May 13, 2011

Where Hip-Hop, Fashion, and Knowledge Sharing Intersect

Posted in Book Review, Business Development, Knowledge Management tagged , , , , at 2:28 pm by degyes

I often find that my deepest insights into life and work come from sources whom I least expect to impact my thinking. When an opportunity recently presented itself to obtain an e-copy of Daymond John’s Display of Power: How FUBU Changed a World of Fashion, Branding & Lifestyle, I followed my instincts and downloaded it, wondering if there was something in John’s story that would speak to me in an inspirational way. I ended up practically glued to this book for the next several days.

Display of Power provides an autobiographical sketch of how Hollis, Queens native Daymond John, along with a few trusted friends from the ‘hood (and a host of advisors and financial backers) launched FUBU (For Us, By Us), one of the premiere African American-owned fashion outfits in North America, and a globally recognized super-brand.

John advocates what I would call a true hands-on management style, based on keeping his ear constantly close to the ground. Essentially, this means listening actively and persistently, and showing no hubris towards one’s customers and critics. Listen not to your gaggle of yes-men, but to your harshest detractors.

Get out of your office. Party with your customers, even those who’ve left your brand. Show that you care about them and they’ll come back. Avoid ivory tower thinking and behavior. Don’t surround yourself with sycophants, lackeys and favor seekers who tell you only what you want to hear. Treat your employees like gold (if you don’t, they’ll anyway vent their resentment on your customers).

So what does this have to do with Knowledge Sharing (KS)? In a word: everything.

Display of Power intersects with KS at so many points. For starters, it provides an excellent example of how a successful business and global brand were built from the grassroots. I have found, almost without exception, that KS initiatives, in order to succeed, require tapping into the energies, talents, and enthusiasm of a cadre of experts who identify with your overall vision, and the goals you’ve established for a KS venture. Making it work can entail going at it day-to-day over the course of years. But it all starts with that groundswell of key supporters.

Some of John’s most strongly emphasized points include:

  • Community building and basing a brand on a communal identity;
  • Listening to consumer conversations and participating in those discussions as an equal partner;
  • Developing frameworks for exchanging usable information (in FUBU’s case, linking its business model to goings on in the hip-hop and rap scene);
  • Making success (at least on the manufacturing and distribution side) a series of repeatable and predictable processes;
  • Bringing about a coalescence of vision where beyond buying a product, people feel themselves participating in a venture greater than themselves;
  • Assembling a staff that’s amazingly talented and smart, takes initiative and works well together, and demonstrates a group identity that extends beyond “conditional” loyalty

In his chapter on hands-on management, John expresses his admiration for (now former) JetBlue CEO David Neeleman, who ran his airline in a way so contradictory to the “cold, impersonal” norm of the major US carriers. John tells how Neeleman made a point of riding at least one JetBlue flight per week. But don’t imagine that Needleman just went along for a joy ride, avoiding contact with fellow passengers. On the contrary, Neeleman, along with his (then) President and COO David Barger, would work the ticket counter, handle baggage, give out snacks, fluff pillows, and walk the aisles chatting with passengers. This “getting the hands dirty” goes almost unimaginably beyond the expectation of “ordinary” business leaders, putting JetBlue management in such close contact with their customers it would be very difficult to ever lose touch.

I enjoyed Display of Power because unlike so many books written by business founders this one was “unplugged,” in the sense that John pulls no punches when it comes to self-criticism and describing openly how he learned from his mistakes, on the business as well as personal level. You can have an ego, as long as you know when to efface it, reach into your heart, and eat some humble pie. I found this book filled with those lessons, told by John through his compelling and entertaining stories about his life and FUBU.

I also particularly liked John’s chapters on personnel management (you’ve got a two-week grace period from the time you hire someone to win their loyalty by showing your care about them), and his tips on running a company whose environment is quite multi-cultural (tells it straight, acknowledging the tensions, though mixing it with humor).

Some further business tips …

Constantly revitalize your brand and keep it contemporary, as doing so is essential to your business’ survival.

Look at how your kids are spending your money. When they’re putting it in someone else’s pocket, if that someone is operating in technologies and products related to your own, take that as a sign that there’s probably something you ought to be doing differently.

While John describes many frustrating—even despairing—moments, on the whole, he and his team seem to have a lot of fun in their careers at FUBU and derive great fulfillment doing what they do. While the kind of music video atmosphere and hip-hop party jaunts that John takes as a routine part of his work probably aren’t applicable to all of us, his overall message remains valid. Stay open and be in love with what you’re doing; and if you can’t, do something else.