Want to Create Insanely Great Products? Lessons From Pink Floyd
BY John Greathouse
The legendary band wouldn't have been so successful without some savvy business moves.
Pink Floyd's seminal Dark Side Of The Moon album only remained No. 1 on the U.S. charts for a single week. However, it remained in the Top 200 for an astounding 14 years and three months. In 2003, a remastered version of the 1973 album sold 800,000 copies. By 2012, total sales exceeded 50 million, and founding band member Roger Waters was cited by Billboard Boxscore as the second-highest paid musician of the year, pulling in $88 million.
It may seem unrelated, but there's a lot for entrepreneurs to learn here. Pink Floyd's deep understanding of their customers, an uncompromising drive to create a quality product, and the courage to ignore their industry's formulaic hit-making approach resulted in one of the top selling non-compilation albums of all time.
Lesson #1: Get feedback before you release your product.
Most musicians spend their early years writing songs and performing them in front of live audiences, which ensures that their first album is validated by fans before they even enter a recording studio.
The next time around, though, musicians seldom have the luxury of market testing. Instead of refining their material based on customer feedback, they often lock themselves away in a recording studio, isolated from their fans' reactions. It is no surprise then that many bands suffer the sophomore jinx.
Pink Floyd recorded DSOTM after a year of writing and performing the material in front of live audiences. This audience feedback allowed the band to iteratively modify their creation. You should do the same. Avoid the sophomore jinx with your product launches by ignoring external pressures to take market validation shortcuts and maintaining the same game plan by which you achieved success, after you are successful.
Lesson #2:Get paid to create your product. Pink Floyd persuaded their fans to compensate them as they created their new material, performing the ever evolving DSOTM material for paying audiences before they recorded a single note.Wily start-ups do the same, devising creative ways to secure funding from their customers, rather than from investors. Take a page from cloud computing leader RightScale, which early on performed consulting engagements in order to generate the cash to build its SaaS solution.
Lesson #3: Respect your customers. Though DSOTM's themes of mortality, insanity, greed, and aggression are deep, the band respected their fans' intelligence and trusted that they would "get it." Respect for your customers' opinions comes naturally once you establish efficient channels for gathering and evaluating their unfiltered feedback.
Lesson #4: Embrace levity. There was a risk that the band's audience might reject DSOTM's melancholy themes. But the band members always had a lighthearted touch in interviews, giving the sense that they didn't take themselves too seriously. Selected excerpts: "I don't know I was really drunk at the time." And, "I'm not frightened of dying. Any time will do." You probably won't need to talk about death and darkness, but the same concept goes for start-ups. Don't be afraid to be human, to use humor and even a touch of self-deprecation to establish an authentic rapport with customers.
Lesson #5: Pivot on passion. Pink Floyd was redefining its musical direction at the time of DSOTM's recording. Several years prior, the band's leader, Syd Barrett--who wrote and sang most of the material--experienced a drug-aggravated mental breakdown and left the band. Some musicians would have felt pressure to record hit singles to ensure the continuation of their recording contract. Not Pink Floyd. Band members followed their passion and created long-form, unified musical pieces they wanted to hear, rather than the pithy, three minute singles demanded by label executives.
That's a tough but valuable lesson for new businesses. Start-ups should tackle problems they have encountered first-hand and are passionate about solving, rather than pursuing opportunities identified by investors and other so-called experts.
Lesson #6: Quality over hype. Paul and Linda McCartney were interviewed by the band for potential inclusion on the DSOTM album. Including a former Beatle would have generated tons of buzz, but the band excluded Paul and Linda because they were, they said, "trying too hard to be funny." The band sacrificed a short-term PR boost, but in the long run, it proved a bold and artistically appropriate choice. Start-ups are often faced with similar PR opportunities, which offer short-term rewards but may hamstring the venture in the long term. Always err on the side of long-term gain.
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. @johngreathouse