Say I decide to write about David Fishof, the founder of Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. As you'll see, David's is a fascinating tale... but still, most business articles -- especially articles about entrepreneurs, startups, or companies -- tend to focus on the company. You rarely get a 360-degree view of the business.

So let's change that.

This is the first in a three-part series about Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, a business celebrating its 21st anniversary this year. (The next camp starts on June 29th and features Nancy Wilson of Heart.)

We'll start with David: how he came up with the idea, struggled through the lean times, and built an institution. The second article will feature Alice in Chains bass player Mike Inez, who participated in a recent sold-out camp with band mate Jerry Cantrell, and Dean and Robert DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots. In the third article I'll talk to two campers about their experiences as customers.

The goal is to provide an inside look at all aspects of a business -- and hopefully inspire you to turn your own business into a superstar.

Let's get started. David Fishof is... wait. I'll let David tell his own story.

Give me the back story on Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp.

I was touring with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, a concept I put together. My history and been to package tours, and I approach him with the idea. We put this whole tour together with musicians like Billy Preston, Clarence Clemons, Joe Walsh, Nils Lofgren, Levon Helm...

It's funny. Going into it, everyone said it would never work. People said, "You can get them all together do something like a one-day Live Aid concert, but to do a whole tour, travel together, deal with all the egos... there's just no way." Still, I took the shot. I mortgaged my house to put together the deposit. That's how confident I was. I just knew it would be great.

I sent a "but then..." coming on.

(Laughs.) After the fourth show, I was having dinner at the venue with an executive from Radio City Music Hall, and Clarence Clemons walked by and said, "I'm outtta here." Nils did the same thing. I asked why. They said, "We can't agree on songs, everyone is too hard to get along with, people are fighting..."

So there I was, ten years younger than all those guys. And I'm not a musician. And Clarence said, "You better go solve it right now."

So I walk into the dressing room and I see Joe Walsh with a knife in his hand, and blood all over him, and Levon Helms holding a bottle and all bloody, and Levon throws a glass over Joe's head and it smashes on the wall, and I'm freaking out...and then they stick their tongues out at me.

Rubber knife, fake blood... they set me up. (You can watch it here.)

That tells you everything you need to know about what that experience was like. They were musicians who loved playing together, loved having fun... and I realized that people would enjoy getting to see the people inside these famous musicians.

Going from idea to execution is a huge leap, though.

I did the first Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp in Florida. I got so much publicity. So many media outlets covered it. All the writers were hanging out in the lobby after the second day and they called me over and said, "We're having so much fun. This is such a cool idea."

But I also lost so much money. And I decided not to do it again.

Fast forward to 2000. I'm at the Pollstar Awards with Sammy Hagar, Tommy Shaw, and I believe Tommy Lee, and they were watching an episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. One question was, "Who created Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp?" And Sammy remembered right away that it was me.

That was enough to make you give it another go?

Partly. It did make me realize I had created something memorable. But I had also gotten married and didn't want to go on the road any more. That's such a tough lifestyle when you want to have a family.

So I started doing it full time, and built it and built it... but for a long time I was still losing money.

How did you turn it around?

I have to credit a number of people, in particular some campers from McKinsey & Company.

One of them wrote me and said, "Your camp was a life changing experience, and I want to thank you." So I called him up and said, "I really appreciate you saying that... now can you help me change my life? Can you help me deal with some of my business issues?"

So he set up a dinner with a few of his associates. They said, "You tell us your story for 20 minutes. Then we'll ask you questions for 20 minutes. Then you'll shut up and we'll tell you what we think."

I did just that, and it was unbelievable. Their advice helped me tremendously.

I also have a number of amazing partners who have invested in me. Ed Oates, a co-founder of Oracle, taught me to apply their philosophy that you don't grow until you have enough business that you should grow. He taught me to cut overhead. Bernt Bodal, the CEO of America Seafood, took one look and said, "You need to cut, cut, cut." He showed me how to cut the right things, without impacting the experience for our campers.

I'm very fortunate to have great advisers. They showed me how to run a lean operation that delivers.

Another hard thing had to be convincing rock stars to participate, especially in the beginning.

You're right. Early on it was.

The first people I called were my friends. Once I got to the end of my phone list... then it got hard.

That's like selling insurance: Once you run out of friends and family...

(Laughs.) I'll never forget calling Ray Manzarek from the Doors. He yelled at me and said, "I'm not playing with amateurs!" And he hung up. A year before he passed away, he called me and said he wanted to do it... but I didn't remind him of that first call.

