Business development 14 November 2016

Four startup lessons from jazz legend Ronnie Scott

Ronnie Scott
Towards the end of his life, Ronnie Scott realised the route to success was not to try to emulate others

Here, Small Business Charter chairman, ByBox CEO and jazz fanatic, Stuart Miller, teaches readers some startup lessons to be learnt from legendary saxophonist and club owner, Ronnie Scott.

Jazz musicians and entrepreneurs have many things in common. Both are fundamentally creative. Both are, by their nature, rebellious.

And both offer about the same odds of ending up penniless. Ronnie Scott straddled both worlds of jazz musician and entrepreneur – opening his legendary London club in 1959 and being one of the most under-rated tenor saxophonists of his generation.

This December marks the twentieth anniversary of Ronnie Scott’s death, which gives us a good excuse to reflect on four startup lessons all entrepreneurs can learn from the great man.

Never give up the fight

Most entrepreneurs can remember the moment they knew in their bones that they had to start their own business.

For most of us it wasn’t a choice. We were simply compelled to do it by an inner energy that could not be satiated any other way. For Ronnie Scott, this happened after a two-week trip to New York in 1947.

Visits to legendary jazz clubs convinced him that one day he would have his own club back in London. The main problem was not finding premises or understanding the business model – it was the paralysing ruling from the Musician’s Union that prevented American musicians from playing abroad.

Many entrepreneurs face similar challenges with legislation and bureaucracy. And many of us will continue to fight for change until it happens. For Ronnie Scott, the long battle with the Musician’s Union culminated in a lifting of the ban in 1961 and a constant flow of world-class acts to his club that continues to this day.

Don’t underestimate the value of your brand

Ask most adults “what is Ronnie Scott’s” and they will typically answer that it is a jazz club in the middle of London. What fewer people will know is that there was also a Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Birmingham – until it was converted in 2002 to a ‘cabaret club’ for gentlemen.

The Birmingham experiment was a disaster from start to finish, losing close to £2m in the short time it was open. More than the financial loss was the damage to the Ronnie Scott brand, which was licensed to the Birmingham operators by way of a franchise.

Of course, the brand survived and the sullying of the name through the failed Birmingham experiment is a distant memory. But it is a real-world reminder that attempts at growth should never be at the expense of such a prized asset.

Do it for passion, not for the money

Ronnie Scott was famous for his quick wit. Probably his most memorable quip was that the only way to make a million out of a jazz club is to start with two million. Behind the joke lies a serious point for all entrepreneurs – never do it to get rich.

If you are truly motivated by money, then you are far better off getting a normal job. Being an entrepreneur and starting your own business is simply too difficult and too risky. And in any case, no amount of money can make up for the enormous sacrifices you will have to make on the way to building your enterprise.

So it is fair to say that Ronnie Scott was also healthily dismissive about financial rewards. He was driven far more by a passion to host the best jazz names in the world in his eponymous club. This was evident at the very beginning of his journey, when he spent all of his savings on a first trip to the US as a 20-year-old fledgling musician.

Of course, all self-respecting 20-something entrepreneurs should have the same devil-may-care attitude towards to savings – if you haven’t then you really shouldn’t be doing it.

Be yourself

We all get inspiration from somebody. We look at the achievements of other people and feel energised to continue with our own journey. This is as true in music as it is in business. Tech-minded teenagers of today will devour the brief and eye-popping histories of Mark Zuckerberg, Sergi Brin, Larry Page and Elon Musk – in the same way the latter posse would have admired Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs.

This is natural and healthy – up to a point. But when admiration leads to imitation then you need to hit the pause button. This is probably the most important lesson that we can learn from Ronnie Scott. At the end of his autobiography he reflected emotionally and honestly on his single biggest mistake.

For most of his life, he realised that he was trying to be John Coltrane, or Zoot Sims, or any one of a number of other great tenor saxophonists. But towards the end of his life he realised the age-old truism that applies as much to entrepreneurs as it does to jazz musicians – you will only ever be a number two somebody else, you can only ever be a number one “you”.

Stuart Miller is Small Business Charter chairman, and CEO at startup ByBox.

Read more from Stuart about the black art of entrepreneurial pivoting

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