4 business lessons I learned from George Clinton

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What can a funk-music legend best known for performing in diapers and singing about flashlights teach anyone about business success? After reading George Clinton’s recent autobiography, I learned from Clinton’s tumuluous life the driving forces behind being a star, no matter your vertical.

Clinton is the founder of Parliament and Funkadelic, two super-groups during the 70s and 80s who made funk music a worldwide phenomenon. Clinton’s music is also the most sampled in hip-hop, from the 80s onward.

Below are four key takeaways I gleaned from Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funking Kinda Hard on You?

1. Find inspiration everywhere

When Clinton wrote about his influences, he named several musicians you wouldn’t normally associate with funk music: Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles. As a lover of all musical genres, Clinton wanted to soak up inspiration everywhere, from hard rock to ballads to those wild guitar licks Hendrix could pull off so easily. He saw a “visionary quality” in Hendrix, especially in how the guitarist went overseas to Europe and came back a changed musician.

Lesson: It’s easy to stay in your circle and learn from mentors in your niche. But look beyond your borders to absorb what others are doing, how talented people are reshaping their respective industries. Work in social media? Get some inspiration from a colleague who knows everything about the Internet of Things. You could find out something that you bring to your own 9-to-5.

If Clinton only surrounded himself with records from James Brown, Sly Stone, etc, he wouldn’t be the music icon he is today.

2. Be more than a business; be an idea

When Clinton founded Funkadelic, he didn’t want to just be another band riffing off doo-wop and blues and funk. Instead, he turned Funkadelic into an experience. Clinton saw the “growth of Funkadelic as an idea, or a way of life, or a cult or a comedy troupe, or however you want to see it.”

The live shows were a testament to that goal: spaceships hovered over stages, Clinton and his band mates performed in wild costumes, and the concerts were more like going to a circus-church than watching a retelling of an album’s top cuts. He wanted to be “bigger than the Beatles at Shea, bigger than Tommy.” After all, a Clinton concert was the equivalent of a touring Broadway show.

Lesson: You have a business and a solid team. But how are you marketing your services? Is it bland and routine? What can you do to make your business less dry and more dynamic? Sure, B2B companies don’t have the polish and popular appeal of B2C firms, but look at how Salesforce uses Dreamforce to drum up interest for their releases. Or how Hubspot’s blog has been surging online, generating the equivalent of standing ovations for some of its shareable insight.

3. Watch who you trust

A sizeable portion of Clinton’s autobiography is devoted to the ugly side of fame: he has received very little compensation for the use of his hit songs, such as “Flashlight” and “Bop Gun.” Frmer managers and business partners allegedly stole copyright permissions of Clinton’s albums. As one of his press releases notes: “Many of the legendary artists of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were taken advantage of by managers, record labels and others and have not seen the financial compensation they deserved.”

We have seen similar stories in sports and Hollywood and business. Success brings out the worst in people seeking to take advantage of talented stars. Clinton hopes to make others aware of those nefarious managers and partners, and this lesson could be applied to many industries without that kind of spotlight: in startup culture, VCs and investors could easily shut down your company if they see little profit trickling in. The wrong supply chain partner could sink your ship. Research everyone’s background and credentials. Talk to those who are close to your potential partner. Are they the right fit for what you’re trying to do? Do you know every details of that agreement you just signed?

4. Know your limits

Early on, Clinton understood his limits as a musician. “I knew what I couldn’t do. I couldn’t play an instrument. I couldn’t sing as well as some and I couldn’t arrange as well as some others. But I could see the whole picture from altitude, and that let me land the planes.” Instead of performing as a lead singer or the top guitarist, Clinton acted more as a conductor, quarterbacking the entire team of musicians to create a sound unlike anything heard before.

This lesson is obvious: Focus on what you do best and don’t try to do everything at once. Stretching yourself thin can make you a frenetic mess. Doing too much can leave you exhausted and useless to your team.

If you’re a fantastic recruiter, maybe you’re not the best salesperson. You could be an inspirational CEO but you need to work on social media management. Know your strengths, but better still, identify your weaknesses. That doesn’t always mean strengthening those pain points; perhaps those faults aren’t worth improving. You only have so much mental energy. Instead, work hard on being better at what you’ve been hired to do. Attempting to diversify your skill sets might seem attractive at first, but it could strain your attention span.

As one of Clinton’s tracks shouts in the chorus: “If it don’t fit, don’t force it.”

Flickr photo via Dena Flows

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David Silverberg
David Silverberg is the former editor-in-chief of Digital Journal Inc. He helped pioneer Digital Journal's proprietary technology to leverage content from writers from across the world. He was the host of Digital Journal's annual Future of Media event. David has been published in various publications, writing on everything from technology trends to celebrity profiles.