The rock ‘n roll entrepreneurial spirit of Dave Grohl

I have a wish-I-did-what-you-do-for-a-living man crush on Dave Grohl, founder and lead singer of the Foo Fighters. I have cycled through many musical heroes, from Ian Curtis, Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer to Tim Booth. Whenever I hear Grohl perform or talk, I marvel at his intelligence and zest for his craft. Of course, everyone’s on a mission to be themselves at the deepest level, but I sometimes wish my job was doing what this guy does.

Music gives Grohl his spiritual conviction to ferociously animate himself. He founded The Foo Fighters as a one-man project following the dissolution of Nirvana after the suicide of Kurt Cobain. The band took its name from the UFOs and various aerial phenomena reported by aircraft pilots in WWII – which were known as ‘foo fighters’.

I know an embarrassing amount about Grohl. I could talk your ears off. For example, did you know Dave was the fifth drummer in Nirvana? I always think of that when I’m playing air drums in the car to Everlong – I’ll get my breakthrough I tell myself, I can be patient.

Following the release of Foo Fighters’ 1995 debut album, featuring Grohl as the only musician – so he consequently played every instrument – Grohl recruited bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, as well as Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear to complete the line-up.

The band made its live public debut on February 23, 1995, at the Jambalaya Club in Arcata, California. Goldsmith quit during the recording of the group’s second album, The Colour and the Shape (1997), when most of the drum parts were re-recorded by Grohl himself. Smear’s departure followed soon afterward, though he appeared with the band on live shows, and rejoined as a full-time member in 2011.

The Colour and the Shape is an amazing record, including top tunes such as Monkey Wrench, Everlong, My Hero, and Walking After You. Before its release, Taylor Hawkins joined as drummer, followed by Chris Shiflett as lead guitarist. Fast forward to September 2017, and session and touring keyboardist Rami Jaffee joined as a full member, to complete the lineup.

At their loudest and most animated, Foo Fighters are noisemakers and musicians. Their grinding sheds a spark, which leads to an explosion, which leads to a crescendo. Grohl’s music combines the beauty of minimalism, the importance of music that’s stripped down, and a wall of noise. Foo Fighters tunes are marked by the technique of shifting between quiet verses and loud, sing-along choruses, huge guitars, powerful hooks.

They have the lure of punk with the energy and immediacy, the need to thrash stuff around, but at the same time, we’re all suckers for a beautiful melody. Often it’s a punishing industrial noise, a clattering din, but Grohl is an idiosyncratic figure in a world that tends towards the cookie-cutter.

Grohl is a whirling dervish on stage, and they frequently play concerts for over three hours. He’s a story of sheer passion. For example, on June 12, 2015, Grohl fell from the concert stage in Gothenburg, during the second song of the Foo Fighters’ set, and broke his leg. The band played without Grohl while he received medical attention; Grohl then returned to the stage, sitting in a chair to perform the last two hours of the band’s set while a medic tended to his leg.

The band are deep into their musicianship, and at gigs, each member tips their hat to their heroes – from Queen to The Stones to John Lennon – but the best I’ve seen was Pat Smear leading the band into a quick dash through the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop. When they play, it’s blood and guts. I love their dissonance and the chaos.

Startup founders – as any band founders like Grohl – who want to follow any kind of memorable, meaningful path for their venture or for culture writ large, can’t settle for cheap radio-play solutions, or settle for a ‘one-hit wonder’ mentality.

To create real cultural touchstones, we have to understand that there is no such thing as an overnight success. There is no cheat. No corners to cut. No app store elevation to a speedy triumph. Because let’s face it, the majority of chart-toppers fail to occupy a place in the collective memory as we someday record it. However, Nirvana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on April 10, 2014, twenty years after the death of Cobain, so Grohl already has a legacy.

In business terms, you don’t need another ‘hit’, you need to define your vision and ‘what does success look like?’ aligned around specific outcomes. To build companies that create real customer loyalty, credibility, or a following like a band – measured either by word of mouth or clear metrics – you have to build experiences.

Not just products. Not pixel-perfect screens, it’s the human experience that matters most. How people think and feel when they use the thing you’ve built, hyper-memorable encounters, real human experience. It’s like those memorable concerts you’ll never forget. It’s only these kinds of experiences that any of us are likely to enjoy with relish or gusto in a year or two to ensure repeat purchases.

At this stage in the feverish, casino-like startup game, it’s a lottery at best. It’s not about memes, it’s about moments. Not ‘friends’, or ‘followers’ or ‘connections’, but faces. Physical, real-world experiences that complement our lives online, extending it emotionally and naturally, in way that we now need and crave more than ever before. Remember, in this rock-star era of startups, the ‘concert’ is monumentally more rewarding than the record. For customers. For audiences. For people.

