A Discussion with Devo Harris: Adventr Founder, Kanye West’s Business Partner, and the Producer Behind John Legend’s Career

A Discussion with Devo Harris: Adventr Founder, Kanye West's Business Partner, and the Producer Behind John Legend's Career

In this interview, I speak to Devo Harris, founder and CEO of Adventr, an AI-powered video platform that enables top brands and agencies to produce, publish and share interactive and data-populated videos via no-code streaming. A Grammy-award winner, he co-founded Kanye West’s GOOD Music in addition to signing EGOT winner John Legend and producing music for iconic artists including Jay-Z, Nas, and Britney Spears. Devo lectures regularly at Harvard University and speaks globally about the future of media technology. Devo earned his BS from The Wharton School at UPenn and his MBA at Columbia Business School.

Q: How did you find transitioning from music to entrepreneurship?

[Devo Harris]:  To me, it’s all entrepreneurship. I didn’t realize that’s what it was called when I started. Although I wasn’t particularly passionate about music, I recognised an opportunity upon meeting people like my roommate John and my cousin Kanye. I viewed them as undervalued assets. I believed that by integrating a few pieces and connecting the dots, I could create significant value. This opportunity just happened to be in the music industry. At that time, artists like 50 Cent were popularising gangster music, and I anticipated a shift towards more suburban, welcoming sounds. I saw Kanye as the embodiment of this new trend, so we capitalised on that momentum. Now, as I venture into tech, my approach remains similar: I keep an eye on media trends and aim to position myself ahead of market shifts.

Q: What can business learn from hip hop culture?

[Devo Harris]:  …when I earned my MBA at Columbia, I felt that my background in hip hop caused others not to take me seriously as a businessperson. For example, in marketing courses, we were often taught by 70-year-old professors discussing strategies from the 1980s, which, while valuable, reflected a very reactive business environment—a trait common in many businesses and certainly in business school programs.

After class, I would meet with Kanye to work on next-generation marketing—real, proactive marketing. Hip hop, in my view, stands at the vanguard of cultural and technological adoption, consistently ahead in both marketing and technological innovations. The disruption in the music industry, from the cost of music distribution plummeting to music production becoming more accessible via computers, illustrates these points well. This shift increased supply dramatically while the economic demand decreased.

During my MBA program, whenever big music executives visited, many students and organisations would flock to learn where the music industry had faltered in facing technological disruptions. From technology and adoption to marketing, music, especially hip hop, leads the way. If you aim to create cutting-edge businesses, there’s a lot to learn from these fields, which consistently remain at the forefront.

Q: What does it take to really succeed as an artist, or entrepreneur?

[Devo Harris]:  I believe it boils down to confidence and fearlessness—believing in yourself and your own perspective. At the end of the day, all musicians and producers work with essentially the same equipment: the same keyboards, the same machines. However, some individuals have a keener sense of taste than others. There are many people with great taste, more than we often acknowledge, but only some of them truly have confidence in their taste. This is something Rick Rubin often discusses. I trust my own taste; that’s what I’m compensated for. From Pharrell to Kanye to Max Martin, these artists not only possess good taste but also supreme confidence in their taste. This principle applies across various domains, including music, clothing, and furniture.

The same holds true for entrepreneurs: when you fail to follow your vision and your sense of what needs to be executed—what the market desires—and instead listen to the consensus, it dilutes your vision. Consensus tends to pull everything towards mediocrity. So, how can you achieve extraordinary results if you are constantly being drawn towards the average? It’s really about having confidence in your vision. That’s where true brilliance emerges, in both creativity and business building.

Q: How do you maintain creativity at scale?

[Devo Harris]: Firstly, I’ve been fortunate not to be formally trained in any of these disciplines. I don’t know how to play music, nor do I know how to code, but I have a strong sense of what the market wants. Around that, I build a team of people who are skilled at execution and who believe in the mission.

There are two main parts to this approach. One is that you need to be intelligent and self-aware enough to recognize when your vision and taste aren’t working, and be ready to pivot and take in new inputs. Your vision must not only work, but also show progress along the way.

