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?

Start Me Up: The Keith Richards business model for startups

Every single guitar player in every single rock ‘n’ roll band in the world has been influenced by Keith Richards. He is recognised as having created his own, unique, art form and the living embodiment of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. For Keith himself it’s all about the music. It’s the music that matters.

He was born 18 December 1943 in Dartford, Kent, while his father was on wartime duty with the army. Meeting Mick Jagger in 1961 on Dartford railway station was a moment of history that subsequently saw co-founders create one of the most creative and long-lasting partnerships in modern music, one that has helped shape the cultural history of the last fifty years with music that has roused the world.

He’s acknowledged as perhaps the greatest rhythm guitarist in rock & roll, 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 has been well documented, and would likely have destroyed anyone with a less amazing endurance level.

On-stage he epitomises guitar-hero cool as the quiet, stoic alter ego to Mick Jagger’s extroverted frontman, a widely imitated image made all the more fascinating by his tightrope-walking hedonism. Yet that part of Richards’ mystique often overshadows his considerable musical legacy.

His lean, punchy, muscular sound was the result of his unerring sense of groove and intuitive use of space within songs. Never intensely interested in soloing, Richards prefers to work the groove using open-chord tunings drawn from the blues, and his guitars are often strung with only five strings for cleaner fingering, which made it difficult for cover bands to duplicate his distinctive sound precisely.

Into his seventies, and while he confesses to wanting to have been a librarian, has no intention of pursuing a career away from music, just at the moment. He has a new solo album released in September, to be followed by a new set of Stones tunes. Music is a necessity. After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life, he once said

The first Rolling Stones gig at London’s Marquee Club – 12 July 1962, saw a group of raw young musicians performing at a dingy club in front of a small crowd of enthusiasts. If those young lads had not become the Rolling Stones, one of the biggest musical acts in history, that evening’s gig would have been relegated as an unimportant, mundane event and forgotten. But it was the start of something huge.

On that summer night, the Stones had no expectations that they could even make money playing gigs, much less become a global cultural iconic symbol of youth, creativity and licentiousness. In fact, the Stones were not even the headline act that night – they opened for Long John Baldry.

Although most of us will never be rock stars, looking back over 50+ years, there are some valuable startup business lessons to be learned from the Rolling Stones. So get your headphones on, download Exile on Main Street from iTunes, 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 does this in spades – in fact, he’d 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 the band’s early days, The Beatles had nothing on us. Anybody that strayed from the nest to get laid, or try to get laid, was a traitor. You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, 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.

Choose your attitude Richards notes that his family didn’t have a record player for a long time, but because, rather than in spite of Richards’ humble beginnings, he was eventually able to buy and play music.

He doesn’t bemoan inequality in terms of opportunity, but Richards’ inspiring story reminds us that starting at the bottom is often a blessing. His first guitar cost £10. Notable is that Richards couldn’t afford an electric guitar, but his family’s inability to pay for an electric was instrumental in his rise as an awesome 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.

It’s about putting in a shift The rock and roll lifestyle gives off an air of a non-work ethic. This 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 with an appetite for perfection, whether to sell records, play the best gigs, or attain a high level of musicianship.

Richards recounts that The gig never finished just because you got off stage. Particularly during the early years, the band worked nearly non-stop with concert tours, then would immediately go back into the studio to record another album that would beget another tour.

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, being your voice and your values.

Seek a co-founder Richards retains a deep conviction that the partnership produced magic that the individuals could not, he knows that he and Jagger have a chemistry that’s created because of their differences, not in spite of them. He acknowledges what his partner brings to the table that he didn’t have, and gives him credit for it. Richards celebrates Jagger as the best performer and lyricist in the business, he’s proud of him. He honours the shared history, their deep personal resonance.

