One day you're a Harvard Business School grad and serial entrepreneur who has co-founded Thomas Weisel Partners and Tailwind Capital Partners, a $1.2 billion private equity fund that focuses on media, health care, and technology.

Surely that keeps you busy enough, but if you're Mark Lieberman, you also somehow find the time to hold private concerts in your home for up-and-coming Bay area artists.

And then one day you decide to make that your business.

Lieberman's The Artists Den has grown from a (literally) living room business into a critically acclaimed television and digital music series known for presenting small, intimate concerts by extraordinary artists in non-traditional and often historic settings. And while the settings may be relatively small, the artists are definitely not: The Artists Den has featured performers like Adele, John Legend, Mumford & Sons, Ed Sheeran, Zac Brown Band, and Hozier.

And, as you'll see, Mark has loved the journey.

Obvious question: you had a job many people would kill for, and you decided to dive into building The Artists Den. Why?

Serial entrepreneurs reinvent themselves multiple times. Reinvention is one of the biggest reasons people become entrepreneurs.

But let's take a step back. My career in private equity came from a passion for building businesses. I spent twelve years after Harvard Business School building a private equity firm, an investment bank, and serving on an operating committee of a VC firm.

Working with hundreds of companies across many different sectors, you start to discover what really works in a business, and the biggest factor is passion. Passionate leaders tend to create incredible businesses, because passion gets them through the dark days.

I was a lean in investor. I had ton of ideas all the time -- sometimes appreciated and sometimes not. One day I realized that was a sign I might be a good operator, and that I should take the leap and put my money where my mouth was.

I get that -- I know a number of VCs who feel the same way -- but why the music industry?

I have always had a strong passion for music and the arts. I wrote original music, I performed in bands, I produced albums for fun... and it was always fun, not business. I never thought I had the chops to be a pro musician, but I love music; in a way it is my spiritual core.

As a music lover, the songwriters I love speak to me. I love artists who write great songs and perform their own music. I always gravitate towards music that, if you dig deep, you find richness: If you read the lyrics without the music, you learn something.

And I like artistry, and musicianship, and songwriting, and live performances. I love artists who could kill it live. Albums are great, but when a performer can kill it live... you know they are the real deal.

So I spent my evenings going to see young musicians I loved, and found that my college-age friends had "graduated" to their professional careers and it was very hard to get them interested in new artists.

That sounds like the Chris Rock line (that I'm paraphrasing) that you will always most love the music you were listening to when you first became romantically involved.

I even built a sound stage in my home and would have people perform in what was basically my living room. For fun we called it the "artists den."

Every time we did it, the artists or bands loved it because they got to play for a room full of people who didn't know them at all. That let them expand their fan base in a town where it's hard to build a music career. And it really worked for the audience, because it was intimate, the bands talked about their music between songs... it was just great.

I did that for a number of years, just for fun. Some people buy a fast car they can race on weekends. My thing was producing concerts for bands I loved.

The Artists Den came from this mission of connecting really talented artists with intelligent new fans who could become influencers and tell the world. So, it was not a calculated career move.

It just grew out of my passion for music and artists.

How did you make the leap from fun side project to actual business? That's something tons of people struggle with: Turning their passion into a real business.

What really turned it into a career was that the artists kept saying, "This is so awesome. You need to professionalize it. This is a way for us to reach a new audience. You should do this everywhere."

So I put together a world-class board of directors -- people from organization like Sony, Disney, Viacom, and Ticketmaster -- and together we set out to build the franchise.

At first I was just an investor and board member. Then I fell in love with it so much, and when we were looking for a person to run The Artists Den, I realized it should be me. After all, I would get excited every time my Artists Den Blackberry buzzed -- not so much my work Blackberry.

So I took the risk every entrepreneur takes. I dove in. In my case, I left an incredibly successful career in private equity, a position with a lot of security, and jumped off into the world of a startup.

The complexity of producing a show at different venues -- and recording and televising that show -- is exponentially greater compared to putting on a concert in your living room, though.

That was one of the best parts. The early years were so exciting. It was so fun to take a clean sheet of paper and figure out the best way to produce artists in unusual settings. Every time we did one we said, "Okay, this was good... and the next one needs to be better."

That premise works in any business. If you continuously improve, eventually you get to a place that is almost magical.

For us, that meant getting more imaginative about venues and stages and holding secret shows. We moved from my living room to staging concerts in museums, libraries, churches, warehouses... and we became more imaginative about the artists, not just featuring emerging artists but also established artists who loved the idea of performing in meaningful venues.

I've watched a few of the shows, and they're more than just concerts. The venue doesn't just create a backdrop; it helps tell a story.

When we film, our goal is to be storytellers.

The pairing of artist and place is itself a story. Last month we filmed the first episode of our 12th season with John Legend. His new album is all about civil rights, social justice, equality -- some of the tough issues our country is grappling with -- and what better setting to perform his new album than the Riverside Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke fifty years ago?

