Authenticity, hard work and the business of Parris Goebel

by Rob O'Neill / 06 July, 2017
Parris Goebel says order, structure and numbers don't come easy to creative types. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand’s multi-award winning hip hop choreographer operates in the most mysterious sector of business – the creative industries.

It’s been said that Walt Disney built a multi-billion dollar business on a drawing of a mouse. Last year, the total revenue of the Harry Potter franchise was put at US$25 billion.

Wellington-based Weta Workshops, Sir Peter Jackson’s post production behemoth, is a private company and doesn’t report its finances but a figure in the billions seems likely.

All are part of the mysterious, almost alchemical, creative industry sector – they appear to make something out of nothing at all. No raw materials are required, no stock is shelved. It’s pure creativity that engages an audience.

Like other industries the creative ones have their successful start-ups and right now none is a hotter prospect than Parris Goebel, multi-award winning hip hop dancer, choreographer and dance studio operator.

On the eve of collecting yet another award, a Kea World Class New Zealand gong, Noted cornered Goebel to try and find out what makes creative businesses tick – and what other businesses can learn from them.

But first the back story. Goebel discovered hip hop dancing when she was 12 and by 15 had formed her own dance crew, ReQuest. After early success at the Monsters of Hip Hop championships in Las Vegas she pulled out of school to focus on her passion.

 

With the support of her “rock”, father Brett, she went on to open the Palace Dance Studio which has spawned multiple World Hip Hop Dance Championship-winning crews.

In the process, Goebel’s muscular “Pollyswag” dance style has brought new energy to women’s dance and helped win it a place at the front of the stage.

Last year Goebel branched out to release her own music, an EP and later LP dubbed “Vicious”.

While it seems her success came incredibly quickly, Goebel had her struggles and almost had to close her beloved dance studio on several occasions. Similarly, when you see Goebel hanging with the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson and Justin Bieber and it’s easy to imagine she is raking in the loot. Once again, it’s not that simple.

Every year, Goebel and her father assessed where the business was going and several times they had to face the fact that the studio wasn’t turning success in competition into financial success at home.

Goebel, however, was adamant.

“I really just had to express that I’m really passionate about this and I won’t give up and we’ll put in more work wherever we need to get things going,” Goebel says.

Work. It’s a word she keeps returning to. But in the creative space there is magic there too, because the long hours don’t seem like work.

“It’s bringing your vision to life. If you are not going to put in the work it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to appear … If you love what you do and if you are passionate it should just make sense in your mind to put in the work.”

The studio was also her “love project”, as much about service and giving back to the community and to youth as making money. The prospect of it closing was hard to handle. The Palace Dance Studio was what is now called a “purpose-driven” business. It had a social goal as well as or even above a financial one.

“It definitely made me feel discouraged, really sad because I really care about the kids in the studio and for me to take that away from them is like taking their future away from them,” Goebel says.

“I’ve always had that dream to have my own studio to help the kids so when it was lacking it was a big wake up call for me. I realised I had to make moves as a product. I am a product and the more successful I am the more successful the studio can be.”

Goebel backed herself to turn things around and in the process created what business people sometimes refer to as a virtuous circle.

“So it’s all paid off and that’s pretty cool but it’s definitely been a bit of a struggle. It’s a huge reflection of that now because I’m not just successful, the studio is and the Royal Family crew and the ReQuest dance crew.

“Now we are at a place where we are making enough money and we can hold the studio open and have more numbers.”

The studio also employs two full-time teachers who can hold the fort while Goebel is away touring or working.

Goebel succeeded in part because of her trusted business partner, her dad and manager who handles the business so she can focus on being creative.

“I think a lot of creatives try to do the business side and it doesn’t really work because we’re creatives and not very good with order and structure and numbers,” she says.

“It’s actually really helped because he’s a businessman and runs his own company, his own marketing company. He’s taken that knowledge and put it over into dance which is really cool and I think it’s helped us.”

Touring, however, is still a struggle. Goebel has just toured Europe – nine shows in nine countries with a crew of 12. It’s expensive and, while she can cover flights and accommodation, she has yet to find a way to make it profitable. Once again, it’s about more than money.

“We are still working on how we can really make some money on something like that but for us the most important thing is to be able to give these kids the opportunity to travel and perform.”

Goebel’s personal brand and choreography is what’s driving the operation. She now has an agency in Los Angeles that books choreography jobs. The breakthrough, however, came entirely through the efforts of her and her crew courtesy of YouTube.

And the key to that was authenticity, the kind of authenticity so many businesses try and fail to fake.

“I’m not afraid to post about me or my family. I’ll post a video of me dancing in my room. It is authenticity and people can feel your energy through social media.

“It’s about balance. People are so desperate to get their stuff out there and it feels desperate. Followers and fans, they feel that desperateness.”

That also means not paying too much attention to the social media numbers – it’s not about finding a formula.

“You want it to feel cool and authentic and inviting. People want to be a part of it. It’s marketing yourself in a natural way. I just try to be me and not overthink things.”

So what about leadership, that other elusive concept in business?

Goebel said she has had that skill since she was young, always the one to put her hand up and offer to take things on.

“That kind of just made me become a leader naturally and hold everyone together,” she says.

“Obviously it started small. I was the leader of ReQuest when there was only five of us. I was fifteen, but that all helps and grows and the older I get the more I take on and the more of a leader I became.”

There are still lessons she can learn from her dad though, like saying no.

“I think he’s a little more firm than me. Sometimes I want to say yes to everything but I think that’s just being a female. I’m still learning and he helps me through that.”

Goebel acknowledges the alchemy, the magic, of creativity. And the power. But at its core that is also about a concept familiar to business – risk. You have to take a risk and tell the truth and trust that the opportunity will come.

“Being creatively successful is sometimes hit or miss and that’s why it sometimes feels like a miracle when it is successful. It is a risk.

“I’ve always thought your product never lies. Talent never lies. I’ve always thought my work will speak for itself and then you throw it on YouTube and are discovered by Jennifer Lopez.

“Something like that, it’s all about timing and fate and destiny but the product didn’t lie. In this three minute video clip which was just filmed in the camera and thrown on, it doesn’t lie.”

And if it doesn’t come it’s about not giving up.

“Sometimes it takes years and a lot of people have been turned down a lot of times. There’s a lot of people that have heard a lot of ‘no’s’ but they never gave up.

“All it takes if that one door to open. For me it was Jennifer Lopez and after that it just didn’t stop. A rush of work came in but before that there was nothing, just me putting stuff on YouTube.”

 

Ten tip top tips from a hip hop op:

  1. Work hard at something you love to do to create your vision
  2. Invest in your business and persist when the going gets tough
  3. Take risks and put yourself out there
  4. Hire people that will work hard, not necessarily the most talented
  5. Be yourself, authentic not fauxthentic
  6. Bring energy and a laser-like focus to what you do
  7. People matter, the people you meet are the people you can help and who can help you
  8. Be direct, confident and honest
  9. Embrace spontaneity and have fun
  10. Value yourself and be paid what you are worth even if it means saying no

 

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