Ryan Leslie Shifts the Connection Between Artist and Fans


Leslie used his SuperPhone service to run an SMS campaign for his new album, connecting directly to his fanbase and making over $2 million in revenue with sales to just 15,000 people.

Ryan Leslie joined us for a talk at NewCo Shift Forum last month, NewCo’s new executive conference covering “Capitalism at a Crossroads.” He discussed his journey from Salvation Army brat (both his parents worked there) through Harvard to a career as a grammy nominated musician and entrepreneur. His new SuperPhone service connects artists directly to their fans, bypassing the limitations (and obstacles) of traditional social media marketing.

My name is Ryan, and unless you’re a fan of mid 2000s hip‑hop or R&B, this might be the first time you’re ever hearing about me. Fans of mid 2000s of hip‑hop and R&B (out there)? OK, some of you guys, all right. Good. I got some friends out there.

Taking it back to the very beginning, (this is) my story and I’m going condense it. I got nine minutes and 33 seconds to condense my entire life, and how I ended up on this stage.

I spent the first nine months of my life in a children’s home in Suriname, and that’s because my grandmother is a missionary from China. My grandfather is a missionary from Holland who went to Suriname. They met, they started a children’s home and when my mother became pregnant with me, she was still finishing college. My grandparents took me from her and for the first nine months of my life, while she finished college, I was raised in a children’s home in Suriname.

Does that mean I’m from Suriname? No. Most people say, “Hey Ryan, where are you from?” I was born in Washington, D.C. My parents followed in the footsteps of their parents on both sides, and today still serve as officers in the Salvation Army.

The mantra of the Salvation Army is “Sacrifice yourself in the service of others.” It’s also rooted in the religious concept that when you give of yourself here on earth, you’re storing up treasures in heaven.

As my parents started to get through life in the United States, they both immigrated here, they realized that there was a pathway potentially to store up treasures also on earth. Being missionaries, being servants, public servants though, the idea of storing up treasures on earth was conflicting with their service to the community.

And so they started to think, “Well, we need a retirement plan.” Every time they looked at me, said, “Oh, Ryan, you’re going to take care of us.”

My father’s idea, supported by my mother, is that the pathway to the achievement of the American dream was education. Instead of me playing sports, I mean I might look like I’m healthy, in shape and fit, but instead of me playing sports, every day after school, I would spend time doing extra homework. “Oh, Ryan, you finished your homework. I got another book for you, you could fill out.”

By the time I was 14, I was so interested in pleasing my father, giving him what he fought for, that I took the California high school proficiency exam and I applied to seven UC schools [Ed. note: Leslie also scored a perfect 1600 on his SATs]. When people would ask me, “Ryan, what do you want to be?” I knew my dad would love this answer, “I would like to be” and this is at 13, 14 (years old), “I would like to be a brain surgeon.”

My dad loved that answer. I applied to the seven‑year medical program at UC Riverside out of my junior year in high school and I got in. I also applied to UC Irvine, UC Davis, UC Berkeley and as a long shot I applied to Harvard, Stanford and Yale.

When you get into college, you get a big envelope. When you don’t get into college, you get a little one.

Luckily for me, I got big envelopes from every university except one, which was Yale, and basically they said, “At age 14, we don’t think that you’re socially prepared to matriculate into college.” My sophomore year at Harvard, I received another letter from Yale that said, “Hey, what have you been doing with your year off?” and I said, “Well, I’m a freshman at Harvard.” [laughter]

I did not become a brain surgeon. My mother and father actually met because they loved music. My father started a band in order to date my mom. He started a band in order to date my mom. He plays all kinds of instruments, and he goes to mom, says, “We need a lead singer. My band has everything that we need except we need a lead singer.”

“And if you’re the lead singer and you sign on to be lead singer, you have to rehearse with us two hours a day, every day.” Great way to build camaraderie, also to build love, and also to build within your child a love for music. The minute that I was able to get away from their parental guidance, I decided I wanted to be a musician.

My freshman year in college, I called my dad, I said, “I’m a little behind Stevie Wonder because he put out his first album when he was 11. So I’m going to now focus on doing music.” He was mortified. I was on academic probation three times, but I still managed to win a competition that allowed me to stand on a stage much like this one when I graduated and give the Harvard oration.

