What Would Kurt Cobain Do?

There’s a saying in the startup world that first time Founders think about product, and second time Founders think about distribution. The lesson is straightforward: business is not “Field of Dreams.” If you build it, they will not come. You have to find ways to reach your customers. It is not enough to have a great product.

One of the most powerful illustrations of this lesson that I’ve heard in a long time came from an unexpected place: the story of the band Nirvana, led by its enigmatic frontman Kurt Cobain.

In the early days, Nirvana signed with an independent Seattle-based label called Sub Pop Records. Sub Pop’s Co-Founders were passionate music lovers and influencers themselves — one of them even conceived of and popularized the term “grunge” for the type of music emerging from Seattle at the time — but they were niche…small-time…and proudly so. Bands like Nirvana and countless others traditionally signed with “indy” labels like Sub Pop and stayed in that lane — that was the culture in that scene. Going any other route, i.e. signing with a “major” record label, was taboo.

But after Nirvana’s debut album (Bleach) under the Sub Pop label sold 40,000 copies — which was a major success at the time for a label like Sub Pop — Cobain knew he had a distribution problem. It quickly led to tension.

Sub Pop Founder Jonathan Poneman explained it this way:

I thought that they were going to be really successful, but our metric for success was much more modest than even the band’s, and that’s what got us into trouble. Kurt would tell me regularly “we should be selling a million of these” and I would say “you don’t understand!”

But Cobain did understand. He knew his market better than his label did. He recognized that Nirvana had the goods.

So what did Nirvana do? They did what no one else dared to do in those days in that culture: they left Sub Pop and signed with Geffen, a major label.

Some might call it selling out. I would call it selling. Nevermind, the band’s next album, sold 30 million copies — making it one of the best-selling albums of all-time. And on the back of the Nevermind bonanza, Bleach sales took off and reached nearly 2 million copies. Exact same music. 50x the original sales under Sub Pop.

So much for niche.

If you have a good product or are providing a great service, that’s excellent. Your business definitely won’t make it without that. But what is your distribution strategy? What move on the chess board can you make or what partnership can you strike that will get the word out about it? And if it costs you something (as it surely will), what is the cost of NOT doing it? Wouldn’t it be a shame to have something great to sell that never sees the light of day in a big enough way?

Although painful on a personal level, in the end all worked out well for Sub Pop and Nirvana. Their original deal gave Sub Pop participation in all future record sales, resulting in a windfall in the wake of Nevermind. They were compensated for the bet they placed early on. And in addition to becoming a gigantic commercial success, Cobain and Nirvana made the impact they wanted to make as artists.

The next time you find yourself asking why am I not selling more, ask yourself: What would Kurt Cobain do?

We should be selling a million of these.

He was right. But even he underestimated the potential by 30x.

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Hi, I’m Trent Hawthorne, COO at Rabbu and founder of StandupPro. This newsletter has the one most shareworthy thing on my mind, with some commentary on why I think it matters. Simple, but hopefully powerful — which is how I try to approach everything I do.

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Trent Hawthorne

Builder of companies, high-performing business teams, & technology products. People Accelerator.