Twisted Entrepreneurs

What Rock and Rollers can teach you about Business

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve spent nearly 25 years working with and helping social entrepreneurs and impact investors create innovative approaches to market and community challenges. At this point in my life’s work, I am afraid to say I have to guard against a degree of boredom — every venture claims to be unique and many a blog offering suggestions to emergent entrepreneurs feels trite and stale. One must guard against the sense you’ve heard it all before and seen any number of “game changing” ideas and suggested “best practices” in previous lives.

Imagine my surprise when I saw a documentary on the band, Twisted Sister, and realized what I was watching was less a story of the Rock and Roll life than a handbook on how to build the successful, provocative, “in your face” business that can sustain itself over four decades!

Put aside whatever you think you may know about this band — because I guarantee you, it is wrong! — and open your mind to the notion that what it takes to create, manage and build a successful touring band has a lot in common with what it takes to create a successful, mission-driven business.

In the name of transparency, I have come to know John French (who goes by Jay Jay, in the band) for a number of years and he’s often told me how much he knows about business practices from his four decades on the road. I believed him, but until I saw this film I did not fully appreciate just how right he was!

I’m not teaching classes on social entrepreneurship this year, but if I were, I’d begin by asking my students to watch this movie and identify as many fundamental lessons in entrepreneurship as they can!

Here are three specific lessons I saw in this film:

1. Define Your Vision, Master Your Fundamentals

The founders of Twisted had a clear and compelling vision during a period when most bar bands played covers and simply wanted to get booked: They sought to build a truly unique, premier performance Rock and Roll band that would blow other bands off the stage.

They did this in two ways:

They created a unique brand by dressing in women’s clothes with heavy, glam influenced make-up and they recruited excellent musicians into the band who, together, would knock the socks off other bands in any given evening. They gigged four, five and six nights a week at the largest venues available, creating what was a unique sound and stage presence in the greater New York area. The first time I saw them play live, what struck me was not simply the response of the audience when they played their hits, but rather the solid instrumental work of these musicians and how tightly they managed their performance from start to finish. They knew what they wanted to do, they positioned themselves to execute and they went on stage ready to dominate.

2. Create Your Own Reality and Others Will Join You

Early on, the founding members of Twisted were kids who didn’t fit into the traditional tracks or cliques at school. Instead of withdrawing into themselves, they wore what could be thought of as their “market differentiation” on their sleeves, promoted their difference as a band and became a beacon for other social outcasts who resonated with the independent path Twisted’s band members took in life. In their performance, they created a new reality, a place where “sick mother fuckers” could come gather to celebrate their deviance from the norm — and in so doing, became a market maker in the greater New York area for those deviants who “got” their message. They created a unique community that attracted a certain type of individual and in that way built a market in partnership with their rapidly growing fan base. The reality/market they created drew in yet thousands of other young people and made them the leading performance band of the region during the early Eighties.

3. Overcome Your Ego in Favor of Your Vision

While today Twisted Sister’s most recognizable member, with his bleached head of hair and distinctive make-up, is Dee Snider, the band was actually founded and initially managed by John “Jay Jay” French who played guitar and sang lead vocals during the first years of the band’s existence. When speaking about entrepreneurship, we’ve become used to the near deification of the individual entrepreneur — yet in truth, it is the team that executes the vision who should be celebrated. The most effective leaders and entrepreneurs are those who recognize when it is time to step out of their initial founder role and into other, equally critical but supporting roles. Twisted Sister had already established itself as a leading, regional band and could have continued in that direction for any number of years to come. By acknowledging the need and potential contributions of a charismatic lead singer — which he was not — Jay Jay positioned himself to play what in many ways was the almost more important role of visionary “preacher” and director — a decision which ultimately made it possible for Twisted to attain multi-platinum success and sustained touring revenues.

Beyond these examples, the movie depicts a number of creative, innovative approaches the band used to overcome barriers, industry resistance and competition in order to attain their goal and create deep value for their fans.

And at the end of the day, becoming rock and roll entrepreneurs — twisted just enough to position ourselves for long term success! — may be just what we all need!

To learn more about a Twisted approach to business, see Jay Jay’s column on Inc.com

Twisted Headlining in Norway
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