What I said was, “Some of you are going to go into investment banking. Some of you guys are going into law school. Some of you guys are going to business school. I’m here to tell you that I am going to be a musician.” My mom and dad were there nearly in tears.

It took me about eight years after school to finally catch my break. In 2003 I moved to New York City with a little duffle bag, and with my little CD, I eventually got to the ears of someone who could change my life. From 2003 to 2005, I was managed by Sean Diddy Combs, Puff Daddy, Diddy. In 2005, much like my father, I signed my girlfriend.

We made a record together and it was just on the cusp of that moment where the music distribution mechanism was being upended by social. And so we discovered that MySpace was going to be a better discovery channel than the radio. My friend and I, we figured out a way to game the MySpace music charts.

The way we learned how to do it was we actually controlled the MySpace keyword. If you know anything about SEO, if you have a keyword and you’re not the number one Google search result, you can optimize your site, maybe do some link exchanges, back then you could do a lot of link exchanges, and the Google algorithm would rank your site higher for that specific keyword.

MySpace wasn’t doing any of that because MySpace.com was naturally the number one search result for the keyword “MySpace.”

But much to our delight, we could control 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 to 10 Google search results organic, not ads for the MySpace keyword. The number two Google search result for the MySpace keyword was the “My Girl” MySpace music profile.

We watch her song go from 20 plays a day to 200 plays a day to 20,000 plays a day, and we watched every single record company ring me up and say, “Hey, you guys have cracked the code. We’d love to sign you.”

Who signed her? Puff Daddy. I learned two lessons from that story. First, when you build an audience on a social platform that you don’t own, when everyone migrates to another social platform, all the equity that you’ve placed in that platform almost disappears. Number two, if Puff Daddy signs your girlfriend… [laughter]

All right, we won’t talk about number two. It’s OK. [laughter]

Folks seeing me on number one is exactly how I got to where I am today. Cassie grew in three months from 0 to 650,000 MySpace friends. She was the first artist in history to sell as many albums as she had social followers. It hadn’t happened before that time. It hasn’t happened since.

When everyone moved away from MySpace, all of that equity disappeared. I went on to do a couple albums on my own, but in 2013, I decided that I wanted to shift that paradigm. And so I started giving my phone number to everyone because I wanted to be connected.

As my social following grew, I felt that my connection, I have a million plus 450,000 on Facebook, 280,000 on Instagram, 550,000 on Twitter, 185,000 on YouTube as subscribers. I felt that as my social following grew, I became more and more and more disconnected from the people who were following me. And so by giving my phone number out, I was able to change that paradigm.

Now I wasn’t able to do that with a regular T‑Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon phone number. But I was able to do it with a Twilio phone number. I basically created a very, very simple automation chain. Number one, if you send me a text and my phone knows that I don’t know who you are, it’ll text you back and say, “Hey, what’s your info? I’d love to stay in touch.”

That means if every single one of you texted me right now, within two minutes, you’d all get a text back that said, “Great meeting you at NewCo, but I have no idea whose phone number this is. Please add yourself to my phone.”

Number two, thanks for the wonders of modern technology, I can actually look up your email or your phone number in my e‑commerce store, and if you haven’t bought my album yet, I can gently recommend that you do so. [laughter]

Number three and most importantly, I can close that loop. If you buy my album, five minutes after you buy it, you’ll get a text from me that says, “Hey, Chris, I saw you just bought my album. Thanks so much and I see you live in San Francisco. I’ll shoot you a text anytime I’m playing there.”

It took me a year to figure this out, get it right and in one year’s time, of the 280,000 people who follow me on Instagram, 35,000 people texted me. Of the 35,000 people who texted me, 33,000 opted to add their info to my phone because they didn’t want to seem like weird stalkers.

Of the 33,000 people who added their info to my phone, and I checked my store and I recommended that they actually support my album, 17,000 people actually bought my album. That’s more than 50 percent.

Every single one of those people got a thank you and every single one of those people, when I was playing shows, got a text from me and they didn’t come to the shows alone. They brought one or two or three or five friends. Today, I have 60,000 people in my SuperPhone.

My name’s Ryan Leslie. Thank you guys so much.


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