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6 Things Mozart Can Teach Entrepreneurs

The classical composer was actually a brilliant engineer, says one Silicon Valley veteran.
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Composing music isn't all that different from coding a website. No, really. Mozart's and Bach's symphonies and classical sonatas, just like coding, have specific structures with rules that must be followed.

That's according to Yorgen Edholm, CEO of Palo Alto, California-based Accellion, a mobile file-sharing company used by more than 11 million business users in more than 1,800 enterprise organizations worldwide.

He should know--he's a violinist himself and in the last quarter century has made a killing running software companies in Silicon Valley. Before Accellion, he co-founded Brio Technology, a business intelligence software company that went public and was reaching $150 million in revenues before it was swept up in a string of acquisitions that began a decade ago, eventually landing Brio's intellectual property into Oracle's fold.

Edholm says music has taught him several invaluable lessons.

Decide: Is passing on an opportunity something you'll regret when you're 80?

Thirty years ago Edholm was playing violin for orchestras and chamber groups in Sweden while working for a company that wanted him to relocate to the U.S. to set up operations. He agreed and at the same time convinced Ivan Galamian, a famous violin teacher in New York who had taught the likes of Itzhak Perlman and other big names, to take him on as a student.

Before that happened, however, his employer reversed course and Edholm was left with a major decision to make: Remain in Sweden with his job or stay on course for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become one of the best violinists on the planet?

He chose the latter.

"I didn't want to be 80 years old and look back on my life and say that I had done everything but that was the one thing [I hadn't] because I didn't have a job... and I played it safe, stayed in Sweden, and built a good career there," he says. "But I would always wonder to the end of time what it would have been like to take the big leap."

Today when evaluating potential hires he asks them a similar question, especially if it's a choice between Accellion, which may have more upsides but bigger risk, versus a safer company.

"The people I want most to join the company are also the people who respond really well with [asking] them kind of the same question I asked myself when I got the acceptance from Ivan Galamian... Is this something I can ignore or is this something that I'm always going to worry about second guessing what would it have been to join Accellion versus another company?"

Becoming world-class takes an incredible amount of work and dedication.

Edholm practiced the violin six hours a day, seven days a week for five years and said he wanted to see how good he could be, which meant mastering a repertoire of violin concertos that are very difficult to play.

It took so much work because of muscle memory--he had to be incredibly alert to discern when a note didn't sound right so his fingers didn't learn to play the wrong way.

"You have to make decisions really fast because you're playing 20 notes a second and you have to pick out one wrong one, realize it, stop, and start over," he says.

It's the same with business--it takes discipline and a tremendous amount of hard work to succeed.

"There are people who have researched great athletes, great artists and great scientists and other people who ended up being the best of the best and they said it takes something like a minimum of 10,000 hours of really hard work before anybody is world-class and in many fields it can be twice that," he says.

Intuition is paramount.

Knowing when a note is off takes intuition and Edholm says he continues to work hard on his, even though his days of playing in Carnegie Hall are over.

The book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, particularly resonated with him because he sees how crucial it is--particularly for start-ups--to make good decisions with only limited information.

"I realized that the blink reflex--when you intuitively can tell whether something has merit or not--is an incredibly important skill for execs in any company but especially in a start-up," he says, adding that he's been on boards that focus on best practices and analyses but oftentimes "people are chasing the wrong thing."

If within a year you can't use your intuition to know that something either is a bad idea or has merit and is worth continuing, you're probably not a very good board member or executive, he says.

"Sometimes it means that you have to be very open minded because you can meet with a hard perspective and [you don't want to] become the straight jacket that keeps other people from blossoming," he says.

With the violin he saw this play out with teachers who delegated some of the interpretation to students--they created musicians who tended to work twice as hard as those who were hemmed in by their mentors.

Hire for personality, energy, and passion.

These qualities--all necessary to become a world-class musician--are well suited to success in business, as well.

Edholm says when he gauges a potential hire on personality, energy, and passion instead of strictly what's on his or her resume he has nearly a perfect track record of bringing on the right person.

The reason? If your company has to pivot, the skills listed on your employees' resumes might not pertain to the new direction of your company.

He calls the people who possess this magic set of qualities "athletes."

"I definitely think of it in terms of sport, in terms of who's hungry, how people work together. I think the key ingredients [are] personality, curiosity, creativity, brain power," he says. "As I get older I've raised the bar in saying if someone isn't piercingly sharp or fast or intuitive [and] can hold their own on a very kind of rambunctious exec team then maybe we shouldn't hire that person."

Start-ups should break the rules.

Big businesses usually have plenty of linear functions and processes that work best when people play by the rules.

"The big company has to be linear and take advantage of the fact that they have more money, they have brand recognition, they have resources, they have existing customers," Edholm says.

But the more important a function is for your competitiveness, the more you need non-linear processes that allow people to be creative and solve problems, especially in a start-up.

"I think a start-up really has to see wherever it can break those rules. I mean, everybody in a start-up is much more important than a person in a big company because there's just a few of them and the resources are so limited," he says.

It helps if you love what you are doing.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to make money doing something they love but Edholm says he was interested in computers before anyone thought they were more than souped-up calculators.

"People will ask me about career advice and I say don't worry about what looks good on your resume. Worry about finding something that you love to do because if you love to do it then you will become really good and your resume will take care of itself," he says.

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons
Last updated: Jun 27, 2013




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