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)

  • zaiteku

    Hey Mark, I have not seen the movie, but this is a great post!

  • llboyd

    thanks – your post is the first thing i've decided to read about Bieber and his background. i didn't know anything about this kid until now – oustide of the fact that I hear his name daily. and i have some respect for him now.

    the randomness of the universe smiled on you that day. however, do you think Bieber would have “gone to see a movie” after getting “hit by one pitch”? tell that boy to cowboy up and get back on that horse.

  • http://blog.tumbledesign.com/ Nicky Hajal

    I think the channel for tech entrepreneurs is the Internet as a whole. It used to be that unaffiliated musical artists had no way to distribute their work and that's the gap YouTube fills.

    The barrier to entry for a group of developers to build a product and grow an audience is extremely low, assuming they have talent and the other qualities mentioned in the article.

  • sagacious

    I got a fever! And the only cure is more Justin Bieber.

  • sagacious

    Seriously though, the kid has come from nowhere using very savvy techniques and it’s impressive even if you don’t like bubble gum.

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Needless to say, a real man doesn’t give a shit what others think regarding his opining about art.

    To please Howard, you have Justin who busted his rear and got it done… otherwise you have children of the stars who….

    Keep an eye for an e-mail that has what I wrote out for marketing strategy… you being sales oriented will love it and it DOES follow what is being discussed in your post.

    Great post!

  • http://twitter.com/visualmink Miisa Mink

    Fantastic post! Thank you. I'm constantly in search of good stories like this, it really summarises all the steps one needs to take. However, the 'either you have it or join someone who does' was a high light. And what comes to Justin, I guess he kicks ass (as you described) but his branding sucks. I wish people would pay more attention also to their branding to build long lasting equity.

  • Doppelganger

    I will have to stealthily go see this movie. Though, as a guy who looks more like he should be playing middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears than watching a high school-aged boy woo 13 year olds, I’m betting I’ll have a nice buffer zone of empty seats around me due to the moms pulling their kids far away from the strange man watching Bieber by himself. I’d bring a friend, but I think that’d only make it worse.

    In all seriousness, good post; found it inspiring.

  • AlexSF

    Up until a couple weeks ago, I had no idea what the Bieber phenomenon was all about and certainly wasn't interested in finding out. Then I watched a video of a radio interview he gave (link below) where the ringtone on his phone was a famous, hilarious sports coach rant and then I subsequently got the same ring tone for my phone. I had no plans to check out the movie but after your fantastic post Mark, I can't believe I'm now actually looking forward to seeing it. Well done!

    http://www.sbnation.com/ncaa-f

  • http://technbiz.blogspot.com paramendra

    I read this on TechCrunch. I did not realize then you were the author. Great article.

  • http://www.brekiri.com/ Greg4

    Yes and no. It has gotten a lot easier, but the vast majority of products still take time, sweat, and tweaking to get traction. For example, Twitter took about nine months from launch to show much traction. Talent doesn't necessarily pay the bills for a year or more. So I still think there's a bottleneck in the market.

  • http://twitter.com/rkillgo Russell Killgo

    Anne Hathaway was good on the Oscars as opposed to James Franco, who was a non-engaging stiff. Talent definitely is essential. You won't make it very far without it, but talent will only carry you so far. Asside from her acting talents and being an attractive woman in Hollywood, she is likeable. This is where she stands out among her peers. This is what took Justin Bieber to the top of the “teen scene”. Talent will get you in the door, what you do once inside is what separates the haves from the have nots. At the end of the Oscars while all the , winners were on stage with the children's choir at the closing credits, all of her peers that were just celebrated as the best in their business were standing around waiting for the show to finish, and Anne was high-fiving all the kids around her. She didn't have to engage with these kids that she didn't know. Justin Bieber and Anne Hathaway's talent got them in the door, but their ability to be engaging has taken them to the top of their fields.

    This ability to be so engaging and likeable is not something that everyone is great at. But I think it is something that people who are not good at it should strive to get better at. If multiple VC's come away from meetings with you thinking “This guy has a decent product, but I just don't think they have the “it” factor to take it to the top” they are much less likely to invest in your company.

  • http://twitter.com/rkillgo Russell Killgo

    Mark, great post. My 8 year old son is a mini-Bieber. I totally agree with your talent and hard work ideas. Talent will only take you so far though. Justin and his advisors knew this and made sure he was also very engaging with all of his fans, especially in the beginning. He has a likeability factor that I think can be a very good learning point for a lot of entrepreneurs. If this is not a strong suit of yours, then you should strive to be better at it. I believe that this likeability factor and able to be engaging is what separates the entrepreneur haves and have nots. This is one of the main reasons I chose the person I did to be my co-founder and CFO. She is a social butterfly and is totally engaging in any conversation she is having with anyone. I'm not naive enough to think that talent alone will lead me to the top of this mountain. For a startup to make it off the ground floor and go all the way to the top, the people associated with it need to have the “it” factor that will make people believe in them and be willing to follow them through any tough times.

  • zaiteku

    Hey Mark, I have not seen the movie, but this is a great post!

  • sagacious

    I got a fever! And the only cure is more Justin Bieber.

  • sagacious

    Seriously though, the kid has come from nowhere using very savvy techniques and it's impressive even if you don't like bubble gum.

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Needless to say, a real man doesn't give a shit what others think regarding his opining about art.

    To please Howard, you have Justin who busted his rear and got it done… otherwise you have children of the stars who….

    Keep an eye for an e-mail that has what I wrote out for marketing strategy… you being sales oriented will love it and it DOES follow what is being discussed in your post.

    Great post!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LOL. I felt the same way. Hope you enjoy it.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, luck is ALWAYS involved in success.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, one of my favorite sayings is, “the harder I work, the luckier I get”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I will be talking about YouTube and its impact on talent discovery when I announce my next investment end of month. watch this space.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think successful artist are often entrepreneurs. Go see “Exit Through the Giftshop” and you’ll see what I mean!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I think people react negatively to “pop culture” but the truth is – what else would you really want to see from a 16 year old?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LOL. At least you got the highlights ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Love Eminem & his movies.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    OK, but can I at least knock the Spice Girls? Please?

  • 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 (same reason they picked James Franco)

  • Doppelganger

    I will have to stealthily go see this movie. Though, as a guy who looks more like he should be playing middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears than watching a high school-aged boy woo 13 year olds, I'm betting I'll have a nice buffer zone of empty seats around me due to the moms pulling their kids far away from the strange man watching Bieber by himself. I'd bring a friend, but I think that'd only make it worse.

    In all seriousness, good post; found it inspiring.

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LOL. I felt the same way. Hope you enjoy it.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, luck is ALWAYS involved in success.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, one of my favorite sayings is, “the harder I work, the luckier I get”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I will be talking about YouTube and its impact on talent discovery when I announce my next investment end of month. watch this space.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think successful artist are often entrepreneurs. Go see “Exit Through the Giftshop” and you'll see what I mean!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I think people react negatively to “pop culture” but the truth is – what else would you really want to see from a 16 year old?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LOL. At least you got the highlights ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Love Eminem & his movies.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    OK, but can I at least knock the Spice Girls? Please?