Sodan Selva was on the fast track early in his career. He went to grad school, studied economic development and landed a job in investment banking.
But his dream wasn’t to be an investment banker. His dream, from the time he was 9, was to be a musician. So he saved up his money as an investment banker, then quit his job and struck out on his own. It’s the stuff legends are made of—the young and passionate dreamer turning his back on the cushy and safe but also stuffy and boring desk job to carve his own path, to follow the road less traveled, to chase the muse that had grown in his heart since he was a young boy.
Two decades later, Selva’s analysis of this first bold move of his career is succinct: “That was my first majorly failed entrepreneurial adventure. It was all passion, no product market fit.”
The problem was not the music he made; he and his bandmates were talented. The problem was not effort or ignorance. He applied techniques any solopreneur would recognize: He diligently worked the system the way it’s supposed to be worked, meeting with music executives during the day and playing clubs at night. The problem, he says, was the market wouldn’t buy what he was selling: At that time and place, the market did not want music from a pop jazz funk band fronted by a South Asian man. (He’s Sri Lankan.)
“The business model needs to work, the channels need to be there. At that time, even if 1,000 people like you, there’s no model. If 10,000 people like you, there’s no model. You need to sell out stadiums,” he says. “In today’s world, it would have found its audience. The miss was, the market’s got to be ready.”
He calls his music sojourn “accidental brilliance,” because even though he failed, he failed at the right time, in the right place and in front of the right people. “At that time, I was devastated,” he says. “It took me three months to get out of this funk. But the dots do connect. I look back and say, ‘That was the most pivotal decision I made in my life.’”
After a stint in the corporate world, Selva became an entrepreneur (again!), teacher and coach. His latest venture is called Movement Makers, through which he teaches “business leaders and operators to immediately set the foundations to ‘escape the competition’ through repeatable techniques, as well as transform themselves to lead during uncertain times.”
Through Movement Makers and his book When Followers Become Leaders: Re-wiring Established and Non-Tech Companies in An Age of Accelerating Disruption, he shares lessons learned in his music venture and other more conventional (and also equally formative) entrepreneurial efforts.
The joy of hard-earned lessons like the ones he learned is applying what you learned to become a better version of yourself. After failing as a musician, Selva leveraged the relationships he had built in that space to become a music executive. He arrived in that industry as it went through a massive reconstruction based on the rise of digital music. Later he worked as a Disney executive, where he learned about maintaining a singular focus from chairman Bob Iger.
“You’ve got to be super clear on what you’re trying to solve and not waver based on all the feeds that are coming into your face,” Selva said in an interview. “You’ve got to know who you are personally and who you have around you as a team and what you need to meet that problem. And somewhere deep inside, there needs to be an imprint that says, as hard as this is, this is my journey.”
For solopreneurs wrestling with their journeys, he offers several tips:
1. Following the herd is one of the worst things you can do.
But everybody is doing it. Why? Because one of our primary motivators is fear. “Fear is good when you’re running away from a lion and jump up into a tree,” he says. “But playing your long game on fear doesn’t necessarily lead to good things.”
Selva foresees the need for companies to “weave repeatable transformation into (their) DNA.” Companies need to be “revolutionary, not incremental and slowly evolutionary,” he writes.
Many companies had to be dragged into the digital revolution in the late 1990s, and they are still making decisions as if the revolution is still going on instead of complete. The old way of doing things won’t fix new problems. The result, in part, is a drastic reduction in companies’ staying power. According to a 2019 McKinsey report, “In the late 1970s, the organizations in the S&P 500 index had been on that list for an average of approximately 35 years. [In 2018], the average tenure is closer to 20 years.”
Solopreneurs face similar challenges to stay on top. Instead of a “follow the herd” mentality, Selva advocates a “black swan offense” approach to reinvention. Black swan refers to events that are a surprise, make a huge impact and are unpredictable. He cites as examples Disney’s move from animated movies to theme parks and Apple’s move into consumer electronics and entertainment ecosystems.
He started his Movement Makers program and wrote When Followers Become Leaders to help people find black swans—seemingly “invisible” openings in the marketplace that become visible once they are tapped.
2. Get self-awareness.
“If you’re not self-aware, then you’re programmed by everything around you. If you’re programmed by everything around you, you can’t see clearly. Once you get that self-awareness, ask yourself, ‘What’s my wiring?’” says Selva. By that, he means solopreneurs should figure out the best combination of what they love and what the market needs.
“How do you get paid in the world?” he says. “You get paid because you bring value to people. What are the ways that I can bring value to people, and how do I experiment with that in a way that I learn more and more about how I can apply it?”
3. Incredible idealism has to be coupled with tenacious pragmatism.
All the passion in the world isn’t going to sell a product with no market. And if you have a great product with a built-in market demand but no love for what you’re doing, you’ll burn out.
“Everything is appropriate to time and place,” he says. When he launched—or tried to launch—his music career, he was in his 20s and had plenty of money in the bank and few of the burdens of responsibility of adulthood. Not only did he see himself as having nothing to lose, that which he could lose he had assigned to that very purpose, so he wasn’t really losing it. As he puts it, “What was I going to do with all those banking bonuses?”
If he did that now, in his 40s and married with two daughters, “That is the most colossally stupid thing I [could] do. There’s a way to experiment at my age. I’m not in my 20s anymore. There’s a very pragmatic way to do that while still meeting your mission,” Selva says.
This article was published in November 2020 and has been updated. Photo by MesquitaFMS/IStock