What Musicianship Taught Paul English About Building Companies

By
Kyle Billings
April 10, 2014
Kyle Billings

At BerkleeICE's fourth Creative Entrepreneurs Lecture of the spring, Boston's own Paul English—founder of KAYAK, GetHuman, and Boston's brand new Blade incubator—recounted how his experience as a musician helped him build a $2 billion company. 

 

Find Outstanding Players 

It’s dangerous to go alone. The best place an artist or founder can be is surrounded by a team of equally talented people. English is a fanatic about building outstanding teams; it is the skill he is most proud of. He has even developed a system in which he must hire employees within seven days of hearing their name. 

And if a team member is not a good fit, English will not hesitate to find a replacement. 

 

Know Your Role

The best bands are made up of unique people, just like great startups. Every member has a different skill-set, personality, and part to perform. Paul English was a serious musician in high school and college. He was once recruited over an astonishingly talented pianist not for his chops, but for his ability to listen and support the singer. He performs no differently as a founder.

After all, a band only needs one Ringo Starr.  

 

Be Disciplined

Music and entrepreneurship require hard work. As a freshman in college, English worked full time as a software engineer programming cameras on spy planes. His classes were unchallenging, yet hardened a resolve of discipline. From the daily grind of email to the firing of an employee, his seven-year degree taught him more than computer science; it taught him to do what must be done, no matter how avoidable it may feel.

With a band or startup comes late nights, massive disagreements, and difficult decisions. The individualistic, opinionated, and driven few will put the work in to achieve their goals, no matter how tough. 

 

Listen

“There’s no recipe for new. You need to test, and tune yourself to the response.” 

Musicians can learn from a crowd, just like company founders can learn from customers. As a child in a nine-person household, English learned early on to tune into the subtlest dynamics between parents and siblings. He built KAYAK by tuning into the response of his earliest users, and as the company grew, he developed a powerful culture by tuning into the dynamics of his employees.

Pay attention to your environment, and let responses inform the development of your ideas.

 

Relax

There will be good times and bad times. English says that if he could go back and give himself advice, it would be to relax, to avoid the distractions of his own apprehensions, and just move forward. 

As an entrepreneur, have thick skin and a short memory. Don’t dwell long in the past. 

 

Paul English followed Kevin Augunas, Willard Ahdritz, and Gloria and Emilio Estefan as part of BerkleeICE's Creative Entrepreneurs Lecture Series.