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Entrepreneurial learning journey: The Ramones, New York

November 27, 2015

Hey, Ho, Let’s Go! My entrepreneurial learning journey steps into New York, and that can only mean one thing – the breakthrough music innovation and cultural impact of The Ramones. The Ramones launched the grassroots punk-rock movement in New York with their eponymous 1976 debut album. Their short, combustible songs marked them down as a loud-fast energetic sit-up-and-take-notice band, setting up a new genre, which changed the music industry forever.

Some may think that being a musician doesn’t involve much entrepreneurial flair, however if you think about it, making commercial music is something that requires creativity, motivation, collaboration and determination – four ingredients that are also key to being an innovating entrepreneur. In the UK, Tony Wilson and Factory Records were game changers as founders of the Indie music scene.

Walk down East 2nd Street off of The Bowery in Downtown New York, and you’ll pass by Albert’s Garden, a small community garden midway up the block. If you happen to visit on a day when the gates are open, head inside and you’ll find a beautiful little East Side village oasis maintained by local volunteers. But for something particularly special, make a left when you enter and walk down the path to its end.

At first glance, the blank grey concreted brick wall in front of you might seem entirely unremarkable when compared with the beauty of the surroundings. But had you been here on a particular day in early 1976 you would have seen four long-haired punks in leather jackets and ripped jeans posing for their album cover that would forever change rock’n’roll.

Guitarist Johnny strummed rapid-fire bar-chords, Dee Dee introduced songs with a raw-throated countdown (‘1-2-3-4’) that became a group trademark, as he pounded a relentless stream of eighth notes on the bass. Drummer Tommy anchored the frantic beat with superhuman energy. Lead singer Joey’s vocals were delivered in a deadpan, unique style. Dark glasses, leather jackets and long dark hair. The iconic, unified collective identity that The Ramones worked hard to make appear effortless set them apart.

The Ramones formed in 1974 after the foursome left high school. Their name and pseudonym came via Paul McCartney, who had briefly called himself Paul Ramon back when the Beatles were the Silver Beatles. The Ramones got back to basics, simple, speedy, loud, stripped-down rock and roll tunes. Voice, guitar, bass, drums. No makeup, no egos, no light shows, no nonsense. The sound influenced thousands of bands, and proved so durable that The Ramones stuck to it for their entire career.

The Ramones performed 2,263 concerts, their final show was in Los Angeles on August 6, 1996. They released 21 studio, live and compilation albums over a 20-year period. The first four are their acknowledged classics – Ramones (1976), Leave Home (1977), Rocket to Russia (1977), Road to Ruin (1978) – inciting a revolution in music and lifestyle. Yet they never had a Top Forty hit, which seems an ironic pity since their songs possessed a hypnotic and energetic sound.

On 20 July 1999, The Ramones were at the Virgin Megastore in New York City for an autograph signing. This was the last occasion on which the original four members of the group appeared together. By 2014, all were dead.

I first started listening to The Ramones at 15 years old, and I swear there was simply nothing – nothing – as much fun as being at a Ramones show, where the entire room literally pulsated with energy as everyone pushed and shoved and careered around like dervishes into each other. Each track was under three minutes of pure energy, dubious lyrics and pulsating sound. Ramones concerts in Manchester as a teenager – they were the most fun you could have with your clothes on.

With just four chords and one manic tempo, The Ramones blasted open mid-’70s music, reanimating the listening experience. Their genius was to frame the short, simple aesthetic of punk in terms of attitude, sound and art. Their visual imagery complemented the themes of their music and performance. This fashion emphasised minimalism, which was a powerful influence on the New York punk scene of the 1970s and reflected the band’s short, simple songs. Ramones music has a Pavlovian effect on me – the song starts, and the world blurs around the sound. Still does.

Walking around New York in 2015, there were folks of all ages in the classic Ramones iconic tee-shirts, their wardrobes being as robust and as heritage as mine. There were numerous people in Albert’s Garden on Thursday making the connection. So whilst you sing ‘Blitzkreig Bop’ outloud and look back over your shoulder for your youth, here are some great lessons for startup life I’ve taken from The Ramones.

A DIY ethic drives innovation Punks were revered for their Do-It-Yourself abilities. Before today’s fashion of clothing sold already ripped on purpose, there were punks ripping their clothing… just because. The Ramones made it up as they went along, like a startup they had to find their market and determine product-market fit, working out where their audience was.

Try, try, try – and see what happens. Just like The Ramones, experiment. The Ramones gigged virtually every night for their first two years – they put themselves out there, into the market. Get out of the building and put your product into the market, strive for low cost, low risk accelerated learning. Don’t worry about failing – the goal is to learn what the market wants.