Secondly, maintaining that initial spark is crucial. One thing I’ve learned—initially from Kanye and then from my own experiences—is the importance of building a team that believes in you and your vision, and whose skills complement your own. This way, the spark isn’t dimmed by investors or external pressures. My role is to provide that spark.

There have been times in my scale-up journey when I lacked a supportive team, which forced me to handle many ancillary tasks outside my expertise. Facing these challenges, investors and customers weren’t coming to me for these tasks; they sought the unique spark I provided. When that starts to dim, your confidence may wane. It’s essential to have a support network that not only believes in your vision but can also enhance it.

Q: Have you experienced bias against people of colour, or indeed from the creative sector, as you went into entrepreneurship?

[Devo Harris]: 
We could talk about this all day. Arts are often not viewed as legitimate business, yet they absolutely are, and the scope of what is considered art is broadening. Black arts are perceived even less favourably than mainstream art. Managing a rock band on tour involves numerous complexities—that’s fascinating. Then, working with a hip-hop act? That might seem like the Wild West, lacking structured business practices, but that’s not the case; the structure exists. I believe the “black” aspect associated with hip-hop often undermines the perception of its business integrity.

Moving into the tech space, I encountered many biases during funding discussions. For example, in meetings about potential investments, the conversation might turn to competitors. Mentioning a company based in Israel, investors would immediately assume, “Oh, they’re from Israel? Their technology must be very secure.” They make these assumptions based only on demographic information. That makes me wonder what assumptions they make about me with the little they know.

It took me 10 years to secure a seed round, even with existing customers. Meanwhile, my Columbia peers would raise millions with just a pitch deck. This bias is still a reality today. I’ve had well-meaning partners and investors suggest that appointing a white CEO would make fundraising easier. They were probably right, but I persevered, and here we are. These perceptions, especially in the absence of substantial information, certainly persist.

Q: How do you stay positive, and keep fighting?

[Devo Harris]:  I’ve shared stories about approaching investors and confronting their preconceived notions. Similarly, I think about my experiences with hip-hop record labels. Imagine if a Korean woman walked into one of these labels and claimed she had the best new music for them. It’s likely many would dismiss her, doubting her understanding of the genre simply because she doesn’t fit the expected profile.

This issue isn’t confined to the tech industry; it’s prevalent across many sectors. There’s a widespread perception about who is expected to succeed and who ‘belongs’. However, I remind myself of my own successes to maintain confidence in my abilities. Even in my collaboration with Kanye, there were years when experienced professionals told him no one wanted to hear him rap. My college roommate, John Stevens, and I struggled for a long time to secure a record deal, performing at weddings and bars. Eventually, we improved, he became John Legend, and his career took off.

These experiences reinforce my belief in overcoming doubts and continuing to push forward. This is why I chose not to appoint a white CEO; I want others to see my journey and realize that regardless of their background—whether they’re brown, black, or purple—they too can succeed in this industry.

Q: In music, a lot of artists already ‘do the work’ of MVP without realising when they’re out hustling!

[Devo Harris]:  In music, I used to take my interns to clubs with vinyl records in hand. Many people might not understand that now, but we would literally walk in and ask the DJ to play a new track from an artist named Kanye West. We’d hand over the vinyl, they’d put it on their turntable, and play it for the entire club. We also made mixtapes, distributing music for free but investing in higher quality production to position ourselves as a premium brand within hip-hop.

The same principle applies in technology. Until we find the right product-market fit, we engage in activities that may not initially scale. You don’t need to scale right at the start. First, you secure one customer, then five, then ten. If you can attract ten customers, you can reach fifty. Once you have fifty, a hundred is attainable. That’s when you’re truly building a business. It’s the same foundational concept.

Q: How have you been able to apply your learnings in music to your new business, Adventr?

