Lessons for Startup Founders from the Beatles

The Beatles’ debut album, “Please Please Me,” comprising 14 songs recorded in a whirlwind 10-hour session, just celebrated its 50th birthday.

That milestone is responsible for a recent bout of nostalgia for the Fab Four, and certainly theirs is a musical legacy that doesn’t look any less powerful the further we’re separated from it by time.

I would also argue the Beatles’ narrative arc can be mined for insight not directly related to music — even the startup community, in my opinion, can find some things here to chew on.

Here, in fact, are five lessons I think startup founders can take away from the story of one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time.

1) Get your name right.

This concept sounds almost asinine, but if it were a piece of knowledge as automatically acquired as you’d expect, there wouldn’t have been, for example, a presentation at SXSW this year on what happens “when bad names happen to good startups.” I realize there’s an art to naming, but if my first question after seeing your venture’s name is how to pronounce it — and then that’s followed by, “Well, what does it mean?” — the focus isn’t on the right thing.

The Beatles went through their own list of duds. Johnny and the Moondogs. The Quarry Men. The Silver Beetles. Finally, thankfully, just the Beatles. The “beat” in the name speaks to the whimsy and cheekiness of the mop-topped foursome, as well as to the backbeat being a key element of the early rock sound. The name implies everything the boys are about. A good name is its own explanation.

2) Who you are and where you’re from doesn’t matter as much as what you can do.

With the possible exception of lead guitarist George Harrison, none of the Beatles was technically proficient or anything close to a virtuoso.

Paul McCartney can’t read a single note on a piece of sheet music, even though he’s composed complicated, beautiful music in recent years. John had a little college under his belt, but none of the Beatles had college degrees. And they came from Liverpool, a kind of gritty port town that didn’t tend to produce sons and daughters flecked with the stardust of future celebrity. But because of the music they produced, the whole was greater than the individual parts.

So question everything, and don’t buy into someone else’s version of what success looks like. Vision is important, and it’s about doing things like growing your hair longer than everybody else, writing your own songs because you don’t want to play only the same American covers everybody else is playing, shaking your head when you hit a high note, and leaving people with a melody they’re still whistling tomorrow.

3) Work with people who’ll challenge you — and who share your vision.

John and Paul were the songwriting nucleus of the Beatles. Their talents complemented each other’s, and being together forced them to do greater work than they’d have been capable of individually. Same for the rest of the group. They eschewed formula. Pick any album and Ringo’s drumming is liable to sound different from one song to the next, and that’s because he and the band were constantly rifling through the proverbial closet at Abbey Road Studios looking for new things to bang on. When John was feeling nostalgic, he wrote a little song about a park near where he grew up called “Strawberry Fields Forever.” That spurred Paul to write about a neighborhood from his youth in a song called “Penny Lane.” When Paul sang the chorus of “Getting Better” – “It’s getting better all the time” – John immediately follows with, “… it can’t get no worse.” You can’t see around every corner. Find a great partner, and push them as much as they push you.

4) Focus on what you’re good at.

The average fan might not know, but the Beatles themselves
launched a startup. Apple was the name they chose for the parent company of what was envisioned as a massive Beatles empire, one that would encompass records, a clothing boutique, movies, electronics, and more. But brilliant musicians do not necessarily good businessmen make. They burned cash faster than you can say, “All you need is love.” There’s a difference between trying new things and venturing into areas wholly unrelated to what you’re good at and which you know nothing about.

The Beatles’ misses extended beyond Apple and into the realm of movies. Just because you’re good in front of the camera doesn’t mean you also belong behind the camera, and the third movie starring the Beatles in the 1960s, after “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help,” was “Magical Mystery Tour.” It was conceived and directed by the Beatles, and it was a cinematic mess and critical flop. There was no plot. It looked like a home movie, it was indulgent, and one of the few things it had going for it — besides great music — was the colorful visuals that would have popped on the screen if the BBC hadn’t broadcasted it in black-and-white. Focus on doing a few things and making them great.

5) The end of the story is not the end of your story.

The Beatles dissolved at the end of the 60s in the equivalent of a messy, acrimonious divorce. John and his wife, Yoko, decamped to New York, where John pursued an uneven solo career. Paul hid away on his expansive property in the U.K. with his American wife, Linda, who convinced him that, yes, it’s a shame your best friends in the world with whom you reached the pinnacle of success have fallen out with you, and yes, it sucks you no longer have the job you’ve had for more than a decade — but why not “reinvent yourself?”

One of Linda’s pregnancies around that time caused her a health scare, and as Paul was waiting for good news he had a vision of angel wings. Linda and the baby turned out ok, so Paul put together a new band and named it Wings. He picked up right where he left off with the Beatles. Of course his new band was in a different league, but its success was not insignificant. They cranked out chart-toppers and put on international tours. There was life after the Beatles, and there’s life after your own failures, endings, and collapses. Reinventing yourself is a matter of remembering what you fell in love with in the first place, and getting back out on the road to do that thing again.