Your Startup Should Emulate The Beatles, Not A Flock Of Seagulls

Note: This is Part VI in the Startup Team Building series. Read Part I HERE, Part II HERE, Part III HERE, Part IV HERE and Part V HERE.

The BeatlesFlock of SeagullsTwo bands, both heralding from Liverpool. Each with a unique look, hip contemporary sound and significant initial success. Why did A Flock of Seagulls crash soon after their initial hit while the Beatles’ career has spanned nearly 40-years, including a number one CD (“Love”) as recently as 2007?

This dichotomy is not merely reflective of the groups’ respective musical talents. The Beatles longevity and success was largely the result of their group dynamics, which are identical to those present in successful startups.

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In partnership with Docstoc, I created the following video in which I discuss the traits that made the Beatles an unstoppable team.  You can watch the embeded video below or at YouTube: http://youtu.be/En5CAuOgGs0

We Can Work It Out

The Beatles formed a cohesive team that embodied the key attributes that must be present in order for a startup Core Team to function at its peak.

The key characteristics of a successful Core Team include:

  1. Drive To Win
  2. Complimentary Talents
  3. Competitive Rivalry
  4. Mutual Respect
  5. Shared Worldview
  6. Common Vision
  7. Internal Dissent And External Cohesion
  8. Strong Supporting Cast

Drive To Win

Although John later blamed Paul for forcing him to give up his leather attire during the band’s early days, the reality is that each member of the Beatles was happy to follow their manager’s advice and don a suit. They realized that they had to conform to their customers’ collective reality in order to succeed. It was not until their success was firmly established that the Beatles began changing conventions with their hairstyle, clothing, etc.

When you initially launch your adVenture, you must conform to the realities of the market and your investors’ expectations and do whatever you can to reduce the friction on your road to success. Once you have achieved market acceptance of your value proposition, you can be less concerned with conforming to others’ reality and start creating a reality of your own making.

Complimentary Talents

One of the most important aspects of a Core Team is balance among the members’ capabilities and proclivities. A team comprised solely of engineers is greatly handicapped, as is a team exclusively made up of sales and marketing executives. To be successful, the sales oriented members must pull the rest of the team in the direction of the market’s needs in order to mitigate the engineers’ natural desire to build something impractical but cool and to ensure the team creates practical solutions that solve real needs. Conversely, engineers should certify that the company’s marketing messages accurately reflect its underlying capabilities. This complimentary balance is crucial to a Startup Tribe’s survival.

Music historians agree that one of the Beatles’ greatest strengths was the manner in which their respective talents balanced each other and served to motivate each member to consistently improve their capabilities. Much has been written regarding Lennon’s penchant for witty wordplay and McCartney’s ability to create catchy musical hooks and melodies: think Paul’s Yesterday versus John’s I Am The Walrus.

In addition, George brought a musical and spiritual curiosity that caused the Beatles to explore a variety of musical genres, ultimately introducing raga and worldbeat influences to western audiences. Ringo further balanced the team by playing the role of the average guy – the group member with whom everyone could relate. He was conveniently also a talented, yet understated drummer.

Competitive Rivalry

John and Paul often remarked that the overall high-quality of the band’s output continually inspired them to improve upon their partner’s latest song. They challenged each other to earn the A-side of each single. Even though the internal competition was strenuous, it was not until the twilight of the group’s career that it eroded the band’s cohesion. George was also spurred on by this friendly rivalry, as he strove to create songs which compared favorably with Lennon and McCartney’s output. A quick review of the Beatles’ uneven solo output provides a clear illustration as to the extent to which their songs suffered from the lack of the group’s intense, but friendly rivalry.

Constructive internal competition, which does not derail your adVenture from pursuing its strategic goals, will enhance your team’s overall performance. As a leader within your Core Team, encourage a healthy internal rivalry among your teammates, while modulating such competition so that it does not result in destructive behaviors.

Mutual Respect

During the Beatles’ breakup and subsequent solo careers, the band members publicly shared their mutual disdain for each other. In fact, this loss of mutual respect is one of the factors which led to the band’s demise. In contrast, during the majority of the band’s tenure, each member consistently complimented the work of their fellow band mates.

Encourage mutual admiration among your Core Team, as it will facilitate vigorous, healthy debates without tearing your company apart.

Shared Worldview

The Beatles’ worldview circa early 1960 was that American music sucked. Buddy Holly was dead.  Jerry Lee Lewis’ career was over due to an incestual marriage to his under-aged cousin. Elvis was in the Army and Little Richard had found religion. Ray Charles was singing gospel and Chuck Berry was in prison. The charts were filled with soulless, sanitized music by the likes of Deon, Fabian, and Ricky Nelson.

Utilizing the power of Everything Is A Remix, the Beatles acted upon this shared worldview. They emulated the American music of the 1950’s, morphing it into something new by re-orchestrating the songs as a four-piece band with three-part harmonies.

