I coach executive teams for a living, usually teams leading the largest companies in the world, but there’s often a lot these teams can learn from small firms about how to lead through radical disruptions like we’re having now. Recently I met a startup CEO (not a client) whose story I had to share because it taught me a lot about resilience. His ability to stay flexible and agile — to go forward to work, not just back to work — will pay dividends long after Covid-19 is a memory.
SongDivision’s Andy Sharpe is a CEO who’s definitely going forward to work. The Australian entrepreneur started SongDivision in 2003 based on the then-novel idea of having executive teams write songs together to strengthen their collaborative skills. In normal times, his twenty full-time employees and hundreds of contract musicians, some of whom have played with big acts like Cher and Florence & The Machine, would fly around the world to help employees of firms such as Microsoft, Boston Consulting Group or Salesforce compose power-pop ballads about annual sales targets and new drug launches. They host music trivia contests, run 3-hour TED-style sessions, and do musical interstitial breaks to give
people an energy boost. At Sharpe’s “song slams,” giant crowds, say 10,000 Mary Kay sellers in a ballroom, break them up into writing circles, and come back at the gala dinner for a battle-of-the-bands style song contest. “Our purpose,” says Sharpe, “is to unite companies around their purpose using music.”
Covid-19 put a damper on things, to say the least. Ninety-nine percent of SongDivision’s business was wiped clean after March 24. “My wife Marsha, who runs the company with me, has been saying for about two years that ‘we really need to have a remote solution,’” says Sharpe. Virtual was always seen as a poor cousin with smaller budgets. It didn’t have the same emotional or visceral impact as a live experience. Sharpe dragged his feet on remote until October 2019, when he finally started workshopping a remote offering with the team.
That was fortuitous. “In a sense, we were teed up and ready to go,” he says. “But having virtual experiences mapped out on paper and delivering them are two very different things.” Mistakes were made. His UK team jumped onto Zoom on March 20 with their first free Musical Happy Hour. It was designed to host a song-writing exercise and networking breakouts where you can vent (or rejoice) about the lockdown. They got about 70 participants.
Was it perfect? Resilience thinking says that it doesn’t matter. “Look, the team is amazingly talented, but the first of the two run-throughs was… not good. I’d give it 15 out of 100.” The later rehearsals weren’t any better. They had to learn to produce what was essentially an interactive TV show with the main host, co-hosts, and guest musicians all interacting with the audience.
That’s where resilience kicked in, ignoring the perfectionist mindset and listening to the feedback from early participants, which was consistently good. One wrote: “That was the quickest hour and the most fun I’ve had during the lockdown.” Within three sessions, the team knew they were connecting, even online. Sharpe had a viable product with the free Happy Hour and immediately rolled it out in Asia, the U.S., the U.K., and Europe.
Within a couple of weeks, the free events were generating a lot of paid engagements. Sharpe’s team delivered 63 events in the two months since late March. A year ago in the same period, they delivered 40 events, which was up from 33 two years ago. “I don’t think many of our guys have slept in the last 8 weeks,” says Sharpe. “Some long weekends and holidays are in order.”
Andy Sharpe’s Go Forward Action Plan for Startup Resilience
- Set aside time to look after mind, body, and soul. Sharpe meditates for 40 minutes a day and exercises one hour a day (yoga, surf, or hike). He aims for 8 hours of sleep but doesn’t always get it. “You can’t motivate, strategize, and execute when you’re a ball of stress.”
- Set achievable goals (individual and company-wide) andcelebrate victories both big and small. As soon as SongDivision’s live-events revenue got wiped out, they started setting and achieving small but important goals such as a first free virtual event rehearsal, a first free virtual event delivery, and the first proposal for a paid virtual event.
- Fire bullets, then cannonballs. Sharpe subscribes to Jim Collins’ approach of using low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments to figure out what will work before you concentrate resources into a big bet. Start with the equivalent of a free Musical Happy Hour for 25 people in the UK before rolling it out worldwide.
- Reach out to your network to offer and ask for help. Sharpe read my book Never Eat Alone three years ago and took from it the direction that he stop keeping score. It’s ok to ask for help when you need it, and offer others help as much as possible. Once he had a proof of concept of the Virtual Happy Hours, he reached out to business leaders in his network who had been hit hard by the pandemic and offered them a free virtual happy hour for their companies. It meant a lot and they loved being able to bring some joy to their people through music. I also asked business leaders in my network who were doing well if they would help spread the word of our virtual offerings to their networks, which they were very happy to do.
Growth of 55% is great but comes with hard lessons in online economics. Virtual events fetch only 25% of what a live event earns. While they might cost less to put on, SongDivision is looking at a down year, but far better than most. “Most event companies are currently doing zero events,” says Sharpe.
“I made a promise to the team at the start of the crisis that no one would be let go and that we’d get through it,” he says. The owners and minority partners were the only ones to take pay cuts, and no one has been let go. The crisis also brought new focus to the team, which was already tight after 17 years on the road. Navigating the shift to virtual, doubling down on figuring it out, will have
a lasting positive impact on SongDivision’s fortunes. “Demand for virtual will continue as things open up and live events return at the end of this year. If there is a second wave, demand for virtual will obviously go up.” Either way, SongDivision is ready to handle both virtual and live growth.