What can the Grateful Dead teach us about business?

The most recent iteration of the Grateful Dead, Dead and Company, will cease to exist in its current iteration. Never say never, but this appears to be the end.

The entity that’s the Dead has been making music for 58 years, despite the death of Jerry Garcia, their lead guitarist, in 1995, as well as the death of three keyboardists and two original members sitting out the final tour.

What can we learn about business from a band that has outlasted almost every other band out there and most companies from the mid-1960s?

Lesson 1 – There is something bigger than the parts

There are many “guru businesses” out there. Elon Musk’s Tesla, Space X, and Twitter come to mind as companies inextricably linked to him. All three would suffer dramatically if he were suddenly out of the picture. Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, HP, and Intel have worked just fine without their founders. A business that relies on one person is in a precarious situation. Garcia may be gone, but the spirit and music of the Dead are still doing well. The business lesson is distributing skills and responsibilities so the entity can carry on.

Lesson 2 – Create a unique customer-centered culture

They say there is nothing like a Dead concert. They were the OG jam band, with each concert and each song within each concert different. Nothing was caned about it: no backing tracks, choreographed dance moves, or unique costumes. Everyone knew they could have an ordinary or extraordinary concert, which was OK. They were very authentic, warts and all, which for many, was a chance to relish in a unique expression of music. I like to say the Dead were the world’s best bar band–a little rough around the edge, and that was just wonderful. Businesses that spend vast amounts of energy on being homogenized and programmed are fine, but small local businesses should strive to be authentic in the game.

Lesson 3 – Treat your “employees” well

The Dead were famous for splitting their concert revenue equally among band members, though some, like Jerry Garcia, were entitled to a greater share (if he wanted it). As a small business owner, I cringe at seeing mega-corporations that pay their executives many thousand times that of their average worker. Sure, the small business owner should make more because she has risked her capital, but if that becomes excessive for the average worker’s pay, the owner will pay in other ways: a lack of loyalty, high turnover, and low motivation.

Lesson 4 – Evolve

How can a band be playing the same songs as they have played for fifty years? Trick question: while the lyrics haven’t changed, each song they play has evolved over time–the essence of a jam band. At times they had a bluegrass influence, a country influence, a disco (gasp!) influence, and others. I like to say Kona Impact would have a 0% chance of being around 17 years after we started had we stuck to our original business plan. Companies that don’t evolve–keeping the core is essential–die. 

Lesson 5 – Enjoy the journey

This is their most enduring legacy: making music, touring, and (for the most part) enjoying what they do. This is something that every entrepreneur should seek: enjoying what they do. I have always said that the day I wake up and loathe coming to work is when I need to think about doing something else. Sure, some days are more enjoyable than others, but I genuinely enjoy running Kona Impact and helping people grow their businesses. Have fun and be around people on your journey because, after all, you only get so many trips around the sun.