What entrepreneurs can learn from Pearl Jam
My fav Pearl Jam returns this week to our HQ city Toronto after more than four and a half years. In celebration, I hope you don’t mind it if I repost something I wrote in 2012. I think the lessons are still relevant to every early-stage entrepreneur, and the “professional” CEOs who sometimes follow them:
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones, likely the best music entrepreneurs of the 20th century. But when it comes to entrepreneurial roles models, I think Pearl Jam is the better choice for 2012.
1. Give it your all: I’ve had the luxury of seeing plenty of fabulous concerts and performers over the years. Leonard Cohen, The Stones, Luciano Pavarotti, Queen, Page/Plant, Bowie, U2, Genesis, Paul McCartney, FGTH, Madonna…. For all the buzz that Mick generates for effortlessly charging around the stage, only Sir Paul rivals the energy and intensity that Pearl Jam brings to a show. The customers know it when you are going through the motions, and early stage businesses can’t afford to run the risk of taking any client for granted.
Check out the list of Pearl Jam tours over the past 22 years. They went somewhere every single year, whether there was an album to support or not. In the past few years, despite the arrival of middle age and financial security, the band has actually done more shows, in far away places, than the late 90s.
How many of us avoid that incremental business trip when the quarter’s already in the bag? How about doing 13 three hour meetings in the space of three weeks in 10 different cities spread across 9 different countries? Where you did all of the talking? That was PJ’s recent European tour.
2. Fit isn’t just important; it’s everything: if a team member is causing strife within the group, make a change. Former Pearl Jam drummer Dave Abbruzzese joined in 1991 to tour in support of the Ten album, and played on Vs., released in 1993. At the time, that album set the record for most copies of an album sold in a week, according to Wiki, and spent five weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200. Despite the success, and drums are no small thing in any Pearl Jam song, Mr. Abbruzzese was kicked out of the band in 1994. More churn in the drummer’s seat followed, and it wasn’t until 1998 that the band was able to hire Matt Cameron, ex of Soundgarden. Matt’s now 14 years in, and his son Ray is even playing a musical role in such songs as Rockin’ In The Free World. That’s chemistry at work.
It might have been reckless back in 1994 to jettison a key ingredient, but things worked out, and the core chemistry was preserved. Hard to imagine things would have lasted 20+ years if they hadn’t figured that out early on.
3. Show respect for others in the ecosystem: Members of Pearl Jam take great pride in supporting their opening acts, and any music group that is out there, trying to make it. At most big name concerts, the opening act plays to sparse, if not empty, halls. We’re all guilty of getting into a cab to head out around the time we believe the opening act is about to start performing.
But at a Pearl Jam show, the fans know they are expected “to respect” the bands that open for the headliner. Way back when, Pearl Jam opened for U2 in Europe, and perhaps the band learned what it was like to be all that’s between the audience and the main attraction. Each night, PJ thanks the fans who showed up early.
Eddie et al watch the opening acts from the wings, even joining in at times. In fact, if there wasn’t a chance for a sound check earlier in the day, the band will come out at 7 or 7:30pm and warm up; before the “supporting act” even takes the stage. The folks who were there to respect the 2009 opening act in Toronto got a special treat of three extra songs, while the ticket holders squatting in the Ontario Place beer garden wondered what all the fuss was about over at the Molson Ampitheatre.
When you have some success with your business, it is so easy to stop attending the Rotary, for example, or dodge requests to mentor others who’ve yet to make it with their business plan. Do what PJ does — remember what it was like before you hit the lotto, and give back to all and sunder.
4. Build a direct relationship and then tend it: every business is different, but each has a customer, and those customers have choices about what product to acquire, whether it be software, hardware, a service….
First it was the “10 Club” fan club back in 1990 (where Eddie would type out his own response letters), followed by regular MTV and Saturday Night Live appearances, the 24 hour/day XM/Sirius channel, and, more recently, the 20th anniversary documentary. The band stayed relevant by giving supporters a regular outlet; the band’s website provides a constant stream of news and information.
With a far-flung fanbase, it’s impossible to do every continent, every year.
But by making the “client” feel appreciated when they did come to town — by playing 28 or 30 songs a night — the other outlets served to fill the gap between albums and local concert appearances. And, as Stone might say, “let’s play some hits”. Entrepreneurs can’t forget what made the client buy the product in the first place.
The show isn’t just about you, the guy on stage.
5. Remember/Honour the founder(s): Most early stage firms wind up bringing in an outsider to run the show. The CEO, however long he or she has been in the chair, can take the lead from Eddie Vedder, who constantly recognizes the original founders and creative leadership of Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament. I don’t know what goes on in private, but, even now, Ed calls Stone “our fearless leader”. Interestingly, Stone made it clear during the PJ20 documentary that after Eddie had joined the band, there were “only scraps” of power left for he and Jeff “to fight over”.
The crowd get noisey when Eddie recognizes the prowess of Mike, Matt or Boom; but the emotion flows when he salutes the heritage represented by Stone and Jeff, and the history of their prior life via such songs as Crown of Thorns.
Throughout any organization, the early employees deserve regular recognition for being there when it wasn’t “as easy”, or as large an organization. Assuming they’ve been able to keep up with the growth and change that comes with many fast-moving early stage companies, that original DNA should be preserved.
6. Let the client drive sometimes: The recent tour was as much a singalong as it was a rock concert. And the band encourages it. As my 68 year-old Dad would point out, everyone at an Eric Clapton concert knows the words to the songs, but few people are actually singing. At a PJ fest, to his amazement, everyone knows the words, and everyone is singing along with the band (yes, including the fellow on the left earlier this month).
All too often, entrepreneurs think they know what’s best for the future development of the business. But it’s the customer that often knows where you should be headed, if only management would just listen. Take the Ten-hit Alive, which seemed to be literally dropped from the band’s play list for a few years. The “client” had decided that it was a song about survival and strength, not the burden of being alive after the loss of a biological parent. The audience took the monkey off Eddie’s back.
The song now makes almost every concert setlist.
For entrepreneurs, particularly us founder/co-founder types, it is so easy to get into that rut where you think you know the right direction for each stage of the business’ evolution. But the best move can often be simply listening to your customer, and going with the flow.
(with apologies to the fans/archivists who know the ins-and-outs of the band’s history and psychological make-up better than I)