How being a failed musician prepared me for running a business
Photo by Sergio Alejandro Ortiz on Unsplash
Something that people might not know about me is that I was in bands from the age of 12 until my mid-30s. Music has always been my passion, bordering on obsession, from as early as I can remember. Admittedly, it’s not much of a priority these days considering I have more pressing responsibilities as a husband, dad and business owner.
At four years old, I can remember listening repeatedly to The Most Collection Volume 1 on our tiny record player, an album my dad brought back from one of his many adventures (aka business trips). My big sister, Jude and I would listen to the likes of Hi Ho Silver Lining and Tap Turns on the Water for what seemed like hours, the latter song's opening lyrics perplexing me somewhat!
In the charts at the time, would be standout tracks from artists such as George Harrison and Marc Bolan. However, it was being introduced to rock and roll, especially early Elvis, that really fueled my imagination. That's when my first experimentation with recording began: drawling into my tape recorder in my best Presley impression at 8 years old. I’m just grateful we didn’t live in a time where everything was documented forever, and those recordings will never see the light of day!
My single biggest influence was weekly visits to my grandparents’ house in Belfast, which involved me torturing my uncle to get his electric guitar plugged in and cranked up so he could impress me with some tunes. I would tentatively pluck the strings and was transfixed by the celestial sounds that emanated from the amp. Even now, just playing the open strings of a guitar transports me back to the sounds and smells of their house.
I got my first acoustic guitar for Christmas at 10, and played it ‘til my fingers bled (as Bryan Adams would say), or at least tender. Within a year I had upgraded to an electric guitar, and that’s when the fun really began! It wasn't long before I formed a band with some friends; Steve, Ben and Richard. We became such a tightly-knit group with huge aspirations, much to the dismay of our parents (AKA our roadies), who would much rather have seen us focus on our schoolwork.
By 16, we were doing gigs around the Lisburn area, and the sudden increase in interest from the opposite sex at school made us felt like the cool kids on the block. With my sights firmly set on being a pop star, I set out for the bright lights of London at the tender age of 18, under the guise of doing a degree in history, so as to keep my parents sweet. For the next few years, or ‘the lost years’ (as I often refer to them as), I played briefly in one band. Between partying and occasional studies, I was left very little time to actualise my superstar aspirations.
3 years of university seemed to fly by, and graduating I shared a house with a few guys who produced electronic music. It wasn’t long before I started using computers to make music, which took me on new and exciting musical directions. This was my first proper introduction to the concept of programming and using the computer as a creative tool.
The following few years were spent learning as much as I could about music technology and innovative recording techniques. By today's standards, this technology might be considered outdated, but in the 90s it was pretty groundbreaking for anyone in the music scene. Living in East London with my wife-to-be Nicola, we spent days producing rudimentary demos with various different bands and solo artists from my makeshift home studio setup.
It was around that time I first got into web design while building a site for my band. My good friend and bandmate, Alan, suggested we did it together rather than pay for a professional to do it. We were skint and, quite frankly, too tight to put our hands in our pockets. That was pre-2000, digital publishing was a bit like the Wild West, web designers were considered edgy (and highly paid) modern day gunslingers.
I didn’t get very far with our band site, but during the process, it became clear that I’d stumbled upon a creative pursuit other than music. Not only did I really enjoy it, but I could see huge potential as the market was fairly unsaturated (and the money was good!). I threw caution to the wind, and jumped in with both feet, one of many endearing traits! I bought lots of books and magazines, downloaded every cracked copy of Adobe and Macromedia software I could get my hands on, and completely immersed myself in all things web.
Before long, I became pretty competent at creating (in hindsight, pretty basic) websites. With my wife’s background as a photographic agent, it made sense to merge both worlds. The first sites I designed and built were for photographers that Nicola worked with, and once she set up her own site I did hers too.
Within a short amount of time I started charging for the work that I was doing, and as my confidence grew, so did my prices (or chancing my arm a bit, as some might say). Much to my surprise and delight, in spite of my increasing costs, the jobs were coming in thick and fast. I had to learn pretty quickly, whilst still trying to find my feet in relatively new territory.
