It’s So Easy: Startup Lessons from Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan

I should start with a confession: I love rock n roll biographies. Mostly it’s a guilty pleasure, I like the war stories, you know, the dirt. Every once in awhile though, I get a little more than I bargained for, in a really good way. This was the case with It’s so Easy and Other Lies by Guns ‘N Roses (GnR) co-founder, bassist, and songwriter Duff McKagan. Duff’s bands have sold over 100 million albums and sold out endless arenas. His bands also have a well documented history of sex, drugs, and drama. So when I grabbed this book I was ready to escape my daily startup grind with some booze soaked rock tales. However, what I discovered beneath the tattoos was a story of a committed husband, father, and deep thinking entrepreneur. Dammit, I thought I was reading about rock and what I got were life lessons applicable to my own startup career — some escape. Here are some highlighted lessons on startups from Professor Duff (though I highly recommend the book!)

Bootstrap until you know who you are

In the 80’s, when GnR was getting rolling, bands got their start by playing Hollywood’s sunset strip. The recipe for success was: sell out the clubs, wear a lot of makeup, sign a record deal and the label will fund production of your album. Easy right? GnR could have done this; at one point KISS frontman, Paul Stanley, offered to fund and produce a GnR album. GnR passed. For a little perspective, this is a little bit like a seed-stage tech-startup with no-name-founders turning down Mark Zuckerberg’s offer to fund their company and chair the board! Bold move — but GnR was a bold band. At this point GnR didn’t know yet who they were or what kind of album they wanted to make BUT they did know they didn’t want someone else defining that.

GnR wasn’t going to find out who they were by playing for one type of audience in Los Angeles so they packed up a van and left town with almost no cash to play in front of a wider variety of audiences. When the van was out of gas, they hitchhiked to gigs. They barely showered. Slept in the van or with the occasional groupie. They often played just for food money. But by the time GnR triumphantly returned to L.A., they were a bonded force, they knew who they were, and they knew what their sound was. People were talking about these misfits and now with a little traction, their valuation was sky high. They now had their choice of record label and firm control of their album’s artistic direction. Gain a little traction and the laws of economics and control will favor you.

Eliminate the word ‘Rock Star’ from your vocab

This term is like a bad virus in the startup community. Companies are looking for “rock star developers” or maybe a “rock star sales person”. This term, along with the words “ninja” and “unicorn” need to be tossed out with your one-year-old iPhone. Duff hates the word too and refuses to use it (even though he legitimately is one).

“There is no such thing as a rock star, just musicians and listeners” -Duff McKagan

Duff knows people in the business who truly see themselves as “rock stars”. Their band reaches some level of success and now they view of themselves as elevated above the fans that enable their existence. I see this often in the startup community; a founder’s startup takes off and now their sense of self worth takes off with it. Don’t correlate your self-worth with your revenue stream; low revenue could make you depressed and high revenue could make you a prick.

Never stop learning

What does a guy who sold over 100 million albums and doesn’t have to work a day again in his life do next? He goes to college. At the pinnacle of Duff’s music career, he was writing college application essays while on tour. He enrolled at Seattle University and outside of having to sign a handful of Appetite for Destruction albums at the beginning of the semester, he was a “normal” college freshman. Duff had identified a weakness in himself: he struggled to understand the business side of music. To address the weakness, he set a learning path and ultimately received his degree in business. Duff now owns a wealth management firm aimed at helping musicians navigate the world of accounting and finance. Can you imagine Duff being your sleeveless accountant?! I can.

Good founders are not afraid to admit what they don’t know. Great founders not only make the same admission, they then seek education on the subject. Be wary of founders who never say “I don’t know”.

The shitty times matter

When Duff remembers his years with GnR, he glows when he talks about the years they were broke and rehearsing out of an old storage space (they lived in that space too). When success came, so did more “friends”. His new beautiful house was often full of hundreds of “friends” enjoying the fruits of his epic rise. Yet, when Duff was hospitalized for pancreatic failure and almost died from excessive drinking, only a few friends were by his side; a couple of childhood friends and a few of his bandmates. That’s it.

Want to find to find out who’s really in your corner? Take a poll of who is around during the tough times, the ones digging in deep to be by your side. In the startup community, when you show signs of success, people will suddenly want to be around you. I call these folks ‘success groupies’; most are not sincere. In startups, at some point, you will struggle, those who are around you during these times are the real stars and now you have the gift of knowing who they are. Never forget to thank those friends and mentors for their support and make a commitment to be the same rock to someone else.

Thank you Duff for the lessons on entrepreneurship and life!

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