From the top · 26 April 2017

Entrepreneurial lessons from Kanye West the entrepreneur

Kanye
Kanye West: Creative genius or entrepreneurial flop?

As well as being one of the most successful hip-hop recording artists and producers of all time, Kanye West the entrepreneur has tried his hand at launching businesses on many occasions over the years.

Apart from having sold 21m copies of his (six) albums – winning 21 Grammys – the controversial 39 year-old has, to date, founded a record label, launched various fashion brands, directed several short films and created a new music sharing platform with his best pal, Jay Z.

In February last year, West, in one of many long Twitter tirades that have become the star’s hallmark, announced to the world he was $53m in debt, asking in the same breath for a $1bn investment in his yet unannounced “ideas” from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – the irony wasn’t missed by many.

We suspect he was probably fibbing about the debt. After closer analysis of the commercial success so far of Kanye West the entrepreneur, Yeezy would have had to incur losses of roughly $300m in a very short space of time for his claim to be true.

It’s not impossible for an individual to be that far in the red whilst also having such a sizeable net worth, but it would be unprecedented amongst his peers in the music industry. By the end of 2016, Forbes’ reckoned West’s net worth was around £130m.

Describing his own entrepreneurial flair in an interview in 2013, Kim Kardashian’s husband told the New York Times: “I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things.

“I think what Kanye West is going to mean is something, like what Steve Jobs means. I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period.”

So, what lessons, if any, do we think would-be business owners can learn from Kanye’s unique style of entrepreneurship, and have any of his mistakes proved too costly?

Develop your own unique brand

In the first few years of his career, Kanye West struggled to be taken seriously amongst fellow hip hop artists, given his relatively wealthy, middle-class background and unique style.

Instead of football jerseys and beanies, the producer-turned-rapper instead wore pink polo shirts and carried Louis Vuitton man bags – outfits associated with rich golf club members, rather than the Chicago neighbourhood he grew up in.

In The College Dropout – his first album – West recalls how his peers would “look at me crazy because I didn’t have a jersey on”.

In both music and business, West has remained unique and nonconformist, and it’s this attitude that’s kept him in the spotlight and made people sit up and take notice of his work. 

Promote yourself

Although it’s important to remain grounded, any successful entrepreneur believes in themselves and in the value of what they do, and West has always believed in the value of Kanye West.

From Pastelle, one of several failed clothing lines West eventually wound up in 2015, to DONDA – his new idea for a comprehensive network of creative businesses and startups (investing in everything from medical research to hovercrafts), West has been passionate about all his endeavors.

He’s also remained sure of himself in the face of criticism, and is quick to remind those who doubt his entrepreneurial ventures of his successes in music – his area of expertise.  As West rapped about in 2007’s The Good Life: “If they hate then let ‘em hate and watch the money pile up.”

Think about multiple lines of business

Kanye West became famous as a rapper, but only after he’d already made a name for himself in music as a producer. As a celebrity entrepreneur, most people would also know West as having dabbled in fashion design, but did you know he was also a restauranteur?

In addition to the three fashion labels West has set up, in 2008 the star also unveiled plans to open a burger bar franchise in hometown Chicago. The intention was to launch a chain of ten “Fatburger” restaurants, however only two ultimately opened, with the second closing its doors for good in 2011.

Although the burger bars failed to take off, thinking about new avenues for a business to move into, and keeping an open mind about new revenue streams, is sound advice for any entrepreneur.

The trick is not to spread yourself too thinly by moving too far away from the focus of your main business – something Kanye West the entrepreneur didn’t recognise. 

What mistakes has Kanye West the entrepreneur made?

Arrogance

The eventual demise of many of his ventures has shown that West’s ego has frequently gotten in the way of rational, well-thought out business planning.

He’s often made one too many sweeping public statements about his own potential and that of his startups, which has the undesired result of people wanting him and his businesses to fail, in the hope it will shut him up.

Lack of focus

Small businesses tend to win over new customers and grow into a market by doing one thing very well, or by meeting the demands of a specific set of consumers better than anyone else.

These small firms perform best when owners sharpen their focus, but with DONDA, West’s idea for a new online network of creative talent and investors, one can plainly see his lack focus as a business leader.

Named after his mother, Donda West, the rapper has said: “DONDA is a design company which will galvanize amazing thinkers and put them in a creative space to bounce their dreams and ideas.”

The star recently re-published an organisational “map” of DONDA on Twitter, revealing an expansive business, with 22 divisions, covering all manner of startup ideas and concepts.

By unveiling plans for a “container” company alongside plans to launch a new tech firm to develop “emoticon autocorrect” technology, DONDA aims to serve too many customer bases, and would face competition from too many angles, as a standalone business.

Relying on fame

Undoubtedly, West is one of the most recognizable faces in the music industry, but just because you’re a face does not mean your brand will succeed without proper planning, and meticulous attention to developments in your chosen market.

Despite his obvious passion, West has not taken time to truly understand where his ventures fit into the wider business landscape, proving that simply having a good idea and being passionate does not lead to startup success.

Missed Business Advice’s entrepreneurial lessons from the business empire of David and Victoria Beckham? Catch up here.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Fred Heritage is deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London. He previously worked as a reporter at Global Trade Review magazine.

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