The best startup song ever

posted: July 30, 2017

tl;dr: AC/DC’s “Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round to Be a Millionaire)” captures the essence of the startup saga...

Not only is it a great rock-and-roll tune, with AC/DC’s trademark power guitar chords hooking the listener from the very start, but “Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round to Be a Millionaire)” is, in my humble opinion, the best song ever made about what life is like in a startup company, across the entire lifecycle. The boys were writing about their life in the band, which itself is a startup in the content creation industry. The observations they make apply to life in most startups.

The song appears on Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, first released in 1976

My interpretation of the lyrics (note: a healthy dose of irony is required):

Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round to Be a Millionaire)

The title is brilliant, with a double dose of irony and several layers of meaning. By conventional measures of success, life in a startup isn’t any fun. The odds of ultimate success are poor, the hours are long, the challenges are many, and the initial financial returns are slim to non-existent. Perhaps the biggest challenge, which gnaws at startup founders constantly, is the fear that all the time and effort might be for naught, if the startup ultimately fails. You definitely learn the meaning of “opportunity cost” being in a startup. Yet by unconventional measures of success, life in a startup is incredibly fun. You get to try to sell the world on your vision, you get to do what you want to do in terms of company structure and product, you take on the giants, you use the latest leading-edge technology, you stretch your capabilities and skills, and you do so with a small team of great people and a minimum of bureaucracy. Those aspects of startup life are incredibly fun.

The second part of the title, “waiting round to be a millionaire”, is both a warning and a contrast in perspectives. If you found or join a startup and then sit around waiting to achieve monetary success, your startup will fail, and it won’t be any fun. It takes an awful lot of work to achieve success, and even those who work hard are not guaranteed success. You can’t sit around waiting. Yet, in retrospect, looking back at a successful startup, that’s often how it appears to outside observers. Google was a shoo-in to be a success, right? Larry and Sergey followed a well-trodden path: just get into Stanford, take a few Computer Science classes, invent a simple new algorithm (page rank in their case), get some Silicon Valley venture capitalists to invest, and the rest is a breeze - just sit around and wait for the money to roll in and soon you’ll be buying your own aircraft. That’s what it was like, right?

The following is a true story

Yes, it is a true story, AC/DC’s story, but it is also the story of other startups.

Only the names have been changed

To protect the guilty

At times, in some startups (not all), some corners are cut and some laws are broken or ignored. Amazon got a competitive advantage for many years by not collecting sales taxes; Uber and Lyft willfully ignore taxi regulations by describing themselves as anything but a taxi service; Airbnb does the same with hotel regulations.

Well I left my job in my home town

This is often one of the first steps in the startup process: quitting the corporate job and/or leaving the path expected of you by your family members.

And I headed for the smoke

This means moving to the epicenter of activity for your specialty. While I do not believe that successful startups only exist in Silicon Valley, it remains the #1 startup hub. The cost of living there is obscenely high, and the quality of life is low, yet people still head towards the smoke.

Got a rock 'n' roll band and a fast right hand

Your startup must have a competitive advantage.

Gonna get to the top

Nothing's gonna stop us, no nothing

You need an aspiration and a strong belief in yourself and your team.

So if you've got the money, we've got the sound

You put it up and we'll put it down

If you've got the dollar, we got the song

You need others to buy into your vision. These can be either customers, in the case of a bootstrapped startup, or outside investors willing to fund the early days of your company before it achieves sustainable financial success.

Just want to boogie woogie all night long

Yeah boogie

This is a key point: the primary drive has to be passion for what your startup is building (company, product, and/or technology), not achieving financial success. Do it because you love it, as the financial success may or may not follow. AC/DC made their style of music because that’s what they enjoyed doing; the financial success followed later.

I got holes in my shoes

I got holes in my teeth

I got holes in my socks

I can't get no sleep

Pay attention here: the early days of a startup are rough, with little or no financial rewards. Also, there’s usually no company health plan at the very start.

