Damian Kulash is best known as the front man of super genius creative musical group, OK Go. Whether it's art projects, dabbling in physics, tinkering with biology, creating visual illusions, or reinventing marketing, bringing their musical visions to life in more-than-interesting ways has always been part of the band's creative and business culture. Just check out their latest video, "Upside Down and Inside Out," which was filmed at zero gravity.
Ok Go first blew up the Internet with the video for their 2006 single "Here It Goes Again," which featured a single cut of the band members performing a complex routine on a series of treadmills. Fresh off a 2015 MTV VMA win ("I Won't Let You Down"), Damian sat with me on the Innovation Crush podcast to talk about everything from having one of the first viral video on YouTube to maintaining team chemistry, working with brands, being business minded, to printing an album on strands of DNA ... along with a few crazy things on their current creative wish list.
Here's how he and the group master innovation:
1) Scare yourself ... and your colleagues.
For OK Go's "Needing / Getting" music video, Damian had to learn how to stunt drive in less than a week. On the day of the shoot, his bandmates--who did not attend Damian's training--were stuffed into a car along with their instruments. They then zipped around a curvy, musical obstacle course on a dirt road at 40 miles per hour ... while singing. Film crews, mounted cameras, high-tech robotics, and a few guys Damian had spent almost two decades making music with--all putting their safety in his hands.
The result? 30+ million YouTube views. Often times it's the audacious goals that scare us. The benefits of attempting an impossible goal far outweigh the results of accomplishing an impossible goal. They don't always come in life-threatening forms, but as the famous quote says, "If your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough."
2) Thank your fans.
"In Japan," says Kulash, "every radio interview ends with, 'is there anything you'd like to say to your Japanese fans?' " Of course the answer is always "We love our Japanese fans very much and we want to say thank you..." In business, we sometimes forget that small courtesies go a long way. You may not have fans in the traditional sense, but somewhere in your Rolodex of colleagues, family, team members, investors, customers, and friends, you've got people who think you're a rock star. They've purchased your products. They've answered your emails. They've shown up when you needed them. They stayed up all night to finish that presentation. Simple gestures go a long way. In return, they will go a long way with you.
3) Put on a couple more hats.
In the humble beginning, venues booked OK Go not because they were some jaw-dropping, amazing new group, but simply because they designed cool posters (Kulash previously worked at an ad agency). Club owners knew they'd get beautiful advertising for damn near free when they booked OK Go. As the group's success grew, so did their ability to carve out creative ways of differentiating themselves. Over the years, the band has learned about everything from DNA sequencing to dog training to digital rights management. Damian has written for the New York Times on the politics and business climate of the creative industries. He serves as the group's lead singer, video director, and business frontman.
When we expose ourselves to different sets of responsibilities and experiences, amazing things happen. True innovation comes from these diverse points of inspiration, which often lead to uncanny abilities to problem solve and create from multiple perspectives.
4) Check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Innovation is like being in traffic. You move fast. You move slow. You change direction. You get honked at--for both good and bad reasons. You check out other cars you wished you had, and some you're glad you never had. All the while, you never fully realize how dangerous it can all be. Yet with all the safety checks and distractions, you never stop heading toward your destination. Damian describes the group's creative endeavors and decision-making as a constant state of checks and balances. "We still pick up a guitar and sit and write songs," he says. At the same time, their constant influx of ideas and exposure to new things means there are a lot of shiny objects that are competing for their attention.
With each opportunity, the group takes its time to assess how they align with both their collective gut, as well as their core business goals. Will it generate revenue? Is it good marketing? Will it allow us to do that thing we've been dying to do? How much time to do we have? Is it just plain cool? Will it detract from what we're currently working on? Do we all agree, and if not, why? The list goes on. When considering a slew of options, always keep your final destination in mind, assess the risk vs. opportunity, and make your move. In the end, life is like a GPS--even if you make a wrong turn, the system will simply reroute you to get you to where you're going.
5) Sell out.
For many of us, money means freedom. And there's nothing wrong with either. One of OK Go's first viral videos was a 4-minute, single shot, giant Rube Goldberg machine perfectly timed to their hit song, This Too Shall Pass. This massive music-meets-physics undertaking where things smash and break and crash was funded by none other than State Farm. Had it not been for the brand, there was no way to fund the development and filming of their first visual opus.
"We were willing to work with brands earlier in our career than most are willing to," says Damian. The hesitance of most creators to work with big brands is the fear of diluting one's creativity. This can happen, especially when attempting to be a part of the wrong creative culture--or the right creative culture in the wrong way. Working with several brands from Chevrolet to Samsung, to Chinese furniture manufacturer, Red Star Macalli, Damian has negotiated everything from brand mentions to logo appearances to color schemes and everything in between. With a little patience and an open mind (and bank account), you too can experience the joy of selling out. Just make sure you do it the right way.