After the death of Cobain, Grohl did not wallow in grief. He refocused and put himself back into the music. I was supposed to just join another band and be a drummer the rest of my life. I thought that I would rather do what no one expected me to do. I enjoy writing music and I enjoy trying to sing, and there’s nothing anyone can really do to discourage me.

Which means maybe it’s time to find that loud, noisy and energised version of the Dave Grohl in you, in the here and now. And if you can’t, start banging out some version of it in your garage as a start. So, let me count you in to some startup lessons from Dave Grohl. Ready? 1-2-3-4…

Be punk, not perfect Dave started out as the drummer in the punk band Scream. He began drumming on the pillows on his bed as a kid, and then took the rhythm that flowed through him on the road by the time he was seventeen. He never took drum lessons or guitar lessons. Actually he took one drum lesson and the teacher tried to get him to change the way he held the sticks. That was the end of drum lessons.

He’s a self-taught guitarist, too. Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters album by himself, playing every instrument, in five days. The music he writes and performs is far from perfect, but it’s perfectly him. Passion and emotion are great, ugly, beautiful channels to push your creativity out into the world. No lessons required.

Be a doer Grohl knew what he wanted to do from a young age. However, his family couldn’t afford a drum kit so he would arrange his pillows on his bed and hit them hard enough to make the sounds he wanted. There will always be barriers, but it’s how we overcome them that matter.

Sometimes we feel like going it alone is the hardest thing, but it often results in the most rewarding work. Grohl’s got deep roots in the punk scene, which has a strong tether to the do-it-yourself mentality. Grohl talks about his realisation that he could make it happen with his own hands:

At 13 years old, I realised that I could write my own song, I could record my own record, I could start my own label, I could release my own record, I could book my own shows, I could write and publish my own fanzine, I could silkscreen my own T-shirts. I could do all of this myself. There was no right or wrong, because it was all mine.

Grohl isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves, show off his feather-tattooed arms, and get to work. So what about you?

Find your passion The idea is just to make music and make good records. There’s not so much career ambition as there is personal ambition… …When you go in to make an album, you want it to be better than the last, you want it to be the best thing you’ve ever done, and you want to stretch yourself musically.

Molly’s Lips was his first Nirvana recording, a session for John Peel’s BBC Radio show. He’d made a start. Grohl is confident in his own shoes. He knows who he is: It’s YOUR voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last.

Keep your family close To be an effective leader, it can’t be all about the work. A balanced life is a full life, and Grohl obviously enjoys having those closest to him, close to him.

Family commitments are important, keep a balance. It’s often the reason many can’t chase their dreams. Grohl’s a devoted and dedicated father, so he built a studio at home so that he could walk his three daughters to school whilst he wasn’t on tour before getting to work. Now, you often see one of his daughters get up on stage with him at most gigs.

Get stuff done From his early work from Scream, as the drummer for Nirvana and the last twenty-five years as the enigmatic frontman of the Foo Fighters, the output of music and songs that have Grohl’s fingerprints on is stunning.

By his own admission, he can literally not sit still. Whilst band mates enjoy a much needed rest, he often fills that time with side projects and collaborations. Volume can speak volumes, and whilst it’s important to maintain quality, sometimes we need to just get stuff done. So avoid procrastination. Either crack on and finish it, or scrap it and move on.

Care … genuinely In May 2006, Grohl sent a note of support to the two trapped miners in the Beaconsfield mine collapse, in Australia. In the initial days following the collapse one of the men requested an iPod with the Foo Fighters album In Your Honour to be sent down to them through a small hole.

Grohl’s note read, in part, Though I’m halfway around the world right now, my heart is with you both, and I want you to know that when you come home, there’s two tickets to any Foos show, anywhere, and two cold beers waiting for you. Deal?

One of the miners took up his offer, joining Grohl for a drink after a Foo Fighters acoustic concert in Sydney. Grohl wrote a tribute instrumental piece for the next album. The song, Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners, appears on Foo Fighters’ 2007 release Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace.

Music is one of the things in our humanity that really matters, and for Dave Grohl, on the final day before all the lights go out for one last time, you can be certain that the cockroaches will be banging out a decent rendition of Everlong.

So you’ve got the itch to do something. Go ahead and make something really special, something amazing, and sing in your own voice like Dave Grohl. That’s what every entrepreneur must do too, use their own creativity to shape their own innovation agenda and make their mark.