Small businesses, if they succeed at all, usually only do so after two or three years of hard work.
Rob Bennion, owner and founder of Salt Lake City-based Echo Talent Management, is thriving in a difficult and competitive industry. His DJ mixes have been featured on hip hop and electronic music stations, he’s performed and been interviewed many times on local and national TV shows, and he holds multiple weekly residencies with his jazz band and as a club DJ — with, he says, a 40 percent increase in revenue each year for the past two years.
It took some work to get there, however. We sat down with Bennion, who tells us how he transitioned from a struggling single father into a successful full-time artist. Here, he offers some tips for budding entrepreneurs looking to build their business.
1. Give it everything you have
When Bennion started in 2007, he was working three jobs and gigging on the weekends. He practiced music every morning at 5 a.m. When he didn’t have a gig, he played his saxophone for spare change downtown. He plugged away steadily and experienced more and more success as a result.
“The big American fallacy is there’s a sort of magic switch to success,” Bennion says. “Everybody wants to win the lottery or get discovered overnight. But the reality is that success comes more often to professionals than amateurs. And the definition of being a professional, in my opinion, is that you’re willing to sacrifice and suffer.”
His real progress began in 2012, when he quit his day job to focus exclusively on growing Echo.
“You cannot run your own business — especially a music business, where there are a million people competing with you — without going all in,” he says. “It wasn’t until I could put 40 hours of my best energy a week into working for myself [that] I really gained traction.”
2. Be visible to your clients
Bennion used to focus on SEO to gain more visibility in the market, but now he turns to social media for most of his organic growth.
“At one point, I had the number one spot for SEO in my niche market in Salt Lake City, but times have changed,” he says. “Large companies now control and have a corner on SEO, because they have teams of writers and spend a fortune on it. So the way to remain competitive when you’re the little guy is through social media and your clients.”
Having a good product is going to sell better than any type of advertising, says Bennion. Paid ads generally generate inefficient leads. If he gets a lead from a paid review site in San Francisco, for example, he’s just one DJ out of many competing for a gig. When he receives a referral from someone familiar with his product on a firsthand basis, it has an 80 percent to 90 percent conversion rate.
“I talk to my clients, remind my past clients of what a great experience they had, and network with other professionals,” says Bennion. “I use three Cs when I talk about social media: Constant Creative Content. Constantly updating, constantly showing that you’re busy and working, constantly reminding people you exist.”
And you want to stay ahead of the game and jump on trends as they occur, he says.
“I have multiple Instagram accounts, multiple Facebook pages,” says Bennion. “Last year, when Facebook started pushing video, I made a cool DJ mash-up video and put it on my feed, and it got 20,000 views in a couple of days. That’s huge exposure for my business. Any time there’s a new thing, I try to research it, figure out what it is, and get my hands dirty doing it myself, because you never know what will turn out to be a real asset.”
3. Network like crazy
Like with social media, the key to successful networking is constant, focused activity.
“I didn’t start getting high-end gigs until I started networking,” says Bennion. “I began attending every local networking event that I could, and made sure to have fun and press palms with the right people and leave a good impression. As a business person, you constantly have to be sowing seeds, and you never know which seeds will flower.”
To sell himself as a DJ, Bennion visited every night club in town — repeatedly.
“I sent messages; I called and emailed; I went everywhere and talked to anyone who seemed even slightly relevant to my goal,” he says. “One manager didn’t get back to me until two years later, but the resulting gig went so well that I went on to DJ his venue every weekend for the next three years. I’d sowed the seed by contacting the guy and getting as good as I could at deejaying in the meantime, and it blossomed into this amazing resource when I least expected it.”
4. Put your money where your mouth is
“There are a million things you have to do to be successful in business,” says Bennion. “You have to be constantly finding new clients, constantly reminding old clients that you exist, constantly updating your technology and researching ways to improve.”
To stay in the game, he says he reinvests most of his money back into his business.
“When I started, I reinvested everything I made into growing Echo,” he says. “You have to take that risk. Without cash flow, your business is a plant that will dry up and die. I play gigs for free in San Francisco because I reinvested all my money in a new sound system here, which meant I could store my old one there. It’s a huge business opportunity in a lucrative market, but it wouldn’t exist if I’d been afraid to spend the money.”
A 0 percent introductory annual percentage rate (APR) credit card from a music instrument retail chain gave Bennion a leg up in the beginning because it helped him upgrade to his first PA system, putting him so far ahead of his competitors that he made the money back in a few months.
“Just stay on top of the payments,” he says. “Because if you haven’t paid it off by the end of the introductory period, it crashes down on you with all the interest compounded.”
Keep in mind, too, even a business credit card requires a personal guarantee, so carrying high levels of debt or missing payments can hurt your credit score. (You can see where your credit currently stands by viewing your free credit report summary, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)
5. Never stop learning
Bennion stresses that constant education, hands-on experience, and rubbing shoulders with other entrepreneurs is a must. He also makes a point of following the social media of the entrepreneurial artists that he most wants to be like. In real time, he learns at the feet of the masters.
“I pick up their secrets every second of every day,” he says. “I look at their pictures, I figure out what they’re doing, and I emulate it as best I can.”
“Study and evolve,” says Bennion. “Read books about business, even if it’s boring at first. I used to remind myself of three things when the going got tough: One, small businesses, if they succeed at all, usually only do so after two or three years of hard work; two, you’re probably not going to turn any profit for the first few years; and three, a decent profit is around 10 percent.”
There’s no magic solution to entrepreneurial or artistic success. Putting your best hours into the work, staying focused and driven, and developing a capacity for patient problem-solving will help you hit the right notes from the get-go.