Best of Dave Carroll

I had the privilege of speaking at MegaComm last week, which allowed me to hear Dave Carroll of United Breaks Guitars fame. I’m ashamed to admit that my first impression was that this was a one hit wonder still barely holding on to his fifteen minutes of fame. But he quickly won me over and proved otherwise.

Back in business school we were given two case studies about Honda Motors, to highlight the difference between what Henry Mintzberg termed deliberate and emergent strategies. The first case study made Soichiro Honda seem like a proactive genius who wrote the blueprint for Honda’s successes. The other showed him not as a great deliberate planner but as a man who was very good at reacting to opportunities. I was the only one in the class who was more swayed by the latter view.

Carroll has been a master at emergent strategy. First he turned a negative experience at United into a viral video. Then he used the viral video, and the story behind it, to build a successful and lucrative career as an author and keynote speaker. He leverages the video and the speaking career to advance his music and his new customer complaint website gripevine.

The man appears to have built a lifestyle that he enjoys and in which he excels, through an impressive core skillset and successful leveraging of unexpected events. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ideas of building around the black swan.

Fascination with stories like Carroll’s sometimes scares me because some people draw the lesson that they should just sit back and wait for lightning to strike. That’s not the idea behind emergent strategies, and it’s not Dave’s story. First, lightning doesn’t often strike. Second, when it does, people usually fail to capitalize, often not even noticing. Dave’s hardly the first person with a bad customer support story.

Deliberate and emergent strategies have two key things in common:

  • They both require hard work, planning and skill.
  • They both depend on events that are beyond our control.

Each has its time and place, and perhaps should be thought of as two different skillsets to master.

Here’s what Dave Carroll did before his video went viral:

  1. Before the guitar broke: Lived a good, professional life. Volunteered as a fire-fighter. Was on a paid music gig with his brothers. Built relationships. Worked on his music and story-telling skills.
  2. First reaction to broken guitar: Was nice and polite the whole way. His wife works in customer support and used to tell him about all the abusive customers. Dave wasn’t going to be that. Also, he’s Canadian.
  3. The video: Had the idea to create the video. Wrote the song. Wrote the video. Called friends and asked for help. Made it all happen. Smiling the whole way.

So he didn’t just sit back and wait for lightning to strike. He lived his life in a way that both:

  • would likely have been very fulfilling without the lightning strike.
  • made the lightning strike more likely

He built his skills, his character, and his relationships.

He did a great job creating a video that just worked.

Here’s what he did after the video went viral:

  1. Got a friend to help out. Worked nearly around the clock answering almost every interview request. Was nice and friendly the whole time.
  2. Found ways to leverage the video to better do the things he liked doing and was good at: connecting with people and telling stories through words and music.

Listening to him was fun and inspirational. Here are highlights:

We heard a woman behind us say “Oh my God, they’re throwing guitars outside.”

Well, this disturbed us a great deal.

First two women he went to just passed him off and the third one flatly refused to help.

“So the real problem wasn’t that my guitar was being thrown around. It was that I was rejected by three women in five minutes.”

Favorite response was

“But hon, that’s why you signed the waiver”

After months of jumping through hoops was finally rejected by Ms Irlweg because he didn’t file his initial claim within 24 hours.

“If I were a lawyer I’d sue you. But I’m a musician. I’m going to write three songs about United and I’m going to get a million YouTube views. I’ll keep you updated and together we’ll get to a million.”

His only problem was that he couldn’t find anything that rhymed with Irlweg.

People were very helpful.

“United broke your guitar? We’ll donate our services.”

Got a one day video shoot. Made the props himself.

“That little plane you see at the beginning of the video? I made it myself. Took me four hours.

“Bought mustaches and lunch for everybody. That was the bulk of my $150 budget for this video.”

His social media strategy was

“I’ll post this on YouTube and see what happens.”

Posted it at 11:30 at night.

