What Organizing Concerts Taught Me About Running a Startup
One November evening I noticed I had just happened to lead 12 people to a concert. It wouldn’t have been that odd, but the concert was in a city half a country away, and nobody but me had ever heard the name of the band, let alone their music. At this point I realized I might as well try to organize a similar concert in my city. If I could make 12 people follow me into the unknown (the concert was in Łódź), I should be more than able to gather an audience locally.
That’s the story of how Kompresor came to life. At first, it was just my idea. Then it turned into a cooperation of like-minded people which in turn became a foundation. It has been dissolved since then, but the whole adventure taught me a lot about leadership, management, and enterprise. Not everything I learned was immediately visible. Some of the wisdom came much later on when I looked back on the events from a different perspective. That’s why some of the lessons here have a distinct backstory, while others are a bit more vague.
Note: I’m not an expert by any means. I’m just a guy who tried something and observed the results. But I observed them often enough to form some belief around them.
Share Your Ideas
We live in an idea economy. Some people think this means that we should guard our ideas so others won’t “steal” them from us. But you can’t steal an idea. And you most certainly can’t steal passion behind the idea. That passion is what drives you towards execution. When you put down your guard and share your ideas with those around you, you can observe fascinating effects. Your ideas start to cross-pollinate with others’ ideas. And they can grow beyond what you ever imagined possible.
Early on, I figured out that I wanted to invite two bands that were quite well known in their niche. We’re talking alternative music, and when I say alternative, I mean it. Just check our SoundCloud profile. But back to the narrative! When I realized I was going to organize a concert, I didn’t just keep it to myself. I shared this concept with a few people around me, especially those that came with me that fateful night to Łódź. One evening at dinner, I mentioned the plan to make this gig, and one of my friends readily nodded: “Yes, we’re making this gig in spring.” Wait a minute! Are we suddenly in this together?
I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but suddenly I was no longer alone in my efforts. Four of us: Emilia Mikulska, Adrian Ostrowski, Przemysław Majewski, and myself formed Kompresor, each of us making sure to do our best to fulfill our duties.
Find Your Mentor
Find your mentor, or more accurately, someone who can hold your hand and who shares some of your experience. Chances are you know nothing about running a business. Which is perfectly fine, since you’ll probably learn on the job anyway. But to lessen the number of things you need to learn, it’s great to have someone who can guide you.
We were happy to have three mentors during our days at Kompresor. First was kr-lik, the musician playing in both bands we invited to the first gig and also a concert organizer himself. He was the one who hosted the concert at Łódź that led to our “incorporation.” The second person was Piotr Orłowski, owner of the venue we chose for that gig, Wydział Remontowy. Both the place and the staff were amazing, so we decided to keep our future events there. The third person was DJ h_12, who we invited to play at the afterparty. Each of those people knew more than a bit about the business we were trying to get into, and they provided us with invaluable information.
Of course, even if you find a mentor, you need to be proactive. Don’t expect someone to answer all of your questions without you even asking. You have to know what you need and ask how to get it. You need to have your dilemmas and problems lined up ahead of time. A mentor is someone that will help you with your struggles as long as you are able to properly communicate them.
One last thing. A mentor is not somebody old and wise who knows all the best solutions to all the world’s problems. It’s just someone from whom you can learn. Even an intern you hire can become your mentor; after all, leading someone often teaches you much more about leadership than anything else ever could.
Networking Is the Key
Surround yourself with people smarter and more experienced than you. Your mentor can be such a person. But you also need someone to work with on a daily basis, and it’s much better if every person on a team knows what to do. Ideally, they know better than you what needs to be done. And this way, everyone can focus on one area of expertise.
At Kompresor, we each had our responsibilities, and we had little need to communicate about those. All we had to regularly exchange were high-level goals. There was no micromanagement, and we were adequately motivated to do our best. We still held meetings to align our work, but they served two basic purposes: alignment and mutual motivation.
But networking does not only involve your own company. To thrive in any market, you need to have connections with other parties. For us, it was the bands we wanted to invite (including their management) and the audience we wanted to make these gigs for. So, when we tried to make a concert in another city, like Warsaw, all we needed to do was ask every known artist who played in Warsaw about recommended venues. This way, we didn’t need to approach the owners cold; we just got introduced via a mutual acquaintance who brought us straight to the business most of the time. In a more formal environment, this would still require some warming up. But in the artistic world, everyone is on friendly terms most of the time — artists and owners alike.
