What Artists Can Learn From Mark Zuckerberg: The Lean Startup Method

By George Howard
(follow George on Twitter)

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, has attracted a ton of attention in the entrepreneurial realm.  For good reason.  The book addresses issues endemic to startups, and offers philosophical viewpoints and tactical conceits that serve to help both the entrepreneur’s mindset, and the venture itself.

As I’ve read through the book—several times now—I’m continuously struck by how much of it is applicable to artists.

For years now I’ve encouraged artists to think entrepreneurially, and to view themselves as business units in start-up mode.  My problem has been that when suggesting artists think entrepreneurially, I’ve often felt as if I was giving hollow “advice;” like asking someone who’s never been to medical school to think like an orthopedic surgeon prior to operating on someone’s knee.

“Thinking entrepreneurially” is a really nice sound clip.  However, unless there is the heft of learning/science behind it, and unless the person being asked to think entrepreneurially understands this learning/science, it’s worthless.

Eric Ries understands this, and while not addressing artists specifically, and provides them with precisely the learning/science artists need to hear.

Interestingly, the advice that I will summarize below (and I’ve also included a SlideShare presentation below that summarizes the first few chapters), is not new.  In fact, much of what Reiss puts forth in his book has been expressed by myself or Jeff Price on this very blog.  That said, the book pulls together a lot of very good, action-oriented learning, and presents it in a way that I truly think will benefit artists.

Artists, therefore, need to think in terms of the Lean Startup methodology.  This methodology can be summarized via a few key points:

  1. Extremely fast cycle time
  2. Focus on what customers want (without asking them)
  3. Scientific approach to decision-making

You should be able to surmise from these three points that the goal is to put some discipline and (testable) rigor around startups.  If we (as I think we should) think of bands as startups, this advice is very relevant, and very helpful.

For instance, the idea of extremely fast cycle time relates to an article I wrote some time ago, entitled Sign and Fail where I implored artists to get their work into the marketplace as quickly as possible, because (1) the cost of failure was low, and (2) you could learn from this action. I stated:

As it’s now easier than ever to create and release music, artists are freed from the one-album-every-eighteen-months cycle that raised the stakes (and cost of failure) to such a scary degree.

What results is that artists are much more inclined to create a work and put it into the marketplace quickly.  In so doing, they honor a time-tested management theory known as the Deming Cycle.  W. Edward Deming developed a philosophy that revolutionized industries, and, like most revolutionary philosophies, it can be stated simply, but takes some time to understand and implement.  At its core, the Deming cycle recommends a circular process beginning with “Plan,” moving to “Do,” then to “Check,” then to “Act,” and then back to “Plan.”

In fact Ries, without naming the Deming Cycle, comes up with his own variant: Build, Measure, Learn.  While I prefer the Deming Cycle, the idea of getting something into the market quickly is crucial. By doing this you’re able to begin discerning what it is the customers want, which is the second point.

Too often companies and artists either assume they know what customers want, or they engage in some process of “market research”/surveying in order to discern what customers want.  There are many problems with either approach when it comes to startups.  First, startups, by definition, are offering something that doesn’t exist in its current form (if it did, there would be no need for the startup), therefore asking a customer if they want something they don’t know about tends to give you bad feedback.  As Steve Jobs was fond of stating, “If Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, he would have given them faster horse and buggies.”

Therefore, the only way you can discern if the product or music you make will resonate with a customer is to get it out there.

Of course, if you get it out there and don’t listen to what the market is telling you, you might as well not bother in the first place.  This leads to the final key point: Scientific Decision Making.

I’ve written at length about the importance and value of data collection and analysis with respect to artists.  This article, The New Report Card, puts forth both the reasoning behind measuring, and suggests some specific things you should consider measuring:

Where the old school report [SoundScan, for example] axiomatically led to depression due to the inexorable decline in numbers (SS, reviews, spins), the new school report axiomatically leads to hope (and thus energy). If you haven’t increased–even by a teeny bit–your email subscribers, etc., something is wrong.

The good news now is that once you realize that something is wrong you can take strides to fix it.

Not getting enough email subscribers? Do you have an email-for-content widget rocking on your site; have you done what you need in terms of SEO to make sure people know you have a site; are you leveraging Twitter or FB to go to where people already are congregating and giving them a decent value proposition to go to your site; etc.

You know what your “remedy” was for bad Soundscan numbers? Spend more co-op dollars. Uggh. Bad radio numbers? Payola. Double Uggh. Bad press? Cry. Sigh.

