6 Bootstrapping Lessons Music Artists Can Learn From Startups (and Berry Gordy)

According to Samantha Greathand, Stanford University graduates interested in entrepreneurship “excelled at setting direction, risk taking, inspiration, creation and innovation” and were highly passionate and desired autonomy.

The same can be said of the music artist who has to start from nothing to build something great. In Botswana and the world over, the lack of funding for music artists and various people in the creative fields, has meant that the only way to survive has been to bootstrap — build momentum and create buzz from rudimentary material.

Tech Startup Funding

Here are 6 similarities borrowed from a startup founder's life that can be applied to the music artist’s world.

1. The Brand Is The Talent

Without a good product, a business is dead in the water from the get-go no matter how fancy your pitch or packaging is.

The product, or in this case, the talent, is the essential key to the entire operation. Aesthetics should be last after functionality and this is true of artistry as well.

A lot of time should be spent on developing the product, re-evaluating and refining it where necessary. This means setting aside time for vocal training, perfecting songwriting and physical training to improve performances.

Berry Gordy

MoTown's Berry Gordy with Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross

Music mogul Berry Gordy the founder of Motown Records who was himself a songwriter placed quality control above all, and churned out a superior line of products, eventually setting up an Artist Development branch in his company. So innovative was this that it remains a fundamental division of any self-respecting record company to date.

2. Still Waters

When bootstrapping with limited funds, the only thing going for your business will be a good product and charisma. The former is, or at least should be, a given but the latter has to be unequivocally solid in order for networking and winning over of supporters and investors to go down smoothly.

A great example is Apple Computers started by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs; one a gifted techno geek and the other an equally gifted visionary and free spirit (a ball busting perfectionist if reports are something to go by).

Still Waters

A Bit More Balanced | Mish Sukharev

The success of Apple rested equally on the personalities of the two. Wozniak was technically gifted and could produce the product but presentation was headed by Jobs who did the excellent job of selling the vision of the company to employees, buyers and investors and creating and cultivating the “aura of coolness” that captured consumers.

More often than not, success depends on principles like initiative, discipline, devotion to duty, integrity and honesty, loyalty etc but what will tip the scales is tact, emotional stability, maturity, self-confidence and enthusiasm.

3. Marketing

Brand positioning is one aspect of marketing that the bootstrapper cannot allow to fall behind on.

In the case of the artist, it should be developed from the start alongside the product.

For the tech-savvy, social media is the fastest way to get your name out there for free if you have a clear strategy and a knack for content creation.

This should also be done in tandem with offline targeted exposure in newspapers, TV and radio. Soundcloud founder Alexander Ljung wore a leather jacket spray-painted with his company logo wherever he went during the bootstrapping days.

SoundCloud Leather Jacket

This helped to make it real in his mind while also creating real world “noise” for his company. The takeaway from this is that you should be bold and put yourself out there and don’t be afraid of guerrilla marketing.

4. Show Me The Money!

Prolific Botswana poet TJ Dema put it more bluntly stating, “as glamorously as poverty and self-sacrifice have been presented to many an artist, I don’t have this liberty. Bottom line, I have to keep my eye on the paycheck.”

Unfortunately for the bulk of artists in Botswana, the inability to make a living solely off art and monetize from the start means the absence of Pulas (Botswana currency) in the pocket is a major problem. But the start of any problem solving is to identify the problem which would then lead to the solution, naturally.

It’s no secret that the bulk of artists’ money comes from “rocking stages.” The money you charge for appearances and performances depends on the demand the public has for you, evidenced in topping charts, winning awards and your online currency.

The higher your public demand, the more money you make. The artist needs to make money from the start that keeps them going and will hopefully reinvest in themselves if they’re smart.

Since the problem is identified, the solution would be to increase demand.

How, you say?

Refer to 3. above.

5. Customer Service

Artists can be compared to the emergence of what some have coined as social entrepreneurs — business persons who provide an essential service that upgrades the well-being of the community while turning a profit.

What is your favorite "going the extra mile" customer services story? - Quora

A great example is Martin Riddiford and Jim Reeves who developed an indoor lighting system that uses gravity to light a bulb which can then connect up to six more. The real world application of this device, particularly in the developing world and places hit by a disaster, could see them make a staggering amount of money while improving lives.

You could say music is no different, in that it provides a soundtrack to people’s lives, enhances recreational experiences, assists in political and social mobilization as well as retrospective and introspective purposes. In this way, a musician finding his/her social position and voice and crafting music around that is a lucrative undertaking.

6. Start Small. Think Big.

In the 1960s, Berry Gordy released fewer records than his competitors but had a higher success rate than them. This quality over quantity way of doing business made him more successful because the competition lost money promoting too many products at the same time.

The bootstrapper, in applying the same principle of selling high-quality products while keeping costs low, can yield greater returns over an extended period of time while building a brand and growing a wider customer base.

Airbnb Story

If implemented, the “cheap is cheap” put-down frequently used by naysayers might finally be obliterated. In a similar way startups like Twitter, which kept its services to a minimal and refused ads, endeared itself to loyal users that eventually swelled to the hundreds of millions worldwide in less than 5 years.

The takeaway is to have a vision of the future and stick to it while using rudimentary material and processes along the way. Though they satisfy short-term goals, in the grand scheme of things they coalesce to speak to the bigger plan.


K.O. at the ILUVHIPHOP festival in Gaborone, Botswana | Pino.K graphy

In 2012 the IMF projected that by this year (2015) 7 out of world 10 fastest growing economies will be from African states.

The expanding middle class could only mean that any company providing a service or selling product is about to experience an increase in prospective customer numbers.

In Botswana where 65% of the population is the youth, the client base is readily available for a musician with the right mindset and talent to pursue his/her passion. This expected growth is an opportunity for the music startup, music-related service providers included, to position itself in anticipation.

Cover Image: Pino.K graphy