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Protecting Your Business

Tony Robbins On Persistence, Innovation and Loving Your Customers

Photos: Courtesy of Francesco Carrozzini

You’ve been named a top business intellectual by Accenture and a business guru by Harvard Business Press. What drew you to working in business strategy and motivation?

I had no intention of being a business owner. My whole life, I have always been driven to find solutions and to help people improve their lives. That later grew into helping people maximize their businesses. I really got into this business by accident. After attending his seminars by myself, I went to work for author and speaker Jim Rohn, who was my original mentor. I loved what he taught, and I would go out and give speeches to get people to enroll in his events. At 18, I became the top person on Jim Rohn’s team. One day he called me and promoted me, which was a total gift. At that stage of my life, I had always wanted to become a manager of a regional office and Jim gave me Los Angeles. I asked him, “Where in L.A. can I have this office?” And he asked me, “Where do you want it?” I told him Beverly Hills. Then I asked him, “How many people can I have in the office?” He said, “How many do you want?” I said, “Thirty!” He said, “Great, thirty it is.” I was out of my mind. “When do I get to start?” Jim said, “When do you want to?” I said, “Immediately.”  I asked him where I’d pick up my check. He said, “You write it. You’re in your own business now.” And that was it. That’s how it happened. I did it all in those days — going out talking to people and getting them to come to his seminars. That’s how it began. I had no role models of entrepreneurs growing up. But once I learned that I could be rewarded for helping people improve their lives and their business, I became obsessed. The secret sauce in any business is to constantly add more value to your customers than anyone else in your industry. That means you do more for your customers than anyone else would ever expect. Business is a vehicle for growth and creation, and if you’re adding value to your customers every single time it’ll build your brand and you’ll have the ultimate advantage. You’ll create raving fan customers, which is what it’s all about. I’ve had the privilege of learning from some of the best on Earth, like Richard Branson of Virgin, owner of the LA Warriors Peter Guber, and Mark Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce. Over the years I have extracted their best tools and strategies and have taught them to business owners across the world through my Business Mastery program.

What are the most common business problems people come to you with? How do you work with them?

What all business owners want is to grow their business, and of course everybody runs in to challenges there. What I explain to them is that before they work on the business, they have to first work on themselves. The chokehold on the growth of any business is the psychology and skills of the leader. In fact, 80 percent of what influences business success in any industry is the psychology of the business owner, and only 20 percent is their strategies and skills. Don’t get me wrong. Strategies are invaluable and they can compress decades into days. But lots of people know what to do. Most people run their businesses like operators, not owners, which severely limits the growth of any organization. It’s crazy that 96 percent of businesses are gone in ten years, and the four percent that survive aren’t necessarily profitable. A business owner is the ultimate strategist. They maximize the business by leveraging the talented people around them and by meeting the needs of their clients better than anyone else. A lot of business owners tell me, “I have this great idea.” Ideas are not what make businesses go right. Execution is what makes businesses go right. Execution trumps knowledge any day of the week.

Being a business owner brings a lot of challenges. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your businesses and how did you overcome it?

I’ve had so many moments radically test me throughout my career. I was in for a major surprise when my employees confronted me about my CEO years ago. They came up to me and said, “She’s emptied the bank accounts because she told us that we’re going bankrupt. She paid herself and her best friend but not the rest of us.” I had to come up with $50,000 to keep the doors open. At that point in my life, it might as well have been $5 billion. I ran around town trying to find the money and ended up borrowing it from a man I knew in Hollywood. I barely stayed afloat. Another time in the early days, I was doing a seminar in Vancouver and a man walks up to me and says, “I’m from immigration, and I need to see your work permit.” I didn’t have one, so they threatened to lock me up and deport me. There was nothing that was going to stop me from teaching my seminar, so I rented five buses and hauled 90 people two and a half hours across the border to Bellingham, Washington, where we could legally hold the seminar. I jumped on each bus for about 30 minutes and did exercises with them on the way. I dealt with it and figured out how to make it work. And of course, I told them it was all a part of the plan. There have been so many other challenges along the way, including a time when I was in a bad business partnership and was on the hook for $125 million in joint debts. I thought I owed a portion of it and I got stuck with all of it because my partners had no money. The thing is, when people fail, they will inevitably tell you a list of excuses like, “I didn’t have enough time,” “I didn’t have enough money,” “I didn’t have the right people,” or “I was missing the right technology.” But the truth is, resources are never the problem. It’s always a lack of resourcefulness. The ultimate resource is human emotion. That’s the fuel. If you have enough creativity, you can find the money. If you’re determined enough, you can make your way through the problem. If you care deeply and sincerely for others you can get them to care about you and your mission and get them to help you.

How important is mental toughness for business owner?

Mental toughness is everything. Owning a business is for gladiators. Who gets into an arena where you are more likely to die the longer you stay in and play? Only a gladiator would do that. Just look at the statistics. Fifty percent of businesses die in their first year. In the first 10 years, 96 percent of businesses die. And just because you’re around for ten years doesn’t mean you’ll continue to survive. Take a look at Lehman Brothers. How much business did Lehman Brothers do over a century? A hundred years, more than a trillion dollars and now they’re gone. Only four percent of businesses in the United States survive. Those statistics are mind-blowing. If you are going to be in business, you have to have the hunger to stay in the game long-term. You also have to expand your threshold of control, or how much you are able to comfortably deal with. I hit a threshold of control when I had to come up with $50,000 to keep my business afloat, and again, when I was faced with that $125 million debt. Today, I’m involved in 33 companies so there’s a great chance that someone, somewhere, is messing up. What that means is my threshold of control is constantly being tested. But once I broke through those early challenges, I was able to take my companies from $50 or $100 million companies to multi-billion-dollar companies. You must learn to expand and become more.

