Top 10 Business Lessons I have Learned from Jay Z

Words by Nick Kaoma

More than a Hustler, I’m the Definition of it”

Shawn Corey Carter is one of the most astute, charming and savvy men walking God’s green earth today. Everything Mr. Carter touches seems to turn into platinum. Like many millions of hip hop fans around the world I’m a huge fan of the Brooklyn Boy’s lyrical prowess. His dexterity on the mic is unfuckwitable so it is no surprise that many consider him the Greatest MC to ever touch a microphone. In fact, just yesterday, Jay Z got inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame becoming the first rapper to receive the honour (to give some perspective the other 2017 inductees include Berry Gordy, Babyface, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis).

But Jay Z is not just a rapper. He is a businessman, and a business. A titan of industry. A mogul amongst mortals. The son of Nike, the Greek Goddess of victory. And like Phil Knight, winning is simply his way of life.

Mr. Carter has entered a pantheon that’s reserved for Ivy League types and Wall Street Honchos. He can walk into a club full of street hustlers and trappers or a boardroom full of Billionaire Republicans and he will get daps and respect from either group. He is as respected on 185th Street in Queens as he is on Madison Avenue.

Word up on Madison Ave is I’m a cash cow / Word down on Wall Street, homie, you get the cash out/ IPO Hov, no need for reverse merger/ The boy money talk no need to converse further”

Jay Z, had of course earned his business chops on the street moving grams and O’s and became hood rich in the process.

However, things didn’t kick off easily in the legit world when he launched his career as a start-up music entrepreneur alongside partners Kareem “Biggs” Burke and Damon Dash. They were faced with typical challenges that the rest of us entrepreneurs experience. One of them was limited capital …

I came into the game a hundred grand strong, 9 to be exact, from grinding G packs”

He did, however, manage to flip that six figure start-up capital into a $700 million fortune that’s buoyed by investments and assets spread across industries as diverse as wine and spirits, nightlife, fashion, tech and of course, music. If you don’t respect that kind of hustle, then your whole perspective is wack.

I’ve listened and scrutinised Jay Z’s lyrics for over 15 years now and I’ve watched and studied ALL of his business moves (yes, all of them) and I can proudly say I’ve learned invaluable business lessons from the Jigga Man. In everything that I’ve done, be it founding Head Honcho and spreading its tentacles beyond fashion and into events and lifestyle, starting The Plug or launching 6th Ave, our brand building agency, my moves have been underscored by critical game theory that is taken straight out of Jay Z’s book.

There are genuinely dozens of business lessons one can nab from future Billionaire Hov but I’ve distilled the top 10 crucial ones below. I hope these nuggets of wisdom will not only leave you enlightened but also inspired to continue on your entrepreneurial journey just like Jay Z has.

1. Be Authentic

I’ve started with this point because authenticity is at the very essence of Jay Z, the rapper and businessman. Growing up in Marcy he had no choice but to be real. In the streets you do what you say you’re gonna do or you’ll face dire consequences. Jay Z always claimed to represent street hustlers from Day 1. He talked like them, walked like them and balled like them. He knew from the jump that he couldn’t pretend to be something that he isn’t. He chose to remain authentic and true to his upbringing and that is reflected in his music till this day. Jay Z has applied authenticity across business too. He never endorses products or buy into brands that are not true to him or where values are misaligned. Partnerships with the likes of Reebok (with the popular S.Carter sneakers) and Budweiser (Made in America festival) were designed to shift the culture and offer Jay Z’s legions of fans authentic products and experiences.

2. It’s Not About being First. It’s About being the Best

It’s public knowledge that Jay Z tried to get into the music business as early as 1987. He went on tour with the legendary Big Daddy Kane and even traded verses with Jaz-O on a few records but nothing came out of it. He was still stuck on the corner, literally. It took close to 10 years before another proper chance presented itself. And boy did he run with it! Jay Z was not the first to do it in his generation; Pac, Biggie, Nas, Wu-Tang were already miles ahead of him by the time he dropped Reasonable Doubt and launched his first company. While he was on the bench waiting for his turn Jay Z not only perfected his mic skills but he also studied the business end of the game. Today, there’s not a single rapper from that era that has enjoyed his longevity and business success.

3. Timing is Everything

Any successful entrepreneur or investor will tell you how crucial timing is in business. The best in the game know when to invest and divest. Jay Z has mastered the art of timing. He perfected his album drops and marketing roll-outs to the T. He also knew when it was the perfect time to sell. He sold Rocawear to Iconix for $204 million right before the urban brand bubble burst. And recently, he sold a third of his streaming app Tidal to Sprint for a cool $200 million (and built up a war chest for the company) just as vultures such as Google and Apple were circling around the nascent tech company. Unfortunately the art of timing can’t be taught; it’s not a science. You will develop the right instincts as you play the game.

