9 Business Lessons From Danny K
Danny K may be working on his next album, but he's also planning to dominate the business landscape. Here's how he's mixing music lessons with business acumen.
You may know Danny K from his first hit single Hurts So Bad, or multiple chart toppers since then. If you’re a Makro shopper, you’ve probably seen a local range of electronics, Rocka, with a number of products branded with local musicians. Or perhaps you’ve seen the Sweets from Heaven retail packets, or are a fan of the Good Heart healthy snack range. Well, those are all Danny K too.
Danny K grew up in an entrepreneurial household. He watched his dad sell floor polish door-to-door, and later build the first LG importer in South Africa into a listed business. He launched his own record label and a decade later his first business. He’s known rejection and success. And he knows that if you can face failure and pick yourself up, you can ultimately succeed.
These are his lessons.
1. Rejection is a matter of opinion.
I only learnt this later, but looking back I can see that I didn’t let someone else’s opinion of me stop me. Opinions are highly subjective. You can’t base everything you do, or choose not to do, on what someone else thinks. I was a white kid trying to do black music at a time when the local music industry didn’t believe there was a place for South African pop and R&B musicians.
I started submitting demos when I was 17, and for seven years I was rejected by all the major labels in South Africa. But that was the music I loved. That was who I was. I’m also a pretty tough-nosed person. I don’t like giving up. I had a songwriting partner, and we became the thorn in the side of the labels. We wouldn’t stop pestering them — they hated us. We were young and tenacious.
My parents reached a point where they wanted me to study. They supported me, but no one was convinced my music career would take off. So, I studied law, then went to Wits Business School (WBS), and started working for an investment bank after my degree.
I wasn’t done though — I wanted to give my music one more shot. The difference was in my timing. Small, independent labels were launching, and they weren’t following the mainstream labels. One of them gave me a shot based on my demo, Hurt So Bad, which became my first single and an overnight success.
The lesson: There’s no such thing as a final ‘no’. Believe in yourself and push forward, or learn from those ‘nos’ and adjust your pitch — just don’t give up.
2. Life is all about highs and lows.
After seven solid years of rejection, I basically became an overnight success. It was incredible. I couldn’t believe my song was on the radio, let alone that I finally had a music career and was being nominated for SAMAs — I lost all of them in the beginning, but I was a part of the industry and I never thought I would be. It was incredible.
And things just kept getting better as well. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s British manager was in South Africa, saw my video, and went back to the label in the UK to pitch me. I was signed and in London before I knew it, and spent the next two years recording my album. I was on top of the world.
Until the label dropped me. I was on the verge of releasing my international album and the person who had signed me got fired. I was his pet project and so I was escorted out with him. I was devastated. I was about to fly to Miami to shoot my music video, and instead I was on a plane home, deeply embarrassed because of all the hype the local media had made.
The lesson: No matter what industry you’re in, there will always be knocks. Ultimately, success will depend on whether you’re able to get back up.
3. You need to take control of your destiny
If my experiences in London finally taught me anything, it’s that you want to be in control of your own career — not live on the whims of other labels — so together with my brother, Jarren, I started my own label. I was never going to be reliant on anyone again.
I was about to release my second album when my world came crashing down. Jarren was killed in a helicopter accident, and everything else that had happened until that point stopped being important. I was finally done with the industry. I had no idea how to push forward.
And then things shifted. Even as I made the decision that I couldn’t push on, I felt this tremendous sense of responsibility to take this thing that I had built with my best friend and brother, and do something with it. I released a single, I Can’t Imagine, as a tribute to my brother, and renamed my label and company J23, because Jarren was 23 when he died.
I channelled all that pain and tragedy into what I was doing, and I learnt about failing forward, and what it means to live up to not only your own dreams, but the dreams that the people who love you have for you too.
The lesson: If you’re able to fail forward, you’re learning from everything that happens to you. You can turn tragedy into triumph. It’s all about mindset.
