Most programs designed to teach entrepreneurship follow a basic, flawed formula: Spend a semester writing a business plan, learn the basics of marketing and finance, bury your head in spreadsheets, pull together a PowerPoint, and then pitch your idea to a biannual business plan contest. If you’re lucky enough to win some capital, see if you can launch your idea/product/service/business. Right about then, make your first contacts with potential customers.
The rock ‘n’ roll ethos is a better one for entrepreneurs to embrace. At its core, starting a business is much more of a creative, messy discipline, full of blurry edges and governed by hunches, experimentation, and instinct. Entrepreneurship has more in common with music than science, but it is taught as though careful planning and deliberate analysis inevitably yield success.
Musical creation, just as in entrepreneurship, starts with an individual’s desire to express himself or herself, to communicate and create something of value. Failure and mistakes are an inextricable part of the creative process. It is understood that you will not become an accomplished performer by studying sheet music any more than you would succeed as an entrepreneur by staring at spreadsheets. The bias is toward performing over pondering.
Musical creativity requires cultivating a skill for synthesis rather than analysis—the ability to make sense and create a new whole from seemingly independent notes, rhythms, players, timbres, parts, and sounds. As in startups, musical composition frequently features a gap between vision and reality. Accepting that part of the process is key to achieving the right outcomes.
Conventional entrepreneurial education places a heavy emphasis on resource and capital accumulation before product launch, minimizing the importance of contact with customers. This creates a fear of failure that robs entrepreneurs-to-be of the single most important element for success: the habit of acting, experimenting, and iterating on the go.
In music, combining completely disjointed concepts often leads to breakthroughs. Just as a good cook can whip up a meal with limited or seemingly strange ingredients (check out the Food Network’s Chopped), you can create music without even using a musical instrument (as when Eddie Van Halen makes use of a drill on Poundcake) or by using two foreign objects together (witness Jimmy Page playing the guitar with a violin bow in Dazed and Confused).
In entrepreneurship, as in music, you learn by playing the part over and over again, not by studying it. A performance is only refined by getting up on stage night after night, getting instant feedback (often brutal), and refining your act. The Beatles, after all, only became the Beatles after playing gig after gig in Hamburg for the better part of two and a half years, and Elvis refined his stage presence though countless appearances in small town fairs.
Many entrepreneurship centers, even in leading universities, are cut off from the rest of the institution, often nestled in business schools (yet another silo) and unwittingly discouraging collaboration with other academic disciplines. This misses the fact that instilling a collaborative and entrepreneurial mindset is the best way to prepare all college graduates for a career path that will likely take many twists and turns. Let’s also remember that, just like the Beatles innovated by fusing Eastern sounds in Western pop songs, successful innovation is almost always a result of collaboration with people that have different skills.
It is not a coincidence that some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs are either musicians or think of themselves as artists. I recently met with Paul English, founder of Kayak, who told me that being a musician was the best training he got for both writing code and building a business. AOL founder Steve Case, investor Roger McNamee, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniack, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Red Sox owner John Henry are among many who have at one point been performing musicians—or still are, as in Roger McNamee’s case.
Given the importance of entrepreneurship to the future world economy, it’s time to rethink the way we teach the discipline and fund initiatives. It’s not just about plans, projections, and contests. Entrepreneurship is also about creating a mindset with a bias towards action, developing the ability to listen to what’s going on around you, collaborating, synthesizing disparate concepts into whole parts, learning through failure, and jointly making a product that an end user will love and consume.
Just like playing in a band.