There are many different types of entrepreneurs- there are tech entrepreneurs, online entrepreneurs, and then there are rockstar entrepreneurs like Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam. You’ve probably come across Rap Genius at some point, whether you are looking up lyrics to songs or you are reading the crazy antics Mahbod has said about billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffett. When he’s not hanging out with his favorite rappers like Gucci Mane, Kanye West and Nas, Mahbod is busy being the loudest and most disruptive entrepreneur on the internet.
Mahbod got his start at Yale with Rap Genius co-founders Tom Lehman and IIan Zechory and later studied corporate law, obtaining his JD from Stanford. With what started as a site that explained the lyrics to his favorite rap songs, Rap Genius has grown to all genres of music and provides detailed annotations for all major works of poetry and literature. As a successful startup, Rap Genius caught the attention of Andreessen Horowitz partner and rap enthusiast Ben Horowitz who invested $15 million early on.
But even with all these successes, Mahbod has had his fair share of battles. Sometime last year, doctors discovered a brain tumor in his brain. He had gone to get it checked out because he was getting intense migraines and his head was constantly trembling to the point it affected his work. Fortunately, doctors immediately perform surgery to successfully remove it.
We had the amazing chance to catch up with Mahbod at Rap Genius’ Bel Air mansion headquarters where he opened up about last year’s Google controversy, the secrets to Rap Genius’ incredible growth, and how the new Genius App aims to rival Facebook and Google for internet dominance.
You guys launched Rap Genius in October 2009 with two other co-founders; how passionate in the project were you guys at the time?
“Oh we were totally passionate. Like, the thing is when we started it, we started Rap Genius as an art project so it was totally our passion because it was just like a hobby. I was annotating stuff right off the bat, a bunch of us were. There were six or seven of us who are like the founding writers and then everyone has got varying levels of commitment to the company now, but everyone is still at least kind of involved so that’s kind of cool. Everyone right off the bat knew this was going to be the biggest website of all time, so it’s just like a question of what do I want my commitment to be? Maybe I chose to get involved too deep. Sometimes I think to myself, “I’m the Rap Genius guy,” you know?”
Did you think the site was was going to be this big back then?
“I guess I always knew, but I mean now to experience it is kind of overwhelming. Like sometimes I think, maybe I would have been better off just being a corporate lawyer, but at least what’s cool about being involved in the project I’m involved in is it’s bringing a new way of thinking to human culture, like a new way of congealing human knowledge and critiquing things and creating dialogue around texts. So I’m willing to suffer the corporate heat to bring this tremendous message to humanity because I think it’s bigger than Facebook. It’s much better than Wikipedia, and that makes it better than Facebook.”
How has your life changed in general since the success of Rap Genius? Do people treat you differently?
“Well it just depends who. I don’t really even get to meet that many people. Sometimes I’ll just go and I’ll be at a CVS and suddenly some random kid runs up and he’s like, “Yo Rap Genius guy, your site changed my life!” That’s the cool thing, I think who Rap Genius has really touched are people who are young enough that I’m very unlikely to meet them. Unfortunately, I don’t get to meet the people who were the ones who grew up with Rap Genius, but now what we’re starting to do is trying to systematize going to colleges to speak; in the end of March we’re doing our first Master’s Tea at Yale and that’s really cool because when we originally started what was at that point RapExegesis.com, we started it in order to obtain a Master’s Tea at Yale. That’s what we want to do, we want to have this website to get us this Master’s Tea at Yale. So it’s finally doing it, we’re finally doing our Master’s Tea at Yale. And then, yesterday I saw that I am a prize in some kind of a Columbia University raffle.”
A school you got rejected from!
“Yeah! They’re like “Participate in this raffle for whatever and one of the prizes is to have lunch with the Rap Genius guy!” I’m like “Wow, who would want to have lunch with me?” I’m like, I never even put the napkin on my lap, you know I’m a total mess.”
Tell us a memorable conflict you and the other co-founders had and how did you guys resolve it?
“Honestly there’s never even any conflict. Everything goes together so organically because for me the way that I see it, Tom is just this creative God of the website. He built the actual thing, he’s always got this grand vision. Then Ilan is like the maker, he’s like the Hercules of the game. He’s the one who could actually build the thing, make the deals that need to be made, and manage what’s going on. And then I am the loud speaker, I’m just able to communicate things in a bigger way and tie things together. So we all just kind of operate in a way that it forms like Voltron. It all works together in such an organic way. I’m not gonna say that we’ve never raised our voices or anything like that. But there’s never been true conflict. Everything just moved together so organically. It feels weird, it feels like I’ve been living a screenplay; it doesn’t feel like real life.”
Is it because you guys are collectively passionate about Rap Genius as a brand and know your focus?
“We’re a collective robot, you know? Like at this point we don’t even have our own personalities anymore. It feels kind of like communist Russia. Basically, Rap Genius is the Stalinist Russia of the internet, but in a good way.”
You guys are known in the press to be quite controversial; have you guys always been like this?
“Yeah, we’re committed to always being funny. A lot of times, unfortunately, the jokes get lost. Not everyone gets the joke, but you still have to make the joke because that’s more important than anything. I think that’s the reason for the success of our website is its voice. Everything in Rap Genius is a little bit tongue in cheek. Keeping that voice is critical, no other site has a voice like that. Quora or Wikipedia, they’re a lot more stale and that makes them a lot less engaging.”
One thing I find impressive about Rap Genius is the audience. You guys have a unique audience and a very loyal following.
“Yeah, sometimes if we make a joke, eighty percent of people are going to be like, “What are these idiots saying?” They’re totally offended by it. But if our core audience of people who are actually involved in Rap Genius still get it, then maybe it’s still worth making that joke. It’s a very very small core audience who’s the actual site and then they turn it into something much bigger just like Yelp. Yelp is another thing that have this core group of active Yelpers, the site’s very useful for them too. It empowers them, it allows them to voice their opinion on things but then they’re creating a product that a way bigger number of people end up using.”
What would you say is your core philosophy when it comes to marketing a product?
“Core philosophy is that it begins and ends with Twitter. Twitter is the great equalizer of marketing because it doesn’t matter how much money you have, being passionate on Twitter is a rare thing. It’s the only real way to build a brand. My core function for years was that I would search “Rap Genius” or “rapgenius.com,” like any possible iteration on Twitter, and anytime anyone was talking about us, I would @ reply them. That’s how I think I built the whole community, was through Twitter. Without Twitter there would be no Rap Genius. I think that is true about a lot of brands. There are a lot of brands who, through being effective on Twitter and truly using to its full advantage, they could obtain something that money simply can’t buy.”
So when will rap genius overtake Twitter?
“Soon, soon. But you know, I’m really divided in my love; they’re tied for being the two best websites in the world, Rap Genius and Twitter, because Twitter truly built something- and Facebook is up there too, Facebook is a way for all people to communicate- Rap Genius is the great intellectual dialogue, and then Twitter is a way to search things globally. You can search any time that anyone is talking about Rap Genius or what they think about the weather that day or whatever you want. So those are the big three for me.”