In September, 2014, Jay Jay French began writing a bi-weekly column for Inc. Magazine’s web site. This is an idea that nearly took root on an early version of, but due to the band’s reunion and subsequent performance schedule, it never came about. But every good idea eventually sees the light of day, and the inc. column is the result. Here are all of the columns in one spot. We’ll be adding to this archive as each new column is published, so keep checking back for the latest installation.

There’s More Than One Path to Startup Success

Whether you go it alone, or want collaboration, it’s crucial to learn to manage your team for maximum creativity and success.
Originally published June 16, 2015

I’m currently mentoring two young, aspiring artists. It became clear to me, very quickly, that their vision of the pathway of success was incredibly clear. They’re also very different.

They are both female and both leaders. They want to risk it all in a predominantly male-dominated world. I think this is fantastic. But what makes them truly stand out to me is that one wants to “go it alone.” She wants to write everything herself and wants to control all aspects of her sound and direction without any interference from other members. The other musician wants a whole unified band experience where everyone is an equal partner and all decisions are shared.

I have never seen young people grasp exactly what these decisions will mean for them in terms of creative and economic impact. And I’ve never had the opportunity to observe two artists with such clear and different paths at the same time.

Often, when building a company from scratch, personality differences in the founders will dictate which path – which leadership style – they’ll take. That’s not to say that one is right and one is wrong. Both ways can lead to success (or failure) and it’s not a given that, just because you have a vision and a loud mouth, you will crash due to a narcissistic and self-absorbed approach to other humans. Nor is it a guarantee that, because one sees a more communal convergence of spirit, it will make your path easier.

One must, however, realize early on that either approach needs just a bit of modification. For lack of a better word, one must be a politically minded thinker. You can think “I am in it alone for all the glory” but the practical application has to be tempered with the understanding that, in the beginning, you must make sure that people you bring in are compensated fully for the work that they do so that they feel, even if they leave tomorrow, that they have received proper compensation for delivering their talent, while at the same time, standing aside to let you take the credit.

The “communal minded leader” has his or her own unique leadership challenges. The most important thing to understand early on, is that no creative process is ever totally democratic. The individual skills brought into the business can vary and, over time, the strength and weaknesses of the partners will begin to show. This can lead to resentments by those who feel that their contribution is more meaningful to the success of the company. A true leader will see this all unfold before their eyes and will hopefully have conversations, alone or in a group, in which adjustments can be made that will allow you to move forward using the best parts of every partner.

There are many examples of success and failure of both of these pathways. You have to choose the one that best fits you.

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The Power of 10,000 Hours

I had a million things on my mind when we stepped onstage for the first time since the band lost A.J. Pero, our longtime drummer. The power of practice, and lots of it, helped us perform at our peak. That’s why, no matter how good you think you are at something, you will always benefit from more practice.
Originally published June 23, 2015

The Power of 10,000 Hours

I had a million things on my mind when we stepped onstage for the first time since the band lost A.J. Pero, our longtime drummer. The power of practice, and lots of it, helped us perform at our peak. That’s why, no matter how good you think you are at something, you will always benefit from more practice.
Originally published June 23, 2015

People often ask me how Twisted Sister can put out such a consistently excellent live show, regardless of what’s going on with us. The answer is simple. Practice and lots of it.

But I never appreciated what all that practice means until our first show after our drummer, A.J. Pero, died.

Since our very first show as a band, in March 1973, I have kept a running log of our performances and rehearsals. I recently added them up. They come to almost 10,000 hours. That means we have more than 10,000 hours of muscle memory–or in our case, performance memory. Malcolm Gladwell was absolutely correct. That practice has made us pretty bulletproof. The live show has always been our bread and butter (the core product of our business). We have had to perform many times in the face of really depressing business news, but we have learned to shrug it off, put on the game face, get into a zone–a zone created by all that practice and performance time–and carry the f*ck on.

That practice, and the muscle and performance memory it created, was never more evident than in the months after A.J. died.

We played our first show with a new drummer, Mike Portnoy (a legend, and we couldn’t have asked for a better replacement), at The Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, in June. It was, of course, a bittersweet experience and very emotional for everyone. But our longtime fans told us we played with more passion than they had ever seen. Like we were totally in control.

That’s not how I felt. Not at all.

The truth is, these days, we only play about a dozen shows a year, almost always between May and August. It means that we are off doing other things the other nine months of the year. We usually only run over the songs once at a rehearsal. I am always feeling just a little queasy and unsure. That’s why, before we go into our first rehearsals, sometime in April, I’m gripped with anxiety. But this time, I was also anxious about a new drummer who had only three rehearsals to learn not just the music but also the pacing of the show; the fact that we were doing a live recording for DVD; multiple bands being on the same bill with us (their equipment changes can always cause problems); and special effects, flames, sparklers, and explosions that will possibly light you on fire if you stand in the wrong place. Plus, I’m not just a guitar player–I’m the manager of the band, with a long mental checklist. More important, I was really sad that A.J. wasn’t up there with us.

Here is my confession. There were just too many unknowns this time. Too many potential areas of disruption. Too much emotion. Because it was the first show of the year, I just couldn’t get lost in the performance. My mind was overwhelmed by the confluence of information. And I was still dealing with my own emotions about this first show without A.J.

So what did I do? I consciously let go. I set my brain on autopilot and let the songs flow out. I kept in the back of my mind an idea of what I would need to do if something really went out of control. But I tried not to think about it, and instead, I relied on my ability to do something I’d done for more than 10,000 hours.

And … nothing bad happened. The show went on about as smoothly as I could have hoped.

This is what separates the big boys from the also-rans. The confidence–in our case, forged in the fires of the live club circuit — that we could always deliver, no matter what was thrown at us, is burned into our DNA. As long as we want to do it, it will be done at the highest levels.

The same is true for companies and entrepreneurs. For you or your company to be great, nothing can ever present an obstacle to excellence. You need to practice until you’ve got muscle memory. You can’t stop Twisted Sister. And you can’t stop a great company when you have a great foundation.

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Why I Don’t Believe in Magic

Some people attribute their success to luck, magic or fate, but without preparation, success won’t happen.
Originally published May 13, 2015

Do you believe in magic? I don’t but I do believe that fate plays a part in success. There are the old cliches, like: “It’s better to be lucky then good,” “timing is everything” and “be at the right place at the right time.” I can tell you with100% certitude that, whether you want to call it fate, luck or timing, none of them will make you successful unless you add in a key ingredient: preparedness.

