Raj Kotecha is a globally recognized authority in content strategy, brand development, community building, and entrepreneurship. In the initial phase of his career, he immersed himself in the media and music industry. Later, Raj assumed a directorial role at a tech publishing company in California, eventually acquired by The Guardian Media Group. Currently based in the UAE, Raj and the CCA team draw on their extensive experience in content production, collaborating with notable entrepreneurs like Gary Vaynerchuk, Tony Robbins, and Steven Bartlett, as well as engaging with dignitaries and multinational corporations. The content produced by CCA has reached millions of online viewers, and their flagship brand, My Friends Your Friends, has successfully fostered connections among thousands of creative entrepreneurs in Dubai. Beyond his professional endeavors, Raj takes pleasure in traveling, continuous learning, hosting his podcast, and occasionally returning to his roots in DJing. In this interview, Raj talks to us about his come up, hip-hop in the Middle East, the impact of AI, his encounter with DJ Khaled & Fat Joe and more.
Raj also dedicated an episode of his insightful podcast ALGO to answer our questions, you can check out the episode below:
What was your first ever job?
My first ever job by default was working in my dad's shop. I had a typical East African Indian lifestyle, which is that my grandparents were from Gujarat, India. My parents moved to Kenya and then I was raised in the UK. So, as an East African Asian, a lot of first-generation immigrants opened shops, therefore, a lot of my generation's first jobs was working in that shop. It was not paid. You could even argue it was voluntary. It's just the first job that we all had by default, stacking shelves, sitting behind the counter, watching my grandfather sell sweets and things of that nature. Also going to the cash and carry, loading up the shelves and just generally getting used to the relationship between handing goods over a counter and taking some money.
Your parents and grandparents cultivated an experience from living in India, East Africa and then the UK. What are the most important lessons you learned from them?
To be candid, and something I haven't shared before, is that you have to exert twice the effort compared to English people. In the 80s, when I was growing up, there were certain areas where Indians and South Asians thrived, notably in places like London, where many from the community pursued careers in pharmacy, medicine, accounting, and law. However, in other working-class communities, like the one I grew up in Salford on the west side of Manchester, the environment was quite racist, rough, and working-class. Consequently, opportunities were not as readily available for us compared to the local community.
The lesson ingrained in me, not just by my family but also by the handful of minorities in that town (which amounted to less than a dozen people of color, including one Jamaican, one Chinese family, one Pakistani family, a couple of Gujarati families, and one Punjabi family), was that I needed to work twice as hard. Strive for the best grades, put in longer hours, and make sure to present yourself impeccably, even if it's for a job interview at a place like McDonald's. I can attest to this, as I used to wear suits when applying to McDonald's and got turned down three times.
The primary takeaway was the importance of hard work and academic diligence. Additionally, in the non-professional realm, there was an emphasis on kindness and generosity. Being a minority, and witnessing others migrate to the country or having cousins come for studies, we took pride in leaving an open door for people. Hospitality and generosity, such as providing food and hosting, became essential values.
How were you able to balance between studying business and running a party promotion operation for 3 years?
During the three to five years I spent at university, including my master's program, the connection between academia and my extracurricular activities was more of a natural flow than a distinct balance. Specifically, I was heavily involved in a significant promotional crew in Manchester from 1998 to 2003, known as Love Garage. We played a pivotal role in launching garage music, featuring notable songs like "Monster Boy" with Denzi and contributing to the success of DJ Luck and MC Neat's single through a stroke of luck.
What made this balance seemingly effortless was the direct application of what I learned during the day in my lectures to my nighttime work. Engaging in street-level promotions late at night involved distributing flyers outside venues in the early hours, where capturing people's attention was crucial. One area where I excelled in my business degrees, particularly in marketing, had a direct impact on my nighttime activities. Concepts like Unique Selling Propositions (USPs) and branding that I learned during lectures immediately influenced the design of flyers, the marketing of my content, and the creation of posters. It wasn't so much a matter of balancing the two, but rather a seamless integration of academic knowledge into the immediate application of my role as a music and nightlife promoter during the night.
