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How to Do Better Business: Van Halen Explains How to Filter Out Bad Business Partners


How can you do better business? Van Halen’s David Lee Roth explains how seemingly absurd demands in the band’s contracts filter out bad business partners.


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by Fausto Mendez / photo by Dawn Huczek

    Van Halen’s David Lee Roth was notorious for including absolutely absurd demands in the band’s touring contracts with venues. One famous demand, often called the “No-Brown-M&Ms Clause”, says that a big bowl of M&M’s must be provided backstage for the band, but that part is not so unreasonable. Here’s the kicker. The contracts demanded - under penalty of the show’s cancellation and full compensation to the band - that there be no brown M&Ms in that bowl. Bratty, right?

There’s a Method to David Lee Roth’s Madness

    Upon closer examination, it’s not madness at all. The No-Brown-M&Ms Clause is a strategic business move that protects the band’s personal safety and guarantees each show’s stellar quality. Roth explains how it works in his memoir Crazy from the Heat.

“Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets.

We’d pull up with nine 18-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through. The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function.”

    With massive pieces of equipment and unprecedentedly technical shows, it became utterly critical for the venue staff to carefully follow all instructions. A simple weight miscalculation could easily result in killing the whole band, literally. Overlooking technical requirements could easily result in a poorly produced show that didn’t live up to the band’s standards.

    As a result, Roth had to figure out a way to filter out the irresponsible venues that didn’t pay attention to every detail in the contracts, not just for the band’s safety but also for the band’s success (and ultimately the success of the band’s record label). Roth’s best bet at making sure their venues were responsible enough and professional enough to pay attention to all the details was to make an absurdly stupid but easily verified demand in the contract with each venue. That’s when the No-Brown-M&Ms Clause found its way into the band’s contracts. 

“When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl,” he wrote, “well, we’d line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error… Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.”

    The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande expands on the importance of the clause and how it saved the band’s life in at least one recorded incident.

"These weren’t trifles … The mistakes could be life threatening. In Colorado, the band found the local promoters had failed to read the weight requirements, and the staging would have fallen through the arena."

    When the No-Brown-M&Ms Clause first became public knowledge, it’s easy to see why the average person would disregard Roth as being a coked out maniac. On the contrary, his precise demands ensured the band’s success and health to the present day. 

Other Famous Tricks that Filter Out Bad Business Partners

   Henry Ford (or Thomas Edison?) supposedly had a similar trick for filtering out bad hires at his company. He would treat prospective employees to lunch, and legend says that if they added salt to their food without first tasting it, he would ultimately turn them down. The idea is to filter new hires that assume too much. The businessman behind the story changes every time I hear the story, so it could easily by a myth, not true.

    The famous Zappos.com is known for offering prospective employees a big bonus for quitting before they begin their jobs. The point is to filter out hires that don’t know how to identify the better deal. In this case, a quitting bonus is not the better deal.

    Jamie from the Discovery show Mythbusters asks news hires to drill a hole through an x in a wall. He would only hire people that asked further questions, such as, “how big?” 

    If you’ve ever searched for jobs on Craigslist, you may have noticed that some employers ask candidates to include a specific phrase in their cover letters. The goal is filter out new hires that don’t read the job listing from top to bottom.

What’s my Filter? I Test Writing Skills.

    In my own life, I carefully examine people’s writing ability and general communication skills, so I often ask folks to initially contact me by email. The goal is to filter out people that don’t remember basic skills or never cared to learn the fundamentals.

    If you can’t write a simple sentence with perfect grammar, what else didn’t you care to learn? If you can’t write, do you even care about your education? I don’t care if you can code a whole e-commerce site from scratch if you can’t clearly and easily communicate with me.

    Similar to Roth’s No-Brown-M&Ms clause, the test also filters out folks that don’t pay attention to simple details. It also makes it easy to identify people that aren’t self aware. Too many spelling and grammar errors make you look really bad, and if you can’t see that, you’ll never see my vision.

    It takes critical thinking and organizational skills to put together a well-written piece of text. The writing-skills test has never failed me, and whenever I overlook a candidate’s writing ability, it always comes back to bite me. How do you test potential business partners and prospective hires?

  • 1 November 2013
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