My views on the market, tech, and everything else

A Dozen Lessons about Business and Life from Jimmy Iovine


Jimmy Iovine started his career as a sound engineer. He used that experience to become a record producer and later translated that set of skills to becoming a co-founder of Interscope Records. In 2006, Iovine and Dr. Dre founded Beats Electronics, which they later sold to Apple for $3 billion. As an aside, I would have liked to have written about Dr. Dre too in his post, but he is a man of few words.

  1. “I don’t have a rear view mirror.” “I never celebrated a success. There are no victory laps. I’m always moving forward.” “The most important thing I ever learned: No matter how ugly it gets, keep moving.” “Going backwards is not an option.”

Allen Hughes, who directed the documentary The Defiant Ones has said that the mentality reflected in the six bolded sentences above is:

The thing that they both have in common is that they literally don’t look back at anything they’ve accomplished. They don’t talk about it. They’re not nostalgic at all about any accomplishments or things they’ve been through. They just keep moving. They don’t have a rear view mirror.

As an example of putting this idea into practice, Iovine has said that he hid his first gold record in his basement because it was about past achievements, not future goals. The two partners are all about the work they are doing right now. They refuse to get sentimental or boastful and instead devote themselves to the present and how that will impact the future. Hughes has also said about Iovine and Dre:

What they both taught me the most and what they most have in common is when they get focused on something—creatively or passionate about anything in their life—that’s all they talk about and that’s all they live, breathe and eat. They don’t let any other noise come into their vision they just have blinders on. They don’t have extra conversations about sports or politics, they’re just so focused on what they’re doing. I took many, many life lessons from this but while I’m very passionate, they really taught me how to focus or tune out noise that doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re doing. As we get older that becomes more precious—to tune out the bullshit.

  1. “My proudest thing in my career is that I was able to change it three times. And I’m happy about that, I couldn’t have done the same thing my whole life, I would’ve gone nuts. I couldn’t do it because I do things based on impulsive excitement and I’m just not that guy that can do something for 50 years and be excited about the same thing. I can’t do it.”

Iovine’s experience in making these three career changes illustrates that this process can be positive, especially if you are willing to work hard and can hustle. Not only is a career change possible but it is likely to be essential given how fast the economy and world are changing. People will, for better or worse, increasingly need to repot themselves as they would a houseplant. That will necessarily take some bravery.  But since we all get root bound at some point in our careers and the change can potentially be a positive experience. One attribute that can help people navigate a change like this is to remain opportunistic. Occasionally an opportunity will come along that has a big upside and a small downside and you will need to be ready to take advantage of that. To illustrate that point, author and filmmaker Nelson George has said that Iovine “is one of the few — and it’s a very small group — who were part of the height of rock in the ’70s and ’80s with some of the greatest musicians of the era, who was able to see the value in hip-hop and make the move into hip-hop pretty seamlessly.”

On a personal note, one career change I made happened in 2002 after the Internet and telecom bubbles popped (there were two separate but related bubbles). The wireless and telecom industries were getting boring. Even on the financial side, the big opportunities were gone. The suits were taking over. Pirates were being asked to join the navy. Consolidation had already happened and would continue to happen. My investing thesis at the time was all about software anyway and so I decided that this would be the basis of my new career. I did not “go back to school” in 2002 but rather redoubled my efforts to become more knowledgeable about software. I read even more voraciously than usual about software and actively sought out the best teachers and experts. Mark Cuban said once that after you graduate from college one very valuable trick is to find jobs that pay you to learn. Cuban’s point is a very important idea regardless of whether your education stops at high school or extends to graduate school.

  1. “Just because you did something once doesn’t mean anything. You have to be willing in your heart to begin again every day. The minute I’m not willing to do that, I will retire. When we did Beats, we had to begin again. Nobody at Best Buy knew who we were. Did they care we had produced a record? They didn’t give a shit.” “Don’t believe your own bullshit. If I were going to teach a course, it would be called ‘Don’t Breathe Your Own Exhaust.’”

The business world is filled with people who have created a single successful business. That can be very impressive on one end of the spectrum or at the other end of the spectrum more luck than anything else. What exactly is luck and what is skill is an interesting topic and, as always, the writing of Michael Mauboussin is the “go to” source  trying to figure out what is skill and what is luck. Luck comes in a lot of different forms in the business world. For example, some people are suited from birth to do what they do while others never get the chance to do what they would be best suited for. Other people would have been a success no matter what they decided to do as a result of winning the genetic lottery. Business people who particularly impress me are those that have created something valuable multiple times. Iovine has obviously been successful in multiple business settings. As another example of this from my personal life, I worked with Craig McCaw for many years. McCaw created a huge cable television business from virtually nothing and after that McCaw Cellular Communications. After selling both businesses McCaw resurrected Nextel. As another example, Steve Jobs was fabulously successful at creating different business. Bill Gates has done the same thing and is now changing the world with his philanthropy.