Twisted Sister toiled for years refining and re-defining our music and image. We had to because every time we attempted to present a new, improved version of the band in order to finally get a record deal, the record labels rejected us. It didn’t matter, it seemed, how popular we were. Nobody who controlled the music business thought we were any good. We were incredibly popular. We wondered if the “Gods” were against us. It didn’t seem to make any sense to us that we couldn’t get a record deal.

Then, we finally got a deal with a small, UK-based record label after nearly 10 years of rejections. The day after our first album was released, the label went bankrupt. The pain of this was almost to much to take. It appeared that maybe, after all the shows, the retooling and the reapplication of new ideas, we had hit a brick wall and exhausted all our options.

It felt like the band was on an iceberg that was melting out from underneath us, leaving us to drown without a trace in an ocean of anonymity. All our hard work and dues were going to be erased from the face of the earth, having nothing more to show for it then eventual hearing loss.

But then, just as things seemed bleakest, after all the band member changes, being told that we were too loud, too soft, to glam, not shocking enough, too cliche, that we had no memorable musical hooks, that our pants were to tight, too loose, too pink, too green, too blue, our heels too high, low and on and on….. an opportunity came along. It all came down to one day, one hour, one place at the right time with the right person. In seemingly one incredible combination of luck, timing, and preparation, we appeared on a live TV show in the UK. We had nothing left to lose.

On that show was a British record executive who knew our manager. He was with Mick Jones from Foreigner who was getting an award that night on the program. When the record executive saw our manager and asked why he was at a TV station in Newcastle, our manger said that he was with Twisted Sister. Mick Jones was English but lived in NYC and told his manager that he had always heard our radio commercials and independently released music played on the very stations that played Foreigner. That confirmed to the record executive that we were legit. He couldn’t stay to see the show but taped it on something new called a VCR (this was 1982, remember) at home.

That night. while we played live on the TV show, Dee, in order to get the audience to react to us, threw make up remover on his face, grabbed a towel and rubbed it off while singing a song exhorting the audience to like us for the musical band we were not the glam image that was putting some people in the studio off.

The audience went crazy and, with the addition of Lemmy and Robbo from Motorhead who joined us onstage, we brought the house down. The next day we received record offers from every major label in the UK. We knew how to take advantage of an audience through years of performance training in the bars. We were, in short, PREPARED!

The record executive who taped the show went home and saw the performance. He came down to see us perform live the next night in London and offered us a deal on the spot.

That is how we got signed. That is why we got signed. Finally, all the missed opportunities and bad timing flipped in one exhilarating moment. One moment of luck, paired with preparedness……….and the rest is history.

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Dealing With a Death in the Company

When our drummer AJ Pero died suddenly, we were on the eve of summer concert tour. Here’s what dealing with that catastrophe has taught me about running an organization.
Originally published May 13, 2015

A challenge in business is like light turbulence on an airplane – you have to buckle your seatbelt. It’s an annoyance but you get through after a few tense moments. A crisis in business is more like dropping 3,000 feet and having to reach for the oxygen mask. It’s very scary but recoverable. Terrifying, for sure, but, statistically, nearly always survivable.

And then there is catastrophe. The impending feeling of doom. On planes, they’re frequently fatal, unless the pilot and crew are highly skilled and practiced at responding properly when disaster strikes. For companies, catastrophes can mean the potential end of your company, usually due to circumstances that seemingly come out of nowhere, expose your company’s weaknesses, and could relegate it to the dustbin of history.

My company and I recently faced just such a scenario. Twisted Sister has a summer tour on the schedule, and contracts are signed for various projects all over the world. Then our drummer and friend, AJ Pero, died in March from undiagnosed and untreated heart disease. Suddenly, we faced just such a catastrophe.

Twisted Sister as a company has been in business for nearly 40 years, and we have gone through our fair share of catastrophic moments. But nothing could have prepared us for this.

The best managers of catastrophes have an ability to calmly process effective responses through the haze of confusion sooner rather then later. But, they give themselves some moments of breathing room to collect their thoughts before they act.

The first thing we did was have our agent contact the promoters of the festivals that we are headlining this summer and tell them about AJ’s death before it hit the social media hurricane. The reason for this is to protect them from being blindsided by press and the fans and so they have some kind of response when asked how the show will go on.

We also needed to established how much time we had to decide what we were going to do. When a member of a world famous band dies suddenly, there is a grace period that is generally extended out of courtesy from the promoters so that the band can get its affairs in order. We knew that we needed time to think and regroup but we had to do it quickly — there were several huge festivals that we were already set to headline this summer and the promoters needed to calm down the ticket buyers.

Furthermore, we also decided to formally announce that 2016 (the 40th anniversary of me, Dee and Eddie as the core members of Twisted sister) would mark the end of our touring lives. Not a small decision but one that ironically had been decided just days before AJ’s death. My last conversation with AJ, 12 hours before he died, was partly to inform him of the band vote to make 2016 the final year.

Now, despite that eerie coincidence, the worst thing you can do after a catastrophic event is to interpret the event as a “sign.” Everything happens for a reason — but that reason is not preordained. With a strong enough grasp on reality and an unwavering will to survive, one can take the catastrophe, extract its lessons and put the resulting coincidences, signs and omens in their place.

We decided within hours of AJ’s death, over conference call, that we would play all the shows booked this year. The next major challenge, of course, was finding AJ’s replacement. We received calls almost immediately from some of the greatest rock drummers in the world, many of whom were friends of AJ. Most of them called to express their condolences and many offered their services. As it happened, the legendary drummer Mike Portnoy (coincidentally, AJ was filling in for him when he died) and I were both asked to perform a tribute song for AJ at a show at the Starland Ballroom in Sayerville, NJ. Mike looked at me and said, “Hey, if you want me, I can play all the Twisted Sister shows”. Once I related that news to the rest of TS, we knew that that issue was put to bed.

We are now in rehearsals and Mike is truly amazing. Our fans trust us to make the right decisions and commitments. The shows will go on with renewed energy as AJ would have wanted it to. Our work will be dedicated to the memory of our friend, partner and great drummer AJ Pero.