Be a collaborative team Creative partnerships in key positions are essential to success. Jagger doesn’t work well without Richards, and vice versa. More broadly, teamwork is crucial. The Jagger/Richards partnership wouldn’t work well without drummer Charlie Watts, the core of the band has been together since day one. Good teams are stable over time but can cope with personnel changes. Wyman and Taylor are gone, Ronnie Wood joined. Good teams like working together, but don’t have to be best friends. You sense tension between Jagger and Richards, but ultimately, respect.

Have an identity Branding is vital, and so is looking after your brand. If there is a red tongue on the product, it’s the Rolling Stones. If it’s the Rolling Stones, there’s a red tongue on the product. Image is everything. It’s a consistent message, it’s about being who you are.

Remain humble. And be real This is just an observation, but in reading the interviews and hearing all the stories of lore about this great musician, I think that he has in his own right remained humble about what he has done, how long he’s lasted, and how thrilled he is that fans will still come and see them perform, play and buy their music.

Play-on Lastly, a frequent question posed to Richards is 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 Keith has at his age? He still talks with incredible passion about music.

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

Richards has spent the past 50+ years successful in rock ‘n’ roll. From a distance, the connections between rock and business seems thin, but the more I’ve looked at his journey, the closer they get, as highlighted by the points above. The business lessons I have garnered from Richard’s rock ‘n’ roll life were not immediately apparent to me, but in retrospect are definitely rooted in leather jackets and amplifiers turned up to 15.

Primarily, the DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic at the outset is so entrenched in rock ‘n’ roll, for the band themselves doing what was necessary to write, record, produce and publish their own music, and find venues to get in front of an audience. In business, we just call it bootstrapping. 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!

The most popular rock bands and most successful businesses are not always the best in their market, but with few exceptions, they are the hardest working. On the flip side, this also proves that the best ideas, inventions and businesses often never get recognized due to their founders not putting in the work that it takes.  I think it’s fair to say that Richards has put a shift in for over 50 years, and epitomises the fact that winners work hard.

If you don’t want to succeed more than you want to watch Game of Thrones, you have no one to blame but yourself for failing. We all struggle with finding enough time to grow our businesses, yet we all seem to find enough time to watch boring re-runs on television.

Starting, running and growing a business takes more work than you can probably imagine. 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.

So what’s this got to do with you? Even if you’ll never strum a guitar like Keith, or write great tunes, you can learn a lot from the principles shown by ‘one of the greatest musicians of all time. Who are you modelling yourself on? What greats do you wish to be like? What is your number one goal? How hard are you really working? What are you doing to optimise your potential, your talent, your energy, your fulfilment, your joy, your love, your self-actualisation, your Life?

Check out his autobiography, Life, http://www.keithrichards.com/life

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

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

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first Rolling Stones gig at London’s Marquee Club – 12 July, 1962, a group of raw young musicians performed at a dingy club in front of a small crowd of enthusiasts. If those young lads had not become the Rolling Stones, one of the biggest musical acts in history, that evening’s gig would have been relegated as an unimportant, mundane event and forgotten. But it was the start of something huge.

On that summer night, the Stones had no expectations that they could even make money playing gigs, much less become a global cultural iconic symbol of youth, creativity and licentiousness. In fact, the Stones were not even the headline act that night – they opened for Long John Baldry.

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 has subsequently interested me. His 2010 biography Life is a wonderful voice and narrative of his life, funnily enough, and in fact Keith actually has a lot to say. 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, and by far the most impactful aspect of the book are the business lessons.

Although most of us will never be rock stars, looking back over 50 years, there are some valuable personal and business lessons to be learned from the Rolling Stones. So get your headphones on, download Exile on Main Street from iTunes, 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. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outliers_%28book%29)

Richards does this in spades – in fact, he’d 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 the band’s early days, Benedictines had nothing on us. Anybody that strayed from the nest to get laid, or try to get laid, was a traitor. You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, 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.

Choose your attitude Richards notes that his family didn’t have a record player for a long time, but because, rather than in spite of Richards’ humble beginnings, he was eventually able to buy and play music.