4. Build Alliances & Relationships (sometimes with former enemies)

Robert Greene in 48 Laws of Power advises against isolating yourself in business. You become an easy target when you move alone. Jay Z knows this. He came into the music business with two other formidable hustlers and before his first album dropped he courted and befriended the Notorious B.I.G who ended up being his mentor and confidant. Jay-Z’s company built strong alliances with Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc and Ruff Ryders. If you attacked him or Roc-A-fella you risked beefing with those crews too. Hell, Jay Z even ended his beef with Nas and signed him to Def Jam. Today, Jay Z maintains an alliance with Presidents too! He famously had Obama’s ear throughout his time in the White House. Jay can pick up the phone and get anyone from Harvey Weinstein, Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett to Robert Kraft on the line.

5. Recruit & Retain the Best Talent

On the music side Jay Z surrounds himself with the best producers and engineers who make sure that he only puts out the best quality music. This has been the case from Day 1. He has done the same thing with the artists that he signs. Roc Nation is home to Rihanna, Big Sean, Calvin Harris, Shakira, J Cole and a bevy of other super talented musos. On the business side of things Jay keeps a low key team of execs who make sure that all his companies run smoothly. Jay Brown, Ty Ty, John Meneilly and Shawn Pecas are some of the suits that keep Jay’s empire ticking. They are the best in the business. Recruit the best talent, pay them well and offer them a challenging but exciting working environment.

6. Cut Off Costly Moves & Partnerships Quickly

How often do you hold onto a non-beneficial relationship or product just because of your emotional attachment to it? Most of us struggle with being ruthless in business and cutting partnerships and product lines that no longer make financial sense. Jay Z doesn’t; he was very quick to end his relationship with Damon Dash when it was evident that they were no longer on the same page. Over the years he has silently cut artists or sold off businesses that no longer held promise of future ROI. Anyone remember the streetwear brand Artful Dodger that he bought years ago? Exactly. If it’s not working, cut it and keep it moving.

7. Make Shit Look Easy

Jay Z has mastered the art of making things look easy. Firstly, his habit of not writing lyrics down when he’s recording is an amazing skill that makes it look like everything comes easy to him. It doesn’t! He perfected that skill over two to three decades. However, he makes it look easy as that adds to the Jay Z mythology and separates him from mere mortals. The fact that he doesn’t break a sweat in anything he does (including performing on stage) deludes his competitors into thinking they can do it as easily. You don’t have to show the world how hard you work. Keep quiet and let the work do all the talking.

8. Keep Your Portfolio Diversified

Jay Z has always kept a diverse portfolio from day 1. As soon as he was able to he actively sought and created multiple income streams. After maximising music related revenue streams such as publishing, touring and endorsements, Jay and his team quickly invested in their own clothing line (Rocawear), film company (Roc-A-Fella Films) and alcohol brand (Armadale Vodka). Today Jay Z sits on an even bigger and diversified group that insulates him from the uncertainties of the music business. After introducing the masses to Armand de Brignac (Ace of Spades) Jay Z opted to place a massive bet on it and bought the entire company. So know that every time you see these gold bottles being popped in the club Jay Z is getting a piece of that action. Smooth! Jay also seems to be making serious foray into the tech world. On top of being the biggest shareholder of Tidal (worth $600m) he is an investor in JetSmarter (uber for private jets valued at $1.5 Billion) and it was just announced that him and Jay Brown have officially launched a tech venture capital fund. Imagine that. A former drug dealer from the Marcy Projects will now be giving seed capital to some of the most brilliant minds in Silicon Valley.

“Look what they made me do. Look what I made for you/ Knew if I paid my dues, how will they pay you?”

9. Don’t Fix What’s Not Broken

When Jay broke onto the scene he hit the ground running and released an album every year for 10 straight years. The albums usually dropped around the same time each year and featured work from the same crop of producers such as Kanye West, Pharrell, Swizz Beats and Just Blaze. Jay Z discovered a winning formula that extended across marketing, distribution and touring. He milked that formula for all its worth. This is a crucial point for entrepreneurs. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. Don’t be too quick to switch things up when you’ve got a good groove going. Momentum is everything in business; keep feeding the machine that you’ve created and watch the money pile up.

10. Trust Your Instincts. Don’t get Swayed by Naysayers

Lyor Cohen, the former CEO of Island Def Jam Group, has repeatedly said in interviews that Jay Z is one of the most head-strong people that he has ever met. He simply doesn’t allow people to get him rattled. When he has a plan he sticks to it. This has been evident in the past year when Tidal was facing all sorts of challenges such as lawsuits, quick turnover of CEOs and what seemed like a joint effort from his competitors to sabotage Tidal’s rep in the media. Many people told Jay to cut his losses and sell the streaming app for a song (pun intended). But Jay don’t play dat. He trusted his instincts and stuck to his game plan. Now Tidal’s worth has jumped from the initial $54 million that Jay Z and his partners bought it for to $600 million after Sprint’s investment (How’s that for ROI for the R.O.C?). And with Sprint’s 50 million customers and subscribers, Tidal now has a large customer database to tap into. This practically secures Tidal’s future.

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