What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From John Legend

We're just ordinary people,
We don't know which way to go

You hear twinkling of piano keys and vocals smooth like butter. You can't help but think how talented John Legend is. You see him playing sold-out shows and walking up the red carpet; you think about how he's got it all, about how lucky he is.

John Legend has won nine Grammy Awards, as well as Soul Train Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards, and an Academy Award for Best Original Song. He's one of the most successful singers of our generation.

But you didn't see his struggle to get there.
So what are the lessons we can learn as entrepreneurs from John Legend?

Take the time to Develop Your Skills

Legend grew up singing in church. He was a talented and enthusiastic singer when he graduated from college, and he knew that he wanted to become a singer. But he did not yet have the expertise, the talent, or the connections to make that happen, so he worked a day job and sang on weekends around New York, honing his craft. He spent three years in the business world as a management consultant working for Boston Consulting Group.

Similarly, merely knowing that you want to start a company and being passionate about the idea doesn't mean you are ready to pursue it full-time, right now. Just keep learning additional skills and networking in your day job. You may want to wait until you have those skills, and put off founding a company for now, or perhaps pursue it on the side.

You have many ways to solve a problem
When they write songs, most singers either start with the lyrics, like poets (think Jim Morrison) or start with the tune and write the words to that (think Billy Joel).

Legend takes a different approach. He does start with a tune, but then he finds a vocal pattern that he likes before he writes words. He sings gibberish to see if it sounds good. Then only after he likes the sound of the gibberish does he write the actual words.

In your startup, you'll always face problems that seem unsolvable. Try to think of as many solutions as you can. Experiment. The solution is almost never simple or obvious, but finding a different way can lead to real breakthroughs in better products and higher growth.

Learn from the masters
Legend grew up singing gospel music with his grandparents. As he continued through college and into his early career, he continued to listen to gospel, R&B, soul, and rock artists like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and the Beatles. He incorporates elements of their music, and he draws on them for inspiration.

As you look at your fledgling business, what can you learn from the greats? Maybe it's about how to build an amazing culture (Hewlett Packard), how to put out great products (Apple), how to deliver unbeatable customer service (Zappos), or how to move to a new business idea when the first idea isn't quite working (Groupon).

Use the power of your network
When Legend was in college, his roommate introduced him to a young rapper named Kanye West. Legend played some studio tracks for West. Through that first connection, he started to write songs for Alicia Keys and collaborated with the Black Eyed Peas.

Your business relationships will drive your business. A key introduction can lead to a major customer or partner, or it can spark the recruitment of a key employee. Or you might find a major investor or powerful mentor through a connection. The power of your network cannot be overstated. Keep in touch with colleagues and friends. Let everyone know what you're doing in your company.

Perseverance trumps everything
Even as his singing and songwriting career was coming into shape, Legend faced adversity and rejection. Legend applied to, and was turned down by, every major record label. But his perseverance finally paid off through his collaborations when he signed with GOOD Music, Kanye West's label.

The parallels with entrepreneurship are clear. You will face rejections, failed partnership and customer pitches, and problems getting your product out. Some days, you simply won't want to get out of bed to face the gauntlet again. As legendary VC and former CEO Ben Horowitz puts it, "Even if you know what you are doing, things go wrong... The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say: 'I didn't quit.'"

Listen to Legend!
As you can see, no easy or singular path exists to achieve stardom -- or build a breakaway company. The road will be long and filled with unexpected bumps. So pay attention to these Legend lyrics:

Whenever things seem hard to bare,
Don't give up. Hang On In There.