Matt Berninger, from The National (and El Vy) will give you the absolute best advice on startups.
Don’t know who The National are? That’s ok, Wikipedia can help you.
The National have had a very interesting path. They have become successful and their (overnight success - not!) story is familiar to anyone who follows the tech industry:
The National’s rise to success has been a rocky path to say the least. The band managed to put out four highly acclaimed albums throughout the ‘00s without ever really gaining a level of popularity they deserved. That all changed in 2010 when they dropped their fifth studio album High Violet, whose monochrome melodrama saw the band pushed to the forefront of modern rock.
On the early beginnings and having no users
Something I genuinely took away from the film was a quote from you about not letting bad luck sink you into a spiral way, and you reflected that things don’t always go right for you either. You’re quite open about those first six years of the band’s career being a rocky struggle, I was wondering if you could perhaps think of some moments early on for The National that were a bit like the projector failing at Tom’s opening screening.
Oh man, we had so many from just the embarrassingly simple ones like showing up to a gig and literally no one being there. We had several of those gigs where we’d play for completely empty rooms and in one case the bartender just said, “Hey listen, I’ll still pay you even if you don’t play so we can all go home.” And we were happy to do that, we got paid for playing and we didn’t even plug in the guitars. Actually, we set up and we were about to play and still no one was there, even during the sound checking, and the doors had been opened for hours so it wasn’t like the time was wrong. It’s just that nobody came to see us, zero people. That happened probably about four or five shows, zero people came. There was one show in Akron, Ohio, where there was only one person and it was Patrick Carney from The Black Keys. He was the singular, only person that stood in front of our band and watched us play. It was so funny because their band was a tiny little band still at that point and I remember recognizing him and thinking “I think I’ve seen that guys face on Pitchfork or something”. We had years of that.
On being overshadowed by the “competition”:
We had so many little bumps like that. Another thing, for example – and I think this has been documented a little bit – when we put out Boxer or Alligator, one of our friend’s band who we love, and we still love the band and love the record, was Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. We invited them to open our tour and their record just exploded into this international hit phenomenon and suddenly all of our shows sold out almost overnight when they hit. So we went out on tour with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah opening for us, and the minute they left the stage, half – and some nights more than half the people in the room – left. That was a very character-building experience for our band. To tell you the truth that hurt [laughs]. It wasn’t their fault, they made a brilliant record [2005’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah ] that people were dying to come out and see, and I just guess at that time people weren’t that interested in our band or I guess our fans weren’t buying tickets fast enough to get in [laughs].
On domain names:
When the band was formed in 1999, it was called “The National”, although the domain name of the band’s website is americanmary.com because, according to Matt Berninger, “[i]t’s a song off our first record. We never thought of changing the (website) name, although we should have.”
On leaving your +$100k job to start your company and then eating ramen all day:
We slept in youth hostels and vans, and I remember once when we slept in a youth hostel where I went to the bathroom and when I came to my bunk, some other man had put his wet underwear on my bed, on my pillow. At that time I’m in my mid-30s. I’m 32, 33 and I had left a really good job to do this, and I’m laying in a hostel with drunk Scottish kids, who are puking and screaming, and international travellers are putting their wet underwear on my bed. I’m a grown man and I remember lying there nearly in tears just like “What am I doing with my life?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared at the roof of a van, or the ceiling in the middle of a cold bed at night on somebody’s floor thinking “What am I doing with my life? This is not worth it”, and then it slowly turned around.
On thinking about quitting:
We seriously discuss that every few months, every time we make a record, every time we finish a tour. When I said that I was asked “Do you ever think of the band ending?” and I said, “Yeah I think everyone thinks about the band ending all of the time.” There are those dark nights when you haven’t seen your kid or your wife in four weeks and it’s cold and you’re sleeping on a bus in Germany. Even when things are going amazing, you’re still living so much of your life on a bus away from your families. It’s not something we want to do forever; we don’t want to be life long touring musicians. We don’t want that to be our lives, so it’s something the five of us talk about a lot.
On finding that life/work balance:
Now that some of the other guys have kids it’s an easier thing to talk about because we’re all on the same page of like “What’s the best way to do this without losing our minds, but still pursuing it in a healthy way?” We’ll still be making records forever, but we’ll slow down on that [touring] for sure. I think every band has moments several times a month where they’re like “I don’t want to do this anymore, it’s so stressful” so we talk about it a lot, but no more now than we have before. We’re definitely in a healthier place than we were when we made Boxer.
