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Keep it 100

Keep it 100.  That ‘s what the cool kids say nowadays when they are saying something that is 100% real, unfiltered, sometimes brutal, truth.  That’s what I’m going to do with this article.

From an outsider’s perspective, it might appear that I have my shit together and I have the music industry by the balls.  My company is in the top 1% of our industry, we are one of Inc Magazine’s Fastest 5000 Growing Companies, I’m a frequent NAMM presenter, a past and present board member for a few different industry organizations, now a columnist for one of my favorite trade magazines… But I know the truth.  

When my company has doubled in size the a few years ago, I wasn't the leader that my company needs.  And deserves. That’s keepin’ it 100 - real talk.

As my company grew, I wanted to keep doing what I had always done.  But it became apparent that wasn’t what the company needed from me now.  But I didn’t know what it was that I should be doing. So I would run around and put out fires, and try to be all things to all people.  I kept that up for about 2 years, until it hit.


The only time I had ever experience burnout was the last 18 months of college.  I had a goal of being the first person in my immediate family to graduate with an honest-to-goodness four-year degree from a respected University (of course, it took me six years.  Hey, I’m a learner, just a slow one). And I only had 18 months to go. So I pushed through and graduated - with two degrees - both in Music. But at this point in my life those music degrees didn’t appear to be helping me much in my professional life.  A business degree would have seemed to be much more useful…

So when Burnout arrived at my door this time, I didn’t know what to do.  In fact, I didn’t realize that’s what it was at first. A business consultant that we often work with was the first to point it out.  I was discussing some of my frustrations with the business and the lack of engagement of my crew, and his response struck me as flat-out wrong.  He said, “Donovan, you are clearly disengaged from your business.” I thought he was way off base - I was working my ass off - how could I be disengaged?  But he said the language I was using was a clear sign.

Over the next week, I thought about what he said.  I will never forget the moment when I realized he was right.  I was at a meeting of local executives, and I was the featured executive that was in the “hot seat” - this meant the meeting was focused on me and whatever issue I wanted insight on from this team of smart, capable group of executives. As I began talking about this feeling of burnout - I completely lost it.  I couldn’t hold back the tears, and ended up sobbing like a child in front of this group of high-powered executives.  From my own home town. We aren’t talking about water welling up in my eyes, or a few tears falling down my face, I’m talking about the kind of sobbing you did as a kid when you fell off your bike and skinned up your needs so bad you thought you would surely die. But this time my mom wasn’t there to hold me and tell me that it would be okay.  It was humiliating. Remember - we are keepin’ it 100 here...

This began my journey of finding out where I had lost my way, and why I wasn’t feeling the love for my business - my industry.

I knew I needed help.  I needed someone from the outside to help me through this.  Someone who had been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt.

So I began reaching out to some business coaches.

My first meeting with a business coach was revealing.  He began by asking me about a typical day, and what kind of projects I’ve been working on.  I explained that I had been working relentlessly on finding a healthcare plan that would be a good plan for my employees, and that I can afford.  With our growth our business was now consider an “Applicable Large Employer” - this meant we were federally mandated under the Affordable Care Act to provide quality, affordable healthcare - which was fine.  We had been providing healthcare for our employees for decades. The health and well-being of our people should be a company’s top concern. But DAMN if dealing with healthcare isn’t a frustrating and expensive mess! You know what I’m talking about...

I’d also been working on bidding new business & casualty insurance.  And desperately working hard to improve our cash flow.  And provide a decent living to our employees.  And finding good employees and training them.  And trying to improve our finances - which meant constant review of our financial statements, and trying to understand how an income statement, balance sheet and cash flow statement works.  And did I mention trying to improve cash flow? Not easy to do for a guy with a music ed degree. They didn’t teach us anything about that in music school.

So after I finished my rant, this coach asked me a simple question.  “Donovan - did you get into the music business so that you could pick healthcare plans, bid insurance, be an HR executive, study financial statements and go to bed each night dreaming of improved cash flow?”  My response was a quick “HELL NO”. He asked, “Then why did you get into the music business?”

Folks - this question stopped me dead in my tracks.  In fact, it took me a minute to even remember my why.  

I remembered that feeling I had when I landed my first job in the music retail industry - a part time floor-jockey/janitor for a small music store in Tulsa. I had always loved musicians and gear.  Growing up in a poor, single-parent household, I could never afford a nice instrument or gear So getting to work in a store where I could get gear at cost and they would GIVE ME MONEY to sell gear to other musicians was a dream that I didn’t even know was possible.  

As I shared this with him, he was quick to point out that when I was talking about our products and our people, I was invigorated!  I was passionate! His suggestion was simple - find a way to tie my job back to the products and the people that made me love this industry in the first place.

That began a journey - one that I’m still on - of finding my passion every day and working from that place.  As the boss, I have a responsibility to make sure that my people are taken care of - but I don’t have to be the one that does it all. I can find people and partners that can help with the burden of HR, insurance and finance (some of those people were already in my company, if I would train them) - freeing me up to do what only I can do: share my passion for our industry, for our products, and most importantly, for our people.  So that’s what I’m doing.

In the next article, I’ll dive into the changes I’ve been making so that I can lead my people, and my company, in the manner in which they deserve to be lead.

So - how are you doing?  Are you passionately focused on your people and your products?  Reach out to me and let me know -  And when you do, remember: keep it 100.


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