Decoded: 17 Secrets to Jay-Z’s Entrepreneurial Success

The record industry is known for chewing musicians up and spitting them out.

Apparently Jay-Z didn’t get the memo.

In the last 20 years, Jay-Z (a.k.a. Shawn Carter) has amassed a personal worth of $450 million while turning the music business on its head. Sure, he’s had hit records and sold out shows – but the real wealth comes from his businesses (Rocawear and Roc-A-Fella Records).

Keep reading to find out how Jay-Z became not just one of the greatest rappers of all time, but one of the greatest entrepreneurs of the 21st century.

#1 Hustle

“Without the work, the magic won’t come.”

Jay-Z, from Decoded

Jay-Z was born Shawn Corey Carter in 1969. He grew up in Marcy, a housing project in Brooklyn, New York City. In 1982, Jay-Z’s father left and his mother had to support her family alone. It was by following her example that Jay-Z got his unrelenting work ethic – his hustle.

“Look what I embody: the soul of a hustler.”

Jay-Z, from ‘What More Can I Say?’

There wasn’t a lot of opportunity for ambitious Marcy kids like Shawn. Given the choice between applying for a job at McDonald’s or becoming a drug dealer, he chose the latter. In Brooklyn, that was the definition of a hustler: somebody who hit the streets to sell drugs.

But Jay-Z fit another definition of the word hustler: an energetic go-getter. Even as he continued to work as a dealer, Jay-Z never lifted his eyes from the goal of becoming a great rapper. He and his friend Jaz would lock themselves in a room for hours on end, just working on their technique. It’s that type of hustle that allowed Jay-Z to develop into one of the greatest rappers of all time.

“I’m far from being god, but I work god damn hard.”

Jay-Z, from ‘Breathe Easy’

Now Jay-Z runs legitimate businesses instead of selling illegal drugs, but he’s still got the energy of hustler. More than anything else, that has been the engine behind his success.

#2 Don’t Wait Until You Have Everything You Need

“It just got to a point where it was, like, ‘Make this decision, because this is something you really love and you love to do. It’s time to really focus on and then get serious about it, give it your all.’ And once I did that, it was no looking back from there.”

Jay-Z, Interview with Forbes

Jay-Z didn’t have a drum kit or Pro Tools growing up, but that didn’t stop him from making beats to rap over (he used his fist and a kitchen table).

Likewise, when Jay-Z first started Rock-A-Fella records the company office didn’t have desks, computers, or air-conditioning, but the company still put out hit records and turned a profit.

If you want something badly enough, you can make it happen. Don’t let imperfect circumstances prevent you from executing your goals.

#3 People Help People who Help Themselves

Young Jay-Z’s pounding on the kitchen table annoyed his siblings, but his mom saw something else: a budding passion in her son. She bought her son a boom box for his birthday so that he could continue to grow as a rapper.

If Jay-Z hadn’t shown his drive to improve as a rapper, then his mother never would have splurged on a boom box. Since he did, he received a powerful new gift on his artistic journey.

When people see that you are pursuing a goal, they’ll want to help. But don’t expect any gifts from others until you’re doing everything you can to help yourself.

#4 Carry a Notebook with You

As a budding teenager rapper, Jay-Z always had a pencil and paper on him. He remembers, “If I was crossing a street with my friends and a rhyme came to me, I’d break out my binder, spread it on a mailbox or lamppost and write the rhyme before I crossed the street.”

Whether you’re a writer or an entrepreneur, you never know when inspiration will strike. Make sure you have a way to write it down or record it so you won’t forget.

#5 Don’t Run Your Mouth

Jay-Z was still struggling to break through into the music business when his collaborator, Jaz, got a big record deal from EMI. Jaz was going to London to record and he wanted Jay-Z to come along.

When Jay-Z told his crew about it, their response was less than enthusiastic. They felt like they were being deserted and told him that rappers were just being used by the music industry.

Of course, Jay-Z ignored their negativity, but he also learned a valuable lesson: sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut about your aspirations. From then on, Jay-Z says he knew he wanted to get a record deal of his own, but that he “didn’t go around talking about it to even [his] closest friends.”

It’s tempting to share your dreams and goals with people, but be careful not to talk too much. Sometimes even your closest friends and family members won’t be able to see your vision and their response will be discouraging. Actions speak louder than words.

#6 Skills are Transferrable

Jay-Z never went to business school. But that hasn’t stopped him founding $100 million companies and serving as a co-brand director for Budweiser Select.

