Grammy-nominated recording artist, wunderkid and CEO: Ryan Leslie's story combines talent, vision and tons of hustle
A perfect 1600 on the SATs, Harvard grad at 19, successful Youtuber, R&B recording artist and producer with a grammy-nomination and a Kanye collaboration—it’s hard to hear Ryan Leslie’s story and not be struck by a sense of awe and respect, while also being rudely reminded of one’s mere mortal status. That impressive resume makes it obvious that he has talent in spades, but Leslie is also an out and out hustler. And in a life full of incredible superlatives, the 38-year-old has set his sights on a new game: start-up entrepreneur. Leslie sat down with OMR’s Heidi Stamer to discuss his remarkable career, on the future of music in the digital age and on his latest project, Superphone.
“There needs to be a revolution and a reengineering of how education actually works”
While Leslie’s chosen path to becoming an entrepreneur is unorthodox to say the least, he ended up at Harvard because his parents, like so many others, felt that “college was the pathway to achievement of the American dream.” And while it was in previous generations, the model is outdated according to Leslie. But when an “8 year old has more access to information now than Bill Clinton did when he was in office, there needs to be a reengineering of how education actually works.” Nevertheless, he acquiesced to his parents demands, went to Harvard and graduated, so that “he could get a job.” But his job has always been “to be happy and I found my happiness from doing music.”
Hustling to survive
Finding happiness in music is one thing, but making it profitable is another. Like many aspiring musicians, Leslie started wayyyy down at bottom, as a starving, homeless artist. But his god-given talent and incredible work ethic—he’s on record as saying he regularly gets by with as little as 3 hours of sleep a night—helped him thrive in an industry that’s as tough as they come. “I’ve always come from a place where I need to make whatever I dream happen in order to survive. When you add hustle to a model that is already working, then you start to accelerate the generation of revenue.” Within a year, Leslie was not only no longer homeless, but was generating nearly half a million dollars in revenue.
From behind the boards to on the mic to CEO
While Leslie got his start primarily as a producer, cutting tracks for artists; including “Keep giving your love to me,” which would end up being recorded by Beyoncé for the Bad Boys II soundtrack, he always considered himself a performer. Leslie is quick to point out that the advent of social media eased his transition to the front of the stage. “I could just put my music, my art, my message on social and it would be discovered by the world—I didn’t have to wait for a record company to sign me.”
This forward-thinking approach to putting his music out on social at a time where that was the exception has helped propel Leslie’s career further. “I was once among the most-subscribed Youtube channels of all-time, but that’s because there were only a handful of Youtube creators.” His realization that being a first mover on new platforms can give an artist, a creator or a brand a decided advantage over the competition ended up inspiring Leslie to create Superphone, so that he could fulfill his “need to communicate natively on these platforms” while saving enough time to dedicate to his music.
Support from True fans
The genesis for Superphone was basically to solve the problem facing every new artist: generating revenue from fans. “If I could have a phone number on 1000 people, who all gave me 100 bucks, I’d make a 100K dollars a year.” Where Superphone really helps aspiring artists is not just finding a glut of fans, but higher quality fans. “I am interested in helping people find the one person, in every vertical in their life, that is going to be that partner that they really work with.” For brands and companies that means, according to Leslie, “finding the greatest partners to help them create the greatest value.”
In its essence, Superphone enables direct contact between brands, companies and creators and their target groups—”Gmail or outlook for text,” according to Leslie. Superphone lets uses organize their texts using similar features most email programs have: folders, read/unread functions, away messages and sort functions. “I can have 80,000 conversations in my text feed, I can tell my phone ‘just show me conversations with investors, with photographers or family—and filter out all the other ones.'” The biggest benefit for the ever-hustling Leslie is clear: It all helps me “be more intentional with my most important, most valuable resource, which is time.”
To hear what else Ryan Leslie had to say about Superphone, including pricing, audience make-up and overcoming privacy concerns, as well as how he is able to remain focussed and driven on so many projects, check out the latest episode of the OMR Podcast.
OMR Podcast with Ryan Leslie at a glance:
- What motivated him to choose a somewhat unorthodox career path? (1:37)
- How Ryan Leslie transitioned from production to performance, brand building (04:25)
- On how his music and personal brand benefited from being a first-mover on social media platforms (06:07)
- On market opportunities for music apps and which companies he sees as gaining momentum. (06:44)
- On which music apps he has his eye on (07:31)
- On how Superphone works, on the idea that inspired its genesis (09:02)
- On Superphone’s practical features and the problem it helps solve (13:00)
- On how Superphone enables artists to communicate directly with their fanbases (15:20)
- Why Leslie decided to connect the platform to a cell number and not a Superphone handle (16:21)
- On being a self-taught coder and the importance of prioritizing time (17:08)
- On the decision to raise seed funding (19:40)
- On things he would have done differently (21:33)
- On the thought process that went into deciding on a pricing model (22:08)
- On the most effective lead generator thus far (23:30)
- On companies or types of companies in Germany and Europe he’d be interested in speaking to and why (24:15)
- On the customer mix right now on Superphone (25:14)
- On what brands can do to overcome the privacy concerns of individual persons when acquiring their data (27:41)
- On how he is able to maintain his intense focus and drive with so many projects in the pipeline (25:45)
- On dealing with any loss of privacy as a public figure (33:31)
- On the current state of his music career and incorporating elements of business in new lyrics (37:00)
- On what went into the decision to release his last album directly to his fans (38:30)
- On the next steps for Superphone (41:34)
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