3 Things Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Pastor Shirley Caesar

The internet gave us an early holiday present in the #unameitchallenge that we may forget by Christmas (unless you buy your grandma one of those official aprons). The entrepreneurial lessons, however, can serve entrepreneurs well for years to come.

Unless you’ve been on a social media hiatus in the run-up to Thanksgiving, you’ve probably seen at least one #UNameItChallenge video meme. This meme is a mashup of: (1) gospel legend Shirley Caesar performing a live version of her iconic version of the gospel song “Hold My Mule,” (2) a hip-hop remix of the audio and video of her performance created by Instagram/YouTube user @RemixGodSuede, and (3) videos and other content from around the interwebs. If you are unfamiliar with this, here are some of the relevant videos:

Original “Hold My Mule” performance by Shirley Caesar (the meme segment starts around the 5:25 mark).

Original video by @RemixGodSuede on YouTube:              

And here are two of my favorite memes that took off afterwards: 

How did all of this happen? Here’s the history: In early November, @RemixGodSuede posted the original video on Instagram (since deleted). On November 11, 2016, Chris Brown reposted the @RemixGodSuede original on Instagram with the question “Grandma what you plan on cooking for Thanksgiving?” The next day, YouTube user @remixgodsuede – presumably the same person from Instagram – uploaded a video featuring a group of dancers with the remix playing in the background (the video posted above). In true Internet fashion, this random but hilarious video caught like wild fire and became one of the greatest hashtag challenges since…what, the #runningmanchallenge? The #mannequinchallenge? Since whatever the last great challenge was.

Less than two weeks later, Shirley Caesar let everybody know she’s a business, man. By November 21, 2016, Mother posted on Facebook announcing the launch of to sell hoodies, sweaters, aprons, bags, mugs, tees, boards, songs….*you name it.* The money from the sale of these items will support her ministry and other philanthropic causes.

The brilliance of this knows no bounds (well maybe some bounds, as I’ll share below). At any rate, watching Mrs. Caesar ride the viral meme wave got me thinking that entrepreneurs can learn a lot from this situation. Here are the top three lessons this gospel great is teaching her internet-grandchildren entrepreneurs:

#1. Stay Ready So You Don’t Have To Get Ready.

Of course, Shirley Caesar has been around the industry longer than most of us have been alive (she started recording in 1951), so it is easy to assume that she would have a good team in place. But, this isn’t always the case with music icons (just ask George Clinton). In her Facebook post, she thanks her “team at Entertainment One,” her “Business and Legal Team,” and “H Creative.” She had the right people in place. And if she didn’t, she had the connects and used her networks to make it happen quickly.

Have you ever gotten a call or email out of the blue that offers an awesome opportunity that you aren’t ready for because you’ve been so focused on other things (or just procrastinating)? How often, as entrepreneurs, do you ignore copyright protection, contracts, or marketing until the last minute and then end up scrambling to find someone, or some website, to help you? Entrepreneurs often assume they can pull things together. But, you may end up getting nothing in writing, losing intellectual property rights, or having to pass on a major project because you simply aren’t ready at the right moment.

I’m about 2000% sure Mrs. Caesar wasn’t expecting to be the next viral sensation a couple of weeks ago (and she told Willie Moore, Jr. as much in her radio interview). But, she pulled her business consultants, lawyers, and graphic designers together with a quickness. It is time for you to do the same. Maybe you don’t have the funds to hire someone full time right now, but you can at least start vetting the right people for when you get that next big unexpected opportunity. Having someone you can call immediately could make a world of difference.

#2. Be Versatile, But Don’t Stray From Your Purpose.

As a pastor born in the 1930s, Shirley Caesar has probably never dabbed or rapped (if I’m wrong, please forgive me Mrs. Caesar!), but she embraced the new packaging of her original message. If you’ve never listened to the original song, Hold My Mule is fundamentally a song about the goodness of God and how He provides. The #unameitchallenge doesn’t quite send this message, but it has certainly raised awareness about Mrs. Caesar herself and her broader work (her original live performance now has more than 1.5 million views on YouTube).

The creation of shows that Mrs. Caesar, as an entrepreneur, is flexible. The “First Lady of Gospel Music” has embraced the secular world’s adoption of her music and is now using her popularity with this new audience to not only expand her ministry’s work, but also raise money to donate “greens, beans, potatoes, tomatoes,” and other foods to the hungry. How awesome is that?

