Dolly Parton is an American icon. Even people who don’t consider themselves fans of country music tend to know and like Dolly Parton; over many decades, she has built a brand as not just a musician, actress and entertainer, but as a smart, savvy business owner. Dolly owns a multi-million dollar collection of businesses that have created thousands of jobs; she owns production companies for TV and movies, licensing deals, and even an amusement park in Tennessee called “Dollywood.”
Dolly is 74 years old and still going strong with her music and business career. A recent article in Billboard featured a behind-the-scenes look at Dolly Parton’s business empire and interviewed her about her strategic approach to managing her career and building her brand over time. Even if you can’t carry a tune or play a guitar, every business owner can learn something from Dolly and how she’s running her business.
Here are a few of my favorite business management lessons from Dolly Parton.
Say “No” More Often
Sometimes business owners get over-extended. They try too hard to serve too many customers, they try to be all things to all people, they say “yes” to everything. As a result, the business suffers. Dolly Parton is focused and strategic in how she engages with business opportunities. She says “No” much more often than she says “Yes.” According to the Billboard article, Dolly’s company says “No” to 90% of the business offers that come to them. Dolly and her team try not to overexpose Dolly’s brand, and they try to maximize Dolly’s time and effort.
By being smart and strategic, and saying “no” to opportunities that aren’t the right fit, business owners can do more of what they do best and make the most of their time and energy.
Hold On to Your Ownership of Long-Term Investments
Dolly even said “No” to Elvis Presley. Back in the mid-1970s, Elvis had expressed interest in recording his own version of Dolly’s famous song, “I Will Always Love You,” but Dolly said “no” because she didn’t want to give up 50% of the publishing rights.
By holding on to the ownership of her asset (the rights to the song), Dolly ultimately ended up making a lot more money from the song than she would have if she gave up half the value. Other business owners can learn from this: invest for the long term. Don’t give up on something you own, don’t sell for too little. Whether it’s equity in your company or some intellectual property or a special business idea or invention that you’re working on, don’t sell too soon or sell yourself short. Some of the most successful business owners know how to “buy and hold” with their long-term investments – whether that means an investment in the stock market or an investment in your business.
Diversify Your Income
Dolly could have had a comfortable life and a successful career just as a musician. But she’s smart and strategic and she wanted to do more with her potential. She diversified her income streams into TV production, merchandise licensing, and owning a theme park, “Dollywood” near her home town in Tennessee. Instead of just relying upon music to make money, Dolly found other ways to make money from multiple directions. She said that she wanted to put herself in a position so that even if her music career became less successful and she couldn’t go on tour anymore, she could always sing at Dollywood.
In the same way, more small business owners should think about diversifying their incomes. What happens to your business if one of your most popular products takes a hit in sales? What if one of your target markets starts to shrink, or you suddenly face new lower-cost competitors that put pressure on your profit margins? Every business, not matter how small, should have a diversified income. Try to keep money coming in from multiple sources and directions. Don’t rely on just one thing to make money for your business.
Another aspect of Dolly Parton’s business strategy is that she likes to avoid long-term contracts. She wants to stay flexible so she can keep her options open and not be locked into any one business deal. She does one album at a time, one TV deal at a time.
Many small business owners might relate to this. Most entrepreneurs go into business because they want to have freedom and flexibility; even if offered the stability of a steady paycheck from a full-time job, most business owners would rather just keep doing their own thing, even if it’s less “stable” or predictable. Dolly Parton has built a business by being creative and keeping her options open. Even if you don’t become as rich and famous as Dolly, you can still run your business with some of the same principles.