I am confident that the decisions we made will turn out to be the correct ones and that we will take this experience, survive this potential business catastrophe, and learn from it to make us a better band and better people.

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Saying Goodbye to AJ Pero

When you work with someone for 33 years, they become part of who you are.
Originally published March 31, 2015

My drummer and dear friend AJ Pero died suddenly of a heart attack a little over a week ago. Because this column has given me a voice and, most importantly, a focus to share my business as well as life experiences and lessons, I will use this now to give you (and me, in a strange way) some insight into how I have been dealing with this terrible news.

A quick recap:

Twisted Sister began 42 years ago. As you may know, the band has had the same members for nearly 33 of those 42 years. The core of the group (Dee Snider, my high school buddy Eddie Ojeda, and I) have been together 39 years. This constitutes, in any business context, a very long relationship. We have struggled from the days of being a bar band, made the leap into international stardom, crashed and burned and walked away from each other for over a decade. Then, we reestablished the band and attained (after discovering that many parts of the world actually cared that we broke up and demanded that we come back) renewed worldwide success over the past 12 years through legendary live shows and aggressively licensing of our music for TV shows, movie soundtracks, and commercials. This has helped keep some of our songs, and as an extension of that, our band, current in the quickly evolving world of social media.

Every year, for the past 12 years, at about this time, we have scheduled yet another summer of massive festival performances. This has become so predictable that we take it for granted. Kind of like “Groundhog Day,” except that the shows get bigger every year.

Till Death Do Us Part
The last conversation I had with my drummer AJ Pero was less than 24 hours before he was pronounced dead of a heart attack at the age of 55 on the morning of March 20th. As the president of our various companies, I called AJ, who was currently playing drums and touring with another band named Adrenaline Mob, on March 19th to bring him up to speed on our touring schedule. I also gave him the latest information about a number of upcoming events this year: The about-to-released documentary “Twisted F*ckin’ Sister”, a three CD package of live concerts recorded between 1979 and 1983, the brand new live concert recording for DVD and TV broadcast of our only show in the US this year taking place in Las Vegas on May 30th. I also let him know that we were using an all European road crew for our summer shows (instead of bringing crew from the U.S., including his son AJ Jr., who was his roadie).

And finally, and reflecting on this last part brings tears to my eyes, we talked about how much longer we, as a band, could continue performing at the current level, since physical limitations were starting to take their toll on certain band members. (How deeply ironic but not surprising when you read interviews with many of our peers who have had members who either survived or died of cancer or other diseases as well as many of whom have had various joint replacements.) “Mr. French,” AJ said (he often addressed me as Mr. French, maybe because he was the youngest–and newest–band member and I was the oldest), “I’m leaving the Adrenaline Mob tour early to come home and have my shoulder rehabbed for our summer shows”. Because of social media, he wanted to assure me that, if I heard that he left the tour prematurely, everything was fine. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m good for all the shows this summer.”

And with that, we agreed to meet in New York City on the following Monday and said what would be our final goodbyes. The next morning I was having breakfast with Andy Horn, the producer/director of our soon to be released documentary. Andy was excited that he just gotten a distributer. My cell rang, and it was my agent/tour manager Danny Stanton. He told me that he just got a call from a member of Adrenaline Mob and was told that they couldn’t wake AJ up and had called an ambulance. He said AJ had an apparent heart attack. As he was saying this to me, I just nodded my head, as I didn’t want to alarm the movie director. I learned years ago that bad news may not really be as bad as you think it is, so I just waited for all the facts to be reported. After we finished breakfast, I started to take my daily walk and kept telling myself to be positive. AJ probably just had indigestion.

Danny called again.

This time he confirmed my worst fear. AJ had died of a massive heart attack.

Time stood still. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. You can never prepare yourself for news of this magnitude no matter how tough you think you are. No matter how pragmatic you think you are.

I didn’t have much time to process it. My management skills completely took over at that point. I had to then make some of the most difficult phone calls in my life. The one to AJ’s son, AJ Jr., was the most wrenching. I said the words to him that I was just told. I heard his gasp of disbelief. So many thoughts were running through my mind. I knew one thing for sure, the next week would be one of the toughest to get through in my life. I had just lost a business partner, a brother, and a dear, sweet friend who always made me laugh and who I really tried to look after through the years.

I walked back to my office, sat at my desk staring at the computer screen, started to cry, and waited for the tsunami to come.

While I knew that this was going to be a shock to many, I/we had no idea that AJ’s death was going to send such shock waves through the Heavy Metal community and the regular news outlets. AJ was by far the most sociable of all the band members, and his roots connecting him to our fans became known to us in wave upon wave of social media comments. He was also regarded as one of the greatest technical drummers in the world. The outpouring of respect among his peers was incredible as well. AJ was also a family man, with four children and a grandchild.

We were about to celebrate AJ’s 33rd year as a member. (His first show was on April 1st, 1982.) He was always affectionately known as the “new guy.” He was also the first to agree with anything. He was the partner who just wanted everyone to be happy, and he never had an agenda. So talented, so dependable, so…AJ. So here I am, after a week of mourning, crying, talking, crying, the wake, the funeral mass, the band discussions about our future, and reflecting on AJ, my life, the band’s fans…

I realize that our collective history is so long, so deep, so intertwined that AJ’s death has shaken us to the core. It made me realize the fundamental connection that we as a band and as a company share as friends with a nearly 40 year history.

This company employs a lot of people and has created a business model that is the envy of many of our fellow bands. We will honor AJ during our shows this year. A professional drummer who is a friend will be filling in shortly. This will allow us to fulfill our touring obligations and, most importantly, give us some space to make some very hard decisions about our future.

We are surely not the same kids who had a dream 40 years ago to become “rock stars.”

We carry the scars to prove it.

We are adults who run a business, and businesses must go on, even through a curtain of tears.

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Beware of the Brian Williams Effect

Originally published March 16, 2015

Let me set the record straight: Brian Williams was never a member of Twisted Sister!

I had a feeling that would get your attention. Truth be told, I am a fan of Brian Williams, and he, of course, never said he was a member of Twisted Sister. However, the subject of this column centers on the problem that Brian is now facing and, to a larger extent, the problem that anyone in a position of influence can run into:


In Brian’s case, he was not just a newsreader. He is a journalist, and that is where he really got into trouble. His fish tales grew ever larger as time went by and the expectations of his profession don’t allow much wiggle room when relating personal stories of near death experiences.

This tends to be a problem with great storytellers. I should know. I am one.

As a motivational speaker, I have told many stories over the years about the rise, fall, and rise of my band Twisted Sister. I have turned a lot of the band’s history into very funny anecdotes. (Although most of them, at the time they occurred, were not only not funny but were, in many cases, near disasters.) I did keep a diary at the time–so I can verify times and places. But the prism of time does tend to bend it all into, in my case, interesting, entertaining, and compelling stories– and hopefully some takeaways and larger lessons to help you get through challenging times in life or business.

One story I’ve told frequently concerns the incident that lead to the break up of the first version of Twisted Sister in December 1974. (In my next column, I’ll discuss the specifics of what happened and what I learned from the situation. But it basically started with a drunken disagreement between a roadie and the bass guitarist and escalated to the drummer being held at gunpoint by the lead singer.) What was always the most important aspect of my storytelling was that I had the facts straight. Why now am I so concerned? Because I write this column and I feel a responsibility to my readers that my experiences, interpretations, and advice are grounded in truth.

I started thinking about this recently after a former roadie for the band contacted me on Facebook. He was the very person whose actions triggered the fight that led to the firing of the two founding members. The incident happened over 40 year ago, and I have been telling a version of it for just as long. This week, however, I had the chance to, for the first time in 40 years, go over what happened, step by step, with the person whose actions directly led to the end of the first version of the band.

That conversation led me to contact the club owner, in whose living quarters the incident occurred, as well as the original former bass player who was also at the center of the break up.

After all the conversations, I am happy to report that, besides some minor details revealed in my conversations concerning issues that don’t directly change how this incident affected me, my story remains intact. It seems that I remembered many more details than others did, because I was not drunk during this episode. So my memories of the event will stand as the official record of it, and my confidence concerning the value of the lessons learned stand ever stronger today. As an entertainer, I realize that the bar for credibility is set very low, maybe a rung or two above lawyers and politicians.

But it matters to me, and it should matter to you, too.

Maybe one day it will also matter to Brian Williams.

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The Simple Business Tool That Changed My Life

Originally published March 2, 2015

Through all the stories and business advice that I have written about, this was possibly one of the most important tools that helped me along the way: keeping a diary.

Remember, I was a high school dropout, but I had a lot of street smarts, which always seemed to kick in just when I needed them most. There was no template that I followed, and I really didn’t have someone who gave me Yoda-like advice when it appeared that I was hitting a brick wall.

I started keeping a diary in December 1974, because I needed a way to express the enormous emotional and physical pain that I was dealing with following my mother’s sudden death, my girlfriend breaking up with me, and the break up of the first version of our band, Twisted Sister. All of these events happened over a 10-day period that December.

I was 22 years old.

Because I had been a heavy drug user between the ages of 15 to 20 (I stopped cold turkey six months prior to the beginning of the band), I swore to myself that I wouldn’t take the easy way out by returning to my drug-riddled past. Starting a diary and putting my thoughts on paper was part of my salvation. The diary became a narrative of my will to survive.

Maybe I will, at some other time, write about the depression that I experienced due to the confluence of these extraordinary experiences. Suffice to say, once my depression lifted, I continued the diary for 15 years as a historical document on my ongoing march to rock ‘n’ roll stardom.

Over the years, the diary revealed many patterns to me. I documented the band’s ability to stay current and draw crowds during the huge economic swings that affected the U.S. and the world. It also showed how we adapted to the Son of Sam murder spree in 1976 to 1977, which had the effect of either keeping girls at home or prompting them to wear brunette wigs to our shows (he seemed to only shoot blond women). There was also disco music’s rise, and the resulting closing of rock clubs for a period of time; the gas crisis in the summer of 1979; and, most importantly, the drinking age rising from 18 to 21, taking away potentially thousands of new fans.

Perhaps the most important detail that began to emerge was the pattern of behavior exhibited by the band: our fierce desire to make it no matter what was thrown at us. Time after time, rejection after rejection, and no matter what disasters would befall us, we seemed to follow the same pattern as I would recount in my diary: Take the hit, briefly mourn, reinvent ourselves, and re-apply that reinvention. This pattern (almost like the instructions on a shampoo bottle: wet hair, apply shampoo, rinse, repeat) was becoming an unconscious habit that I now understand all successful business models possess.

And, of course, the diary provided stats that I could always refer to, including the names of the venues we played, the frequency of appearances, the songs we played, the reactions of the fans, the money earned, the merchandise sales, etc.

Keeping a diary also gave me a window into my soul, by exposing my deepest fears. By doing so, it also showed that with each challenge and emotional setback, I could take the hit and move forward. Confidence builds on itself over time and becomes one of the greatest tools you could ever possess.

But the diary’s greatest gift, I recognized years later, was the understanding it gave me of not only my character, but of the kind of commitment that my band and I made to each other as partners in a business that demanded one thing: a ferocious desire to succeed.

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Here’s To The Risk-Takers

Originally published February 17, 2015

For fans of my columns, you may notice that they are a little different than most. I try to distill universal truths into 500-word sound bites. As a motivational speaker, I tend to think in absolutes. I develop a theory based on my experiences, which I convince myself that I can turn into a teachable moment. And then I bend the narrative to make my case. Who knew that I even had the talent to do this? This is about as far away from my dream of being a rock star as you can get.

Recently, on a very cold Friday afternoon in February, I found myself pondering something that many entrepreneurs may wonder about: Why was I not afraid to take risks? Why was I not afraid to fail?

I began thinking about this after recent conversations with two people I have known for years. The first was with my brother Jeff who is 10 years older than I am, and the other was with a very old friend I had the great fortune of re-establishing a relationship with recently. Both of them knew me years before I had any success, and both gave me insights into their choices as well as my own decisions.

In both examples, while the appearance of their respective choices seem “safe,” I must add that they both went on to have stellar careers in their chosen fields, both loved their jobs, and–just as easily as any entrepreneur–could have failed. The difference, as I see it, is that their risks were much closer to the ground, allowing a safer fall and easier pivot. In other words, and without taking away anything from their respective accomplishments, the decision to go “all in” was less dangerous.

