Business lessons from the life and times of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits

Its a curious case about Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler. People who know them would die for their music. People who don’t know them don’t know them at all. When I tell the younger generation about them and make them listen to their music, they find it weird and boring. But when I go on the internet I see kids swearing by their music. The disparity is so vividly glaring. This is the legacy Mark Knopfler has created for himself and for Dire Straits.
The name of their band in itself defines their music. They were asked to give a name to their band during their struggling years and what came first to their mind was that they were broke and had no money with them. Dire straits actually reflected their situation at that time and was not put as a funky name like other music bands at that time. This honesty has always reflected in their music. Mark Knopfler has been in many ways the Steve Jobs of the English music world. As music evolved from jazz and rock and roll from the 1960s to fixed categories of rock, pop, blues, etc. towards the late 1970s, Dire Straits was inspired by all the different categories. Their music had everything going on together. In those times when heavy synthesizers, guitars, drums, long hair and crazy outfits came to be considered necessary to be successful as a music band, Mark Knopfler refused to throw in the towel and give up his dream of making music he wanted to in exchange for fame and money. This is essentially why they were initially in dire straits. For quite some time, Apple did not make computers for everyone to use. Steve Jobs waited for his computers to evolve in the market and its demand to build up. Microsoft makes Windows for everyone to use which is in fact the hardest business model to follow. It is simply not possible to have something for everyone which is reflected in the numerous updates Windows versions needs and the different Windows versions themselves. In the similar vein to that of Apple, Dire Straits made the music they wanted to make and let people evolve into their music. Commercially this is a huge risk to take. But thankfully, in the world of art and music, creative satisfaction always takes precedence over commercial success. What this translates into is how we should position ourselves and/or our products in the market. If what we have is genuine and can truly cause disruption and create it’s own space in the market, put it out there, keep working on making it better and be patient. Success will eventually catch up.

The second and the more important aspect is evolution. From the late 70s when they started off their music evolved as more and better musical instruments were added. Mark’s lyrical and singing skills became more silken with each album. Their popularity peaked in 1985 with the release of their “Brothers in Arms” album. After being on the road for almost 2 years on shows across most of the world, Mark seems to have realized that they were moving away from making music for themselves to playing music for the people. It might have sounded ludicrous to many at that time, but when the passion goes out, so does the creativity. He could not let fame and fortune take control over his passion for making music which was possibly why he disbanded Dire Straits. This is a massive lesson for the business world. No matter how successful a company or a product becomes, to continue to be successful it has to keep evolving and to evolve the passion for it has to remain intact. This is probably why Bose Corp. has never been on the stock market. They do not seem to want business and commercial success to take precedence over their need for creative excellence.
Dire Straits did come back together to make one more album “On Every Street” in 1991 but that experience also taught them an important lesson. It is a superb album by all means but unfortunately ended up being compared with Brothers in Arms which should have never happened. They were like two different products from the same company and should have been seen and evaluated as such. If Dire Straits fans are longing for their reunion which Mark is staunchly refusing to go back into, it is because people themselves killed the confidence he had on them. Mark disbanded Dire Straits forever and started collaborating with other great artists such as Eric Clapton, Elton John and Phil Collins among many others and eventually started to make music under his own name.
Here is the most critical lesson to learn. Be it with someone’s life or academics or jobs or business or products, the growth graph will hit a high sometime. But it won’t stay there for long. What goes up has to eventually come down. Many musicians and music bands shot through the roof initially and then disappeared without a trace. This keeps happening all the time. There are two aspects to consider here. The lessons we learn from our experiences as our graph grows up and realizing that our graph has hit the high. Mark seems to have realized this when On Every Street got compared to Brothers in Arms. Dire Straits had hit their peak with Brothers in Arms. Unless they created something better than Brothers in Arms, every album they released in the future would have had been subject to comparison with Brothers in Arms. That was a phenomenal expectation and disappointment to live with. Their evolution was complete with Brothers in Arms. The option was to either continue to exist in that painful situation or let it all go and mature as a musician by himself and give everyone else in the band the opportunity to figure out their life ahead on their own.
When businesses grow and hit their highs their evolution gets complete at that point. Then they need to settle down and mature. True fans of Dire Straits know what a gifted and amazing songwriter and guitarist Mark is. He has wisely and craftily used the reputation of Dire Straits to build his own brand name. Steve Jobs has always used this strategy with Apple products. Apple has a core consumer segment that will buy anything Apple sells. After establishing that segment they released a dazzling array of products to bring more customers into that group. Now they are in the maturing phase and are focused on improving their products.
Mark Knopfler still makes music and does world tours but at his own pace. His music has always been what his passion for music has brought out from him. We need to tread the same path, be it in our professional or personal lives. True passion will eventually bring in fame and fortune but the key is to hold on to that passion at all times. Fame and fortune will wither away with time. But everything we do and create with passion will have the hallmark of fine quality and it is the quality that always stands the test of time.


