(2013 Leadership Music Summit Keynote address—Edited by David M. Ross)
Evan Lowenstein has been awarded as a writer and tech geek. He and his identical twin formed the successful ‘90s pop duo, Evan and Jaron. He fused together his passions to create Stageit, which he describes as, “A front row seat to a back stage experience.” The online video platform allows artists to stream and make money from live performances while interacting with their fans in real time. Fast Company recently named Stageit one of the world’s Top 10 most innovative companies in music in 2013.
“It’s a scary time for Stageit,” admits Lowenstein addressing the fact that the company is preparing to scale much bigger and, “interviewing some major heavyweights to come and help.”
“I’m honest about it,” he says entrepreneurially. “I have a vision for this product and know the consumer really well, but I’m really far out on the ocean now. I’ve never been this far and so I think I see land, but I need someone to make sure we are going the right way.”
The following keynote explains the three steps to a successful business, why adding some garnish is critical to selling your idea, the importance of hype and much more. Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Evan Lowenstein!
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I was asked to speak on the topic of the artist as the entrepreneur— and yes, they are one and the same. The artist, like the entrepreneur, has tremendous passion for a vision or a dream and is willing to incur the financial risk of seeing it through.
I’d like to acknowledge that there are people in this room that have already realized their dreams and others whose journeys are just beginning. My focus is on those who are still dreaming whether it is their first or their tenth. It starts with inspiration, a bolt of lightning in a dark world. For a brief second your path is clearly lit up and then it is gone. And even if it is hard to explain to others and you feel stupid doing so, if you are an entrepreneur you will stop at nothing to see that vision through. However, there is a fine line between vision and hallucination which is why the entrepreneur is sometimes seen as delusional. It’s only upon success that we are deemed to be geniuses, should we ever get that far. There are people here today chasing their dreams and sacrificing their lives perhaps just like you. Maybe they left their families behind to come here or dropped out of college like I did. So, how do you know if you are ready to take it to the next level, if you are going to make it?
Unfortunately, the data is clear— at best only one of you in this room will ultimately see your vision through. An entrepreneur will have one or more of the following reactions to that comment. First, you immediately felt badly for everyone else in the room because you are that one person. Secondly, you might question my data. Thirdly, you thought about leaving the room because you don’t want someone raining on your parade. If you had any of these three reactions, then you, my friends, are blessed and very cursed with being entrepreneurs. And if you didn’t react that way, I can save you a lot of time, money, heartache, failed relationships and health problems by encouraging you to opt out of the game now. Chasing a dream is not for the faint of heart. It will take a huge toll on your life. A good idea is not a reason to start a company, it must be a need.
I learned nearly everything I know about business from being in a band—the ultimate start up. You tour like a traveling salesman and put your heart and soul into your product every night. And when you discover at the last minute your bass player can’t get into Canada because of a prior conviction, you find a way to do the show without him. You cram eight guys into a hotel room night after night to protect your bottom line. You know the show must go on. Starting a company is no different and being clueless is not an excuse. I knew nothing about music when I started a band and knew nothing about business when I started a company. I only knew I had an insane amount of drive to see that vision through. But I’ve since learned a few things abut business that I’d like to share.
A successful business has three requirements. Create a product, get proof of concept and then scale the business. Record a song, test it in the marketplace and if you have a hit, blow it up. Scaling may require someone to help you out, like Sheryl Sandberg did for Mark Zuckerberg [Facebook].
I’m going to assume that you have a great product and focus on proof of concept. The first step is presentation. You have to build a frame around your product and dress it up, a fancy trophy case that says, “This is important.” Chefs don’t just drop a steak on a plate, it needs the garnish, the drizzle, the parsley. And before you give them that steak you also need to tell them it isn’t just any steak, it is Billy’s World Famous steak. Did you know Coors Beer it is the World’s Most Refreshing beer? Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey circus is the Greatest Show On Earth. Really? Why couldn’t it just be that without telling us? Because people (me included) cannot make up their own minds. They are looking for you to do it for them. Everyone has too many other things to think about. If you tell me it is the best steak or the world’s most refreshing beer I don’t have time to argue, I’ll buy it.