After a few years of not taking things too seriously, we got married and decided to officially establish an agency. Voila! Underwaterpistol was born. A company that started out creating websites to support the rise in photographers moving from physical to digital portfolios, and is now a digital agency supporting eCommerce businesses across the globe.
After having our first child, I was consumed with an overwhelming sense of innate responsibility, it was now my duty to take care of a living person that I helped bring into this world. Being able to provide for my family was now of the utmost importance. The days of spending hours jamming with my mates would now have to be an exception, rather than the norm. Without even thinking about it, my passion for music was in competition with my desire to create a stable environment for my young family, whilst building our agency. Anyone who knew me in the early days would never have expected me to all of a sudden transform into what some might call ‘responsible’.
Getting started was pretty daunting, especially for a young entrepreneur who was somewhat clueless on the fundamentals of business. I was a musician at heart and had gone through life basically winging it. Now winging it just wasn’t an option! I had so many unanswered questions: where do I start? What if I can’t deliver? What if I fail? In hindsight, I realise that the rollercoaster of emotions that came with starting a business was ironically the same as what I felt when I joined my first band.
Almost 20 years later, and I’m amazed to see how some of the skills I picked up as a budding musician have shaped my journey as an entrepreneur! But what does being in a band and running a business actually have in common?
Anybody who has ever been in a band knows that having passion is almost as important, if not more, than having talent. I’ve been to gigs and seen amazingly talented musicians, with skills that people would give their right arm for, but with zero passion. Without that burning desire from within, music is lifeless. Passion will compensate for being ridiculed for wacky outfits, dodgy haircuts and the embarrassing make up (thanks to the likes of Boy George and T-Rex). It was instinctual for me to put this passion into my business.
There was no doubt in my mind that this is what I wanted to do, and no one could tell me otherwise. I learnt everything I could about the industry (bear in mind, the internet wasn’t what it is nowadays). Without having access to top blogs on how to validate a business idea, step by step guidelines for market research, checklists on how to scale your business, and endless apps that analyse data you didn’t even know existed.
This unbridled passion gave me the courage to chase my goals, coupled with the fact that failure was not an option. Every plan was overshadowed with a sense of urgency, despite the fact that I knew it was essential to plan out each strategy to avoid disaster. I tackled endless obstacles with the same focus I felt when trying to learn new lines/music. Without a doubt, the passion I had for what I was trying to achieve was key to overcoming each and every challenge.
One of the biggest hurdles in business is figuring out how you are going to spend your hard earned cash. It’s the same scenario in a band: buying equipment, designing your logo, renting practice space, and making demo CDs to hand out at gigs - all the extras that come with trying to hit the big time!
When getting started in business, managing your limited budgets is at the forefront of every single decision you make. Even down to simple ones, for example, even though everyone knows Nescafé Alta Rica reigns supreme compared to other coffees, can I justify the extra few quid for the rich, bold and smouldering flavour?
Planning your expenses is essential to keeping your head above water, especially in the early days. I learnt the hard way very early on that I had to make clear plans for what I was willing and able to spend money on - everything else would just have to wait! I focused on investments that would bring back the highest returns. I didn’t have room for error; if I failed there was no backup plan. Once I figured out what to spend the initial capital on, I was able to focus on the efforts that brought back the most returns!
Just like my band days, handing out CDs after gigs worked wonders for us, and suddenly we had what I like to call ‘fans’. Without realising, I managed to learn from my experience starting a band with less than £100 in my pocket, and just about managing to make ends meet one month to the next. By highlighting what was essential, I was able to prioritise and plan the next steps. It’s the same when making business decisions today, being able to designate funds and resources according to priorities has helped me scale Underwaterpistol into what it is today - a distributed team with staff and clients across the globe.
In my experience, there is very little difference in the relationship you have with members of your band and colleagues. In order to be productive, you need to work together cohesively, and that boils down to your team or company culture. I’m sure everyone has experience of being in a situation where there is an issue between two people in a team (business or personal), and the knock on effects it has on everyone else.
Take world famous bands for example, how many times have you heard of bands at the peak of their success suddenly splitting up or one of the members leaving due to ‘creative differences’ (Take That, Oasis, Simon & Garfunkel, Pixies, and Pink Floyd). Without band members, there is no music, no singing and no band! The same goes for a company, without your team it’s basically a one man show.
