Aaron Levant is the founder and CEO of NTWRK, the curated livestream shopping company some have called “QVC for the YouTube Generation.”
What We Discuss with Aaron Levant:
- What drew Aaron to graffiti art counterculture in his rebellious youth, and how he pivoted this interest into wildly successful streetwear entrepreneurship.
- What society loses when it underestimates the intelligence and educational capacity of people — like Aaron — who struggle with dyslexia, and why we need to support their development rather than shame them toward failure.
- How Aaron fell into the trade show game by making a stand to defy The Man and accidentally starting a viable business.
- How having an archnemesis in his industry to duke it out with feeds Aaron’s competitive spirit and motivates his drive to push harder.
- “Ignorance is rich”: The chaos theory by which Aaron decides where to put his investment dollars.
- And much more…
Like this show? Please leave us a review here — even one sentence helps! Consider including your Twitter handle so we can thank you personally!
If you’re a parent looking for portents that your youngster might be harboring an intrinsic resistance to authority, pay close attention to how they greet their kindergarten principal. If they initiate the conversation with a swift and precise kick to the shin as young NTWRK founder and CEO Aaron Levant did back in the day, “All signs,” as the Mattel Magic 8-Ball would say, “point to yes.”
On this episode, Aaron joins us to discuss how this rebellious streak was exacerbated by struggles with dyslexia and systematic underestimation of his intelligence from adults and peers alike, how his attraction to graffiti art counterculture led him toward streetwear entrepreneurship and the accidental gold mine of trade show planning, the motivational benefits of having a rival to compete against in one’s industry, what he means when he says “Ignorance is rich,” and much more. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
Please note that some of the links on this page (books, movies, music, etc.) lead to affiliate programs for which The Jordan Harbinger Show receives compensation. It’s just one of the ways we keep the lights on around here. Thank you for your support!
Sign up for Six-Minute Networking — our free networking and relationship development mini course — at jordanharbinger.com/course!
This Episode Is Sponsored By:
- Scribd: Get 60 days free at try.scribd.com/jordan
- BetterHelp: Get 10% off your first month at betterhelp.com/jordan
- Handy: Go to handy.com and use code JORDAN to get a special deal on a first-time cleaning
- Hi-Chew: Go to hi-chew.com/win and enter to win an exclusive bucket full of candy and swag
Build for Tomorrow with Jason Feifer is a podcast about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future. Each episode is deeply researched, fast-paced, funny, and aims to answer big questions about ourselves. Check it out here or wherever you listen to fine podcasts!
Thanks, Aaron Levant!
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Resources from This Episode:
- Aaron Levant | LinkedIn
- The Startup | K-Swiss
- Exit: Aaron Levant Bids Farewell to the Show He Founded over 18 Years Ago | The Spinoff
- Marc Ecko | Wikipedia
- Shepard Fairey | Twitter
- Soho Warehouse | Members Club & Hotel in LA
- Downtown Is L.A.’s Coolest Neighborhood — But That Means Something Different This Year | Time Out
- What Is Dyslexia? | Understood
- The Gift of Dyslexia: Why Some of the Smartest People Can’t Read…and How They Can Learn by Ronald D. Davis and Eldon M. Braun | Amazon
- How Steve Jobs Cold-Called His Way to an Internship at Hewlett-Packard | CNBC
- The History of Stance Socks | Complex
- Nielsen Shutters Action Sports Retailer Show | SGB Media Online
- Simon Sinek | What’s Your “Why” and Where Do You Find It? | Jordan Harbinger
- Simon Sinek | How to Play the Infinite Game | Jordan Harbinger
- Adidas vs. Puma: The Bitter Rivalry That Runs and Runs | The Guardian
- The History of Home Depot (More Drama than You Can Fit In a 5-Gallon Bucket) | The Den of Tools
- It’s Easier to Ask Forgiveness than to Get Permission | Quote Investigator
- Truff Hot Sauce | Amazon
- Saint Archer Brewing Company
- 24 Lessons From Jeff Bezos’ Annual Letters To Shareholders | CB Insights Research
- David Choe | Instagram
- Is This QVC for the YouTube Generation? | BoF
- NTWRK, HSN for Gen Z and Young Millennials, Lands Drake and Live Nation | Fast Company
- NTWRK: The TV-Meets-E-Comm Fan Concept Putting A Rocket Under Retailtainment | Forbes
- Agenda Trade Show Founder Aaron Levant’s Long, Strange Trip | GQ
605: Aaron Levant | NTWRK Shopping with Culture’s Creators
[00:00:00] Jordan Harbinger: Coming up next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:03] Aaron Levant: And he was running this huge company at the time and he says, "Well, I'm going to this other trade show in Germany next week." He's like, "Why don't I call you? I'll call you in a month or something." And I go, I lied. I've never been anywhere my whole life. I've never, I think, been to Germany before. And I said, "Well, I'm going to be there," right? I go, you know, I want to seem like a big shot. Like, "I'm going to be at the industry that you're going to be at." And he's like, "Oh, really?" He's like, "Well, I guess I'll meet you there." So then I made an appointment with him, then tried to get a passport, booked my ticket, flew to Germany just to have a 30-minute meeting with this guy because I so badly wanted to give him my concept. And then he basically, when I called him, he sonned me, "Hey, Sonny, nice to meet you, but like thanks, but no, thanks." And then I was like, "Oh, okay." And then I'm like, I guess, it's on. And then it was like competition, right? Ultimately, I ended up taking their company down in less than eight years later, to the ground.
[00:00:50] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. Every episode, we have in-depth conversations with people at the top of their game, astronauts and entrepreneurs, spies and psychologists, even the occasional legendary Hollywood director, Russian spy, or war correspondent. You get the idea. Each episode turns our guests' wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better critical thinker.
[00:01:20] If you're new to the show or looking for a handy way to tell your friends about it, we now have episode starter packs. These are collections of your favorite episodes, organized by popular topics to help new listeners get a taste of everything we do here on the show. Just visit jordanharbinger.com/start to get started or to help somebody else get started. I always appreciate that, of course.
[00:01:40] Today, on the show, my buddy, Aaron Levant, he took a very unconventional path to entrepreneurship, starting off as frankly a lost cause, and ended up creating the largest streetwear convention in history. It's called ComplexCon. If you're in the apparel industry or anywhere near it, you've absolutely heard of this. He now runs the NTWRK app. This is QVC for the YouTube Generation. It sells one thing per day, and most stores sell hundreds of things or even more thousands of things every day. This app sells one thing per day, and it's a huge deal. I found out about it because it's trending on Twitter regularly, and like the number one or number two spot, because they're selling some shoe that you can't get anywhere else. It's really something else. Investors include LeBron James, Drake, so this is really kind of a big deal. I usually don't tell entrepreneur or business stories on the show, but this one had a bit of a unique angle and Aaron is a fun and very open storyteller. So I thought I'd give it a shot. Let me know what you think.
[00:02:34] My only fashion claim to fame, of course, is that K-Swiss did a sneaker with me last year and it sold out in just a couple of days. And my theory is not that they were popular, I think they just didn't make that many because they probably thought who's going to want a Jordan Harbinger shoes. So they were only available for a few weeks, unfortunately. But if you got them, congratulations, you have a limited edition Jordan Harbinger shoe. How did I get on this topic?
[00:02:58] Anyway, if you're wondering how I managed to book all these great authors, thinkers, and creators every single week, it's because of my network. And I'm teaching you how to build your network for free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on our show, they already subscribed to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, you'll be in smart company.
[00:03:15] Now, here's Aaron Levant.