This versatility though, is not without limits. Mrs. Caesar has stated that, while she likes the original video and appreciates “some of the dancing,” she’s not here for the “gyrating,” “shaking and twerking” in some of the videos. She has also said she doesn’t want any of this to detract from her message as God’s servant and her role as a pastor.

I don’t know what kind of opportunities will present themselves to Mrs. Caesar in the coming weeks and months, but she’s letting everyone know to come correct. She is capitalizing on her success through her own personally-branded and controlled website, but she’s also making it clear that she is not going to sell out or compromise on her purpose to make a few more dollars.

This is a critical lesson for entrepreneurs. Most of you are mentally, emotionally and maybe even physiologically tied to the visions you have for your businesses, products and brands. So much so that sometimes you may be unwavering in what you will say yes or no to. The chances you get in business may not always look the way you envision them, but being flexible may skyrocket you to something incredible.

However, there’s a fine line between being versatile and being a chameleon (you know, the lizard looking thing that changes colors when it moves to something new). Not every thing is the right thing.  Having a clear vision will let you know when something is right or wrong.

This happened to me recently. A prospective client approached me about a project that was tangentially related to what I do, but not really. The more we talked about the project, the worse I felt about the countless hours I’d have to spend getting up to speed on the very complicated topics I needed to understand. My gut said no, but I hesitated when we talked numbers because my payout would have been really, really good. Ultimately, I said no, and looking at what has transpired since then with that project, I’m glad I did – it was even more work and time than I anticipated, and after all of the time I would have had to spend getting up to speed, I might have ultimately lost money.

At any rate, Mrs. Caesar provides an excellent example of how to walk this line. Embrace the things that allow you to strive toward your vision, and be wary of the things that move you into an unproductive and unhelpful place.

#3. Control Your Brand, But (Maybe) Not Too Much.

In her Facebook announcement,Shirley Caesar says she was informed that “others were selling goods not connected to” her, and in her post she let us all know that there is only one place to get official messages and announcements from her team (her “Pastor Shirley Caesar” Facebook page). She also encourages people to both email her team and post more “funny and inspiring videos.” As there are levels to this, I want to break this down in two parts:

First, Mrs. Caesar basically tells all of us, “you can only get official merch from me.” In other words, everybody selling #unameit gear ain’t with her. As she’s been building this career for more than 50 years, she has a huge following in the gospel arena. Many people, however, have just been put on gospel game. She’s letting her new and old fans know that she’s not all over the internet at every CafePress, Amazon, or shopping page. There is only one place to get this stuff and if you want to support her brilliance, this is where you find it. There’s one consistent brand and you should come to her to get official information and goods.

This lesson is one that most entrepreneurs don’t learn for years, and usually by the point the lesson is learned, it is attached to some bigger problem and/or competitor. Consistent branding ensures that your customers know who you are and where to find you, even if you aren’t standing right in front of them. It also ensures trademark protection. In the trademark arena, if you aren’t consistently using your logo, name, or brand, you might actually lose the ability to legally protect it.

Second, Mrs. Caesar encourages people to continue to be in relationship with her via her official channels and through the videos they create. This is really good marketing packaged as the sweet grandma cooking those beans, greens, potatoes, and tomatoes. Your customers and clients want to feel connected to you. Communicating, in clear language, that you want that too can be quite helpful to you.

In addition, she’s asking her followers to continue creating and sharing their own videos. In doing so, she now has access to the connections of her fans and followers – thereby building an even bigger network.  She’s also requesting insight into what her fans and followers like and prefer, perhaps for future engagement (What do they find funny? What is inspiring to them?). Though the popularity of the #unameitchallenge may be fleeting, like many other viral hashtag challenges (RIP, #ALSIceBucketChallenge), getting this kind of information can help her build future products so that her business does not wane even if the challenge does.

What new and important products or services are you developing for your customers? As they move on to other things, do they also move on from you? It is worth thinking about how you can engage with them now to create the thing they’ll be wanting in the future. This is a fine line, though. You want to encourage your customers to share your message, but you still need to maintain control over your brand. It will be interesting to see Mrs. Caesar’s approach to this in the coming weeks and months.

The internet gave us an early holiday present in the #unameitchallenge that we may forget all about by Christmas (unless you buy your grandma one of those official aprons). The entrepreneurial lessons, however, can serve you and your business well for years to come.

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