10 Business Lessons From The Amazing Supermench, Shep Gordon
Supermench, the legend of Shep Gordon. So I’m listening to the Timothy Ferriss Podcast and this guy who Tim’s about to interview has one of the coolest introductions, Shep’s done a lot. He’s cooked for His Holiness the Dali Lama, entertained who’s-who of Hollywood, and managed some of the most amazing musical acts, then the most amazing chefs in the world. He was a brilliant story teller and had accomplished so much. He seemed content, I wanted to know more. So i bought the book, They Call Me Supermench: A Backstage Pass to the Amazing Worlds of Film, Food, and Rock’n’Roll. This post is inspired by the book. I highly recommend it. Entertaining, funny, and thought-provoking, one of my favourite books this year.
This quote pretty much sums up Shep.
Shep Gordon is one of my hero’s, here are a few reasons why.
1. Create history.
Don’t wait for it to happen, you can create history. Most people believe all you have is what you’re dealt, like you can change your future if you want to. What a lie! Create history. When Shep first started managing his first artist, Alice Cooper, these were his marching orders, to create history. Quite literally working with Alice they didn’t try to “market” Alice Cooper, he didn’t “advertise” Alice Cooper. No that’s what the other managers would do, if he really wanted to stand out he needed to create history.
Whether it was wrapping an album in Panties or shooting Alice Cooper out of a cannon, Shep tried nearly everything. The first time Alice was to play in the UK they needed a really aggressive stunt as ticket sales were nonexistent. Shep got a flatbed truck with a giant billboard on the back displaying Alice wearing nothing by a large snake. Oh and he paid the driver handsomely to ensure the truck “broke down” several times in Piccadilly Square downtown London during rush hour. The driver was subsequently arrested, but they sold the show out! Create history.
Or the time that they promised to shoot Alice out of a cannon on stage in Pittsburgh. The problem was the cannon didn’t work. The night before the big show, Shep invited media to a “pre-concert party” where they were going to demo the cannon shot, how exciting! Shep was up to something, because when the cannon fired, Alice (or a dumby, who knows!) fired but only went ten feet. Panic strikes, the star is injured! Rush him to the hospital!
On the news you’d hear of the “accident” and how Alice was hurt with “non-life threatening” injuries. He played the show the next night in a wheel chair with hospital staff on stand-by if anything should go wrong. But how could it? It was all staged, Alice wasn’t hurt at all. It worked perfectly.
Create history, don’t wait for it to happen.
2. Stars aren’t born, they’re made.
That’s why you needed to create history, you weren’t just advertising an artist, you were making a star. Shep treated people differently, he treated them like stars before they were. Expectations dictate results, Shep always had higher expectations than anyone else in the room. Whether it was getting his African American client actually paid (at the time many club owners thought it normal to stiff entertainers who were of a different race) or charging even a small fee for a world-class chef to be cooking in your hotel (at the time no one paid for “celebrity chef” appearances, I know crazy right?).
Shep just had the ridiculous attitude that he could change the course of fate, that he could literally define how industries would grow in the future, and always trying to help as many people along the way.
3. Be humble, don’t be greedy
Don’t take what isn’t yours. Whenever a manager in the music industry works on a project they are entitled to make royalties on that project. Shep wouldn’t take royalties on most projects stating that if he didn’t have a major impact he didn’t want to make money that wasn’t his. What a humble attitude. In a world where people take, take, take at any chance they get, here’s a guy doing just the opposite. Maybe to get by in the world you may have to do just the opposite of most people?
I once had a business person tell me “always get it in writing, without a contract you can trust people.” I hated that attitude, why would you make someone sign a contract? Doing so proves you are exactly what you’re trying to avoid. It didn’t make sense.
Shep managed Teddy Pendergrass for over 30 years, without a contract. Alice Cooper for over 40 years without a contract. Sure he did get screwed out of money once in the book, he’ll never forget that guy. But when chef Emeril Lagasse made it big his agent told him to get rid of Shep.
“Do you know what’s going on?” he said. “I got a memo telling me how I should fuck you. How you don’t deserve to be my fifty-fifty partner. And how giving you a small piece of something big is more than fair. What do you think about it, Shep?” “We shook hands. We’re fifty-fifty partners. You do what you want to do. You want to cut me out, cut me out. I’m not going to sue you. You do what you gotta do. You gotta live with yourself.” “They’re telling me I’m being fair to Shep Gordon. ‘We do these kind of deals all the time.’ Is this done all the time?” I said, “Yeah. The industry is full of cocksuckers.” He thought it over. And told them, “Screw yourselves. Shep’s my partner.” And having seen how they operated, he added, “And I want that on paper.” That’s a supermensch. That’s someone with honor.
“Do what you gotta do. You gotta live with yourself.” What haunting words that Shep used. What a guy Emeril Lagasse is, I really appreciated him after this story.
Your honour in business is really all you have.
4. We’re all equal
Whenever Shep would go on tour with the chef crew in Europe they had to eat at a round table. In the words of Shep:
The round table is very important. It creates a sense of equality. Nobody is at the head of the table; nobody is more important than anyone else at the table.
This is refreshing. Specially when dealing with the who’s who of Hollywood and other industries, ego can be difficult to deal with. That’s why you ensure things like a round table.
How are you ensuring equality around the dinner table/workplace/locker room or just hanging out with friends? The part where Shep had one restaurateur who didn’t want to serve them at a round table but two square tables instead. Well of course all the “who’s-who” of the table were sat at one and the lesser known “stars” (including Shep) at the other. Then the waiter placed different Olive Oil down on the other table then what was delivered to Shep’s table.
