Kent Nielsen | Gagen MacDonald

Insights & Events / Let Go & Lead / LG&L Interview

Kent Nielsen

Jul 29, 2016

Fast Facts


Chicago, IL

First job:

Golf caddy

Time in current role:

7 years

Favorite Foundation:

Fischer House Foundation

Role model:

George Lucas

Questions & Answers

Who has been an influential leader in your life?:

Definitely George Lucas: from a child as a fan, to a leader with his work in Skywalker Ranch. There were some parallels between Fort Knox and George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. Lucas’s vision was to seek and develop something that was more supportive and holistic to the artist, while also supporting a market-based culture outside of the tight studio system of movies.

This shaped what we did here. Early on my partner and I said, “Okay we have 900 musicians here. Maybe we should start a sound company or start a label. We could do it ourselves.” After a very short time, we saw that the way to grow [the business] faster was to bring in existing sound companies and labels as tenants, and bring in more than one of them to create a marketplace. For example, if you want to rent a strobe light, you can do that here, and you can do it from more than one place; there are four or five companies at Fort Knox that will rent you a strobe light. Even if you’re not in the building, you know that if you need something, you can go to Knox and have options.

When you say Fort Knox is the “largest music ecosystem on earth,” what do you mean by that?:

There were traditional movie studios, and then George Lucas came in and built his own. We admired that and saw that one of the problems with [the] Chicago music [industry] is that it’s fragmented both geographically and by genre; you have little pockets of people all over. Same with the business side. There is actually a lot of talent representation here, but they were spread out geographically making it more difficult to find an agent. We want to introduce bands to the right people; but rather than try to curate everything we created an ecosystem—an area where the right people congregate to make it easier for them to connect and find what they need.

What has starting Fort Knox taught you about leadership?:

Don’t form an opinion on anything until you’ve talked to everyone. When you’re making decisions, you have to make sure you gather all the information before you make your call. Building a great business is really about solving as many problems as possible in the cleverest way possible. If you stack enough of those solutions in a pile, that [becomes a] competitive advantage. It comes down to the little things that might seem too small to make a difference, but there is a lot of creativity in those little solutions.

How would you like your leadership to develop in the future with Fort Knox?:

I think we’re on a really good path. Originally, people rented here just because we actually had the space. You could come to Fort Knox and rent a room and make a ton of noise with your band. But now, with all the businesses that have come in, we have created a place where people can interact. Our product shifted from 100 percent space product to a 50 percent space / 50 percent business-development/networking product. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still about the space. You still get a room or a desk and we can finish out any type of specialty space you need, but it’s also about hanging out your shingle and networking here at Fort Knox. Offices, studios, and rehearsal rooms are great. People knocking on your door to give you money is even better. That’s transformational.

Have you always seen yourself as a leader?:

The leadership part of me in the workplace became almost scientific in a sense, because my business partner’s real strength is his incredible operational capabilities. My strength is in taking a market or opportunity and breaking it down into problems. I can usually figure out what needs to happen to make that opportunity work. Simplify with clarity.

You need to look at what the world is telling you it wants, and that has helped me see things early on that other people missed. For example, we were aware of how many college and postgraduate students are here in Chicago. I saw a pool of people here that wanted to stay in Chicago after college in the music or film industry. At 2112 [the tech incubator at Fort Knox studios], we are able to bring both parties together; Fort Knox and 2112 work because it has the right people in the right room.

If you had to pinpoint a professional experience that influenced your desire to lead Fort Knox, what would it be?:

When I was in some of my bands, we wanted to develop to where we were working with an agent and manager. So I knew we needed to meet agents and managers, but it was difficult. Where do you start? Being in a band is like being in a startup.

Honestly, 50 percent of why you go to L.A. or Nashville is because so many people there are in the [music] game. You rent an apartment and you are more than likely to meet a neighbor in the industry as well. In Chicago, you don’t really have that. It’s too big [and fragmented]. I was able to see the current state of our community; where it was strong and where it was broken.

Ultimately I knew what the weaknesses were in this market and how to fix them, which lead us to really going for it and expanding Fort Knox beyond just rehearsal spaces.

What advice would you give to young leaders?:

Observe and stand out. Both of them take a bit of practice, but it gets easier. I was at a tech conference in San Francisco last year. I heard a lot of pitches for new startups, and they would talk to potential investors, just telling them what they thought they wanted to hear. It’s like the guitarist that dresses up in a wardrobe of the moment because they think that’s what will land them the audition. But in truth, it’s already over. You’re joining a new band? You have to be two years ahead of right now. Claiming to be the new Spotify isn’t going to work; that’s looking in the rear-view mirror.

My advice is to go solve a problem for yourself. Don’t focus on the pothole right next to you, look far enough ahead to see the pothole down the road, because by the time it’s right in front of you, it’s too late. The future is coming at you faster than you think, and the guys that succeed are looking into the future. Creative problem solving is innovation.

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