A shared worldview and vision are the cornerstones to establishing an effective strategic plan. If your Core Team does not see the market ecosystem in the same way or if there is disagreement regarding the company’s ultimate vision, your team’s harmony will be compromised. A lack of cohesion will almost guarantee your company’s failure.

As a Core Team leader, your must ensure that this solidarity remains in place, even as your adVenture shifts focus and markets evolve. If a member of your Core Team refuses to conform to the group’s worldview or vision, you should help them find a new home where they are in sync with their fellow executives.

Common Vision

The Beatles shared a single vision of their future. Even when they were four spotty-faced kids from Liverpool, they did not have goals, they held beliefs. Goals are for people who hope, beliefs are for those who are Optimistically Pessimistic about what they will achieve.

The Beatles believed they would become “bigger than Elvis.” Even as teenagers, John would ask them, “Where are we going lads?” to which Paul, George and later Ringo would reply, “To the toppermost of the poppermost.” Like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, the Beatles’ beliefs were huge and beyond naive.

Although the Beatles had an outlandishly grand plan, they took a very pragmatic and incremental approach to becoming bigger than Elvis. As John Lennon often articulated, “First we became the biggest band in Liverpool. Then the biggest band in Northern England. Then we conquered London, Europe and eventually America.”
The Beatles inadvertently followed the business axiom, “inch by inch it’s a synch.” Maintain the same balance within your adVenture. Create an audacious vision, guided by a detailed roadmap of the near-term steps required to reach the next milestone. Do not lose sight of your strategic goals while simultaneously remaining focused on executing the tactical steps required to achieve your next milestone.

Internal Dissent And External Cohesion

Just as their mutual respect dissipated as the band disintegrated, the Beatles also exhibited tremendous external dissent during the twilight of the band’s career. However, for the majority of their tenure as a group, the Beatles staunchly supported each other in public. Behind closed doors, and especially in the studio, they each fought hard for the inclusion of the musical and lyrical elements about which they felt most passionate.  Yet they did not allow this healthy internal debate to become fodder for the tabloids.

Foster the same culture at your adVenture. To the external world, including your employees and other stakeholders, your Core Team should consistently display external cohesion. External dissent will fracture the team, confuse the other members of your startup, and eventually lead to the creation of “us vs. them” factions who will expend energy battling each other rather than working together to resolve the company’s challenges.

I experienced this situation a number of times throughout my career when I passionately lobbied for a particular decision that the Core Team vetoed. Rather than leave the executive staff meeting and trash such “misguided” decisions, I was forced to articulate to members of my department the same rational against which I had previously argued. Although this was personally frustrating, I knew that publicly supporting managements’ decisions was in the best interest of all concerned.

Strong Supporting Cast

The Beatles were fortunate to have the support of Brian Epstein, a creative and driven manager, as well as George Martin, a talented and innovative producer. Without these individuals supporting and augmenting the Beatles’ efforts, the group would never have progressed beyond the local Liverpool bar scene.

Your Core Team cannot flourish in isolation. Develop a strong supporting cast of Advisors, Board Members, VPs and Directors at your adVenture who can execute the directives decided upon by the Core Team.

In order to cultivate bench strength, you must give your lieutenants enough latitude so they can fail without being admonished. Develop a culture in which failure is a badge of courage worn by those in your organization who are working hard to make a difference. Everyone at your adVenture should celebrate the fact that, “The only people who never fail are folks who do nothing.”

What About Talent?

You may be thinking, “The Beatles had talent and the Flock did not. That is why The Beatles are in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame and A Flock of Seagulls is relegated to the occasional appearance on VH-1’s One Hit Wonders countdown.”

Talent certainly played a major role in the Beatles’ ongoing success.  However, another factor that distinguished the Flock and The Beatles was their respective group dynamics. The Beatles’ encompassed the traits found in successful teams of all kinds. In contrast, the Flock’s core team (along with its talent pool) was weak, which resulted in a career with the trajectory of a bottle rocket.

Serially successful entrepreneurs appreciate the importance of augmenting their chances of winning by pulling together a complimentary Core Team.  One way to devise a winning Core Team is to emulate the characteristics of a successful team that you admire.

Dream Team Exercise

Scooby GangSelect a team from sports, entertainment, fiction, politics, etc. Maybe your dream team is the 1927 New York Yankees, which outscored their opponents by a record 376 runs. Maybe it’s Abbott and Costello, The Justice League, The Marx Brothers, The Fellowship of the Ring or The Scooby Doo Mystery Team.

Write down five factors that you feel contributed the most to your dream team’s success. Now document the five most salient factors that define your startup’s Core Team.

Compare your dream team factors with your Core Team’s characteristics. How many of these factors overlap between the two teams? Define a plan of action to increase the similarity between your dream team and your company’s Core Team.

Note: This is Part VI in the Startup Team Building series. Read Part I HERE, Part II HERE, Part III HERE, Part IV HERE and Part V HERE.

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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