What the Beatles Can Teach Us About Starting a Company

Photo by John McNab

Popular musicians possess entrepreneurial qualities, most often the passion and drive we see in successful startup entrepreneurs.

What we don’t often think about is that although there’s luck involved in becoming a “rock star,” there are deliberate decisions a musician makes early in a career that will impact their level of success months or years later.

And so it is with starting a company.

While this article is meant as a break from the normal seriousness of this blog, I honestly believe that we can learn much from a group of founders who sold hundreds of millions (some say 1 billion) units.

Here are four lessons we can learn from the Beatles’ startup career.

Do It for the Love, Because the Money’s a Long Way Off
John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the two founding members of the band, would regularly cut school to write songs together. When kids cut school in my hometown, they went to play video games or smoke. Heading out from school to hone your songwriting skill is not on the radar for most high schoolers.

But they did it because they loved writing music. If they had done it for the money they would have stopped long before they became an overnight success five years of non-stop practice later.

This reminds me of a quote I’ve heard attributed to Stephen King, who announced his retirement a few years ago (though he did not actually retire). He was asked, “So, you’re going to retire from writing?”

He replied, “No, I’m going to retire from publishing.”

Those people who just have to do what it is they are doing, whether it’s writing songs or writing novels, have a huge advantage over those who are in it for other reasons (typically money and fame).

I’m not a believer that you have to love the startup idea you’re working on, but you do need to love the process of starting up…the excitement of breathing life into a new idea. Otherwise you’re going to close up shop at the first sign of a danger point.

Get Feedback Early and Often
The Beatles began playing out under various names within a few months of forming in 1957, when John and Paul were 16 and 15, respectively. Though the line-up was ever changing and they didn’t find a permanent drummer until 1960.

But although the band was still very much an unfinished prototype of what they would become, with a revolving door of musicians and numerous band names (including “Johnny and the Moondogs” and “The Silver Beatles”) they were playing in front of audiences whenever possible.

This improved their musical abilities, was an instant feedback loop on which of their songs were “hits” and which were duds, and dramatically improved their stage presence. Each element was a piece that later fit together to build the best-selling musical group of all time.

So get out of the basement and talk to potential customers. Think of it as improving your stage presence.

Put in Your Time
During the two years from 1960 to 1962 The Beatles played countless all-night sets at clubs in Hamburg, Germany. These were eight-hour sets, and they would reportedly take uppers to maintain their energy on stage. Not only was it grueling work, but the sheer volume of material they had to learn to play eight hours worth of music is mind-boggling.

But this was how they built their reputation as a solid, reliable band with outstanding musical chops. They hung around other musicians and infiltrated the music scene in Hamburg and their native Liverpool, England and began seeing opportunities emerge, including backing a well-known singer of the day named Tony Sheridan on a version of My Bonnie.

This didn’t happen by accident. As I’ve said before:

The more you work the “luckier” you seem to get.

I have yet to see a startup succeed without countless hours of hard work. You’ve heard this before so I won’t belabor the point.

Build a Fan Base, then Go Big
The Beatles did not start touring Europe a week after they formed. Instead they played back and forth between Liverpool, England and Hamburg, Germany for two years building a fan base. Finding people who liked their music. Or their look. Or their style.

Before they went big they honed their writing abilities, musicianship, and their stage act. Only after two years and hundreds of hours of playing in front of a slowly growing group of fans did they “launch” by recording an album and heading out on tour.

Build your fan base. Find those people who need your product. If you can’t find this group of people, you’re probably building the wrong product.

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#1 Lewis on 08.25.10 at 6:43 am

Major kudos for the Beatles analogy!!

#2 Priscilla on 09.01.10 at 7:55 am

Really good reminder about all the hard work and growing the grass roots before launching.

#3 Brad on 10.11.10 at 4:54 pm

“Do It for the Love, Because the Money’s a Long Way Off”

This is a good point, as long as it doesn’t blind “entrepreneurs” into forgetting that they are “businessmen/women”.

Companies like Zynga, Groupon, Gilt Groupe, etc etc, some of the most prominent software companies of our time were/are maniacal about cash management and revenue growth, and always have been since day one.

You’re building a company, at the end of the day.

#4 Jodo Kast on 10.11.10 at 5:03 pm

Redo your list:
1.) Do it for your survival.
2.) Actually listen to feedback instead of just ignoring it.
3.) Practice
4.) Your fans will come if your stuff is good.

#5 Bruce Murray on 10.11.10 at 7:57 pm

Great article!
One Note: The photo above of the early Beatles (actually The Quarrymen their skiffle group that predated the Beatles) is miscredited to John McNab. The photo is by Paul’s brother Mike McCartney and appears on the cover of his book “Mike Mac’s White and Blacks (Plus One Colour)” the one colour referring to the cover image above.

#6 Michael Litt on 10.12.10 at 11:26 am

Great perspective and connection Rob. Simple high level concepts like these need to be at the forefront of small-company and product design.

#7 Secure Networking on 10.14.10 at 11:15 am

That early Beatles picture is amazing :))

#8 10,000 Hours « on 10.17.10 at 12:20 am

[…] What the Beatles Can Teach Us About Starting a Company (softwarebyrob.com) […]

#9 Robert Jordan Entrepreneur Ideas on 11.04.10 at 6:28 pm

Awesome post, Rob! Another lesson we can learn from The Beatles: Dont be afraid to change your plans for the greater good of the company. After all, Paul started out as the lead guitarist… Who knows what would have transpired if he hadn’t switched to bass and handed the reins over to George? With three guitars and no bass, the sound of the band would have been quite different, don’t you think?

#10 RB on 12.15.10 at 1:56 am

Oh, and don’t forget…

Selling your soul to satan helps too (for a while).