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Start Me Up: The Keith Richards business model for startups

August 24, 2015

Every single guitar player in every single rock ‘n’ roll band in the world has been influenced by Keith Richards. He is recognised as having created his own, unique, art form and the living embodiment of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. For Keith himself it’s all about the music. It’s the music that matters.

He was born 18 December 1943 in Dartford, Kent, while his father was on wartime duty with the army. Meeting Mick Jagger in 1961 on Dartford railway station was a moment of history that subsequently saw co-founders create one of the most creative and long-lasting partnerships in modern music, one that has helped shape the cultural history of the last fifty years with music that has roused the world.

He’s acknowledged as perhaps the greatest rhythm guitarist in rock & roll, but he’s even more legendary for his near-miraculous ability to survive the debauched excesses of the rock & roll lifestyle. His prodigious consumption of drugs and alcohol has been well documented, and would likely have destroyed anyone with a less amazing endurance level.

On-stage he epitomises guitar-hero cool as the quiet, stoic alter ego to Mick Jagger’s extroverted frontman, a widely imitated image made all the more fascinating by his tightrope-walking hedonism. Yet that part of Richards’ mystique often overshadows his considerable musical legacy.

His lean, punchy, muscular sound was the result of his unerring sense of groove and intuitive use of space within songs. Never intensely interested in soloing, Richards prefers to work the groove using open-chord tunings drawn from the blues, and his guitars are often strung with only five strings for cleaner fingering, which made it difficult for cover bands to duplicate his distinctive sound precisely.

Into his seventies, and while he confesses to wanting to have been a librarian, has no intention of pursuing a career away from music, just at the moment. He has a new solo album released in September, to be followed by a new set of Stones tunes. Music is a necessity. After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life, he once said

The first Rolling Stones gig at London’s Marquee Club – 12 July 1962, saw a group of raw young musicians performing at a dingy club in front of a small crowd of enthusiasts. If those young lads had not become the Rolling Stones, one of the biggest musical acts in history, that evening’s gig would have been relegated as an unimportant, mundane event and forgotten. But it was the start of something huge.

On that summer night, the Stones had no expectations that they could even make money playing gigs, much less become a global cultural iconic symbol of youth, creativity and licentiousness. In fact, the Stones were not even the headline act that night – they opened for Long John Baldry.

Although most of us will never be rock stars, looking back over 50+ years, there are some valuable startup business lessons to be learned from the Rolling Stones. So get your headphones on, download Exile on Main Street from iTunes, and read on.

Start with the 10,000 hours. Nobel Prize-winning sociologist Herbert Simon calculated that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field, a prescription further developed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.

Richards does this in spades – in fact, he’d probably completed his 10,000-hour apprenticeship in his early twenties, so he’s now well past the level of mastery and into some other realm.

As Richards noted about the band’s early days, The Beatles had nothing on us. Anybody that strayed from the nest to get laid, or try to get laid, was a traitor. You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin.

They would sit for hours asking How the hell did they do that? How did they get that sound? How did they play that chord progression? How can they do that much with two chords? Etc. They were modelling the greats.

Choose your attitude Richards notes that his family didn’t have a record player for a long time, but because, rather than in spite of Richards’ humble beginnings, he was eventually able to buy and play music.

He doesn’t bemoan inequality in terms of opportunity, but Richards’ inspiring story reminds us that starting at the bottom is often a blessing. His first guitar cost £10. Notable is that Richards couldn’t afford an electric guitar, but his family’s inability to pay for an electric was instrumental in his rise as an awesome self-taught guitar player.

Rather than allow his reduced economic circumstances to act as a barrier to achievement, he accentuated the positive, that he had a guitar and proceeded to play every spare moment I got.

Never compromise Richards’ stories from the recording studios blow me away. I never thought of him as such a hard worker as he clearly is, nor, frankly, did I think he was such a perfectionist. I don’t suggest you call upon quite as much pharmaceutical help to do it as Keith did, but he is an incredible role model for standing up not just for quality work, but the best quality work – and not just mostly, but all the time.

It’s about putting in a shift The rock and roll lifestyle gives off an air of a non-work ethic. This is all part of the alluring mythology of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism, but the story is apocryphal. Richards is the ultimate professional rock ‘n’ roller but invested a big chunk of life rehearsing and performing with an appetite for perfection, whether to sell records, play the best gigs, or attain a high level of musicianship.

