Recently I read The 50th Law, the biography of the famous rapper, 50 Cent, written by Robert Green and Curtis Jackson (also known as 50 Cent).
On April 24, 2000, right before 50 Cent was supposed to release his debut album and finally make it in the music industry, he was shot nine times by a gangster with a grudge against him. His music label immediately canceled the record release because they were afraid of the negative press. Making matters worse, his vocal chords were damaged by one of the bullets, altering his voice. But 50 Cent refused to give up his dream to become a famous rapper and escape ghetto life. Instead, he used his misfortune to his advantage. He embraced the distinct sound of his new voice, used the incident as publicity to demonstrate his credibility as a gangster rapper and distributed his album on the streets for free, where his music and popularity spread virally.
Curtis Jackson, who later would be known by the name “50 Cent,” realized right away that he would need to use the lessons he had learned growing up as a street hustler in Queens, New York, to navigate the often cutthroat “legitimate” business world. As a street hustler (drug dealer) he had learned resilience, how to understand and adapt to a changing business environment and how to stop others from controlling him.
Jackson’s mom disappeared from his life by the time he was 12. At age 16 he started selling drugs. At age 19, after a brief stint in a bootcamp (in lieu of a jail sentence), Jackson came back to the streets to find that a powerful drug lord had taken control of his area of the ghetto. He and all the other small independent hustlers were forced to take jobs bagging crack cocaine for the big boss.
Jackson felt like a slave because it was against his nature to work for someone else. Crack was becoming the trendy drug in the ghetto in the ’90s. Jackson realized that it was an ideal product to sell for an independent hustler like himself because it was easy and cheap to produce. However, to take advantage of this opportunity he needed to build some capital, a seemingly impossible task, now that he was collecting only a small paycheck as a crack bagger, but Curtis found a way.
He taught his fellow crack baggers how to put a little less crack in each bag while still making it look full. He made a deal with his fellow baggers that he would give them all of his paychecks for bagging in exchange for the excess crack they had collected from the bags they had skimped on. Jackson eventually stockpiled enough crack to strike out on his own.
During his tenure as a hustler Jackson got to know one of the oldest, most successful hustlers around his streets, who went by the name Truth. Truth advised Jackson that for him to succeed as a hustler he had to personally get to know his customers, an understandingly daunting task as crackheads can often seem intimidating or at least unpleasant to spend time with. Truth said that unless Jackson made friends with the drug fiends, he would never understand his customers and never understand the constantly changing drug business environment. Knowing and understanding his customers elevated Jackson above his competitors, who remained as outsiders in their industry. When Jackson got to know the drug fiends he realized that they basically had the same feelings and needs as everyone else. He connected with them, and they helped him in return. The addicts gave Jackson vital current information about what was happening on the streets, such as which new drugs were on the rise or the scoop on power struggles between various gangs or bosses.
Truth also taught Jackson a vital hustler technique called “the tester.” The tester is a method a hustler uses when a new shipment of a drug comes in. Before the hustler sells the new drug supply he gives a little of it away for free to a few customers who test the quality. If the quality is good the dealer can charge more. If the quality is bad the dealer knows he must sell it cheaper or change it by cutting it with other drugs. Also, if the quality of the drug is good, the tester can create buzz around the community, increasing its demand.
When 50 Cent entered the music industry in the early 2000s he noticed the industry changing rapidly. Just like he had observed how crack had changed the hustling landscape, he saw that music pirating from the Web and the use of MP3 players were turning the traditional music business upside down. The music industry executives were outsiders without a real knowledge of their customers. Or, perhaps they saw the rapid changes taking place in the industry but preferred to pretend it was still the good old days when customers would shell out $15 for a CD at Tower Records. Jackson understood that to stay successful he would need to diversify into industries other than music. He has acted in films, started a clothing line and invested in a water brand called Glacéau that was eventually purchased by Coca-Cola, among other ventures.
Some of the principles from 50 Cent’s story reminds of me of our businesses. Today’s Machining World had to give up its beloved print edition to finally turn a profit using an exclusively online format. In Graff-Pinkert’s used machinery business we have had to open our eyes to the fact that today’s buyers will not purchase a 6-spindle Acme-Gridley for $100,000, as they may have 15 or 20 years ago. Today we have to create deals with new types of products. We have a choice to make—take advantage of new opportunities in our marketplace or die. I refuse to die, and like 50 Cent, I am not programmed to be crack bagger.
Noah Graff has been a Writer/Editor at Today’s Machining World for 11 years, and has been buying and selling machine tools at Graff-Pinkert since 2011.
Question: How has your business changed in the last five years?