How Harold Budd shaped my thinking about collaboration strategy in startups

We lost one of my favourite musicians, Harold Budd, last week. He was 84 and died from Covid complications. Budd was an American minimalist and ambient music composer and poet, who created some of the most incredibly beautiful music I’ve ever heard, that’s still incalculably influential and important to me today. Budd collaborated with a host of influential musicians, but ultimately he gently asserted himself as a wholly individual voice.

If you’ve never listened to any of his work, do yourself a favour, find Sea, Swallow Me on Spotify or You Tube, put on your headphones, then stare at a tree or some water or the sky and allow yourself to float away for a few moments. Budd spent six decades as a master of his music mined empty space to reveal vast scenes of grandeur. Like listening to William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, Phillip Glass’s Solo Music, or settling into Eno’s Apollo Soundtrack, his music invites viewing the world through your own private joys and anxieties.

Over the course of his four-decade discography, Budd’s slow, tranquil compositions centered around his own soft-pedal piano playing. When his melodies wander into the higher octaves, the tone is pure and idyllic. Across the 30-plus records he made solo and in collaboration, the acoustic piano remained at the heart of his sound.

The first fruit of Budd’s creativity was a 1972 piece entitled Madrigals of the Rose Angel. Somehow, a tape of a live performance of a concert found its way to the ears of Brian Eno. He phoned up Budd and invited him to make a record. This was the first collaboration in a partnership that was to last forty years. Eno inspired Budd with the attitude of absolute bravery to go in any direction.

A full-blown collaboration with Eno and a brilliant young sound engineer, Daniel Lanois, harnessed their synergy with The Pearl, followed by his 1986 collaboration with the Cocteau Twins, The Moon and the Melodies. Released on the 4AD label, within a beautiful sleeve by designer Vaughan Oliver and photographer Nigel Grierson, The Moon and the Melodies was credited to Harold Budd, Elisabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde, his first of many collaborations with Guthrie.

The album is a spellbinding collection of songs which are alternately haunting and powerful. The combination of Elizabeth Fraser’s iconic vocals, the unmistakeable Cocteau Twins melodies of Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie, and Harold Budd’s swirling piano, is flawless. The songs are each an exceptional mixture of the talents of these four musicians. My favourite is Sea, Swallow Me. It’s just awesome, Budd’s wonderful piano touch suddenly flows into a subtle wall of sound, ringing guitar chords, looping bass lines, and slow-motion drums.

Like all of Budd’s music, this perennial personal favourite evokes a calmness. Time, place, and space have no meaning when listening to this album, it will affect how you are feeling. The collaboration is of two distinct of Budd and the Cocteau Twins, but it evokes a stunning harmony. This album is for personal listening at its best, a private intimate experience.

Budd collaborated frequently across his career, and that’s my key takeaway for this blog. He had his own uniqueness but he expanded his personal horizons and curated some amazing innovative music by his partnerships. Besides a life-long collaboration with Eno, he made albums with Hector Zazou, XTC’s Andy Partridge, Ultravox’s John Foxx, PiL’s Jah Wobble and Bill Nelson. He teamed up repeatedly with Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie, Another Flower their last collaboration, came out this summer.

This proactive seeking out of creative collusions is a lesson mirrored by many successful startups, built on symbiotic co-founder relationships. Collaborations we are familiar with include Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google), Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple). Earlier partnerships emerged from Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, whilst Francis Jehl was Thomas Edison’s lab assistant at the Menlo Park research facility, where the collaborative chemistry and frisson was productive.

And then there is the example of comedy duo collaborations. You may not enjoy the tomfoolery of Laurel and Hardy, the anarchy of Reeves and Mortimer, the frenzy of Morecambe and Wise nor the antics of Akroyd and Belushi in your co-founder startup venture relationship, but if the strength and purpose of collaboration is as innovative and productive as these comedy duos, then you’ll have created something special.

Research shows start-ups with co-founders collaborating are four times more likely to be successful than those going solo, a strong case for forming a double act. Going it alone it’s easier to make decisions quickly, and generally you can’t fall out with yourself, and you also learn more by necessity.

However, with a co-founder collaboration you have the benefits of ‘two heads are better than one’, improving decision making and being more likely to reach the right outcome faster. With a co-founder, you’re also not spreading yourself too thinly, taking responsibility for everything, and working with complimentary skills and doubled bandwidth, more gets done.

So, everything considered, what are the benefits from a startup built on the foundations of a strong collaboration?

Generates greater clarity around purpose with aligned motives The purpose of a collaboration is underpinned by a shared vision, common goals and being energised to make it happen. Collaboration brings a sense of open and positive mindsets to a venture. it creates greater confidence underpinned by trust, inspired by the working synchronicity and personal connection.

