How to be a hustler without being full of BS: 5 lessons from Billy Mcfarland and Fyre Festival

Jan 24 · 5 min read

The Netflix and Hulu documentaries about Fyre Festival and founder Billy McFarland have just been released this month. They retell the chaos that unfolded around the planning and launch of the event, which was dubbed to be “the unparalleled best” music event on the planet. They portray McFarland as a selfish, desperate character, who will sell anything despite not having anything to sell.

Ten-thousand festival goers were promised an exclusive party on a secluded island in the Bahamas, listening to the world’s best music among the spoils of luxury. The concept of the festival was a brilliant marketing exercise to promote the Fyre music booking app, a joint venture between McFarland and rapper Ja Rule.

The vision was exceptional and ticked all the boxes for an epic content marketing and public relations campaign:

  • Exclusivity: limited to 10,000 people. Check
  • Influence: millions of dollars were reportedly spent on social media advertising and influencer and celebrity posts. Check
  • Best: it promised to be an “unparalleled” live music event in the world. Check
  • First: It was to be a world-first music event of this scale on a remote island. Tick
  • Assets: it included an offline event and online assets of videos, photos, website, social accounts. Check
  • Virality: targeted influencer engagement and an aspirational lifestyle. Used all mediums to announce launch. Check

These are the factors that make a winning PR and marketing formula, and it did just that, reportedly selling 95% of ticket sales within 48 hours of announcing the event. But here lies its first downfall: Tickets were sold before logistics were thought through.

As an entrepreneur, I understand the desperation and sacrifice of what it takes to make something work. To get something live. And to make the first dollar. But no vision is worth jail time, no matter how lucrative it sounds. McFarland was sentenced last year to six years in prison for US$26 million of fraud. While there is debate surrounding if the festival was ever intended to go live, there are some lessons that we can all learn. Here’s what I learnt from this disaster and how I build a vision to succeed.

1. Limit the scope and deliver on it.

I’m always envisioning big ideas. Constantly. But to make a big idea work you must limit the scope. The vision for Fyre Festival was too big to pull off in its first year and if the scope was limited to a smaller scale of deliverables, such as fewer people for instance, it might have worked. We promoted Mobile Phone Finder by lining up to be the first in the world to own an iPhone 5 in 2012. We didn’t have teams lining up at every store in the world, we focused on one in Sydney. If you keep stacking the scope and making bigger promises you’ll be caught out with a below par product. People are ok with waiting if you deliver something awesome.

Mobile Phone Finder team first in line at Apple store, 2012

2. Don’t take your product to market before you have a product.

Lots of companies do this, where they build on hype to draw an audience about a product that hasn’t yet launched. I’m a big fan of building hype and have seen some incredible examples of this. Take a look at the spectacle surrounding new tech gadgets like phones and computers. Even movies create hype sometimes years before they launch. Many ICOs have also nailed a pre-launch, where they have raised millions of dollars on the back of a white paper, a website with a form to sign up for their waiting list and a social media community on Telegram. The difference between a successful pre-launch and one that fails, is that the product has been scoped out and confirmed before it hits the press.

3. Don’t ever over promise and under deliver.

One thing I live by and share this value with my teams is to under promise and over deliver. There is nothing worse than not fulfilling your customers’ expectations and you will always delight your customers if you over deliver. Fyre Festival was riddled with promises that weren’t met. If you say you are selling a luxury item, you need to deliver on luxury. That infamous cheese sandwich just ain’t gonna cut it. It’s that old saying, you can’t polish a turd. And the Fyre Festival was one hell of a defecation.

4. Stay within your legal limits.

My mantra that I’m sharing with all of our offices and teams around the world is “do whatever it takes.” I’m a big believer in pushing yourself past your limits, thinking outside the box and hustling hard. This mantra has gotten me to where I am today. If you work hard enough at something, and learn from your mistakes, you will succeed. But what I’ve learnt from McFarland and the Fyre Festival ordeal is that there’s a fine line between whatever it takes to succeed and doing so within the law. McFarland said, “Whatever it takes we are all in, so let’s go and make this happen” (source: Hulu). I admire his fire to never give up, but it can’t be at the risk of jail time. For McFarland, it seemed like there was no line. He wanted it so bad that he was willing to break the law to get there. Compliance and due diligence are the most important parts of planning out your vision. If you can’t do it legally, find a way that you can or terminate your project.

5. Don’t lie.

The problem with McFarland is that his lies grew so deep that it became something he couldn’t undo. It was clear that there were many broken lines of communication and loads of assumptions during the planning of Fyre Festival. There were lots of questions during the documentaries that people didn’t ask sooner. Staff trusted McFarland to handle the finances and there was no transparency and truth around funding and contracts, as well as the details of the event. People want to know what they are buying and the team wants to know what they are building. It’s very likely that Fyre Festival could have been saved by the incredibly talented people who were making it, if truth was shared and more transparency was available.

Fred Schebesta

Written by

Co-Founder at global comparison site finder.com, and cryptocurrency brokerage HiveEx.com

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