I'm trying to make a million

Sometimes you need a reminder as to why you are going through all the pain and difficulty.

And I got patches on the patches

On my old blue jeans

Well they used to be blue

When they used to be new

When they used to be clean

More statement of the reality of life in an early-stage startup.

But I've got a Momma whose a hummer

Whose keeping me alive

You’ll need some sort of financial support to cover your living expenses in the early stages of a startup. This can be family members helping out, either informally or via a “friends and family” round of investment, or perhaps an angel investor. Or you can live off savings.

While I'm in the band doing drinking with the boys

She's working 9 to 5

She knows her place that woman

Even though you’re scraping by and your family members may be supporting you, you’ll still on occasion need to go to fancy events to hobnob with potential customers and investors. These events can be fun, but don’t forget what the ultimate aim is: making your company successful.

Just you wait,

One of these days see me driving round town

In my rockin' Rolls Royce with the sun roof down

My bottle of booze

No summer time blues

Shouting out, look at me

In my rock 'n' roll voice

Once again it can help to remind yourself of what life could be like someday. Aspirations help, as long as they inspire you to keep working hard to achieve them.

Ain't no fun waiting 'round to be a millionaire

Ooo it ain't no fun, waiting 'round to be a millionaire

Do you believe me, it ain't no fun, waitin' 'round to be a millionaire

It ain't no fun, I don't care what they say

Hangin' 'round to be a millionaire

This is further exposition of the dichotomy in the song’s title which I’ve already discussed.

Drive a Rolls Royce car

More aspiration.

No it ain't no fun, waiting 'round to be a millionaire

No no no no no no no no

No ain't no fun, hangin' 'round to be a millionaire

Said it ain't no fun

Ain't no fun, oh no

No it ain't no fun

Ain't no fun, that's what I said

Yeah it ain't no fun

Ain't no fun, and you ain't even rich

No it ain't no fun

Ain't no fun, its no fun doin' this bitch

Ain't no fun waitin' 'round to be a millionaire

You better believe it

This is more exposition of the central dichotomy. By now the band is really kicking into gear, the guitars are rocking, and the song becomes more fun the longer it goes on. Startups are the same way, as the longer they survive and the greater the success they achieve, the greater the sense of accomplishment for the early employees. I interpret this to be the band's final statement on the topic: being in a startup really can be fun.

Ain't no fun waitin' 'round to be a millionaire

Ain't no fun waitin' 'round to be a millionaire

No it ain't no fun waitin' 'round to be a millionaire

No it ain't no fun

Ain't no fun

No it ain't no fun

Ain't no fun

It ain't nothing no fun

Ain't no fun

No it ain't no fun

Ain't no fun

Ain't no fun waitin' 'round to be a millionaire

No no

Ain't no fun waitin' 'round to be a millionaire

Yeh it ain't no fun waitin' 'round to be a millionaire

No it ain't no fun waitin' 'round to be a millionaire

The song is totally fun now, and the “ain’t no fun” refrain is now entirely ironic: Bon Scott and the boys are having great fun singing about how they aren’t having any fun. The band is achieving financial success, and they are looking back at the early days.

Hey, hello Howard, how you doin'babe, next door neighbor?

Oh yea,

Get your fuckin' jumbo jet out of my airport

At this point the startup has achieved so much financial success that the early employees have their own airplanes and airport, and can tell Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Larry Ellison to take their jets elsewhere.

It ain't no fun

It ain't no fun

It ain't no fun

No it ain't no fun

No ain't no fun, hangin' 'round to be a millionaire

Ain't no fun waiting 'round to be a millionaire

No it ain't no fun waiting 'round to be a millionaire

Ain't no fun

No no no no no no

Just keep going and keep following your vision, even after you achieve initial success.

Lyrics written by Angus Mckinnon Young, Malcolm Mitchell Young, Ronald Belford Scott • Copyright © BMG Rights Management US, LLC