Everyone at that church is passionate about the cause, so for John it was a natural way to engage with the venue, have a conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates before the show as a kind of fireside chat... the audience was so engaged when performed his songs because they felt like they understood the songs in an intimate and meaningful way.

That's our goal. We want to go deeper. We want to have smart conversations. Ultimately we want to entertain, but we also want to engage.

Early on, how did you get performers to want to work with you?

In terms of getting people to work with us, it was brick by brick. We never had a quantum leap. In the arts you have to build trust; everyone is skeptical of anything new. So it took a lot of time and patience.

It was all about laying the building blocks of reputation. When we did Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs in a barn in Boerne, Texas, and the band was sending people from a bunch of different states to show up on this ranch... they put a lot of trust in us to make it all work.

It's really all about trust. The performers have come to expect production excellence, to expect that we'll over-invest in all aspects of cameras and lighting and production, and that the result will be incredibly cool. You can't just say that, because people won't believe you. You have to do it, many times.

Of course the nice thing is we film the shows, so performers can look at past performances and actually see what we do. They can picture themselves on a stage, they can see the data from our PBS broadcasts, international broadcasts, and digital broadcasts, they can see data that shows how the community will grow for them... all those things form the building blocks of trust and reputation.

Plus, the business, public relations, and marketing side of the music business discovered it was a great investment of their time.

I would imagine that's also true for some of the venues. As Shep Gordon says, "Guilt by association" (which he means in a good way.)

That is also true on the venue side. We cut one of our first shows at Tiffany's on the diamond floor. We've done shows at the NY Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Orpheum Theater... so now venues can look at predecessor venues and say, "Wow, that was amazing."

The "product" is amazing, but does the business model work? The Artists Den is a business, not a hobby.

Our business has done very well. We create television, sell it to broadcasters around the world, distribute and sell digital broadcast to outlets like Spotify that are hungry for high quality music content...

We've also forged relationships with brands like Chase Sapphire. They're in their third season with us. They appreciate that what we have created is a premium, money can't buy, incredibly desirable product for their customers. Access to an Artists Den concert, where you may have a 1 in 500 chance of winning a ticket, is highly sought after by Sapphire card members. Time and time again they've gotten an incredible reaction from their members who got access to our shows.

That's why brands partner with us. The Artists Den is a cool experience. We've built an incredible community of millions of people that love the show, the content, the storytelling... and now we're looking at building a membership subscription within that community that enables us to do even bigger things.

After all, when Netflix has enough subscribers... they can produce a (hundred million dollar plus) series like The Crown.

We feel like some form of direct-to-consumer relationship, now that we've built a global community... that there's an opportunity to bring it all full circle and think about a membership program that enables us to do even bigger and more exciting things.

You dove into this without a blueprint. What do you wish you knew then that you know now?

It's funny. We're filming our next episode at Sundance with One Republic, and we're producing it with people and equipment from five states who will basically all land on that Sunday at 6 am. For better or worse, I don't think there's anyone on the planet that knows how to do it like we do.

And I don't think there's anywhere to learn it. 4k, twelve cameras, different venues every time, live audiences, interviews... the show is our unique brew. It's really complicated, and hundreds of things have to go right.

The big lesson is that if you want to create a business that is valuable, you have to do something different. Your intellectual property has to build something that no one else has.

Of course that means to get your business to a place that no one else has, you have to learn the hard way. You have to make mistakes and learn from them. You have to work to continuously improve.

Do that, and one day you get to a place where no one can copy you. You know all the moves. You can see things even before they happen.

Back then I didn't know what to do, but I do now. That's because of every show we've done and all the mistakes we've made. If we made a mistake, that showed us what we needed to figure out and learn how to do better.

So I didn't know a lot then, but I knew that if we worked hard enough, we would learn.

Experience is often underrated, because hard-earned experience is what gives you the confidence to try new things.

When we talked to Kid Rock about doing The Artists Den, I'll never forget what he said. He said, "Mark, I've watched your episodes and I know where you've been, and I want this to be the best Artists Den you've ever done... but there isn't a place in Detroit that is cooler than anything you've ever done."

So when we were asked to do a concert at Graceland, we knew Kid Rock was a huge Elvis fan. He said, "That's the coolest thing you've ever done."

For every artist, the expectation is that the next thing is the best thing we have ever done.

You want to step up. You don't want to do the same old thing. You want to do the cool stuff. Every challenge we take on, it gives us confidence to take on the next one.

If you keep looking at your business, you can find boundless opportunity. Your business can feed you forever. The Artists Den is crafted so there are endless artists and venues we can bring together to tell stories.

That's the beauty of the show, but that's also the beauty of entrepreneurship.

Published on: Feb 1, 2017
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