In a collaboration, every team member has an important part to play. The more you get to know your colleagues and understand how they work and what challenges they’re dealing with, the better chance you’ll have at successfully collaborating with them. A genuine empathy and caring inspires.

This speeds up solutions. Collaboration fast-tracks progress. A problem that may take months to get resolved when handled by a single individual, but may take just a few hours to resolve when several other members employ their unique standpoints and expertise to get things done. These viewpoints will open up several doors to multiple ideas and solutions that a single individual may not be able to come up with.

Provides a sounding board Starting a business means bumps may appear on the horizon at any point, and it can be a lot easier to handle unexpected hurdles with a co-founder. Advisors and mentors are great, but there is nothing like being able to talk to someone that is going through the exact same process as you are, facing the same risk, the same problems, and the same potential upside.

Collaboration also serves as a backstop when you have an off day. We all have days when we are just not at the races, having a co-founder provides support for those days, even for the simplest of matters. Sharing both the physical and mental workload with someone you can trust, and is just as invested as you, makes the journey slightly less frantic.

Having someone you can trust with the same level of integrity and passion as you is a huge advantage and enables a ‘I’ll work on whatever you’re not working on’ philosophy to getting two things done at once.

Drives new insights with more innovation Two heads are better than one. Most likely your collaborators will have a different set of experiences and competencies from you. You should be open-minded to share and utilise these experiences, it’s always advantageous to view your startup from the filter of another perspective because we are often limited by our own competencies. In the kaleidoscopic melee of day-to-day, it’s easy to overlook potentially important details or tasks because our judgment has been clouded by our fears or even complacency.

Sure, collaboration is never easy. It generates as much friction as it does productive output. But the silver lining of all that friction between conflicting personalities and work styles? It generates dynamic, innovative ideas. And without those new and vibrant ideas, your startup can stall.

Collaboration also balances the extremes and reveals the blind spots. Having a co-founder gives you a peer that can point out these blind spots so you can improve, opening your eyes to things you might not see. In doing this, collaboration spreads the risk and improve contingencies . In a startup there is a spiral of work to be done. Having a co-founder allows for discussion of priorities, a subtle change in direction or a new approach, feedback which opens up possibilities in times of turbulence and an extra set of skills to push past the limitations of a single decision maker.

Collaboration promotes active listening When you’re working closely with others, and focused on a common purpose, you have to listen closely to each other’s ideas, feedback, and advice – and be considerate and respectful when responding. That’s the idea behind active listening. While you may have your ideas about how you would like the project to go or who should do what, you still need to take your colleagues’ opinions into account. You might not always agree with the outcome, but at the end of the day, you need to prioritise the needs and responsibilities of the business over your own preferences.

As a result, a good collaboration improves decision making and provides for better problem solving. Two heads are better than one as I’ve said above, but there is nothing to say that you have to agree with your co-founder all the time. In fact, it’s better when you don’t. A certain level of discord and tension means that you’re both championing opposing views. This creates an opportunity to discuss the merits of each viewpoint and ultimately decide which direction is better.

Encourages self-analysis, learning, and looking at the bigger picture Collaboration challenges you to think, articulate and receive clarity about your personal contribution. It serves as a mirror that provides a glimpse of our strengths and weaknesses. Because two heads are better than one, collaborators work better together and plug each other’s gaps.

When a variety of knowledge and skills are pooled, it creates a talent pool that is vast and more competent, able and experienced. No two people are the same, and when you have people from different backgrounds working together, collaborators leverage their differences and identify how they can complement each other. This makes you stand back and look at the bigger picture.

When you’re collaborating, you are essentially learning new things from each other. The energy encourages a culture of continuous learning, and supports that learning through opportunities for growth and development, as well as through safety nets for failures. Collaborators enhance their capacity to go and grow beyond their personal comfort zones and as result of this synergy, take a business to new heights.

One co-founder could have a mind-set of an artist with a belief in crafting beautiful products, the other should be commercially conscious, whether it is the product, customer experience or people management. One co-founder could be a crazy developer who eats, drinks and sleeps code, another should be growth-oriented, seeing customer growth opportunities in everything and able to attract customers from anywhere and everywhere – the growth hacker.

In reality, it is the shared mind-set, joined-up thinking and passion for the venture that captures the essence of what makes collaborators produce outstanding work. Collaboration helped to reveal the sheer breadth of Budd’s talents. Rest in peace, poet of the piano.

Sea, Swallow Me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sf9jk6qk6TI

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