Richards recounts that The gig never finished just because you got off stage. Particularly during the early years, the band worked nearly non-stop with concert tours, then would immediately go back into the studio to record another album that would beget another tour.

This focus on, or perhaps obsession with results, is something I observed over and over again in Life, his autobiography, recounting countless rehearsals, sound checks, and recording sessions – they were relentless. It’s about building a body of work, being your voice and your values.

Seek a co-founder Richards retains a deep conviction that the partnership produced magic that the individuals could not, he knows that he and Jagger have a chemistry that’s created because of their differences, not in spite of them. He acknowledges what his partner brings to the table that he didn’t have, and gives him credit for it. Richards celebrates Jagger as the best performer and lyricist in the business, he’s proud of him. He honours the shared history, their deep personal resonance.

Be a collaborative team Creative partnerships in key positions are essential to success. Jagger doesn’t work well without Richards, and vice versa. More broadly, teamwork is crucial. The Jagger/Richards partnership wouldn’t work well without drummer Charlie Watts, the core of the band has been together since day one. Good teams are stable over time but can cope with personnel changes. Wyman and Taylor are gone, Ronnie Wood joined. Good teams like working together, but don’t have to be best friends. You sense tension between Jagger and Richards, but ultimately, respect.

Have an identity Branding is vital, and so is looking after your brand. If there is a red tongue on the product, it’s the Rolling Stones. If it’s the Rolling Stones, there’s a red tongue on the product. Image is everything. It’s a consistent message, it’s about being who you are.

Remain humble. And be real This is just an observation, but in reading the interviews and hearing all the stories of lore about this great musician, I think that he has in his own right remained humble about what he has done, how long he’s lasted, and how thrilled he is that fans will still come and see them perform, play and buy their music.

Play-on Lastly, a frequent question posed to Richards is Why don’t you give it up? Richards’ response, one that is typical of successful individuals is that I can’t retire until I croak. I don’t think they quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing it just for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me. Will you still have the passion Keith has at his age? He still talks with incredible passion about music.

Rock music is, of course, a business, there are recording deals to contract, tours to organise and merchandise to sell, and copyright/IP of songs written. Of course there’s also groupies, drugs, and trashed hotel rooms that one doesn’t (normally) find in a business setting.

Richards has spent the past 50+ years successful in rock ‘n’ roll. From a distance, the connections between rock and business seems thin, but the more I’ve looked at his journey, the closer they get, as highlighted by the points above. The business lessons I have garnered from Richard’s rock ‘n’ roll life were not immediately apparent to me, but in retrospect are definitely rooted in leather jackets and amplifiers turned up to 15.

Primarily, the DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic at the outset is so entrenched in rock ‘n’ roll, for the band themselves doing what was necessary to write, record, produce and publish their own music, and find venues to get in front of an audience. In business, we just call it bootstrapping. The DIY ethic means you take action on your ideas today, rather than waiting for someone to give you permission or do it for you. Start today, make your own noise!

The most popular rock bands and most successful businesses are not always the best in their market, but with few exceptions, they are the hardest working. On the flip side, this also proves that the best ideas, inventions and businesses often never get recognized due to their founders not putting in the work that it takes.  I think it’s fair to say that Richards has put a shift in for over 50 years, and epitomises the fact that winners work hard.

If you don’t want to succeed more than you want to watch Game of Thrones, you have no one to blame but yourself for failing. We all struggle with finding enough time to grow our businesses, yet we all seem to find enough time to watch boring re-runs on television.

Starting, running and growing a business takes more work than you can probably imagine. This is not to stop you from starting, but encouraging you to step up to the plate and do what is necessary for your success. Look at the comments from Richards on practice and attitude. As an entrepreneur, you have to out-hustle and out-work your competition or they will out-hustle you.

So what’s this got to do with you? Even if you’ll never strum a guitar like Keith, or write great tunes, you can learn a lot from the principles shown by ‘one of the greatest musicians of all time. Who are you modelling yourself on? What greats do you wish to be like? What is your number one goal? How hard are you really working? What are you doing to optimise your potential, your talent, your energy, your fulfilment, your joy, your love, your self-actualisation, your Life?

Check out his autobiography, Life,

Life, why would you want to be anyone else if you were Keith Richards?

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