So how do you avoid getting into this situation? You need to choose your team very carefully, not just based on their skills, but how well they will fit in with everyone else. It’s up to you as the business owner to set the tone when it comes to company culture, and it’s something that needs to be maintained on a regular basis. Once you start to see cracks or people over stepping their boundaries, you need to react straight away!
My business partner is my wife, so I had already made a commitment to have a lifelong teammate! It’s safe to assume that this also comes with its own fair share of challenges, often very different challenges compared to managing employees. However, fundamentally we both know and appreciate each other's strengths, weaknesses and more importantly intentions. We know that we have no option other than to make things work, so we handle things in a way that doesn’t create unnecessary friction.
These skills became particularly useful when employing new staff members for the business. In a way, I saw them as bandmates. I learnt how to manage lots of disparate personalities, how to handle creative individuals often with very different visions. Once I figured out how to harness the various personalities and opinions, I was able to focus their efforts. One of the hardest things in business is dealing with glory hunters, a talented individual who isn’t a team player. Individual talent doesn’t always result in brilliant output or successful projects. Just like in a band, having one member who wants to be the star of the show, whether it’s the drummer with endless impromptu solos or the lead guitarist who randomly bursts into Carlos Santana-esque riffs.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”—Aristotle
Whether you’re in a band or in business, you need team players who work well within a group. You need to choose your employees carefully, take your time choosing the right people, and get rid of the ones that aren’t bringing the team together - hire slow and fire fast. Figure out how they fit into your company culture, not the other way around. Decide if you want someone with decent experience and a superstar personality, or someone super talented but with narcissistic tendencies. Once your team stops singing from the same music sheet, it’s time to address the problem. Businesses, like bands, need harmony.
In many ways, your business strategy is a bit like creating song lyrics. They are both a reflection of what you want your audience to know about you. Even before I fully understood what a business strategy was, I sat down to write what I anticipated for both the short and long term. It took me back to the very first song I wrote, and how I studied every word to ensure I expressed the emotion I felt and wanted the listener to experience with me. Once you start adding music, you need to take into consideration how individual elements will flow with each other. It was exactly the same when creating a business strategy - weighing up a combination of different factors
For anyone who is going through the process of developing a business strategy, imagine you are writing a song or telling a story, and think about the message you want to portray. Your business strategy is basically the blueprint of your entire operation, so put all your passion, emotion, energy and experience into it.
Setting a marketing budget, whether it be for a band or your business, is always at the bottom of a long list of priorities. How can you be certain that what you spend will result in success? It’s almost impossible to agree to something that doesn’t provide tangible results. There are always more pressing issues that need your attention. In the early days, you might have to resort to any free marketing opportunities that come your way.
Back in the day, we could only afford to give out handwritten flyers to locals, just so we could spread the word about our band. Funnily enough, I found myself doing the same thing when I set up my business (albeit living in a digital age certainly helped). We had to tap into our limited resources to find our first clients, and provide them with the best service so they would spread the word... and it worked! Stopping people in the street to hand out a flyer or latest demo CD certainly helped build up the courage essential to getting our business off the ground.
Being part of a band means that you’re not the only person responsible for making things work. You need to collectively work together to achieve an end goal, be it performing a song or preparing for a gig. Being able to cohesively work with your bandmates in a timely manner is critical, and the same goes for running a business. Managing everyone’s time is essential to productivity.
I learnt this lesson the hard way, as I had to balance having time for a new family and a new business. Knowing what topics to discuss during team meetings, spending more time speaking to customers that were going to be long-term clients rather those who weren’t interested, arranging appointments and scheduling urgent tasks. I had to develop the skill of being a good “time manager”, and undoubtedly that came from my failed musician days!
Above all things, tenacity is the single most important quality required for succeeding in business. Being able to stick to the task at hand when everything around you is calling out for your attention. Avoiding the endless distractions, and far fetched dreams of being an international superstar, and knuckling down on what is right in front of you.
So for any would-be rock stars who are venturing into business, be proud of your experience! Harness the skills you picked up along the way, even the ones that don’t seem directly related. Imagine your business is a band, treat your clients like fans, develop your product like you would a new song and make sure your team is in harmony.