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Entrepreneurship’s Siren Song

Nearly everything that is true for music also is true for entrepreneurship …

bto.jpgAs I pulled my rental car into an office parking lot at least eight times larger than any Costco location I’d ever seen, Bachman-Turner Overdrive‘s anthem to rock ‘n roll entrepreneurship came on the radio:

If your train’s on time you can get to work by nine
And start your slavin’ job to get your pay
If you ever get annoyed look at me I’m self-employed
I love to work at nothin’ all day
And I’ll be takin’ care of business …

I twisted the volume knob clockwise a quarter hour and sat, blood pumping, until the song finished. Then, with a sigh, I straightened my tie, exited the car, and headed toward Building Five.

Building Five is one honkin’ big building. It’s so big that some employees are authorized to drive electric cars through its massive hallways, lined with yellow stripes, so they can quickly traverse an expanse that otherwises require a solid 15-minute walk (I’m not making this up). I was visiting the Dilbert-sized company as a new employee, just a year before Dilbert emerged to amuse the world with parodies of the soul-crushing realities of life lived in corporate cubicles.

By the time I reached reception, Takin’ Care of Business still ringing in my head, I knew I couldn’t be long for this job. The Canadian rock ‘n rollers had reminded me that, in the words of Nietzsche, “no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”


Music and entrepreneurship have much in common. Both involve improvisation, uncertainty, risk — and low wages. Both, according to popular perception, depend on God-given talent, and are teachable only to a limited extent.

But I believe both music and entrepreneurship are more teachable than commonly thought. More important, while few of us will ever become professional musicians, we’d all like to become more musical. Similarly, few of us will ever become professional entrepreneurs, but we’d all like to become more entrepreneurial. In other words, we should strive to be better amateurs, at both music and entrepreneurship.

A recent Kauffman Foundation report on teaching entrepreneurship agreed. It concluded that teaching entrepreneurship, like teaching music, requires a strong population of amateurs:

Philosophers may write primarily for other philosophers, but entrepreneurs and musicians (both composers and performers) require a population of amateurs in order to be complete. For music, that population is the audience. For entrepreneurs, it is the market.

Entrepreneurship education, according to the study, operates along a continuum of learning that extends from the professional to the amateur:

In music, at one end of the continuum is the composer or the virtuoso performer. At the other end is the audience, which values what the composer and performer do. Along the way are multiple, discrete aspects of music — conducting, mastering a specific instrument, theory, history, etc. — that contribute to the overall intelligibility of the subject and improve performance … education in music … teaches the virtuoso how to improve and the amateur how to appreciate.

Nearly everything that is true for music also is true for entrepreneurship, according to the study:

Education in entrepreneurship also must be for the amateur, the consumer, who is the ultimate focus of entrepreneurship. The amateurs constitute the market.

Yes, the amateurs constitute the market. Aspiring entrepreneurs — and ordinary consumers who simply aspire to be more entrepreneurial — buy services and products offered by professional entrepreneurs, just as music lovers purchase music created by professional musicians.

This thought jibes with a new course I’m working on entitled “Entrepreneurship for Everyone” (also the new name for Soul Shelter‘s Entrepreneurship thread under our upcoming site redesign).no_price_is_too_high_nietzsche.gif

The theme of the new course is simple: Most of us will not and should not be entrepreneurs, but all of us can and should become more entrepreneurial. Most of us are amateurs — we comprise the market.

And while we may not reach the sublime rock ‘n roll heights of a band like BTO, we can certainly thrill to music of our own making.

Postscript: BTO’s smash hit Takin’ Care of Business was originally titled White Collar Worker. The band’s demo tape was rejected 26 times before it signed the record deal that shot it to stardom.

You may enjoy other music-related Soul Shelter essays:

Bluegrass fans, don’t miss this one: “Are You an Amateur? Why Not?

Remember Devo? So do we: “Daunting Task? Learn to Whip It

The highlight of Billy Joel’s career? Not what you think: “What We Really Need to be Happy

2 Comments to Entrepreneurship’s Siren Song

On Apr 16, 2009, Blue Audio commented:

I’ve been a long time subscriber to this blog, but this post really caught my attention.

It reminds me of Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby, and how he approaches website coding like songwriting. You have to learn the technical aspects, but the creativity is what really makes it shine.

I teach a music business class occasionally, and it always strikes me that musicians have the perfect mindset to be entrepreneurs, if they can just apply their creativity to marketing and finance.

On Apr 16, 2009, by Tim commented:

John, thanks for the reminder about Derek, I forgot to put in a link to the interview we did with him last year. His writing on entrepreneurship and music is inspiring (and entertaining!).

Many brilliant musicians have trouble dealing with business, which is a shame, since entrepreneurship and music are closely related. Part of the problem is that conventional businesspeople have a well-justified reputation for speaking like idiots, while musicians prefer to speak in poetry …

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