Attitude and conviction trump talent The Ramones’ ‘product’ was, in reality, very simple, raw and basic in the extreme, but Joey Ramone is one of the most iconic front men ever, yet he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.

Talent is awesome, but punk proved it’s often overemphasised. Success is achieved by a host of variables, none more so that sheer-bloodied single-mindedness to get up there and make it happen. Startups need to remember this when launching their product – talent rocks, but attitude is king. It’s about conviction and determination to make it happen.

Belief. Punk took on an established industry with major labels in control and broke the rules with their disruptive thinking. In doing so, they changed the dynamics and disrupted an established market. They had enduring success and created a lasting legacy, albeit measured in cultural terms, if not financial.

The Ramones made the mind shift change that is needed to begin thinking and behaving like a startup and ask themselves the questions that an entrepreneur must ask: What is the value of the work that I do or the product I make? What problem does my music solve for my target audience? In the case of music, it’s a gap in the market for a genre, a sound, an image.

Authenticity inspires customers The Ramones started with bold artistic expression of their own, truly authentic, not seeking to copy or replicate others. They inspired a revolution. The startup leadership lesson here is one of my favourites: you can be confident and competent all you want, but if you’re not accepted as real, and having a point of difference in what you offer customer, you won’t inspire a following. People like real.

The brand is more important than individuals. Only two members of the Ramones (Joey and Johnny) lasted from inception to dissolution of the band, and yet their popularity never wavered.  The ‘Ramones’ brand mattered more than the individual members. Similarly for a startup, the founding team will evolve, you make your first hires and scale with new folks with the required skills. Work hard to build your culture and your brand so that no matter who’s representing it, it remains true to your founding vision.

Build demand. Anticipation builds demand. Bands understand this, trailing publicity for their next album release or Tour dates. For startups, building anticipation during your product launch and create customer demand is key. People don’t know you’ve been working on your project for months. You need to get them excited, but you can’t build all that excitement on launch day. A product launch should never be a surprise – think about Apple. Sure, they’re secretive, but they’re really good at building demand before their launch day.

Bootstrapping. Indie bands are just like a tech startup teams coming together – they assemble a team of complementary skills, create a rough-cut demo tape and begin touring small venues. For startups, they gather a team of varying skills, produce their first prototype, and begin networking with customers and investors. What is selling merchandise at shows if not bootstrapping? And where startups have angel investors, bands have record deals, to launch that first album.

It’s a lean startup. As for new tech products, the same for new music – the key with frequent releases is to learn from them, that way you can fine tune your song writing, performance, and marketing for releases down the road. Playing songs live before they are released gauges crowds’ reactions and if it doesn’t getting them leaping in the air, then it’s back to the drawing board. The purpose is to experiment early and often, listen to what people say about you and adapt accordingly – creating minimum viable products.

Get out of the building, put on a show. Startups are focussed with iterating, constantly trying new things and experimenting with new features until one proves popular. That’s what bands do, get out of the building and onto the road, touring and performing at as many venues as they can to socialise and promoting their product. Enter the minimum viable track. Once you’ve got the early versions of your music in front of your audience, start responding to their feedback. If there are tunes they like, concentrate on those  —  if there are tunes they don’t, scrap them and try something else in their place. Get the approval of these early listeners – get validation, then pivot your product.

The early punk scene in NYC was as diverse and experimental as anything in the history of music, it was an exhilarating breath of fresh air, with the iconic club of CBGBs where they all launched, which remains in the tapestry of New York culture, just as Albert’s Garden, 40 years on. The Ramones, Devo, Television, Talking Heads – led by the enigmatic David Byrne – were all pioneers of a new genre, entrepreneurs for sure. If you’re never inspired to pick up a guitar or write great tunes, you can learn some key startup lessons from The Ramones.

Rock music is, after all, a business. There are partnerships to consider, record deals to craft, intellectual property to protect, tours to organise and merchandise to sell. Of course there’s also groupies, drugs, and trashed hotel rooms that one doesn’t (normally) find in a startup setting.

What’s your signature tune and tone of voice? What is your target audience in an already crowded market, why would people buy from you ahead of others? How hard are you really working to be different and stand out from the crowd, and build your own audience? What are you doing to optimise your potential, your talent, your energy, your fulfilment, your joy, your love, your self-actualisation, your Life?

Look back to 1976 when you stand in Albert’s Garden. Life. Why would you want to be anyone else if you’d been Joey Ramone?

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