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5 lessons a band can teach a startup

Photo Credit: Soapstone Lion Photography

I've been playing drums pretty much my whole life. I came from a musical family. I grew up with musical friends. I was in bands through high school and college. I also had the unique opportunity to do it professionally for 3 years touring the United States, sleeping on floors (and in a tent), playing hundreds of shows with well-known indie bands, building a fan base, recording in studios big and small, having countless conversations with record labels and releasing a lot of music.

I now help employ the most talented user experience, design and development technicians (many who are musicians) at Eight Bit Studios in Chicago. Through that experience, these are five of the major lessons I have used as a lens to help build Eight Bit Studios and the startups we help launch every month.

1. Strategize: Creating a great demo

When you start a band, nobody really cares about your name. Nobody really cares about your merchandise. Aside from your friends, nobody else will book your band or go to your show without first hearing something. The demo, no matter the quality, is your group's perspective in the music world.

Entrepreneurs and startups often make this mistake. They think their investment should be in that full length album. Their first release isn't meant to be an opus. Thebiggest companies in the world with all the funds in the world don't shoot for an opus. What you need is a strategy and the willingness to release the foundations of ideas so that you can discover and validate your perspective. Is it unique? Is it worth sharing? Does it matter?

2. Prototype: Making time for practice

Bands need to practice together. It's not just about making great music, it's about sharing ideas, finding your sound and understanding how your ideas come together as a unit. This means trying out lots of riffs, writing and rewriting lyrics and ultimately scrapping songs that just don't make the group's cut. 

Equally with a startup, your team needs a chance to create and more importantly destroy features that can't be validated or don't prove their value within your group. This gives your team a chance to try new ideas, establish a feature release tempo and better understand where their time is best spent. 

Photo Credit: Soapstone Lion Photography

3. Iterate & Test: Building your fan base

Inexperienced musicians always shoot for the dream of getting lucky and creating that one song the whole world loves. The reality is, it's beyond rare. Good bands know, in order to survive long term, you need a strong fan base. Valuing the long-term fan and doing everything you can to keep your their attention is how experienced bands get big. That means continuously releasing new material, innovating, communicating, creating ambassadors (like a street team) and involving fans in exclusives and providing a means to give feedback. 

It's the same with a startup. Inexperienced entrepreneurs think that if their idea is good enough that Google or Facebook will buy them for a billion dollars. Experienced entrepreneurs are relentless in engagement of users, establishing KPI's for sustained growth and focus everything on long term retention. You need these metrics to help refine your strategy, please your purpose for existing and please your current and future investors.

4. Market & Advertise: Releasing new material

If you want a lot of people to show up at your event, be ready to physically and digitally do whatever you can think of to get people there. For every 1000 people you don't know, 1 of those will come to your show. You don't just have to do a great job getting their friends out to shows, but you have to be able to get friends of friends out. You need to get on the radio, you need to harass local newspapers magazine writers and you need to befriend EVERYONE. Your event needs to be posted everywhere. It's a big deal because you make it a big deal. 

If you're launching an app, a big update, or solving a major problem and the extent of your promotion is emailing some friends, sending out a press release and putting it on Facebook, don't be surprised when the response you get doesn't meet your expectations. Know that what you are building is newsworthy. Make sure it's not too hard to articulate in person, in interviews, to journalists, to friends or in your pay per click. Create an easy to understand message and support it through physical events, reaching out to all your known networks and news sources. Invest in targeted advertising and exhaust yourself for every major release, update or new problem solved.

5. Fundraise: Getting a record deal

It took us a long time to realize this, but bands are generally signed on potential, not for what they produce on their own. Record labels don't necessarily want a produced record, because a produced record rarely has untapped potential (unless your fanbase is growing out of control). The focus can quickly shift from potential to the group's current fanbase and current record sales and try to model them to a wider audience. That becomes the reality. Instead, what labels want is something authentic and sounds good even when it's not produced. It makes it easier to hear your potential, for them to put their polish and spread the word through their networks to help your band live up to its full potential. 

Raising money follows a similar path. Making an attempt to over-polish your product, work all your business relationships and realize your startup's full potential without the proper resources will make it that much harder for investors to see how they can help and ultimately turn your startup into a superstar. This doesn't mean put out a lousy product. It means if you focus your resources on creating something great that is truly valued, it will be that much easier for an investor to come in and shore up the rest of the deals, scaling and polish you need to reach a critical mass. 

Photo Credit: Christopher Chouinard


About the author

John W Ostler (@seahostler) is Co-Founder and Principal of UX & UI at Eight Bit Studios (@eightbitstudios), an award winning mobile strategy, design and development studio that focuses on strategizing and executing the visions of Chicago's most promising startups. He has helped lead and produce technical and interaction design engagements with brands like Cadbury Adams, Burger King, Motorola, Career Builder, Groupon, Exelon, Sidley Austin, and HSBC. His work has been featured in the USA Today, Brandweek, The Daily Beast, NewYork Times Tech blog, Mashable.com, featured on multiple CSS design blogs, and had multiple apps reach in the Top 25 and receive a "New and Noteworthy" nod from Apple. He is also Co-Founder of Bughouse (@bughousekids) a kids app, toy, game, books startup.

John Ostler