Sean Combs And The Ownership Of Genius

Diddy went from paper boy to Bad Boy to burgeoning billionaire thanks to his focus on ownership and customer service—a strategy that works way beyond music.

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In the initial installment of this book’s first chapter, “The Ownership of Genius,” I recounted my conversation with Paul McCartney about his early motivations to control his work with the Beatles (“No matter how successful we made the company, we didn’t get a raise”) and his ensuing fixation on ownership.

Today we’ll close the chapter with another member of the Forbes Centennial issue’s list of greatest living business minds: Sean Combs. And whether you call him Diddy, Puff Daddy or Brother Love, he represents the next step in how musicians have evolved in relation to intellectual property.

More specifically, it’s not just his music, or even his own work, that has him headed toward the gilded gate of the billionaire club. Like Berry Gordy with Motown, Diddy built much of his hit catalog with the strength of other artists at his record company (Bad Boy).

He took things even further, finding a way to own not only music, but to grab pieces of the broader entertainment ecosystem from clothing to booze. And for someone who made a name for himself by showing up at parties in fur coats, he approached business with a surprisingly mundane focus.

I’ve interviewed Diddy many times over the years, and he comprises one-third of my book Three Kings’ titular triumvirate. The most surprising thing he’s ever told me? His passion for plain old customer service.

Diddy started his career in middle school, working as a paper boy in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Never content to have just one job, he accumulated a handful of routes, largely by offering a personal touch: rather than throw newspapers into the yard willy-nilly, he’d get off his bike and insert the delivery between the screen door and the front door.

“That caring made me different, made me better than the last paper boy,” he said, insisting his model would work just as well for budding rappers as it would for aspiring hardware store owners. “If I give the customers my best and service them differently, whether music, clothing or vodka, I’ll get a return on my hard work.”

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Diddy’s Bad Boy Records ushered in a glitzy new era of hip-hop as the genre continued its inevitable intermingling with pop. His legendary annual “White Party” in the Hamptons embodied that trend, with an unlikely guest list that ranged from Jay-Z to Donald Trump.

Rather than let someone else profit from his tastemaking sensibilities, Diddy started his Sean John clothing line, always bringing a personal touch. He announced the launch with a Bloomingdale’s cocktail party, became regular at fashion-show front rows and even posed for Sean John’s enormous Times Square ad. The fashion venture soon boasted a nine-figure valuation, battling Tommy Hilfiger for shelf space all the while.

A decade later, Diddy brought that same style of promotion to Ciroc, singlehandedly taking the Diageo-produced liquor from afterthought to billion-dollar brand. He did the usual big stuff, from commercials to billboards. But one industry insider told me Diddy would even go into the bar at the Soho House and demand to know why the Ciroc wasn’t on the top shelf.

“It’s not just about running commercials, or putting up banners, or having signage at a festival,” Diddy told me one year at South By Southwest. “It’s about actually being in the trenches.”

Crucially, Diddy’s model now revolves around owning what he’s serving. With a portfolio that ranges from liquor brands to real estate—and the spoils of selling stakes in other businesses like Sean John—Diddy currently sits a couple hundred million dollars from billionaire status. His next major deal could easily carry him across the threshold.

We celebrated the Centennial issue in 2017 with a bash on the shores of the Hudson River. Warren Buffett showed up. Stevie Wonder performed. And I ran into Jerry Jones in the men’s room, neglecting to needle him about Dak Prescott’s contract. But my favorite moment of the night came when Diddy took the stage with Steve Forbes.

I’m not exactly sure what the hip-hop legend told the editor-in-chief, but the above image says everything you need to know. Diddy had ascended to the only party more exclusive than his own—the Forbes list of the 100 greatest living business minds—and simply couldn’t contain his glee.

Diddy understood the ownership of genius as well as anyone in the world. Better yet, he understood something even more lucrative: the genius of ownership. That’s something a little more accessible to the average person than the notion of acquiring multimillion-dollar music catalogs. And it’s the subject of this book’s next chapter, along with a whole lot more hip-hop.

The above is a serialized segment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. You just read Chapter 1: The Ownership of Genius (Part 5). Sign up here to ensure you get fresh installments delivered to your inbox weekly.

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