“At midnight I had six hits. I thought they were all mine. I figured I’d watch the video a million times myself. Sent 300 e-mails and posted to my 600 Facebook friends.”

In the morning there were 300 views. By noon there were 25,000 and by dinner 50,000.

The local paper wrote something about it which was picked up by the LA Times. He did a local radio interview the next morning. Bought a card table and a 2 line phone. Got a friend to help out. He’s still averaging about an interview a day. He’d go to sleep at midnight and wake up at 2 for European interviews.

He was driving and his friend picks up the phone and it’s Bob Taylor from Taylor Guitars.

“Bob Taylor! It’s like God calling.”

Then the friend hangs up.

“You hung up on Bob Taylor!”

“Yeah, but I have Dave Letterman.”

Had a big New York media day planned but it fell through. Instead went to California to see Bob Taylor. After a big tour Taylor showed him a wall full of guitars.

“Pick 2,” Bob said.

One reason Dave’s story connects is that it’s the Luke Skywalker story. Or David and Goliath. The little guy penetrates through a defense system that was built on the premise that one guy can’t hurt you.

Got offered his first speaking event.

“We’d like your PowerPoint presentation.”

“I’d like to customize that for you.”

Then he called his dad.

“Dad, what’s a Power Point presentation?”

Eventually just told his story. Got great feedback.

“But Dave, you didn’t have any charts or graphs. People are going to laugh at you after you leave the room.”

“So here’s my chart,” he said to us, and showed some silly chart about how his target market was everybody who knows anybody who had a bad experience flying.

United never threatened legal action.

His lawyer friend told him that satire is his right, if it’s truthful. But you can be sure there’s a room full of United lawyers just waiting for you to screw up.

He was on the View. They showed a statement from United that said they were very sorry about what happened, and they were now using the United Breaks Guitars video as part of their customer training.

“Are they paying you a licensing fee?” Whoopi Goldberg asked.

Now they are.

Bought a ticket on Continental and happened to fly on the day that they merged with United.

“Are you the guy from United Breaks Guitars?” a fellow passenger asked him at security.


“I was right behind you at the counter. Right after you left, the woman behind the counter told her supervisor ‘Don’t worry, I was very nice to him.’”

Flew United one other time. He kept his guitar close. They lost his suitcase. Became front page news on NYT biz section.

“Funny story, I have a great relationship with Lufthansa now. We were on our way to a concert in Siberia and Lufthansa lost our instruments, no joke. I Tweeted @lufthansa that they lost our guitars.

“Within an hour I received a response. We’re very sorry. We’re looking very hard for your instruments. We think they’re in Dusseldorf. We’ll find out and keep you updated.

Lufthansa got the guitars to Moscow and on to Siberia. Dave got them just before the sound check at his concert.

They asked him if he’d like to do a speaking gig for them at a customer service event in New York. That went well, and they booked him for a bigger one in Phoenix.

Was flying American Airlines once. A flight attendant approached him near the gate.

“Dave Carroll? Do you know what this is? It’s my customer service pin. Do you know when I got it? After I watched your video.”

Now he’s discussing licensing rights with them.

Dave spoke for more than two hours at MegaComm. Well, for some of that time he played the guitar and sang. Not his famous song, though he opened by showing that video. The 911 song, a touching tribute to first responders. And Now, which was accompanied by a touching story about a woman whose terminally ill mother loved the song. Then one morning, she passed away while they were listening to it.

For some reason the recurring phrase of that song touches me.

“When there’s no way out, there’s still a way through.”

Stuff happens. Sometimes it can’t be undone. But there’s often a way through. It’s not usually as dramatic as turning broken guitars into personal and professional success. But happiness and success are largely dependent on developing the mindset, and the skillset, to steer your way through the unexpected crises and opportunities.

Dave, I hope I didn’t overstep the bounds of Fair Rights usage with all the quotes in this post. I hope you see it as a tribute. You rocked. And you were awesome. All the best.