How to Treat Your Business Like a Business: 5 Valuable Lessons from My Time in the Show Biz You Might Want to Steal

 
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Do you find yourself having a hard time setting boundaries for your business?  Do you feel like there is no clear distinction between your personal life and your business?  You may be thinking you are too close to your business, and it’s nearly impossible to let go of some of the duties. Or maybe you feel hesitant to publicly declare what you do as a legitimate business.

Many of us start a business by pursuing a passion and/or what we mastered as a working professional, and then we grow it organically from there.  The downside to this is the line gets blurred between our personal life and our business. This also makes us feel like our business is an extension of ourselves, a part of our identity.  At times, it gets too personal because of this.

If you want to scale your business, you have to start treating your business like a business. 

A large part of this is because you are not going to do everything by yourself. You are going to need a team. If you deploy a team, then you need to systematize your processes.  In order to systematize your processes, you need to pull all of them out of your brain and start documenting.

So, what can you do immediately to start treating your business like a stand-alone, profit-generating machine?

Just like many of you, I was once living a corporate life.  Someday though, I knew I was going to leave this life, so I leveraged everything I could learn on the job.  I was consciously “intrepreneurship’ing” within all organizations I worked for. 

It was much later in my life I realized how fortunate that experience was and how much it impacted my business, which enabled me to skip most of the rookie mistakes. In a way, the experience allowed me to get right into making many more of the ‘other’ mistakes, but that is a story for another time.  At least, I did not have to start from complete scratch, so I’d say I was fortunate.

I started out my career working for major record labels in NYC.  I did that for more than a decade. Too often, I took what I learned there for granted. Not that I did not appreciate it, but it was more like I always assumed everyone outside of the industry knew what I knew.  Sometime later, I realized, “Wait…what I thought was normal wasn’t normal after all. They have no idea how this stuff works…”

To be clear, I am not judging, nor am I showing off my accomplishment.  What compelled me to write this piece was my experience seeing enough established small business owners who are still struggling with the same challenge: recognizing their set of accountabilities associated with a business to…treat it like a real business.

In this post, I am going to share the 5 valuable lessons with you so that you can assess where you are at in your business and which area you need to work on more.  Are you ready to step up?  Let’s do it!

 

 
 
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Lesson #1: 98% of the Time, What We Do Isn’t Glamorous – We Need to Be “All In.”

This, you may have heard before.  But unless you are in the music industry, it is unlikely that you are aware of just how unsexy & gruesome it can truly be.  Here are a few facts:

  •         Tours can go on for years without enough breaks in between.

  • Sophomore albums normally suck no matter what – a huge challenge.

  •         Overnight success is actually built on years of blood, sweat & tears.

  • Only the top 3-5% of artists pay the bills & generate profit. (This resembles the business model of VC firms.)

  •        One flop can cause everyone to lose their jobs or worse yet, end someone’s career.

  • This stuff isn’t pretty. This stuff is made up of a series of compromises, drawbacks, rejections and sacrifices. 

First and foremost, this can be said for artists, of course. But even for someone like me who worked as an employee of a label, it wasn’t that much different.  It was certainly not a 9-5 job.  It was a “lifestyle job” where I needed to be where I needed to be whenever I was asked to be there.  Late morning check-in’s and taking “disco naps” weren’t for us to go out and party during the wee hours of the night; we were working those hours.

The sub-label under the giant umbrella that I worked for mainly released electronic music produced by DJs, which meant we needed to be out really late, as they didn’t go on until after midnight.  The genre made it much harder for us to maintain a normal life compared to those who worked on classical, top 40, or any other genres of music.

To do well in this business, you really, really, really have to like what you do. 

Please don’t roll your eyes. I am not here to tell you that you need to work until you bleed.  As you might have seen from my other posts, I am actually against glamorizing the notion of “hustle & grind” that is wildly popular in the entrepreneurship space.  So, rest assured that is not the message here. 

The point is I had experienced firsthand that this was a high-stakes game.  I had seen many heartbreaks, self-destructive activities, and broken homes & dreams.  But, most of the people I worked with, not just artists but my peers and bosses at labels, were respected, believed in what they were striving for, and put 100% into achieving the success they envisioned.  Our job demanded way too much of us to treat it like it was just a job to pay our bills. 

The question here is, “Are you genuinely committed to what you are doing, especially when things are not going the way you expected?”

