It's tempting to think of the business world at large as being cold, sterile, and the polar opposite to entertaining. Derek Erdman is the exception to that perception. In 2006, Erdman, tired of his workaday existence, decided to make a go of being an artist full-time on his own terms. That blossomed into a variety of kooky projects Erdman's been doing on a rolling basis, and they're all funded through PayPal, everything from being a mercenary battle rapper to settle personal disputes as Rap Master Maurice to more innocent fare like selling paintings.
Rap Master Maurice is perhaps Erdman's flagship enterprise, and over the years its asking price has soared from a couple of bucks to $17, or $24 if you want to have Maurice call and give massive props to a friend for giving you an awesome gift. As all artists tend to do, though, Erdman left Chicago late last year, and is now happily running what he estimates to be about a dozen services like this, full-time, from Seattle.
I gave Erdman a call to talk about the logistics of running a business through PayPal, ideas he had that didn't take off, and why most people talk themselves out of trying unusual ideas.
What advice would you give to people thinking of starting a business where they take money from people through PayPal?
Derek Erdman: I think when I decided to invent Rap Master Maurice it became clear to me that you could really do almost anything with the Internet and somebody out there would respond to it because there are so many people using the Internet. It's just so big that somebody would catch on to want a service you would provide, almost any service it seems. As opposed to having a brick-and-mortar business -- I owned a record store in Chicago for a while -- and a limited number of people would know about that store and a limited number of people would go to that store. But you could offer almost anything -- I guess also just getting a lot of press on the Internet, making sure you do well on search engines and stuff like that?
But it seems like people tend not to do that so much, just offer any sort of service online through PayPal. Most people probably use PayPal a few times a year, on eBay or half.com.
Derek Erdman: PayPal is also set up, I believe, to not have to actually have an account. You can just use a credit card for a one-time payment. It can work as that as well. There are a lot of politics involved. A lot of people don't like PayPal because they take a pretty good amount of money. It's not necessarily enough to make me avoid it because it's just so easy to use. There's a button you can just click and it charges the person any amount of money you tell that button you want to charge. It's very simple to use. Just set up a website with a button.
Is that why your prices have gone up over the years? Because PayPal takes a cut, or is it just because you've gotten more and more popular?
Derek Erdman: I've gotten overwhelmed with the amount of work I have to do. When I started out doing things, making money on the Internet, I started selling paintings. The raps were second. I started out not possibly thinking that anyone would want any of these things, so I charged very little money thinking that would entice people. Eventually I became too busy for what I was doing as word spread -- now I'm able to charge a lot more for things and I find that people still buy it. So, I guess in a way I'm kicking myself for not doing it sooner.
How much work is it giving you? Is it equivalent to a part-time job or a full-time job?
Derek Erdman: I work seven days a week, about eight hours a day.
How much of that is devoted to Rap Master Maurice?
Derek Erdman: I would say 30 percent. The raps have gotten really popular. I'm really surprised people are willing to pay the amount they are now because they used to be so cheap. They were like $7 and $12. I was on the BBC last month, and now I charge people in England $32 and they happily pay it. It's very surprising.
So you've gone international with this, then. How do people's revenge rap needs in the UK differ from over here?
Derek Erdman: Well there are two kinds of raps: revenge raps and friendly raps. It seems that people overseas tend to order the friendly raps more.
Why do you think that is?
Derek Erdman: I don't know. Less anger over there than there is here? Though I have seen a rash of rejected spouses or bad relationships. It's always really awkward for me to rap to someone who's broken up with somebody. It's such a terrible situation in the first place, and nobody ever feels good about in the first place. But having some guy call you and rhyme on the phone must just make it even worse I think. I don't think I ever help in that situation.
Has there been a situation where you've helped make amends?
Derek Erdman: Yeah, recently a friend of mine from Chicago was in New York and she went to a nail salon or a spa. They had a special outside that said it was $8 for a spa treatment. But they kept asking her if she wanted extra things, not saying they were going to charge her for those things. So the $8 spa treatment turned into a $270 spa treatment without her really knowing it. They forced her into paying before she could leave. She called the Better Business Bureau, and nobody could do anything about it.
