Reformers [Episode 9]: Chris Zarou, Visionary Music Group
The Founder & CEO at Visionary Music Group shares his thoughts on identifying and developing premier talent, driving competitiveness through gamification, and bartering as a means to bootstrapping.
For our ninth episode of Reformers: The gritty details behind the world’s greatest bootstrap successes, we are excited to share our interview with Chris Zarou, the Founder & CEO at Visionary Music Group, a music management company with clients including Logic, Jon Bellion, Jeremy Zucker, and Quinn XCII. Chris is a former Division 1 soccer player turned entrepreneur who founded Visionary after being rejected by every music internship and job he applied to. Since its founding, Visionary has grown from being solely an independent music manager into a record label that boasts a 50/50 partnership with Sony Music, all while being completely bootstrapped. In this interview, Chris shares his key insights and lessons learned that can be implemented in your own business. You can listen to the full interview here:
The importance of self-awareness
During Chris’ freshman year playing Division 1 soccer, the doubts began to creep in. Though he loved competing day in and day out during practices and matches, Chris was constantly and objectively evaluating his own abilities and mentality. After witnessing the speed of play and the talent level of some upperclassmen, Chris realized that he was not going to play soccer professionally. Additionally, as if doubt on performance wasn’t enough, the coaching Chris was receiving — in a similar expression to other athletes like Agassi — took the joy of the game away from him:
“I began to enjoy the act of competing more than the game of soccer itself.”
This led to Chris’ decision that he needed to take his career another direction, an uneasy feat after dedicating thousands of hours to soccer.
Too often, individuals (especially founders) become too attached to something, whether it be an idea or a product or a person. After sinking time into something, rationality gives way to emotion and it becomes increasingly difficult to objectively assess a situation, thereby leading individuals to overstay their welcome on a specific decision (the “sunk cost fallacy”). Stopping every once in awhile to think, evaluate, and determine whether a path is the right one is critically important for both individuals and companies. Without this self-awareness, too much time and resources will be spent chasing the wrong opportunities.
Ultimately, in Chris’ case, this self-awareness led him to shift his attention toward his next biggest passion: music.
Identifying premier talent
In the early 2010s, Chris was part of a niche internet community — mostly comprised of college kids — where people would post undiscovered, up-and-coming music talent on their blogs (what Chris calls “the blog era”). Chris loved to spend time combing through blogs, finding talent he thought would be great, sharing that talent with his friends, and then later seeing that talent go viral. Being part of this community and identifying talent early felt so natural to Chris, and brought so much enjoyment, that he decided on his next plan.
“I thought: why don’t I reach out to some of the kids who I think are talented and try to manage them? I was trying the traditional route of getting an internship and nothing was working out; all the doors were closing.”
Chris began his journey of managing talent, reaching out to select musical artists from the blog community. However, it was only later on that Chris realized he intuitively has a great knack and taste for discovering talent. He was able to identify early on what millions of people would discover later on.
When reflecting upon that ability to discover premier talent, Chris couldn’t pinpoint any one key ingredient within his secret sauce. It turns out, a lot of his talent identification ability cannot be attributed to anything other than intuition. However, Chris does see some shared characteristics across his clients that he dubs the intangibles: intense focus, strong work ethic, perseverance, and determination. Additionally, there is one particular intangible among his clients that stands out above the others: what Chris calls “matter-of-factness”.
“It’s this attitude of, ‘I’m doing this, and you’re either going to help me or not.’ They’re so sure of the path they’re on. This surety is so common amongst the artists I work with — and it’s special because they end up manifesting their vision in real life.”
If you listen to some of the early music from Chris’ clients, it’s nowhere near the quality of where it is today. That makes discovering these artists early on even more impressive of a feat, but it also highlights what Chris prides himself on as a manager and what he believes a management company should do best: develop talent from an early stage.
“I manage every single one of my clients differently because they’re all different human beings. Most importantly, I challenge my clients.”
Chris believes effectively challenging a client is what a great manager should do to help an artist develop. If you think something can be better, you need to push the artist to make it better. However, there’s a unique dynamic to this: artists are pouring their entire heart into this work, and yet you need to communicate that what they’ve created is not good enough, which can sting both professionally and personally for an artist. Therefore, the skill of communicating feedback properly without insulting the artist is critical for development.
Additionally, Chris helps maximize his clients’ show performance by providing them with tactical guidance and feedback. For first shows, Chris has a list of notes for all the things an artist should keep in mind. And on an ongoing basis, Chris will talk with artists about topics ranging from their stage presence to them gripping the mic too closely to their mouths. Every little improvement combines to yield a big leap in artist development.
Driving competitiveness through gamification
One of Chris’ superpowers is his relentlessness. From playing Division 1 soccer to becoming a world-class talent manager, the obstacles he’s gone through require constant pursuit and improvement. When asked about how he stays motivated, Chris had an unexpected response: gamification.
Chris realized early on that being a founder in a competitive space with lots noise requires you to have a relentless mentality to win in whatever way you can. In order to maintain that consistent motivation, Chris gamifies his job and that of his clients.
“Just like soccer, business is a way for me to compete on a daily basis. If I get rejected, I’ll create an enemy scenario in my brain to push me to achieve what I want. This drives competitiveness within me. Importantly, it’s not about beating the other person and rubbing it in their face— it’s about pushing myself to win.”
Chris notes that for any entrepreneur, you’re inevitably going to deal with a crazy amount of rejection; certainly he and his clients all heard their fair share of “No”. The key is to view a rejection in one place and see how it can lead you to instead open a door in another place. Additionally, as an entrepreneur, you must remain focused and motivated over a long time horizon; therefore, having a long-term game (e.g. “Let’s sell out Madison Square Garden in 5 years from now”) helps you stay focused on what you’re trying to achieve and not get caught up in the day-to-day minutiae. Creating this type of mind game gives you a constant, present chip on your shoulder with a tangible way to level up toward the bigger-picture goal over time.
Bartering to bootstrap
Chris bootstrapped Visionary Music Group out of his parents’ basement.
“I didn’t have any of my own startup capital, and I didn’t know you could go out and raise capital. I don’t think anyone would have invested in my company anyway. I had no other choice but to get creative.”
Instead of trading money for services, Chris leveraged other assets that Visionary could pay with. For instance, in the early days of working with Logic, Chris noticed some of Logic’s music videos gaining strong traction with viewers. He knew this audience was valuable and wanted to double down on the quality of video production going forward. However, with no cash, he needed a more creative way to compensate for that production.
After finding directors that Chris wanted to work with, he proposed a creative solution given Visionary had no budget: in exchange for producing Logic’s next video (which was bound to be viewed by Logic’s large and growing audience), the directors could put their logo on the video. This branding would be seen by other artists who do have budget and would therefore lead to more business for the directors. The directors accepted this barter and Chris continued to make deals like this time and time again. The constraint on capital led to creative, non-dilutive ways (such as bartering) for Chris to move the ball forward at Visionary.
Relax, it’s just business
As a manager to world-famous musical artists, Chris is always operating amidst chaos. One of the things that helps him stay calm is his mindset that at the end of the day, his job is not that serious.
“It’s just business. If I did the best that I could do and know that I made the best decision on behalf of a client’s career, then nothing else matters. This mindset helps me deal with and navigate any chaos.”
Additionally, forming a true friendship with clients allows Chris to take his manager hat off and put his friend hat on. This change in perspective enables him to have empathy for clients when they need it most and provides a way for clients to see how much he authentically cares about them and their careers.