What made you want to keep working and establish an agency after your exit instead of taking a break?
The exit I was part of occurred in 2008 when a company called PaidContent was sold to the Guardian. This event is still recognized online as a noteworthy acquisition during the web 2.0 era. While the financial gains from the sale were sufficient to clear debts, they weren't transformative enough to facilitate significant life changes, such as buying a house.
Despite the financial comfort, there were other compelling reasons for me to continue working. At 28 years old, I was still energized by the opportunities that London offered, and this exit marked one of the early significant successes in my career. However, this achievement alone wasn't enough to prompt me to stop working, particularly because I derive immense enjoyment from my work. Witnessing transactions, whether it's cash changing hands for products or services or money wires for services, continues to bring me joy and pleasure.
Moreover, at 28, I considered it far too early to entertain the idea of quitting. Even now, at 43, I believe it's not the age to stop. Working is ingrained in my lifestyle, likely influenced by my upbringing in a shop where the sounds of a cash register ringing and a doorbell signaling customers' entry were as familiar as any native sound. It feels like it's in my DNA, providing no reason to consider stopping work yet.
You met Fat Joe and DJ Khaled at a music conference in Miami. Can you share the story behind that with us?
That's a crazy story and I don't think I've ever told it before. I think I was in mansion in Miami in 2003/2004, and I was at the Mobile Music Con conference. At that time, my job in Canada involved helping start the first independent ringtones portal in Canada. Canada did not have much license deals for music. So, for example, different kind of songs that were big at the time, like 50 Cent, Black Eyed Peas, and Fat Joe as well. So, I had to go into America to negotiate with license holders to figure out how to get those music licenses brought north of the border to Canada, which meant going to a lot of music conferences. It was brilliant, right down my alley. I love music.
One night after one of the conferences, my boss, Naresh and I ended up in Mansion, and I recognized Fat Joe and DJ Khaled, and they were all just kind of hanging out and doing their thing. What I remember about that is they were with Cool and Dre, which are two famous producers that are tightly associated to Terror Squad, Fat Joe's crew. I remember Dre being incredibly smart and thoughtful.
As for my DJ Khaled story, it was interesting, because DJ Khaled actually took me outside, separated me from the rest of the people in the club, and asked me everything that was doing with regards to ringtones and music licensing. He was just inherently curious and interested and clearly a keen businessperson.
Then the Fat Joe element was really crazy, because I didn't speak to Fat Joe. Still to this day, I've ran into Fat Joe so many times and never had a conversation with him. The first time I saw Fat Joe, which was that night in the club, I remember being in the bathroom, washing my hands, and Fat Joe walked in the club. He walked into the bathroom, and then the bouncer walked in directly after him and said, everybody out. Fat Joe had cleared everybody out of the bathroom, and then the whole Terror Squad walked into the bathroom. I was one of the people that was leaving, and it looked like they'd called an emergency meeting for something or another. Quite frankly, I'm glad that I didn't stick around to hear what that meeting was about, because anybody that knows Fat Joe and Terror Squad knows that those guys are about it, and I wanted no parts of that.
Being that you have a heavy interest in both Hip-Hop and Tech, where do you believe the two sectors intersect and how do they influence each other?
The intersection of hip hop and technology is strongly influenced by the advocates within each realm. In hip hop, it's the artists, breakdancers, DJs, graffiti writers, and emcees who play key roles. In technology, it's the engineers and entrepreneurs. What stands out is the mutual appreciation between senior engineers, entrepreneurs, and individuals deeply involved in hip hop culture. Senior figures in technology often have a profound love for hip hop music due to its cultural significance. Conversely, those who have achieved success in hip hop are often enthusiastic about technology, especially in areas like crypto, the web, and innovative ways to distribute their art.
The convergence of these two worlds occurs when individuals from both domains recognize and appreciate each other. There's a genuine eagerness to connect, driven by the shared understanding of the cultural importance of both hip hop and technology. Moreover, successful individuals in both the tech and hip hop industries are often considered mavericks. They've defied the odds, faced adversity, and garnered support for novel ideas, be it new sounds, genres, or technologies that they introduced. This shared experience of overcoming challenges creates a notable overlap between these two communities.