My brother Jeff knew exactly what he wanted to do after college. He became a New York City school teacher, a decision he made in part because he felt that a job like that would give him the certainty of an economically secure future. In essence, this was a very smart and fairly risk-averse choice. He is now retired after a 40 teaching history, and by all accounts everything financially worked out as advertised.

My old friend Victor was a drummer who was following his dream of rock stardom and found himself at the age of 22 picking up extra cash in a peripheral job in the theater world by chauffeuring Joseph Papp around while working for Shakespeare in the Park in New York City. This opportunity led to a stagehand job. When Victor decided to walk away from his rock ‘n’ roll dream, he also realized that he loved the backstage theater world, and this is where he established a great career. In Victor’s words: “While working in the theater world, days became weeks, weeks became years, and you realize one day that you have a career that you didn’t know that you had.”

So Victor did take a risk at one point, knew when to get off the high risk merry-go-round, and again, like my brother, landed just where he wanted to be.

Then there is me.

I love rock and R&B music. It totally consumed me. I went to see every performer I could seemingly every night of the week from the age of 15 to 20 (1967-1972). As a teenager, the obsession to be in the rock ‘n’ roll business in any way drove me to make my career choice. I carried a guitar around with me everywhere I went and told people that I was going to be a rock star. I practiced my guitar, playing for hours on end and imagined myself playing guitar for the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones etc. I also knew one thing for certain: I didn’t need a high school or college diploma, which is why I became a high school dropout. I had a crazy dream, which I had absolutely no idea how to accomplish and took risk after risk without any safety net. I had no choice. I had to have this so bad that nothing could stop me.

I was 20 when we started Twisted Sister, and, after 10 years of the band struggling in the club scene, and failure after failure, we made the big leap in 1983. And for five years, we grabbed the brass ring of worldwide fame–only to watch it crash and burn in 1988, leaving me broke and divorced. Undaunted, I remarried, had a child, and reinvented myself as a producer and manager of the band Sevendust. When I walked away from managing Sevendust, I went though yet another divorce and put Twisted Sister back together again, only to find the band’s world wide popularity as well as the licensing of our classic songs, made us more financially successful then we ever were. In short: I took a very big risk, suffered a number of very big crashes…and in the end netted a very big reward. How did I know that things were going to work out?

I didn’t.

You never know, but looking back, it seems that the fear I had still didn’t succeed in stopping me. I love this business and still do.

Were there sleepless nights? Of course. Were there times that I felt that I was staring down the abyss? Absolutely. Did I walk away from the music business after the birth of my daughter and assume that I was no longer able to withstand that risk again? Yes, I did.

What the hell happened then? Why did I return yet again, to the scene of such victory and defeat? Cynics would say that it’s because it’s the only world I know. Wrong.

So why was I not afraid to take risks? Or to fail?

It all comes down to passion. My passion was (and still is) so great that the sheer nature of the intoxicating effects of changing the world through music keeps giving me the faith that I will succeed.

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The One Simple Exercise That Will Help You Make Better Decisions

Originally published February 2, 2015

You might be saying to yourself, “Really? Your first column for the new year has to be an exercise resolution?”

Stay with me now. This exercise isn’t hard at all, but I guarantee you that its benefits are real and tangible. You probably already do it every day (and some of you may even do it in your sleep). But you may not have ever harnessed its transformative powers.

It is called walking.

OK, not just walking, but walking with a purpose. I have been doing this for years and have made some of the biggest decisions in my life after long walks. Decisions like, how can I make my live performance better? How much longer do I continue doing this project? How do I keep the Twisted Sister brand evolving and remaining relevant? Is my marriage really over? Should I file for bankruptcy?

These questions were not small and trite. They were life changing.

Long, deliberative walks can be the source of soul searching and contemplative analysis. Walking is not only a great form of exercise, but it also stimulates the mind. When friends ask me where I get inspiration, I tell them that I get up every morning and go for a walk. I aim for at least 20 minutes a day, but sometimes it’s as much as two hours, because I incorporate walking into many of my meetings. During these daily walks, I come up with ideas and structure for my projects–and ways to solve challenges.

I used to run. A lot. I ran for six years and finished two New York City marathons. Running was a great source of exercise, but took too much of a toll on my body. Walking, however, is something you can do every day.

When you are sitting at your desk at work and beating yourself up because you seem to have hit a wall, get up, go outside, and walk, but keep thinking about the problem. Maybe go out with a co-worker. Walk and talk. Go over the challenge. As your blood gets flowing, your body releases endorphins, which help ease your stress–and allow you to think more clearly about how to solve the problem.

I love this passage from the book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit:

“Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in a conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts … Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time, the mind wanders from plans to recollections to observations.”

See you in the park.

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The Major Killer of Startups (and Rock Bands)

Originally published December 22, 2014

How Clear Is Your Vision?

The story goes that when the Beatles were depressed because of a lack of momentum in their career, usually after a long night playing the bars in Hamburg or another long and depressing ride in a van, John would yell out, “Where are we goin,’ fellas?” Paul, George, and Ringo would then respond loudly, “To the top, Johnny!” Then John would continue, “And where’s that, fellas?” To which they would scream back, “To the toppermost of the poppermost!”

How simple. How unified. How straightforward. How perfectly correct.

When Twisted Sister started in 1973, we sat around at the very first rehearsal and voiced our vision for the band. (Not that we knew that we were doing something that would be described in Inc. 40 years later!)

We all wanted the same things: to be in a great rock band, become very popular in the local bar scene, get a record deal, make great albums, tour the world, have girls chasing us, become very rich and very famous. All of us were in lockstep with that goal. We were all very clear and very committed–we had clarity of purpose.

Conflicting Goals

I am approached everyday by new bands to give them advice. The first question I ask is: What is your vision? This question really is the only one that matters when starting a new venture, whether it’s a band, a software business, or a construction company. If you are committed to success and that success means you are doing this with partners, the group vision has to be as clear as day.

Because the music business has shifted so dramatically in the past 10 years, the answers I get these days from bands generally lack the kind of singular focus and clarity that I know is absolutely essential for success.

I hear just about everything …

“I just want to make great music.” (That’s admirable.)

“I just want to earn enough to make a living at it.” (That’s possibly doable.)

“I want to sell millions of records.” (Those days are over.)

“I want my band to be on tour as the opening band for [fill in the blank with a really big headliner].” (Because record labels don’t give bands tour support, those days are way over!)

