What Can Businesses Learn From Buglers?

What Can Businesses Learn From Buglers?

What does summer mean to you?

It might mean beach books, lazy afternoons spent poolside, fun-filled camp days (memories of yours or sending your kids off to theirs), cook-outs and vacations. With a bit of luck, it means slowing down — even just a bit — to enjoy the warm weather, the longer days, and the chance to do a little something more than work work work.

For me, summer means drum corps.

As a teen, I spent my summers touring the country by bus; sleeping on gymnasium floors; putting in grueling rain-or shine, heat-or-more-heat rehearsal days leading up to 12-minute shows on football fields all over the United States and in Canada; then it was back on the bus to do it all over again. I did all of this surrounded by 100 or so other kids (none over the age of 21), as a member of the now defunct Long Island Kingsmen Drum & Bugle Corps (pictured above circa 1979).

As an adult, I’m lucky if I have the time to attend one show each season, but I do try to get out when the tour passes close to Long Island (when I was a kid, Long Island was home to dozens of corps of all calibers — now we hardly have any and we don’t warrant even one major tour stop of our own – oh well). And from the moment the first corps steps off at the first show of the season through the moment the last score is announced at the championship event in mid-August, I catch as many performances as I can by online video, keep up with news from my favorite corps through their Facebook pages and Twitter streams, analyze scores as they post to the Drum Corps International website and annoy my wife by playing the DCI podcast on the car stereo.

Once drum corps gets in your blood, it tends to stick there — bolstered by the memories that last a lifetime and reinforced every time you unexpectedly learn that someone you know through another context (a coworker, a neighbor, a friend’s father, some random dude you met at a conference) did drum corps too.

Reminiscing is nice, isn’t it? But if you’ve made it this far into the post, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with business.

Set aside the reality that any elite drum corps today needs to operate as a well oiled machine — it’s not easy or inexpensive to dress and equip 150 high school and college performers, then move them (along with dozens of instructors and support personnel, their gear, a mess truck, a merchandise truck and more) around the country for a solid two months or more. If you’re looking for cost effective ideas you can use to bolster your company’s brand or strengthen its customer relationships, you’d do well to study how a variety of individual corps — not to mention DCI itself (the association under which the corps and the tours operate) — employ savvy marketing tactics to fill both their membership ranks and the stands at shows, raise money, foster meaningful relationships with passionate fans through just about every social media channel available, and activate armies of real world advocates to drive the growth of the sport (yes – drum corps is a sport as much as it is an art).

But I mentioned my experience with the Long Island Kingsmen for a reason. We were scrappy back then, operating on a shoe string without many of the tools (from corporate sponsorships to national fundraising drives fueled by digital and social media) modern corps have today. But what we did have was passion, ingenuity, and a level of commitment any business would do well to emulate. And that brings us back to business.

A couple of weeks ago, one former member started a thread in the Kingsmen alumni group on Facebook to swap memories of all the different ways the corps — and the kids themselves — raised the money necessary to put the corps on the road. Nearly 80 comments later, other members had contributed stories about selling candy and candles door-to-door. Running the local BINGO games and raffling off Cadillacs. Maintaining a booster club and going “begging” (the quotation marks probably weren’t necessary – it’s exactly what it sounds like: Imagine 100 local kids walking door-to-door, coffee cans in hand, asking for donations). Shivering outside the local flea market selling Christmas wreaths our moms decorated in our basements. Slogging up and down some sleepy mid-western Main Street during a Fourth of July parade, when what you really wanted was just one day off between competitions.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not suggesting you send your best employees out “begging” (although let’s be honest, isn’t that exactly what small businesses are doing today when they vie for Chase/Living Social grants or an American Express OPEN Big Break for Small Business?) What I am suggesting is that you take a few cues from a bunch of buglers. I’m sure we were all too young to realize this back then, but looking back on it now I see an organization bursting with ingenuity, committed to making things happen, and driven by an entrepreneurial spirit that equaled its passion for putting the show on the field. All attributes any business would be lucky to possess.

And that — finally! — is what this post is really about…

Your business — any business — is as much about its people as it is about its products. The best companies are staffed with people who are not only passionate about doing the work of the business, but also committed to doing any extra work that might be necessary just to make it possible to do the work itself? For the Kingsmen, that meant begging and BINGO and raffles and wreaths — anything we could do to raise enough money to keep the buses rolling. For your company, it might mean always thinking like a marketer or sales person – regardless of the title on your business card. It might mean cutting costs without cutting corners, all the while treating every dollar spent as if it were your own. It might mean going above and beyond to solve a problem for a client or even a co-worker, especially when the solution isn’t easy to find. It might mean wearing an extra hat, making the tough choices, or making do without. It probably means trying lots and lots of small tactics to find the ones that deliver the best results. And it most certainly means being your own best advocates and knocking on doors — literally or figuratively — to garner support from your audience.

It means operating as a true team, and doing anything within your power to keep the company solvent, on track, and moving forward (march).

Does this sounds like your business? What’s some of the work-behind-the-work you do? What tips do you have for creating an environment of passion, commitment, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit?

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