4 Startup Lessons From Motown

No matter what’s going on with your business goals, you can find some inspiration in lyrics from the hardest-working city in the music business.

June 27th, 2017   |    By: Jeff Epstein    |    Tags: Lessons

More than 50 years ago, Motown transformed the music landscape forever. Berry Gordy, a music lover who cut his teeth on Detroit’s automobile business, transferred his blue-collar tenacity into building a record label that featured the unique sounds emerging from the so-called Paris of the West: Detroit.

Gordy’s moxie propelled him and fresh artists like Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Jackson 5, and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles to superstardom. Today, his legacy is woven into the fabric of Americana, and we all relish the smooth, upbeat, and personal stories those songs told.

Why am I waxing nostalgic about Berry Gordy? Well, I was born and raised in Detroit, and despite its economic ups and downs, it remains a proud city that retains the seeds of what made Motown possible.

Without a doubt, our mantra of “Detroit Hustles Harder” perfectly embodies the spirit of the hardworking Michigan people. And though Motown songs tell stories of love, social justice, and coming of age, their lyrics can also serve as a lesson for entrepreneurial life, hard work, and — yes — hustle.

Startup ABC’s From the Motor City

motown startup lessons

Need a spark to keep you focused on your business goals? Look to some of these timeless Motown classics for some directions:

1. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

Unless you plan on starting and staying small, you need a three- to five-year vision statement to attract outside investment and talent. Startup success doesn’t happen by accident; it’s a product of thinking big, planning big, and reaching for those BHAGs (big, hairy, audacious goals).

Still, the challenge is to be prepared to relentlessly follow your north star. Let it guide your decisions through any valley and across any river to reach the most impressive summits.

2. “I’ll Be There” – The Jackson 5

Customers are your lifeblood. Touchpoints between your company and prospective buyers happen all the time, so give in to your tiny, crooning inner Michael Jackson and be there for them.

Every interaction between your brand and a human is part of the customer experience — online and offline. Clearly define how you market to customers, how they are pitched, and how customer support handles them.

You can’t afford to lose a customer, especially when it costs 50 percent less to upsell and cross-sell to existing consumers than it does to retain them. In the early days, your customers should need to do little more than look over their shoulders to feel valued by your young company.

3. “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” – The Temptations

Pedigree doesn’t matter in the startup world. Until you get big enough, every employee will be a results-oriented generalist, meaning there’s no job too small for anyone to take on. It’s a magical stage when everyone is in the trenches together, elbow-to-elbow, wearing multiple hats despite titles.

This is true “culture by osmosis:” a handful of people jamming at full speed to push the business along, cultivating a unique atmosphere. Eventually, you’ll bring on specialists and have early employees fine-tune their skills in specific areas as you scale. Then, those original workers will pass their roll-up-our-sleeves mentality on to the next generation.

4. “You Can Feel It All Over” – Stevie Wonder

Culture is something first-time entrepreneurs always seem to have trouble with. They worry that if they don’t have a tight grip, the culture will run amok. Our company tripled in size in nine months, which reaffirmed for us that our values needed to be codified.

The result? OUTCARE, an acronym that stands for: “Own it,” “Understand why,” “Think long term,” “Choose camaraderie,” “Always customer-obsessed,” “Raise the bar,” and “Execute with urgency.”

Cheesy? Some people see it that way, but OUTCARE keeps our values at the forefront. It frequently appears on posters, in emojis on our team’s Slack channel, and in our weekly huddles. Plus, it’s a litmus test for how we hire, fire, and promote; we couldn’t scale if we didn’t feel our culture “all over.”

Where you decide to open your business is a personal decision. Detroit was it for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right location for you. Regardless, use the city’s Motown roots as inspiration to strategically position your company for long-term growth. If you do, you’ll be able to “sign, seal, deliver” your organization’s future prosperity.


About the Author

Jeff Epstein

Jeff Epstein is the CEO and Founder of Ambassador, a trusted referral software company that empowers brands to increase customers, referrals, and revenue by leveraging and scaling the power of word of mouth. Epstein is a lifelong entrepreneur with a law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology, and a degree in business from Michigan State University.

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