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The man now known worldwide as a music industry legend, entrepreneur, author, professor and public speaker was working in the Xerox Corporation’s sales division when he took a gamble on launching the careers of an unknown girl band called Destiny’s Child, which included his daughter Beyoncé.
The rest, as they say, is history. In addition to Beyoncé and his other daughter Solange, he’s worked with Chaka Khan, Earth Wind & Fire, The O’Jays and more, and the awards stacked up.
Knowles – who launched his latest book, The Emancipation of Slaves Through Music, at the UCT Graduate School of Business in Cape Town on Friday – grew up on a dirt road in Alabama. His mother made three dollars a day as a domestic worker, but in her spare time, made quilts. His father sourced copper and other scraps from old houses and cars and sold the parts.
“They taught me entrepreneurship,” he says.
As for who taught them: his grandfather was part Cherokee and owned 300 acres of land, he explains. “He convinced the paper mill to lease a part of that land. They would pay him, and then cut the trees down. He would then go behind that and farm. They were paying him for something he would have had to do. It was brilliant.”
Entrepreneurship is not complicated, he says. “Keep it simple. I keep it to three questions: Who, what and why. Who is my customer, what is the product, and why would they buy it?”
But there’s a caveat. Asked what all entrepreneurs should know, he responds: “It ain’t easy.”
Here are six key lessons Knowles has learnt: as an entrepreneur, father, businessman and music mogul.
1. Be ruthless with time management.
“If I don’t want to do something, I don’t do it,” he says.
2. To a certain extent, success is predictable.
Knowles’ book The DNA of Achievers: 10 Traits of Highly Successful Professionals unpacks excellence. In summary: 1) Passion 2) Vision, 3) Work Ethic 4) Team Building 5) Planning 6) Talk-To-Do Ratio 7) Risk-Taking 8) Learning from Failure 9) Giving Back and 10) Thinking Outside the Box.
The “talk-to-do ratio” is particularly important – in other words, reliability. “Successful people have a high talk-to-do ratio. They say they do something, you can count on it.”
But passion and willingness to take risks are also vital, as is creative thinking. “A box in thinker is conditioned to do things. All day they are hitting the walls of that box.”
3. Never underestimate the dynamics of race, politics and power.
Knowles’s new book tells how slaves, travelling to America, learned to communicate a veiled language of rebellion through music. In more recent history, African-American musicians have both been central to driving change, and highlighted racism and colourism in the music industry and further afield.
He has, controversially, said Beyoncé’s success is at least partially attributable to her light skin, a view he repeated on Friday, adding that for black female artists in pop, lighter skin and straight hair can be an advantage due to continued prejudices. However, he believes this is beginning to change.
Technological developments such as streaming have also broadened access for fans and musicians alike, which had a positive impact, he told Fin24.
Racism and colourism must be better understood both in the entertainment industry specifically, and in business as a whole, he believes.
4. The future of music is visual.
In addition to increasing access, technological developments have fundamentally shifted the way we consume music – and the related business models – in recent years.
In the future, he believes we will not only hear music, we will see it.
“Music will increasingly become a visual medium as well, and music production includes more and more visual storytelling from the conceptual stage,” he told Fin24.
5. If you make a mistake, own it.
Around 2003, during Beyoncé’s first tour, Knowles says he got a phone call from an unknown person requesting four front-row tickets to her show in Miami. According to Knowles, the person claimed to be flying over in their private plane, and wanted to go backstage. Later, the same person invited Knowles and his wife to dinner. A reluctant Knowles suspected a scam – only to spot his host on the cover of Forbes magazine later and realise, mortified, that it was Patrice Motsepe.
According to Knowles, Motsepe was very gracious when he phoned to apologise.
Honestly admitting you’re wrong can cement relationships, Knowles believes. And understanding your failures gives you something to build on.
6. Keep your integrity.
“I’m very proud of my daughters,” he says. “Not of how much money they make, but because they are good people. They speak to anyone they meet the same way they would speak to the president.
“Ego is the anesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity.”
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