The problem is that I hear this from members of the same band! This is a big issue: no clear, unified vision. It is not the musical differences that kill bands early on; it’s the approach to success that can do bands in.

Creativity Is Not Enough

Besides the obvious (it’s not called “the music business” for nothing), any business that doesn’t take a “dual track” approach that really involves the integration of creativity and vision will absolutely fail.

Remember this: If you don’t have a unified vision up front, you won’t last very long. You may have that moment of spiritual oneness–that special once-in-a-lifetime event when a creation is made by the confluence of energy and inspiration that occurs when humans come together to write that great melody and hit that “lost chord”–when you collectively see the “Stairway to Heaven” in what you believe in your heart was a “meant-to-be moment.”

But if you don’t make sure you are all on board for the exact same goal, then that wondrous moment, within months if not weeks, will most surely dissipate, like dust in the wind.

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The Best Business Advice I Ever Got

Originally published December 8, 2014

In truth, what I am about to lay on you is actually one of the keys of life. It’s like the 800-pound gorilla of keys. It has the power to transform and impact the very DNA that courses through your body. It is so important that Moses should have added it to the Ten Commandments. In fact, I think Moses probably left the mount about two minutes early and missed the last piece of advice coming from up above.

I mean, isn’t the Ten Commandments just another list? The Bible would sell more copies if they retitled it:

The 10 Ways God Wants You to Lead a Better Life

Forward by Tony Robbins!

Before I tell you what this key of life is, I will tell you how I was told.

In the late ’70s, my band Twisted Sister was working five nights a week trying to become more popular. It soon became clear that our little light show (bar bands carried around their own lights in those days) was really inadequate. We needed to make a statement, and a big impressive light show was very important. But there was a big problem: The lights were very expensive, and we didn’t have the money.

As fate would have it (fate was always there when we needed it), a guy named Tony Sklarew came to one of our shows and became friends with our roadie/light man. Tony worked for one of the biggest lighting companies in the world: Altman Stage Lighting, based in Yonkers, N.Y. It made all the really huge spotlights and associated gear for the biggest arenas and shows around the world. Tony loved the band and invited me to meet his boss, Ronnie Altman. I went to the factory, a huge complex on the Hudson River in Yonkers. I had never seen anything like this operation.

Ronnie came over to meet me. He was a short man with a huge, bellowing voice. He was very brusque and intense. He wore jeans and a work shirt. I got the feeling that he was a very hard-working, blue-collar guy, who was all business. I was so right, and then some.

Tony told Ronnie about the band and what we needed. Ronnie said that the cost of the light show that Tony described would be around $10,000. Ronnie looked at me and asked if we could afford it. I said that we couldn’t. He took me aside and said, “Tony tells me your band is really good, and that you are a good guy. I’m going to rent you this light show for $25 a week. Can you afford that?” I was blown away. I never thought you could do business at this level on a handshake. This is exactly what we needed, and it wasn’t costing me anything up front. I also knew that the lighting rig would evolve over time, so I wouldn’t be burdened with having to resell it.

“Good,” he replied. “You can pay me that $25 every week, whether in person, by mail, or carrier pigeon. The week that you miss the payment, you lose me as a friend. The lighting rig that I’m giving you is something that I wont miss. The 10 grand will not make a difference in my life. You, however, will never do business with me again if you miss the payment.”

I had never heard anything like this before. Ronnie was, in effect, daring me to be honest–and giving me my own noose with which to hang myself if I wasn’t.

I never missed the payment. And, over time, Ronnie’s trust in me grew, and he gave us more and more equipment. Every couple of months we got more items, and the lighting system kept growing at no extra charge. I think that he thought of us as a pet project that he could be a part of and tell his friends that we did business together. But he wanted to know that I was true to my word. That I was responsible enough that he could trust me. This is really “old school” stuff where trust is built on an instinct and a handshake. I have run my business with that same sense of responsibility every day since my first meeting with Ronnie.

Ronnie passed away around 1981 as we were leaving the club scene. We didn’t need a light show by that time. (In fact, the days when local bands carried this stuff around are long gone.) But Ronnie’s lesson really has nothing to do with a lighting rig, the delivery of an album, or appearing on stage at a contracted time. It’s about understanding that your word is worth more than anything in a contract. It’s about the credibility that you bring to a situation. The more people can count on your commitment, the more opportunity you will have to show your character, and the more you will learn to expect from the people that you do business with.

I recently called Altman Stage Lighting to see if it was still in business and wound up speaking to Ronnie’s granddaughter. I told her the lesson that Ronnie taught me. She started to cry and said that was the kind of person he was.

That, my friends, is the greatest business advice I ever got. It is my 11th commandment: “Always do what you say you are going to do.”

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How To Negotiate With Intimidating People

Originally published November 24, 2014

This week, I’ll be in Amsterdam at the International Documentary Film Festival, attending the debut of a documentary about the first 10 years in the history of Twisted Sister.

Invariably, when we tell the story of how the band survived 10 years in the New York and New Jersey bar scene while struggling to get a record deal, people want to hear war stories about shady club owners and how we dealt with the implied “mob scene.” Yes, it is true that many of the owners, bartenders, and bouncers had names like Tony, Sal, Vinnie, Tiny, Fat Scotty, Muscles Marinara, and Spicy Potato Salad. (OK, maybe not the last two.) I can also tell you that in the very early days, we were instructed to do whatever we were told. (If they tell you you’re too loud, turn it down! If they say you’re not playing enough Rolling Stones, add more Stones songs!)

So when it came time to negotiate for more money, I had to figure out how to do that without fear of winding up at the bottom of a bay. I realized that demanding more money probably wouldn’t go over well, so I decided to take a much more methodical approach.

Bringing Brains to a Gunfight

First, I started hanging out with the club owners. I’d tell them jokes, and at the end of the night (assuming everybody was in a good mood), I’d ask how many people came to see our show. The answers I got usually weren’t very accurate. I was able to size up a room pretty well, and the numbers they gave me were often low. They never wanted the bands to know how well they were doing.

