This past Friday, I walked into a bustling opening night at a popup art gallery in Philadelphia. The exhibition featured a group of student artists from Temple University, and despite it being 2020, the energy was on high. For a brief moment I felt out of place — a 30-something man mingling amongst a crowd of people at least 10 years younger — until I reminded myself that I owned the gallery where everything was unfolding.
Launching the “Artist in Residence” program at Tioga Park has been a dream of mine for years. It’s a free community space for artists and creators with a focus on empowering Black and minority artists, and an idea that I’ve held close to me for a while.
Before entering the world of business and real estate, I was an artist for over 10 years as a part of the hip-hop group, “Green Street”. I experienced a ton of highs and lows during that time but one thing was constant: It was tough to make money as an independent creator. The lack of resources available to artists— funding, space, knowledge sharing — was always something that bothered me. The term “struggling artist” never sat right with me either — artists contribute so much to society but the difficulty of monetizing art in a digital world force them into a difficult compromise. You have to essentially accept being broke for a long period of time in order to pursue your craft.
I’m a big believer in the idea of reallocating capital to promote your worldview. Making money is one thing, but using that capital to create meaningful impact is where it really gets interesting. This isn’t a new concept — the Koch brothers have been doing this for decades, albeit for some very suspect causes. Since my life turned a corner a few years ago, I’ve been focused on capturing market share away from the outdated institutions that exist (corporate culture vultures, formal education, etc) and reinvesting the proceeds into a worldview that promotes creativity, minority ownership and art.
That brings me to the main point of this piece: How to create the things that you wish existed the world. The truth is, it takes a rare combination of capital, vision, resilience and community to be make it happen. Many people get bogged down by the “capital” part of the equation, by claiming that they don’t have the money or resources to get their big idea off the ground. However, knowing what to do with the money before you have it is the most important thing.
From the Kolkata Chai Co cafe in NYC to the Tioga Park Gallery in Philly, I’ve had the chance to build the things that I wish existed back when I was artist. I’ve distilled 3 of my key takeaways below:
- Own the Controlling Asset
If you want to build something that will stand the test of time, your core focus should be to own the controlling asset. Whether it’s the land, property, equipment, IP or technology, this is what holds the key for executing your big idea. By owning the controlling asset, you have flexibility to use it however you need. In my case, by owning the building and the space, I can use it in whichever way best benefits my worldview and community.
The tricky thing is, it’s going to take some heavy lifting before you can get to the point of ownership. But that build up is such an critical piece of the learning and data intake process. Before opening our Kolkata Chai cafe in NYC, we spent the previous 18 months doing pop-ups, farmer’s markets and food festivals. It was grueling work but it allowed us to eventually open a space where we could dictate the conversation.
2. Be Prepared To Take On Substantial Risks
The first one over the hill always gets hit with the arrows. If you’re committed to building something that doesn’t currently exist, you need to commit to the risks that come with that journey.
These will be a combination of financial and emotional. Not only do you have to put your own money up, but most people around you will doubt and try to talk you out it. Humans are creatures of comfort and the discomfort that comes with executing a vision is only for the select few.
The key is here to build up your risk tolerance over time. Your first few moves might on the safer side, but as you build confidence and efficiency, you should increase the amount of risk along with that. Granted, a year like 2020 can put a strategy like this in great jeopardy (speaking from experience), but trust yourself to find a way.
3. Partner up with People Who Are Smarter Than You
This is tough on the ego, but good for your business. In life, you get paid to be excellent a one or two things. Look at athletes, entertainers, doctors and more — they’re all creating value around being a specialist in a very niche skill. Similarly, when you’re building out your vision, find people to put around you that compliment your skills instead of trying to do it all. Make sure to put an extra emphasis on hiring for your weaknesses.
My talent in the world of real estate is more strategic than tactical. I know how to identify neighborhoods that will appreciate better than I know how to do construction. Therefore, in my ventures, I’ve partnered with people who are experts in construction and scaled much quicker than if I tried to do it myself. Did I have to give up equity for that? Absolutely. But the opportunity to learn and focus on what I’m good at created much more value than if I put a hard hat on and started fumbling around.
I strongly believe that if more people were focused on building the things they wish existed, the world would be in a different place. Hopefully this piece gave you a couple nuggets on how you can get started.
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Questions about entrepreneurship, real estate, sneakers or anything in between? Feel free to reach out to me on Instagram.