[00:03:19] So ComplexCon was the biggest event in streetwear and the whole scene, you started it. And I take it, you had years of experience in the industry, slowly worked your way up the corporate ladder, right? I know that's not the case. How did it start?
[00:03:32] Aaron Levant: ComplexCon was a really fun, amazing project. And it kind of was an evolution of something I'd been doing for the last 10 or so years before that, which is I had started when I was 19 years old, an independent streetwear trade show company called agenda, very, very organically, like very small on the back of a Thai restaurant in 2003, when I was 19, right? And over the course of the next decade that had evolved to become the biggest streetwear sneaker action sports trade show in the world, like a B2B event. And in 2012 in December, I sold that company to Reed Exhibitions or ReedPop, which was the group inside of Reed Exhibition. It was the biggest trade show and convention company in the world at the time.
[00:04:13] And they owned New York Comic Con. They owned over 500 different events and many of them were focused on my core fan communities. And over the next couple of years, I can have this earn out where I stayed on and ran the company after I sold it. And I learned a lot about the fan convention business specifically in New York Comic Con and the guys who work with, who bought the company for me, started New York Comic Con. You know, I saw an evolution happening in the industry where B2B was dying. Retail was dying, but, you know, direct-to-consumer was this, you know, huge growing portion of the market and these fan communities were bubbling, social media.
[00:04:45] So around that time, I hooked up with one of my mentors and idols, Marc Ecko, who if you're a kid growing up and you like entrepreneurial-ism and graffiti, Marc Ecko is your Michael Jordan. I got to talking with him and he started Complex Media, which is obviously a huge digital media brand and used to be a magazine. I just said to him, sometime in 2015 in January, I said, "Why don't we do complex con, which is this thinking of combining this expertise I had in physical events and brands and bringing people together in a marketplace and his huge consumer reach and their consumer facing brand." I said, "Let's mash it together and take the learnings that I had from the New York Comic Con team. And let's create comic con of sneaker culture." And that idea was met with enthusiasm and we basically worked for the next two years to make that idea reality. We launched in November of 2016. And it was a joint venture between my company and his, and the rest was history. It was very quickly, overnight, the biggest exactly what we described. We set out to do create comic con for sneaker culture and street culture.
[00:05:50] Jordan Harbinger: I kind of want to go back to your childhood because you mentioned graffiti, and I'm guessing — I mean, usually kids who are into graffiti are also into other things that don't really align well with like getting great grades, going to a good — I mean, not always, but there's usually something else going on, right?
[00:06:07] Aaron Levant: Yeah, I think what you're pointing to is a general defiant nature, right?
[00:06:11] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:06:11] Aaron Levant: That you find in, you know, communities, skateboarding, graffiti, just generally being a rebel, being a vandal, it's a counterculture, right? And I was drawn to that at a young age, for whatever reason. It was an outlet for, you know, I was semi artistic. I had learning disabilities. I didn't do well in school. I think my mom calls it an oppositionally defiant, which means I have a tendency to go against any authority figures in my life. She told the story that I walked into a kindergarten and the first day, and the principal asked me a question and I kicked him in the leg. Like I just, I always had this need to just rebel for whatever reason. And then graffiti was this outlet for me to be creative. And whether, you're in class and drawing and not paying attention to eventually, you know, vandalizing walls in your local city. It's something that I was drawn to.
[00:06:53] It then had parallels to music and it parallels to skateboarding, to design. Ultimately, that's what led me to a career. Wanting to work was I saw graffiti writers that I looked up to getting jobs as graphic designers, creating clothing brands. Even someone like Marc Ecko, I mentioned earlier, he was a graffiti writer, turned t-shirt airbrushed that turned, you know, the first billion dollar streetwear label. And that all came out of a passion for graffiti and street art. This isn't a pre-Shepard Fairey, pre-Banksy world that, you know, some of these people were drawn to this.
[00:07:22] Jordan Harbinger: So, how was school for you aside from kicking the principal in the leg? That seems like a pretty auspicious start.
[00:07:28] Aaron Levant: Yeah. You know, I struggled really hard because I'm dyslexic. And, you know, just reading and writing for me and my motor skills just weren't there. And I think that's commonly misconstrued with not being intelligent. And I have a lot of opinions on the structure of our school and how it hasn't evolved. There's a lot of, I think, smart, really creative people who get left behind in the system. Because they don't do whatever, on their SATs and you don't test well, the common conception is at least in a school perspective, you're not smart. Then you don't get into a good college and that your life is doomed if you don't perform well in these preconceived notions. And I think I'm a poster child for being that that's not true. I absolutely failed in all my school. I did so poorly.
[00:08:11] I had such terrifying experiences in fourth grade. Literally, I couldn't go back to school. Kids were laughing at me everyday. They do those roundabout reading in the room where every kid would read a paragraph and you go table to table, right? And I stood up and I was stuttering and I couldn't read, and kids were laughing at me and I was literally laughed off of campus. Right? Like it was an embarrassing experience for me. And for a long time, I thought that, you know, I was never going to amount to much because the system that was created in public school and private school in America leads you to believe if you can't do well at their notion of reading, writing, and arithmetic or history, then you're not smart, which is just not true.
[00:08:45] And I struggled from elementary school to the beginning of high school, both behaviorally and then kind of academically. And I got kicked out of school the second week of 10th grade and I never really finished high school and I never went to college. And I think my parents probably also believed in that notion because we've been conditioned to believe that—
[00:09:04] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:09:04] Aaron Levant: That I wasn't going to succeed economically, right?
[00:09:07] Jordan Harbinger: What do they think now? I mean, obviously they're proud of you now, but are they like what happened? Or are they like, "Oh, this whole time you were just the square peg that everyone was trying to cram through the round whole"?
[00:09:18] Aaron Levant: I think my parents generally believed in me and I think most parents want to believe in their children, but there were certain times where like, they were really worried, right? When I was getting in trouble, when I was getting kicked out of school, when I was constantly being called in. You know, they were being called by the principals of my school saying, "Aaron is a huge problem here. He's he's not only a problem for himself and he's caused distracting and causing problems for other kids." And, you know, when I started get arrested, there's huge problem.
[00:09:41] And there was a period after I got kicked out of high school. When I was going downtown meeting with streetwear brands, doing creative stuff, doing art, one of their friends saw me walking on the street and downtown and called them and said, "You know, I saw Aaron downtown, was he buying drugs?" You know, like they thought I was really going down this bad path. I think they were legitimately worried to the point where like, I think they even considered having an intervention with me and like having me taken away to one of those boarding schools in the middle of Utah where you live in the wilderness, right?
[00:10:08] I actually did something like that at one point but luckily, they saw over time that I've found a passion. But there was a turning point for me when I was channeling my energy in the wrong way. And ultimately when I found a business that I was interested in, I shifted pretty quickly sometime around 16, 17 to really changing my energy from negative to a positive thing. But until that point, I think they were probably healthily scared.
[00:10:30] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I mean, look, the idea that a neighbor or a friend of your family would call the cops or your parents anyway, because they think you're buying drugs, but really you just had a job and that part hadn't occurred to them. Was it because you had a job, you were at work or going to work?
[00:10:46] Aaron Levant: I was downtown interning for this company. It was the kind of where I got my start, but it was at the very early days for like a graffiti-based t-shirt company in LA, which is ultimately like how I got my foot in the door and kind of turned my life around. But Downtown LA is a cool place now with a Soho House in 1998, 1999, it was a dangerous place that you wouldn't go to unless you were buying raw materials from a factory or buying crack or something, right?
[00:11:10] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:11:10] Aaron Levant: So, you know, it's changed a lot. So, you know, they didn't know what I was doing but there's probably healthy concern based on my behavior and where I was and my age.