Learn on the Job
You know what we knew about organizing concerts when we started? Precisely nothing. The same goes for relationships with venues, writing agreements with the bands, technical issues, negotiating accommodations, and so on. Did it stop us from doing what we wanted to do? Not a chance!
At first, we consulted a seasoned event organizer (also one of the artists we invited) on how to coordinate everything. But later on we just improvised. We had a string of losses, but that also wasn’t a big deal for us. We kept on going, making sure we learned as much as possible from every slip-up. In the end, we managed to promote one leg of a concert tour. And we did most of it remotely. And proceeds from that tour event covered our previous losses. By all means, I believe the Machinae Supremacy tour was Kompresor at its best because we applied all the knowledge we had gathered up until that point.
Organizing concerts is something that others have done before, so it is possible to learn it by the book. But if you are doing something innovative, something that hasn’t been done before (or it has been, but you want to do it differently), there is no way to prepare in advance or read up on it. All you have is your agility and your power of observation. What will matter is how adaptive you are, not how long have you prepared.
You Must Gather Your Party Before Venturing Forth
You can probably do everything by yourself. Well, not literally do everything, but at least manage and outsource it all. That’s what Tim Ferriss advocates and it is a perfectly valid way to go. But you’re much better prepared for the lurking dangers of starting an enterprise when you gather a party of adventurers, each with their unique skills. The four of us were precisely such a party with every person on a team having their area of focus.
Besides covering multiple skills having a team is also great for motivation. Sometimes things get a bit tough, and you might wonder whether it’s all worth it. Unless things look objectively wrong (like you just hit you quitting criteria, see below), you should not give up. And that’s why you need your team. Other benefits of a like-minded but otherwise distinct group of people include brainstorming (what project should we do next? how to market it? who to partner with?), shared initiative and responsibility (you can’t outsource that) and the ability to celebrate successes. It doesn’t matter you don’t have victories at the beginning. It is essential you have something to aim for.
Know When to Quit
Even though you might be tempted to continue with your enterprise no matter what happens, it is a pretty good idea to establish some quitting criteria up front. Quitting criteria have several upsides. One is that you can guard yourself against sunk cost bias. It is much harder to make a decision when you are either too high or too low vis-a-vis your expectations. Setting the line straight (“I’ll close this up as soon as I lose X dollars”) can protect you from inventing excuses later on.
Another upside is that when you know your definition of rock-bottom, you’ll do everything to keep away from it. When confronted with the possibility of something that might be perceived as a failure (though it’s not, see the next part) our minds start looking for ways to avoid it.
Closing, Selling, or Suspending Is Not a Failure
Most people have a fear of being judged when starting an enterprise. The usual line of thought goes something like this: “But if I quit or sell or suspend the business they’ll think of me as a failure.” The problem with this statement is that “they” pertains to people that never in their own life tried something on their own. It’s easy to sit as a spectator in the arena and judge the gladiators combating down below. But the spectator is not a gladiator. There is no line of understanding between the two parties. Spectators may have vast theoretical knowledge, but without putting themselves at risk, this knowledge is worthless.
Having our own business, we are judged by whether we make it grow or not. But people on a regular corporate paycheck also partake in various projects that sometimes fail to gain traction. Funnily, they are never judged by how their work performs. It is just entrepreneurs who are left vulnerable to the various remarks, like “So, you gave up this whole business?” In case my own words are not sufficient enough to convince you, let me end this with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Failure Is Not an Option; It’s an Experience
Failure is usually the opposite of success. So how you perceive failure depends on how you define your success. For our first concert, we wanted to have an audience of over 100 people. We didn’t care that much about profits. As it turned out, the audience met our expectations, but, more importantly, everybody was having great fun! So even though this event was a financial loss, we still treated the gig as a success.
Later on, things were sometimes much worse. Tiny audiences, lack of afterparty, far greater financial losses. But after each event, we sat down and did our post-mortem. We tried to figure out what went right and what went wrong. What changes had we made between events that might have contributed to such an outcome. We discussed everything in order to try to shape our failures into valuable information. After all, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote that failure is nothing more than information on what does not work. And it is probably even more important than knowing what works.