I bought a ticket to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner to ask Slash to participate. I flew to England to have dinner with Roger Daltrey of the Who, and he wouldn't say yes... and finally I said, "Roger, if you had an opportunity to go to Fantasy Camp, who would you want to jam with?"

He said, "If you could introduce me to Levon (Helm), I would do it." Levon had done my first Ringo tour, he played that practical joke on me, we were very close friends, I had represented him... so I said, "Okay, that's fair. I think I can do that."

I told Roger that Levon was having some financial problems, and Roger said, "Whatever you were going to pay me, give it to him. I just want to meet him." That's Roger.

So Roger came to New York, and he met Levon... but then he saw how amazing the campers were and how hard they were working and he turned to me and said, "I want to play with people. I want to play with each band." He got so into it.

Nick Mason of Pink Floyd came and stayed for four days. Slash stayed for ten hours, even though he had originally agreed to stay for just two.

Once they're in there playing and they realize it's about music, and playing music, and playing other people's songs... I didn't realize how much the rock stars would love it. They're skeptical in the beginning, but once they go through the process...

I'm guessing that's a two-way street. The rock stars realize that the campers just want to play with people they admire, and the campers realize that the rock stars are just people who love to play.

I created the Camp for the fans. People always asked me what certain rock stars were like. And I was tired of people badmouthing rock stars. I knew that if fans they could see what the rock stars were like, if they could see the camaraderie and creativity and fun... the idea was to have campers jam with them so that it went well beyond just a meet-and-greet kind of scenario.

But I didn't realize how much the rock stars would love it. Sammy Hagar said, "It really reminds me of how good I have it." Jeff Beck said, "I got so much from this business; it's time for me to give back."

It's life changing for the campers, but it's a great experience for the rock stars, too. And that's a good thing... because if the rock stars didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't have a business. (Laughs.)

How do you work through the intimidation factor? It can't be easy for "regular" people to play with their heroes, especially at first.

The rock stars make that issue disappear. Jerry Cantrell walked in to eat lunch with everyone. Roger Daltrey eats lunch with the campers. After all, rock stars have to eat lunch too. (Laughs.)

Campers say, "Wow, these guys are so nice..." and I say, "Of course they are. They're regular people."

Many of the artists have achieved so much success that they feel like they want to give back. They get to come and hang out. It's pure music for the rock stars. They love music. They love sharing their knowledge.

But you're right. The biggest issue we have is the fear factor, even though the camps are totally non-competitive. Still, some people are hesitant and nervous. Many of our campers are extremely successful at what they do, and they may not want to walk into a situation where they feel "less than." But once they come and see that the rock stars put their pants on one leg at a time, eat three meals a day...

I always tell the rock stars that they are not the rock stars -- the campers are the rock stars. Our primary goal is to make the campers feel like rock stars.

Tell me about Team Rock Stars.

We had a number of corporate executives coming to our Camps. Then Ed Oates came to a Camp and went over to one of the rock stars and said, "I want to do this song." He was used to being a boss and getting his way.

At the end of four days, Ed said, "This was the best teambuilding experience I've ever had. I had to be a part of the team. I had to learn to listen."

So I created Team Rock Stars, a program where we go into companies like GE, Disney, Time Inc, Allianz, etc. We bring in rockers who are trained in the camp process, and we sit and write songs with the participants.

Recently Simon Kirke of Bad Company and Free sat with fifteen lawyers to rewrite the words to one of his songs, making it about their company. They came up with the most creative stuff... and then they had to perform it, with the rock stars behind them.

People learn to collaborate, to be creative, to perform under a time crunch, and to perform onstage, under pressure. And they learn to do it together, and to lean on each other. They learn how to be in a band, and that experience spills over into their working lives.

Unlike most companies, many of these rock stars have maintained their brands for years. You can learn a lot from them.

You've created a successful business... but a question I love to ask successful entrepreneurs: What do you, on a personal level, get from what you do?

I have two little ones and six grandchildren. The road is hard. I couldn't do that any more -- it's not healthy for a family or a marriage. I swore to myself if I ever saw another shopping mall in Detroit or Chicago that I would kill myself. (Laughs.)

My dad was a cantor, my brother is a rabbi... it seems like my whole family are rabbis. They were helping people, and there I was making money, but I wasn't feeling it.

This job enables me to make money and make people's lives better at the same time. I love the business because I love changing people's lives.

I get to make a difference.

Published on: Mar 16, 2017
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