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What Artists Should Learn From Startups
Most artists and creators are not that different from any startup, really. Artists spend months and years finding their “creator-market fit”, creating and marketing products, raising capital, etc. So, are they really different?
I found it quite interesting that the majority of artists rarely explore how 'startup frameworks' can accelerate their career, and focus primarily on creating things. Imagine a company that doesn't pay much attention to anything else other than delivering new features.
I believe that the biggest brands of the future might be individuals, rather than traditional companies. However, we are still far away from reaching that point, and one of the reasons could be the "creator" mindset.
Taking inspiration from Paul Graham's "Startups in 13 Sentences," here are a few ideas that every artist can (and should) adopt from the startup world and apply to their career:
1/ Find your first 100 true fans
The approach to grow from 0-10 fans will be different from the approach to grow from 10-100 fans. The strategy to get your first 1,000 fans will be different from the one that will help you reach 1,000,000. Make it one by one.
Don't try too hard to go viral. Hype is great, but sustainable hype is much better. Instead, connect with people directly and personally. Explore who you are as an artist and what makes you special.
This initial phase may not be scalable, but it lays the groundwork. So when you do have viral moments, those fans will stick around for good.
2/ Start with a brand, not just a product
Your songs and art are the products. Your brand is the sound, personality, and aesthetic that connect them together and set you apart.
People will come for your product but stay for your brand and uniqueness. However, you should not worry too much about it in the early days because it's a journey, and your brand will evolve over time, just as you do.
3/ Relationships are everything
The most valuable thing to own is the relationship with your fans and those who want to support you. An email is worth 1,000 streams – it's how you turn one interaction into something greater.
Seize every opportunity to gather fan data, such as their preferences and interests, why they listen to your music or engage with your content. Learn to cherish your fans just as you cherish your creations. Your fans are the "customers" of your brand.
4/ Release and iterate fast
Releasing quickly isn't just about getting your product to market early; it's about realizing that your true work begins when you release. It's through releasing that you learn what you should have been creating. Without that knowledge, you're simply wasting your time.
Once you've released, iterate rapidly. It's a common mistake to treat a project as if it's solely about implementing an initial brilliant idea. In reality, many creative ideas come to light during the process of creation, rather than being anticipated beforehand.
5/ Understand the lifetime value of a fan
Once you understand what each fan relationship means to you in the long run, you can better assess costs & strategies to acquire, keep & deliver more.
6/ Build a good team, then trust them
The success of an artist is almost always a function of its team. It starts with the artist, but your team helps you reach your full potential. Find people you align with strategically & ethically, empower them with trust & you will force-multiply each other.
7/ Spend little
Most artists believe that if only they had larger budgets, everything would be different. However, the reality is that having plenty of capital in the early days can actually have a negative impact and destroy your brand.
Same with startups. Keep surviving, keep iterating. Money rarely starts the fire – it puts gasoline on it.
8/ Recurring revenue is king
Subscription shows you the real intentions and which fans you can count on for the long run. More than just financial stability, it cultivates enduring fan relationships, turning listeners into a supportive community bonded by your art. It also makes metrics like Fan Lifetime Value easier to measure. And increase them.
9/ Become comfortable with getting rejected
Not all opportunities will turn into something meaningful. Learn to move forward without letting failed deals affect your morale or your momentum. Deals don’t define success.
10/ Be good to people
Be good to people along your journey, it’s always a small world and you never know where you’ll meet someone again. A good reputation has compounding effects – it always unlocks new doors in the future.
Paul Graham, “Startups in 13 Sentences”, 2009.
Rob Abelow, “Fan Lifetime Value”, 2023.
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about me: I'm an engineer, designer and award-winning musician. In 2019 I introduced a human equity asset class (HCBA) that allows investing in people directly.
I founded creator economy pioneer HumanIPO, and helped to build one of the largest ($250m+ ARR) DCB payment platforms in Southeast Asia. Prior to that, I’ve spent 3 years in Google NYC, and dropped out of my PhD in CS.