What Your Business Could Learn from American Idol

You know dawg…I’m a HUGE fan of American Idol. And I believe the show holds invaluable lessons for every business, including yours.

You know dawg…I’m a HUGE fan of American Idol. And judging from its weekly Nielsen ratings, I’m not alone (although I know not everyone likes to admit it). I love the amazing voices. I love the amazing stories. I’m not always a fan of the heartbreaking rejection, but I know it’s a part of the show and life in general.    

As I watch Idol each week, I can’t help but compare the stories and aspirations of the contestants to all the startups and small businesses out there, each looking to put their own stamp on the world. And as such, I believe the show holds invaluable lessons for every startup:

1. You need unbiased opinions, not just support:

If you’ve ever watched an audition episode, you’ve undoubtedly seen one of those painfully awkward moments where an out-of-tune/out-of-pitch singer hears what seems to be their very first critique. As a mother of three…soon to be four, I fully believe in the supportive role of family and friends. However, as a business owner, I know that every business leader needs objective and unvarnished feedback now and then. If you’re hearing only rave reviews from your advisors, push them to give you something of substance…or seek out the opinion of a few others.

As you craft your business plan, before you pitch an investor, or before you roll out a new feature or marketing campaign, make sure you’re discussing your ideas with those who have relevant business experience and aren’t hesitant to express their true opinions. In short, encouragement is essential, but sometimes the harsh (Simon Cowell) or tough love (Randy Jackson) feedback is what’s needed to help you get to the next level.

2. Human stories matter:

While I can’t say I’ve ever watched American Idol with a stop watch, I am curious about how much time is spent showing the personal vignettes vs. actual singing, particularly during the auditions and early rounds. I can usually predict if a hopeful will make it through solely based on how much time is spent on their introduction. This is not a critique. Far from it.

American Idol producers understand the power of the human story. We tune in to hear the stories and personal sides of each contestant just as much, if not more than the singing itself. I only have to think about Chris Medina (who was cut before the Top 24) to appreciate the prevailing human element in all of this.

So what does this mean for businesses? It’s what any good social media expert would tell you: personal stories and human connections are what move consumers. Share the stories behind your company. Encourage your employees (and yourself) to interact as human beings, not automatons. And create ways for your customers and community to connect and share their own stories with one another.

3. Play well with others:

For those of you who aren’t glued to American Idol, I’ll share a quick story about one contestant from New Jersey (who will remain nameless). Surprisingly enough, after infuriating her fellow contestants by saying ‘I’m tired of seeing people try to do what I know I can do,” she had a hard time finding anyone willing to join her in the group sing. The moral of the story is to be a successful business, you’ll need to play well with others. Yes, fellow startups may be your competition, but more than likely they’ll be your partners, suppliers, referral networks, and sources of inspiration. The stronger your network, the stronger your potential for opportunities and collaboration.

4. It’s not always about having the best voice:

Let me preface this by saying that even the most brilliant marketing program can’t compensate for a mediocre product (in this case, your voice). However, we all know that raw talent is rarely enough. There are an untold number of intangibles surrounding consumer preferences, but understanding your target customer demographic and their motivations is a good place to begin. Think about the incredible success of Justin Bieber with pre-teen girls, or that of David Archuleta (to get back to American Idol). The successful artists on American Idol know how to build their music and persona around their key voting blocks. Likewise, as a startup, you need to learn how to market your company and yourself with customers, influencers, and investors.

5. We all root for the underdog:

I can’t say if it’s inherent to our culture or to humans as a whole, but we root for the underdog. I believe that this affection for the ‘Little Guy’ is at the root of American Idol’s enduring success. We want to see that unknown artist who works as a bartender break through. The same holds true in business. Customers form bonds with small businesses ⎯ they want their favorite small businesses to succeed. I founded my company precisely for this reason…I wanted to level the playing field and give small businesses access to the same legal resources as large companies have. Startups should embrace the very “start up” and small business elements of their business, and not try too hard to look ‘big.’ After all, we all like underdog success stories far more than hearing about a multi-national corporation’s latest earnings.

6. Last, but not least…Jennifer Lopez & Steven Tyler:

Last year’s conventional wisdom decreed that American Idol could not survive Simon’s departure. Just flip through some of the Idol headlines from 2010: Simon’s Departure or is the End Near?; Life After Simon: What’s American Idol without its Cranky Judge?; Will Simon’s Departure Kill American Idol?; Simon Cowell Departure Another Jolt to Weakening Idol.

This year’s numbers are showing that there is life after Simon and his V-necks. The season premiere was seen by approximately 26.1 million viewers (more than double anything in its time slot). And to date, the ratings are down much less than feared, about 7 percent in the 18-49 demographic. And on some nights, the numbers have actually been higher than last year. Not bad for a show in its 10th season. Pundits and fans (myself included) have been enamored by Jennifer Lopez’s glamour, beauty, infectious enthusiasm, and love for each contestant and infatuated with Steven Tyler’s sexy, quirky, comfortable, and cheery performance. As for me, I can’t believe what a difference it makes when the judges seem genuinely happy to be at their job ⎯ no bitterness, defensiveness, or baggage.

So, what’s the message here – that every startup needs Steven Tyler as their front man? Okay, it wouldn’t hurt. But the real takeaway message is that successful businesses require strong leaders who are at ease with themselves and their role; who have an infectious enthusiasm; and genuinely enjoy what they’re doing. Don’t fall into the cult of personality trap and believe that someone isn’t replaceable. Don’t assume that rebirth or reinvention is impossible. Don’t try to imitate someone else.

And REMEMBER: Make sure you love what you do and do what you love each and every day. You only live once…so make a mark, make a difference and become your own idol in front of your audience!

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