[Devo Harris]:  Absolutely. In many ways, it’s a reflection of myself. It’s a tool for creativity and expression that was previously unimaginable. The kinds of creative expressions you can achieve with Adventr are unprecedented. Yet, it’s not just about the creative potential; the business metrics it delivers, like click-through rates, engagement, and purchase intent at scale across advertising platforms and social media, are equally groundbreaking.

We’ve seen that ad units driven by our tool have become the highest performing ads on these networks, leading to significant increases in user interest and purchases due to the high level of engagement. There’s a creative side to this, but there’s also a profound business side. These two aspects don’t have to be at odds. We’ve managed to merge them into a package that’s not only powerful but also easy to use.

Q: How did you realise you’d hit on something special with Adventr?

[Devo Harris]:  Before starting this business, I produced a music video for a band I had signed called Attack of the Five Foot Hipster. The video is still on YouTube, albeit in very poor quality. We released it as a regular music video, and initially, the comments on YouTube were harsh—people said the song sucked. The following week, we released the same video for the same song, but this time it was interactive, inspired by my work with Kanye and others who always strive to innovate. This was a decade ago.

In this second release, everything was the same, except viewers could choose the scenes they wanted to watch next. Suddenly, the comments shifted to praise: “This song is awesome. This is going to be a huge song.” Viewers began visiting our site and downloading the song—something they hadn’t done the week before. The only change was that we allowed the audience to interact with the video.

This led to companies reaching out to me, asking how to replicate this interactive experience. That’s what sparked the creation of Adventr. It demonstrated the power of engagement—a term that wasn’t a buzzword back then—and how participation could alter perceptions of a product.

Now, personalisation is key to anything that works on the internet, whether it’s websites, Instagram, or Netflix, all of which use data to tailor experiences. Adventr aims to bring that level of personalisation to video content. That’s the core of what Adventr is all about.

Yes, you’re catching on to where we’re headed. Adventr isn’t just another ad or marketing platform; it’s more akin to a video editor that does more than just edit—it connects to other systems. We’re collaborating with gaming and film companies to pioneer the next generation of interactive video technology. Imagine, in the next 5 to 10 years, videos that are not only interactive but also conversational—greeting you by name, asking about purchases like, “Hey Johnny, welcome back. How were those T-shirts you ordered last week?” This represents a shift towards a more connected, personalised media landscape.

Our goal is to become the underlying infrastructure for this kind of media. The challenge now is figuring out how to market and position ourselves and educate the market so that creators can independently craft these kinds of experiences.

Q: What does it really take to succeed in entrepreneurship?

[Devo Harris]:  … starting a business is incredibly tough. Whenever someone asks me about it, my advice is simple: don’t do it. From my experience, the most crucial element is the team. They need to have skills that complement each other and, most importantly, they must believe in your vision. That’s key.

The second important aspect is to anticipate future trends—skate to where the puck is going. It’s not just about making iterative improvements; it’s about understanding where we’ll be five years from now, what the world will look like, and how you can contribute to that future. Those are the main ingredients: a big goal and the right team. With these, you can achieve most things.

However, another fundamental aspect of investing, and by extension entrepreneurship, is knowing not only when to invest but when to withdraw. You have to be realistic about when a venture is no longer worth pursuing, whether it’s due to market shifts, the wrong team, or your own temperament. Being smart about entrepreneurship includes managing these realities effectively.

Q: What does legacy mean to you?

[Devo Harris]:  I aim to be among the best to ever do it. I hope that when people think of Devo Harris, they feel inspired and think, “Wow, if I can do it, anyone can.” If this nerdy, Ivy League-educated individual can become a Grammy-winning rap producer, then maybe I can unleash my creativity. Or if this highly creative person from Harlem, USA, can develop tech products that revolutionize the world, then I can too.

I want people to feel empowered when they think of me. In the next few years, it will become more common for you to interact with media personalised just for you. I want people to recognize that these innovations came from Devo—a black man, a musician. So the next person who looks like you or me and enters Columbia Business School or any other institution won’t be underestimated. When it comes to raising funds, they won’t be dismissed because of their background. Anyone is capable of achieving these magical feats. So, just believe.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.