Guitarist Keith Richards is infamous for heroin addiction and supposedly snorting his father’s ashes. Those topics should pale in comparison to his incredible musical accomplishments with the Rolling Stones. But, he also is an illuminating source for startup inspiration and advice. Richards has the answers to questions such as, “How do you get it started when you’ve never done it before?” And … “how do you sustain a great idea?”
Keith Richards would be the perfect keynoter at a startup conference. Since I don’t foresee that happening, here are three lessons for entrepreneurs from Richards’ uber successful career.
Don’t Be Afraid to Try Something New
At some point or another (probably earlier than later), most startup entrepreneurs suffer from imposter syndrome – that feeling that you are not capable or even meant to do the thing you dream to accomplish. It’s only those other people who are naturally cut out for it, right?
Think of the songwriting duo known as the Glimmer Twins – Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, who have been the songwriting force behind the Rolling Stones for 50+ years. There was a time when they had never written a song, nor had they even dreamt of songwriting. Richards, Jagger, and the Stones were just a blues cover band.
So how did they start? As Richards recalls it, their manager Andrew Oldham locked Jagger and Richards in a kitchen and wouldn’t let them out until they had composed their first tune. They did – a song that was thrown to Marianne Faithfull and turned into a hit.
There was a time when Richards and Jagger had never written a song.
Not satisfied with these initial efforts, it took them many more months before they came up with something that they were comfortable recording as a Rolling Stones tune. Ultimately, they both realized that they had a talent that they never knew existed before.
Scores of hit songs later, it’s a given that Jagger and Richards can deliver. “Just do it” – or it’ll simply never happen.
Stay Focused: The Rolling Stones’ Minimum Viable Product
Phrases that accurately describe the Rolling Stones and Keith Richards include “global brand” and “rock legends” – it’s a hallowed status that few achieve. The Mark Zuckerbergs of their domain.
But there was a time when these names didn’t mean a thing – or at least what they now mean. When the Rolling Stones band members were 19-odd years old and slumming it in a freezing London flat, barely able to pay for heating and nicking items from drug stores to make ends meet, they had only one goal: to be the best blues band in London. That was their MVP.
All their activity was focused on that: the incessant practicing, the determination to obtain every new vinyl record of American blues musicians (not an easy thing to do c. 1961), and prioritizing their musical craft over everything else – including girls.
It was their fortune that their blues-rock style hit a trend wave in the early 60s, but if they hadn’t become masters of their own sound, their new-found popularity probably would have never happened.
It was only gradually that the Stones added flair and personality to the musical essentials – such as when Mick Jagger saw James Brown perform in Harlem on the Stones’ first tour of America. For a solid week after the Stones had finished their tour, Jagger drank in Brown’s mastery of performing on stage and added it to the Stones’ “brand.” It fit in with the Stones’ bad boy, anti-Beatles branding.
The bottom line: Master your minimum viable product, and it’s more likely that you’ll hit the groove in your target market. Then you’ve earned the right to add new features.
Tenacity and Discipline Pays – Despite the Drug Use
Why did Keith Richards do drugs? Weed, cocaine, heroin, acid. Well, in his autobiography “Life” he makes no bones about the fact that he unwittingly became a junkie – totally addicted to heroin to the point that it controlled his life and threatened his career. (He did his final cold turkey from heroin in Woodstock, NY, before a major tour was about to start.)
But here’s the crazy thing: much of his drug use was meant to keep him focused professionally – he was constantly creating and learning. As he puts it, he almost always used the purest (and safest) cocaine: pharmaceutical cocaine, or “Merck cocaine.” (That wasn’t an initial strategy; it was just what he was initially introduced to.)
And he makes it clear that he used drugs to keep himself working on his craft for days on end. It may sound twisted, but he didn’t overdo it like some. Yes, it’s not a long-term strategy, but work was on his mind when he was using.
Richards states that even after he went cold turkey numerous times, he always got back into drug use at lower dosages. He compared that strategy to people who cleaned up, then immediately binged on drugs at their previous “junkie” level, causing an overdose. Ride the waves – but do your best not to tempt fate.
A theme of his life is that he was always focused on writing and recording new music, and his drug use often served that greater purpose through the 70s, before he cleaned up. In other words, even when he was on drugs, there was a certain self-centeredness that kept him going – wake up late at night and play and record till the morning. He put in his hours, with determination.
The Stones’ Minimum Viable Product: to be the best blues band in London.
That’s a major reason why to this day Richards basically does his own cooking. Whether it was his crazy touring schedule, his late night playing, or his days-on-end, sleepless, drug-induced writing and jamming sessions, he couldn’t eat when others did. So he had to produce his own food. (Read his autobiography for his bangers and mash recipe.)
To be clear, I never read that Richards recommended drug use as a professional strategy, but his use clearly had some different purposes than in the standard junkie’s life. Aside from pure luck and a really strong constitution, it may be why he is still kicking at the age of 73.
Even amidst the craziness of a Rolling Stones life, he kept his eye on the prize. The results speak for themselves.