THAT WAS IT! He refused to stay, walking over to Vergé (who was at the other table) saying “lets go, there’s no reason to stay at a restaurant where they serve a different Olive Oil to a different class of people!”. They all got up and left the restaurant and prepared to board the bus.
As they were about to board the chef came running out and pleaded them to stay. Only if they could eat all together at ONE table. They moved the restaurant around to have one table and yes the same Olive Oil was delivered to the table. Shep got his way, equality will always prevail.
5. The willingness to fail is more important than the drive to succeed
Working with Alice Cooper, Shep had a lot of opportunities to literally “create history”. Stunts no one had ever tried, creating a spectacle out of something that used to be a musical performance. On the Pod
cast with Tim Ferriss Shep makes the point that it was Alice’s willingness to try the hair-boned ideas which allowed Shep to fail and learn.
A boss that allows you the freedom to “try” is a person that is pushing you to grow. When you define precisely what someone is capable of and don’t give them opportunity to do something amazing, they probably won’t last very long. Turnover high at your workplace? Could it be you aren’t allowing your stars to grow into something amazing. Let go of the reins, you have no idea what could happen when you do.
6. Compassionate Business; def’n: to create win-win situations for all involved
The most important lesson Shep learned about business was this concept. You didn’t need to a loser every time someone won. You could in fact create these ideal situations where all parties involved would win. Even when he was executing some of the most elaborate stunts, it was largely out of compassion
Shep never wanted to hurt anyone. Playing off of what people disliked was just a way to push them to “tell” someone about how terrible Alice Cooper is (effectively marketing Alice Cooper much faster than conventional means). The win-win situation was for the fans and Alice. The concerts would get increasingly elaborate as they weren’t “rock shows” anymore, but entertainment spectacles.
7. Great art divides the audience
When working with Alice Cooper Shep said he discovered one common thread between all the most popular acts (in the world) over time, which was that parents hated them all. The Beatles, Elvis, Jimmy Hendrix, Wu-Tang Clan, all the most popular artists, at one time all had something in common, parents loathed them. Shep talks about how “marketing” a show wasn’t about promoting your act, it was about finding who really despised your act and allowing them to spread the word-of-mouth. People pissed off some controversial act is coming to town will spread the word about it faster than any traditional forms of media.
Shep’s formula was 1. determine who hates your artist. 2. determine where these people hang out. 3. a simple stunt letting people know what’s happening. 4. watch the wild fire spread. Great art divides. Great art makes you think. Great art makes you choose. Great art is the best way to get your message out.
8. The most important thing in business is honour
Making the majority of his business relationships over a handshake, Shep had some interesting thoughts when it came to trust. Openly declaring he didn’t need contract with his artists but always having a contract with others and his artists.
In retrospect, I probably should have signed contracts with my artists. I was always looking ahead to their future, but never to my own. Because I made sure that my artists had strong contracts with their record companies, they’ve received royalties through their lifetimes. But when my handshake relationships with my artists ended, so did my income, whereas most managers continue to earn a percentage of their artists’ royalties in perpetuity. It was in a way very naïve of me to arrange things that way, even though it gave me a sense of inner strength. There’s integrity, and then there’s stupidity.
He worked on the Beatles Anthology, to which he is entitled royalties. He never took them. I love that about Shep. He doesn’t do what he does for money. He doesn’t care about money because he has something money can’t buy, enough.
9. There’s nothing positive about fame, the only way to deal with it is through service.
Roger Vergé had a big impact on Shep’s life. He was a world renowned chef but Shep knew him as a compassionate, selfless leader, who was always looking for ways to help others. He served others for a living and he enjoyed every minute of it, he impacted Shep’s life in a major way.
Before I met Roger Vergé, I thought bliss was basically wealth and power. But early in our friendship, I came to feel that true bliss was service to others and perfecting your compassion.
You can hear in Shep’s writing the affect Roger had on him. Literally changed his life by giving him hope that there was a different way that what he’d learned in Hollywood.
Unlike so many people I knew then, Vergé always did everything in a selfless spirit of “How can I make your life better?” He was a genuinely humble gentleman; nothing he did was just about him. As a chef, he liked to say, “I try to give pleasure on everyone.” What made him the absolute happiest was cooking to please his customers and friends. Doing a service for others.
You get the feeling that Shep uncovered a major life secret when he talks about how Roger changed his life. He had watched many friends and clients go down the deathly spiral of fame and fortune. A bright light in a dark, long tunnel, service to others was the answer Shep had been looking for for so long.
I had only seen success and misery—the success that killed Janis, Jimi, and Morrison, and sent Alice to rehab. Vergé was the first person I ever met who had true success: he had mastered his craft, he had respect from his peers, and he was happy, always happy, because his true joy came from putting the comfort of others before himself.
In the Timothy Ferriss Podcast (that influenced me to buy Supermench) he says one of the questions he gets asked the most is how do I be a better manager? And his response was “stop worrying about becoming a better manager and start focusing more on your clients, if you help them immensely you don’t have to work on your own “management skill”.
10. Helping others is the easiest way to help yourself
This point we’ll end with. On the podcast Ferriss asked him what’s the biggest mistake most managers make when trying to grow their practice? Shep’s answer, “so many managers come to asking how to be better, how they can be better managers, or what the secret is! Stop trying to make yourself better and start focusing on your clients.” Make a lot of sense. Stop trying to make yourself better when all you need to do is focus on your customer. Serve your customer. Do everything in your power to create history with your customer, be humble, never expect anything in return. Remember, service is the easiest route to happiness.