Again, the real beauty of this new type of report card is that it should be exciting and encouraging. You can see incremental progress, and, most importantly, you (band and/or manager) are in control.

This is vastly different than placing your hopes/destiny in the hands of a sales rep, publicist, promo person, label.

This type of measuring—from seeing how your customers react (without asking them in advance)—allows for validated/scientific learning.  No longer should you do something purely based on “gut” feel.  Rather, have a strong, powerful, unique vision, and then find ways to empirically test your thesis.

Through this testing, you are able to adjust and refine your approach.  In this way, you avoid falling back on the doing the same things that haven’t worked over and over again.

I want to be clear: artists and startups, generally must have a unique vision. I’m not suggesting that you subjugate that vision in favor of a completely quantitative approach. Rather, I’m suggesting you find ways to test your vision to show that it has the possibility to achieve the outcomes you hope it to over some realistic period of time, and that you use the information you gather to adjust your approach.

The above is obviously a very brief overview of what is put forth in Lean Startups (again, below is a SlideShare presentation that dives a little deeper), but I do encourage you to buy the book, read it, and attempt to incorporate some (all) of its principles in your approach for your music-related endeavor.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is an Associate Professor of Music Business/Management at Berklee.  He is most easily found on Twitter at: twitter.com/gah650

Related to this article: The Marketing Money Can’t Buy

  • Matt

    Are you suggesting artists/bands release constantly until they find something that resonates with a fanbase? I think releasing music in a fast, haphazard fashion can be a detriment to a young artist’s career especially in a smaller market. First impressions mean a lot. I think young artists should do research on the front end and learn from other artists mistakes/successes and refine their music based on that knowledge. Record, record and record some more. Then once they have built up a decent catalogue, release that music in small bits to gauge fan interests. Don’t just release everything you record. 

    • http://peanutbuttergenocide.com/ Andy

      I think you’re both right, but this article is about ‘lean’ start-ups. It’s implying an old entrepreneurial motto to fail often, but fail cheaply and quickly. Many budding musicians don’t have the knowledge, experience or time to enter the music market with an entirely unscathed and polished product. For them, the best course of action is to learn from the experience. No matter how much reading they’ve done, there’s bound to be a learning curve when dealing with publishers, social media, and the like. In this case, the first impression doesn’t matter because their fan base is usually small and local. When their product reaches that polished stage, they’ll have acquired the knowledge they need to make that “first impression” through solid branding. 

      • Matt

        I understand what you are saying but I disagree. Most new artists/bands have expectations of success that will never be reached. They don’t expect to fail quickly and that ultimately prevents their success. We are not talking about those bands.
           Almost every band starts off in a local market. If they don’t have success in that local market they won’t make money. If they don’t make money they can’t record. If they don’t record they can’t release anything. 
           If the artist makes it to the “polished stage” the old expectation was that artist would be signed. Now a ton of bands can make it to the polished stage and never hear from a label. It all goes back to having a strong, and most often local, fan base.   Bottom line, an artist can make a living from those local markets but they have to be introduced to those markets the correct way. The minute you decide to start a band and produce music, you have created a business. The moment a listener hears the first recorded sounds from that artist, the artist becomes a brand. And once that listener has formed an opinion of that brand, you know if you have failed. In my opinion, that’s too late in today’s marketplace.

        • http://peanutbuttergenocide.com/ Andy

          I think that’s a bit too cynical of an approach. I mean, by this standard new musicians ought to just pack it in and not bother even spending a dime. Got a bad review? Find a new alias because you’re finished. Building a network takes work, and Facebook is an example of that uphill battle. They’ve changed their brand since 2007 with a lot of bumps along the way. Artists have a much more hard time ahead of them, but not everyone is built to be the flash in the pan hit. Maybe some will even have their day in their 30s? 

          I digress, but I just think local audiences are more tolerant of change, and 200 some Facebook fans aren’t going to make or break your career. 

          • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

            @d22bc5c10e5709dde40f418716005a0c:disqus 
            i’m glad you got the connection to FB and the LS movement – changing of brand/tech, bumps, refinement — not asking customers, but listening, etc.