What’s the best advice you can offer to businesses to overcome threats like natural disasters and cyberattacks?

I’m not an expert on natural disasters or cyber-attacks, but I can tell you that as a business owner, you need to have a business parthenon. A parthenon has multiple pillars supporting it, and the way to build long-term predictability and profitability in your business is to build it on different pillars — or revenue streams. That’s what gives you stability. If you’re a one-trick pony, it’s going go to be easy for anything to take you out. You’re standing on one leg. You need more than one way to win. There are many terrible things that have happened over the course of history and unfortunately, they will continue to happen. On the same token, technology is ramping up at such a fast tempo that it is going to disrupt our society in a massive way. One thing we know for sure is there always has been and always will be seasons of life. Summer always follows spring. Winter comes every year. You have to be prepared not just to survive but thrive when tough times come around. When you’re faced with a problem, spend 95 percent of the time finding the solution and 5 percent of your time defining the problem. Do not focus on the problem. In the midst of challenge, focus on how to best serve your clients even in difficult environments and deliver to them a product, service or experience that will make them a raving fan of your brand. Satisfied customers will go away. Raving fans stay.

Preparation is crucial for running a business. What are your best practices to prepare for running a successful business?

I always say there are two businesses that all entrepreneurs need to manage. First is the business they are today. Second is the business they are becoming. If you’re always stuck in the business you are today, then you’re not going to be able to innovate and create more value for people. If you’re only focusing on the future, then you’re at risk for dropping the ball on where you are today. Some business owners get tired of their businesses if they aren’t rewarding them fast enough, so their knee-jerk response is to create a new business. That is one of the worst mistakes you can make. I think of it like parents that are doing a terrible job of raising their child, so they decide to have a second one to try and redeem themselves. But they are still ineffective because now they’ve also split their focus. Now they’re even weaker at the job. Then they have a third, and it becomes a terrible cycle. With the rate that technology is changing the game, you have to be focused on both the present and future in order to be successful. Where you are now and the foresight of who and what you need to become.

You’ve invested in businesses across a number of industries. Can you tell us a little about this experience? What factors are the same for achieving success across different industries?

The common thread in all of my investments is they all touch the quality of people’s lives. That’s the common denominator for me. I have 33 companies across seven industries, from hospitality to biotechnology. The core of my decision making has always been something that I love, and it also has to impact people’s lives in a meaningful way. For example, my resort (Namale Resort and Spa in Fiji) has been the top resort in that country for years. That began about 34 years ago when I absolutely fell in love with the Fijian Islands. I decided I wanted to bring my friends there to share the experience of that culture. These days, I only visit my resort once or twice a year, but one of the greatest joys I have besides actually being in that environment myself is hearing from our guests how much they love the people, or that they’ve had an experience unlike anything anywhere else on Earth. I have invested $30 or $40 million there over the last couple of decades because I want people to experience the same level of joy I do by being there.

And you’ve invested in healthcare too?

When I find something I love, I want to share it with people. One of the greatest tools science has discovered for healing the human body is the use of stem cells. I have been a huge beneficiary of stem cells. Right now, the best stem cell work is being done outside of the United States. I’ve partnered with one of the top stem cell experts in the world, Dr. Bob Hariri and my friend Dr. Peter Diamandis and his partner Dr. Craig Ventner, the first man to decode the human genome. Together with these brilliant minds, I believe we can democratize stem cells. We want to bring the price down and get these treatments to the United States as soon as possible to bring the healing here. We’ve raised a quarter of a billion dollars to start that company and this is something that is very exciting to me because it enhances and extends the quality of people’s lives.

Do you have any advice for new entrepreneurs looking to grow their company?

What I will tell you is, it doesn’t matter what industry you get into. You have to know more about the customer than they know about themselves. You have to dig in and find out what they want, what they need, what they hate, what they fear and what excites them. I’ve always said that life is the dance between what you desire most and what you fear most. If you understand what people desire most, then you can meet their needs and you can help them eliminate what they fear. If you do that, I don’t care what industry you’re in, you will create raving fans. The mantra for success is simple: Do more for others than anyone else will. Exceed their expectations. Add more value.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received when it comes to business?

Don’t make the same fatal mistake that I see so many entrepreneurs make. They fall in love with their product or service when you need to fall in love with your customers. Your products and services will constantly change over time — competition, technology evolution and customer demands will require that of you. If you get caught up loving your product and service, you’ll develop loyalty to that instead of a loyalty to your clients. The best business advice I can give you is you must fall in love with serving your client. If you develop a sensitivity to what they want and need, you will constantly innovate and keep up and you can become the disruptor in your industry, instead of the one who gets disrupted. We’ve seen so many examples of this trap play out over the years. First the little local bookstores were disrupted by big box Barnes & Noble who took over and thought they were king of the kingdom. Then Amazon came along. No business stays number one forever unless it keeps innovating and unless it lives by what their customers want and need, not by what they enjoy doing or making.

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