Companies and products don’t die they become irrelevant and fade away

I have heard from many people that the startup initiative in India has been a failure but no one said why. Below is a list I obtained from a social network about the top reasons why startups fail.


Interestingly, a startup company had contacted me few months back asking me if I could be their mentor. Their product is on the lines of and they were trying to market it in Kerala, my state in India. The key problem was the people of Kerala are not even fully used to the shopping mall culture yet. We still prefer buying from local grocers, medical shops etc. So searching about products on the internet is still a long way away. My question to the company was, do you know if there is a need for your product in the market you are targeting? They had no clue. This is the top reason on the above list. Lack of proper due diligence. What they wanted from me was to understand how to market their product. I told them that you need to go back to your drawing board and figure out something crucial. Simply putting your product out there is of no use. You cannot force people to use your product. So what can you offer them for using your product? You need a better product strategy before you get on to business strategy and that is where marketing strategy comes in. I haven’t heard from them after that.

Even worse is not understanding when the product is ready to be in the market. Mature companies too have new products and services in their pipeline but what makes and keeps them successful is their ability to time their launches precisely. The extreme of this is Apple launching their products whenever they want to because they have a phenomenal market following. But that’s Apple. There is a concept called Minimum Viable Product (MVP) which can help understand when to stop working on the product and launch it. How do we know this? Work on creating those aspects of the product which could create market disruption or get noticed in the market quickly. When this is successful then it becomes easy. People will take over from there. All we need is to take feedback from customers. Customer expectations will tell us which features of the product are more relevant and need to be out there in the market quickly.

There are two phases of every lifespan be it that of the Universe itself and everything within it. Evolving and maturing. Business also follows the same pattern. A friend is learning to be a professional cake maker and my advice to her was simple. If she is going to bake cakes like everyone else is, she is not going to get far. Evolving stage is the experimenting stage where she needs to mix and match and see what unique she can create. So how will she know she has matured? When customers start calling her for her cakes.

My dad has always loved cooking non-vegetarian food. He looks up on a lot of recipes on the internet but then finds his own niche way of cooking. He has been asking me to help him find a market for his food. He cannot compromise on the quality of the products he uses for cooking which essentially means he cannot target the lower and the lower middle strata of the market. If he tries to sell at those levels, he will have to lower his price thereby lowering his profit margin considerably and moreover there will be very less appreciation among those customers for what they are getting. All of this means the key is in the positioning of the products. Positioning will determine the pricing and marketing strategies.

I believe products and companies become irrelevant and fade away rather than fail. Nokia and Kodak are great examples. Nokia phones became irrelevant when their Symbian OS was run over by Android and iOS. With Kodak, the most fundamental mistake happened. They matured and stopped evolving and got run over by technology. Evolving to maturity shows the growth trajectory of the company or the product. Sustaining and staying relevant in the market demands continuous evolution of another kind. This is where the sheer genius of Steve Jobs shines brightly. In the middle of iMacs and Macbooks and iOS and iPods and iPhones and iTunes, he still found the time and space to figure out that there could be demand for a device that could bridge the gap between the Macbook and the iPhone, thus creating the iPad. I have wondered how tuned his mind was into the world of business and how he used to keep his ears to the ground. He seems to have understood the threat of stagnation and becoming irrelevant which should be the reason why he created such a huge product catalogue and a possibly unknown product pipeline on which he was supposedly working till the time of his demise.

There are great companies and greater leaders to look up to. But ultimately success depends on the course we charter and when we are able to muster the strength, wile and guile and navigate ourselves through the choppy waters of the business world.

The false & murky world of advertising

There was a time when watching advertisements was one of the eagerly awaited aspects of TV viewing. Many of those advertisements of old are still so endearing, I see people flocking to see them on YouTube. And the best part is, we have so many of our own memories associated with them. All of that changed and changed so fast, advertisements siphon off major portions of our time now, be it on print or TV, earning nothing else but our loathe and ire.

