What Every Startup Founder Can Learn from The Music Legend Prince
“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” ~Prince
Today we mourn the passing of Prince Rogers Nelson – Prince…the Artist Formerly known as Prince…the one and only Prince. He was only 57 years old. He was one of a kind. I came to age as a startup founder dancing to his music and inspired by his unique, flamboyant style. There are people far more qualified than I to pay him tribute. I can only relay how his example helped to shape my outlook as a company founder, and what all startup founders can learn from his legacy.
Be Self Taught
No one can teach you how to be a founder and the leader of an enterprise. You teach yourself, you follow your passions and your instincts. Prince didn’t attend Julliard, he didn’t get a degree in music, he didn’t even go to college. He taught himself music. He taught himself how to play multiple instruments – and became especially expert on guitar and keyboard.
Play Every Part, Produce Your Own Products
A founder is not just a “tech guy,” or a “marketing girl,” or a “finance person.” A good founder learns to play all of those parts. He or she never becomes button-holed into playing only one role. He or she is multi-dimensional. Prince learned to play every instrument, and with those instruments, he played rock, funk, jazz, pop, blues, classical, and…yes…even country music. He played every instrument on his first five albums – and produced each one of them himself. Singer, songwriter, producer, performer, player….he did it all.
A true entrepreneur never stops innovating, inventing and creating. A good founder never rests on his or her first successes. The product can always be made better. There are always new products to develop – new challenges to undertake. Prince produced a new album every single year for almost 15 years, and kept on creating – releasing his last work just a few months ago. Even after selling more than 100M albums worldwide, it was never enough. It’s never enough. Prince did not just make music; it was his essence. As a startup founder, you are a builder. It is your essence to always be creating, to always be building and solving important problems.
Build in Place, Stay True to Yourself and Your Roots
To be a great founder, to build a great startup, you don’t have to move to Silicon Valley…you don’t have to forgo your roots. You can crush it anywhere…in any country…in any town. Prince didn’t move to LA or New York, as he was advised to do. He grew up in Minneapolis. It was his home, his roots. It was a place that was part of who he was and he embraced it. He never left it, he created his own sanctuary there (called Paisley Park).
Refuse to be Categorized
You are not just a “tech” entrepreneur, or a “medical device” maven, or a “consumer packaged goods” guru. You may be all of those things. Conventional wisdom says you can’t cross industries; you have to stick to your knitting. BS. Great entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk refused to be confined to any one space. They followed their hearts and their interests wherever they may lead. When Larry King asked Prince what genre he most identified with, he said, “inspirational.” He refused to be categorized. He was guided by what inspired him and, more importantly, what he thought would inspire his fans.
Protect Your Freedom, Never Allow Yourself to be Controlled
As a startup founder, it is easy to fall under the influence of investors, board members and dominant mentors and advisors. It’s all well and good until they begin to control and repress you. To them, it’s about the money. To you, it is your essence. You give in, you slowly suffocate. When corporate interests tried to control Prince…tried to claim the rights to his very name…he gave up his name. Rather than simply choose a new name, which might also be co-opted by money interests, he branded himself as a symbol. Pure genius. He said, “I chose a symbol to divorce myself from my past and all the baggage that came with it.” That’s freedom. Surrendering to your art, but not selling your soul, is the only way to be free.
Don’t Seek the Limelight
The undoing of most startup founders who are blessed with success, is that they begin to believe their own headlines. And then they are consumed by the need to make more headlines. They lose themselves in a vicious cycle of promoting a public persona. They become a prop. Prince shied away from the limelight. He didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, he didn’t fall in love with his public persona. He didn’t appear on talk TV or give many interviews. He preferred small, intimate performances, to the large concert stage. He stayed true to himself and his craft. He wasn’t a rock and roll artist, or a black artist. He went from “The artist formerly known as Prince,” to simply…”The Artist.”
Embrace those that Inspire You, but Be Guided by Your Own Purpose
A good entrepreneur takes inspiration from other entrepreneurs, but does not seek to emulate them. You have to be guided by your own purpose and that purpose must be pure and uniquely yours. Prince was heavily influenced by Stevie Wonder, but he didn’t seek to emulate Stevie, he channeled Stevie Wonder’s inspiration to create his own unique style. He became his own musical force of nature. He became self-contained and, ultimately, a trailblazer in his own right.
Be Boundless, Be Fearless
Life is unpredictable and shorter than we all want to acknowledge. There is no time to waste. Every founder is a product of his or her time, but seeks to create that which is timeless. To do that, you must be fearless. Prince was not bound by gender, race, space, or time. He could marry spirituality with sexuality. He was not constrained by societal norms. He was fearless. Stevie Wonder said of Prince, “He didn’t allow his fear to put his dreams to sleep.”
Be the Boss
A successful founder is the boss. He or she serves no other master; does not take a backseat to anyone else on his stage. It’s fine to be coachable, but never subservient. Demand perfection of everyone, for no less is required to emerge from the startup heap. Prince’s grade school friend, Jimmy Jam, said of him, “He was in full command of the stage. He knew every note, every cue. He decided what songs to play on the spot, and everyone on that stage was expected to know them all and perform them to perfection.”
Don’t Take Yourself to Seriously; Never Lose Your Sense of Humor
No matter how much success you might achieve; no matter how dire things may get…don’t take any of it too seriously. Don’t forget to laugh. Just keep creating…keep making things happen. It will all fall into place. A little known attribute of Prince was his sense of humor. Rolling Stone editor, David Wild, spent some quality time with Prince and said of him, “He was actually a very funny guy. He could have been a comedian.”
Take Risks; Create Magical Moments
It’s a cliche to say entrepreneurs must take risks. I’m talking about risks that on the surface appear to be disasters in the making… and turning them into magical moments. It is a rare startup founder that can turn a potential disaster into an amazing experience. These are the founders who have a sense of destiny…a belief that the universe is on their side and they are entitled to succeed. That happened to Prince during the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show. It started pouring rain just as Prince kicked off the most incredible performance of “Purple Rain” that anyone has ever seen. It is still considered by many (myself included), as the best Super Bowl halftime show of all time. Destiny.
Prince…thank you…rest in peace. You startup founders…”Let’s Go Crazy!”