Rule #6 and 1/2 – Be the Rolling Stones

No doubt you’ve been dreaming about your idea for a long enough time to imagine exactly how you’d like to see it unfold. Maybe something like the YouTube guys would be good: build it, get popular quickly, sell to Google in a year and a half for a billion dollars, make the cover of Newsweek. Or, perhaps you’re more reasonable and taking the path of Flickr and getting purchased for a few million by Yahoo! is more your style. Or, better still, you could be like Facebook and hold out for more value while you build your business, vehemently denying that anyone is buying your business as the price tag goes up and up .

All of those scenarios are good ideas and would be a great path for you to follow. However, if you have your heart set on something like that, I would pose the following question:

What planet are you living on? Because here on planet Earth, there are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of fantastic companies that will never be acquired by Google or Yahoo! or Microsoft. Chances are extremely great that your company won’t be either. As such, you need to chart a more reasonable – and infinitely more manageable – path for your company to take. Enter the Rolling Stones.

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The Rolling Stones are arguably one of the most popular bands on earth. They are in-arguably one of the richest. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. The band played it’s first show in 1962 and soon after had an eight month residency at the Crawdaddy Club. During this residency, they finalized their lineup of members, tried out different songs, different arrangements, different set-lists, and different performances to get an idea of what appealed to their small but growing audience. Their first record was two cover songs and while it gained new fans, they were still existing in the darkest parts of the Beatles’s shadow. Their second record featured “I Want to Be Your Man” (ironically written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney) and quickly helped the Rolling Stones turn in to one of the hot up-and-coming bands of the time. They toured relentlessly, played 200 shows a year, and recorded albums at every free moment. As time passed, their fan-base had grown enough to help their records rise to the top of the charts and keep them there, producing hit after hit after hit and, some four decades later, they are still going strong.

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In a perfect world, your web-based venture would follow the exact same path. You’d form your band (development team), practice in your garage (build the app), play your first show (live launch), have a residency where you can try different things depending on how the audience reacts (Beta period), have a hit (“I Want to Be Your Man”) and build off of that for many years to come by working your rump off and understanding what about your application or service appeals to your customers.

Great musicians take chances and do things differently from one album to the next, but even at the height of the disco-period, the Rolling Stones were still a blues band at heart. Even when Madonna was busy introducing sitars and eastern influence in to her music, you could still dance to most of it. And even when The Beatles were doing completely off-the-wall things on their records, they still had a backbone of amazing harmonies and melodies, interesting lyrics, and the ability to explore new sounds without alienating their audience.

Your goal should be, in a condensed version, to do just that: work hard to have a small, yet meaningful “hit record.” Then build upon it by continuing to challenge yourself and your company without alienating your core users. If you follow this strategy from one success to the next, expanding your horizons without forgetting the customers and clients that helped get you there, you have an excellent chance of looking up in due time with a small army of loyal users behind you.

Aiming for something as lofty as “a million unique users!” or “get bought by Cisco!” is something you are going to have virtually no control over at this stage, if ever. That’s like the teenager who dreams of forming a band and selling out Madison Square Garden without realizing it takes a lot of nights on the little stage at Fred’s Bar and Grill to get there. Don’t confuse what I’m saying: It’s fantastic to dream big. Just remember that there are a lot of little things along the way that need your direct attention, and succeeding on those little things is the ONLY way you’re going to turn those big dreams in to reality.

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