A long, long time ago, I started a rock band in high school. I started taking guitar lessons when I was 12 and mostly because I loved the guitar. My guitar teacher was 17 and smokin hot. Lets call that a hormonal motivator. I practiced every day, sometimes I practiced instead of doing homework. I really thought I could become the next Jimi Hendrix. Besides the obvious differences in our physical appearance, he was my role model.
So I kept taking guitar lessons, I listened to a lot of rock music and I copied note for note, everything I was capable of duplicating by Jimi, Eric and others. I had a passion for playing guitar and I had a dream, which was to create the greatest rock band of all time.
I will skip ahead a bit and tell you in advance that I did NOT achieve my goal set at 15 years old but I learned some incredible lessons along the way. I want to share those with you because in a conversation with my 18 year old daughter, I realized how foundational that rock-band wisdom applied to my life as CEO.
Lessons from the basement of mom’s house.
When I started my band,we were children of the 60’s and very caught up in the whole Woodstock era. Getting high was part of the culture as anyone from that era can remember.
So the first “rule” of being a member of Absolutely Free (my band named after Frank Zappa’s Mother of Invention’s 1st album) was simple: No getting high on band practice days or while performing. I had to prove to the group that we actually sounded a lot worse high by recording our sessions. They may have been more “inspired” but they sounded like crap. Everyone agreed so that became one of our rules.
We started with a very small repertoire, just 10 songs. We chose those songs based on how much fun they were to play and tried to pick different artists to cover. After a few weeks of practice, we realized we were jumping around too much and didn’t really get any one song perfect.
Another rule: We never leave a song until it’s perfect, no matter how boring it is in band practice. This paid off, because within a few months, we had 10 absolutely perfect songs that we were proud to play in public.
Later, as we expanded our song list, we tried to vary our music because some of the high school girls asked for more dance songs. So we added 3 dance songs that were not really in the genre of our style of our liking.
We played them pretty well and people liked them but we couldn’t stand them and made fun of the people who liked them. It turns out that no matter how much we practiced, we never really were very good at dance music. So we eventually dropped them from our playlist. The lesson was: Stick to what we were passionate about.
As kids and as beginners in the rock star biz, we didn’t know what to charge for our services. So we played for free as much as we could. This became expensive since we had to rent a van to transport all our gear, after parents became weary of dragging us around on weekend nights.
We found out how much the other high school bands charged and we came in a little bit under them. Now, we were able to pay for a driver and a van (we were too young to drive) and keep a little extra cash for ourselves.
After several months of being active in “show business,” we started to raise our prices. I found out that one of the other bands we performed with (who sounded a lot worse than we did) charged 300% more. I started to raise our fees to the point where we reached $500 per performance.
Now remember, this is 1969 when $500 was a lot of money, even more so to a bunch of 16-year-olds. But that’s what parents and frat houses were willing to pay. Who were we to argue?
It turns out that graduation parties and sweet sixteen’s were a gold mine for our little band. Overcoming the name of the band in pricing negotiations (Absolutely Free) was always fun since parents actually thought we didn’t charge. Surprise!
But the most importing thing I did was to ask the parents of our 1st sweet sixteen gig if we could use them as a testimonial. It was an inspired thought, something that mom #1 was sorry she did after handling some 8 or 9 calls in one season. But she was our greatest salesman ever!
Then, after the graduation parties came to an end, we had no business so it was time to spread the word. I wrote a few “stories” about the band and the band members, attached a photo and sent them to several newspapers and to shock and surprise, several ran them as stories almost exactly as I had written them, photo and all. Wow!
That was unexpected, but I discovered that getting publicity wasn’t that hard. I kept doing it and one day, I received a call from the NYC Mayor’s office, Mayor John Lindsay wanted us to play for a fund raiser on a small dinner cruise ship departing from NYC’s piers. We did and I made sure we had photo so I could spread the news. It was a fun night, the photos and the reviews in the paper the next day showed that.
As all of this was happening, we still managed to go to high school and enjoy our life as friends. We had a good time and it was an incredible experience we still talk about to this day.
The Moment of Truth
As a guitar player, I made an important discovery early on in my career as a rock star, which saved me a lifetime of strife. It might have changed the entire course of my life had I not had the realization I did, at that time. It was profound for me and quite moving.
The discovery I made about myself is that I really had no talent at all. At best, I was able to copy other guitar player’s work and even then not so well.
But from that, I did discover I had a passion for business, for making things happen, for selling and a natural ability to get things done. So I stowed my Gibson SG Standard in a safe place and decided that I would start a business.
But that’s a different story and I want to finish this one before I start a new one. Here are the actual lessons I learned about how my experience with “Absolutely Free” paid off big time in my life and in business.
Rock Band Lessons
Distilled 40 Years Later
Lesson #1: Be disciplined with yourself and with your team, even if they don’t like it. In the end, it will pay off big time and the team will respect you for it.
Lesson #2: Don’t deliver a sub-standard product. While it’s been said “the price of perfection is bankruptcy” I believe you can come very close to perfect, generate enormous pride and deliver incredible value by going the extra mile. Perfection isn’t really required but supreme excellence is.
Lesson #3: “We do Chicken Right” – Colonel Sanders. Yes, I am quoting the man who institutionalized FOCUS and made it a household slogan. They don’t sell hot dogs, they don’t sell pizza, they sell chicken. Stay focused on your passion play. That’s who you are. If you stray and it’s not right, go back to step one and refocus on your core strength.
Lesson #4: Honestly assess your true worth and then begin with pricing experiments to find your ideal price. Raise prices slowly, add more value and don’t stop experimenting until you find what is optimum for the moment. Do it again in a year and see what has changed.
Lesson #5: Get a testimonial after every service or product delivered. Make this a rule that can’t be violated, always get a happy client to say so on video and in writing so you can use it when you need.
Lesson #6: Spread the word! Do not discount the value of simple acts like publicity. These days blog posts lead to great SEO and are even easier than before. That can be a major benefit to your company with little effort.
Lesson #7: Have fun. Wait… Is that a lesson? Absolutely! This is your passion, make it count, be proud and remember, life is not about how hard you work, it’s about how much passion you put into what you love to do.
My Advice: Pick one thing about your business and take Lesson 1’s lead and become disciplined about it. Take a stand, decide on exactly what you can do, today, to be disciplined about something important to you. Let me know how that goes, how it felt, what reactions you received.