So, I started bringing in a friend to sit at the bar and use a clicker to count how many people paid to get in. Then, I’d ask the club owner how many people came. Even if he said 150, I would know there were more than 200 paid that night. I also started to hang out after hours with the bartenders, and they’d tell me how much they made in tips and what percentage that amount was of their total bar take. I multiplied that amount by the number of registers, divided by the number of customers, and pretty soon I had a good idea of how much the club was making per head on the nights we played.

Then, I would come on nights that other bands were playing–bands that I knew were being paid more than we were–and I’d do the same calculations. If we were bringing in the same amount of sales or better, we could ask for a raise confident that the club owner needed us just as much as we needed him.

Building Partnerships

The strategy worked, and slowly we got paid more. We poured the money into better equipment, put on better shows, and started to move up the ranks of the club scene. Because the legal drinking age was 18, the pool of customers was huge–and so were many of the bars. Some of them held as many as 5,000 people. In other words, the club owners had a lot invested in these rooms, and they needed to fill them.

As we grew more popular and started to draw thousands of fans four and five nights a week, all within a 75-mile radius of Manhattan, the pressure increased to keep the rooms full. Our approach was to convince the club owners that we were partners. On nights when the gas crisis or bad weather wreaked havoc on the local bar scene, I recognized that just because we had a guaranteed fee, some nights were not financially successful. I would sit with these owners and actually hand them back several hundred dollars. I did it before they asked. That way they knew that I understood their problems. Over time, we built trust. Other bands that didn’t do this suffered. They created bad blood, and as soon as their crowds began to shrink, the club owners couldn’t wait to cut their pay and be less cooperative in many other ways.

We, on the other hand, had a very different experience. I would sit down with these guys and say that we needed more print ads or more radio advertising. They almost always agreed, because we invested some of our own money into this promotion pool. We would sink or swim together. The band became the biggest guaranteed draw in the history of the New York and New Jersey bar scene. The club owners even started to root for us to get out of the circuit and represent the best rock had to offer from the New York and New Jersey area. Many of them lent us money (advances for future shows, without the “vig”) for demo tapes, rehearsals, and trips to Europe.

To this day, the club owners who are still alive remain friends of the band, and some even appear in the documentary. Yes, in the early days some thought we played too loud, and, yes, some didn’t like that we wanted to play original material, but the relationship was always respectful. We were never threatened. We always proved our point with an economic model that worked for all parties. To quote Michael Corleone in The Godfather: “It’s just business, Sonny. Strictly business.”

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How To Network Like A Rock Star

Originally published on November 10, 2014

Lately, there’s been a lot of media buzz about the amazing resurgence of vinyl record albums. Wow, what’s next, people actually talking on the phone?

What’s old is new again, because it’s better. Millennials are buying vinyl again, because it’s a better way to listen. I’d argue that some of the old ways are better when it comes to business relationships, too. Personal contact is still the better pathway to success, whether you are in the music business or any other kind of business.

The most often repeated fear that I hear these days is that the art of communicating among the millennial generation is being lost to new technology. The problem is that without real human contact, the person you’re doing business with looks at you as just another name on a list. Your name has no context, no story, no connectivity, and ultimately, no network of people who want to work with you and help you succeed.

Friends and Fuel

I learned my first big lesson about the importance of relationships during the 1973 oil crisis. Our band Twisted Sister was only eight months old, and we were living in a house in Northern New Jersey when the great gas crisis hit in November of that year. Everyone in the band had a car, and we also had a truck rented weekly. We were working six nights a week at that time.

We always used to get gas from a station on Route 17, close to our band’s house. The guy who ran it was in his mid-20s, and I would always have conversations with him about the music he listened to. Eventually, I invited him to come see us play in the local bars. We had been playing out for only a few months when the gas crisis hit. The new emergency laws mandated that you could only buy gas on the odd or even day of the week that matched the last number of your license plate.

This would have been a huge problem for us, because we had to drive to the clubs six night a week. Plus, our truck was old and had terrible gas mileage. But since I had a good relationship with the gas station employee who had become a friend and a fan, he would sneak us in late at night whenever we needed to fill up. He liked me, he knew my story (and I knew his), and he wanted to see me and the band succeed.

As the crisis wore on (it lasted about seven months), it got to the point that no one was even allowed to buy gas on Sundays, period. Many gas stations were being robbed of their gas on those days. That’s how desperate it got. The gas stations would barricade their driveways with large trucks to protect them. But my friend would meet us under the cover of darkness (3 a.m.) on Sunday mornings, roll back the trucks, and sneak us in to fill our vehicles up. We never missed a show during that very trying time!

This was the first of many business relationships that we benefited from. We built personal relationships with lighting companies, trucking companies, music instrument stores, radio station DJs and general mangers, club owners, recording studio owners, engineers, and other bands. Could we have made it without close working relationships with all of these people? Probably. But with all of these people on our side, it made the experience much more manageable–and a lot more pleasant.

Building a Human Network

How do you develop these relationships? It’s actually pretty simple. Look people straight in eye and shake their hands. Ask their names and repeat it back to them as many times as you have to when asking questions (an old bartender’s trick to remember customers’ names). And ask a lot of general personal questions (Where did you go to school? Where were you born? Any family?). When asked subtlety, you would be surprised what people will tell you. As soon as you can, jot down their names and info into a document or whatever database you use. And then follow up with an email less than 24 hours later. (Oh, and drinking with people also helps.)

There are levels of nuance to all of this, of course. You can’t overdo it. And when you are building your network, keep these four tips in mind:

1. Don’t be demanding.

2. Be grateful for what you do get.

3. Always be gracious.

4. Compliment the person helping you out.

5. Always ask if there is something you can do for them.

At the end of the day, it comes down to being the kind of person that other people want to help succeed.

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The 5 Questions That Keep You Up at Night

Originally published October 27, 2014

This is how all the self doubting starts. The TV may be flickering, the bottle of wine may not yet be finished, but you’re playing the scenarios over and over in your mind. What if I had said this? Or done that? You are sure that the outcome would have been totally different.

I’ve been there myself many times over the course of my career as a founder, guitar player, and manager of Twisted Sister. These were (and continue to be) the questions that have kept me up the most:

1. How did I blow this opportunity?

After every failed attempt to get a record deal, I couldn’t sleep. When confronted with a business opportunity, a variety of factors collide. Hope and success mixes in with fear, doubt, greed, and failure. Being able to step away and take a cold, calculating look at your options as well as getting as much input as you can from people you trust and know you is the blueprint for making an educated decision. There will always be risk, but the more you know, the better you will be at seeing the road that lies ahead.

