Entrepreneurial Street Survival: The Essential AC/DC Songlist
This may give away my age and musical tastes, but I’ve noticed how entrepreneurs nearly always end up sounding like AC/DC. It’s hard. It takes a long time. Capital raising is brutal. It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock and Roll.
Over the years, I’ve mentioned some of the following. It takes a bit of license, but when the realities do hit home, this other group of very resilient, very successful survivors actually becomes strangely relevant. They “teach” what everyone seems to end up learning about surviving on the entrepreneurial street.
Ain’t no Fun Waitin’ Round to Be a Millionaire
“I got holes in my shoes I got holes in my teeth; I got holes in my pockets I can’t get no relief: I’m tryin’ to make a million.” Founders must be able to hang on and endure. It nearly always seems to surprise them how much of their job description, and how demanding, the hanging on part turns out to be. Vision and dynamism have their place, but they rarely accomplish much without herculean powers of deferral and endurance.
Highway to Hell
“Ain’t Got no reason, ain’t got no rhyme; there ain’t nothin’ I would rather do“… I’m always interested as I meet a new founders group: How sane are they? Too sane, or off their rockers a little, a little intense like the CIA tough guy, hand over the flame, flesh smoking? Founding companies is an inherently unfair, disproportionate activity. If someone is too reasonable, I worry about implosions when the unfairness starts happening five minutes after inception. Don’t found a company unless there ain’t nothin’ you would rather do because, where you’re headed (Hell), that is the only thing that will sustain you(!)
“Hidin’ from the rent man, lord it make me wanna cry; sheriff knockin’ on my door, ain’t it funny how the time flies.” My most-repeated AC/DC lyric. In twenty-five years, capital raising has happened easily for clients perhaps once or twice, yet the assumption always seems to be that this will be okay and relatively crisp. Then the investors don’t show, the finders fail, and the recoil always seems to happen: Oh no, there’s the rent man — a lot of times it’s me, with my clockwork monthly invoices.
“The pain is on you, the sights are on me, so what do you do that’s guaranteed?” AC/DC frequently focuses on the world’s oldest form of entrepreneurial venture, where cash is king and love has nothing to do with it. Founders can still be so attached to the promise of an opportunity that they can be strangely magical in their thinking about cash. On the other hand, investors, customers and corporate partners know that cash is king and love has absolutely nothing to do with it. If you need cash, you’ll pay. If you really need it, you’ll really pay. As the song says, Money talks talks talks!
Who Made Who?
“Who made you? Who picked up the bill and who made who? Ain’t nobody taught you?” Founders are non-stop negotiators, with investors, employees, landlords – lawyers — corporate partners, spouses. I like the song’s title for evoking the relative contribution dialogues a founder is always having. I also enjoy the “Ain’t nobody taught you?” Don’t you get it? If it wasn’t for me, or us, or our fund, or facility, or customer endorsement, you’d be nothing! That’s why they deserve what they’re asking for!
“Won’t take no prisoners, won’t spare no life: Hell’s bells, hear them comin’ for you; Hell’s bells, they’re draggin’ you under“… A certain bravery pervades companies that have just been founded, or after the first couple of financing rounds. We all pretend they have more solidity than they really do. Many different blows that glance off older, bigger companies can do new ones in, bringing to mind the mournful bell that sounds in this song. The slightly playful grimness is a useful reminder: Anyone working in the entrepreneurial world will encounter the finality of failure.
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
Contracts, cyanide, TNT…. DONE DIRT CHEAP! People do funny things under pressure. I’ve seen founders abuse substances, issue absurd ultimatums, strike illegal loyalty oaths with fellow directors, and do other things, but they’re certainly not alone. In these downround times, institutional investors also come to mind: the bloodless coup d’etat with the founder suddenly out; the compounding, exponential gross-up dilution hits imposed on desperate companies with no remaining alternatives, presented with sympathy and openness, and sometimes perceived by founders to be not unlike the cyanide – colorless, oderless, and lethal(!)
Shoot to Thrill
“Shoot to thrill, play to kill, can’t get enough, can’t get my fill.” Another key marker of founderhood is the inexorable transformation of a mild-mannered smart guy into a walking, talking non-stop Billy Mays infomercial. (Academics can be hilarious.) No matter how you slice it, investor-backed startups have to credibly come off as having best-in-world potential – at something. How, as a founder group of one, or two, do you possibly suspend investors’ disbelief that you could fit this bill? By manifestly believing yourself, and having all the reasons poised on the tip of your tongue. If the founders don’t believe, who will?
Back in Black
“Yes I’m let loose, from the noose, that’s kept me hangin’ about; I’m livin’ like a star cause it’s gettin’ me high; forget the hearse ’cause I never die!” I had one client who would put the autoteller on speakerphone: Your…account…has…thirty …million…dollars. The big event still happens every once in awhile. You’ll never die. You have your life back. Researchers tell us that what really happens at times like these often isn’t more happiness – and in my anecdotal experience there is nothing like a liquidity event to bring divorce actions and patent infringement suits (you finally have a valuation). But like the athlete said – the rich have problems and the poor have problems; I’d rather have problems of the rich(!)
It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock n’ Roll
“Gettin; ‘old, getting’ gray, getting ripped off, underpaid; getting’ sold, second hand, that’s what it’s like playin in a band – It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n roll!” I think many entrepreneurs, even at young ages, eventually feel gray, old, ripped off, and probably underpaid. I do. Don’t you? Nothing really worth achieving is ever easy. But it’s this reality that creates a fellowship among entrepreneurs too; it becomes more obvious the older I get. This, more than the isolated home runs, is what really draws us together. If one song says it all, it’s this one. AC/DC at its teleological summit(!)
For Those About To Rock:
What does entrepreneurship have to do with knife-fights, break-ins, brothels, bar rooms, and bad luck? I might argue, everything! We need startups: In the popular phrase, being an entrepreneur may in some respects be simple but, as the songlist suggests, it is certainly not easy. So, for those about to rock (entrepreneurially speaking), yes, we DO salute you!
BONUS FEATURE: AC/DC rolling down the road, doing what they love, bitching about how hard their lives are. Sound familiar? Check this video, and see if you spot the pterodactyls.