[00:11:17] Jordan Harbinger: To be fair Downtown LA is still pretty rough, like even around Soho House. I stayed there a couple of months ago, you walk outside and you're like, there's a metal foundry on this road. Why? This is LA. And then you keep walking and there's like burned out stuff or abandoned stuff, and when you look around from the balcony of Soho House, there's a lot of like auto body parts manufacturing, or like repair shops. I mean, it looks like it's straight out of Grand Theft Auto. And then there's like the boutique stores on one street that's not right there, but—
[00:11:46] Aaron Levant: Yeah.
[00:11:46] Jordan Harbinger: That stuff was, it was all that.
[00:11:48] Aaron Levant: There's a stark contrast now. I mean, this is a relatively new thing in the last two to three years, like the gentrification of Downtown LA, which similar to what happened in Williamsburg or whatever, is now happening in downtown. But we're in that part where like there's still the rough thing and then the brand new shiny thing, like intersecting down there, which is an interesting thing to watch.
[00:12:05] Jordan Harbinger: It is interesting. I think it's funny and tragic and speaks a lot about how you grew up, where your family friend said, "I think Aaron might be buying drugs," when it's like, he could have a job and they're like, "Please, he's probably buying drugs. Like, don't be ridiculous. He's definitely buying drugs."
[00:12:23] Aaron Levant: Yeah.
[00:12:24] Jordan Harbinger: Dyslexia. Do you think that has helped you in your career somehow because you've had to learn how to work around it, right?
[00:12:30] Aaron Levant: I don't know if it's helped me, but I think I generally avoid emailing people. I avoid most written communication. I try to do stuff verbally, you know, face-to-face. So I think it's helped me in being more outgoing because I had to communicate with people in a more direct way. And some people are just scared to pick up the phone and call people. They think it's very sales-y, right? So like, I never was good at the written language. I just picked up the phone, I just showed up places, started talking to people. So I think by osmosis, I just started to be really good at communication, verbal and in-person communications. I think that really led me to be more outgoing, even though I'm generally an introverted shy person. But I think when people met me and they're like, "Who's this 16 or 19-year-old kid, who's like out here trying to sell me on this idea? Like, I'm actually like intrigued with this guy, it's almost comical that he showed up here to try to talk to me about this business idea." Like I'm intrigued by him and they wanted to work with me. They thought it was cute or endearing, right?
[00:13:29] Jordan Harbinger: There's like an element of it's so ballsy and brazen that it's like, "Okay, normally I wouldn't want to take this meeting, but I want to meet the literal, like child who's trying to sell me on flying over to this Thai restaurant and doing, like buying a booth or whatever at his pretend event." And then it's like...biggest event in the world, for the scene.
[00:13:52] Aaron Levant: I don't know if you've ever seen this interview with Steve Jobs where he talks about when he was, I think, nine years old or something. He called up the founder of Hewlett-Packard. He got his number in the phone book and he asked him if he could buy some parts from him and the guy, I think whatever his name was, Hewlett or Packard, thought it was so cute. He invited Steve over to the factory. He gave him the parts and then he offered me an internship there. And Steve talks about like, most people just don't have the balls to ask, right? Like just to pick up the phone and just ask people things naively. Everyone's scared in this like Instagram culture of showing your success. No one is like really willing to put themselves out there, right? Because they're so fearful of failing. So I think there's something in a pre-social media era that, you know, was really valuable to just like being somewhat vulnerable in business and trying things.
[00:14:36] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, you're right. There's something also about the brazenness or the audacity of these moves. I remember when I was a kid, my mom always tells the story. I don't remember it really, but I wanted to stereo. So I called every stereos store in town to get prices. And some stores wouldn't give me prices because they want you to go in, right? And I remember this one store saying, "We can't give you prices. It's against the law." And I was like, "That's weird because other stores are giving me price." And I called back and I kept asking the guy wouldn't give me prices. And I said, "Other stores are giving me prices." And he goes, "Well, they're breaking the law."
[00:15:08] And so I called the FBI and I asked if it was against the law for them to give me prices. And this FBI agent in the Detroit office was like, "Do your parents know that you're calling the FBI?" And I was like, "No, but I try to get, I called the ABC warehouse and they wouldn't tell me the price of the stereo." So they called my parents later and they were like, "Your son called the FBI to ask about stereo pricing. And we're all getting a good laugh about it, but we just thought you should know that your son called the FBI." So my mom was like mortified and is like, "Okay, don't call the FBI anymore. We'll just take you to the stereo store. But that other guy, yeah, he was lying. So we're not going to buy from him.
[00:15:41] Aaron Levant: I love that.
[00:15:42] Jordan Harbinger: It's like a ridiculous thing that you do when you're wired in whatever way that you're wired or that a Steve Jobs or whatever. I'm not trying to claim that I'm wired the same way as Steve Jobs. Don't get me wrong. But it's just one of those things that you do when you probably are predestined to not have a real job and start a business like you or me.
[00:15:59] Aaron Levant: Absolutely.
[00:16:00] Jordan Harbinger: Which is kind of where we were headed. Why trade shows though? It seems random kind of unsexy, right? A lot of entrepreneurs, they start with something sexy. Like they're designing the clothes. They're not trying to figure out event logistics and sell booths, right? They're trying to spray paint stuff.
[00:16:16] Aaron Levant: I have no idea why. And I'll just kind of tell you how I got there and it was not planned. It's one of those things I fell into. I heard this guy speak, Jeff Kearl, the founder of Stance Socks and Skullcandy. He is really smart guy.
[00:16:27] Jordan Harbinger: I love Stance.
[00:16:28] Aaron Levant: Yeah. He's like, "Pick a business." I heard him speak more recently, not back then. And he was like, "People complain their business has a margin." He's like, "Look, you, as the entrepreneur, get to pick a business that has big margins." And he's like, "You can navigate to what success looks like." And I didn't even realize, without knowing that I navigated into a really great industry and I was exactly what you said. I was a graphic designer who was designing streetwear t-shirts. Then I had my own brand and that was kind of like my path in the industry and having my own brand and working at a brand. We were going to a lot of trade shows. And through going a lot of trade shows, cost us a lot of money. We're independent company. So this is when that necessity thing, or like I found some thing was broken. I said, "Oh, these guys charged us $5,000 to attend their show. It's a little brand and they don't care about us and they shove us in the corner."
[00:17:08] So by being a disgruntled customer, I then traveled to New York and I saw this one show that just rented out a loft in Soho. And they charged less money and you didn't have to build a big booth and just had a rack. And it was about the product. And I said, "Oh," and I looked around and I said, "What do these guys do?" They rented a room and sublet it to people and let them bring their own rolling rack. And this is a really simple business. I'm like, "I could do this." So then I saw this big show that was happening in California for 35 years, called the Action Sports Retailer Show, ASR, big, huge owned by Nielsen Business Media. They're a big company—
[00:17:40] Jordan Harbinger: Huge.
[00:17:40] Aaron Levant: Been around for decades. And I said, "Why don't I just set up a show across the street from them and charge my friends $500 opposed to 5,000." And it wasn't about making a business. It was about, we didn't want to pay the man, right?
