So what can startups learn from the local do-it-yourself Rock N Rollers?
You think it’s hard to get people to click on your link, imagine inviting hundreds — or even thousands — of people to your show and knowing that your income is determined by how many of those people show up and buy merchandise.
Trust me, clicking a link is easy, it’s what you do once you get there. Take for example, Death Cab for Cutie, a band from Bellingham that formed in 1997. It took them almost six years of performing locally, touring relentlessly and several albums before they reached their first real commercial success in 2003 with the album Transatlantism. Up until that album, you could catch Death Cab for Cutie at almost any venue in Seattle. Now, they highlight festivals worldwide.
Background: I spent the better part of the last 10 years attending, planning, promoting, pimping, hustling and booking rock ‘n roll events in the greater Seattle area at various clubs including: The Graceland (now El Corazon), Neumos, Crocodile Cafe, High Dive, Nectar Lounge, Blue Moon, Sunset Tavern, The Comet, Chop Suey, The Rendezvous and many, many other hole-in-the-wall excuses for a venue.
Practice. You know the 10,000 hour rule? To become an expert at your craft, as a startup you are gonna need every moment. Remember, it took The Beatles touring an entire country to go mainstream. As SEOmoz CEO Rand Fishkin says: Be ready to fail for a very long time — maybe five years or more — before you get your break.
Be prepared to “Bring It” every night. Play every night like it’s your last night ever! 150 percent. Just ask the Silversun Pickups of California who were playing small shows with an amazing wall of electronic sound. One day their CD landed in the lap of DJ John Richards and he began to play them on KEXP. They played a relatively small show at Seattle’s Crocodile and Richards of KEXP was there. The DJ extended their reach to the point you’d think Seattle was their hometown. So bring it, you never know who will be in the audience.
Mailing lists still matter! With easy access to the entire Twitter or Facebook userbase, people often overlook this not-so-old-fashioned method to spread your content, services, shows and music. If bands who don’t make ANY money can jump on the MailChimp bandwagon, every start-upper should have a list that is easily accessible. My favorite example of a company using a list to launch their new business, was Fabulis.com, now Fab.com. They started out as a gay men’s site and pivoted to a site about quality unique housewares. Now, they are talking IKEA big. How did they do it? Among many other things, they had well over 150,000 users sign up to receive emails from Fabulis.com and they turned a list into a referral engine that was unrivaled.
Creating a successful referral program. It’s one thing to get to listen to someone’s music, it’s another to continue lobbying their friends to come to your show weekend after weekend, month after month. You need to create value for those who are strong supporters of your cause, music, service or product. Is it easy to refer you? Sure, do your current fans or customers get rewarded for doing so? Think like Kickstarter — what can we give those fans that is unique, personal and shows we are grateful for early adoption? Is it something as small as a button, sticker, Tweet on their behalf? Create value for your key customers to continue promoting your music/startup.
Arrive Early, Stay Late, Meet Everyone. I know this sounds like anti-rock ‘n roll from the outside, but anyone in a band knows “load-in” is at 6 p.m. or so, a full five hours before a gig. During that time, bands organize and share gear while getting it sound-checked to ensure a quality show. Reminder, they do all of this knowing they aren’t going to make any money! Also, nobody likes bands who do not try and see the other bands perform that are on the same bill. Celebrate everyone’s night, not just yours. And yes, show up early!
Selling or Giving Away Merchandise/SWAG. You know what they say: “Always be closing.” You need to pay for gas, rent, electricity so if you only have one thing to promote, make it fucking good! If you aren’t hungry and willing to pitch it, sell it, close it, then you aren’t going to make it. Truth is: There are just a few examples of getting it right, and thousands of examples of people just plain missing it. I don’t have the solution for you or your startup. You need to come up with that. What I have seen work is that startups or organizations like Obama’s re-election campaign have proven to run an incredible grassroots campaign that encouraged list subscribers to take action whether it’s an infographic shared across Facebook and Twitter or having a reminder to call your congressmen. They also made it easy to get stickers (Free), buttons ($), shirts ($) through an online storefront. They solicited millions from grassroots donors. If you didn’t donate, they encouraged you to share. If you didn’t share, you could volunteer. If you did none of the above, you were still receiving the communications with their agenda.
Timing Is Not Everything, But It’s Important. In the startup world, timing is critical. For a band, it goes something like this: First get to know the booker, create a dialogue, offer to play an off night (not Friday/Saturday), book the show, create a show poster, create an event on Facebook, send an email to your fans via your mailing list, spread flyer around town, show up and “kill it” — then rinse and repeat. Approach your product launches or product updates in very much the same way. Create a marketing timeline and an action plan for real customer, reporter, blogger, super user and investor engagement.
Be Creative. Make yourself stand out from the crowd. Think big. No easy answers here.
Jason Grimes is the former VP of Product Marketing at RescueTime, early member of Jobster, Apex Learning and like everyone else, former Microsoft.