What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From These Teenage Indie Rockers

By the time they turned 14, the members of the punk group Harsh Crowd were already indie rock veterans. 

Modeling themselves after underground legends such as Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre fame, the four girls decided in 2013 to launch their own band--at just 11 years old. The group began playing shows across New York City, from local talent pageants to staple venues including Madison Square Garden, where they opened for a WNBA game, and Summerstage in Central Park. In the meantime, they caught the attention of media outlets like the New York Times and New York Magazine. 

What they didn't realize was that they had unwittingly launched a business--and one with punishingly slim profit margins.

"You would think that we make a lot of money," says Dea Brogaard-Thompson, 16, the group's lead guitarist, her face partially hidden by a sheet of thick, blonde hair. "But whatever profit we make goes into paying things back." Expenses include producing music videos, renting practice space, and manufacturing merchandise.

Lena Faske, also 16, the band's elegantly fierce drummer, puts it more bluntly: "We didn't realize that we wouldn't just get handed cash, and do whatever we wanted."

Over the past five years, Harsh Crowd has blossomed into a major player in the New York City punk rock scene. After releasing their first EP, "Don't Ask Me," in September 2015, they gained recognition from the media and their peers alike. The girls have opened for indie rockers such as Mirah, Army Ray, and Sharon Van Etten, generating around $2,500 in ticket sales and an additional $2,000 worth of merchandise. Now, they're preparing to sign with an independent record label, which could help them to open up ancillary revenue streams, such as getting their music placed in commercials or TV shows.  

Lately, however, Harsh Crowd has been forced to reckon with some of the more bitter realities of running a growing business: Co-founders don't always agree on how to proceed. Revenue from ticket sales and merchandise does not equal profit. In order to make money, you have to spend it. And with fame comes the responsibility of representing your demographic, whether you intended to or not.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNQjTIxq7nA]

For instance, Harsh Crowd doesn't identify as "feminist," per se, even though most fans assume that's the case. And notably, the members all say they've each experienced some degree of sexism. "People have said to us, oh you're good for your age, AND you're girls too?" says Rihana Abdulrashid-Davis, 15.

But the way the group sees it, they simply have attitude about current events, which come out in the lyrics. Their music deals with themes including the pressure of classical beauty standards--a sample lyric is "You said I dress up like a doll, but I'm no supermodel!"--and income inequality ("Rise up, the 99%, get next month's rent!") Their most recent release, "Clowns," is a loose critique of President Donald Trump and the 2016 election cycle.

Lead singer Willow Bennison, 15, says the band doesn't want to be labeled or tethered to any one opinion. Lena, ever the pragmatist, adds that they could be cutting themselves off from future business opportunities, should they decide they want to play to more conservative crowds. "When you target a specific audience, you're targeting opportunities," she says. If you're too narrow, adds Dea, "it pigeonholes us."

But trying to decide what exactly it is they want to be as a band--or as people, really--has led to arguments. For one solemn hour in 2016, Harsh Crowd broke up, citing the frustration that came with not being able to write new songs. It doesn't help that some of the band members are averse to playing to their own peers, whereas others are more of the "everything's-an-opportunity" mentality. They quickly came up with a solution to working through their problems: Calling regular "band meetings" every time there's a new opportunity, such as deciding whether or not to be interviewed by Inc. magazine. 

They also make a point of limiting the time they spend together outside of rehearsal, in part to avoid friction. That's not especially difficult, given that that four​--who met a rock camp in 2011--live relatively far from one another and attend different high schools. While Dea and Lena live in Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively, Willow and Rihana commute from upstate. (The four rehearse on Saturday afternoons in Brooklyn, although occasionally one of the members will need to Skype or FaceTime in.) In the early days, hanging out could lead to "silly fights," says Lena. By focusing more on the music, she adds, their friendships have only strengthened. 

Harsh Crowd performs at Irving Plaza in New York City.

CREDIT: Edwina Hay/Courtesy Harsh Crowd

This year, in particular, has been a turning point for the group. Lena explains that they have begun contacting record labels, to see what they would need to do in order to be signed. Some labels would pay the artists up to $50,000, the group explains, with the contingency that the bulk of it be spent on recording, publicity and promotion. 

But in the meantime, not everyone agrees that signing with a massive distributor is the right way to go. Lena and Dea, to be sure, are high school seniors set on going to college. And while three plan to pursue music careers, Rihana wants to study medicine. 

They all agree, however, that the experience of launching and maintaining Harsh Crowd has taught them that entrepreneurship is an option for anyone.

"I've learned from this that I don't need to have a boss," says Dea. "That's really valuable to me." She brushes back a strand of hair, her punk demeanor momentarily disappearing as she giggles at a text. She is, after all, a teenager--albeit one that sounds like a typical entrepreneur. "It's nice knowing that you can do it for yourself."

These 22-Year-Olds Just Beat Apple to the Future of Augmented Reality

Remember Google Glass? It was pitched as a magical pair of glasses with practical access to the search engine juggernaut. The world's information right in front of you. I remember watching the Super Bowl commercial and seeing them for the first time. It was the first time the promise of Augmented Reality (AR) seemed within reach, but ultimately the technology was too expensive, looked funny, and couldn't live up to its marketing promise.

