Hustle & Flow: How Successful Startups Simulate a Symphony

I had the pleasure of listening to the masterful strokes and sounds of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) yesterday at the newly minted music hall of the Jaber Al Ahmed Cultural Center.

Led by world renowned conductor Alexandre Bloch, the traveling troop took Kuwait’s (re)finest on a whirlwind tour of selected works by one of my favorite composers of all time — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and allowed me to discover a new composer, Gustav Mahler.

Born in the Czech Republic, this young composer went from apprentice to journeyman to master, starting with his graduation from the Vienna Conservatory in 1878, he held a succession of conducting posts of rising importance in the legendary opera houses of Europe, culminating in his appointment in 1897 as the Director of the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper). What truly impressed me, was that Mahler had his first thoughts on Symphony №1 “The Titan” in 1874 and did not complete his final revision of the masterpiece until 15 years later in 1889. He was a master that was truly dedicated to perfection. Rightly so, as 128 years later, his opening sonata-allegro followed by four highly spirited movements kept an audience mostly made up of smart phone addicted Kuwaitis entertained (and away from their phones) for a full fifty five minutes.

Today’s entrepreneurs can learn a lot from Mozart or Mahler’s dedication to their craft. This obviously got me to thinking, about how similar a symphony is to startup.

First of all some musical taxonomy that would make both Drs. Frasier and Niles Crane proud. You see, every symphony is an orchestra, but not every orchestra is a symphony. Likewise, every philharmonic is a symphony, but not every symphony is a philharmonic.

“Orchestra” is a broad term for any ensemble featuring a hefty lineup of strings. Two basic orchestras exist — chamber orchestras (small) and symphony orchestras (BIG!). Chamber orchestras employ about 50 or fewer musicians (who may all play strings). As the name suggests, they play “chamber music” — which are older tunes written for intimate private halls, cozy aristocratic parlors, and glitzy palace chambers. Of course, contemporary composers still crank out chamber music, but the style peaked during the pre-recording era of the 17th and 18th centuries as wigged songsters like Antonio Salieri, Mozart, and Vivaldi tore up the scene.

On the flip side, a symphony orchestra can boast more than 100 players. As that name suggests, they play “symphonies” — hulking pieces that usually require 18 to 25 different instruments. (Think of the heavy hitters of the 1800s: Ludwig van Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and company.)

Essentially, if an orchestra is big enough to play a symphony, it’s a symphony orchestra, hence the London Symphony Orchestra we listened to last night.

Now lets focus on the instruments of the orchestra.

Like I said earlier, an orchestra is defined as a composition of a large ensemble of instruments. So, what are these instruments? Well, the traditional orchestra contains five different sections of instruments, each with their own roles and functions. First come the woodwinds. This section generally has flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoon. Next is the brass section, featuring French horns, trumpets, trombones, and tubas. The percussion section is in back, with instruments often including the timpani, snare drum, triangle, xylophone, bass drum and the only instrument I could potentially see myself playing, the cymbals.

The strings section contains harps, violins, violas, cellos, and basses. Traditionally, this is the largest section of the orchestra, often double or even triple the size of the other sections, so this is also the section that generally carries the melody. Most of the others provide various harmonies. The fifth section is the keyboards, generally meaning a piano or organ. This section is not part of all orchestras, but it’s becoming more and more common.

So how exactly did an orchestra remind me of a startup? Simple really:

  1. Woodwinds = Sales Team. Why? Because they both involve blowing hot air. Like the fabled flute wielding pied piper, leading the rats and children of Hamelin up the Koppelberg Hill
  2. Brass = Business Development. Why? Because they have to go deep. This also involves a lot of hot wind.
  3. Percussion = Marketing. Why? Because they literally have to drum up business and are usually the smallest, but loudest, part of the symphony/startup.
  4. Strings = Technical Team. Why? Because they do all the heavy lifting in my opinion and perhaps contribute the most to the success of the startup/orchestra. I think of the violinists (because of their finesseof course) and the designers and the cellos/basses as the full-stack developers.
  5. Keyboards = UX/UI Team. Why? Because similar to the piano or organ, there use is becoming more and more common and because I already used programmers for the heavier strings.

Wait! What about the Conductor you ask? That one is easy, but before I get into that metaphor, I wanted to quickly mention another important analogy, specifically referring to the LSO and how it imitates the best of Silicon Valley startup spunk. I learned yesterday that the LSO is actually owned by all the musicians. This is a timeless lesson that many regional investors and founders need to take to heart. The rise of the ESOP or Employee Stock Option Plan is as critical to the success of a startup as a talented first violin or concertmaster is to the success of a symphony. So long as they don’t simply rest and vest.

Now as for the conduttore…

The Conductor = the CEO or Founder.

Why? Because both are the hardest working. Both never sit down. Both have to bring a large group of talented individuals into a single harmony. Both make it look easy yet have the weight of an entire symphony resting on their shoulders (or the Sword of Damocles hanging above). Both love to bring up a last minute surprise or two (Master’s Bloch’s encore last night was truly out of this word). They both ‘jouer de la belle musique’. Hence, they both deserve the term maestro.

Wait! What about the Venture Capitalists? Where do they fit in your Startup Symphony Simulation? Consider this the final movement of my article.

It would be too predictable of me to compare VCs with producers or showrunners. Indeed, that’s where the money is in both music and entrepreneurship.

As any symphony or classical music enthusiast would remind you, you never clap until the end of the symphony. Therefore, the top investors, like the best audiences, know that the right time to stay quiet is when the conductor and his/her orchestra is busy making the music come alive. Instead, they must reserve the right to clap, not after the end of a movement (Series A/B/C/Z round) but after the end of a successful symphony (Exit).

PS Article title inspired by the eponymous MTV movie that is in its own right a great tribute to entrepreneurship.

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