Entrepreneurs can learn a lot by watching U2. Listening ain’t bad either…
People that witnessed my hoarse performance at this week’s Young Start Up Panel learned I had spent the previous night at U2 show. And believe it or not, U2 can teach entrepreneurs an awful lot about success, because they live a few of its basic principles:
- They have meaning and relevance
- They understand timeliness
- They have local impact with a global reach
- They live with respect, gratitude and humility
Five years ago, a lifelong friend Mark (MvK) and I caught U2 at Croke Park in Dublin. We were so impressed, we spent the rest of the night in Temple Bar debating their ranking in “The Most Influential Bands of All Time,” along with perhaps the Stones and The Beatles. I cover that and more in this blog from way back when.
This week, Bono, Edge, Mark and I all reunited in the Meadowlands with a few others (!) and we conceded the Most Influential Band of our Lifetime to U2. The group’s tours ranked them second in total concert grosses for the decade after The Rolling Stones, although U2 had a significantly higher attendance figure than the Stones. They were the only band in the top 25 touring acts of the 2000s to sell out every show they played. In April 2011, the U2 360° Tour became the highest-grossing tour in history, surpassing earnings of $558 million and breaking The Stones’ previous record.
Any entrepreneur with this level of success does not need my advice. But numbers alone are not the reason for our award to U2. In order to transcend a niche, sustain your existence, leave a legacy, and essentially change the world for the better, a band –or even an entrepreneur – needs to consider these big four points:
Point #1) Meaning and relevance
How well are you listening and knowing your audience? Of all the millions of fans that U2 has performed in front of, they have always forfeited 20% of their audience to “backstage blindness.” Though their audience grew up on video mashups (MTV), it now also digests facts in tweet size doses.
Enter the Vid-Squid: a Willie Williams-designed four-legged contraption—which cost around $25 million, weighs 400 tons and is responsible for a harrowing carbon footprint—while offering a 360-degree vantage of U2 with its cylinder-shaped expandable screen and circular catwalk. It was a technical workhorse that solved the 360 problem and served the digital and audio needs of everyone in the house.
Here’s a video with more of what I mean: U2 on YouTube
How willing are you to Pivot and Reinvent? U2′s most beloved line in my book is “we are reapplying for the job of best rock band of all time.” In three decades, the band has continually morphed, synthesizing punk, glam rock, stadium anthem and mashups, without betraying their core audience. They’ve taken huge chances (Zoo Tour being a big one) that failed, and as I pointed out in a previous post, had the courage to keep reinventing.
A great example of this balls-out kind of courage came when MvK and I were discussing whether Bono indeed had a great voice or just a “people’s voice,” best-suited for sing-alongs or gospel choirs. Moments later, the band began a superb mashing up of an operatic aria into the greatly-meaningful song, “Miss Sarajevo.” With Luciano Pavarotti long since departed, we both wondered who would sing his part. No need; Bono literally channeled Pavarotti and hit every note with chilling brilliance – and in Italian. Not your average rockstar trick there. And extremely courageous.
Point #2) Timeliness
How well do you use your leverage, when you have it? This means not wasting your moment in the spotlight, but using it to extend the franchise and transcend what just good product alone can’t deliver.
Arguably, U2’s moment has lasted quite longer than their two and a half hour concert mastery. For thirty years, the members of U2—as a band and individually—have collaborated with other musicians, artists, celebrities, and politicians to address issues concerning poverty, disease, and social injustice. (This list from Wiki)
- In 1984, Bono and Adam Clayton participated in Band Aid to raise money for the 1984–1985 famine in Ethiopia.
- In 1986, U2 participated in the A Conspiracy of Hope tour in support of Amnesty International and in Self Aid.
- In 1992, the band participated in the “Stop Sellafield” concert with Greenpeace during their Zoo TV tour. Events in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war inspired the song “Miss Sarajevo“, which premiered at a September 1995 Pavarotti and Friends show.
- In 1998, they performed in Belfast days prior to the vote on the Good Friday Agreement, bringing Northern Irish political leaders David Trimble and John Hume on stage to promote the agreement.
