Business founders are the new rebels

First published in the Financial Times on 9th October 2012.

Sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll have had their day as symbols of dissent

So is business the new rock ’n’ roll? If the odds of success are relevant, it certainly should be. Because rock ’n’ roll itself is an awful career choice these days.

Being in a band is a bad bet. In Britain alone, the website Music Think Tank reckons that last year there were 600,000 would-be pop stars. They estimated the average band member made just £2,340 a year from gigging and £120 from downloads, and bands had a dismal one in 3,428 chance of getting signed by a record label. Music sales overall declined for the seventh successive year in 2011 in Britain, and in London many venues actually ask the acts to pay to perform.

Even seemingly popular bands don’t necessarily make much of a living. As a recent New York magazine article put it: “The indie-rock quartet Grizzly Bear just released a hit record and sold out Radio City Music Hall. But forget about renting a private jet. Some of them don’t even have health insurance. Welcome to the new rock star economics.”

Meanwhile big business founders such as Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs are more famous than ever before. This generation understands the probabilities: in a recent survey of 1,000 Americans almost two-thirds wanted to work as an entrepreneur, or at least be independent.

In an article in the New York Times recently, William Deresiewicz argued that current youth culture had rejected previous forms of expression such as the beatniks, hippies, punks and slackers. Instead he though they should be named Generation Sell. “Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business,” he wrote.

There is an explosion of students and twentysomethings everywhere channelling their creativity into new companies, in industries ranging from fashion to food to transport to software – almost all taking maximum advantage of digital technology.

One reason why millennials (those born between 1980 and the mid-1990s) have chosen enterprise as their engine of rebellion is this very technology.

In previous eras, youth found music, sex and drugs as ways to revolt against their parents, find their identities and break away from the past. However, my generation, the baby boomers, have already captured those pursuits. They aren’t shocking any more.

So the millennials have staked out Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iPhones and all the other tech innovations as their hip territory. Their parents don’t really get social media and the digital revolution – they are excluded from the party. And the heroes of this particular revolution are not musicians, alternative authors, or radical politicians – but start-up entrepreneurs.

Once rock ’n’ roll was the path out of obscurity and conformity for those unhappy with their mundane life. Now entrepreneurship is seen as the much better route to deliver change and make a mark in the world. The satisfaction, influence and rewards of building a business that creates jobs, wealth and happy customers is far greater than the ephemeral joys of a few soon-forgotten, three-minute songs. And the likelihood of generating a reasonable living and the respect of one’s peers is unquestionably superior.

In music and business, if you want to break through it pays to be original – but perhaps not so revolutionary that you cannot sign to a label or raise backing. Instead, try an incremental innovation, so that you can carry your audience/customers with you. That’s what my partners and I did when we started restaurant chain Strada: I realised how profitable and popular pizza was while growing building a previous business, PizzaExpress, in the 1990s. So with new partners we developed a more authentic, wood-fired pizza and broader menu to capture more sophisticated tastes in 2001 – and it worked. Enough of the dishes were new to make our offering distinctive, but we included plenty of familiar items, so as to overcome the threshold resistance to trying a new concept.

While I love music, and envy those who play as a hobby, the industry is in deep slump, and obeys extreme winner-takes-all tendencies. By contrast millions of entrepreneurs earn a decent living, use their imagination in their work and create jobs, too. There’s no contest as to which is the better path in 2012.