Even before he knew how to read and write, Nicholas Rodriguez had a mind for business. The Columbia rapper and entrepreneur, who also goes by the stage name NicDanger, wore suits to school in kindergarten. As a young teen, he booked acts and organized marketing and security for a concert series at the Columbia Mall. By the time Rodriguez entered his junior year of high school, he was collecting accolades for founding a break-dancing ensemble that performed at elementary schools, music venues and festivals around town. Now, at age 24, Rodriguez is the CEO of his startup, Disturbed Entertainment LLC. He coordinates events, writes commercial jingles, and produces, distributes and performs his own music.

“He has always had his head on straight,” says his mother, Mary Rodriguez. “He has always been focused, and paying attention to the details of how things get done. I always say he is the next hardest-working person in show business.”

You don’t have to spend much time with Rodriguez to discover that his mother’s claims are more than just parental pride. New acquaintances immediately get a business card and a promotional postcard, both printed on thick, glossy paper. Getting straight to business is a necessity for Rodriguez. His weekly schedule leaves little time for slowing down. He logs 50 hours per week working at jobs with H&R Block and the University of Missouri. He also dabbles in freelance landscaping and marketing on the side. In his off-hours, Rodriguez dedicates time to growing his business and writing at least four songs or poems each day.

“I’m constantly working on my craft,” he says. “I always want to know how I can make things better. It’s never time to celebrate to me. I’m always wanting to work harder and do more.”

Old-Fashioned Hustle
Rodriguez serves as his own publicist. It’s not uncommon for him to stay up until the early morning hours, texting and emailing business contacts. He is active on social media using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to advertise his music and services. He uploads tracks to a worldwide audience through streaming audio platforms such as SoundCloud and Mixtape Monkey. Yet Rodriguez says he gets the best results when he is out meeting people face to face. He calls his preferred marketing style “hand-to-hand combat.” He illustrated this phrase on a day when he passed out 2,000 flyers to promote an event.

“I believe in doing this the old-fashioned way,” says Rodriguez. “The way you get big as an entrepreneur and independent artist is to fill your trunk up with CDs, posters, flyers and merchandise, and just hit the pavement and talk to people.”

At the end of each year, Rodriguez reviews his income and expenses to make sure he is staying on course. In 2014, he achieved several of his business objectives:

  • He increased revenue by selling more jingles, CDs and NicDanger-branded music, T-shirts and posters.
  • He registered Disturbed Entertainment as a limited liability company.
  • He hired a booking agent.
  • He worked with the staff at Regional Economic Development Inc. to develop his first formal business plan.
  • He attracted investors who covered some of his travel and recording studio expenses.

“I started putting my earnings from the business back into the business,” says Rodriguez. “If I sell a CD, I put that money back into making another CD, instead of using it for gas money or some other expense. I saw that other entrepreneurs managed their money that way and it makes sense.”

Real World Lessons
Phil Overeem was Rodriguez’s language arts teacher at Hickman High School. He says he has long admired Rodriguez’s drive and business savvy.

“I have known Nick since he was 12,” says Overeem. “He is absolutely unintimidated by any aspect of the music business, and he doesn’t accept failure. He’s been one of the stars of the Columbia music community since he was a teenager, and there is no reason to believe that he won’t continue to shine even brighter in the future.”

When Rodriguez outlines his multifaceted business plan, it is easy to forget that he doesn’t have a formal business education. He graduated from Hickman High School in 2009 and attended Moberly Area Community College for a year before opting to get his training outside of the classroom. He took advantage of a position as an event and party promoter to learn the ins and outs of contract negotiation, budgets, marketing and networking. Rodriguez was able to transfer those skills into building his personal brand.

“I learned from actually doing it,” he explains. “I feel like that is the best way to gain knowledge. Going to school is, of course, good too, but when you are thrown into a real situation, you learn faster. I like learning that way.”

Rodriguez says that navigating the ups and downs of business has taught him the importance of determination. He has developed a tough skin and doesn’t let rejection or unkind words from naysayers stop him from moving forward.

“People give up too easily,” he says. “You cannot give up. This is a passion for me. It’s not a choice for me to keep going because doing this is as natural as my heart beating.”

Composing music and performing is Rodriguez’s first love, but he doesn’t see the business side of things as a burden or a means to an end. He says he’d like to return to school eventually to get undergraduate and graduate degrees in business management and marketing.

“The entertainment industry is a business, and I don’t dread that aspect of it at all,” he says. “The business side makes you understand more of how the artistic side works. There is marketing, strategic planning and so much else that goes into it.”

Rodriguez doesn’t hesitate to admit he has made mistakes over the years. Trial and error — and learning from the missteps of other entrepreneurs — has taught him to take a careful approach to business. This means analyzing all the possible variables and outcomes before making decisions. He recalls a time when he quickly put together a music showcase and only gave himself a month to promote it. The audience turnout wasn’t as large as he had hoped, and he realized that he would need at least two to three months to publicize future events.

“You have to look at what you are doing before you just jump into something,” he says. “I learned that the hard way. Things need to make sense. You have to sit down and plan things out and look at things from all different angles.”

Yet Rodriguez is still willing to take calculated risks with the understanding that they won’t always turn out in his favor.

