Letter From Silicon Valley: Start Up the Band
Letter From Silicon Valley
Entrepreneurs know that surprising things happen when they ask themselves, "What do I want, and what am I willing to do to get it?" When I asked myself those questions three years ago, I found that I wanted to start a viral-marketing company badly enough that I moved from New York City to San Francisco. I wanted a database guru badly enough that I ate every day at a Chinese restaurant near Oracle with a $5,000 referral offer taped to my back. I wanted a round of funding badly enough that I replaced myself as CEO.
When I joined Stymie & the Pimp Jones Luv Orchestra, 18 months ago, I wanted time off from questions of commitment. That was shortly after my somewhat painful departure from my company, Gazooba, and a sojourn with a 15-piece funk band seemed like the perfect management vacation. So my trombone and I showed up one afternoon at the converted rug factory where Stymie rehearses, and I did my best to follow the horn lines on "Superfun Teenage Girls" and "Radio Bullshit Resistance Squad."
A few days passed without a callback, so I called the keyboard player to ask if I was in. "In Stymie, no one ever says you're in," he told me. "We liked what we heard, so if you think it's right, just keep showing up." Apparently, no cross-functional team would be reviewing my intonation.
I hung up my khakis and bought some double-breasted funk attire on Haight Street. Friday-night board meetings soon gave way to gigs at Paradise Lounge. At 1 a.m., instead of microwaving potpies with Gazooba's network administrators, I was trading solos with E-Money, KBO, and Lo-fi Lyle.
On the surface, everything had changed. But the longer I played with Stymie, the more I felt as though I were back in a start-up. I watched lead singer Sean Sharp (a.k.a. Stymie) write new songs and thought "product development." His roommate James, an independent-film producer, never thought of himself as a chief financial officer, but how else would you describe the guy who handled our finances and bank account? Our sales force was a backup singer who cultivated relationships with club owners and received a 10% commission on bookings.
Perhaps it was inevitable that my inner CEO awoke. It happened in December 2000. Sean had called us to his Chinatown apartment to discuss promoting Dim Sum Goodies, our new CD. He proposed renting a club for a release party and spending heavily on promotion. We had a few thousand dollars, thanks to a lucrative dot-com Christmas party, but James warned that we couldn't afford a release party, newspaper ads, and another recording session. A chorus of unrest arose about how to split gig money, and there were conflicting opinions about whether we should establish the band as a legal partnership.
Hmm, budgeting, strategic priorities, and corporate structure. As hip-hop-'n'-blues man G. Love says, those are "things that I used to do." I couldn't stop myself.
"Forgive me because I'm new," I said, "but where do you guys want to be in six months?"
And there I was, asking the same question I had posed to myself and my Gazooba team after each round of financing. As a founder, I had had authority at the company, but as the band newbie, I wasn't about to take the baton from Sean. So I asked my questions and let him facilitate the discussion.
"The thrill I felt made me wonder if my management days were truly behind me."
Sean said he wanted the band to "step up," which he defined as playing bigger, more-popular venues, and others agreed. I asked which clubs were a level or two above our regulars. We made a list and set a goal of playing at least one club on the list by summer's end. Then we wrote down what we'd need to do to achieve that: call club owners, make a new promotion kit, practice new material. The thrill I felt made me wonder if my management days were truly behind me.
During the spring our reputation grew. By summer, college radio stations in Los Angeles and Seattle were spinning "Fan Club," our swing-funk single about a girl who's such a hottie that she has her own. But shoring up product and sales efforts meant delivering to customers, which in turn revealed operational cracks. We were tired from rehearsing twice a week, and it showed onstage. The band was consistently late for preshow sound checks. We received requests to play street fairs, benefit concerts, and private parties, yet had no criteria for deciding which offers to accept. Sean would E-mail everyone asking about a particular gig, but the online debates became so confusing that people stopped participating.
On August 4 we opened at Bimbo's 365 Club for a band called SuperBooty. We were so distracted by the inner turmoil, we barely noticed that Bimbo's was one of the clubs on our list.
Shortly after Bimbo's, Bill, our bass player, quit. Bill was not only a talented musician and songwriter but also a dependable McCartney to Sean's creative Lennon. Bill said that although we'd made progress, he didn't think we could go further. Without Bill, I knew we wouldn't.
Bill's resignation swept me right back to Gazooba. I remembered when our vice-president of business development quit, and I thought I had no choice but to accept it. But after I sat down and listened to her for several hours, I realized that she had simply become frustrated about not being heard. We then negotiated some milestones that we could achieve together, and she came back. Knowing how much of himself Bill had put into Stymie, I wondered if he would come back, too.
I called a meeting at my apartment and asked Sean to invite any five band members plus Bill. I warned attendees that if even one person was late, I would send everyone home. I hated doing it, but chronic lateness to Stymie meetings had lowered confidence that we would achieve anything. And I didn't want to waste any more time.
Everyone showed up early, a Stymie first. I had consulted with a management coach from Gazooba days about how to run the meeting, so I was well prepared. Using whiteboard-size Post-it pads, I facilitated a heated discussion about what the band wanted and what we were willing to do to get it. We emerged with a goal: "By March 5, 2002, we will have completed an album and two three-gig tours outside the Bay Area, and we will have a legal partnership in place so that we have a sense that we are growing our fan base and turning the band into a moneymaking venture for its members."
Just as we'd done at our last meeting, we asked how we would make it all happen. Sean admitted he need help organizing rehearsals, so Chris, our guitarist, became rehearsal manager. We still lacked answers on some subjects -- how to arrange a tour, for example, and where to get legal advice -- but at least we knew the right questions. After helping set the direction and airing some personal issues, Bill agreed to return for at least six months.
These days playing with Stymie is fun again. Chris runs rehearsals so efficiently that we go home early. Sean and Bill are writing new songs. We've signed a partnership agreement that includes a system for splitting profits, which is important now that we have opened for an Earth, Wind & Fire concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre. (OK, we played the side stage, but still ....) SF Weekly readers voted us best San Francisco funk band.
I can't claim that all that is a direct result of the meeting. As a mere trombone player, I can't take credit for the band's success. But I can say this: I asked myself how badly I wanted Stymie & the Pimp Jones Luv Orchestra to prosper. I wanted it enough that I was willing to share a part of myself. It was the part that half a business cycle ago scored some lesser-known hits with a 24-piece band of marketers, software engineers, and salespeople called Gazooba.
Andrew Raskin is the cofounder and former CEO of Gazooba Corp. (now Qbiquity Corp.) and a contributing writer at Inc. He was previously in a New York City ska band called the Defactos, which, according to its trumpet player, means "of the fact in French or something."
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