If I had to choose the single most valuable and important lesson that I learned from DIY culture, it’s that you don’t need anybody’s permission to act on an idea that you’re passionate about. The only permission you need is your own: the permission to jump in with both feet into something you know absolutely nothing about and figure it out as you go.
The classic example of this mindset was when the punk and hardcore bands of the 1980s pioneered the concept of DIY touring as we know it, when bands like Black Flag took matters into their own hands and booked their own tours, sidestepping the lame “rock club” circuit and building their own scene.
Just a few of the zines that inspired me back in the day. I could literally write a book about how many amazing zines there were in the 90s and how much they meant to me. Photo credit: Change Zine on Flickr
In the same way as Black Flag, Fugazi and others didn’t ask for permission to tour, there was a whole world of DIY writers who didn’t ask for permission to become publishers: the zine community. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the term, a zine is/was essentially just a very DIY, self-published magazine. They’re usually photocopied or cheaply printed in really small quantities and produced on a budget of somewhere around $0.
Issue #15 of my zine, from 1996
When I was 14 or 15, I started my own zine. I started it for a very simple reason: I was bummed that nobody else was covering the bands that I liked (bands like Capitalist Casualties, Spazz, and Dystopia, for anyone who is curious), and I figured that if nobody else was gonna do it then I should. Mind you, I was in 9th grade and didn’t know the first thing about how to lay out a magazine, set up an interview with a band, or how I was going to get anyone to buy it (“marketing plan” was not a term or concept in my brain at that time), but none of that concerned me at all.
I just jumped in with both feet and figured it out as I went. I ended up selling a few thousand copies through the mail all over the world– and keep in mind, this was in the mid 90s, so the absence of the internet made everything way harder than it would be today. At the time, I just thought of it as something to do after school, but looking back, it was actually a crash course in entrepreneurship: operations, marketing, business development, creative direction, and so forth.
Don’t wait until tomorrow… start today!
WHAT BUSINESS CAN LEARN FROM THIS
The willingness to jump in and DO something, making mistakes and learning along the way is at the very core of what business people call “disruptive innovation,” or a new product that comes out and completely disrupts an existing category: Netflix, Airbnb, Uber, and the Model T are all classic examples. By definition, when you are working on a disruptive innovation, you have no idea what the fuck you’re doing because it’s never been done before and therefore there is no blueprint or “best practices” for what you’re doing.
Those of us who come from DIY culture flourish in those kind of sink-or-swim situations, because it’s all we’ve ever known. We’ve spent our whole lives throwing ourselves into situations where we were entirely unqualified to be there, yet somehow finding a solution and winning. We thrive in chaos because we don’t wait for someone’s permission to start figuring shit out. We just do it. (Usually making a lot of really stupid mistakes along the way, but so what? Failure is the first step toward success)
Companies looking for innovation should think like we did when we were making zines, booking shows, starting labels, and all kinds of other things we had no business doing when we were clueless teenagers. Don’t wait for the world’s “permission” to make something awesome, just start doing it. If Uber or Airbnb waited until the government, unions, and cities said it was OK to proceed, they’d still be on the launchpad. Instead, they just said “fuck it, let’s do this” and figured it out along the way just like Black Flag did on their first US tour.