  1. “I’m interested in listening to the people who walk in the door. If your ego and your accomplishments stop you from listening, then they’ve taught you nothing. There are geniuses, savants; I’m not one of them. I work hard.” “A diploma is really just your learner’s permit for the rest of the drive through life. Remember, you don’t have to be smarter than the next person, all you have to do is be willing to work harder than the next person.”

I have been lucky enough to be able to watch and assist some of the great entrepreneurs and investors work at very close range during my working like. This is has been a boon for my career since being able to observe very smart, creative and motivated people work is like going to school (if you are paying attention). In particular, building or fixing a business, whether inside a big company or in a startup, is a wonderful environment since there is so much learning going on. I do have one very unusual friend who almost never reads which astounds me since I read so much. He is nevertheless fabulously successful since he is nearly always around many smart people in cutting edge situations. He learns by taking to smart people. I don’t know anyone else like him, but he is an interesting case.

  1. “I learned my work ethic from Springsteen. I was a guy who would say, ‘Five o’clock, I’m out of here.’ Springsteen worked all the time. We were in a room with no window—no one ever knew what time it was.”

There is rarely a substitute for hard work. All of the great entrepreneurs I have known work very hard. One great example of the value of hard work is Bill Gates who said once on a Reddit: “20 years ago I would stay in the office for days at a time and not think twice about it. I had energy and naiveté on my side.” He made a similar point in a BBC interview “I knew everyone’s license plates so I could look out in the parking lot and see, when did people come in, when were they leaving. Eventually I had to loosen up, as the company got to a reasonable size.”

One slight variation on what I just said about hard work are a small number of founders and managers who sometimes seek out talented but “relatively lazy people” as employees since, as one of my friends likes to say, “they tend to find simpler and less costly ways to do things.” His belief is that these “relatively lazy people” will find short cuts that create a competitive advantage for a business. I should emphasize that this exception does not apply to people who are too lazy to work but rather to people who seek simpler methods that do not compromise quality. That preference for a small number of talented relatively lazy people who still seek high quality outcomes is a very narrow exception, but it is an interesting twist.

  1. “You have talent, you give them the keys and let them drive.” “What happened was, those first four years [working with Springsteen, Smith and John Lennon], I realized where the magic comes from, and it’s not from me.” “I always knew which side of the glass was more important.” “I’m not a humble guy. I just don’t believe my own bullshit.”

Iovine is saying that you should let “the talent” do their job. Iovine’s point is reflected in an old saying that you are not going to detect burglars better than your dog. This is an old idea that may of first been written down by Brian Melbancke in his novel from 1583 entitled Philotimus. In that novel Melbancke wrote: “It is smal reason you should kepe a dog, and barke your selfe.” Iovine is not saying that you should relinquish control of everything. Jim Barksdale likes to say: Now I’m the President around here. So if I say a chicken can pull a tractor trailer, your job is to hitch ’em up.” “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” But if the question involves the software that is used in an Internet browser a smart manager like Barksdale is going to defer to someone like Marc Andreessen.

  1. “Get in the room with the best people you can and open your heart, ears, and mind. Open up and learn. Be of service. Because if you’re of service, they will teach you. With Lennon and Springsteen and Smith, I knew that I had to be of service.” “John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Smith — were my college education.”

Yogi Berra famously said: “You can observe a lot by just watching.” When you get an opportunity like I have had in my business life to work closely with great managers and founders, what you learn is invaluable. One key thing you learn is that there are many ways to be successful. As an example, Craig McCaw and Bill Gates are very different people with very different styles. Bill Gates is more digital in his approach and Craig McCaw is more analog. They both surround themselves with diverse teams who make them better. One related point is that you should work actively put yourself in situations where you can learn from smart people.

  1. “Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten [was] to look at the bigger picture.” “The thing about seeing the big picture and being self-aware is knowing that it’s not about you. It’s about the big picture. It’s not about you. It’s not. This is not about you.”

Good things happen when you help other people. Some people might say “that is karma,” but I am more practical and instead believe it is Professor Cialdini’s principle of reciprocity at work. Caldini writes: “A Hare Krishna devotee presses a flower or a copy of the Bhagavad-gītā into your hand (that happened to me), or a store gives you free samples, and you feel awkward about taking it for free. You end up giving money or buying something you don’t want.” This reciprocity idea as described by Iovine reminds me of an experiment conducted by a a sociologist at Brigham Young University who decided to see what would happen if he sent Christmas cards to total strangers.

He went out and collected directories for some nearby towns and picked out around 600 names. “I started out at a random number and then skipped so many and got to the next one,” he says. To these 600 strangers, Kunz sent his Christmas greetings: handwritten notes or a card with a photo of him and his family. And then Kunz waited to see what would happen. But about five days later, responses started filtering back — slowly at first and then more, until eventually they were coming 12, 15 at a time. Eventually Kunz got more than 200 replies. “I was really surprised by how many responses there were,” he says. “And I was surprised by the number of letters that were written, some of them three, four pages long.”

