Profiles in Hustle: Genius

How the website formerly known as Rap Genius ended up being worth a rumored $400 million.

It started as a simple idea: A crowd-sourced web site that would annotate rap lyrics, sometimes with assistance from the very artists and producers who wrote the rhymes and created the beats. Genius–formerly known as Rap Genius–has since enlisted the likes of Nas, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Rick Rubin and Junot Diaz to explain and decode text, and expanded far beyond hip-hop in a bid to live up to their boldly ambitious “annotate the world” motto. The site, which now claims 40 million unique users a month, also breaks down pop, rock, R&B, country, and a slew of non-musical topics including news, history, literature, tech, sports, film and law. Genius houses a wildly diverse collection of content, spanning from the complete works of Shakespeare and speeches of Abraham Lincoln to the menu at Chipotle, the back of a Tylenol bottle, and the roster of the 1986 New York Mets. The idea for this sprawling hub of crowdsourced knowledge was hatched in 2009 by three Yale alums–Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory–who raised $55 million in venture capital funding as they sought to grandly transform Genius beyond its rap fanboy origins.

The trio quickly earned a reputation for their hipster style and press-baiting bravado–Moghadem was particularly quotable, telling reporters in 2013 that they built the site while on “nude Adderall” and opining that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg could “suck my dick” if he was annoyed that Moghadem had posted an Instagram photo of Zuck and Nas together at a boozy Genius dinner. Moghadem was ousted by his Genius co-founders last year after he created an uproar by snidely annotating the manifesto of mass killer Elliot Rodgers with assorted wisecracks. After all, when your start-up has a rumored value of $400 million and seeks to reach a global audience, that kind of dumb-assery is frowned upon. But Genius remains poised to continue its powerful growth and increasing legitimacy, recently hiring respected New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere Jones as executive editor. As for Moghadem, he’s still hustling too, telling  Business Insider he’s working on a book about Rap Genius, adding, “My dream is for James Franco to play me in the movie.” 

Photos by Getty