What Every Entrepreneur Could Learn from Justin Bieber

Posted on Mar 1, 2011 | 139 comments


This article originally appeared on TechCrunch.

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

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

On Sunday 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 effing first pitch while I was away.

With my son on the DL 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. Justin Bieber is a self-made entrepreneurial success.

No, it’s not lost on my the amount of crap I’m going to get for saying that I loved the movie. But give me a story of a kid from a non-privileged background and single mother who makes it big through natural talent plus 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 much more flawed story of Anvil, who interestingly came from Toronto, about 100 miles away from where Justin Bieber grew up.

With my son we were able to talk 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, never accepting people telling you that you can’t do something. That is what this film is about.

It’s about “Never Say Never.” He 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 years old. If you don’t believe me 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 Zuckerberg: Born with innate talent at the keyboard. Think  of the UX 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 Justin’s mom to come to Atlanta to meet him & 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 he himself had recorded. Usher agreed to back Justin immediately and worked hard to convince Justin 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 Levigne and others)  for Justin 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 VC. 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 grass route’s 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 is here and others by Fred Wilson (here) and Brad Feld (here, who if he’s reading this just threw up a little in him mouth ;-) – 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. As you know, Justin’s is 8-15 year-old girls and he built his music & persona around this demo. You should start by getting out and talking directly with customers as Bieber did. To the extent that you’re initially “marketing” it is really just evangalizing 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 SEM, PR, trade show expenditure, etc.

5. You can appeal to your audience directly and build support
Bieber Tweeted constantly when 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 then he started getting malls shut down due to safety concerns of local police. 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 and Naveen 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 have 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 on to 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 & 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 do try to get through as many as I can and hope the ones that slip through the crack 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 is 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 heart-warming 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?

Go Watch the Movie
It’s 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. But 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.

(and let the character assaults from those who haven’t even seen the film start …. wait …. now)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    ;-) thanks for the kind words. Yeah, I know putting yourself out there by writing does create some detractors. That's ok. To be expected.

    re: Anne Hathaway – she got picked for three reasons 1) she's hot 2) there's a backlash against the biting comedians like Ricky Gervais the ripped up The Golden Globs and 3) she's hot.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Sorry to do that to you, Tara! Well, maybe find a kid to go with?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    great points re: social network

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks, kyle. not leaving VC any time soon ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LOL. I didn't think anybody would put him in the cage while I was buying tokens!!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    We have this conversation all the time. We talk a lot about hard work and how we have things because my wife & I studied hard in school and work hard. On Yom Kippur (Jewish holiday) I take them by the mobile home parks and we talk about how some other people live. We also make them donate their toys whenever they get new ones. We talk about sending them to people who need them more.

    That said, it's obviously hard and I'm not sure we're perfect. I do spoil them too much also.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I didn't know anything about Bieber before seeing the movie, which is why I was so impressed.

    re: Jacob – too funny. Truth is 4 days later and he still can't properly use his arm. It's a pretty deep bruise – he got pegged.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    His brand is great with youth-oriented girls, which is why it's so bad with everybody else. but with 8 million Twitter followers he can't be doing that badly! I think he'll be able to transition later like Timberlake did. We'll see.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    lower expectations so that you'll enjoy it more!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    likability certainly helps. that's for sure.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    If I didn't see it please send next week. Am traveling rest of week. Thanks.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Now THAT is funny.

  • http://www.feld.com bfeld

    Love this post except for the part that made me have to go brush my teeth!

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Gotcha. Thanks for the heads up on Tereza.

  • http://www.pixorial.com Melissa Hourigan

    This has to be the best thing I have read for a while. I saw the title and thought that I would find myself reading some satirical piece. I actually took my daughter (kicking and screaming) to the movie last weekend and actually surprised myself with a feeling of inspiration for many of the reasons you described above. I don't have the Bieber fever but what moved me was how he got out and did what it took to be across the table from the people that had influence. As a marketer for a startup, I find that I am sitting in an office, communicating through social means but the face to face piece is also important. To show your special talent or app or whatever it is. Anyway, amazing piece!

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Gotcha. Thanks for the heads up on Tereza.

  • Concerned Parent

    the Usher thing is just a tad creepy though, right?

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    Thanks for the suggestion, Mark. Will have to see it. The trailer looks fun.

  • Concerned Parent

    the Usher thing is just a tad creepy though, right?

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    Thanks for the suggestion, Mark. Will have to see it. The trailer looks fun.

  • http://www.crashutah.com/about John

    Who would have guessed that Suster would have caught Bieber Fever.

    Nicely done!! Proves that you can find the good in anything…well, maybe not the movie Little Women.

  • http://www.crashutah.com/about John

    Who would have guessed that Suster would have caught Bieber Fever.

    Nicely done!! Proves that you can find the good in anything…well, maybe not the movie Little Women.

  • http://e-padawan.blogspot.com The Entrepreneur Padawan

    Thanks Mark. I find your article entertaining and insightful at the same time. It inspired me to write a “sister article” on Natalie Portman and Entrepreneurship: http://e-padawan.blogspot.com/2011/03/natalie-portman-is-outlier-and-other.html

    Any feedback will be much appreciated.

  • http://twitter.com/birdphone birdphone

    I got to give you props Mark – wasn’t sure where you could go with this subject. Great piece.

  • http://e-padawan.blogspot.com The Entrepreneur Padawan

    Thanks Mark. I find your article entertaining and insightful at the same time. It inspired me to write a “sister article” on Natalie Portman and Entrepreneurship: http://e-padawan.blogspot.com/

    Any feedback will be much appreciated.

  • Susan Brillhart

    I walked in to the movie a casual observer – and walked out totally inspired. And the biggest reason isn’t even in your article :-(.

