Marc Ecko on How to Succeed Without Selling Out
For a period in the early '90s, Marc Ecko attempted to not be an entrepreneur. He enrolled in pharmacy school and, he says, "pursued drugs both vocationally and recreationally."
One year later, in 1993, Ecko dropped out and started making t-shirts.
The t-shirts, created under the label Ecko UNLTD, bore original graphic designs that merged Ecko's passions--hip-hop and graffiti culture--with fashion. While Ecko doesn't often dwell on his pharmacy school days now that he's running the billion-dollar business of Marc Ecko Enterprises, he did use it as a metaphor at the Inc. 5000 conference in Washington, D.C., Saturday, saying: "I'm going to give you, as a pharmacy school dropout, some prescriptions." They are part of the branding strategy he also lays out in his new book, "Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out."
Be a creator.
Ecko challenged the balance-sheet-driven minds in the audience to take breaks from the quantitative analysis of their business in order to channel their inner artists. "What happened to you as entrepreneurs that the creativity got beat out of you?" Ecko said. He took issue with the label of "entrepreneur" being put on everyone today who is creating a company, a movement, or working intensely on bringing an idea to fruition. "Why is entrepreneur the new black?" he asked. "Is there not a better way to contemplate and view yourself as a creator for a while?"
Sell without selling out.
"Entrepreneurs are there to make money, right?" Ecko said. But that fact doesn't mean that one should sacrifice one's own morals to that end. Ecko offered his own definition of selling out: To "double-cross one's creative intent for either pure financial gain or something more sinister, often fueled by hubris." Ecko's point here was that the artist and the entrepreneur need not be different people. "This notion that there's a holy war between art and commerce. These are not mutually exclusive," he said. "The very thing that makes you a great artist can make you an entrepreneur."
Create wealth that matters.
"They say that numbers don't lie. But I would say people's feelings about those numbers are more important," Ecko said. "Stop seeking validation that can only be found in finite numbers. Seek the wealth created in an authentic, actualized awareness of your personal brand and how it fits into the world." In short, expand your definition of wealth beyond financial worth. As Ecko said: "It will nourish more than riches alone."
Be an un-label.
Everyone does it: Labels help create order in the world; they helps make things easy to find. And other people label you. "But if you aren't careful, you start to carry the labels that people put on you. Logos are just guns without ammo," Ecko said. Defy the labels other people put on you, Ecko urged, and project your true self. It takes work to truly defy the expectations of others.
Understand that authenticity is a pursuit, not a destination.
Ecko showed an artistic rendering of the internal anatomy of a human shoulder. "It's hard to look at, right?" Ecko asked. "We as men try to create straight lines. But they don't exist in nature--see, they don't exist in this image." He continued: "Why design your expectations in a straight line? The formula is a pursuit, not a destination."
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.