Russell Simmons On How He Built A $340 Million Empire

Russell Simmons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Russell Simmons is reportedly worth $340 million. The hip hop entrepreneur has talent, sure, but his tremendous business acumen got him into Forbes. He built his empire, Rush Communications (which included Def Jam Recordings, Phat Farm and Baby Phat before he sold the companies for a few hundred million), by knowing how to market products—and himself. Now, Rush Communications includes Rush Mobile, UniRush Financial Services, along with a collection of philanthropic ventures.Why was Simmons able to rise above the rest? Here are a few tips he shared with us:

Tell everyone

Nine years ago, when Simmons wanted to spread the word about his new venture, UniRush Financial Services, he focused less on the billboards and commercials he’d used for Phat Farm and Baby Phat, and relied more on word-of-mouth networking.

“I created this service when no one thought to compete with the big banks,” he says. “For me it was an honest intention to empower people who were underserved. The American Dream was locked down for some people and I wanted to talk about it and tell people about it. We actually didn’t know how to advertise this because no one had done it, so I talked about it everywhere and with everyone. At conferences, summits, events, with journalists. If I was on BET, I’d make a point to share the disturbing facts. I’d go down to Washington, to Capital Hill.”

Of course, we don’t all have fame and fortune on our side. The translation for budding entrepreneurs is simply to talk about what you’re doing with everyone. Show your enthusiasm. People who connect with the concept will come to you wanting more. (And don’t worry too much about people stealing your ideas. It’s who does something best, and who actually does something that counts.)

Tap into personal connections

“I have a big voice and know how to make a big stink,” Simmons says. “I have a media company, I am a brand, and I do think untraditionally. I inform my famous friends. I talk to politicians. I got to Washington to learn and speak about interest rates for my financial services company. I know about all parts of my businesses. I spend a lot of time caring about my customers. I lobby for them not having to pay interest rates when it’s the banks or retailers who should.”

Translation for the rest of us: think about whom you are carrying in your own arsenal who will vouch for you. These people believe in you and your ideas. They will spread the word and could personally bring in clients.

Be ubiquitous

Simmons shows up everywhere. He’s a chair member and on the board of a bevy of organisations and foundations. He volunteers, he attends galas, premieres and afterparties. He makes sure he’s present where it matters. “I’ve always got a lot going on,” says Simmons. “The reality TV helped the brand a lot. We don’t limit it to TV or radio, we’re on the Internet, in magazines, at fashion shows.”

For the new entrepreneur, that means researching and joining the organisations that will support and grow your business. Get to know industry insiders.

Offer something better

UniRush Financial Services is Simmons’s focus right now. “My motivation is taking business away from the banks,” he says. “And I’m doing that by providing something much more affordable to underserved communities, and by bringing in more free services to our clients. Our fees are lower than the banks and we’re always looking for new ways to give more services. We offer discounts with prescriptions, card-to-card discounts, we have budgeting services and we’re always adding more services. I like to say the banks are like Tower Records, and I’m like iTunes.”

Be charitable

Philanthropic ventures are a big part of Simmons’s vision. He has foundations that help educate youth, cultivate understanding about ethnic diversity, and he serves as the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Permanent Memorial to Slavery and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Yoga also gives him a holistic view of the world. “Practicing yoga changed how I approached everything and set my goals,” he says. “Giving of myself to others gives me a lot of balance in return.”

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