Notice that running a business is not much different from show biz when it comes to how hard it can be.  Most of the time, what we must do to keep our business going isn’t sexy.  But what gets us going is the ultimate vision we have for our business.  This sets us apart from those who are just ‘dabbling’ with the idea of operating a business, also known as “wantrepreneurs.”

 

 
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Lesson #2: The Entire Music Industry Is Built on the Promotion-Driven Mindset.

Launches and Campaigns are the bloodline for show biz.  This is an incredibly promotion-heavy business.  As you can imagine, the biggest constraint in the music, media & the movie businesses is that we are bound to release dates. 

Once release dates are set, we must quickly reverse-engineer and schedule everything including PR, radio promotion, advertising, and retail logistics with distributors to set them up for success. In some cases, because we don't just represent one artist, we may have a few back-to-back-to-back, which can be a nightmare.

At the risk of dating myself, I should admit that when I was active in the industry, there was no social media other than MySpace. A lot of stuff was done in an old-school way by physically visiting retailers, radio stations and doing print ads, etc.  We also had to send our artists to do a lot of “meet & greets” all the time.

I was so used to this launch-centric business operation that I did not realize how many business owners struggle with the idea of promoting their business, not understanding how vital a component of their livelihood it is. 

 

"I hate promoting my business."

"I don't want to be sell-ey."

“I feel so uncomfortable selling my services.”

 

All these comments used to puzzle me.  This is, by far, one of the biggest facts I assumed everyone knew because I thought it was a common sense.  You can call this an occupational disease.  In my mind, I was saying to myself, “Well, how in the world would people know what you offer if you don’t promote?!  Are they expecting people to just show up at their doors?”

In a way, the situation has gotten a lot worse for entrepreneurs and small business operators because of social media and online paid ads. The entry barrier for these outlets are so low that anyone can try, but so few succeed from the ROI perspective. In addition, because of the low entry barrier, these channels are too noisy for many to stand out. 

So, my friend, if you are already reluctant about promoting your business, you have a huge challenge ahead of you.  The hard fact is that up to 80% of what you do, as a business owner, is related to lead generation, promotion, sales and marketing, especially in the beginning stage of your business. 

Welcome to the world of running a business. Get used to it.

 

 

Lesson #3: What Separates Pros from Amateurs: The Magic Word that Squashes Fear and Self-Doubt 

I had the privilege of working one of Gloria Gaynor’s albums many years ago.  In case you are wondering, in real life she is humble, gentle, and extremely kind. She also likes Sushi.  Another fun fact: She went back to school in her 60s to get master’s degree in psychology. 

To be honest, I’ve never heard of her saying this magic word before going on stage, but I’ve always sensed it, and I associate this word with her.  I think I was telepathically sensing her saying this to herself.  That is, “Showtime!”  It may be because I saw a shift in her demeanor right before she went on stage, as if a switch was turned on.  I’ve seen this from other artists as well. 

It’s a bit embarrassing for me to admit this, but I say this word to myself quietly every time I speak and present in front of people.  Actually, it doesn’t stop there.  I say this to myself even before I get on consulting calls.  As cheesy as it may sound, this word puts me in the following mindset:

1.     A cue that there is no turning back.

2.     A cue that I need to step up the game because I’m a pro.

3.     A cue that I show up for people (to entertain or educate or help), not for myself or my ego.

 

Immediately after I say “Showtime!”, my spine gets straightened out.  I get my focus back.  I don’t hear any noise around me.  It’s showtime.  No going back.  Gloria, as many other pro musicians do, showed up.  Always.

She had a fever, she showed up.  She was jet-lagged, she showed up.  I never saw her cancel anything.

Funny how people expect this from artists and celebrities, yet they don’t expect that from themselves.  I’m sure you’ve witnessed your co-workers take a day off over a light, common cold or some inconsequential personal matters.

You can get away with it if you decide to stay as someone else’s employee, but that is not going to fly if you are running a business.  It is your job to show up.  Every time.

If not physically, then psychologically you are the first one to arrive on the scene and the last one to leave the scene.  If that’s not the case for you right now, then some random incident will shut your business down for you eventually.  I have seen it happen to a few business owners. 

So, ask yourself,

Can you show up even when you are exhausted? 
Can you show up even when you aren’t sure if you can pull it off? 

