A rock critic and an entrepreneur judge Andrew Mason’s “Hardly Workin’”
Andrew Mason’s tenure as CEO at Groupon was anything but consistent. First he was the visionary, iconoclastic leader of the fastest-growing Internet company ever. Then he was the immature clown who wasn’t prepared to run a major corporation. The one constant: Mason’s absurdist sense of humor, which came to pervade the company’s branding, for better or worse.
No surprise then that as his first post-Groupon move, Mason released a rock album, titled Hardly Workin’ and featuring seven original songs, each of which delivers a nugget of business wisdom set to a contemporary pop tune. Mason — who graduated from Northwestern University in 2003 with a degree in music and once interned for legendary smartass Steve Albini — wrote the music and lyrics, performed the vocals, and played keyboards.
We think we know when to take Mason seriously, and this is not the time. But just to play along, we enlisted a pair of critics to review Hardly Workin’ track-by-track. Music journalist Jason Heller, a regular at the A.V. Club and Pitchfork, weighs in on the songs’ musical merits. Venerable Chicago entrepreneur Howard Tullman, chairman of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy, breaks down Mason’s business advice.
“Look No Further”
Forget the business books and MBA – the best business ideas come from the world around you.
Tullman: Ideas are a dime a dozen, as is inspiration. What really matters is execution. So just finding some random idea doesn’t do much for me.
Heller: The bouncy pop-rock track cribs its verse from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner” — the hook that lures you in — before deeply discounting Mason’s own modest talents as a singer-songwriter. “The Catcher in the Rye” is invoked. A Huey Lewis-level sax solo is deployed. Mason keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek. But have you ever tried singing like that?
“The Way to Work”
Use time away from work – such as your commute – as meditative time to free your mind of small matters. Once you’ve let go of daily obstacles and anxieties, perhaps you’ll softly stumble on some answers you’ve been seeking.
Tullman: It’s a good point. If you’re constantly consumed by crises and what’s urgent, you’re gonna lose sight of what’s important. You need to find a way to clear your head.
Heller: The anodyne drone continues on “The Way to Work,” a song that either takes itself too seriously or takes its lack of seriousness too seriously. Regardless, it’s Ambien in MP3 form. Chronicling his epic inner monologue as he drives his scooter through the streets of Chicago, Mason delivers a solipsistic pep talk for Mason. “On the corner of State and Chicago,” he drowsily croons, “I’ve begun to disconnect.”
“My Door Is Always Open”
When a boss has an open-door policy, front-line employees have an obligation to go to the boss with their ideas, and to point out problems. It shows the boss believes that employees know better than he/she what the issues are, and have ideas for addressing them.
Tullman: It’s true that if you don’t make it possible for people to communicate problems to you, then they’ll think you don’t care. But it’s totally on the boss to make the overture — to expect people to voluntarily walk into your office to tell you about problems is [unwise].
Heller: “I know you feel small/ Like one in a million,” is how Mason kicks off “My Door Is Always Open,” his paean to all the little people. Here he switches his voice to Kermit-the-Frog — sorry, nerd-rock — mode. He strums sweetly. He gently invites you in. His door, after all, is always open. Just make sure you’re wearing a parachute.
“Risin’ Above the Pack”
To succeed in an organization, don’t worry about the path to management or your next job. Focus on the job you have, do it excessively well — and make yourself indispensable.
Tullman: That’s a very fair criticism of, and good advice for, these kids who are in such a hurry to get a title. Once you’re in the door you have to prove yourself at whatever level.
Heller: Sounding bizarrely like The Gaslight Anthem covering Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son,” Mason uses “Risin’ Above the Pack” to blur the line not just between the ’70s and today, but between motivational platitudes and the agony of defeat. Mason is a self-professed acolyte of Malcolm Gladwell, going so far as to name Groupon’s prototype The Point after Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point.” Accordingly, “Risin’ Above the Pack” marks the EP’s tipping point from annoyingly funny to funnily annoying.
In design, value simplicity above all things. The worst thing you can do is confuse your user. So focus not on what you can add, but on what you can take away.
Tullman: Certainly, simple and elegant solutions are to be devoutly hoped for. I’d go a little further: this is the curse of Excel, where 80 percent of the functionality is because some [plunking] engineer got it in his head to add it even though nobody asked for it and nobody knows how to use it.
Heller: On “K.I.S.S.,” Mason plays his goofball-antic shtick to the hilt. The Blues Brothers-esque bar-rock track is shamelessly silly, which is refreshing. It’s also the worst song on the EP by far, a cluster of glib corporate-speak, Steve Jobs name-dropping, and Keep It Simple Stupid-tude that takes its own advice a little too close to heart.
When setting goals, take what you know you can do, and add 20 percent — because success comes from working harder and being more focused than everybody else.
Tullman: Yes, if you’re not being extraordinary you won’t get very far. But I’d be careful because you can actually overfocus — you can be so obsessed with “let’s go kill it” that you lose your peripheral vision. Keeping your head down and charging ahead is good, but you actually have to be aware of your surroundings in order to catch the really disruptive ideas that could take over your business.
Heller: Mason’s ridiculousness hits its breaking point on “Stretch.” A clunky, wannabe-indie-dance song that could effectively be used to extinguish fires on disco floors, it plays up every cliché of the genre without knowing how to aim the punchline away from itself. Vocoders, faux-funk guitars, female backup singers — “Stretch” is indistinguishable from a really incompetent club song. The joke is on itself. A cameo from Dr. Dre protégé Bishop Lamont — sample rap: “Control those controllables!/ Close those accounts!” — results in a net negative.
“It’s Up to Us”
Success boils down to execution. Period. A great idea, strong demand, the best team, even a perfect product don’t mean anything unless you execute.
Tullman: Definitely. It’s 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.
Heller: A power ballad about market positioning. Everything is sneered at, up to and including the style of music being performed. It’s pure, undiluted millennial snark. Like the rest of Hardly Workin’, it’s not quite fun enough to listen to as music nor morbidly fascinating enough for rubbernecking at the vanity-project trainwreck. But there’s hope for auditory satisfaction. Today’s deal: Grab a Danzig Groupon instead.