He doesn’t bemoan inequality in terms of opportunity, but Richards’ inspiring story reminds us that starting at the bottom is often a blessing. His first guitar cost £10. Notable is that Richards couldn’t afford an electric guitar, but his family’s inability to pay for an electric was instrumental in his rise as an awesome 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. Clearly Richards started at the bottom, and had less financial resources to fund his development but this was no deterrent. Richards’ view is that if you want to get to the top, you’ve got to start at the bottom. Our first aim as the Rolling Stones was to be the best rhythm and blues band in London, with regular gigs every week. But the main aim was somehow to get to make records.

Never compromise Richards’ stories from the recording studios blew me away. I never thought of the man 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.

It’s about putting in a shift The rock ‘n roll lifestyle gives off an air of nonchalance and a non-work ethic. This is all part of the charming and 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 with an appetite for perfection, whether to sell hit records, play the best gigs, or attain a high level of musicianship.

In their early years, The Stones released at least two, sometimes three, albums of quality material a year, while touring and writing new material. The Stones recorded more than fifty separate tracks in 1964.

Richards recounts that The gig never finished just because you got off stage. Particularly during the early years, the band worked nearly non-stop with concert tours, then would immediately go back into the studio to record another album that would beget another tour. This focus on, or perhaps obsession with results, is something I observed over and over again in Life rehearsals, sound checks, and recording sessions were relentless.

Partners, buddies Richards retains a deep conviction that the partnership produced magic that the individuals could not, he knows that he and Jagger have a chemistry that’s created because of their differences, not in spite of them. He acknowledges what his partner brings to the table that he didn’t have, and gives him credit for it. Richards celebrates Jagger as the best performer and lyricist in the business, he’s proud of him. He honours the shared history, the blood, sweat and tears have deep personal resonance and deserve respect.

We’re in a band. Creative partnerships in key positions are essential to success. Jagger doesn’t work well without Richards, and vice-versa. More broadly, teamwork is crucial. The Jagger/Richards partnership wouldn’t work well without drummer Charlie Watts, the core of the band has been together since day one. Good teams are stable over time but can cope with personnel changes. Wyman and Taylor are gone, Ronnie Wood joined. Backing singers have been added, but the quality remains the same.

Good teams like working together, but don’t have to be best friends. You sense tension between Jagger and Richards, but ultimately, respect.

Have an identity Branding is vital, and so is looking after your brand. If there is a red tongue on the product, it’s the Rolling Stones. If it’s the Rolling Stones, there’s a red tongue on the product. Image is everything.

Put on a show Top bands kick into a higher gear when it’s ‘show time’, similar to top performing sports teams who take-it-up a notch when it really counts. Great bands seem energized by deadlines and often write their best material in the studio at the eleventh hour, when it really matters.

Create and own assets. The Rolling Stones created their own record label to have more creative control over their music and keep a bigger share of the profits. This was at a time in the music industry when many artists were not able to attain that level of freedom and profitability – the history of the music business is full of stories of young musicians who never got a fair share of the rewards of their creative work.

Play-on Lastly, a frequent question posed to Richards is Why don’t you give it up? Richards’ response, one that is typical of very 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 Keith has at his age? He still talks with incredible passion about music, aged 69.

Rock music is, of course, a business: there are partnerships to consider, record deals to craft, intellectual property to protect, tours to organise and merchandise to sell. Of course there’s also groupies, drugs, and trashed hotel rooms that one doesn’t (normally) find in a corporate setting.

So what’s this got to do with you? Even if you’ll never strum a guitar like Keith, or write great tunes, you can learn a lot from the principles shown by the Rolling Stones. Who are you modelling? What greats do you wish to be like? What is your Number One goal? How hard are you really working? What are you doing to optimise your potential, your talent, your energy, your fulfilment, your joy, your love, your self-actualisation, your Life?