Have you ever heard someone say, “That kid is the next John Lennon, Bill Gates or she’s the future U.S. president?” Who doesn’t want to be around that energy, belief and investment. You have to make people feel safe. Convince them they aren’t going out on a limb, going to get fired, or get made fun of—they’re going to be OK. For music that’s radio, right? The great validator. It’s ok to like something if it’s on the radio. Some of you are thinking garnish is just hype. Yes, but you’re kidding yourselves if you don’t think it moves you—terms like New York Times best seller, the No. 1 movie in America. Hype really just means, presentation. Some of the greatest artists of all time understood this. Elton John’s wardrobe was garnish, the Beatles had a look, Elvis was the King. They all understood that the product wasn’t enough, they wanted you to know you were in for something special.
I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but last Memorial Day weekend I borrowed by buddy’s McLaren. It’s a $250k sports car with distinctive doors that go up sideways. I drove to one of the hippest restaurants in Los Angeles and as I pulled in people could not stop looking at me. I was living someone else’s life, it was unbelievable. On two occasions that weekend people who didn’t know me or what I do came over to me with business cards and said, “Hey, let’s do business together.” That car was so powerful. I immediately understood in a whole new way why so many people drive fancy cars, yet live in shoeboxes. The garnish is important. It may be shallow and superficial, but a fancy car tells people you are successful. And who doesn’t want to do business with a successful person? Instead of being in denial about it, use this to your advantage in understanding consumer behavior and your customer.
After Stageit was named Top 10 Most Innovative company in the world for music by Fast Company this past year we got calls from every major media company wanting to be in business with us.
Had our company changed from the month before we got the nod? Of course not. But now Stageit was great because Fast Company validated us.
I got a great introduction today, but for the sake of discussion let’s say it was “Ladies and gentlemen, Even Lowenstein.” Now try this, “Ladies and gentleman what you are about to experience will change your life. He has been called the greatest mind of our generation, Evan Lowenstein.” All of a sudden you are on the edge of your seat. And if you add music as a garnish the intro really takes off. (Evan plays music over the microphone from his cellphone and repeats the intro.) I swear it is the same with your product. You can’t just present your music or product and expect everyone to get it. Add some garnish.
In 1998 my brother Jaron and I got asked to go on the road as opening act with Heart. We were this hotshot band on Island records with no radio support, but super excited. The first night we played to an audience that could care less. The second show was the same. With 25 more shows to go we knew we needed to figure out something. So we decided to tell the audience that we were great. We didn’t just walk out and say it, because that doesn’t work. We needed to be creative.
The next night we had a DJ from a local radio station come out and give us an introduction just like I did about myself. “These guys blew me away last time I saw them. They will be playing arenas in no time, pay attention, you’re going to love their music.” It worked. People started paying attention, we began selling a ton of merchandise and signing a ton of autographs after each show. So how did we get a local DJ in each city to come out every night?
That local DJ was our guitar tech. We were no better on the third night than the first and second, but people bought into it. They wanted to be told that something special was about to happen.
I wish I could tell you that our creativity always paid off, but when it didn’t we relied on perseverance. And when that ran out we relied on each other. And that is something I didn’t fully appreciate until I started Stageit—by myself.
When your vision is yours all alone, you can quickly become insular and close off everything around you. I read a book on leadership from a professor at the Wharton School, who said there are four quadrants to our lives—family, business, community and health. When we put them in order of importance business usually comes last, yet when we put them in order of time spent it’s just the opposite. For me, business was taking up more and more time. I stopped going to the gym (health), stopped seeing my friends (community), and stopped coming out of my room (family). Six months of this routine and I ended up in the hospital with stomach issues. Stress they said. But I couldn’t, wouldn’t quit. So please entrepreneurs, find balance. Not complete balance, because that is too comfortable, but a little balance will go a long way. I wish I could tell you exactly what that looks like, but alas I’m still figuring it out for myself. At several points along the way you may experience dreams of running away and starting anew. I share this not to scare you but to let you know you aren’t alone, because loneliness is by far the hardest part of being an entrepreneur.
Let me share one final message with the entrepreneurs in the room. Your vision is extremely real and you must do everything in your power to see it through because people are counting on you, even if they don’t know it.