What entrepreneurs can learn from Justin Bieber

March 7, 2011

– Mark Suster is a former serial entrepreneur and a partner at Los Angeles-based venture capital firm GRP Partners. This article originally appeared on TechCrunch and on Suster’s blog “Both Sides of the Table”. The views expressed are his own. –

I know what you’re thinking – link bait title, right? Wrong. I stand 100 percent behind my assertions in this post: Justin Bieber is unbelievably entrepreneurial and most of you will never know it, because he serves a target demographic that doesn’t include you.

I promise you can learn from him. I’m also betting that in 10 years he’ll be a mainstream talent rather than a pre-teen girl wonder.

Recently I took my 8-year-old son for a manly outing at the batting cages with his baseball team. I went in to get tokens and he got beaned by the first pitch while I was away.

With my son on the disabled list, I offered him a movie. He asked to see the new Justin Bieber movie, “Never Say Never”. I was initially skeptical, but it was a pure delight for me from start to finish. And it was a great lesson to talk about with my son afterward. Bieber is a self-made entrepreneurial success.

No, it’s not lost on me the amount of crap I’m going to get for saying that I loved the movie. Give me a story of a kid from a non-privileged background and single mother, who makes it big through natural talent, tons of hard work and a belief that he can do it despite everybody telling him he can’t, and I’ll watch that film all day long.

For the same reason I loved the far more flawed story of Anvil, who interestingly came from Toronto, about 100 miles away from where Bieber grew up.

I talked with my son afterward about how hard Justin worked to achieve his dream. You always imagine these child stars are going to have things handed to them on a plate. We were able to talk about having dreams, working hard and never accepting people telling you that you can’t do something. That is what this film is about.

It’s about “Never Say Never”. Bieber was told he’d never have a big following. He was told he’d never be able to play on radio, let alone Madison Square Garden. He sold out MSG in 22 minutes. Jaden Pinkett Smith (son of Will Smith) rode on Justin’s coattails in his opening act at MSG – not the other way around.

Here’s what you could learn from the movie:

1. It all has to start from talent

The movie shows Justin Bieber’s musical talents from the age of two. If you don’t believe me that he was born with talent, check out this 7-second video of his rhythm from age 3. To be a great entrepreneur you really do need talent. You need to be great at something: technology back-end, front-end design, usability, sales, marketing, quantitative analysis, leadership – whatever.

But if you’re not uber talented there is always a “Justin Bieber of technology” waiting to kick your ass. Think Mark Zuckerberg: born with innate talent at the keyboard. Think of the user-experience team at Mint.com – they have led an entire generation to say: “I’m the Mint.com of …”

These things don’t happen by accident. Either you’re uber talented or join somebody who is.

2. If you’re different the “normal channels” of success will tell you “no”

Justin Bieber was discovered by Scooter Braun, who saw him on YouTube. The story of Scooter itself is a beautiful lesson learned. He was immediately struck by Justin’s talent and was relentless in convincing his mom to come to Atlanta to meet him and other local talent. Scooter went the extra mile, didn’t take no for an answer and even fronted all of Justin’s costs to get him to come to Atlanta. Think of Scooter as Justin’s angel investor.

Justin then had a meeting with Usher where he sang him a song that he recorded himself. Usher agreed to back Justin immediately and worked hard to convince him not to sign with Justin Timberlake (where they already had a meeting set up) or anybody else. Usher worked hard to set up meetings (including L.A. Reid, who originally signed Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Pink, Avril Lavigne and others) for Bieber even before he was committed to Usher and this hard work and commitment is what persuaded Bieber to go with Usher.

Consider Usher a hard-working early-stage venture capitalist. And he has acted as a personal mentor for Justin ever since. Justin was going through the ride that Usher himself had been through when he was younger. It’s that sort of mentorship experience that drives many of us hands-on VCs.