On pivoting and “dropping out” of college:
When I went to college, I decided I was going to be a doctor. I was in pre-med for one year at Miami University of Ohio. I hated it. I wasn’t bad at it, but I hated it. The next year, I switched to sculpture. Pre-med to sculpture is a pretty big leap. Then I realized that maybe being a sculptor wasn’t going to be enough. I didn’t love it enough. So I quickly pivoted to graphic design. (…) My point is, early on, I got used to bailing out on one life and trying something else. Not bailing, but pivoting. I was comfortable with doing a significant pivot from high school, to pre-med, to sculpture, to graphic design, and then to New York. For whatever reason, I was never nervous about jumping into the unknown. I was lucky that way.
A reminder about the privilege of having a supporting family:
It’s not like my parents had wanderlust, but they were very encouraging. They wanted me to be happy—that’s what success meant to them. When I told them I was switching from pre-med to sculpture, I had this sense they were going to think it was great. Most parents would probably say, “What?” But my parents were like, “If that’s what’s going to make you happy, that’s awesome.”
On the importance of being early:
We got jobs at places that were just starting to do websites and new media. It was at the beginning of that. We got jobs that were kind of well-paying for just out of college. Then, because they were well-paying, and no one else was doing it, we rose in the ranks. I went from Junior Designer to Creative Director in a handful of years. I felt professionally motivated and excited. I felt like, “Wow. I can be a grownup man in the world, pay my own rent, and buy my own TV.”
On why you should be in the Bay Area/Tech Hub City:
Proximity to other people having crazy, reckless, delusional pipe dreams is one of the most motivating things. That’s why places like New York are so rich. But yeah, we started slowly. It took a long time to go from playing as the first band at Mercury Lounge at 6:00 p.m. to headlining. It took us a few years to get anywhere close to the world that Interpol were in… at least it felt like that.
On savoring the little wins and starting small:
Things got better very slowly and incrementally for us, and we could taste it. All of our tiny victories - moving from the 6:00 slot to the 7:00 slot to the 8:00 slot - were significant to us. The fact that it took us a while to get to that 10:00 p.m. headlining slot at Mercury Lounge made it all the sweeter. Being in the shadows gave us time to find the weird branches that we’d end up going out onto. The fact that there wasn’t much light on us for the first few years helped us figure out who we were.
On overnight successes:
A lot of people think they have to be a genius the minute they walk into the light because they think that’s what Bob Dylan was. Even the artists you think are perfect artists, probably had more bad output than good. I’d almost make an argument that Bob Dylan has more bad songs than good songs. But his good ones are the best songs in the world. I think people put too much pressure on themselves, and they can’t handle it.
A reminder about the privilege of having a safety net:
You get out of college and the big question is, “Will I live?” Like, “Am I going to be able to survive on my own?” Every person goes through that phase where, even though you might not live at home, your parents are still helping you. Not everybody, but lucky people, and everybody in The National, I think you could say that we were lucky… None of us were worrying about eating, although many musicians are.
If I had to, I could go back to a job. If I had to, I know how to do an interview. I know how to get a job. If this band fails, I can always go back and be a Creative Director or do lots of different things because I’m good at getting jobs. I’m good at ingratiating myself and making myself appear useful. I knew I could have a job—maybe that’s what it was—it wasn’t the job itself. I figured out I can come back if this rock and roll delusion turns out to be a delusion.
On being afraid of putting your work out to the world:
The funny thing is, I’ve lost a significant amount of my anxiety about what I’m making. I still obsess over it, but I’m not as nervous about making a fool of myself. I used to be very nervous about humiliating myself. I’m not sure that’s such a good thing, but it’s liberated me in a lot of ways. You’ve got to be fearless, but you also have to respect that every thought you have while falling asleep isn’t necessarily worth publishing.
On the importance of believing in yourself and being delusional:
I do think it’s important to be a little bit delusional to be able to do any kind of art. You have to believe in yourself more than everyone else does because, don’t worry, the people that don’t believe in you are going to be very vocal. You have to have a very healthy delusional ego to do anything. But at some point, when your ego starts saying, “Everything I do is awesome,” then you start putting out a lot of crap, and it’s not all awesome. It’s a fun, interesting, dangerous place to be as an artist.
On the importance of a team:
I will say that I don’t remember there ever being a time where we’re together in the studio working on something where at least two-thirds of the people in the band weren’t super excited about it. There’s never been a time where as a band we’ve all looked around like, “Ugh, why are we doing this?” Never. Never even close. I think we’re lucky. Mostly it’s because when somebody gets exhausted or full of resentment or runs out of ideas, somebody else comes in and gets everybody excited again with a different thing.
