The world's Rush fans are still lamenting the recent death of Neil Peart, the band's celebrated drummer and lyricist, at age 67. As I reflect on the multitude of tributes to this once-in-a-generation musician, what strikes me most is the influence his words had on me as an entrepreneur. His songbook is a veritable users manual for entrepreneurs in training.
An unwavering Rush fan since the 1980s, I have long admired the band's pyrotechnic power, unearthly precision, and well-documented refusal to compromise its artistic ideals. But it was Peart's lyrics that fortified and inspired my efforts in co-founding the career portal Vault.com and still influence my work as a Stanford University lecturer on entrepreneurship and as a wine expert.
Peart, who didn't graduate from high school, was known to bandmates and admirers as "the professor" for his cerebral disposition and passion for learning. Here are the lessons I learned from Peart and took to heart in my entrepreneurial journey.
1. Resist safety.
I'm not giving in to security under pressure
I'm not missing out on the promise of adventure
-- "The Enemy Within," Grace Under Pressure, 1984
To take an entrepreneurial leap, you must defy conventional notions of security: the salaried job, the approval of others, the fear of failure. I battled my own "enemy within" when I decided to forgo a promising career assured by my Stanford Law degree to create Vault.
"Once you step off this track, it is going to be difficult to return," an incredulous partner at a top law firm warned me when I turned down his job offer.
I had the self-awareness to realize that the button-downed, risk-averse corporate law life was not for me.
2. Pursue your passion.
Hold your fire
Keep it burning bright
-- "Mission," Hold Your Fire, 1987
Peart had convinced me of the wisdom of following your passion as far back as my senior year in college. Here's proof: I paraphrased another line from "Mission" -- "Imaginations on fire" -- in this 1991 profile interview with the Stanford News Service that used my quote as the article's headline: "Find What Fires Your Imagination."
What ignites my fire is unraveling complex subjects for others, be it demystifying the subject of careers, entrepreneurship, or wine. In interviews, Peart sometimes referred to the origin of the word enthusiasm -- "infected with the god."
As an entrepreneur, a burning passion gives you a winning advantage, compelling you to work harder and buffering you against the inevitable hardships. It also makes you a more persuasive evangelist to potential investors, employees, and partners.
3. Choose complementary co-founders.
You can be the captain
And I will draw the chart
-- "Closer to the Heart," A Farewell to Kings, 1977
Much of a startup's success depends on the team behind it. My dear friend the late venture capitalist Burt McMurtry repeatedly stressed to me that the quality of the founding team trumps every other consideration.
Foremost, the founders have to fit. When I teamed up for Vault with my college friend Samer Hamadeh, now CEO of Zeel Networks, a massage-scheduling app company he co-founded, we had already witnessed each other's tenacity and dedication. We also realized that our pairing would be complementary: He was the detail-obsessed engineer and I was the content-focused communicator. While our Venn diagram overlapped on strategy, critically, we had our respective skills.
To make a partnership work in the long haul, it's best if founders go out of their way to accommodate each other. In "Closer to the Heart," the song's narrator shoulders the unsung task of drawing the chart while offering his companion the more glamorous role of captain. Samer and I took a similar tack, trading both moments in the limelight and the interminable burdens that come with creating a business from scratch.
4. Progress is incremental.
Celebrate the moment
As it turns into one more
-- "One Little Victory," Vapor Trails, 2002
When Peart wrote "One Little Victory," he was entrenched in his own dark battle, clawing back from a dark period following the deaths of his first wife and daughter, both of whom passed away in a period of a year.
While breathless media coverage of high-profile entrepreneurs can foster a misguided belief that success comes overnight, the reality for most founders is more akin to a grim struggle.
Vault's own progress consisted of a series of small iterations punctuated by dead ends, employee conflict, and the dot-com crash of the early 2000s. We found motivation by taking Peart's approach: celebrating small successes, such as new hires, signed sales contracts, and good press.
5. Say no.
One must put up barriers
To keep oneself intact
-- "Limelight," Moving Pictures, 1981
Entrepreneurs must "put up barriers" to protect the enterprise and their own sanity. Saying no should become a habit. This includes resisting the impulse to pursue too many ideas at once, especially when the business is young and limited in bandwidth. At Vault, we first focused on providing company reviews on investment banks and consulting firms, and only once we mastered this niche did we expand to law firms and other industries.
We were also adept at dodging the innumerable distractions that come along the way for founders -- time-draining partnerships, the hiring of unnecessary employees, invitations to networking conferences. None of these things furthered the all-important goal of executing and iterating our own products.
6. Prepare to pivot.
It's a far cry from the world we thought we'd inherit
It's a far cry from the way we thought we'd share it
-- "Far Cry," Snakes & Arrows, 2007
Although we started Vault in 1998 as a print publisher of company profiles, the company experienced transformations that were far from our original vision. With the early days of the digital revolution upon us, we soon realized that we would have to transition to online. At various times, we experimented with being a job board, a recruiting agency, and a vast collection of employee-focused message boards that I named the "Electronic Watercooler."
None of these iterations, however, provided enough revenue to justify our expensive editorial operation. In desperation, I designed a database product called the Vault Online Library that would license our company information to universities and graduate schools. To this day, it comprises Vault's bedrock revenue stream and attests to the importance of pivots to the entrepreneurial process.
7. Assume control.
Attention all planets of the solar federation
We have assumed control
-- "2112: The Grand Finale," 2112, 1976
It's fitting to conclude with one of the few times Peart gives voice to his own lyrics. The words cap the end of "2112," the side-long sci-fi title track of the album that would earn Rush artistic independence from its record company.
As an entrepreneur, your goal is to be your own boss. For us, Rush-like control over our company's destiny was far from guaranteed, even as we emerged as a respected brand and earned hockey-stick revenue growth.
Independence came with two key moves. First, we delayed accepting venture capital until we had enough leverage to insist on keeping a majority of seats on our board. Our VCs could not fire us, though they still could exert significant pressure. Second, when things looked their bleakest in the depths of 2002, we used the company's cash flow to buy back our shares, eliminating the VC, and its onerous deal sheet, altogether.
Only then could we justifiably echo Peart's stentorian declaration: "We have assumed control."