Professional inspiration can come from anywhere, even the unlikeliest of places. This month, I was inspired by a rapper imparting business advice to startups.
Hip-hop historian, music technologist and founder of hip-hop band Stetsasonic, Glenn K. Bolton—also known as Daddy-O—recently spoke about the parallels between budding hip-hop artists and startups during his presentation at Geekend 2011, a techie conference presented by BFG Communications.
Daddy-O's advice for hopeful rappers and startups were astoundingly similar. As a successful rapper himself, Daddy-O's own experiences brought truth to his words.
Inspired by his story and wisdom, we'd like to share some of Daddy-O's thoughts on what early-stage startups—and businesses of all types, really—can learn from hip-hop artists.
After this primer, we also recommend studying up on the Notorious B.I.G's 10 Crack Commandments, a rap introduction for beginner crack dealers that, oddly, also translates well to the startup world.
1. Put your creative people on the front lines
"If you do not keep your business people in the back room, patching people up, they're going to muck it up," says Daddy-O. "You let them talk, you're done."
Daddy-O is a big fan of putting the creative brains of an operation in the spotlight and keeping business people in the background for support.
In the hip-hop world, the creative people are the rappers; the business people include the record labels, the managers and anyone else helping distribute and manage the rappers' music. Daddy-O explained that many successful rappers started off as independent artists—Master P, Cash Money, P. Diddy, to name a few. "The big checks come, they run to the big checks," says Daddy-O. "And then ultimately, you see some of them fall off." When business comes before art, the art suffers.
Startups and small businesses face this same problem if the business side of the operation comes before the product. Startups should focus on developing sound products, just as rappers should focusing on creating the best music that they can. Once the product, whether it be an app or a new LP, is at the top of its game, it shows—and the business will roll in from there.
Daddy-O compared business and art to a war zone: You have your foot soldiers (artists and creatives) out on the front lines, getting things done, and you have M*A*S*H (the business heads) back at the base, making sure everything runs smoothly.
2. Don't let odds get in the way
“Passion is the kid in his mama's house with one Marshall amp and a guitar, and his mother saying that he's a bum, and he's still doing it. Passion is those kids in a garage with a piece of software," says Daddy-O. "If you're going to be passionate about anything, you better not let odds get in the way. Because you can just strip the word passion out of there."
Daddy-O explains that nothing should stop your passion, whether you're a would-be rock star or a hopeful startup entrepreneur. For founding hip-hop artists, such as Daddy-O, who started rapping in 1979, there were a lot of critics of the genre who were calling it a fad or listening in disgust as DJs rubbed records the wrong way. "You think we listened?" Daddy-O asked. "It only made us scratch more. It only made us rap more, because we didn't really care."
Everybody's odds are different, and you may think that attaining your business goal is impossible. If you put your passion behind it, though, you'll always win. Whether you reach that final goal or just get pretty dang far along the way, you'll learn something that makes it all worthwhile.
"You're not going to be sure about most things you do in life. As songwriters facing a high degree of uncertainty, we embrace it. It actually energizes us. It's the same butterflies that Michael Jackson got every time before he hit the stage. That degree of uncertainty is healthy if you look at it the right way; embrace it, because that's what makes winning exciting."
3. Never stop practicing
"Businesses fail because in the beginning you're always practicing, always using your gift—whether that's writing code or a new rhyme. But after your program gets picked up or after the record company signs you, you stop."
"That's it in a nutshell," says Daddy-O, and he points to inspiration as the driver to keep practicing. Whether you were inspired by someone else's work or you feel that your talent is a God-given gift, your only option is to stay inspired. Here's a fun anecdote Daddy-O told:
"You're in the beginning of a startup—you subscribe to Fast Company, Wired, Inc.; you're following everything Guy Kawasaki says online; you bought all of Brian Solis' books; you're talking back and forth with Chris Brogan all the time, cause he'll answer anyone; and you feel like you're getting it. That's until someone cuts you a check, and all of a sudden you're out the window. All of a sudden your inspiration becomes your competition, and you're no longer tweeting. What happened to that blog you were doing every week? What happened? Oh, you've got a check now. You don't wanna fail? You don't have an option. Stay inspired."
4. Use what you've got
"The golden egg isn't winning—it's usage. Usage is enough. That's all you have to do; use what you've got," says Daddy-O. "That's what Jay-Z does. He never stopped rhyming. That's what Sean P. does. He never stopped rhyming. Every engineer I know, every developer I know, every designer I know, that's all they do; they just use what they've got.
"You will continue to be inspired if you keep on doing it. There's no way to be a break dancer and keep dancing, and not be inspired—because you will evolve if you keep doing it. You aren't going to keep doing the same four moves every time. You're going to get tired of the same four moves. If you're writing code, you're not going to keep writing the same four lines of code over and over; you're going to get better."
In the beginning, rap was about keeping it new. Rappers were required to have a new rhyme every time they took the stage. Making rap albums was considered "whack," explains Daddy-O, because it meant you were recording your routine, nothing was new. As a result, rappers were constantly writing new rhymes. To get better, you've got to use your mojo, says Daddy-O.
This lesson has stuck with Daddy-O over the years. His business motto is, "Your evolution is inevitable if you keep doing it."
Using what you've got is just as true for equipment as it is for mojo. "You ask any guitarist, and they don't want a crappy guitar," says Daddy-O. "But I guarantee you, Flea plays just as well on a sucky bass as a good bass, because he learned to play on a sucky bass. Use what you've got, and it will get you to the next level." Don't be jealous of the shiny, new goods that other artists or entrepreneurs are working with; make the best of what you have. Whether that's talent or equipment, use it until you've exhausted it, advises Daddy-O.
5. Find where you belong
When you listen to a hip-hop artist, it's inevitable that he will give a shout-out to his hood—be it Brooklyn, Atlanta or the Bay. A rapper's home turf is a part of his music.
Marketers would call this concept "knowing your market," says Daddy-O, but rappers look at it as knowing where they belong in the music world.
For businesses, it is important to understand what cluster of people your product or service is targeting and then communicate and act accordingly.
Bonus: Do not handle legal work alone
Along your journey to being a successful businessperson—or rapper—you'll get the opportunity to do a lot of the work yourself, learning about different aspects of your industry and business. The only thing you should never categorize as a DIY project, says Daddy-O, is legal work. If you're negotiating a contract, always seek legal advice. But other than that, he says, get your hands dirty.