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.

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The exploding universe of mobile apps

The world of mobile apps has become a galaxy of apps in no time but I was completely unaware of it. Being a die hard Nokia fan (for which I get ridiculed sometimes), I tried using a few of Nokia’s smartphone models a few years back, but all the features were a bit overwhelming for me, so I switched back to a basic Nokia model. Mobile phones, for me, are just meant to be phones, to talk and to message. In the past few years, I have watched the meteoric rise of the iPhone and Android phones as Nokia’s firm grip on the mobile world loosened and collapsed. The final nail in the coffin was when Microsoft bought over Nokia’s mobile phones unit. Now I have three options when it comes to smart phones. iPhone which is too expensive, Android phones I am wary of because of performance concerns (open source means apps may not have been made with the same baseline hardware configuration) and Microsoft phones which has Windows and Windows need a bunch of security updates every now and then because Microsoft has never mastered the skill to make a fully stable operating system. Given a choice, I would still buy the Microsoft phones because their hardware was designed by Nokia and Nokia team had tested the Windows operating system thoroughly on those phones. So I am still living blissfully with one of the last Nokia models having the Symbian operating system, but one incident jolted me to reality. I was in Chennai recently and due to the high volume of calls during peak hours (6-10 am and 6-10 pm), all cab service providers are redirecting customers to their mobile apps to book the cabs. Thats when I realized how far and fast mobile apps have penetrated into Indian market.

It is no surprise though. When I was in Shanghai, travelling in metro trains were like spending time in a monastery, albeit with big crowds. Everybody’s necks would be bent down and staring into their mobile phone screens. Some would be watching movies, some would be watching music videos and some would be reading. Can’t really blame the people though. In the early 1980s, when western countries moved manufacturing to China in search of cheap labour, the only thing China asked in return was for transfer of technology. No one even imagined that Chinese people would find ways to use the same technologies to dominate world trade some day. A simple stroll on the streets of Shanghai and there will be atleast a couple of guys who would come around asking if I wanted to buy an iPhone. The phones they have look exactly like an iPhone but only the things Apple has patented like the mobile screen is different. Android, being open source and available for free has fuelled the development of a number of low cost Android phones and together with that, the number of Android app developers have also risen exponentially. For internet crazy people in countries like China and India, buying stuff through their mobile phones makes them look cool and uber. Couple all of this with the rapid penetration of internet into rural areas and there is a silent app revolution going on.

This explosive app industry has astronomically increased the volume of one thing: Data. There is so much data coming through from the apps that companies have sprung up which are trying to analyze the data and find patterns that can help app owners to improve the performance and usability of their apps. Attribution analytics and retention rate analysis are some of the new words buzzing around. Big Data and Hadoop have become job markets by themselves. In-app monetization is another buzzword, which essentially means generating revenue from the apps. The idea is to keep app users engaged with the apps through discounts and reward points so that these users will continue buying things through the apps. Some companies are even going the extra mile to do predictive analytics to give greater insights about the performance of the apps to the app owners. Then there are companies that run marketing campaigns for these apps to understand their popularity among the people and there are companies that advertise these apps in different websites. There is a huge ecosystem that has been created around the app industry and it is growing phenomenally.

Cut a few years back in time and there is a retail giant in the UK for which I worked on one of their projects for a while. They have fabulous stores, lots of space and amazing ambience. They weren’t very keen on ecommerce and selling on the internet so over a period of time, their sales dropped. Then they realised their mistake and invested hugely to set up an ecommerce enabled website. But then, the number of visitors to their stores trickled down rapidly. So the dilemma they had was, how to attract people to their brick and mortar stores and make them feel the experience of regular shopping. One of the few ideas I suggested was to put up video cameras all over the stores so that customers who connect to their website can view the products and interact with the customer service executives. This would give the customers a sense of regular shopping though virtually. Now when I think about buying things through apps on mobile phones I am thinking on similar lines. How to give customers the experience of buying from a real store through the app? Maybe a hologram that represents me walking through an app that represents a real store and use a camera and kinetics to manage the hologram? Wouldn’t that be interesting? I am sensing that this idea is already being worked upon or is already out there in the market but I am not aware of.