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5 Things Jay-Z Can Teach You About Running Your Creative Business

Jonny Elwyn

Want to grow your creative business? Check out these 5 tips on how to be a better creative entrepreneur from Jay-Z, a self made millionaire.

Creative Inspiration

Whether or not you’re a fan Jay-Z’s music there’s a lot you can learn from his rags-to-riches story that can help you to develop your own creative business. Whether you’ll make his millions and marry Beyonce, well I can’t promise you that.

These 5 thoughts are inspired by this excellent article on Quora titled “What’s so great about Jay-Z?” which you would do well to read first, especially if you’re not intimately acquainted with his life history.  It is a great read.

Lesson #1. Hustle

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that if you want to be successful at anything, you have to work at it. But there are different ways of working and different ways of thinking. Jay-Z’s early mindset is classic entrepreneur – when the door to the ‘normal way’ was closed to him he found a creative solution that ultimately set him on the path to becoming who he is today.

When Jay-Z was an unsigned rapper, he sold his tapes from the trunk of his car while trying to get a record deal. All of the major labels refused to sign him. He finally scored a deal with Payday Records, but after seeing how amateurly they operated, he realized something that became very critical to his success: they didn’t do anything for him that he couldn’t do for himself.

You could argue that selling tapes from the back of your car is not particularly creative (re-brand it as a ‘pop-up-shop’ and it will sound a bit more savvy) but creating your own record label is. That’s what Jay-Z decided to do when he created Roc-A-Fella records when he realized everything they were taking a cut for he could do better by himself.

Being willing to take risks, potentially fail and work a lot harder are all key to building your own business. Finding creative solutions to the particular problems you are facing, and eschewing the ‘normal way’ things are done is an incredibly important muscle to develop. Asking questions like: What would it look like to break this? What would it look like to do everything ‘perfectly wrong’? What is the culturally accepted way of doing my business? What does it look like to flip that on its head?

Do things for yourself and find creative ways of doing things differently.  Don’t just do things because it’s the “normal” or “typical” way.

Lesson #2. Mastery

Jay-Z is the most talented rapper alive. Back in the 1990s he became known as “The Master of All Flows,” a title only bestowed upon an extremely exclusive group of elite rappers. While most rappers only have one  flow style, Jay-Z has mastered every flow in existence.  Fast. Slow. Syncopated. Straightforward. Poetic. Narrative. He can do it all… This is not just natural ability. This is the sign of someone who is a tireless perfectionist when it comes to his craft.

I’m a video editor by trade and I wonder what it would look like to become a ‘Master of All Flows’ in my industry?  I guess it would mean not only being able to cut different styles and genres (action, comedy, horror, drama etc) and develop a deep understanding of the characteristics of those genres but also different formats (Episodic TV with ad breaks, recaps and intros, music videos, corporate videos, commercials, features, documentaries, web series etc) and the technical specs, conventions and deliverables that they require. What would it look like for you? What would it look like to grow your skill set?  Commit yourself to working your way towards Mastery.

Be determined to always improve.

Lesson #3. Preparation

Unlike other rappers, who use notebooks, notepads or even Blackberries to pen a song, Jay-Z has every bar and every verse of his songs etched in his brain. When he enters the studio to record a track, he is always overprepared. Because his lyrics are already memorized, he needs very few takes to record an entire track. Anyone who wants to collaborate with Jay-Z must be prepared for the fact that he moves at a very fast pace with incredible attention to detail.

Being as prepared as Jay-Z is one of the things in business that often no one pays you for but makes you exponentially more valuable. Being prepared for the client meeting by scoping out the company website for names and faces, for previous work and knowing as much as you possibly can about where they’re heading is all good basic preparation. Being prepared is often neglected because its technically not part of the job you’re getting paid for.  However, every minute you spend on preparing is worth it, because it demonstrates a level of professionalism that means you’ve got your act together and are ahead of the game.

Preparation will reap a harvest of professionalism.

Lesson #4. Complimentary Business Expansion

I remember a cameraman once telling me that sandbags generate the biggest return for rental companies because they are relatively cheap to buy, are ubiquitous on sets and easy to charge a little bit for. Pound for pound they generate a lot of profit. Buying your own gear and renting it could be a great way to provide a better service and make a bit on the side. In what ways can you expand to offer complimentary services that might help you grow and offer more?

Jay-Z turned his early success into much greater success by turning Roc-A-Fella into a brand promoting other rappers, expanding into clothing and also film. He’s also made considerable money investing in clubs, the Brooklyn Nets, Arsenal FC, a casino and working as a ‘brand consultant’ for Budweiser…all the while co-collaborating with a huge number of musical artists.

What are the arenas you could expand into that would compliment what you’re already doing? A clothing line might have seemed like an odd choice for a rapper, but so much of the music scene is about style and ultimately that’s what the Jay-Z brand is offering. What is at the core of what you do – ideas, communication, style? How could you translate that core into complimentary business?

Lesson #5. Grit Determination

Jay-Z has a famous quote in “Diamonds Are Forever (Remix);” “Difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week.” That statement is precisely what makes him  great. He is a high-school dropout, but he is intelligent and driven in ways that cannot be quantified. All of his success comes from his ability to accomplish goals with smarts, effort and persistence, even against the odds. What he says is true. You can’t knock the hustle.

There’s a story in another Quora post on Jay-Z that says he once lost all his money (during his drug dealing days) and so grabbed a friend who owed him a favor and spent three days and nights out on the street earning it all back. Now I am definitely not advocating drug dealing, and I would praise Jay-Z’s later philanthropic efforts, but the point of telling this story is that you can’t get away from hard work and determination.

I know lots of creatives who have big dreams about achieving great things, and finally ‘making it’. Hard work alone may not get you there, but you’ll definitely put yourself in place for opportunity.  There is no substitute for hard work.

What creative entrepreneurs do you look up to?
Share your inspiration and thoughts in the comments below!