Just Thinking
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Just Thinking

The Simple Life Of A Record Player

I remember my first year at Art School. It was just like my last. They both happened the same year.

This Art School was never going to work for me. It was complicated.

A dysfunctional place. The Dean was having a nervous breakdown. Art was noticeably off the agenda in art classes. My previous school taught me more in a week than these folk managed in that year. Painful.

From School Of Art To School Of Life

I’d gone from a quasi-military school to a pot-smoking commune. Replaced daily drills and discipline with seven-day weekends. I had pictured a creative life, and I accept I had no idea what to expect, but chaos wasn’t it.

Everyone I spoke to felt the same. The simple fact was you could do what you wanted — the complex truth meant that wasn’t much.

It was simplistic — no structure, no learning, no experience. I just couldn’t operate. The sheer lack of anything valuable complicated everything.

I was therefore reminded of those times while contemplating simplicity. It struck me how rare it is to experience simplicity these days. And we pay a premium for it — less costs a lot more.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci

What Leo said.

The most successful experiences — products and solutions are simple and sophisticated. Apple exemplifies da Vinci’s insight by way of an example.

In Apple’s case, the designer, Jonathan Ive, says, “Simplicity is not the absence of clutter; that’s a consequence of simplicity. Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product. The absence of clutter is just a clutter-free product. That’s not simple.”

Complexity Is A Poor Decision

Complexity was totally different back then. The biggest drama was, on reflection, a daft decision with a great outcome. I spent my entire student grant on a record player. (I can’t remember the last time I said record player).

A friend told me years later you only know a good decision much later. This is a fact. He gave me a brilliant definition of a decision — an irrevocable allocation of resources. He was correct about that too.

Looking back, I made countless terrible decisions. I certainly allocated a whole lot of resources. Misplaced might be a better way to put it. (Houses, Small Fortunes)

Even though we lacked the sophistication of the present day, things were much simpler.

There was no smartphone — so luckily no evidence. I walked everywhere. I had left home. I needed to find a place to live. I don’t remember eating food. I made friends. I had a record player, some great albums — but no money.

So, The Great Outcome?

No money, out of love with my artistic vocation at art college — it was time to get all hands on decks. I became a DJ. How it happened is a whole other story, but necessity became the mother of my intention.

Every night was spent spinning the vinyl in clubs and on the road. Part owner of a mobile disco and resident at a couple of clubs at 19. Simple yes. Hard work, yes. Late nights, yes. But purpose returned to my life.

And I became my own boss really. It seemed the best life — researching every genre of music to find enough of the best songs to suit whatever audience. We were sort of famous in our tiny area. US air bases, local social clubs, stately homes and ghastly hotel ballrooms.

Selling gigs. Figuring out the venues. Doing the marketing — making posters and handbills. Dragging massive loudspeakers into gravel quarries to play Pink Floyd to a hundred hippies. Collecting the door money. Sleeping through the days. Simple. Brilliant.

I discovered the art of simplicity was solving the puzzle of complexity.

What I Learned As A DJ

I apply all these lessons to this very day — every day.

  • Identify with your audiences.
  • Learn how to read the room.
  • Wear black.
  • Always carry a torch.
  • Never put your hand in an amplifier in the dark.
  • Notice subtle shifts and trends.
  • Little shifts become big ones — you must always be ahead of them.
  • Identify the influencers on the dance floor.
  • Always deliver what the audience wants — and…
  • Educate them about what’s to come.
  • Don’t date your regular clientele.
  • The second turntable must have the next track lined up.
  • Find a friendly local record store and partner with them.
  • Know those keeping the power on.
  • Befriend those who can get you out when the shit goes down.
  • Be eclectic.
  • Stay different. Stay awake.

Long story short, I learned a lot.

I had long hair and short sleep. I made a few friends and learned the hard way what’s the difference between them and everyone else. I even made a living.

Kind of.

Getting To Simplicity

It’s been a long time, but those memories stay alive.

The lessons are just as valid now. Although my business is different today, it still revolves around people. There’s lots of travel, and there’s still a stage, a number of flight cases, gaffa tape — definitely some performances, a fair amount of art and music — at least in the coffee breaks. It has a rhythm; we riff, we rock, and we roll — and I still refer to assignments as gigs.

The businesses that work with me are looking for something disruptive and different from the norm — the leaders have a vision. They know what works and what doesn’t, but they’re determined to do something about it.

They don’t want the same old thing because it just doesn’t work. They want creativity, and they want to be challenged. They want to own the plan forwards. They know the status quo won’t work. (Not the band)

The kind of people that want to work with me is generally the kind of people I want to work with.

A Case In Point

A colleague and now great friend of mine in the US, Chris Donato, has built a business totally reinventing one of the oldest professions in the world. No, not that one. Sales.

We worked together while he was at EDS and HP. Together we did incredible work on many Global Brands over the best part of two decades. The germ of his business idea happened way before he started the business — esellas.

His genius idea was to put — ‘Everything a salesperson needs to make sales in the palm of their hands. Everything.’

And like all brilliant ideas, it’s simple; the hard part is bringing it about. As I watched the firm’s creation and now as it matures into a solid enterprise, I see the rules Chris is bringing to the game.

And forever the DJ and a collector of great recipes for success, I’m replaying them here.

  1. Keep it simple even though behind the scenes, it isn’t.
  2. Bring joy to your audience — they will love you for it.
  3. Build the business on human values — the ones that are real.
  4. Be who you are — your truth is always the right strategy.
  5. Recruit people better than you wherever you can.
  6. Be an open door for everyone.
  7. Understand what the audience of your audience wants.
  8. Stay true to the vision even when all around you aren’t.
  9. Stay patient when others are getting on the same page.
  10. Make the tough decisions.
  11. Every failure is just a step along the path to success.
  12. Always try again — even if it didn’t work before — times change.
  13. Refining the story is a life’s work
  14. Be humble — you don’t know much — but what you do know can be enough.

I would love to hear from you if you have a set of rules that drive you to sophisticated simplicity.

The last word goes to George Sand, who said — “Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.”



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John Caswell

John Caswell

Group Partners Help Clients Make Strategies That Work. I’m The Head Of Crayons.