While others were out getting their MBA, Jay-Z was learning real-life business skills on the streets. He learned sales, management, and promotion on the streets, so it’s no surprise that he slipped comfortably into the many roles of an entrepreneur.

We all have a breadth of experience to draw from. Always keep a look out for how your skills in one field can be used in another.

#7 Know How to Handle Rejection

Jay-Z was turned down by every label in the industry. So did he give up on his dream of becoming a professional rapper? No. He started his own record label.

Jay-Z was offered a weak endorsement deal from Iceberg Apparel, even though Jay’s shout-outs for the clothing company were boosting their sales through the roof. So did he accept their offer? No. He started a competing clothing line and sold it ten years later for $200 million.

Jay-Z has an amazing knack for bouncing back from rejection. We would all benefit from adopting this mindset.

#8 Make a Plan

When Jay-Z, Damon Dash, and Kareem Burke founded Roc-A-Fella Records in 1994, they drew up a business plan. Jay recalls, “We made short and long-term projections, we kept it realistic, but the key thing is that we wrote it down, which is as important as visualization in realizing success.”

Sometimes we think we know how it’s all going to play out in our head, but there’s something powerful and clarifying about actually writing things out.

If you haven’t already put together a short business plan, do it today. You don’t have to follow it exactly (in fact, you probably shouldn’t) but having made a plan and wrote it down is invaluable.

#9 Don’t Take Your Eyes off the Prize

“You can want success all you want, but to get it, you can’t falter. You can’t slip. You can’t sleep. One eye open, for real, and forever.”

Jay-Z, Decoded

It’s a common story in the entertainment industry: an up-and-coming artist gets a little taste of success and then everything comes crashing down when they get caught up in the lifestyle (i.e. parties, drugs, and alcohol).

The same thing happens to entrepreneurs. Letting a little bit of success coax you into laziness or over-indulgence is an easy way to run your fledgling business into the ground.

Jay-Z’s music and business career took off at simultaneously but he managed to keep a level head. Even when he was selling drugs, he wasn’t using them. Even though he rapped about champagne and margaritas, he was only a light drinker. Jay prefers to be sober so that he can, “stay focused on making money.”

It’s this ability to resist temptation that has allowed Jay-Z to turn his initial success into a business empire that will likely be around long after he’s gone.

#10 Dream Enormous

“I’d rather die enormous than live dormant.”

Jay-Z, from “Can I live”

As a poor kid growing up in a housing project, nobody ever told Jay-Z he could one day be worth $450 million or that he would pack Madison Square Garden.

But he did have a sixth-grade teacher named Miss Lowden who “must have seen something” in young Shawn Carter. That little show of support gave Jay-Z the confidence to imagine a life beyond the projects.

Accomplishing enormous goals starts with the ability to imagine them and the willingness to pursue them.

Jay-Z’s Five Biggest Accomplishments

(1)    14-time Grammy Winner (1999-2012)

(2)    Became President and CEO of Def Jam Records (2004)

(3)    Jay-Z sold his portion of Rocawear for $204 million (2007)

(4)    Most Number One Albums for a Solo Artist on the Billboard 200 (11)

(5)    Two Albums ranked in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time

#11 Art and Business Can (and Should) Co-Exist

The other part of “commercialization” is the idea that artists should only be thinking about their art, not about the business side of what we do… [but] when I committed to a career in rap, I wasn’t taking a vow of poverty. I saw it as another hustle, one that happened to coincide with my natural talents and the culture I loved. I was an eager hustler and a reluctant artist. But the irony of it is that to make the hustle work, really work, over the long term, you have to be a true artist, too.”

Jay-Z, from Decoded

There’s a good reason people think of art and business as mortal enemies. When money starts to influence creative decisions, the art suffers.

But Jay-Z’s proven that art and business can actually benefit one another when combined carefully.

#12 Demand Respect

“Either love me or leave me alone.”

Jay-Z, from ‘Public Service Announcement’

In 1999, Jay-Z won his first Grammy award: Best Rap Album for “Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life.”

But he was nowhere to be found at the ceremony that night. Jay-Z had boycotted the Grammys because he “didn’t think they gave the rightful respect to hip-hop.” So even though attending the event would have been good for Jay’s career, he passed it by.

“He who does not feel me is not real to me.”

Jay-Z, from ‘H to the Izzo’

It wasn’t the first time Jay-Z made such a stand.

