What Garage Startups Can Learn From Garage Bands

The uncanny parallels of starting bands and businesses from scratch

When I was 17 years old I started a garage band. There we were, four teenagers, making noise in our parents’ houses and eventually, we found a bit of hometown success. We went from the garage to the stage playing with great artists including The Smashing Pumpkins, Run-D.M.C, Tool, Hole, Primus, and Death Angel. We saved our gig money, we toured, we recorded an album. We were on the road to being rich and famous — or so we thought.

Then, we broke up. Each of us went our separate ways: Our singer got a steady job, our drummer went on to form Deftones, and I went on to the startup world. When I got there, I realized startups are a lot like bands. In fact, I’d say a band is the ultimate startup — and bands and startups go through essentially the same phases of development.

I’ll show you what I mean.

(Left) My first startup, my band Phallucy, playing live in the garage where we started: Dave on vocals, me on guitar [not pictured: Abe on drums, John on bass]. (Right) My last startup, Requested, in our first “office” — an attic space above a garage with hand-me-down Ikea tables, but it was ours. L to R: Jon, Carlos, Coco, Henry

Phase 1: Assemble your team & learn to work in harmony

Band members are a team, just like co-founders are a team. Like in great bands, there’s chemistry in great startups too. No matter how much you like each other, the team doesn’t come together automatically. It takes time to learn how to create and build together.

This is hard in the early stage — but remember, it’s going to be 10x harder when you’re successful. Early on, is the time to make sure everyone can trust each other to be motivated and responsible. I liked how Paul Graham put it when I saw him speak at Launch Festival: “Products change; people don’t. Your team is the most important.”

In other words, the music you write together will change, so you need to create a band, not just an album or a song. In the early stage of a startup, it’s the same thing. 

You’re not building a product or even a feature; you’re building a team that can build anything.

Phase 2: Start building something you believe in

This is what we founders are in it for: to create something. In a band, you start out by writing songs for yourself, songs you want to listen to. That should never die. No matter what you’re creating, you have to believe in what you’re doing. You have to believe in it to the point of being delusional.

In our band, we were pretty delusional. We were thinking, “We are the best band in the world” — and no, we weren’t. But you need that delusion to burst into new frontiers. 

If you want to do a thing that doesn’t exist yet, you need some delusion to even think you can do that. That craziness, that commitment to something you believe in, fuels your ability to create new things.

Who would have the delusion to think that strangers in cars could pick up riders, or that people would rent out rooms from their own homes to more strangers or that identity verification could lead to a universal ID, or that we could improve air quality monitoring and actually solve air pollution problems?

Phase 3: Get out of the garage

One of the first dreams you have in a garage band is getting out of the garage and into your own rehearsal space. You can only rock so hard with your Mom coming in saying, “Oh honey, that’s so good!”

Same goes for startups: You dream of quitting your day job. You dream of creating the office where you really want to work or building a culture where you and your favorite people can thrive. You dream of having your own “rehearsal” space — and when you get it, that’s an important milestone for you and your team. (And yes, remote working is great, but for magic collaboration, I believe having a dedicated place to meet and work is essential. I think Peter Thiel agrees).

Phase 4: Mature and grow

This means focusing on the things that matter and doing what it takes to reach your goals. Maturing — as a band or as a startup — means doing all the un-sexy stuff. It’s the grind. It’s going into work every day when no VCs will take your call. It’s going to band practice when no gigs are booked and the music industry won’t give you the time of day. It means working constantly, making good decisions even when it’s hard, and staying authentic to your values and your mission.

If you’re in a band, the dream is to create music and go on tours, but you only get to do that if lots of people want to buy tickets and see you. So, you have to be organized. You have to get your sales strategy straight. You have to have a plan in general — one that’s based on data and what people are actually willing to pay for.

In a band, you could write a cool song but do people want to listen to it? “Those people just don’t get it” is not a good excuse. Same with a startup. 

It’s easy to fall in love with your product and concept but look at the data to back it up. If users are churning out, revenue is dropping and you’re not growing, the problem is not your users. It’s your product.

Maturing also means being able to ask for help in a way that works — asking for funding in a humble way. There’s nothing wrong with bootstrapping it with beat-up guitars and borrowed microphones, but at some point, you need to invest in gear. You have to stop borrowing Uncle Jerry’s van to get to that next gig. Otherwise, you’ll never break out and get signed to a label, record in a fancy studio, or tour the world. Founders are the same way. Your team can’t dedicate themselves a million percent (10,000x — it’s what it takes) if they’re doing a day job or consulting to pay rent. So, you have to raise money if you’re shooting for the moon. But how do you do it? Ha Nguyen wrote a great 4-part series on getting money from VC’s and you should read it; it’s a master class and a blueprint for success.

Phase 5: Succeed or fail, but make it worthwhile

Success is never guaranteed for a band or a startup. Then, even if you do succeed, it usually looks different from what you originally imagined. When I was a young musician, I pictured in my mind touring in planes, girls, parties, and smiles, like a 24/7 Fantasy Island. Now, I have buddies who are rockstars, and it’s not what they thought it was going to be like when they were 19. The startup world is the same. When our company went from the dream stage to success, I worked harder than I’d ever worked in my life. It was always about the work. And enjoying the ride along the way.

Our startup band, Waitr, in New York to ring the opening bell as we went public on Nasdaq.

Failure is also not what you expect it to be either. As I mentioned, the drummer from my band went on to form the platinum-selling, Grammy-winning Deftones, and he routinely performs for audiences of 50,000+. Now, his fans are digging into his past and they want to listen to the music we made together. Our band back then never “made it,” but we made a contribution that still matters today. Every step of the way, there are a million pitfalls that can make your company break up or catalyze you to fight harder. 

Most bands, like most startups, don’t make it. But if you stick with it, you can make something that will last forever. You can make a contribution to your genre, your industry, your community, your world.

And that’s really the point I’m making: As a founder, you should always strive with passion to make something you think will last. That’s what makes the success worth working so hard for, and that’s what makes the failure bearable.

The act of building something out of nothing, actually doing that, is what matters. There are so many people who just talk about doing this stuff. They talk, and they even think of ideas and then they say, “I thought of that idea in 2011!” But they never actually do it. 

It feels good to be the one doing it, building something, while everyone else is sitting around talking about it. And that mentality is what makes it possible to build something that will last.

Facebook, Google, Microsoft Office, Apple Computers are products we may use for many more years, maybe forever. The conviction of those companies’ founders was more reminiscent of musicians than business plan addicts. Whether you are a startup founder, a musician (Joey Ramone), a rock climber (Alex Honnold), a snowboarder (Shaun Palmer), a painter (Basquiat) or even just a little failed rock band from Sacramento (Phallucy), when you build with conviction and commitment, your work lasts forever.

For a lesson in what it’s like to live life with conviction, listen to this dope 12-minute talk by Shripriya Mahesh here.

If you’re building something cool, I want to hear from you. Reach out to me: sonny@spero.vc