4. In everything you do, use everything you have
I come from a family that fosters entrepreneurship. My dad came from nothing. I would go on the road with him when I was a kid and watch him build something out of nothing. He secured the first LG licence in South Africa and built it into a listed business. It made me realise anything was possible, and that I wasn’t limited by my own imagination.
My parents taught me not to be scared; that you can fail and still come back from it. My dad’s trajectory to success was just covered with failures, but he persistently pushed through them all, and that encouraged me.
I’m naturally creative, but my education at WBS taught me how to run a business. This differentiated me as an artist, but it’s been invaluable as a business owner. If you pull all three of those aspects together: Persistence, creativity and business acumen, I think you’ve got a winning formula, particularly because you can do things differently.
The lesson: We all have access to a wealth of experience, networks and knowledge. The real question is whether you’re tapping into everything you have.
5. A creative element is my edge
Over and above my label, I have a food business and an electronics business, and in all of them I try to think about things differently and do things against the norm. The food business started with a friend four years ago who pitched the idea for me to invest in him and run the business with him.
We started with a few brands that we built from the ground up and then identified an opportunity in Sweets from Heaven. It’s a legacy sweet brand in South Africa, but had never ventured into ‘grab and go’ packs — it was an obvious gap to me and we secured the licence to pursue it ourselves.
The other side of the business is our health brand, Good Heart. We’ve built this from scratch, travelling the world to find the best products, sourcing coconut from Thailand, seaweed from China and rice chips from Belgium. We also source a lot of the range locally.
Building a brand is like launching an album. The discipline and learnings of 20 years in the music business, starting each album with a blank page, has taught me how to create something from nothing. It’s a process that I really love. You need to embrace it — let your creativity run free. And then you need to keep relooking your own products and what the industry does as a whole and ask: How do we change this? How do we improve it? Keep pushing for the best.
The lesson: Every new brand or business is a blank page. Are you a follower, or are you looking for an edge — something that no one else is doing, even in a competitive market?
6. The long-term play is all about investing in development
We’ve self-funded the food business and we have bank facilities. The investment is important because we’re constantly developing. In three years, we’ve gone from no products to a basket of over 40 different products. Good Heart has been an adult range until this point, but we’re launching a kids’ range in December, and we’ve secured the rights to Disney and Marvel for our packaging. It’s a big investment, but long-term it will be worth it.
I do a lot of research, visiting food fairs around the world. The growth in sweets and confectionaries is linear; health on the other hand is growing at double digits, because parents want their children to eat healthier. You still need to attract the kids though, and they’re visual. We learnt this through Sweets from Heaven. We need to make our health range’s packaging really pop.
The lesson: How you approach your business, cash flow, investment and development all depends on whether you’re looking at short-term wins or long-term growth. Understand your strategy and stick to it.
7. When you enter a saturated space, think out the box
With Rocka, I knew that I was entering a very saturated space and that I needed to differentiate my brand from everyone else in the market. The obvious answer was to work with the community that I’m close to. I’d seen international brands partner with influencers, but no one was doing that at a local level with South African musicians.
It worked in my favour that South African youth aren’t really looking overseas anymore for influence. They’re focusing on local heroes instead: Euphonik, AKA, DJ Zinhle, Khuli Chana, Mi Casa — I just needed to bring them on board to choose their own bespoke products.
The retailers loved the idea, and so did my friends in the industry. I could give them their own speakers or headphones, and I gave them a royalty on all products sold so that they would also have skin in the game and promote their ranges. Rocka’s brand visibility went from nothing to being able to leverage off an influencer community of 10 million Instagram followers.
I had the idea in 2014, we launched in 2015, and today we have more than 200 products in the range and sell through Makro and online.
The lesson: Small is the new big. You don’t need a huge chequebook to attract notice. You need to be creative, and offer people what they want or need to attract the right partnerships.
