Start me up: entrepreneurial insights from Keith Richards

On 12th July 1962, Ray Charles was number one with I Can’t Stop Loving You, The Beatles had recorded their first single Love Me Do and The Rolling Stones, debuted at The Marquee Club, London.

Some fifty-six years later, The Rolling Stones are still performing, and last week hit Manchester, half way through their latest tour. The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, two childhood friends still fronting the most iconic rock ‘n roll band, both now into their seventies.

Jumping Jack Flash kicks us off. Engaging with the audience, Jagger lithe and agile. Richards full of intent, a craftsman, artisan, musicianship as intelligent and insightful as Mozart. They’ve lost none of their potency despite the advancing years. The stage graphics turn monochrome showcasing the band as various images explode and parade across the stage backdrop. Paint it Black. Gimme Shelter.

Familiar riffs ricochet from Richards’ septuagenarian fingers. It’s his sheer presence, the swagger and attitude that you notice, lips pursed, back arched, hammering out these classics tunes. Every single guitar player in every single band in the world has been influenced by Keith Richards. He is the living embodiment of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. For Keith himself it’s all about the music. It’s the music that matters.

I was introduced to The Stones by my wife, they’ve some ok tunes, but it was Keith Richards the man and musician, rather than the band’s music, which particularly interests me. His biography, Life, is a wonderful voice and narrative of his, well, life, funnily enough. I guess I wasn’t expecting much more than some version of Get high, play music, crash…Get high, play music, crash…. but I found him articulate, witty, intelligent and thoughtful. By far the most impactful aspect of the book are the life lessons from a talented, high performing individual that you can take to influence your own entrepreneurial thinking.

Meeting Mick Jagger in 1961 on Dartford railway station was a moment of history that saw co-founders collide to form one of the most creative and long-lasting partnerships in modern music, one that has shaped the cultural history of the last fifty years with music that has roused the world.

Richards is acknowledged as one of the greatest rhythm guitarists, but he’s even more legendary for his near-miraculous ability to survive the debauched excesses of the rock & roll lifestyle. His prodigious consumption of drugs and alcohol and tightrope-walking hedonism would likely have destroyed most of us. On-stage he epitomises guitar-hero cool as the quiet, stoic alter ego to Jagger’s extroverted frontman. Yet that part of Richards’ mystique often overshadows his considerable musical legacy.

His lean, punchy, muscular sound is the result of his unerring sense of rhythm and intuitive use of space amidst the noise. There is music in the silence too. Never intensely interested in soloing, Richards prefers to work using open-chord tunings drawn from the Blues, his guitars strung with just five strings for cleaner fingering to enable his distinctive sound. While he confesses to wanting to have been a librarian, music has been his life: Music is a necessity. After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life, he once said.

Whilst most of us are unlikely to be rock stars, like Bowie, Eno and Lennon, Richard’s performance legacy identifies entrepreneurial insights and learnings relevant to creating your own music, albeit in a business sense. So get your headphones on, tune into Exile on Main Street, and read on.

Start with the 10,000 hours. Nobel Prize-winning sociologist Herbert Simon calculated that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field, a prescription further developed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Richards probably completed his 10,000-hour apprenticeship in his early twenties, so he’s now well past the level of mastery and into some other realm.

As Richards noted about his early days, The Beatles had nothing on us. We spent all our waking hours studying Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin.

They would sit for hours asking How the hell did they do that? How did they get that sound? How did they play that chord progression? How can they do that much with two chords? Etc. They were modelling the greats. Richards created his own autonomy, mastery and purpose. He invested in himself.

Choose your attitude Richards’ family didn’t have a record player, but because, rather than in spite of his humble beginnings, he was still able to play music. He doesn’t bemoan inequality in terms of opportunity, but Richards’ inspiring story reminds us that starting at the bottom is a driving force.

His first guitar cost £10. Notable is that Richards couldn’t afford an electric guitar, but his family’s inability to pay determined his journey as a self-taught guitar player. Rather than allow his reduced economic circumstances to act as a barrier to achievement, he accentuated the positive, that he had a guitar and proceeded to play every spare moment I got.