So I made a rap for her, and she said she got a call from the owner. He said he fired the person who was working and gave her all of her money back, just from the rap. So sometimes you get results. You never know.
Were there any raps you were particularly apprehensive about delivering?
Derek Erdman: I really don't like raps where a person will say that they got their name or number from a bar and they've called them but that person hasn't responded. You have to be careful of instances that feel like stalking. Which is why some of those break-up raps are kinda sketchy too because you're only getting one side of the story. If it's a friendly rap in that vein, I'll do it. If it's like, "Man, I screwed up, I feel terrible. I really wanna make it up to this person." That's great. If it's like, "This person did me wrong, I need to get them back. They're a real jerk." That's when you don't know exactly the whole story. I'm definitely apprehensive in those situations.
Can you be sued for harassing people?
Derek Erdman: I haven't the slightest idea, nor am I worried.That's the kinda bridge that I'll cross when I come to it. Until then I don't really care. Certainly there are states in which you have to tell them they're being recorded on the telephone. It's not all 50 states. I'm sure I've broken that law, but I think for the most part those raps are in good fun. It's very few times where someone is actually upset about it.
Since you left Chicago last year, has it generated more of an interest in your services?
Derek Erdman: It seems like that. It seems like all the things I was doing in Chicago really all took off once I moved to Seattle. I don't know why. I got a job with the weekly paper here and I think that's given me more exposure. But even before I moved to Seattle, the things I did in Chicago were very popular here. I guess that's one of the reasons why I came. I've been on the radio here before and people knew what I was doing, and I've had art shows here. It seemed like a logical move, but almost detrimental in a way that I feel coddled. In Chicago I had to struggle more; I'm worried that I'm getting lazy.
But I don't have a full-time job, this is what I do. I have, like, 12 part-time jobs is how I look at it. I do illustration commissions, I write for the paper, and I make paintings, and I do painting commissions, and I do the rap.
I also have a soup-delivery service that I started here, because I really like the Vietnamese soup pho. When I came here there was no way to get it delivered to your house. It's really overpriced. It's also like $32. I will go to any restaurant and get the soup and take it anywhere you want. I don't expect tips. That's just what you pay. The soup is usually $10, so I make $12 off the deal, so it isn't that great, but it's just so funny. A lot of people like the novelty of these things. I never thought anyone would order through this service, but four or five people have. That's really hilarious.
How much research do you do into these kinds of services before launching them?
Derek Erdman: Oh, none at all really. That's the beauty of PayPal and having a website. If you can think of almost any need, somebody out there is bound to maybe want to use it. You don't have to put a whole lot of money into starting this kind of business because you just make a web page of it, you hide a bunch of words in the meta of the web page that'll allow search engines to pick them up, then you can just forget about it, and then maybe a month later someone will order it. Or maybe a week later. Or maybe nobody will.
Recently I've thought about starting a pet-finding service, where if you have a lost dog or cat, you can put us on the case. We'll search for your pet and if we find it maybe it'll be a whole lot of money. Maybe it'll be free or not a lot if we don't find it, but if we do, it'll be a lot of money. You can create that with a web page, a whole bunch of words, a PayPal button, and then forget about it.
How many services have you started that either never took off or you just forgot about?
Derek Erdman: I did start a service where I will draw your face as a Juggalo, a fan of the Insane Clown Posse, and nobody has ever ordered one of those.
Really? Isn't the Gathering coming up soon?
Derek Erdman: I know. You'd think it'd be more popular. Maybe it's just too much money. That's the thing. I think you have to start off really low on prices and then slowly move them up. Because you'll get a lot of press if you do something cheap.
Do you think most people are too intimidated to try offering services like these? Like it's too risky?
Derek Erdman: I'm sure that people just think they're too small or it's stupid. Sometimes people will hear about the raps and they'll be so blown away by how great an idea it is, and some people will hear about it and be like, "You have too much time on your hands." But I'm not at home watching TV shows on DVD. I'm just doing these things. I think that's a much better way of spending your time.