For most, including myself, this was our introduction into the possibility of AR. AR has the potential to merge the digital and physical worlds, revolutionize how people access information and interact with their surroundings in areas like shopping, education, and video games. Imagine a world in which, rather than looking at a flat blueprint, an architect can see a three-dimensional rendering of their plan. Or, if a student wants to learn about genetics, she can see a rotating double helix instead of staring at a textbook page. I'd personally love to look up Yelp reviews & photos taken at a restaurant in AR before committing to a first-time reservation.

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AR is a fast-growing industry in the tech community, but with the general public it's having trouble breaking into the mainstream. Some go as far to say that with all this technology we're entering a world that will resemble George Orwell's 1984 or Blade Runner. But a company out of USC wants to put those critics, and our robot overlords, to rest.

I sat down with Kairos entrepreneurs and the co-founders of Mira, Matt Stern and Ben Taft, whose AR headset aims to bridge this divide and make AR more accessible to the everyday consumer. "We're trying to create a paradigm shift away from conventional display and rethink how we access information as well as interact with each other," says Matt Stern. This mission has caught the eyes of industry disruptors and the biggest names in venture capital. Mira is one of the first companies to emerge from the Andre Young and Jimmy Iovine Academy out of USC and has raised over $2.5M from Sequoia Capital, Greylock and other heavy hitters.

When they were designing the prototype, Matt and Ben were originally on a path to build clunky headsets like their competitors, but they soon realized the technology they wanted to create already existed in every potential user's pocket - their smartphone. To unlock an AR experience, a user just has to download the Mira app onto their smartphone and attach it to a lightweight headset. Put it on, and they're immersed in a 3D augmented reality experience. With less bells and whistles comes a lower price: the headset costs just $99, and it applies technology the consumer is already comfortable using.

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From left, Mira COO Matt Stern, CPO Montana Reed, CEO Ben Taft, and CTO Evan Bovie.

One of Mira's competitors, Microsoft HoloLens,is sleek with very sophisticated tech capabilities, but is also 30x more expensive than Mira's Prism. Mira's take is more similar to that of Google Cardboard, which is the most popular headset thus far but has been criticized for offering a low-end experience. The AR challenge of crossing the chasm from "early adopters" to the "everyday consumer" is still a sizable one. Price is a huge barrier for investment, and keeps the average buyer at bay. Mira lowers the point of entry by stripping AR down to the basics, but that's not enough. "In order to create a brand that feels more "human" than "robotic", there needs to be a very strong sense of consumer empathy & understanding when introducing new technologies like this one," Ben says. 

Stern goes on to identify another significant barrier to AR's adoption in mass culture. "Often, people are afraid of the technology; putting on a headset can feel jarring and uncomfortable." I agree. Who can forget the iconic photo of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg walking through a crowd of headset-wearing human drones at the Mobile World Congress? It invokes a sense of detachment on the horizon. On the other hand, the Mira team argues that AR - when done correctly - has the potential to enhance our daily life in a way that can bring us together instead of further apart.

Mira headsets have transparent screens, which means your experience is filtered through the world around you, rather than you needing to be buried in your smartphone like most current digital experiences. Just as the Nintendo Wii made gaming interactive for the whole family, Ben Taft believes this will help solve the zombie problem and keep us connected with one another.

Now with a ten-person-team behind them, the founders have had a rapid rise in the AR industry and lots of learnings. I've summarized three of them below:

Admit what you don't know, then hire to fill the gaps.

Mira has been able to onboard several employees for software development and content creation since their fundraise. The founders have gone from a scrappy team ordering $9.99 parts on Alibaba to a full fledged tech start-up. Hiring people who are older and have experience outside of their fields of expertise has led to more product innovation & stronger partnership opportunities than Mira's founders would have been able to pull off on their own. "By onboarding people with different experiences and backgrounds, you have to check yourself and face the fact that you don't know what you don't know. This sets a foundation of respect," Ben says.

Get out of your product's own vacuum (and your own head).

Just because you as the founder believe tremendously in the product you've built, this doesn't mean it will work for every prospective customer. Passion doesn't guarantee that others will instantly "get it" or that you'll be swamped with inbound requests. Staying insulated with your product's development can be problematic. Put a MVP out there to start gathering feedback, even if it's a version of the product you're slightly embarrassed by. Better yet - get somebody (anybody) to pay for that MVP. So far, Mira found success by taking a fresh look at AR by stripping down all the flash and dazzle seen in other products, down to the basics. Ben says, "If you ever hit a wall, step back - empty your mind. Don't focus on it - continuing to run into the same wall does nobody any good. Literally meditate, and come back with a fresh perspective."

Don't forget the big vision while in the day-to-day weeds.

Mira intends to go beyond their tabletop platform so entire houses can be accessed via headset. With a stripped-down concept for a reasonable price, Mira's ambitions go far beyond the individual. Now that the company has shipped its first batch to developers & released their SDK to the world, they are laying a foundation for a platform they hope the whole world will use. Vision & strategy is critical. Mira has big plans for 2018 where they intend to focus more on software now that their hardware was finalized in 2017. Sticking to their game plan is what helped the founders get venture capital funding.

Learn more about other Kairos companies and young industry disruptors with the Top 30 Emerging Companies of 2017.