[00:17:50] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:17:50] Aaron Levant: We don't want to pay a bunch of money and then be sidelined. So I said, okay. So I called up my friends and I said, "Hey guys, I'm going to rent this restaurant across the street. You just come over. I'm going to charge you what it costs me to do the thing, basically." And everyone's like, "Okay." And I got 30 brands to show up to the first one. And it, by no means, was it meant to be a business. But I discovered from the first one, I turned a little profit, not even intentionally. It's one of the few businesses where you get paid before you provide the good of the service. And it has a 70 percent gross margin and I just kind of stumbled into it. And I said, "Okay." And I did it again. First, I charged 500. Then I charged 700. First, I had 30 brands and I had 50 brands and just started to go. And then I turned around and said wait. I've been going to this clothing business for a few years. I'm not really getting anywhere. I said, "Why don't you just go do this?" And I just shifted my energy away in like 2004. And the thing just kind of continued to build organically over the next years and like became a real business. But by no means was I like trade shows, was I interested in trade shows. I just kind of fell into it out of something I was passionate about. And then I kind of became passionate that events could channel my creativity because I got to work with a lot of creatives. And over the next 10 years, it just became the biggest thing in the world in that category. And I didn't know anything about the industry and I somehow beat the incumbent through pure naiveness and just continued persistency.
[00:19:04] Jordan Harbinger: There is a lot of hustle in some of the stories that you tell. I watched some of your presentations and I listened to some other, read some other interviews that you had in magazines. There's a story where you fly to Germany to take a meeting. I'd love to hear about that. Because that's what I'm talking about when I see these like brazen audacious young people or not so young people who are just like, "I'm going to take action in this way that's a little bit unprecedented and it doesn't have to be over the top, like expensive or involved or over commit you to something that's going to, you don't have to mortgage your house twice." But who the hell flies to Germany to take a meeting with somebody who lives like, I don't know, probably 10 miles away from them. It just makes no sense.
[00:19:43] Aaron Levant: Yeah. This is how naive I was. So I started this trade show — and again, under the context, I wasn't trying to make money. I just wanted to find a place for my brand and my friends' brands to exhibit where we felt like we were important and not shoved in the corner, right? We're just another number. So we did it two times and it was going well, but like, I didn't want to make this a business. So I saw the big show Action Sports Retailer, and I just picked up the phone and I called the head of it. I was like 20 years old, maybe at the time, still 19. And I said, "Hey man," I said, "I'm the guy that did the little show across the street from me." I said, "Can I rent space from you?" I said, "This is quite a hassle, renting a building and do other stuff." I said, "Why don't I just rent a lot of space for me to discount? And me and my friends could have like our own section." Basically, I was going to give the business away. I didn't even know what.
[00:20:23] And the guy goes, he's a little bit like thought it was crazy that I called him and he was running this huge company at the time. And he says, "Well, I'm going to this other trade show in Germany next week." He's like, "Why don't I call you? I'll call you in a month or something." And I go, I lied. I never been anywhere my whole life. He think I've been to Germany before. And I said, "Well, I'm going to be there." I go, you know, I want to seem like a big shot. Like, "I'm going to be at the industry event you're going to be at." And he's like, "Oh, really?" He's like, "Well, I guess I'll meet you there." So then I made an appointment with him, then tried to get a passport, booked my ticket, flew to Germany just to have a 30 minute meeting with this guy because I so badly wanted to give him my concept.
[00:20:56] And then he basically, when I called him, he sonned me. He just basically like, "Hey Sonny, like, nice to meet you. But thanks but no, thanks." And then I was like, "Oh, okay." And then I'm like, I guess it's on. And then it was like competition, right? But it was so badly they wanted to like make a business with this guy or make him feel like I was on the level. And he just dismissed me. I didn't realize at the time but, you know, ultimately, I ended up taking their company down, less than eight years later to the ground.
[00:21:24] Jordan Harbinger: But there's a mindset thing here too, right? Because if you get sonned as you say it, if someone's like, "Oh look, Sonny boy, this is not for you. You can't do this. Like, why are you wasting my time? Cute that you're out here," most people go, "Oh man, I'm too young. I don't have the clout. I'm going to get laughed out of the room." And you were like, "No, I'm going to, now I have to choke you out. Like I had to take you down. I'm going to figure this out. You are going down." Like a lot of people don't think that way. A lot of people would be maybe sad and maybe disappointed, maybe even angry, but very few people then turn around and get focused. And then like dismantle that entire business in front of that guy.
[00:22:02] Aaron Levant: Yeah. I don't know it motivated me, but I felt maybe some of that oppositional defiance I got in high school or I was like, "Oh, okay, cool. Let's go." And it was fun. I enjoy competition. I'm a generally competitive person. I like having an adversary on the dart board. Like people talk about their why a lot, some people have this kind of like, you know, very esoteric mission. They want to save the world. And actually, I want to do good stuff for the world too. But I think in business, in a for-profit business, like you got to have a Pepsi to your Coke, right? You got to have someone you're slugging it out with every day. It kind of gives you purpose to get up everyday and work hard. Because if you're just competing against yourself, that's good. And I've heard Apple talk about like, they don't think about what Dell is doing, or whatever, Samsung is doing. And I understand that perspective, but I like having someone to duke it out with. I think it makes you sharper.
[00:22:50] Jordan Harbinger: You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Aaron Levant. We'll be right back.
[00:22:55] This episode is sponsored in part by Build for Tomorrow. Build for Tomorrow is a highly produced narrative show. And each episode digs deep into a big question, historical moment, or critical innovation that can help us understand how change happens. It hits a lot of notes, history, technology, business, psychology, and general curiosity about the world. But the overarching theme is that change can be positive and that we always benefit when we focus on the opportunities ahead. So you can see why I enjoy the show. Some of the things discussed are why are we so obsessed with the good old days? Are we really addicted to technology? Are participation trophies actually bad for kids? Should we talk to strangers? Why do people hate being told what to do? These are all questions and problems near and dear to my own heart. When you listen to Build for Tomorrow, you learn that today's worries are often just echoes of yesterday's worries. And the future is really full of opportunity. That's why listeners say the show helps them feel more optimistic. I tend to agree. So check out, Build for Tomorrow, wherever you get your podcasts and stay tuned after this episode of the show for a trailer of Build for Tomorrow, right at the very end of this show.
[00:23:55] This episode is also sponsored by Scribd. Not to toot my own horn here, but I read at least one to two books a week, usually to prepare for the show, of course. I'd like to say I read for fun, but that's basically a lie. A lot of people ask how I'm able to accomplish this. Well, I read through my ears and I also get exercise, get my steps in. I highly recommend using Scribd where you get instant access to millions of eBooks, audiobooks, magazines, and more. You also get curated picks and smart recommendations based on what you've read, not just what they want to sell. So you can discover new books and authors, which makes choosing your next book, that much simpler. Wired TechCrunch and Forbes call it Netflix for books. I think that makes perfect sense. They have made listening to audio books, easy and affordable access to the world's largest digital library offered as $9.99 a month, which is less than the cost of a single book in most other stores.
[00:24:40] Jen Harbinger: Right now Scribd is offering our listeners a free 60-day trial. Go to try.scribd.com/jordan for your free trial. That's try.S-C-R-I-B-D.com/jordan to get 60 days of Scribd for free.
[00:24:53] Jordan Harbinger: Thanks so much for listening to this show. Y'all know I really appreciate it. Of course, those who support our sponsors. I really appreciate that too. That's what keeps the lights on around here. If you want to see them all in one place, all the codes, all the deals, go to jordanharbinger.com/deals. Please do consider supporting those who support us. We also have worksheets for every episode that we make for you. If you want some of the drills or exercises or key takeaways from this episode of the show, go to the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. We'll have it linked right up in there.
[00:25:23] And now back to Aaron Levant on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:25:28] Yeah. There is benefit to having a rival. I was talking with this guy on the show, Simon Sinek. I don't know if you know him. He talks about—
[00:25:35] Aaron Levant: One of my favorites.
