This guest essay was written by Polina Marinova Pompliano from The Profile. Below, she shares lessons from music exec Troy Carter on building a fanbase, gaining momentum, and using failure to his advantage.
I’m Polina, and I’m the founder and author of The Profile, a media company that profiles the most successful people and companies in the world.
Every Wednesday, I publish The Profile Dossier, a weekly deep-dive on a prominent individual that takes you on a journey from their greatest triumphs to their most gut-wrenching failures. Each Dossier documents the lessons they’ve learned along the way, and how you can implement them in your own life.
One person whose path to success has been neither linear nor straightforward is talent manager, entrepreneur, and investor Troy Carter.
Troy Carter grew up in West Philadelphia with a single mom. His father went to prison for murder when Carter was just 7 years old. Carter dropped out of high school to pursue a failed rap career, and he ended up as a local concert promoter for then-upstarts like Notorious B.I.G.
Through sheer persistence and grit, Carter landed an internship at Bad Boy Records, and later went to work with Will Smith’s business partner James Lassiter in Los Angeles. He was fired and sent back to Philadelphia, where he discovered a 19-year-old female rapper named Eve who was in need of a manager.
He helped Eve become a commercial success, but he made some mistakes along the way. Eventually, Eve fired him in 2007. The loss put him close to bankruptcy. His house was foreclosed upon, cars were repossessed, and he barely had enough cash for gas.
And then he met Stefani Germanotta.
She was wearing fishnet stockings and big sunglasses, but she had even bigger ambitions. After performing several songs, she cut to the chase, telling Carter: “I want to be the biggest star in the world.”
Germanotta had been recently dropped by Def Jam Records only four months after she signed with the label. But Carter recognized something in her no one else did — pure talent. He took her to Spaghetti Warehouse where they spent three hours talking about life, career, and music. She became his newest client.
It took Carter a full year to help get Germanotta’s song played on the radio. That song was, “Just Dance.” And just like that, Stefani Germanotta transformed into Lady Gaga.
Carter became known for spotting talent early — and not just in the music industry. As a serial entrepreneur and investor, Carter has invested in some of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups, including Uber, Lyft, Dropbox, Warby Parker, Spotify, Gimlet, and Slack.
Here’s what we can learn from Silicon Valley’s favorite talent manager:
1. Find your first 50 fans
Beyonce’s Beyhive. Taylor Swift’s Swifties. Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters.
These are all devoted cult-like fan communities. Carter and Lady Gaga were pioneers in that they developed a philosophy called “The First 50,” which referred to finding the first 50 most loyal fans.
Gaga first became popular in New York’s LGBTQ community, so she played four to five clubs a night to make sure that they felt connected to her on a personal level. The ties became stronger, and ultimately, her “superfan” base snowballed into hundreds of millions of fans around the world.
Even before she exploded in popularity, Gaga engaged with fans on social media, met them at her performances, and took their feedback. “For us, it’s about, ‘How do we build an authentic audience and grow it very, very organically?’ It’s slow bake versus the microwave,’” Carter says.
2. Create inflection points
The biggest myth about Lady Gaga’s career is that it was an overnight success.
Carter and Gaga spent a year convincing Canadian radio stations to play her song, “Just Dance” before he was able to convince a station in Buffalo, N.Y. to put it on air.
There was no single thing that put her on the map — it was just many small wins that led to her seemingly big breakthrough. “It was a series of inflection points,” he says. “It wasn’t one explosive thing that just happened. It was us planting seeds in every place.”
In the early days, momentum is critical.
3. Form a personal board of directors
You’re never too old or too successful to have a mentor. Carter has mentors across music, tech, and business. “My mentor will never ever tell me what I want to hear, even when I need it,” he says. “You know how sometimes you just need a bear hug? He won’t give me a bear hug. That’s why I could trust his advice because there’s no skin in the game.”
The key is finding people who aren’t intimately invested in your journey and can give rational, level-headed advice. “It’s always important to have a personal board of directors,” Carter says.
4. Remember that there is no shortcut to success
When Carter met Lady Gaga, he knew she would be successful because he saw her work ethic. He had seen that same work ethic in some of his favorite artists. Their capacity for work was unmatched.
Many people never even get close to their goals because they live in the theoretical — not the practical.
“If your job is to sweep floors, the only way those floors are going to get swept is if you put the broom on the ground. If your job is to code, you need fingers on the keys,” Carter says. “So whatever it is you do, you actually have to do the work. You can’t just talk about it. You can’t be philosophical about it. You have to get the physical work in.”
5. Use failure to propel yourself forward
Carter grew up in poverty with his mom often struggling to pay the electricity bill. But his grandmother always said: “You can’t fall off the floor.” When you start from nothing, there’s nowhere to go but up.
One of Carter’s mentors told him that you can use failure as a headwind or a tailwind. “Failure breeds fear, and fear paralyzes people, which makes you go into a downward spiral,” Carter says. “But how can you use that same exact energy to propel your forward?”
Even when you feel like you’re in a losing fight with life, Carter says, you’ve got to find the strength to throw that one last punch. Because that final punch may be your winning ticket.
When James Lassiter fired him, he found Eve. When Eve fired him, he found Gaga. When Gaga fired him, he found his love for tech investing. Remember, you can always bounce back.
This guest essay was written by Polina Marinova Pompliano from The Profile, a weekly newsletter that studies the world’s most successful people and companies. Sign up here to get it in your inbox this Sunday: