6 Ways Entrepreneurship Is Like Jazz

By Stephen Goodman W’62/L’65

As a lawyer dedicated to helping early stage entrepreneurs develop and polish their value propositions I have been struck by the confluence between entrepreneur rap sessions with potential investors and jazz jam sessions (given my parallel career as a professional jazz pianist for over half a decade). My thesis for this piece is that the optimum creative and integrational modalities of a quality jazz jam session may be instructive to prospective and practiced entrepreneurs.

1) Melody. The mission statement for a venture is tantamount to the melody line of a jazz tune, which is to be subject of improvisation.  If the melody is not crisply stated the player loses his/her audience—the improvisation, instead of extrapolating on the theme, comes off as random and unstructured sounds.  The first paragraph of an Executive Summary expresses the melody, which grabs the listener or reader, and the rest of a Business Plan builds on those themes.

2) Audience. The jazz musician is playing to an audience, and energy and credibility springs from knowing and resonating with that audience, just as an entrepreneur making a presentation needs to know enough about the angel group or fund manager to which he/she is presenting to be responsive in advance to known interests/“hot buttons” of the listeners/readers of their presentation;

3) Listening. A skilled jazz musician has to be as acute a listener as he/she is a performer—it is the integration with the other musicians that creates harmony and enhances the blend into a cohesively pleasing emanation from the aggregation of players.  He/she also has to listen for audience reactions. Entrepreneurs often go off on their beloved set-piece business and industry descriptions and do not include or listen to others in the room—including members of their own team. Such tone deaf entrepreneurs do not listen carefully to the reaction of the potential investors they are addressing. Instead of welcoming potentially revealing questions or concerns and acknowledging them, they become too stuck in their scripts to turn a performance into more of a constructive Q&A session—with no exchanging of licks in their jam session, these entrepreneurs plunge onward with the notes of their script.

4) Spontaneity. Jazz is composition on the spot. When well-performed it demonstrates the musician’s ingenuity, resourcefulness, intuition, creativity, capacity to synthesize and integrate—and do so with spontaneity.  I have heard VCs describe similarly the entrepreneurial athlete who creates a presumption of investability.

5) Improvisation. Many jazz musicians (like me) do not read music—the wiring indescribably enables the simultaneous development of themes in the mind, which are instantaneously translated into notes on the piano. A jazz jam session is a good test, where a musician may find himself/herself having a tune called by the leader that he/she has never played before. The most impressive entrepreneurial performances do not portray an ability to deliver a rehearsed compendium of “notes,” but reveal performers who are quick on their feet in response to unanticipated challenges, to which they unhesitatingly respond because of their mastery  of the business model and a informed intuition—some would call this an ability to “think outside the box.”

6) Harmony. I have heard acrobatic jazz soloists who do not seem to know when it is time for them to stop soloing and take on a role as an accompanist to other players or engage in a harmonic dialogue with them. (This is akin to issues of “listening” and “integration” mentioned above.) I have too often heard a CEO giving a “joint” presentation with the other members of the management team where the CEO does not harmonize with them or gives them little or nothing to say.  It places into question the capacity of the CEO to be a “team builder” and makes the CEO seem tone deaf.

I have often found jazz to be an analogue for effectiveness in entrepreneurial settings, and the above is my attempt at a rendition designed to integrate a splotch of  synchronous probative data points.  That’s jazz!!

Steve Goodman

Bio: As well as being a professional jazz pianist, Stephen Goodman W’62/L’65 is a partner in Morgan Lewis’s Business and Finance Practice, where he founded the firm’s Emerging Business and Technology Practice. In their 30-year anniversary edition, Philadelphia Business Journal recognized him as one of the top three “Most Valuable Players” in the region’s business community during the last three decades. He is the longest-tenured member of the Wharton Entrepreneurship advisory board.