[00:25:36] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, okay. Yeah. So he was on the show. He talks a lot about finding your why, but he also mentioned the same thing about having a worthy rival, not someone you hate or think is despicable or that you are looking down on in some way, but somebody who's like healthy that you respect, maybe you even like them. And you're just looking at them and you're going, like Puma and Adidas or something like that, right? Like, I don't know the whole business story there, but I think those were just kind of like one, they split off. I don't know how much animosity—
[00:26:03] Aaron Levant: Yeah, they're two brothers.
[00:26:04] Jordan Harbinger: Okay. So they probably had some awkward Thanksgiving, but it wasn't like one guy's knifing the other guy's car tires or something like that, right? Or was it that bad? I don't know.
[00:26:12] Aaron Levant: It got bad at first. It wasn't animosity for me. I just wanted to continue to push forward. And then they started to get nasty and like, try to call the city and pull my permits. And it got really, really, they got kind of gangster on me, right? Like they were like, oh, they're like, "Not only do we not want to work with you," they're like, we're going to squeeze you out." And then I kind of was like, "Okay." And I just kept the pedal to metal, but like, you know, I was watching—
[00:26:31] Jordan Harbinger: They were like reporting you to the city to shut down your events.
[00:26:34] Aaron Levant: Yeah. I like, I was so young. I didn't know I needed like these special event permits or these fire department, like safety code permits. And I just was like holding these events and they would like call the fire marshal and like basically drop a dime on me. The fire marshal showed up. He's like, "Hey kid," like two minutes from opening the doors to my second event. And the fire marshal was like, "Can I see your special event permit?" And I was like, "What's a special event permit?"
[00:26:55] Jordan Harbinger: Oh no.
[00:26:55] Aaron Levant: Luckily, the guy was so nice. He's like, "I'm not going to shut this kid down." He's like, "I'll walk you down to the city hall right now and I'll expedite one for you." He was so nice, but they literally were trying to shut down my business. And around that time, I had watched some type of documentary interview with the guy that founded Home Depot. I don't know if you know this guy's story.
[00:27:12] Jordan Harbinger: Not really.
[00:27:13] Aaron Levant: This guy was really competitive. And basically in the beginning Home Depot, when they moved to a new city, when they opened up their big supercenter they'd send a black wreath to the owner of the local hardware store.
[00:27:22] Jordan Harbinger: Dang.
[00:27:22] Aaron Levant: They were like, "We're here to kill you." And I was like, got inspired by that guy. And I was like, "You know what? It's on. Let's do this." So it was like six years of a heated competition, you know, blow for blow. And then in 2009, they just called it quits. They shut the company down and I started in 2003. So, it was on.
[00:27:43] Jordan Harbinger: One of the things. It seems like you do a lot is asked for forgiveness and not for permission, right? That's an example of it, right? Like what's a special event permit? Maybe that was a little bit more naivete versus like, "I'm just going to do it. And let's see if the fire marshal even shows up." That's a little bit, you just did it out of sheer ignorance, I guess, you would. But you did go from basically a juvenile delinquent to a CEO in a few years, right? It's kind of the opposite of an overnight success story. Like most businesses actually are pretty slow going. I'm wondering what you think are the limits of that though, because a lot of people go, "Yeah, I'm going to ask for forgiveness and not permission," but that only works until it doesn't. And then it's like, oh, you did something really bad and now you're screwed.
[00:28:26] Aaron Levant: I don't want to advise anyone to do anything illegal.
[00:28:28] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:28:28] Aaron Levant: But under the context of what's legal, I think that no one is going to hand you anything for sitting around, waiting for someone to recognize your good work or recognize all the good you've been doing or the innovation. It's not going to happen. And if you're waiting for someone to go and tell you, handed to you, it's not going to happen. So you've got to go out and take it right, for lack of a better example. And that's where that motto comes from: ask for forgiveness, not for permission. And a lot of times, first I did it out of pure naivete to a subject matter. And then I realized that works. And, you know, even in my corporate adult life, I practice this at scale.
[00:29:04] I'll give you an example. Around ComplexCon, when we were doing ComplexCon, by that time I'd sold my company. I was technically an employee of a big, huge, publicly traded seven-billion-dollar company. We wanted to really do this deal with this huge celebrity. I won't name, but, you know, to do the deal with them, we had to give him some percentage points of ComplexCon. So ComplexCon is this big, you know, contractual joint venture between Verizon Media and relics, a huge publicly traded company. And even it looks cool to consumers, two big, publicly traded conglomerates and to sort of give somebody equity in an event, you would need to go and talk to the lawyers, right? And as my experience talking to lawyers for a while that they never get anything done.
[00:29:39] Jordan Harbinger: No. It's going to be slow.
[00:29:41] Aaron Levant: So I went and I said, "This is in the best interest of the business." And I said, "Here's an opportunity for us to change the trajectory of our business." So I went and I gave that guy equity and I signed the contract. I never talked to any lawyers on any side. And I said, "You know what?" I said, "If they find out about this, they're going to fire me," right? Absolutely, like it was definitely a cause to fire me. And I said, "But when they see the result that I'm going to drive, they're going to be so happy." The first event went off and it was hugely successful. And the CEO of the company, high five, you know, everyone's high-fiving all around. And then at the end, I said, "Hey guys, by the way, I had to give this guy some equity to do this." And they're like, "Oh, that's great. What a wonderful thing." But if I would've told them on the upfront, it never would have happened.
[00:30:21] And it's like those moments where you just need to have the follow-through to just say like, "You know, you need to just make sh*t happen," and like going through the system and waiting for all the checks and balances and all the decision makers and stakeholders sometimes is not the right way to do it. And you got to just make a calculated decision when to just pull the trigger. And there's an example of, I did it and it worked great, but I was risking something, right?
[00:30:45] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:30:45] Aaron Levant: And I would have asked for forgiveness. I would've said, "Please don't fire me," right? But luckily I didn't have to.
[00:30:50] Jordan Harbinger: I mean, first of all, you definitely got lucky that the event went off without a hitch, but I wonder how much you thought about the downside. Was it like, "Okay, and if it doesn't work, so he's got 10 percent equity, but the event was not profitable, so he really doesn't get anything"? So no harm, no foul. Or were you just like, "Screw it, I'm just going to give him the equity because it's going to pop off"?
[00:31:06] Aaron Levant: I thought about what the downside was probably not as so calculated. I just knew in my heart it was the right thing to do. And I was acting in the best interest of the company, whether they realize it or not. And sometimes when you get involved with big companies, they don't even know what's in their best interest, right? And you have to be an entrepreneur in residence instead of big company if you ever work with one to get things done. Because most people operate under the confines of the system, you know?
[00:31:29] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:31:30] Aaron Levant: They ask for the hall pass, you know, from the teacher. It's like, just go, right? And you know, you risk getting your wrist slap. People find reasons to say no.
[00:31:39] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:31:39] Aaron Levant: And they don't embrace new ideas very often. So you got to just do it. And then, when you're successful, of course, everyone wants to be your best friend, but they don't know how to get there.
[00:31:48] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Yeah. That's a really good point. How quickly did you go from, let's say, like broke and hustling for every dollar and hoping ends meet and making this work in a business to looking at your bank account and disbelief? The good kind of disbelief, I mean.
[00:32:04] Aaron Levant: It's interesting, like when I was running that trade show company Agenda, I was living at my parents' house until I was like 24. Most people had moved out at 18 or whatever.
[00:32:15] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:32:15] Aaron Levant: I know that's changed in this day and age but 10, 15 years ago, that was maybe a different story. And I didn't raise money for the company. I didn't have this like VC backed entrepreneurs consider their burn rate. And, you know, they have like a point, like the business just ends, right? Because I just did it independently. I didn't pay myself a salary. I lived at my parents' house and I just spent no money. I just could keep going and going for a long time. So there was five, six years I've made nothing, right? And most people just would've given up. They'd be like, this is not successful business. Because I was able to push through that, then when money started coming in, it was dramatic. I almost look at like Amazon, like they lost money for all this time. And then all the sudden they've made a huge profit, right? There was like this dramatic shift. I can't remember the year, but it was probably about 2007, 2008. We went from making no money to like all of a sudden to like I went and deposited like a multi-hundred thousand dollar check in the bank.
