How the Grateful Dead Shaped me as a Business Owner 

Posted on October 18, 2016

By Joanna Kulesa

I admit it. I’m a Deadhead.

It started when I was a teenager. I had become fixated on the Beat writers and poets – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso. I also had a growing sense that, though I lived in a small town in Massachusetts, I was at heart a California girl. So I did what seemed logical: I hitched a ride to San Francisco, a sparkling city—a promised land in my mind—to follow the Grateful Dead.

I’ve since seen the band and iterations of it more than 100 times over the years. As recently as a few months ago, I spent my vacation on a mini-tour with life-long girlfriends following Dead & Company to three different cities, relishing the fun and laughing about the absurdity of it along the way. The Grateful Dead is in heavy rotation on my Sonos (as well as all kinds of music).

Too many to count have found a counterculture outlet in the Dead and continue to revere them into middle age. From basketball star Bill Walton to Bill Murray to famous venture capitalist Roger McNamee to two U.S. presidents (Clinton, Obama), an interesting range of people are on the proverbial Dead bus.

In addition to positive life influences, I’ve learned important lessons from the Grateful Dead that have shaped me as a business owner in many ways. Here are five that rise to the top:

1. The Grateful Dead always stuck to who they were. They never cared about market trends or making hit records. They had a unique musical vision and they pursued it relentlessly and uncompromisingly. Heck, they went without a top ten hit to their name until 1987, 22 years in. Regardless, they stuck to their path and the band’s popularity soared.

Stick to your vision and integrity, success will follow.

2. Over the course of 30 years, the Grateful Dead never broke up and never stopped loving what they did. After more than 2,300 shows, Jerry Garcia turned to Bob Weir after what was to be their last performance together and said, “Always a hoot. Always a hoot.” What could be better than continuing to have fun at what you do with the people you want to do it with?

Having fun is as important as profits and revenues.

3. The Dead were the pre-eminent jam band. Their long, psychedelic musical explorations – some songs stretching 15 minutes or more – were based on a collective improvisational spirit. This embodied a spontaneous philosophy that assumes no idea is bad and that it’s ok to screw up in the name of risk-taking. I’ve come to believe that this is key to the success of a creative agency.

Stay open, listen. A bad idea or mistake can lead to great success.

4. The Grateful Dead were the original open-source enterprise. They broke with tradition by allowing fans to freely tape their shows and trade them with their fan base rather than fearing their IP/product was being stolen. The Dead’s practices came from a generosity of spirit and transparency. 

Operate from a place of openness and honesty, not fear.

5. No one would argue that the Grateful Dead are an example of the power of community beyond compare. Deadheads traveled to see the band as many times as possible and shared a religious-like fervor about the experience, cherishing the tribal nature of it all. I think of our agency and the industry we’re a part of in similar terms. You have to love the work, but it’s the people and communal experience that make it all truly worthwhile.

 • Your network is your community. Nurture it.

I’m Joanna and I’m a Deadhead. Whether it’s enjoying the band or having fun in business, I hope the music never stops.

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Joanna Kulesa has been building successful agencies in Silicon Valley for 20 years.  Her passion for outstanding client service is matched by her dedication to agency employees—reflected in its naming by Fortune as a Best Place to work for Camaraderie and a Best Place to Work for Women. Contact Joanna here.

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