What do you think about the Hip Hop scene in the Middle East, and in Dubai to be specific? Where do you see it going in the future and what factors do you believe it needs to blow up?
The prominent presence in Dubai's hip hop scene is the annual Sole DXB festival held in early December, featuring a mix of global artists, legacy acts, and emerging talents in the hip hop genre. This festival serves as a litmus test for the local scene, showcasing both international and locally produced hip hop talent.
From a consumer standpoint, there is a consistent interest and appetite for hip hop music in Dubai. Recent performances by artists like Big Daddy Kane and Jadakiss at Sole DXB demonstrated the local appreciation for authentic hip hop. Locally produced talents like Omar Offendum and Tac further contribute to the vibrant scene.
However, there is room for the UAE hip-hop scene to incorporate more storytelling and behind-the-scenes narratives. While the original hip hop pioneers faced struggles and challenges, the Dubai scene has its own unique story that deserves exploration. The reality is that hip hop can capture not only hardships but also the good life, and Dubai, with its incredible lifestyle, offers ample material for anthems that showcase the city's vibrancy, from weekends on Jumeirah beach to the excellent food, shopping, and beautiful people.
The absence of a Dubai anthem in the hip hop scene is noted, and there is a call for artists to embrace and tell the story of Dubai in a way that parallels how Miami or Vegas stories are shared through music. Such cultural highlights could contribute to the city's global appeal. Despite the current use of the song "One Night in Dubai" on Instagram, there's a desire for a more substantial crossover record akin to Will Smith's "Miami" that truly captures the essence of Dubai and resonates globally within the hip hop genre.
How do you feel about the impact of AI technology on creativity, does it benefit or hinder creatives?
The current impact of AI on creativity, from the perspective of an agency owner, primarily revolves around cost reduction. AI has significantly lowered the costs associated with image creation and copywriting. In a ten-stage creative process, AI allows you to input prompts at the initial stages (around steps one and two), and then it propels you forward, completing the work up to step seven. The result is a 50% reduction in input or effort, as AI handles the bulk of the work. The final steps involve adding a human touch to refine the output and achieve the desired level of creativity.
To illustrate, envision a golf game where the tee-off represents the initial prompt, and the putting is the final refinement of the AI-generated artifact, such as an image or text. AI covers the substantial middle portion of the creative process, making it more efficient and cost-effective.
Reflecting on the four Ps of content—plan, produce, publish, and promote—the impact of AI is evident across all these aspects. AI contributes significantly to planning by aiding in research and pulling together relevant statistics. It plays a crucial role in the production phase, assisting in scriptwriting and content creation. Additionally, AI facilitates publishing and promotion, making the creative process more streamlined and efficient.
As AI continues to advance, its integration with creativity and content creation is expected to become more seamless and sophisticated. Whether it's helping with research, generating ideas, or improving efficiency in various creative tasks, AI stands out as a transformative force in the creative landscape, comparable to the impact of the mobile phone.
You've lived and done business in all major cities in the world. Which one is at the top of your list and why?
Dubai holds a unique position for me among the various cities I've worked or spent time in globally. The city has seen a significant rise in its prominence due to global shifts that have reshaped the hierarchy of powerful cities. Pre-2020, when you thought of top-tier cities, names like London, New York, Los Angeles, Singapore, and Hong Kong would typically come to mind. Now, Dubai has firmly positioned itself among these leading cities and is considered part of the top three to five cities globally.
There are several factors contributing to Dubai's elevated status. Firstly, its strategic geographical location makes it easily accessible, with two-thirds of the planet reachable within 6 to 8 hours. The presence of the world-renowned airline, Emirates, further facilitates global connectivity. Additionally, Dubai manages its own tourism, ensuring a robust and well-controlled industry. The city boasts a high level of safety, and the process of setting up a company is becoming increasingly streamlined. Notably, the introduction of a tax system has instilled confidence among businesses, providing a transparent and globally compliant fiscal policy.