“If you don’t lose, you can’t win,” he says. “I’ve lost a lot, and I’ve won some. But, the most important things are what I’ve learned in each situation.”

CoMo Connections
Another way Rodriguez has increased his business acumen is by tapping into Columbia’s resources and networking. He is a member of Emerging Professionals in Columbia, a division of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. He presented his business concept to a group of mentors, advisers and fellow entrepreneurs at REDI’s weekly 1 Million Cups meeting in February 2014. The crowd asked questions and gave Rodriguez suggestions for how to gain traction for his company. A few even expressed interest in hiring him to write a jingle. A few years ago, he wrote a song called “Columbia Stand Up”; the accompanying music video featured community leaders and businesspeople and helped Rodriguez expand his professional network.

“You have to be able to admit when you don’t know what you’re doing, and then find someone who is an expert in that area,” he explains. “I believe in teams. Anyone who is great at what they do has a great team surrounding them. When you have a solid team and a solid product, you’re going to have a good run.”

Mary Kroening, director of membership for the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, says Rodriguez contacted her more than a year ago to discuss ways he could plug in to Columbia’s business scene.

“Nick is very energetic,” says Kroening. “He has awesome, innovative ideas. For someone his age, he has an impressive understanding of business. Nick believes in what he is doing. He is willing to persevere and give it his all, even if doors are closing in his face.”

Rodriguez counts Mayor Bob McDavid, former Blue Note owner Richard King, Veterans United’s Sarah Hill, Inside Columbia publisher Fred Parry and Columbia Parks & Recreation specialist Bill Thompson as some of his local supporters and mentors.

“I like talking to people. I always take advice,” he says. “I call successful people and ask them what they think. I get their opinions on how to do things. I ask people if they can sit down with me and explain how they have achieved their success.”

Rodriguez has achieved plenty of success in his own right. He has written jingles and starred in local TV and radio commercials for Sami Beauty Supply and the FastCat bus system. He’s coordinated well-attended community events, poetry slams, music showcases and workshops. In 2014, he toured California for three weeks, opening shows for Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Jhené Aiko and Academy Award-winning rapper Juicy J.

No Limits
But true to form, Rodriguez isn’t resting on his laurels. He wants to emulate the careers of celebrity business moguls Russell Simmons, P. Diddy and Pharrell Williams. He says he looks up to them because of their accomplishments in several areas including music, fashion design, advertising and film/TV production.

“I like to take my creativity in different directions,” Rodriguez says. “Whether it’s writing commercials or helping other people write, I like using my talents in many different ways besides just performing.”

If all goes as planned, 2015 will be a big year for Rodriguez’s entertainment company. He is signed on to pen his third jingle for Sami Beauty Supply, and he is under contract with another Columbia client for a jingle and TV commercial. Rodriguez is also in the process of planning a spring artist showcase that will feature all-female talent. Long term, he envisions producing large-scale festivals, writing jingles for national brands, and directing, shooting and editing music videos. He even wants to open a performing arts academy in Columbia for elementary and high school students.

“I want to give back to Columbia,” says Rodriguez. “This could be a music empire, too. This could be a stomping ground for a lot of different types of business.”

His top priority for this year is to complete his first full-length studio album by July. He’ll follow that up with shows at music festivals throughout the Midwest in the late summer and early fall. To meet his goals, Rodriguez will spend much of the next few months putting in long hours under the guidance of experienced record producers in Missouri, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. He wants honest feedback on his writing and rapping, and as always, he is willing to go above and beyond to make it happen.

“When you are putting together an album, you might write 50 songs and maybe use only five or 10 of those,” Rodriguez says. “You can be in the studio for months working on one track. It can get depressing. People break down. I’m going in thinking I might write 1,000 songs and not use any of them. I’ll probably get four hours of sleep a day while I’m recording, and I’m okay with that.”

Personal gain isn’t what motivates Rodriguez as an entrepreneur. He enjoys motivating young people, and has been invited to speak about his business and music industry experiences to students at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School, New Haven Elementary School and Hickman High School.

“Money, fame and awards are nice, but that is not as important to me as inspiring people to follow their dreams,” Rodriguez says. “There is a lot of talent in Missouri, and I want to give a voice to that. Everyone should be empowered. I want to show people that anything is possible.”

Nicholas Rodriguez got his stage name from a favorite T-shirt that he wore as a teenager. The shirt bore the name “Nick Danger,” a fictional film noir detective who appears on several albums by a comedy group called Firesign Theatre. Whenever Rodriguez wore the shirt, people would call him Nick Danger, he says, and the name eventually stuck. He dropped the “k” at the end of “Nick” and started making music under the moniker NicDanger.

“I liked it because it sounded like a superhero’s name,” Rodriguez says.

His company name, Disturbed Entertainment, also has roots in Rodriguez’s high school life. As a teenager, he was in a Rage Against the Machine-inspired band called disruptedperceptionz. The band dissolved, but Rodriguez wanted to bring its memory into his company. He changed “disrupted” to “Disturbed” and added “Entertainment” to cover the variety of services he provides.

“The name represents the way that I think people see my music when they are on the outside looking in,” he explains. “It also represents being different from other people and being misunderstood. When people learn more about my music and what I do, they see it in a different light.”

Disrupted Entertainment LLC