Operate Your Startup Like A Grateful Dead Concert


A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

Imagine the creativity and innovation you could unlock if you operated your company like a Grateful Dead concert. It may sound crazy, but it’s possible, once you create a culture in which your employees are: collaborative yet autonomous, inspired and not managed, and motivated by a collective higher purpose.

The factors which led to the formation of the Dead’s culture offer a number of lessons entrepreneurs can apply to their ventures.

One of the primary reasons the Grateful Dead have remained popular for over 40-years is due to the culture they nurtured among their community. Yes, the band also created an entertaining catalog of classic Americana music. However, it was not solely their music upon which they established their legacy.

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Self-perpetuating Culture Based On A Virtuous Circle


The drivers of the virtuous circle are: (i) a team of collaborative, yet autonomous contributors, (ii) driven by inspiration, (iii) who are motivated to perform at their highest level in pursuit of the team’s collective goals.

As the drama declines and your team loses its sense of entitlement, they will appreciate being part of a compassionate, winning organization. This collective gratitude will result in a nurturing a community whose purpose supersedes individual aspirations. Once a virtuous circle is established, employees appreciate the opportunity to participate in something bigger than themselves and are motivated to maintain the health of their community.

Right People On The Bus

Before they were the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia and company were known as the Warlocks, the house band for Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Much like a Dead concert, Kesey enforced few rules within his hippy brethren. However, the one edict understood by all was that everyone, “had to be on the bus.”

This term originated during the troop’s infamous 1964 acid-fueled bus ride across America. The phrase initially meant, “if you are not on the bus when we leave, you will be left behind.” Over time, the term acquired a broader meaning – being “on the bus” meant that you did not challenge the group’s collective goals.

At a startup, a shared worldview and vision are the cornerstones of an effective strategic plan. If your team does not perceive the market in the same way, the lack of accord will guarantee failure. Harmony can be maintained by only allowing people with the right aptitude and the right attitude onto the bus.

Leaderless Leadership

Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir were clearly the leaders of the Grateful Dead. However, they happily shared the spotlight with their bandmates. In addition, the Dead were a notoriously imperfect band. Yet their willingness to celebrate their limitations was a major contributor to the organic, accessible nature of their music.

At a startup, effective leaders likewise show their followers when and where they lack expertise. This vulnerability allows so their shortcomings to be shored up by their team. This disarming style also inspires employees to take chances, fail and constantly learn.

Have the courage to give your employees more autonomy than they can handle. If they know they will not be punished for making honest mistakes, your team will aggressively tackle difficult challenges.

Community Of Purpose

With the Grateful Dead, it was always about the music, not their egos. Their concerts involved a melding of all the stakeholders – musicians, audience and the road crew, all working in collaboration. The result was joyful, improvisational, a moveable feast.

In the band’s prime, there were many layers to a Dead concert: the tailgate party in the parking lot before the show, communal dancing and singing during the performance, and hypnotic drum circles after the show. The concert wasn’t simply about the music, it was a joyous experience shared by thousands of likeminded people.

Irrespective of your company’s specific purpose, it is vital that it be internalized by all your stakeholders. When milestones are achieved, they should communicated and celebrated. The purpose of your community should be powerful enough to unite and inspire your team to put the goals of the group ahead of their own.

Choosing No Evil

“Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.”
Jerry Garcia

Never compromise when curating your company’s culture. If you fail to pursue a virtuous circle, you are choosing a lesser evil.

Note: This article was inspired by my friend, Bob Wood, who shared his thoughts regarding Grateful Dead management techniques with my UC Santa Barbara entrepreneurship class. You can watch excerpts from Mr. Wood’s talk HERE and HERE.  

Follow my startup-oriented  Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never Tweet about that killer burrito I just ate – just startup stuff.

Image:  Wikipedia

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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