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The Rolling Stones at 50: Lessons for Tech Companies

What can a tech company learn from the Rolling Stones, who are celebrating their 50th anniversary? After reading Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life and watching the recent documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, I learned almost as much about building a business as I did from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.

Know Your S**t.  In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cited the Beatles’ 10,000 hours of practice and performance (especially all-nighters in Hamburg) as a prerequisite for outstanding achievement.  The Stones scored some hits well before reaching that milestone, by mastering the blues idiom. This set the stage for their bigger successes staring with 1965’s Satisfaction, one of the greatest songs of all time.

Differentiate Yourself From Your Competitors.  The Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, encouraged them to embrace a “bad boys” image to contrast with their principal rivals, the Beatles.  Maybe the Stones went a little overboard with drugs and generally outrageous behavior, but the differentiation worked.

Exploit What Makes You Unique. The Rolling Stones have a recognizable sound, deriving primarily from Keith’s open-tuning of his guitar.  Also, drummer Charlie Watts explained that, unlike most drummers, he follows the rhythm guitarist, rather than the other way around. As a result, the drum beat is a unique half-second behind.

Intellectual Property is Essential.  The Stones started as essentially a cover band focused on the blues.  In 1964, they had a number one hit in the UK with Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster, a blues tune.  But to become great, the Stones had to write their own songs, with their first original hit, The Last Time, charting in 1965. Keith and Mick (the Glimmer Twins) wrote many of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (according to Rolling Stone Magazine).

Collaboration is Key.   Like Lennon and McCartney, as well as Jobs and Wozniak, Mick and Keith likely would have accomplished much less without each other.  And the Rolling Stones may never have gotten off the ground without their founder, Brian Jones.

Be Willing to Fire People.  So much attention has been paid to the death of Brian Jones that it is often forgotten he was pushed out of the band for nonperformance. Jones’ departure is a reminder that even a founder can become unproductive. At a recent “live chat,” Pardot’s founder, David Cummings, cited “quick to fire, slow to hire,” as an important policy.

Listen to Your Customers.  In his 1971 Rolling Stone magazine interview, John Lennon said: Every f***ing thing we did, Mick does exactly the same thing- he imitates us….You know, Satanic Majesties is Pepper.” The Stones may not have been as innovative as the Beatles, but they have always understood and exploited musical trends, from psychedelic in Satanic Majesties to disco in Miss You. Now their fans demand the hits, and the Stones oblige, notwithstanding Mick’s public protests that he doesn’t care what the fans want.

Create the Right Culture. David Cummings said that Pardot’s success depended on creating the right culture. Likewise, the Stones’ work-hard/play-hard culture, emphasizing collaboration and musical excellence, has inspired great performances and loyalty from band members.

Inspire Passion. How passionate was my recently deceased friend George Long about the Stones?

[H]is dedication to the Rolling Stones sent him catapulting over a six-foot wall, in cast up to his knee, and eventually landed him in a new cast. It was 1975 when Long and his bosom buddies took a midnight road trip from Atlanta to Greensboro, N.C. to a general admission Stones’ concert. They wanted to be first in line so they could claim front-row seats, said Mike Egan, a friend since junior high school. “When the gates opened, we wanted to be the first in, but George was lagging a bit behind because of the cast,” said Egan, who lives in Atlanta. “But he was not going to let that wall stop him from getting there. Of course when he jumped and landed, he cracked the cast open, and he had to go get that ankle reset, but after the concert when we got back to Atlanta,” he added with raucous laughter.

Talk about inspiring passion!

Built to Last. Since the Stones first appeared, countless bands have come and most have gone, from Herman’s Hermits to Grizzly Bear.  Like Apple under Jobs, the Stones used to be innovative.  Their incomparable run of Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. reminds me of the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad. Apple recently released the iPad Mini (a smaller copy of the iPad) and the Stones released One More Shot (reminiscent of their early 70s heyday).  Although current creations are inspired by past innovations, Apple is still the world’s most valuable company and the Stones are arguably still the world’s greatest rock and roll band!



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