Lessons of Dr. Dre

All right, so Dr. Dre, born André Romell Young, 42, might not have always been the quintessential role model for khaki-wearing entrepreneurs. He once threw TV host Dee Barnes down the stairs after she aired a feud within his rap group on air (the incident gained him a place at #37 in Spin’s 100 Sleaziest Moments in Rock.)

But it becomes clearer when you think about Dr Dre’s successful career in the music and entertainment industries –- starting as a member of the groundbreaking rap group N.W.A., to co-founding Death Row Records (where he released the seminal album _The Chronic_) and later, his own label Aftermath Entertainment. Throughout Dre has produced some of the most successful hip hop talents of the last decade, including: Snoop Dogg; 50 Cent; and the Grammy and Academy Award-winning Eminem.

Together, Dre’s artists have sold over 100 million albums. Translate that into, say, software licenses and you have a very healthy, IPO-calibre tech start-up. Since bucks are the chief barometer of success in the Valley, Dre has made Rolling Stone’s Richest Rock Stars list since 2001, the year he earned $52 million, mostly off the sale of a percent of his label.

So say what you will about the virtues of “gangsta rap.” But if Dr. Dre’s track record in the most fickle of hits-driven businesses is any guide, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists can learn plenty from the Andre Romell Young School of Management.

First off. Be a perfectionist. If the product or service (in his case an album) isn’t ready, don’t release it. Hey, it might never be ready for airtime. Dr. Dre is famous for taking years to produce certain albums, and has often indefinitely shelved what could have been promising projects. His own solo album, Detox, has been many years in the making, and is expected to be released sometime this year.

Of course when he stalls or nixes albums from artists signed to his label, it makes for unhappy partners. Artists like Hittman, King Tee and Rakim are among a list of creative folks that worked on albums for Aftermath and met the Dre filter head-on. Young’s mantra, according to an interview with Scratch Magazine from 2004, “Nothing leaves this studio until I get that feeling.”

Hopefully you’ve had that ‘it’s a hit’ feeling a few times yourself. But let’s be honest: how much time have you wasted banging your head—and your employees’ heads–against a wall trying to make a so-so service work? Put as many resources as you can muster into the product that you believe in, but Dr. Dre would say, also know when to say when. If you’re not happy with the final results, don’t release it. And if it never comes together, close it down.

Young’s perfectionism isn’t the only trait that makes him a role model for company founders. (Did anyone put together that perfectionist Dre’s 100 million records-sold bests even perfectionist-Jobs’ 100 million iPods-sold!?). Dre has also made the difficult leap from ‘talent’ to ‘talent-cultivator’ — not unlike the entrepreneur who’s technical talents lead him to a big company exit, and who later joins a venture firm. (Vinod Khosla comes to mind.) The comparison might seem a stretch, but both men revolutionized their industries with disruptive products – the Sun Microsystems work station and genre-changing rap – ultimately moving on to mold the next generation of risk-takers. These are careers worth emulating, sho nuff!