3. You have to get your ass out there and prove yourself

So with two major talents competing over him and having signed with Usher his path was set – right? Wrong. None of the major labels wanted to pick him up and none of the local radio stations wanted to play his music. They told him that he had do go through Disney or Nickelodeon like Miley Cyrus or Miranda Cosgrove. They said his music wouldn’t have mass appeal.

So they set out a grassroots effort to go directly to the market. Bieber went across the entire country in a bus and on an airplane to meet with every DJ in the country, whether they would play him or not. He was so charming – and musically talented – the DJs and listeners loved him instantly. He would take requests from callers and play live sessions in each city. DJ’s couldn’t help but want to play his records.

4. You have to build a product that people really love

There has been all sorts of discussions about marketing on blogs lately. My favorite is by Rand Fishkin and others by Fred Wilson and Brad Feld – all are worthwhile.

Let me say this – whether you believe in marketing at startups or not, I think we’d all agree that you can’t have a great marketing program around a mediocre product. You need to start with an amazing product and no amazing product is built without talent. Watch the movie – you’ll see what I mean.

It also helps to start with a target demographic so you can focus your efforts. Justin’s is young girls aged 8-15 and he built his music and persona around this demographic. You should start by getting out and talking directly with customers as Bieber did. To the extent that you’re initially ”marketing” it’s really just evangelizing yourself, meeting key influencers, meeting customers, taking feedback, refining your product and winning people over.

Only after you’ve done all this can you consider whether or not it makes sense to pay for any marketing such as search engines, PR, trade shows, etc.

5. You can appeal to your audience directly and build support

Bieber tweeted constantly before he would be at a radio station. Girls started appearing to get his autograph. At first it was 10-20 girls, then 40, then 80 and then he started getting malls shut down due to safety concerns. He mastered the art of going direct to his audience via Twitter. This is what Fred Wilson talks about in this post about the FourSquare founders.

Foursquare is a great example of this. You can laugh at Dennis (Crowley) and Naveen (Selvadurai) doing fashion shoots, but think about how many new users they got for doing that. It was a stunt like any other stunt they’ve done. And they’ve done hundreds of them. The media eats it up as they always need something to write about.

Be unique, find free marketing opportunities and use social media to build your following.

Bieber also uploaded all of his stuff onto YouTube. So while the traditional system told him there was no audience for him he had gone direct to his audience and proved them wrong. There’s nothing like having YouTube fans to prove to labels that you can sell music.

6. Engage with your audience

One of the most important and most misunderstood rules of our new open and social media is that you need to engage directly with your audience. I know that I’m not always perfect on email because the volume is so high and it has become such a chore, but I try to get through as many as I can and hope the ones that slip through the cracks are persistent.

But when I write a blog post, I always allocate a certain amount of time to having debates in the comments section. When I send things on Twitter I always do my best to respond to many of the people who message me. I can’t do all of them all of the time, but you’d be surprised how often I ping random people who write me. Even if it’s just to say: “thank you for your note.”

I think nothing is worse on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or blogs than being one-directional. That’s broadcast, not new media. Justin? He knew this. Watch this heartwarming short video from the Jimmy Kimmel show. You might think it’s a stunt, but when you watch the movie you get the sense that Justin (and his team) really do want to engage with their audience.

7. Give back

Finally, Bieber and his team will teach you to “give back.” They go out before each show and give a handful of free tickets to seats near the front of the stage to fans who look needy and who have waited in line for a long time. I’m a big believer in giving back. It’s part of what you do as a person who has received a leg-up from somebody else. Bieber & Co seem sincere in this effort. I am, too. As an entrepreneur getting traction, whose life are you going to change?

“Never Say Never” is a wonderful film filled with truly inspirational stories that should get the hairs on the back of any aspiring entrepreneur to stand on end. I know that you’re too cool to admit you’d see a Justin Bieber film. I know I had never heard any of his music before. Don’t worry, just grab your nearest niece or nephew and tell your friends that you only went because you wanted to be a good uncle or aunt.

I promise, you won’t regret it.

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