Hip Hop Executive Turned Digital Demigod Has a Great True Story

James Andrews has lived his life at the intersection of digital technology, entrepreneurship, and culture. His experiences navigating those streams make him a valuable resource for Atlanta’s startup community.

Raised in Palo Alto, CA, by an aunt who was a graphic designer, Andrews soaked up the early days of the Internet surrounded by “people back then who weren’t called entrepreneurs, they were just independent thinkers.” Since then, he’s been a marketing/social media specialist for a big agency, individual brands, and boutique firms. Andrews also managed hip-hop artists’ brands for Columbia/Sony as the musical genre exploded in the 1990s. He founded and sold a couple of his own startups and now helps Atlanta’s early-stage companies, trying to match them with funding and networking opportunities.

For Andrews, there’s been a little bit of entrepreneurship in every job he’s taken on. “When I worked at Sony, I ran my artists like their own little startups,” he said. “I had a (profit and loss sheet) to manage artists, to grow and groom them, so I think I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of whether playing with my own money or somebody else’s money, treating it as an investment and looking at risk in a very particular way.”

How important is it for Atlanta startup scene to get diversity right? How much does it mean to have the new companies being built here look like Atlanta and America?

That what it’s about. It’s about how important is it to America that we think about diversity in a new way, So as the country looks to grow the innovation economy, and as that economy moves from Palo Alto, Seattle, Austin and New York and goes to places like Birmingham, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, those communities look very, very different. We all win when we all win, and unless we’re all in the game, it’s really hard. And it’s not about charity. I actually think it’s about new market opportunities. If we’re talking about healthcare, education, these are about marketing opportunities, and unless we’re engaging those in those markets we’re really not making progress.

In this next wave of the Internet of everything, where everything is connected, we have the opportunity to solve huge, grand challenges, and you have to include diverse thoughts, diverse communities, genders, ages, zip codes.

What do you hope to accomplish with your latest company, True Story Labs?

I sold my last agency, Social People, and learned so much from running a data-driven social media company, so True Story Labs is really about launching things. It’s about helping brands launch new ideas and new products. We’re bullish on Atlanta right now. We’re working with a Fortune 500 here – I can’t say who – but we are helping them understand that there is a story here in Atlanta that they don’t know about yet. They have a global brand based in Atlanta and there’s a story within Atlanta that they’re missing. So we’re helping connect that. It’s less agency and more design thinking.

We’re moving from marketing to experimentation. Marketing has a start and finish. The world that I’m playing in, the finish may be learning, the finish may be a new investment, a new company, the finish is very different. It’s not about getting to X number of impressions or X likes on Facebook. Owned, earned and paid (media) is great, but you’re not becoming any more innovative if you’re spending $100 million on Spotify. What if you made an investment in the next Spotify? What if you actually helped build the next Spotify, or helped build the next Instagram, and became an investor in that? Because you’re going to spend the same amount on it advertising, what if you actually leveraged that advertising money and it became seed capital?


More hip-hop/rap artists are investing in tech companies. As a former music marketing exec, connect the dots for us between that particular music genre and tech startups.

My theory, for those who subscribe to the lean startup movement, is that we in hip-hop were doing lean startup before it was called lean startup. So you think about the concept of a minimal viable product, which is taking something that’s rough, and you put it out in the market to gain customer feedback, to ideate or pivot based on the feedback. Well, we did that in hip-hop and built an entire culture around these things called mixtapes. You threw them out to the world and the feedback gave us the ability to go fund or pivot.

None of these famous people you see were funded initially. They had to find outside funding, whether it’s selling music from their trunk, or selling music on the streets. So they found outside funding, and then they partnered with Sony, they partnered with Universal, so there’s already a built-in understanding of entrepreneurship. Then you have guys like Ben Horowitz who grew up in Berkeley around hip-hop, who really understands the culture, who’s been very friendly with his network. So Nas is an investor and has a $10 million co-investment fund with Andreessen Horowitz. You have individuals now who are being let into those networks.

Atlanta will begin to see the fruits of this. We don’t have a ton of these, but that’s what we’re doing in my night job. In addition to True Story Labs, I’m working with GrowthCity, and we’re bringing capital into the market, and we’re partnering with some of your more famous people, and some less famous, to actually solve some of these opportunities around leveraging fame and cultural currency and technology.