    He is surrounded by people who really have his back. And that’s the8th lesson. Surround yourself with excellent people who BELIEVE in you, know what you don’t and will stop you from making mistakes.

    He’s not worried about becoming a Lindsey Lohan (his words) because they would never let him make a life-altering mistake. His team is faith-driven, and believes that their MOST important job (stated by Scooter in the beginning of the movie) is to have him grow up as a man of integrity. Not a singer. Or an artist. An honorable, good man. And he will tell you that a big part of his responsibility to his fans is to stay humble and be a good role model.

    And that I why I now root for him 100%. No booze – or even soft drinks- backstage on the tour. For anyone. Group prayer before every show. He still gets “grounded” by having his phone taken away. He says in his songs “I’ll treat you right, I’ll show you what you’re worth. You are the only one for me”. Girls need that message. And he raised over $40,000 on his birthday for Clean Water (as well as another $46,000 Ellen raised for charity auctioning off his hair. That’s $80,000 for charity in a day!)

    Good people, trying to do right by a good kid. Sign me up.

  • Susan Brillhart

    Oh – and every Dad should take their child who is even remotely interested. The father/daughter and father/son conversations generated for day/weeks are amazing!!!!

  • http://twitter.com/RacistWallaby Racist Wallaby

    “I know what you’re thinking – link bait title, right? Wrong. I will stand 100% behind my assertions in this post. ”

    You’re using Justin Bieber’s origin myth — which cherry picks individual threads from his life to weave a narrative arc for the movie — to provide examples in your general-issue advice for entrepreneurs, and you think that you can’t be accused of designing it specifically to generate attention and linkbacks?

    We may have to agree to disagree on our definitions of “link bait.”

  • http://twitter.com/birdphone birdphone

    I got to give you props Mark – wasn't sure where you could go with this subject. Great piece.

  • Susan Brillhart

    I walked in to the movie a casual observer – and walked out totally inspired. And the biggest reason isn't even in your article :-(.

    He is surrounded by people who really have his back. And that's the8th lesson. Surround yourself with excellent people who BELIEVE in you, know what you don't and will stop you from making mistakes.

    He's not worried about becoming a Lindsey Lohan (his words) because they would never let him make a life-altering mistake. His team is faith-driven, and believes that their MOST important job (stated by Scooter in the beginning of the movie) is to have him grow up as a man of integrity. Not a singer. Or an artist. An honorable, good man. And he will tell you that a big part of his responsibility to his fans is to stay humble and be a good role model.

    And that I why I now root for him 100%. No booze – or even soft drinks- backstage on the tour. For anyone. Group prayer before every show. He still gets “grounded” by having his phone taken away. He says in his songs “I'll treat you right, I'll show you what you're worth. You are the only one for me”. Girls need that message. And he raised over $40,000 on his birthday for Clean Water (as well as another $46,000 Ellen raised for charity auctioning off his hair. That's $80,000 for charity in a day!)

    Good people, trying to do right by a good kid. Sign me up.

  • Susan Brillhart

    Oh – and every Dad should take their child who is even remotely interested. The father/daughter and father/son conversations generated for day/weeks are amazing!!!!

  • http://twitter.com/RacistWallaby Racist Wallaby

    “I know what you’re thinking – link bait title, right? Wrong. I will stand 100% behind my assertions in this post. “

    You're using Justin Bieber's origin myth — which cherry picks individual threads from his life to weave a narrative arc for the movie — to provide examples in your general-issue advice for entrepreneurs, and you think that you can't be accused of designing it specifically to generate attention and linkbacks?

    We may have to agree to disagree on our definitions of “link bait.”

  • http://twitter.com/Adriana_Herrera Adriana Herrera

    Authenticity, passion, hard work, and a willingness to take thoughtful risks…I have a new found respect for this kid (and his mentor Usher). Justin Bieber definitely doesn’t appeal to all of us but he sure does have his niche figured out.

  • http://ariherzog.com Ari Herzog

    Great minds think alike, for I had written similar (albeit focused on Twitter) a few days ago… http://ariherzog.com/justin-bieber-on-twitter/

  • http://www.myfavouriteadverts.co.uk Myfavouriteadverts

    Great post, a lot can be learned from Justin and the way he (and his mentors etc) have gone about things. Nice application to business :)

  • http://connectingmetoyou.com/ Andy Santamaria

    I admit, I clicked on this article with a skeptical approach, but your points have won me over. I probably won’t see the movie any time soon but I got a lot of good info from your post.

    One of my favorite takeaways I got from this is: The Internet is your stage. If you’re serious about your craft (whatever it is) you can practice and improve there.

    I have mixed feelings about sharing on the internet because, frankly, I think the tools have made it too easy and it’s created a sharing overload. This is yet another example of how sharing on the internet can lead to great things, even when it’s filled with so much noise.

  • Paul

    haha this post just convinced me too! I’m currently preparing to get mocked and flamed by my peers

  • Khanderao

    Thanks for sharing Mark.

    GITPRO is coordinating Startup Bootcamp in Cupertino on 26th March http://www.gitpro.org/siliconvalley.html where we are lining up some successful entrepreneurs to share their experience. I wish we can get you to guide on both the sides.

  • http://www.1newidea.com Ken Lawler

    While I certainly don’t think I’ll ever have “Beiber-Fever” I, as well as any other entrepreneur, can appreciate what this kid is doing. He has created a brand for himself and will probably continue to be very successful. I liked the parallels you drew with Usher being his VC and Scooter his angel investor. It’s funny, I actually drew a similar entrepreneur comparison with American Idol, http://wp.me/p1mlA8-1Z .

    I think a good #8 for this list could be Determination and Self Confidence. Every entrepreneur is going to hear no at some point or another and an unshakable inner-belief and confidence in your product or idea is what will get you through those.