with 18 people.
Had I not taken a break from the tech world and spent the early 2000s as the tour manager for Flogging Molly, a Celtic punk rock band, or working on the Warped Tour traveling music festival, I might not have uncovered some of the secrets to running an honest and successful business.
There are three important lessons I learned from my days on the road that I’d like to share with new and emerging tech leaders and entrepreneurs looking to make a difference in an increasingly noisy and competitive market.
Have a hard-core focus on the customer experience
Being a strong business leader, especially in tech, is all about knowing your customers, knowing your audience, and genuinely giving a sh– about them. Leaders who forget this will fail. Why? Because second to your employees, your customers aren’t just a source of revenue, they’re your biggest advocates. They buy more than just your product. They buy your brand and your vision. They evangelize your products with a fervor you could never buy.
Flogging Molly understood this philosophy. The band had just finished a show at The Gorge in Washington state. Concertgoers had to walk up a darkened hill back to their cars, past a row of merchant tents selling t-shirts, hoodies, you name it. No one had thought to bring lights—except Flogging Molly.
They saw an opportunity to own that hill and seized it. Instead of returning to the bus or the hotel, the Flogging Molly members hung out in their brightly lit tent, selling t-shirts, signing autographs, posing for photos, and even giving out free beer. The band made far more than they usually did that night but that wasn’t the point, or why they stuck around.
Flogging Molly didn’t care about selling swag. They were more invested in their fans and creating a full experience for them. The same goes in the technology industry. You should always be selling more than just your software; you should be selling an experience, selling a story that matters.
Be zealous and fearless
Startups and punk rock bands share a key trait—fearlessness. Both have an extraordinarily high appetite for risk. Both understand that failure is an inherent risk … and they don’t care. They zealously pursue their passion anyway, as if they were made that way and there’s no other choice.
To tackle any business problem you need those two things, especially if you’re in the early stages of growth. Passion is paramount because you’ll be working for no pay. Most people are afraid of failure, but failure is good because pain is instructive. You uncover areas of improvement that way.
That purity of drive is what galvanizes both the best artists and entrepreneurs. A musician who is just in it for the money or is content to remain on the beaten artistic path is likely to suck, and, really, the same goes in business. If you are doing a startup for the money, you’re in the wrong place. Try investment banking.
All of the punkers I’ve been around are down-to-earth and modest. This goes for Flogging Molly, Offspring, Green Day, you name it. Every single musician that I have had the privilege to support or meet on the road is simply happy to be playing music.
I’ll never forget a moment when Dennis Casey, Flogging Molly’s guitar player was about to take the stage in front of 30,000 people at Pukkelpop in Belgium, and said, “This is a lot better than painting houses.” Dennis was always humble and appreciated that the fans—the customers—were the ones making his dream happen.
It should be the same in business. No matter who you are in a company, from the CEO to an individual contributor, no one person is more or less important than the other. Everyone must work together toward the same goal, and as a founder, your main focus is to serve and to help others.
Some of the bad stuff you see in business, like leaders who practice the “kiss up/kick down” style of management, would never be tolerated in the punk world and they shouldn’t be in companies either. Make an effort to let your employees know how much you value their contributions.
Fast forward to today, and as co-founder and CTO of a database automation software company headquartered in Austin, one of the hottest music meccas in the world, I can’t help but appreciate the irony. As my past and present collide, I still haven’t forgotten my roots or what inspires and motivates me. The road may be long and weary at times, but regardless of whether you’re selling music or software, if you understand that your customer and employees are the priorities (and in that order) then you’ll do just fine.