Lessons on Entrepreneurialism From Tom Petty

Last week, I heard of a documentary about Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and being a HUGE fan, I had to watch it. The surprising result was some inspiring lessons for all the budding entrepreneurs out there - lessons of perseverance, dedication to ideals and embracing change.


In many entrepreneurial stories, an end result is widely publicized but the struggle never told. Tom Petty started out in a series of bands in Gainesville, Florida. While experiencing local success, he realized they were never going to be more than a local band if they didn’t actually produce a record. So rather than mailing a tape to the labels, the entire band drove to Los Angeles with a couple hundred dollars to their name. With no agent or reputation, they started calling on record labels and received rejection after rejection (sound familiar?). But he never stopped. One finally listened and heard the potential.

Lesson: Just. Don’t. Stop. It’s no guarantee of success, but it’s the only path to success. Almost every success story starts with rejection but ends with success through dogged determination.

Dedication to Ideals

The band wasn’t interested in just selling a lot of music. They wanted to stay true to their craft, obsessing over every little detail in the production of their albums and never compromising their style in the interest of popularity. There is a great scene where Petty and a fellow musician are being pressured to record a popular but different style of music. Petty refused to accept the songs or back down from the label (totally worth it to see Petty take down the label executive). He also stood up to the entire recording industry over their onerous contracts and accounting practices, facing personal bankruptcy and financial ruin as a result. He won.

Lesson: Great entrepreneurs aren’t in it for the money. They pursue a dream because of a love of craft and their ideals. There is something in them that keeps saying “you must do this at whatever cost.”

Embracing Change

Ideas must continually evolve in this digital world. But even before the digital era, Tom Petty was always reinventing his approach to music. He used the studio itself as an instrument (ala Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys) and refused to be stuck in the past. He played with other bands for the sole purpose of changing his musical perceptions, backing up Bob Dylan and joining The Traveling Wilburys. Each disruption changed him personally and professionally.

Lesson: Long-term entrepreneurs constantly shake things up. They don’t get caught up in the past and understand that nothing is permanent. Exposure to different, contrary and uncomfortable experiences leads to a breakthroughs in perspective.

So if you're a little discouraged about your idea, or have suffered a setback, this is the documentary to watch to get inspired and reenergized. Fair warning, it's four hours long, but I guarantee you’ll come out of it with a different attitude and refocused on bringing your incredible idea to life.