            Thanks,

            George

        • Anonymous

          Artists should be paid for the use of their music

          Grooveshark uses their music and does not pay them

          Worse, it makes money off their music and does not pay them

          jeff

        • Archie

          I agree with a lot of what you say. I don’t think really your going to make much money in a local market though. Covers bands make more in one night then what an original band might make in a month. If your in an unknown band first impressions are everything so I definitely agree with you in that sense. I’d still be suprised if a new unheard of band got more than 25% of an audience just to listen to half of their set. If your a great band who knows you might get the attention of everyone in the room. The odds are just totally against that being the case. Great bands are few and far between and sometimes people are just unwilling to acknowledge that until you are signed and are making money. It’s sad but true.  

          • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

            @c608b9680290e8a14334ed6dddf13a82:disqus ,

            thanks for chiming in. I love the fact that you’re putting forth metrics of success other than $. this is a key pt of the article and LS, generally.

            other metrics – impressions, etc – are crucial to determining if your start up (biz/band) is heading in the right direction. profits come after.

            George

        • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

          @fe736d20f259b9f16bf925f75fe54259:disqus 
          you nail it when you say artists have expectations of success that will never be reached.

          a big part of this article/slides (and a bigger part of LS) is to redefine metrics of success. Startups have different success metrics than other biz, and it’s something that bands really need to consider.

          George

      • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

        @d22bc5c10e5709dde40f418716005a0c:disqus 
        Really well said, and completely in-line w/ my pt.

        the risk of failure for startups (bands/biz) is VERY low, and thus the learning tends to outweigh any downside risk from entering the mkt quickly. that said, as @fe736d20f259b9f16bf925f75fe54259:disqus said above, you do need to do some research, etc to help enter the mkt in a way so that it can be measured/refined.

        George

    • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

      @fe736d20f259b9f16bf925f75fe54259:disqus 

      Thanks for the comment. I couldn’t agree more that first impressions mean a lot. I also agree that research and refinement are crucial.

      all of the above MUST be done before entering a mkt. in biz, we look to things as basic as SWOT analyses, and as lengthy as full-on biz plans w/ pro formas, competitive analyses, etc., before entering a mkt.

      the point of the LS methodology (and my related article), is that the BEST learning a start up can acquire is via shipping, listening to the mkt, and then refining.

      artists, i believe, are in a unique positon to ship quickly, and thus begin the measurement/refine/reship process.

      However, both biz and artists, MUST – as you say — do the DD prior to doing so in order to enter the mkt in a way that the tests can be verifiable, etc.

      Thanks again, for the comment.

      George

  • Lean

    What the hell does Mark Zuckerberg have to do with the lean movement?

    • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

      @c60e6570eae3ad4a056bc720644ea46b:disqus 
      Fair question, Lean. the title relates to the idea that – to a degree – Zuckerberg adheres to LS via not asking customers, but listening. also, FB tends to quickly iterate and refine.

      George

  • Brian Shell

    Thanks again George for improving our learning curve… as my motto since leaving my corporate career as an engineer to become an author and musician is “Think smarter, not harder” – in other words, the Occam’s Razor line of thought – the most elegant solution is usually the best one.

    When I was still trying to get published (via the archaic traditional route), I was told by a best-selling author (who I tried to persuade to help me get an agent): “Just keep writing… eventually you’ll write something people like.”

    He also added when he took the time to view my HUGE MySpace personal page (years ago): “If you’re spending all your time on MySpace… you’re not writing.”

    So true those statements were…

    So now with a CD (titled “Renegade Recordings”) released via TuneCore… and 20 Kindle eBooks (and a few for Nook) self-published, I found it interesting that something I thought “for sure” would sell… didn’t.  And those I just threw out on the market because I finished them years ago… actually did sell… and are doing well.

    So it just proves what you say… you really don’t know what the customer wants until you put in out there.  It’s the Laissez Faire approach to artistry… or as Larry the Cable Guy would say: Get ‘er done!  (and then “Ship it!”)

    Best to you George… and all of those at TuneCore too!

    Most sincerely,
    Brian Shell
    http://www.PassionHero.com
    Be a Passion Hero… at times, use words.

  • Brian Shell

    Thanks again George for improving our learning curve… as my motto since leaving my corporate career as an engineer to become an author and musician is “Think smarter, not harder” – in other words, the Occam’s Razor line of thought – the most elegant solution is usually the best one.

    When I was still trying to get published (via the archaic traditional route), I was told by a best-selling author (who I tried to persuade to help me get an agent): “Just keep writing… eventually you’ll write something people like.”

    He also added when he took the time to view my HUGE MySpace personal page (years ago): “If you’re spending all your time on MySpace… you’re not writing.”

