Be the Beatles, Not a Flock of Seagulls
Two bands, both heralding from Liverpool. Each with a unique look, hip contemporary sound, and significant initial success. Why did a Flock of Seagulls crash soon after their initial hit while the Beatles' career has spanned nearly 50 years, including a number one CD ("Love") as recently as 2007?
We Can Work It Out
The Beatles formed a cohesive team that embodied eight key attributes that must be present in order for a start-up to function at its peak. I write about them in this post, and also talk about them in this video.
1. Driven to win
Although John later blamed Paul for forcing him to give up his leather attire during the band's early days, the reality is that each member of the Beatles was happy to follow his manager's advice and don a suit. They realized that they had to conform to the reality of the day in order to succeed. It was not until their success was firmly established that the Beatles began changing conventions with hairstyle, and clothing.
When you initially launch your venture, you must conform to the realities of the market, your investors' expectations, and do whatever you can to reduce the friction on your road to success. Once you have achieved some milestones, you can be less concerned with conforming to others' reality and start creating a reality of your own.
2. Complimentary talents
One of the most important aspects of a core team is balance among the members' capabilities and proclivities. A team of engineers is doomed to failure, as is a team comprised solely of sales and marketing executives. To be successful, engineers must balance the company's marketing messages and sales promises with a clear communication of what the company can deliver. Conversely, the sales-oriented members must pull the rest of the team in the direction of the market's needs to ensure that your start-up creates solutions that solve real needs, and mitigate engineers' natural desire to build something impractical but cool.
Music historians agree that one of the Beatles' greatest strengths was the manner in which the individual's respective talents balanced each other and served to motivate each member to consistently improve capabilities. Much has been written regarding Lennon's penchant for witty wordplay and McCartney's ability to create catchy musical hooks and melodies. Think Paul's Yesterday versus John's I Am The Walrus. In addition, George brought a distinctive slide-guitar style and a musical and spiritual curiosity that caused the Beatles to explore a variety of musical genres which ultimately led to the introduction of World Beat music to Western audiences. Ringo further balanced the team by playing the role of the talented but average guy—the member in the group with whom everyone could relate.
3. Competitive rivalry
John and Paul often remarked that the overall high quality of the band's output continually inspired them to improve upon their partner's latest song. They both fought hard to garner the 'A-side' of each single, although they did not, until the twilight of the group's career, allow this rivalry to reduce the cohesion of the band. George was also moved by this friendly rivalry, as he strove to create songs that compared favorably with Lennon and McCartney's output.
Constructive internal competition, which does not derail your venture from pursuing its strategic goals, will enhance your team's overall performance. As a leader, encourage a healthy internal rivalry among your team members, while modulating such competition so that it does not wind up dysfunctional.
4. Mutual respect
During the Beatles' breakup and subsequently thereafter, the band members were quite vocal regarding their mutual disdain. In fact, this loss of mutual respect is one of the factors which led to the band's demise. In contrast, during the majority of the band's career, each member consistently complimented the work of his fellow band mates. Encourage mutual admiration among your team, as it will facilitate vigorous, healthy debates without tearing your company apart.
5. Shared worldview
The Beatles' worldview circa early 1960 was that American music sucked. Buddy Holly was dead. Jerry Lee Lewis' career was over (due to his marriage to his under-aged cousin). Elvis was in the Army, and Little Richard had found religion. Ray Charles was singing gospel, and Chuck Berry was in prison. The charts were filled with soulless, sanitized music by the likes of Deon, Fabian, and Ricky Nelson.
The Beatles acted upon this shared worldview. They emulated the American music of the 1950s, morphing it into something new by re-orchestrating the songs as a four-piece band with three-part harmonies.
A shared worldview is the cornerstone to establishing an effective strategic plan. If your team does not see the market ecosystem in the same way, your team's cohesiveness will be compromised, and a lack of cohesion will almost guarantee your company's failure. If a member of your core team refuses to conform to the group's worldview, you should help that person find a new home in which they will be more in-sync with fellow executives.
6. Common vision
The Beatles shared a single vision of their future. Even when they were four spotty-faced kids from Liverpool, they did not have goals, they held beliefs. The Beatles believed they would become "bigger than Elvis." Even as teenagers, John would ask them, "Where are we going lads?" to which Paul, George and later Ringo would reply, "To the toppermost of the poppermost." Like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, the Beatles' beliefs were huge and beyond naive.
Although they had an outlandishly grand plan, the Beatles took a very pragmatic and incremental approach to becoming bigger than Elvis. As John Lennon often articulated, "First we became the biggest band in Liverpool. Then the biggest band in Northern England. Then we conquered London, Europe and eventually America."
Without realizing it, the Beatles followed the business axiom, 'Inch by inch it's a synch.' Create an audacious vision, guided by a detailed roadmap of the near-term steps required to reach the next milestone. Do not lose sight of your ultimate goal (IPO, M&A transaction) while at the same time remain focused on executing the steps that will get you to the next step in your journey.
7. Internal dissent, external cohesion
For the majority of their tenure as a group, the Beatles staunchly supported each other in public. Behind closed doors, and especially in the studio, they each fought hard for the inclusion of the musical and lyrical elements about which they felt most passionate. Yet they did not allow this healthy internal debate to become fodder for the tabloids.
Foster the same culture at your company. To the external world, including your and other stakeholders, your team should consistently display external cohesion. External dissent will fracture the team, confuse the other members of your startup and eventually lead to the creation of "us vs. them" factions that will expend energy battling each other, rather than working together to solve the challenges posed by the market.
8. Strong supporting cast
The Beatles were fortunate to have the support of Brian Epstein, a creative and driven manager, as well as George Martin, a talented and innovative producer. Without these individuals supporting and augmenting the Beatles' efforts, the group never would have progressed beyond the local Liverpool bar scene. Your team cannot flourish in isolation. Develop a strong supporting cast of advisors, board members, VPs, and directors who can help the core team execute.
What about talent?
You may be thinking, 'The Beatles had talent and the Flock did not. That is why the Beatles are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Flock is relegated to the occasional appearance on VH-1's One Hit Wonders countdown.'
Talent certainly played a major role in the Beatles' ongoing success. But what really distinguished the Beatles and the Flock was the characteristics of each core team. While Flock had a weak one, the Beatles encompassed the traits found in successful teams of all kinds, the eight I've outlined here.
JOHN GREATHOUSE is a partner at Rincon Venture Partners, an early-stage VC firm. A serial entrepreneur, John led Computer Motion’s $110 million public offering, and the $236 million sale of Expertcity (creator of GoToMeeting) to Citrix. Check out his hands-on start-up advice blog at Infochachkie. Or, follow his start-up oriented Twitter feed, where he promises not to tweet about koala bears or killer burritos.
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