Never compromise Richards’ stories from the recording studios blow me away. I never thought of him as such a hard worker as he clearly is, nor, frankly, did I think he was such a perfectionist. I don’t suggest you call upon quite as much pharmaceutical help to do it as Keith did, but he is an incredible role model for standing up not just for quality work, but the best quality work – and not just mostly, but all the time. Reach beyond your expectations, be a master of your craft.

Work ethic The musician’s bohemian lifestyle is all part of the alluring mythology of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism, but the story is apocryphal. Richards is the ultimate professional rock ‘n’ roller but invested a big chunk of life rehearsing and performing, simply working hard, whether to sell records, play the best gigs, or attain a high level of musicianship.

In their early years, The Stones released two, sometimes three, albums a year, while touring and writing new material. The Stones recorded more than fifty tracks in 1964. This focus on, or perhaps obsession with results, is something I observed over and over again in Life, his autobiography, recounting countless rehearsals, sound checks, and recording sessions – they were relentless. It’s about building a body of work, creating your own voice and making it heard.

Be a collaborator Richards retains a deep conviction that the partnership with Jagger produced magic that the individuals could not, he knows the chemistry that’s created because of their differences, not in spite of them. Richards celebrates Jagger as the best performer and lyricist he knows, he’s proud of him. He honours the shared history, their deep personal resonance.

Creative partnerships are special – Hewlett and Packard, Jobs and Wozniak. Jagger doesn’t work well without Richards, and vice versa. More broadly, teamwork is crucial. Their partnership wouldn’t work well without drummer Charlie Watts, the core of the band has been together since day one.

Equally, effective teams can cope with change. Wyman and Taylor are gone, Ronnie Wood joined. There are sparks of creative tension and disagreement between Jagger and Richards, but ultimately, the chemistry and camaraderie is underpinned by respect, which creates the conditions for creativity.

Have an identity Branding is vital to establish your image. If there is a red tongue on the product, it’s the Rolling Stones. John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for the band in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. It is one of the first and most successful rock brand marketing. It’s a consistent message, it’s about being who you are.

Remain humble, and be real In the interviews and the stories of lore about this great musician, I think Richards has in his own right remained humble about what he has achieved from his life, his longevity and legacy, and how thrilled he is that fans still come and see them perform, play and buy their music.

Last week Jagger sparked the crowd with It’s great to be in Manchester. Richards got a bigger roar when he quipped, whilst laughing to himself, It’s great to be anywhere – recognising his own mortality.

Play-on At 74, with a lifestyle afforded from his success, Why don’t you give it up? Richards’ response, one that is typical of successful individuals is that I can’t retire until I croak. I don’t think they quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing it just for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me. Will you still have the passion and drive Keith has at his age? As John Cage said, There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.

Richards epitomises the fact that winners work hard. If you don’t want to succeed more than you want to watch Netflix you have no one to blame but yourself for failing. Some struggle with finding enough time to grow their businesses, yet others find enough time to watch television on repeat loops.

This is not to stop you from starting, but encouraging you to step up to the plate and do what is necessary for your success. Look at the comments from Richards on practice and attitude. As an entrepreneur, you have to out-hustle and out-work your competition or they will out-hustle you.

Make your own noise Richards has spent his life rooted in leather jackets and amplifiers turned up to fifteen, doing what is necessary to write, record, produce and publish his own music, and playing live. Like bootstrapping your startup, the DIY ethic means you take action on your ideas today, rather than waiting for someone to give you permission or do it for you. Start today, make your own noise.

Rock music is a lifestyle, but it’s also a business. There are recording deals to contract, tours to organise and merchandise to sell, copyrighting songs written. Of course there’s also groupies, drugs, and trashed hotel rooms that one doesn’t (normally) find in a traditional business setting.

Here’s a great quote from Richards which is as powerful statement about entrepreneurship as anything you’ll read from either Jobs, Gates or Bezos:

Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there. If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting. No one ever learned how to swim by standing up in the shallow end.

Even if you’ll never strum a guitar let alone write great tunes, you can learn a lot from one of the greatest musicians of all time. Who are you role models? What are you doing to optimise your potential, your talent, your energy, your fulfilment, your joy, your love, your self-actualisation, your Life?

Life, why would you want to be anyone else if you were Keith Richards?