- In 2001, the band dedicated “Walk On” to Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
- In late 2003, Bono and the Edge participated in the South Africa HIV/AIDS awareness 46664 series of concerts hosted by Nelson Mandela.
- In late 2005, following Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, The Edge helped introduce Music Rising, an initiative to raise funds for musicians who lost their instruments in the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.
U2 and Bono’s social activism have not been without its critics. Several authors and activists who publish in politically-left journals such as CounterPunch have decried Bono’s support of political figures as well as his “essential paternalism.” I think recipients of their largesse would say “paternal me all you want.” Other news sources have generally questioned the efficacy of Bono’s campaign to relieve debt and provide assistance to Africa. Tax and development campaigners have also criticized the band’s move from Ireland to the Netherlands to reduce its tax bill. To which I — and they — say, ‘Yeah, and?”
Point #3) Local impact/ Global reach
It has to work first at home. Ask Starbucks. They spent YEARS in Seattle before taking their perfection on the road. So ask yourself… How well is your product received, adored, and used by the locals?
Bono started the evening by saying “We just want to thank Mr. Springsteen for letting us the hall tonight.” It was witty, humble, and got a roar from the crowd because it proved he was totally in tune with a bit of the locals. He thanked people from Conn-ect-i-cut, Penn-syl-vania, Jersey and New York for coming out on such a hot night, by Irish standards. And when he spied a sign in the crowd that said “For Clarence,” he stopped the show to let it be passed up onstage. He owned the locals.
And then he took it global like only U2 can.
He conjured up Commander Mark Kelly on the big screen via space satellite (OK, pre-recorded I later learned) to flip through poster boards of “Beautiful Day’s” lyrics.
His presence gave new meaning to the “Space Oddity” lyric, “Tell my wife, I love her very much, she knows,” which he quoted at the end of the song.
“Walk On” closed out the set with an emotional presentation by Amnesty International, as U2 fans piled onto the catwalk carrying large candles to remember the conflict taking place in Burma and the plight of the recently freed Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi, who also addressed the crowd from the expandable screen (above).
It’s a hard act for any little entrepreneur to follow, but this breadth and depth of action can certainly inspire some good work. U2’s efforts have effected change in Famine, Aids, War, National Debt, Political imprisonment, Pro Democracy, and preservation of music around the world. In my own samall way, I try to do what I love, and believe I have a better chance to make an impact as well.
Point #4) Respect, gratitude and humility
If it all works, don’t think it’s just because you’re good. I’ve had the honor to work with and hang around an awful lot of entrepreneurs that have met with some spectacular success.
The best of them recognize that, while they were good (like many others), they were also not strangers to luck and timing. Too many react by saying “that was fun, I want to do it again and again” … and then meet a hard fail. “Once in a lifetime” often means just that.
But U2 was none of that. I was struck by these sincere comments throughout the night:
- “Thank you for giving us this wonderful life.” (For an entrepreneur that would be: thanks for letting me be an entrepreneur: it’s is hard, but great)
- “Thank you for paying for this monstrosity.” (Entrepreneurs might thank investors for funding their new product launch)
- “Thank you to our warm up band.” (Thanks to those that came before us in the innovation chain)
- “Thank you Mr. Springsteen for letting us this hall.” (Thanks to the local expert that let us dabble in his warehouse)
So for everyone who thought I was just hanging out with MvK at a concert, taking pictures of mobs of people watching four men and a crazy stage production I say this: I was thinking!
For an entrepreneur, attempting to separate Work from the Rest is not only impossible, it’s a waste of kinetics and karma. As U2 have proven, we are One, with every ounce of our experience contributing to our creative output, bad or good.
Miles to go. Walk on.
PS: How to translate U2 in Entrepreneur
Meaning/Relevance: LISTEN to your damn market. Solve problems that really cause pain. Provide solutions that really are game changers.
Timeliness: Too late or too early is a loser. Being in the trend as it comes ashore is the only thing that works.
Local impact/ Global reach: Make it perfect for a small core group (or locals), but have the scalability to roll it out global.
Respect, gratitude and humility: When it works, it doesn’t just mean you’re hot sh*t and could repeat it. Act accordingly.