[00:33:07] And like, this is the same bank where my parents banked at. They had a relationship with my parents. Again, same thing, they're like, the banker called my mother and said, "Hey, Aaron, just deposited a cashier's check for a quarter million dollars in the bank. Like, is he selling drugs?" And that's when I was like, "All right, I got someone's attention." And then from there on, it was pretty good. But it's just like all of a sudden I'm making like minimum wage working for myself, and then it was like, boom, all of a sudden I'm putting like millions of dollars in the bank. So it was a weird moment, but it just took a long time to get there. When I got that phone call, it was like, "Okay, now, I did something right. I guess."
[00:33:42] Jordan Harbinger: There's also a mindset thing there too. Because I think a lot of people, if their family friend calls and tells their parents that you're probably buying drugs in Downtown LA and then the banker calls and says he's probably laundering money or for a drug cartel or whatever they thought you were doing with the 250 grand, you know, a lot of people would be like, "You know, all these people that don't have faith in, Maybe they're right." But you were just like, "Good. I want you to feel like surprised because that's what I'm here for," right? There's a part of you that's like, "Good. I got your attention." You're looking at things in a different way than I think a lot of people would.
[00:34:13] Aaron Levant: Yeah. There's a competitive nature to all of it. And I guess maybe I felt like I have something to prove due to how often I was doubted in my life and career for a long time.
[00:34:23] Jordan Harbinger: That totally makes sense. That totally makes sense. It's kind of. I don't know about you, but there are times, and I can't believe I'm admitting this, but even now where I'll think I'll do something in this business and I'll go take that fourth grade teacher, I'm thinking like, "Mrs. Perrin, you thought that I wasn't going to be able to do anything with my life and I'm killing it. And you're probably been dead for 20 years, but still whatever I win. I win this round." You know, I do think about that occasionally.
[00:34:49] Aaron Levant: Mr. Mizel, my middle school principal. I'm sure he would be quite shocked.
[00:34:53] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, probably he'd be like, "That's the kid that kicked me in the leg? Now, he can buy the whole building and turn it into an art installation. That's not what I saw coming." I know that you're not driven by money. You've said that a few times, but you're driven by the thrill of the hunt. I think that's — do you think that's probably one of the reasons that you're successful because you're not obsessed with all the little line items on the P and L and all that stuff.
[00:35:16] Aaron Levant: I understand that the business and the money side out of it through necessity, it wasn't where I started. I always started from a place of passion and I've made a decent amount of money. But then I'm not the kind of person to spend it, right? You know, I don't have a Rolex watch. I don't have a Ferrari. You know what I mean? Like those things that, the conventional things you would get with money. So the thing that drives me is definitely not the result of the money. I think it's the process of getting there. And I like having it for security, but I've never been like, "I want to do this so I can make a million dollars." Like it just never was part of my thought process. And I think often a lot of people who do it for money, whatever it may be, if their first thing that they set out as their mission, and going into our friend, Simon Sinek, right? Like the why, if their why is I'm going to make a billion dollars, then usually those people fail. And there's nothing really behind that idea. I don't know if I had that Simon Sinek approach strategically, but kind of organically, like I did stuff cause I liked art and graffiti and it kind of stumbled into all these things. And I've been passionate about it along the way, but maybe I missed your question.
[00:36:17] Jordan Harbinger: No, that's always good. Whenever anybody misses the question, it's always better to answer the question that they want to answer because it's always a better answer anyway.
[00:36:25] Aaron Levant: Yeah.
[00:36:25] Jordan Harbinger: I know that you are focused on culture, energy, and ideas, not budget, line items, whatever. Is there a point at which you, I mean, you'd know it out of necessity, as you mentioned, but do you normally try to hire for that or do you do a lot of that yourself? Are you going, "Look, hire a COO, I can't be in the weeds on this. I'm not good at this. I'm going to outsource it," or do you just kind of ignore it? Obviously, that's not what you're doing.
[00:36:48] Aaron Levant: No, I've always been really pro finding someone that's the right brain or left brain. You know, like if I'm taking creative, I always find someone. Even early on in my trade show business, my cousin, I hired him in year two because he knew how to use Excel and QuickBooks and I did it right?
[00:37:03] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:37:03] Aaron Levant: Like there's always that person and those people are super valuable. And in this business network that I'm in now, I've got lots of people who are really operationally minded, financially minded. And I've learned that stuff over the years. I just know it's not my strength. And my strength is in being creative, being aggressive, and combining those two things. But you have to have those people. And I think every great creatively led business or entrepreneur, whether they're up front or you see them, or they're the unsung hero behind the scenes, that is super, super important that you recruit those people. That you value those people, because otherwise the ideas will never scale.
[00:37:37] And I think to all those people's credit, they're the ones who kept me from going off the cliff and meaning like I would have in numerous occasions spent us off the cliff chasing some wild, creative idea in every business I've ever done and they go, "Hold on." So if I say, "Spend a hundred," they say, "Spend zero," and we'll spend 50 and it keeps that even keel, right?
[00:37:58] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:37:58] Aaron Levant: And often I can be accused rightfully so of wanting to go over the cliff creatively.
[00:38:03] Jordan Harbinger: I am also like that. And my wife who runs this business with me will be like, "We agreed on a budget. This is twice the budget." And I'm like, "But it's so awesome." And she goes, "What if we spend the budget now, measure the results." And then which is like the same thing to do, right? And then continue. And then I'm like, "But I want to do the big thing." And she's like, "I know you—" and I feel like a child, but I'm like, you know she's right and you know that your operations people are right, but there's just a part of what you want to do, that's just like, "I just want to hit the gas, man. I want to hit the gas and go."
[00:38:33] Aaron Levant: Yeah. Knowing that moment though, and that's sometimes where the headbutting comes, it's like, there's that moment that you have as the entrepreneur where you're like, "Okay, these guys did a good job. We got here. Made the business profitable." Like there is a point you need to go back in and reinvest. And that's sometimes where the headbutting comes in and having whatever the nose or the feeling to know when that moment is, and when's the point to put your foot down and go, "No, we're really going for it here." And like, that was ComplexCon, that was certain things like we're going to go and put our money where our mouth is and take a big moonshot and it's a risk. That's the art of business. It's knowing when to do that and not listening to those people but you got to listen to them 80 percent of the time.
[00:39:09] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, now, that's a good rule. I like that. I know you invest in a lot of different things, but they all seem to be in different spaces. You've got hot sauce. You've got events. You've got experiential stuff. That hot sauce Truff is really good, by the way. I'm going to link it in the show notes.
[00:39:23] Aaron Levant: I'm happy you like it.
[00:39:23] Jordan Harbinger: Dude, I've been hammering it down. I've got the three different varieties. My wife's like, "You put that on everything." I'm like, "It's so good." The whole house likes it. So for those of you who are not sure of what we're talking about. It's truffle oil hot sauce. Is that the simplest way to explain it?
[00:39:37] Aaron Levant: It's black truffle hot sauce. Yeah.
[00:39:39] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. It's delicious. And it's not overpowering. A lot of people like, you got to be careful with truffle oil, right? Or black truffle, because it can overpower all the other flavors. And it's a good mix. So I'm really digging it. But you've got hot sauce, you've got clothing, you know, all these different investments. Do you research the space or do you just kind of trust people to bring you good ideas and you go, "Well, I trust Jordan. So I'm going to go with this idea, because the rest of it looks good," or are you like really getting in the weeds?