Drawing from personal experiences in cities like New York in 1999 and London during the 2008 financial crisis and beyond, Dubai stands out as an exceptional place for doing business. The societal structure and safety inherent in the city provide a solid foundation and platform for conducting business, making Dubai an unparalleled destination in my global experiences.
How did the idea for My Friends Your Friends come about? And do you see the brand growing to become something beyond a network event?
The concept for My Friends Your Friends originated during a period when I was splitting my time between Dubai and London. In London, various communities of friends from music, tech, and media industries wanted to meet when I visited. However, limited time posed a challenge, prompting me to organize a gathering at Kings Cross, a central train station in London. I posted the event on Facebook, and to my surprise, around 85 people attended. This sparked the idea of turning it into a more organized event with co-hosts.
After hosting the event a few more times in London, I brought the concept to Dubai in March 2017. The first Dubai event, featuring a dozen co-hosts, attracted approximately 85 attendees. With subsequent events and different co-hosts, the community steadily grew. By the tenth My Friends Your Friends event, we had 500 people gathering on one of the rooftops of the Burj Khalifa. The initiative has expanded to My Friends Your Friends 20, with launches in New York, Toronto, and London, reaching a global community of 5,500 people.
What I'm particularly proud of is that the brand has evolved beyond being solely associated with me as the organizer. Initially, people attended because I organized it and they knew me. However, now the brand has become larger than any individual, and people attend specifically for the My Friends Your Friends experience. The community has developed a sense of recognition and connection independently of the organizers, a hallmark of a thriving and independent community.
In your extensive DJ/Event promotion business, which event of yours is your favorite so far and why?
My Friends Your Friends holds a special place for me, particularly because it has emerged as the brand that has experienced the most substantial growth. Even compared to Love Soul, where I DJed with my cousin Vic and organized large birthday parties for over 500 people in iconic London venues like the Gherkin, My Friends Your Friends has surpassed in terms of database and momentum. It has become a quintessentially Dubai brand, something that the people of Dubai take great pride in.
What sets My Friends Your Friends apart is the fact that attendees come not just for me as the organizer but for the co-hosts, the brand itself, and the opportunity to spend time with each other. It has evolved beyond a personal association to become a collective experience that people genuinely cherish.
Engaging with attendees at My Friends Your Friends, I've discovered that their motivations are diverse. Roughly 50% attend to meet new people, drawn by the allure of different co-hosts and venues. The other 50% come to connect with the My Friends Your Friends community. This duality allows everyone to tailor their experience, turning the event into a kind of looking glass where each attendee finds what they seek. This diversity of motivations ensures that each person has a unique and meaningful experience, and that's something I take great pride in.
From the beginning of your journey until now, what are the three most important things you've learned?
I think the simplest thing is being kind and having really, really good manners. You don't know, by saying please and thank you to somebody or asking them what their name is or how their day is, how generous you're being by giving them some sort of dignity and recognizing them and acknowledging them.
I think another thing that I've recognized is that I was told this quote, there's a long story behind it, which I'll explain another day, but he who owns the customer is king, or she who owns the customer is queen. I feel like the closer you are to your customers, if you formalize your relationship with them, they've got your contact details. You've got their contact details. You can communicate with each other back and forth. I think that's a really important second lesson. When it comes to people, I always ask them, do you have a direct relationship or an email list? If they say no, I say, that's the first thing you've got to fix.
Then the third thing I think is you've just got to absolutely believe in yourself. I know it sounds corny, but you just can't give up. It doesn't matter whether you've got things going on in your business or your personal life or your health. You can't let any of them get to the nucleus, which is your brain, and mess up your mindset. You've got to be able to self-heal, self-generate and inspire yourself.
Of course, the Internet is great for that, and mentors are great for that. But you need to be able to find that part of yourself where if somebody's able to generate it and give it to you and change the way you feel, think about how you pass that on to others and then say it to yourself. That can often really get you out of rut, it's that you've got the same thing. The same thing that you use to lift other people up can be used to lift you up. It might not take you all the way that it takes somebody else, but sometimes, if that's all you've got, you've got to be able to tap into it and use it.
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