    So true those statements were…

    So now with a CD (titled “Renegade Recordings”) released via TuneCore… and 20 Kindle eBooks (and a few for Nook) self-published, I found it interesting that something I thought “for sure” would sell… didn’t.  And those I just threw out on the market because I finished them years ago… actually did sell… and are doing well.

    So it just proves what you say… you really don’t know what the customer wants until you put in out there.  It’s the Laissez Faire approach to artistry… or as Larry the Cable Guy would say: Get ‘er done!  (and then “Ship it!”)

    Best to you George… and all of those at TuneCore too!

    Most sincerely,
    Brian Shell
    http://www.PassionHero.com
    Be a Passion Hero… at times, use words.

    • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

      @d390cdb01bc5f2084f556c8302e46a2b:disqus ,

      Brian, thanks for the kind words, and congrats on your success.

      Yes, the key is to get to mkt, listen/learn, refine – re-ship – repeat.

      George

  • Jamesgross2008

    Have you ever seen the movie “The Social Network”?. Are you suggesting that we (allegebly, and I use the term only for legal reasons,let’s not forget the lawsuits that Zuckerberg settled out of court for how muck? Was it $600,000,000 or was it $60,000,000 or $6,000,000) use other peoples’ Intellectual Property, but bend it to our own means, borrow the startup money that we need from our closest and best friend and then “kick” him out on his ear? Sure, Zuckerberg made it BIG-really big, but he squashed a few (to say the least) in doing so, I don’t think this is a business model that I care to follow (though many people and businesses do), there seems to be no conscience or morality left in the world today-I for one prefer to leave honesty and integrity, at least, in our small music business struggles. What was the closing line in that movie where the attorney said to Zuckerberg as she was leaving the room (after he invited her “out to dinner), and this may not be an exact qoute, but she said “Mark, you’re not really an a$$hole, you’re just trying very hard to be one”.

    • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

      @850bd61da65bcf5e8a3e6287e67510f0:disqus 
      not suggesting anything like this. i believe in transparency, morality, etc. the title refers to the way FB iterates quickly and changes, and suggests that bands can – learning from Lean startups – do the same.

      George

  • Jamesgross2008

    Oh and let’s not forget the fact thatZuckerbergs “GOD” and ultimate advisor was who? (was his name Sean somebody or other) the FOUNDER of NAPSTER?

    • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

      @850bd61da65bcf5e8a3e6287e67510f0:disqus ,

      don’t get your pt, James?

      George

  • http://www.golddustlounge.com/ Russell

    This is a great post and relates very closely to what I’ve been doing with my band, Gold Dust Lounge. Running our business as if it was a start-up. I’ve had a great teacher, my wife, who has an up and coming publishing start-up called Bookigee. We have books by 37 Signals, Ries’ The Lean Startup, all kids of stuff from O’Reilly Media, Gamification by Design, etc laying around so the library is built in. It’s all relevant and anyone interested in the new music economy should read them as a matter of course. It’s a “new economy” not just a new music economy. Take note!

    GH, your points are well taken and I find your posts to be spot on, inspiring, and extremely helpful. It’s a great time to take control of your music. I have. My band is experiencing success in our local market that is translating into fans, press, bookings, airplay, buzz, excitement, etc. We’ve also grown our business by hardly ever playing in traditional venues. There’s a great emerging internationally recognized arts district in Miami, FL called Wynwood. For three years, we’ve played each monthly art walk on the sidewalk in front of a super hip gallery. It’s been amazing for market research, literally every segment of the public from children up to folk in their 60s and 70s walk by. Thousands of people walk by. Dozens stop at a time to listen. Lots of people stop to talk to us and tell us what they like about our music.

    I should mention that we play solely for tips in this instance but we move lots of CDs and sign lots of people up for the email list. And all this while playing jammy, psychedelic instrumental music influenced by spy movies, surf rock, ambient electronica, and spaghetti westerns. Kind of

    As the band has grown, we’ve invested in simple recording gear that allows us to capture what we do live. Our recordings are homegrown and hand assembled. Packaging is simple, visually attractive, and relatively cheap. We make ‘em as we go.

    Do your market research. If the public responds positively, you are doing something right. You MUST have something of quality or people won’t look twice or listen once. Entrepreneurial skills alone won’t get you all the way there but if you have a killer product, thoughtful marketing/promo, engaging personality/communication with fans, and you are driven to do it yourself, you absolutely can do it.

    I’m happy to discover this post because it affirms what I already believe and practice. Great stuff coming from TuneCore.

    Keep it comin’!