[00:40:06] Aaron Levant: The rhyme or the reason on how and why I've invested in things is a complete chaos theory. And there was no thought behind it. I would say now 20 years into my career, I start to have a little bit of an idea of what's a good investment and what's not. I would say the majority of the investments I've made are the ones that were not, and there's been a few shining objects have been good. So I must have, you know, the track record of a venture capital firm that expects 90 percent failure rate. But I didn't know I was doing angel investing or venture capital. I didn't know what investing was about. I didn't understand evaluation. I understand anything. I would just kind of meet people along my way.
[00:40:38] And I happen to be in a creative industry where, hey, I was doing the clothing trade show and I was working with this brand called Primitive, which is owned by the skater Paul Rodriguez. And he's very successful pro skater with a very successful brand. And him and his team came to us, said, "We're starting a beer." And they said, "It'd be the first action sports beer company." I'm not even a fan of beer. And he said, "Well, you talk to the guys. Are you interested in putting your money in?" This guy, Josh, shows up at my office with a bottle of beer that look like he made it in his house. I don't know a good beer. I took a sip of it and he's like, "You want to invest?" And I'm like, I didn't ask him the valuation. I didn't understand it. I didn't know anything about preferred stock, common side. I didn't know anything. And I said, "Sure." And I like put some money in, right? And next thing you know, three years later, they sell the company to MillerCoors for like a hundred plus million dollars.
[00:41:21] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:41:22] Aaron Levant: You know, like it was a totally random, I just liked the guys. It seemed like a nominal risk at the time. And I just kind of did it. So I was like, "Okay." And I'm like, "Oh, this investing thing is fun. I should do more of this."
[00:41:33] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:41:33] Aaron Levant: And you know, another guy, I'm friends with Jon Buscemi, who's like a high-end sneaker designer. He comes to me. I'm having dinner with him. And I told him I really was passionate about hot sauce, and I was trying to start a hot sauce company. And he's like, "Oh, my CEO and his son are trying to start a hot sauce company." And he introduced me to these two kids, but had an idea to do a hot sauce company. I was trying to do it. They had time and no money. I had money and no time. And these guys had no experience. And I just kind of liked these guys. And I was like, "All right, well, sure, I'll put money into this thing." And we all worked on it together. And next thing you know, we've got the number one hot sauce company in Whole Foods nationwide, right? I would say pure stupidity or naiveness has followed me into these investments.
[00:42:12] Jordan Harbinger: You're Forrest Gump-ing your way into these things, man. Totally.
[00:42:16] Aaron Levant: Yeah, with everything in my career, I really believe that ignorance — when people say ignorance is bliss, I believe that ignorance is rich. Because if I try to go back and do a trade show company, I know way too much about it now. And I over analyze it. Like paralysis by analysis, right? So if I looked at these guys and was like, "Well, you don't know anything about food. You don't anything about hot sauce. You don't know anything about direct to consumer." You know, one guy was an Uber driver and a tech recruiter, and the other guy was a busboy at Katsuya. Those are the two kids that were CEO of Truff. These kids are probably the two most genius co-CEOs of any CPG company in the space right now. But if I looked at them on paper, they would have been a no.
[00:42:50] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:42:50] Aaron Levant: But I just got a feeling. I liked these guys. I'm like, "I will put my money and my energy behind these two guys out of nothing other than I like them." No conventional wisdom would lead you there.
[00:43:01] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Aaron Levant.
[00:43:05] This episode is sponsored in part by Better Help online therapy. We talk about Better Help a lot on the show and rightfully so. This month, we're discussing some of the stigmas around mental health. We've been taught that mental health shouldn't be a part of a normal life. I think that's crazy wrong. We take care of our bodies at the gym. We go to the doctor. We take care of our nutrition, maybe not so much around the holidays, but we should be focusing on our minds just as much. And many people think therapy is for so-called mentally ill people or crazy people that is nonsense. Therapy doesn't mean something is wrong with you. It means that you recognize all humans have emotions. We need to learn how to control them, not just avoid them, putting our heads in the sand. Better Help is customized online therapy that offers video, phone, even live chat sessions with your therapist. You don't have to see anyone on camera if you don't want to. It's much more affordable than in-person therapy and you can be matched with a therapist in under 48 hours. Give it a try and see why over two million people have used Better Help online therapy.
[00:44:00] Jen Harbinger: For 10 percent off your first month visit betterhelp.com/jordan. That's better-H-E-L-P.com/jordan and join over two million people who've taken charge of that mental health with the help of an experienced professional.
[00:44:11] Jordan Harbinger: This episode is also sponsored by Handy. I'm going to let you in on a little secret about cleaning. I don't do it neither should you. Like me, you're probably not even any good at it anyway, instead get Handy. Handy is a useful platform that matches you with professionals to help you with your everyday needs like cleaning. Whether you have one room to tackle or you need help with the whole place, Handy has flexible options that you can customize through the app or the website. Jen used to do all the cleaning herself. I mean, I helped, but let's be honest. I was crap at it. I just made things worse. Once we hired a professional, we never turned back. The results speak for themselves. I'm able to eat off my own kitchen table now. Hell, when they're done, I could probably eat off the floor, but I'll leave that to my kid. They have the proper equipment and knowledge to do the job right now. We have more time and energy to do the things we actually love. Plus, there's something so satisfying about coming home to a professionally cleaned house. Sometimes, you just need a break, pamper yourself by hiring a pro to clean every once in a while. Dang it. Go ahead. You've earned it.
[00:45:06] Jen Harbinger: Use code JORDAN to get a special deal on a first-time cleaning when you sign up for a cleaning plan.
[00:45:11] Jordan Harbinger: And now for the conclusion of our episode with Aaron Levant.
[00:45:16] No conventional wisdom, but by unconventional wisdom, it does make sense because nobody —and I'm sure you won't take this personally.
[00:45:22] Aaron Levant: Yeah.
[00:45:22] Jordan Harbinger: Nobody would have gone, "Oh, Aaron Levant, we got to buy stock in that guy. The guy, walking around Downtown LA, who we think is buying drugs. Like where do I sign up to be in business with him," you know? And you probably see some of the same things you see in yourself where you're like, "These people just need a chance. The idea's good. They're hard workers in these other spaces." And that's really what it takes a lot of the time. Like there's something going on, subconsciously that you're calculating. Right?
[00:45:46] Aaron Levant: Yeah. And I would say for sure, and I don't have any data right now to show you on a spreadsheet, but I've made 10 or 15 investments in startup companies. And I would say the ones I've made by far, you know the crazy returns on, have been the ones led by first time entrepreneurs in that space who on paper would have had no experience. And the ones where, like I thought I was getting smarter, I'm like, "Oh, this guy is a badass." He came from this company, he was a VP at this and that. And he's got this amazing business plan and this board and all these other fancy investors, I lost all my money, for sure. So it's really tricky. So there's no rhyme or reason other than I find people and I like them and I've won more than I've lost on paper, but the like total dollars wise, but the amount of investments I've lost on is for sure more just per investment. I've lost more and it usually from the experienced operators, so be wary of those people that know what they're doing.
[00:46:36] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Yeah, exactly. Be wary that people that seem like they know what they're doing, because maybe, like you said, they know too much. With you, they go, "Oh my God, we have to get our food vendors down." And it's like, you focused on the food vendors, the experience sucks. Nobody's buying tickets for the next event or something along those lines.
[00:46:51] Aaron Levant: Yeah.