Advertising is truly amazing and fascinating. Being a part time business correspondent and caption writer in an advertising firm during my under graduation days was a massive learning curve. Caption writing can become so crazy, it can cause mental disorders if we do not control our mind. A great caption is just good enough to capture the imagination of customers. So a good caption writer should be able to write captions for anything that they see. Every morning, I used to think what caption would I write to sell a toothbrush and toothpaste when I am brushing my teeth and it would start off from there. There was a time when great captions and pictures were enough to push a product into people’s minds. But that was also a time when markets were not crowded and competition was not intense.

All of that changed, and changed drastically in very short time, especially after the Cold War ended. Across the world, markets started opening out and many of them, like India, were green pastures yet to be grazed. Companies flooded their products into these markets and after the initial mayhem, settled down into what has developed into intense, ‘mother-of-all-battles’ competition to occupy every inch of market space. All of this changed the face of advertising forever. The effects are cataclysmic. More products meant more space and airtime for advertisements in the media, so companies started buying space and airtime which led to the creation of more magazines and TV channels. What is worse, companies are increasingly buying more airtime for advertisements on news channels which is all the more pathetic.

Now there are so many toothpaste brands in the market and they are so everywhere on advertisements, I have no clue which brand will be better for my teeth. This is the case with everything in the market now. When so many products and their advertisements stifled markets and jammed people’s minds, companies took the ladder to the next level. Use celebrities to endorse their products, creating the next wave of calamities. Cricket, once considered the gentleman’s game changed into a money spinning genie in no time. In fact, a new format of the game got created just because companies were pouring in money for more airtime to promote their products. Now celebrities from all walks of life, be it actors or sportsmen are being roped in to endorse products, be it jewellery, talcum powder, cement or PVC pipes. And it is working perfectly. Human beings have the habit of herding, like cattle. We have a natural tendency to follow anyone who takes the lead. So when an actor endorses a product, his/her fans are more than happy to vouch for that product. Markets have become segregated and marginalized just because of people’s affinity towards celebrities. What companies ultimately succeeded in doing is to hijack people’s buying power and rob our purchasing sense. But things haven’t been so hunky dork for them after all.

The cheesy and tacky advertisements of Axe brand of deodorants and other products attracted the ire of an Indian customer who used the products for three years and then sued Unilever for falsely claiming through their advertisements that using Axe products would attract the opposite sex. I was watching a video on a social network a few days back in which a lady is seeing addressing an audience and she is enlightening them about how photos of models are morphed and trimmed using advanced software to make them look more lean and curvaceous, leading to the rapidly spreading ‘disease’ called anorexia. Girls are losing their health permanently because of eating disorders developed from their obsession to lose weight and look like the celebrities they worship. Many of them have ultimately developed mental disorders and lost their lives.

But it doesn’t look like all is lost. Kate Winslet, the leading Hollywood actor issued a statement saying some of her pictures that came out in print recently were morphed and specifically mentioned which of her body parts were morphed to make her look leaner. In India, Aamir Khan, the acclaimed Bollywood actor endorses products only when he is convinced that he is not passing on a false message to the customers. But these examples are far and few. The money that comes from endorsements is many times more than what comes from playing a sport or acting in a movie. So, becoming a celebrity is the easiest way to make loads of cash in no time. All those reality shows that have sprung up across the world are prime examples. Kids are no longer interested in education and why not, when there are so many avenues to cash in on money and fame in so less time. The game of cricket is losing it’s charm and sheen because youngsters are increasingly finding it an easy way to find fame and money without investing a lot of effort and years. And to top it all, so much money breeds nothing but booze, prostitution and drugs which is disintegrating the very fabric of our society.

Laws making companies and celebrities equally responsible for the products they sell and endorse will rein in this money bonanza to some extent and I am so glad this step is being considered in India now. Paying so much to celebrities sky rockets companies’ expenses and the only way to make up that cost is to pass it down to customers. In a country like India which is plagued by inflation and corruption, all these advertising gimmicks create another layer of never ending struggle for the common man. It is high time people have greater awareness of the mired world of corporates and their advertising strategies and how the virtual world they have created have engulfed our lives and made us their puppets more than customers.