It’s easy to get discouraged when things are not as bright as you planned. And we weren’t entirely happy either when events went poorly. But we knew we had at least several ideas left to pursue, so we pushed forward to the day when these failures would finally be overcome.
Prepare for Reaping Benefits Far in the Future
What you do at any given moment is vital, and the feedback you gather is precious at all times. But keep in mind that everything you do with your time is in fact an investment — an investment in future benefits, not success today.
Even though we haven’t done a gig for a few years now, last year a band emailed me asking if we could help them. I answered politely saying we have been on hold for some time but asked how the artist got my address. It turned out that he was looking for promoters in Poland (it was an American band), and he saw that we had made a tour for another group. He thought this meant that we must be good and wanted to work with us.
Similar things might happen to you even if you feel there is a lack of clients at the time or there’s not much to be grateful for. If you have your enterprise, your work becomes your credentials. People may simply find this out much later than you anticipate.
Control Your Fears
Don’t let fear guide or constrain you. Imagine the worst possible solution. Try it. Is it still that bad? This visualization is a trick I might have picked up from Tim Ferriss. But it’s also something I noticed during parkour training later on. The first thing you learn in parkour is how to fail safely. If you know how to fail, you tend to worry less.
In our case, the rock-bottom was not that bad. We didn’t risk our life savings. On the contrary, we set up a disposable budget up front so we knew how much we could lose. Still, there were fears of different kinds. For me, the biggest concern was spoken communication. I was in charge of the artists and repertoire (A&R), which was great since I could meet a lot of fascinating people. Or it could have been great if it wasn’t for my terrible lack of self-confidence and the hatred of talking over the phone.
At times when I had to muster all of my confidence, I just tried to imagine what would be the worst that could happen. And the worst thing would probably have been just a polite rejection. Not that bad! As it turned out, we faced rejection sporadically. This low rate of rejection might have had something to do with our particular niche: most of the time the bands are eager to play. That’s what they want to do after all!
Invest in People
I like to joke that I won’t work for a company with Human Resources. Contrary to popular belief, human beings are not resources. It’s true that you can schedule a person’s time and workload, but any analogy to other resources doesn’t go much further than that. People are living and breathing beings. And the way you treat them is the way they will repay you.
Each time you help someone grow, you plant the seeds that may bring you sweet fruit. You can think of it in terms of compound interest. Helping people grow is like placing bets on those people becoming successful and sharing their success with you. Can you imagine how much you could win this way? If you feel someone lacks in one aspect, try to learn their strengths. Maybe you’re just trying to fit a square peg into a round hole? It’s not a matter of micromanaging resources today. It’s a matter of investing in potential talent for future rewards.
Leadership and Passion Is Essential
This one I learned only recently. I sent a draft of this article to my partners in Kompresor to learn if they had anything to add. And Adrian Ostrowski mentioned that:
And you did a great job as a leader. There is practically nothing about leadership in this article, even though you did a great job as a leader. You often tied together all of our work, but you also did something far more important. You created and shared a vision of what Kompresor can become. Leading by vision is a great way to motivate people in various enterprises. Our case was no different.
I didn’t know I had had such an effect on the team, so there’s another lesson behind this one. Ask for feedback.
Don’t Be Ashamed to Show Some Gratitude
In other words, give credit where credit is due. Praise good work but also give honest feedback when things don’t go as planned. Remember to always focus on the positive. And don’t try to change somebody’s behavior to be the opposite of what it is. Best case: It won’t work. Worst case: It will backfire. Instead, try to think of what went well and how to improve on that.
And since we’re talking about gratitude, I’d like to thank once again all the people that believed in Kompresor from the very beginning: the team itself, the artists we invited, the venues that hosted us, our volunteers, our audience, and everyone who showed us support. It‘s been a great ride!
I understand there might be more to add to this list, and I know some of the problems we faced were not “the real problems” some companies face. But I assure you that they were just as real for us as yours may be for you. We believed in our cause and did the best we could to push forward.
Hopefully, those lessons learned can be applied to other ventures. For me, they are already being put to good use. I’d be delighted if they could help you as well.
P.S. After Machinae Supremacy, we put Kompresor on hold because we thought the formula we followed was no longer fit for our purposes. But this doesn’t mean the brand won’t come back at some point in the future!
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All photos depicting events by Kompresor reproduced here by permission from the authors