As I write this, the Number 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 is “Thrift Shop.”
Okay, I’m lying. Actually, it’s “Harlem Shake”–but that doesn’t count. Because seriously: do you really want to watch another “Harlem Shake” video? And also, it’s kind of unfair that Billboard has decided to incorporate YouTube views as part of its chart formula. If its rules remained the same, “Harlem Shake” would only be at Number 15. Tops.
But back to “Thrift Shop,” which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is a rap song by an unsigned white rapper from Seattle named Macklemore (along with his producer, Ryan Lewis). The song is all about hand-me-downs, flannel zebra jammies, and granddad’s clothes. If you think these are the most unlikely ingredients for a chart-topper, get this: “Thrift Shop” is the first independent song (i.e. not released on a major record label) to reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 since 1994.
But here is the truth: I’ve read a little bit about the work Macklemore has put in, and now realize that his success–achieved without a lot of mainstream help–isn’t all that surprising. His story is certainly well worth following, even if you’re not a fan of hip hop. In fact, entrepreneurs can learn a few things from this guy about building a successful startup. Here are some of them:
1. Keep growing your fan/customer base.
We may not have heard of him before this year, but Macklemore has actually been distributing his own mixtapes since 2000. His explosion onto the music scene is due in part to the devoted fan base he’s been steadily growing all these years–through YouTube, MySpace, iTunes, emceeing gigs, Seattle house parties, and annual fan appreciation nights.
Those are great examples for startups that aren’t built to be wildly instant successes, like Facebook or Pinterest. Do you want to make your company more attractive to investors? Do you want to be a “sleeper hit”? Then do the work. Hustle. Stay razor-sharp and focused on growing your customer base. Leverage all the tools and resources at hand. Then, continue to work on something that people will want to be a fan of and be willing to pay for. If you can demonstrate your ability to get to the heart of what people need, growth and success will be close to inevitable.
2. Grassroots is as viable as mainstream.
Macklemore used to open for bigger acts as a largely unknown emcee. Sometimes, the crowd he’d perform for would be awfully small. Before “Thrift Shop,” there weren’t many producers or record label executives courting him. So, he took the grassroots path to get to the Billboard Hot 100.
My point is this: Don’t ever get disheartened by the fact that your startup isn’t (yet) attracting the attention of the big VC firms or the most prestigious incubators. Instead of sulking, find grassroots ways to acquire capital, generate revenue, gain visibility, achieve growth, and raise funds. Explore lean methodologies. Network in local meetups. Utilize crowdfunding platforms, like Kickstarter. Launch a blogger outreach campaign.
Macklemore’s story is another classic case of great things coming from small beginnings. So don’t be afraid of or disappointed by starting up under the radar.
3. Build a great team first.
“Thrift Shop” actually isn’t a solo act. As mentioned, the song is a collaboration between Macklemore and his DJ producer, Ryan Lewis. They’ve known each other a long time. They’ve released CDs together; toured America together. They’re a team. Other members of this team include an in-house violinist and a trumpet player.
Dreaming of partnering with the Jay-Zs, Lil Waynes, and Will.i.ams in your industry? Develop your capabilities first. You’ve got to build a kick-ass team before you become famous. Potential customers and investors are much more comfortable knowing that you’re in control of your startup, and that you have the resources–human and technological–to adjust and prepare for the next iteration based on feedback.
4. Transcend startup stereotypes.
Take a cue from a guy who’s rapping–not about sex, drugs, and bling bling, but about how “John Wayne ain’t got nothing on my fringe game… I could take some Pro Wings, make them cool, sell those… The sneaker heads would be like, ‘Aw, he got the Velcros.’”
That’s your typical radio-friendly Number One hit, right? I think not. (I mean, do you have any idea how ugly Pro Wings are? They’re almost as hideous as Crocs.)
In the same way that Macklemore did, stop trying to fit the mold. Break it instead. Are you better off staying in, say, Bakersfield rather than moving to Silicon Valley? If so, then stay. Having a co-founder doesn’t really suit you? Then don’t hire one. Prefer to keep working on what you have (which may or may not be much) than surrender huge equity to an investor? Then don’t take the money.
The roads to success are varied. Taking the ones that are less travelled doesn’t mean you won’t reach your destination. It just means you’ll also have a more compelling story to tell once you get there.