By the way, here is an important tidbit:  Please remember that “showtime” is not supposed to last indefinitely unless you are the next Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus.  There is a start and an end.  This is how I knew how to set boundaries for my business.  When lights are off and curtains are down, I retreat, and so should you.

Next time, when you need to step up your game, try saying this magic word and see how it feels.  OK, I know it is a little cheesy, but I take pride in saying this to myself nowadays, for real.  If it gets you going, then you absolutely should keep going with your business because you are a pro, not an amateur.

 

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 Lesson #4: Know Your Role.  You Are the Talent.

 

This doesn’t mean that you get to be a diva or drama queen. That is NOT what I'm suggesting.  Instead, I'm advocating for you to do everything to "be your best at what you signed up for."

Let's bring back Gloria.  She does not book her own gigs.  She does not do her own PR.  She does not do any makeup or hair herself.  She does not manage her schedule or book flights or limos. You get the idea.  As far as I know, she is still actively performing, and she still wouldn’t do any of these. 

Her job is to perform.  All her energy is and should be reserved just for that.  But too often, this can be viewed as entitlement.  That is a big misconception I want to expose right here.  It takes a lot of work to be at the peak of her ability and give her all to the fans.  After all, the fans did not pay to see a subpar performance.  Right?

If your job is to be the face of your brand, do everything to achieve that. If your job is to pitch to VCs and angels or close that deal, then eliminate all other tasks that cause decision fatigue as much as you can.

Now, this needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  In the beginning stage of your business, you may not have excess funds and resources to delegate everything out right away.  What I suggest is to start early & start gradually.

This is important because delegation will take some trial & error.  Don't set this aside by saying, "I'll start delegating when I'm ready."  Sounds rational, but it actually holds you back from scaling your business.  As counterintuitive as it may sound, growth starts with optimizing yourself. 

Even taking small steps, like hiring temporary help for a specific project or delegating a small task, can be a great starting point. Have a list of those tasks and gradually hand them over. 

What will happen is that your business will start generating more revenue by doing so, and it will become easier to build a team as your business grows.Eventually, you can solely focus on what you signed up for - the business activities that directly contribute to the growth of your business. 



 

 
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Lesson #5: All That Hard Work is for Nothing If You Don’t Pay Attention to Data that Really Matters.

Although being present at shows and gigs was part of my job at times, I also did regular office work during the day.  It may be surprising for “non-industry” people, but the majority of our weekly team meeting consisted of looking at data. 

Back in the day, there was no Google analytics or Facebook algorithm we could use.  Sales numbers were pulled out from this system called SoundScan, and we filtered the total national sales by various markets in the US. 

We cross-referenced those numbers with our promotional activities, such as which market this particular artist performed well in and whether there was a change in sales, or if a radio station added the record last week to its rotation and whether there was a spike in sales, etc.

Because songs being played on the radio had a big role in sales, we also pulled separate data listing all stations, and we would see how many “spins” we got out of each one.  Depending on the result, the radio promotion team would regroup their strategy for the week and determine how many calls they needed to make to which stations.

Licensing music (selling and buying music) was also part of my job, so we looked at how many deals I was able to close and how much we made from them as well. 

The only conversion rate we cared about was, “How many units did we sell this week?”  It was a lot simpler then.  But now, there are too many data sets (KPIs) we can easily gather for our businesses, and it can be deceiving and confusing at times. 

 
 
 

 

Because of my experience in looking at 3 simple data sets which all lead to sales, I don’t get confused or get excited about all other numbers.  Yes, increased traffic to my site can be exciting, but that is useless if there is no sales conversion. The same thing can be said about an increased number of email sign-ups or Instagram followers.  

If you feel intimidated by data or numbers, say, because you are a creative, I want you to remember one thing – no data or numbers or accounting, for that matter, require anything above 5th grade math.  Really, these things aren’t that complicated.  So long as you understand the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division & the concept of percent’s, you are good.  No big deal.

Once you are able to get over this mental hurdle, you are able to treat your business like a business.  Data provides clarity to your business decision making process, as opposed to what you feel like doing or not doing.  Also, it provides an insight as to what you should be optimizing.

 

So, there you have it.  These are the biggest 5 lessons I learned from working in the music industry for over a decade. This was a particular pleasure to put together, as I got to look back on all the things I have learned that helped me start my business.  If you find this post useful, please share, like or comment below.  I always want to hear your feedback!