We’ve got a lot of ambitious people that know when to pick up the baton when somebody else is running out of steam. You need time to get away from shit and come back to it fresh. Bryan is a brilliant drummer. Sometimes he’s feeling it, and some days he’s not feeling it. What he does is so mental and physical and all this kind of stuff, we’ve learned to let Bryan do what he needs to do to get himself either mentally or physically into a space where he can kill it. He’s a drummer that doesn’t sound like other drummers and we give him time to be that drummer. He would maybe argue with us.
That applies to all of us in different ways. Those guys know that if I feel like I’m not happy with the lyrics yet, it’s worth waiting. They want me to be happy. Over time, we’ve learned to respect each other’s weird, sometimes clashing, skills, sometimes clashing personalities. We’ve definitely learned to try to avoid the things that exhaust us and lean towards the things that remind us how we dance well together.
On learning how to take punches:
We had lean years. We learned to have fun with it. Our skin got thicker. We also just learned, “Tonight sucked. Nobody was there in Philadelphia, but tomorrow is Indianapolis. You know what? There were five people in Indianapolis. That’s better than no one.” We actually were able to tell ourselves that five people at a show was good, and it was, because it was better than zero.
And to ignore those Techcrunch praises:
Those things definitely gave us perspective. I do think that if you get a big, glossy photo of yourself in a magazine too soon, you think you’re there already. When you realize that, “Oh, shit. The next photo might not be bigger. It might not be glossier. Our name on the poster at the festival isn’t getting bigger. It’s actually getting smaller.” that could be crushing. Some people can’t handle it. We had a lot of phases where the type size of The National on a poster at any given place was big sometimes, and then it would go back. We were constantly reminded that we were nobody.
And doing what it takes to pay the bills:
We probably wouldn’t be a band if we hadn’t had a song in a Saturn commercial way back then. This was way, way back. They told us it was a hybrid [car], and it turned out not to be a hybrid… but we were able to pay off bills. Now there are so many television shows. They don’t pay the way they used to, but there are a lot out there. I think there are ways that musicians can keep the lights on and pay the bills without being a big band. That’s a whole other conversation, the ethics behind letting your music be used in a product placement is a whole other debate.
And if you’re getting investors, being careful who you partner with:
With major labels, we were lucky we always went with the label we felt wasn’t going to fuck us, and they haven’t, because they don’t depend on us to sell millions of records. We don’t make videos that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars that they have to recoup. We went with a label that was going to be patient with us and they followed through on that promise. They’ve been patient with us, and everybody’s doing well. We’re doing well, they’re doing well. We’re happy. We were smart enough to be careful and protect our ability to make the type of stuff the way that we wanted to make it.
On things taking time, and failure. And bad reviews:
Patience… and respect that it takes time. Make sure to give yourself that time. Also respect the failure. Respect every time you play the show when nobody is there. You learn how to be better. Respect that terrible, really bad review. Never agree with them, but respect them. My other thing is when you get reviews, read them all, but read the good ones over and over. Just lean that way. Believe in those, but let the others go, because they’re both probably right. Believing in the bad reviews doesn’t really actually help you much. You might learn a little something or other, but have delusional confidence. Don’t expect it to be there right away, and don’t expect it to stay, but you’re in control of it. You can make whatever art you want to make, and if it’s good, people will love it.
On releasing too early and no one using your app:
Just trust yourself and like the stuff you’re making. Don’t put it out until it’s cooked, but then also don’t be crushed if everyone hates it at first. People will provide you with far more reasons to stop and to give up than to keep going. Obstacles and defeats will be a part of it from the second you start. Humiliation and defeat is an essential part of being an artist.
If you’re doing anything artsy, the rest of the world’s job is to say whether it’s any good or not. Because you’re making art. You’re trying to be a magician. You’re trying to be an illusionist. Literally, you’re trying to create a unicorn, a good song. If you put out something that’s like just a horn taped to a goat, people are going to say, “Nah, that’s not a fucking unicorn, man,” but occasionally somebody can make a unicorn, and it’s like, “Holy shit.” It makes you believe. You’re making art. People are going to tell you you suck most of the time, but a couple of other people might be like, “I don’t know man. That might be a fucking unicorn. I kind of like it.” The truth is, everything is just a goat with a horn taped to it, but sometimes that’s fucking even cooler than a unicorn.
Mental toughness and delusion, again:
Those are the weird mind games you have to play with yourself. You have to go to bed and tell yourself it’s all going to work out, every night, one way or another, because then it will. If you don’t tell yourself that, it probably won’t. Delusion is very healthy—up to a point.
Here are the complete articles:
Now he just needs to apply his persistence to surfing. 😂