2. Why didn’t I see this coming?

As band members came and went, I just used to sit back in amazement that I didn’t read the clues about the problems that laid ahead. When you get gobsmacked by a situation that you never saw coming, most people don’t react well and can’t successfully turn on a dime. That’s normal. Every situation may be a little different, but the tools for dealing with them are not. Take a deep breath and calm down. Don’t be afraid to talk about this with a close friend or business associate. They may help you gain a perspective that you might not have even been aware of.

3. Am I really smart enough to succeed?

This is really the big one. Self doubt is the biggest killer of dreams. I must have come to this point a dozen times in my life. Fighting through this one is the greatest challenge, but deep, deep down, you must find that reservoir of self belief. There are people who feel that the world owes them a living. I decided years ago that I would never work with people like that again. On those days when I was really down on myself, I asked this simple question: Was what I did today the best that I could do? If the answer was yes then I could go to sleep. If the answer was no, then I vowed that the next day would be different. Just don’t make the same mistake twice.

4. Should I let this person go?

Whether you have a business or personal relationship, figuring out to to keep and who to jettison is often the difference between success and failure. Our original bass player was a great musician and a great friend. I thought that we would stay together to the finish line, but it wasn’t meant to be. He admitted to me that he had a drinking problem and to his credit, joined AA. Well, the worst place on earth for a recovering drinker to work is in a bar, and, although we tried to make it work, there was no way that didn’t put his recovery in jeopardy. He had to leave the band. It just so happened that our current bass player, Mark Mendoza of the seminal punk band The Dictators, was working for us at the time and stepped in. It was a tough decision, but it was the right one. Mark was the right guy at the right time. Just make sure you are losing someone for the right reasons. Follow a strong moral compass and don’t ever let greed be the arbiter. That will lead you down a dark tunnel that will only bring you great dissatisfaction.

5. How can I recover from this crisis?

I’ve dealt with my share of disasters–too many of them to mention here. Here’s how I’ve learned to bounce back:

Mourn: You have that right. Be sad–then get over it.

Reassess: List all of the good things you did, and then list the lessons that you learned from the crisis.

Reinvent: Come up with a better way to solve the problem.

Reapply yourself: Make these ideas the new reality.

Most importantly, remember that things will always look better in the morning. After a good nights sleep, what seemed like a disaster 12 hours earlier usually does work itself out in the light of day!

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How I Negotiated My First Deal

Originally Published October 13, 2014

Many people don’t realize that good salesmanship is just as important for starting a rock band as it is for starting a business. In fact, being good at sales is what helped me get my first instrument and, eventually, launch my music career.

In 1965, inspired by the British Invasion and the arrival of Bob Dylan, I decided it was time to put together my first band at age 13. The only problem was that I didn’t own an electric guitar or a amplifier. And my parents pretty much gave me the sense that they weren’t buying one for me, either–they were always telling me that they didn’t have any money.

Nonetheless, I decided to go for it, borrowing instruments from other kids. I formed a band with some kids in my junior high (we broke up after a day) and another band with some of the kids in my neighborhood (we got kicked out of the school talent show for playing “I Couldn’t Get High” by the Fugs–and then we broke up).

I really wanted my own instrument. I decided that there was a need for bass players, since it seemed that everyone played guitar. The one I wanted cost $25 dollars at the pawn shop, but that was more than I could afford.

That’s when the Boy Scouts called, asking for fundraising help. Yeah, that’s right, I was a Boy Scout. I had dropped out just short of Eagle Scout, because they required a letter from your religious leader vouching for your character. (My family, though Jewish, wasn’t religious. My father said he knew plenty of rabbis and could get a letter, no problem. But I thought that felt like a con job. Plus, they had been giving me grief about growing my hair longer.)

But now, the Scouts wanted my help. One thing that most people don’t know about the Boy Scouts is that they, like the Girl Scouts, also used to sell cookies. (Now, they sell popcorn.) The year before, I had set the record for cookie sales by selling 110 boxes. So, the scoutmaster called me up to ask if I would sell cookies to help them keep the quota up. I wasn’t good enough to be in the Scouts, but they wanted me to sell cookies!

After getting some advice from my dad, I made the scoutmaster a deal: I would sell the cookies if he paid me a commision of 10 cents a box. He agreed, and I got to work selling those cookies.

In the end, I sold 242 boxes, and I was paid $24.20. My dad threw in the other 80 cents (big spender), and I bought my first guitar: a Red Hagstrom bass, which I still own to this day.

I also took something else away from the experience: I actually negotiated a deal. Sure, it wasn’t the smoothest delivery–I was a little scared by the possibility of getting turned down. But I made an offer and it was accepted! That skill became very important for me later when I had to cut deals with clubs, record companies, you name it. But, at the time, I was able to focus on my music skills–using my very own, hard-earned bass guitar.

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Finding Your Big Bang Moment

Originally published on September 29, 2014

Whether you are an artist or an entrepreneur, your story usually begins with passion, a moment that goes something like this: “The first time I either witnessed, touched, smelled, felt, heard [this object of passion], I just knew that I would do anything, risk anything to be a part of this life…”

That Big Bang moment truly defines you. Most people can tell you the exact date and time that this tsunami of inspiration and passion washed over their brain cells, rendering them helpless to the immutable forces that drive the human spirit.

My Big Bang happened on February 9th, 1964 at 8:03 p.m.

That night, I (and 73 million other Americans) saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. I was 11 years old, but I emphatically told my mother that I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star on that very night. Over the next couple of weeks, after reading every Beatle magazine that appeared magically the day after the Sullivan show, my actual goal started to crystallize: I wanted to make great rock ‘n’ roll music, play to screaming girls, get a gold record, and be a millionaire!

Like many entrepreneurs who are first starting out, I had no idea how any of this was going to happen. I just knew that it had to happen. But achieving your goals not only takes passion, it takes patience.

I did finally get that gold record. It happened in July of 1984, 20 years and five months after I set my goal. It was a long journey, but it taught me every lesson that I ever wanted (and didn’t want) to learn, including how to market a brand, how to negotiate deals, how to handle a crisis, and how to manage some big personalities. But without passion, without that Big Bang, I would have never had the drive to get started–or to keep going.

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