I look for ambitious Entrepreneurs who conquer their market like they would run a political campaign and who are as disciplined as jazz musicians.
As a teenager and eventually a university student, I had two passions: music and politics. You would have found me weird, as it was difficult to have a conversation with me about any other topic.
My passion for politics dates back to Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign in 1992. I was 15 at the time, and it was astonishing that after all those years of conservative triumph dominated by the figure of Ronald Reagan, a Democrat could win back the White House. Clinton’s first presidential campaign was amazingly innovative on two fronts: ideas and strategy. It inspired me to read hundreds of books and articles. In fact, in all these years, I’ve read so much about history, policy and politics that I feel I could manage a presidential campaign today. My idols have always been the strategists who engineer spectacular victories by constantly refining the art of inspiring voters, and in so doing change the course of history. Ed Rollins, Lee Atwater, James Carville, Paul Begala, Philip Gould, and Karl Rove are the ones I admire the most, without even mentioning David Ogilvy or the great Tony Schwartz, who helped me understand the profound mechanisms behind communication. These lords of strategy and communication taught me two lasting lessons: it takes big ideas to move mountains and polarization is key. As legendary activist Saul Alinsky once wrote, “Men will act when they are convinced that their cause is 100 percent on the side of the angels and that the opposition are 100 percent on the side of the devil… There can be no action until issues are polarized to this degree”.
As for music, it’s a family thing. Both of my parents are professional musicians. All of their children had to learn an instrument (or even several). I began with piano, then switched to clarinet and saxophone, then settled for bass guitar and double bass. From then on, my musical education focused mostly on jazz. I practiced for hours on my bass guitar, I played in several bands from high school to college, I listened to every album I could lay my hands on, and I read many books about jazz musicians. My idol was Miles Davis. Not only was he the master, inspiring the many young musicians who played with him and went on to become superstars, he also constantly created new music and explored uncharted territory. More of the same was just not his thing. Many hated him for it, but he didn’t care, nor did he hesitate to rebuff the skeptics. Now, I listen to many types of music, such as dance, funk, and electronic, but it was jazz that inspired me the most and taught me discipline.
What do music and politics have to do with TheFamily? In a way, everything! One of the first moments of the experience that would eventually become TheFamily was my partner Oussama Ammar and myself discussing how an American presidential campaign was the ultimate startup: it begins with things that don’t scale in New Hampshire and Iowa, then it strikes a chord with early adopters, then it has to raise a lot of money in order to scale up to cover the entire nation. As with startups, this all has to move very fast until election day. Ultimately, winning the election is like discovering a business model: the organization ceases to be a startup and it’s time to face new challenges. That said, building startups is also about innovation, which is a lot like creating new music. Greats like Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, and Rick Rubin are masters when it comes to innovating and going against all assumptions. As Miles Davis once said, in one of my favorite quotes, “I’ll play it and tell you what it is later”. In short, the art of growing startups reminds me both of political strategy and music. To be ambitious and grow a startup at scale is really like running for president AND playing jazz. (By the way, in both of those things, Americans are the best.)