Since his first album, Jay-Z had been mentioning Cristal (a luxury brand of champagne). But when Frederic Rouzaud, the managing director of the company, disrespected the “bling lifestyle” in The Economist, Jay-Z drew a line in the sand: “That was it for me. I released a statement saying that I would never drink Cristal or promote it in any way or serve it at my clubs ever again.”

Jay-Z clearly has zero tolerance for disrespect – and as a result he’s very rarely disrespected.

#13 Accept Help from Mentors

Entrepreneurs and artists tend to be strong-minded individuals. Jay-Z is both, but that hasn’t stopped him from seeking the guidance of a host of mentors through the years.

A good mentor has already been in your position. That means they can see what steps you need to take and what mistakes you must avoid – all while still giving you room to breathe and grow on your own. If you don’t yet have a mentor on your entrepreneurial journey, get one.

Without the role models below, Jay-Z couldn’t have become the entrepreneur, rapper, and championship-caliber performer that he is today.

Some of Jay-Z’s Mentors:

Russell Simmons – Co-Founder of Def Jam Records

“He’d discovered a way to work in the legit world but to live the dream of the hustler: independence, wealth, and success outside of the mainstream’s rule.”

The Notorious B.I.G. – Rapper

“I loved that he described what a lot of hustlers were going through in the streets – dissed and feared by teachers and parents and neighbors and cops, broke, working a corner to try to get some bread for basic s*** – as more than some glamorous alternative to having a real job.”

Michael Jordan – Six-time NBA Champion

“The thing that distinguished Jordan wasn’t just his talent, but his discipline, his laser-like commitment to excellence. That’s something I always respect, especially in people who have great natural talents already.”

[Excerpts from Decoded]

#14 Ignore Trends

In 2009, the hot trend in hip-hop was auto-tune. T-Pain was scoring hit after hit with perfectly-pitched, synthetic vocals (see Flo Rida’s “Low”).

But Jay-Z didn’t jump on the bandwagon. In fact, his big single that year was called “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).” The song was everything auto-tune wasn’t: dissonant, noisy, and off-pitch.

Watch the video here.

“D.O.A.” won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance. But more importantly, it made a statement and allowed Jay-Z to stay true to himself. As he wrote in Decoded, “You can’t fake whatever the current trend is if it’s not you, because it might work for a second, but it’s a house of sand.”

Following the latest fad isn’t a good strategy for long-term success. You can make a more powerful statement by marching to the beat of your own drum, even if that means standing apart from the crowd.

#15 Start a Blog

In April 2011, Jay-Z dove into a new industry: blogging.

His site, Life + Times features articles on whatever’s on Jay’s mind: music, sports, technology, and fashion. It’s worth checking out just for its sleek, tile-based design.

Why would a rap mogul worth $450 million start a blog?

Jay realized that blogging was more than just another way to speak his mind. Publishing content online allows him to expand his influence and grow a loyal audience – which will ultimately be good for his bottom line.

Note: If you’re a regular Income Diary reader, you probably already have a website. If not, then here’s a guide on how to get started.

#16 Entrepreneurship Empowers You to Change the World

Jay-Z’s success has allowed him to help the world in ways that would never have been possible if he hadn’t become an entrepreneur.

Along with P Diddy, Jay-Z donated one million dollars to aid the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. After meeting with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2006, Jay-Z pledged to help promote awareness of the global water shortage on his upcoming world tour.

In 2008, US presidential candidate Barack Obama asked Jay-Z to help support his campaign. Jay put on a series of concerts to get out the vote. Just like that, Jay-Z had helped elect the first black president in United States history.

If Jay-Z had stayed selling drugs, he would have kept making good money (though he likely would have been caught before long). But he never would have been able to make the positive impact on the world that he has an artist and entrepreneur.

#17 Have an “Empire State of Mind”

“I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.”

Jay-Z, from ‘Diamonds for Sierra Leone’

The reason Jay-Z is so much wealthier than other entertainers is because he’s more than just an entertainer: he’s an empire. He has owned night clubs, record labels, clothing lines, restaurants, and he’s currently part-owner of the New Jersey Nets.

More than that, Jay-Z learned quickly what other entrepreneurs are just now learning: that business is more personal than ever. He has said, “My brands are an extension of me. They’re close to me. It’s not like running GM, where there’s no emotional attachment.”

Jay-Z is his business, he’s selling his lifestyle – and we’re buying.

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