Many CEOs would name Jack Welch, Stephen Covey, Richard Branson or Meg Whitman as their major influences. Mine include Lenny Kravitz, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Janet Jackson and Sir Mix-a-Lot. What do I mean? Well, to quote Vanilla Ice, “Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it.”
The DJ, you see, was me. As a 12-year-old seventh grader in Bath, Mich., I started my first entrepreneurial venture with my cousin -- getting paid to spin records (CDs, actually) at my middle school’s Friday night dances. We built this into a successful disc jockey business through my college years.
After retiring my headphones sometime during the Clinton administration, I thought that was that. But I’ve come to understand that my formative years as a disc jockey taught me everything I’d need to know for leadership positions at companies like Oracle and Salesforce and, now, in my first year as a CEO at Act-On.
Here are 10 indispensable lessons I learned as a young DJ that form the backbeat of my business life today:
Disruption is king.
It may have become one of the business world’s most prevalent and annoying buzzwords, but disrupting a market is thrilling. My middle school was losing money on dances because all the proceeds were going to pay outside disc jockeys. I offered to do the job for half price, using my father’s powerful stereo and CDs from my own collection or borrowed from friends. Neither my cousin or I were old enough to drive yet, so we also needed help from Mom and her station wagon for the first few years. We got all the gigs from that point on. And my DJ business, called SoundWaves, was born.
I watched the bottom line carefully as SoundWaves snowballed during middle and high school and college. No frivolous spending with the several hundred dollars I’d make on a good night. Instead, I invested much of the profits back in the business, say for better equipment. By the time I arrived at Michigan State as an undergrad in 1995, SoundWaves had excellent professional gear and was being booked for weddings, corporate events and parties at our and other colleges.
Create a product people want to buy.
A cardinal rule in DJ’ing is that to get people dancing, you have to play what they want to hear. This is or should be Rule No. 1 for any business, of course. You don’t play what you like. You play what the customer likes.
Ok, that’s another tech industry cliché, but I learned its importance as a teen when my family moved from Bath, Mich., 50 miles away to Brighton, Mich. I noticed that my fellow high school students in Brighton preferred classic rock like Led Zeppelin and the Steve Miller band to the hip-hop-heavy offerings the kids in Bath preferred, so I had to quickly retool SoundWaves’ songlist to accommodate them.
Excel at split-second decision-making.
If you’re about to play “Loser” by Beck but a young party-goer requests TLC’s “Waterfalls” for her birthday, you have to be able to turn on a dime. It’s the same for any company -- for example, if you need to make changes to a new product if customer requirements show they’re necessary.
Your reputation is gold.
We knew we had to give customers the best possible experience or go home. SoundWaves thrived because of strong word of mouth. Companies live and die on their reputation now, times 10,000, in the age of social media.
For a bunch of kids, we were very process-oriented. SoundWaves was a tightly run business with budgets and spreadsheets. Meticulous lists of CDs and songs made for a seamless experience at events. To paraphrase C+C Music Factory, “Gotta Sweat the Details (Everybody Dance Now).”
Trust your gut.
A DJ often has to be able to read the audience and play the song he or she instinctively knows will go over well. Same dynamic in the marketplace.
Know the latest trends.
A DJ must know the latest hits, often before they become hits. Successful companies have a similarly keen read on the market.
Embrace the leader’s role.
In many ways, the DJ isn’t just spinning tunes but is the leader of the party. He or she takes a personal and passionate interest in being a motivating force. Same in business. Whether it’s people on a dance floor or employees in a company, the leader must lead.
I’m reminded of the scene at the end of the movie “Stand By Me,” when the grown-up Gordie, played by Richard Dreyfuss, observes, "I never had any friends later like the ones I had when I was 12.” That’s kind of how I feel about my early days as a DJ. The excitement of my first business was so visceral. Little did I know I’d be learning lessons I’d apply forever.