“I was on the verge of releasing my international album and the person who had signed me got fired. I was his pet project and so I was escorted out with him. I was devastated.”
8. Always be humble
Even in my music career, I never wanted to be out of arm’s length for people. As a business owner, I’m now a salesman — pitching to Dis-Chem’s buyer, or to Makro. You need to leave your ego at the door, which is something I learnt watching my dad all those years ago.
To be honest, I love cold calling. I’ll call someone and say, ‘Hi Steve, it’s Danny K here from Rocka, or from Good Heart, and I’d love to come see you about my business.’ At first, they won’t know if it’s me, or someone who sounds like me. Sometimes they think it’s a joke; sometimes they’ll be intrigued, or give me the meeting anyway.
They want to see who is going to rock up. From my side, I don’t think I’m taken seriously all the time, but my aim is to get the meeting. Once I’m there, I can prove that there’s more to me than the guy on the radio. That first five to ten minutes in a cold call sit down with someone who has never met me is crucial — they have to know that first, I know what I’m doing, and second,
I’m humble enough to not bring my ego into the room. I need to take the opportunity to show them that I know their story, and that I understand the landscape of their business and what they do, and why my product deserves to be on their shelves.
The lesson: Be humble, respect other people’s time, but always use whatever you have to secure a meeting — it’s in face-to-face meetings that we can prove what we’re about.
9. We’re all multifaceted; our lives and businesses should be too
If I was only doing music I’d be doing it more effectively and faster. But I’ve taken an educated risk to not do as much music as I potentially could, and build other things as well. I love business and I’m passionate about my companies. I’ve also joined USB, the Unique Speakers Bureau, and I’ve started doing corporate talks.
One of my biggest passions is the NGO I founded with Kabelo Mabalane, SHOUT for a Safer South Africa. Through SHOUT we’re building libraries in underprivileged schools. We started SHOUT in response to Lucky Dube’s shooting. Two years earlier, I was inducted into the 46664 ambassador circle, and I was privileged enough to meet Nelson Mandela.
At that meeting, he asked me what I was doing to give back to South Africa. I didn’t have an answer, but his question stuck with me. When Lucky Dube was shot and killed, I finally had my answer — a path that I could follow as a musician to give back to the community, stand for something and make a difference. Systemic change starts with our youth and education. That’s how we make a real difference.
The result is that I’m pretty much always selling, and everything is interconnected. If I’m speaking at a retailer, I’ll go up to the CEO after the talk, tap them on the shoulder and ask for a meeting about Good Heart. If it’s a corporate, I’ll ask them if they want to help us build a library. I’m able to give motivational talks because of my life and music career. Nothing works in isolation.
The lesson: Find your passions and live them — even if there are multiple areas you need to tap into.
Everything that I launch and do teaches me something. I know the music business backwards, but I’m still aware that I don’t have a golden pass to a hit song or album. In fact, the longer I’m in this business the tougher it can be.
I do things that make me feel good. I’m a pure creative. I follow what excites me. I won’t do a specific album because I think it’s what the market wants, I’ll do it because there’s something that I want to explore. I believe that’s the only way to live — for yourself.
You need great people around you. I have many roles, so I need exceptional teams executing our strategy and operations. I check in on everything — I have to know what’s going on, but I can’t do everything personally. Take the time to put those structures in place that allow you the freedom to step back, and find talent to assist you.
No one possesses a super power — we do the best we can do. This is one of the reasons why I approached USB. I felt I had a story to share that most people don’t know. This wasn’t easy, but I’ve built a music career and now two great businesses from the ground up because I wouldn’t give up. If I can inspire people and particularly kids to think differently about rejection, to face it and be inspired by people who have done it before, then I’ll be happy. Don’t quit. Learn from others who have made it. That’s my message.
You can be multiple things. As long as you have drive and tenacity, you can do anything. I’m a great believer in that: Give me the job, and I’ll figure it out.