8 Lessons that Entrepreneurs and Startups Can Learn from Jazz Musicians

By Marina Terteryan

Being simultaneously involved in the jazz and entrepreneur communities, I have begun to notice many similarites between the two cultures. Below, are key lessons that jazz musicians have learned that, when applied to entrepreneurship and startup culture (and pretty much everything else!), the results could be magical.

1. Each player’s job is to make their fellow musicians look good. I was watching this fascinating interview by Jazz Video Guy (Bret Primack) and famous comedian Jeff Garlin (from Curb Your Enthusiasm). They mentioned that in jazz, and in improv comedy, the job of each person is to make his/her teammates look good. This is such a powerful concept that, when applied to teams in all settings, could truly empower the greater whole. So often, business settings can be competitive, but when each team member focuses on helping the team look good, the end product comes out significantly stronger.

2. It is important to study the masters. In jazz, there is a priority on studying the greats that came before us – their styles, their tone, their struggles. Similarly, one will often see the prized bookshelf of an entrepreneur, with biographies, instructional, and lifestyle books written by or about some of the best minds in business. There is no substitute for learning from the greats. The jazz community embodies this fully and it is something everyone can learn from.

3. Learn from mistakes and move on. When practicing, it is impossible to hit the perfect notes or riffs 100% of the time. Similarly, one of the key tenets of creativity in business is to fearlessly make mistakes. With the advent of startup culture came the message that it is ok to fail because each thing that doesn’t work leads you to something else that does. When you play a wrong note, you learn from it and move on, instead of break down in self-loathing and become unable to move forward.

4. Experimenting leads to great innovations. With so much of jazz culture and education emphasizing teaching improvisation, I find it important to note the value of experimenting fearlessly in business. The business community can benefit from understanding how valuable it is to try new things and innovate. With innovative products and services being celebrated in the marketplace, and futurist agencies gaining popularity in the recent years, this is one of the most important lessons to keep in mind. This idea is most embraced in the fields of design thinking and user experience design, in which prototypes (or samples) are built, tested, and improved upon. But I truly wish all areas of business will adopt this biased-towards-action mentality.

5. Creativity is for everyone. One of the most empowering business books of 2015 is Creative Confidence, by noted innovators David and Tom Kelley. In it, they mention that they frequently hear people say that creativity is “not for them” and that creative thinking is only saved for the graphic designers and other creative departments. Business people are afraid to try a creative activity, for fear that they will not be good at it. I love the idea that, in jazz, improvisation is encouraged early on and often. You don’t need to be a pro, or get permission to explore your creativity, and you shouldn’t need to in business, either. At best, creativity can help a business disrupt the marketplace and solve problems in a new and sustainable way. At worst, your job gets a lot more fun.

6. Mentorship is everything. The “pay it forward” atmosphere of jazz is very similar to the mentorship mentality in business. Entrepreneurs encourage each other to find mentors and they prioritize the time and energy to teach others. Last year, the film ‘Keep on Keepin’ on” paid tribute to Clark Terry’s mentorship young musicians, and the transformative joy that it brought to all involved. There is no substitute for the example set by someone who is at the top of their field, and it is truly a gift to get their time and advice.

7. Everyone should take turns showing off what they do best. My favorite part of a jazz show is when everyone takes their turn to solo on their instrument. As a big advocate of strength-based leadership, I think this is one of the most important examples that jazz can set for business teams. Giving each person the opportunity to do what they do best makes the team more powerful and, as a bonus, audiences and customers alike can see and appreciate when a team is operating on its strengths.

8. Jazz comes in many forms… and so does entrepreneurship. With all the different styles of jazz (swing, standards, bebop, ballad, funk, etc), there are as many different styles of entrepreneurship. Being a solopreneur, starting an online business, being an intrapreneur (innovating within an existing company), founding a startup, are all opportunities to be empowered and venture into the world of creative business. It is important to find the one that speaks to you the most, and not be afraid to try different options.