Before Ed Sheeran became the chart-topping, Grammy-winning, 150 million album-selling, $750 million in one tour-grossing Ed Sheeran, he was just another struggling artist failing to gain a foothold in the music business.
Playing small clubs. Working as a guitar tech. Scraping together enough money to make YouTube videos and produce EPs. Knocking on doors and being told no, over and over again.
Chasing a seemingly impossible dream.
“The amount of confidence that I’d lost,” Sheeran told Howard Stern in 2017, “doing the same rounds, over and over again, going into record labels and their going, ‘It’s not going to happen … “
So Sheeran decided to bet on himself, buying a one-way ticket to Los Angeles in 2010 after booking one nightclub gig. Scrounging for other gigs led to playing Jamie Foxx’s radio show The Foxxhole and a 12-minute set at Foxx’s weekly live-music night at a downtown club.
And to using the recording studio in Foxx’s home for free.
And sleeping on Foxx’s couch.
“Within a month,” Sheeran said, “of going there with zero confidence, being able to fly to L.A. with nothing and ending up in one of the biggest movie stars in the world’s house, recording … in my mind I was like, ‘I must have something.’ So, going back to England, I had this charged-up battery … and started smashing out independent EPs, doing tours all over … “
Granted, sleeping on an Oscar-winning actor’s couch is unusual — but Sheeran’s story is more common than you might think. Like many careers involving creativity, art, or entertainment, there is relatively little middle ground: Countless people make little to no money. A few make a lot.
The revenue and income curve is decidedly U-shaped.
As with any bootstrapping entrepreneur, being broke is part of the process. Even if you keep your full-time job and start your business on the side, where that venture is concerned you have to struggle and scuffle and scrounge.
When a dream is big but resources small, a tight belt is a given.
Even so, staying the course in the face of struggle and rejection is hard. Sometimes it feels impossible. Sometimes, when you feel adrift and alone, quitting seems the only sensible option.
That’s where Foxx stepped in for Sheeran.
“‘You’re incredible,'” Foxx recalled telling Sheeran. “I said, ‘I know you don’t have anywhere to go, so chill here.’ I was giving him food. My daughter was like, ‘Who do you have over here now?’ because I would always have people over. I was always championing the artist.”
Most people give up in the face of adversity — even if they are smarter, better connected, more talented, or better funded than you.
Success often comes down to perseverance. You can’t win if you aren’t around at the end.
As Sheeran said, “To be a successful musician, you have to be broke. You have to spend three or four years living on couches and relying on strangers being kind to you.”
And that’s where you can step in.
You don’t have to offer your couch. But you can be kind. You can offer a word of encouragement to a struggling friend. You can offer a little help to a struggling connection.
You can occasionally get a product from a local retailer instead of Amazon, a service from an independent provider instead of a corporation, a meal from a mom-and-pop instead of a chain restaurant.
Behind every startup is a person with a dream: A person, figuratively and sometimes even literally, living on couches and relying on strangers being kind.
Once in a while, be one of those strangers.
Because a little help — and a little extra hope — may be all a person needs to keep going.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.