When you give to others in an intelligent way by being of service to them you inevitably get good things in return.

  1. “The real thing is that we are all frightened. If you are not frightened you are not original. Everyone’s frightened. It’s how you deal with that fear. It’s very very powerful. And what you’ve got to do is get it as a tailwind instead of a headwind. And that’s a little bit of a judo trick in your mind. And once you learn that, fear starts to excite you. Because you know that you are going to enter into something and try it and risk. And once you can get going, it’s a very powerful thing.”

Writing something like this blog post or a book should create a little bit of fear or it is not likely it will be original or valuable. For better or worse, the tools created based on today’s internet will inevitably expose your work product to attacks. Fear is an odd motivator. To little is bad and to much can be debilitating. The good news is that as you get older you cease giving a damn what people think. If you get immobilized by fear you are wasting a great opportunity. Take a risk. Every time I push publish on my blog, send in a book manuscript or send a Tweet I am taking a risk. If I am not creating some friction in doing so, I will very likely not achieve anything positive.

  1. “I live on the edge of this table, and if I get too comfortable on its surface, I lose what it is I’m trying to do. It’s all about balancing risk with overindulging on comfort.”

There was an article in the New York Times recently that talked about the power of getting outside of your comfort zone.  The author wrote:

The times in my life during which I’ve felt happiest and most alive are also the times that I’ve been the most unbalanced. Falling in love. Writing a book. Trekking in the Himalayas. Training to set a personal record in a triathlon. During these bouts of full-on living I was completely consumed by my activity. Trying to be balanced — devoting equal proportions of time and energy to other areas of my life — would have detracted from the formative experiences. It’s not just me. Nearly all of the great performers I’ve gotten to know — from athletes to artists to computer programmers to entrepreneurs — report a direct line between being happy, fulfilled and at their best and going all-in on something.

If you find something you are passionate about not only does life get better but you do better work. Consider yourself blessed if you get to tap dance to work like Warren Buffett. Even if you only sort of tap dance to work that is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

  1. “The first project I produced: Foghat. I did it for the money. At the time, you get paid three points to be a producer, and their last album sold 4 million. So I immediately said, ’20 cents a record… that’s $800,000!’ I’m getting $10 an hour as an engineer. I’m like, ‘I’m in.'” “I brought my girlfriend to the sessions. I let her run the tape machine.”

Iovine was famously fired by Foghat for the reasons Iovine identifies in the above quotes. That was not a good thing for Iovine at the time, but it was a good thing that he learned from the experience. A wise goal at any time in life is to make some new mistakes since otherwise you are not learning and growing as a person. Fortunately Patti Smith and other musicians believed in Iovine despite his mistakes with Foghat and he had another opportunity to prove that he was a talented and productive team member.  Take some risks. Learn some things. Make things happen. Don’t be afraid to fail sometimes. Be a bit of a rebel. Your life will be better and you will be happier if you do. Not giving a damn about what other people think when you are trying to be creative can be a superpower if you do this judiciously when the time is right if he potential upside is enormous and the downside is limited. Beat was a $3 billion exit and what they had to loose was what they invested.

  1. “Musicians believe right now that there’s very little money in the recorded music business. So a lot of them are aiming their goal to be nothing but promotion.” “Not every industry was meant to last forever. The record industry needs to do something that artists can’t do for themselves. Or else there’s no reason for it to exist.”

I have written several blog posts on the problems and opportunities that exist in the entertainment industry. I will link to them immediately below instead of repeating the points I made in those posts. One argument I have heard that is not in those posts: a major purpose of the record labels is to act as a bank since the musicians will invariably blow through all the money they have and will need an advance of funds to finance their next creative period. I have a friend who knows the music business very well who said to me several times his business is a place where you can take money in but you rarely get to take it out. What he was saying is people who make a fortune in some other business sometimes decide to take a significant amount of their cash and try to put it to work in the music business. These newbies have a lot of fun hanging out with famous musicians at parties, but the financial result is rarely pretty since they are outside of their circle of competence.

A Dozen Things You can Learn from Biggie Smalls (The Notorious B.I.G.) About Business  https://25iq.com/2016/11/11/a-dozen-things-you-can-learn-from-biggie-smalls-the-notorious-b-i-g-about-business/

A Dozen Things I have Learned About Business from Rza (the founder of Wu-Tang Clan) https://25iq.com/2016/01/02/a-dozen-things-i-have-learned-about-business-from-rza-the-founder-of-wu-tang-clan/

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned About the Music Business (and Businesses Like It) https://25iq.com/2016/09/03/a-dozen-things-ive-learned-about-the-music-business-and-businesses-like-it/

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Louis C.K. about Money, Investing and Business https://25iq.com/2016/05/28/a-dozen-things-ive-learned-from-louis-c-k-about-money-investing-and-business/

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned From Comedians About the Business of Life  https://25iq.com/2014/12/19/a-dozen-things-ive-learned-from-comedians-about-the-business-of-life/



















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