[00:46:51] Jordan Harbinger: I know you invested in Pressed Juicery. I love that. I always wonder my wife asked this. She goes, "When you're an investor in something, do you just get free stuff at every location?" Like, do you get a card? That's like, "I gave this company a million dollars, give me some free juice."
[00:47:04] Aaron Levant: You know what I think one time they sent me some juice but other than that, no. I'm sure if I asked for a discount or some stuff, but I'm never that person that asks.
[00:47:12] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:47:12] Aaron Levant: I think the other day I bought a bottle of Truff at Whole Foods because I didn't want to hit up Nick and Nick and asked for another bottle and be annoying. I'm very introverted. So, you know, most people are shamelessly asked for free things and I've never been that. I think one time Saint Archer gave me some free beer. But like, I just never — I'm sure you could, but no, not that guy.
[00:47:32] Jordan Harbinger: We diverge on that. I am shamelessly like, "Hey, oh, you're buying ads on the show. Do we get product?" They're like, "You've never had this product that everyone has on there — you've never had Tabasco. You never had this before, you've never had Diet Coke before?" And I'm like, "Look, if you're going to buy ads on the show, I need to try the product." They're like, "It's available nationwide." And I'm like, "Cool, here's my address."
[00:47:52] You'll be a good yin to my yang then because you'll shamelessly ask for things.
[00:47:55] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I'll just hide behind my assistant. Like, "Look, just send it at my address. Just send it to them. See what happens. See what shakes out." "It's a diamond company. You know what a diamond looks like, right?" "Yeah. Here's my address."
[00:48:06] You've said that you should make yourself uncomfortable if you get too comfortable in business. I'm curious why like you, you hear that a lot from entrepreneurs. You hear that a lot from business owners. I feel you on that, but I think a lot of folks are like, "What's wrong with just comfortably making a ton of money?" I don't understand.
[00:48:21] Aaron Levant: I would say it's when you get comfortable is when you stop making a lot of money. I'm not saying you're going to lose the money you have when you stop innovating and making money go forward. If you're familiar with Amazon's annual shareholder letter. He talks about day one, right? And he's like, day two is stasis, right? As soon as you move to the second phase, you stop treating it like you're a startup, you die. That's literally the message that Jeff Bezos has been sending to investors since his first year as a public company.
[00:48:48] And I didn't know that until much later in my career. And I embodied that spirit, but as I learned and I look around, I really believe in that because you have to feel like you have something to prove and you have to try so hard and keep going and grinding. And the second you go, "Aah, I made it," that's when you die, right? That's when everyone goes and eat your lunch. And like after the first ComplexCon, which seemingly was the most accomplished thing I'd ever done in my professional career in 15 years, I felt miserable. Not because the event was not successful because I was so focused on what I had done wrong. As masochistic as that sounds, I think that's important.
[00:49:20] Jordan Harbinger: You know, David Choe is?
[00:49:21] Aaron Levant: Yeah, yeah, I do. He's an artist. Yeah. So I saw him speak probably 10 years ago at some event, Downtown LA and he shows up to the. And he's the guy that made $500 million because he painted Facebook's office and he traded them. They want to pay him like $8,000 or a trade in that for one percent of Facebook stock and then it'd be worth half a billion. And he talks about that experience and he's like, he said, as soon as he got that money and he started becoming a really successful painter and everything was going well, he said his creativity just fell off a cliff.
[00:49:49] And this is a guy that's worth half a billion dollars. He moved back into his parents' garage in a futon and he talks about this and he said, as soon as he did that and he started to make himself feel uncomfortable again, his creativity and his career shot back up. And it was like, he literally forced himself as a, as someone worth hundreds of millions of dollars to just go and live in his parents' garage as an adult, without air conditioning. And I was like, "That's f*cking amazing," right?
[00:50:13] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:50:13] Aaron Levant: Because that is the spirit. You have to challenge yourself in that way. And I know it sounds really weird, but like, I truly believe that that's the case.
[00:50:21] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. It's like, "Hey man, if you really want to be uncomfortable, I'll hold that $500 million for you."
[00:50:27] Aaron Levant: He definitely didn't get rid of the 500 million, but he got rid of whatever his comforts were at that time.
[00:50:31] Jordan Harbinger: Sure. His penthouse in Manhattan or whatever, multiple at that point. In closing here, look, how come you haven't lost all your money. A lot of people who succeed early or in your position with no quote-unquote business experience early on, they go broke. They go, "Great. All right, now I'm unstoppable. Next thing. Oh crap. I'm broke now it's gone." I hear that all the time. We hear that all the time. You meet people like that all the time.
[00:50:56] Aaron Levant: Look, the game's not over yet. I could still lose it all.
[00:50:58] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:50:58] Aaron Levant: For sure, don't count me out on that list because I'm a big gambler. I would definitely put me on the list of people that are liable to lose all their money betting on some crazy business, right? And I get more emboldened over time. As I've been successful at multiple things, you feel some level of invincibility. There's a certain ego, whether you realize it or not, that you think you can keep winning and you know, the odds are that you're not going to win, right? So for sure, I've lost a ton of my wealth. I'm still doing fine, but I definitely, you know, continued to make money and lose money and various different things.
[00:51:29] I also have lived a pretty inconspicuous lifestyle, meaning, you know, I know a lot of guys in like the streetwear and skate industry have had these companies that made a hundred million dollars. And I know one company that spent $600,000 in bar tabs in one year, meaning going out to clubs, buying alcohol, they thought, you know, they were embodying the lifestyle of what the consumers thought they were doing, they're buying Ferrari's, whatever. You know, people blow it up their nose or they do whatever. Like there's a lot of people that have just spent it on just living that rapper lifestyle and having an entourage and things like that. I'll never be that guy. If I lose it all, I'm going to lose it, continuing to trying to push new business ideas forward and I'll feel good if I lose it like that. I won't feel good if I spend it on frivolous crap.
[00:52:13] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Well, that's part of it. I think the other trick is as far as I see all these older guys in Hollywood, not getting divorced is also a really good way to keep a lot of your money. So now you run a network, which is QVC for the YouTube Generation is how I've heard you explain it. Tell us a little bit about what this is. Because I saw this trending on Twitter and I was like, why are all these people on Twitter upset that they can't buy a pair of Air Force 1 or whatever it was. And it was like the number one trending thing on Twitter. And I thought, whoever owns this has sold a lot of shoes today.
[00:52:45] Aaron Levant: Yeah. I think we had 90,000 people attempting to buy that shoe that day, which is the Jeff Staple Nike SB Pigeon Dunk, last January and it crashed our platform because 128 million bots logged on simultaneously to try to get it as well. But, yeah, look post ComplexCon I got introduced to a really prolific entrepreneur named Jimmy Iovine, Apple Music, Beats by Dre, Interscope Records, like one of the great legends in business and creativity and him and his fund and partners were working on putting together a business that was trying to reinvent QVC for millennial Gen Z audience. Going back to the idea, we were talking earlier, challenging yourself, make yourself uncomfortable, I'd done events for 15 years. And I was looking at what's the next chapter of my career. So people say, when you get offered a ride on a rocket ship, you say, yes, right? So I jumped on board with these guys in beginning of 2018 and started to build out this platform, which really is trying to reinvent what QVC or HSN was to my parents or grandparents' audience, home shopping television, and bring it to this mobile first live streaming audience.
[00:53:45] And in China live streaming video commerce is a hundred billion dollar plus business. And we think it has the ability to be that in North America. And these are three things I didn't know anything about ecommerce, content, and building technology and going back to challenging myself and allowing myself to be naive again, that's really what I was passionate about. And we've assembled an amazing team. I got a hundred people that work here now. We've got an amazing team of investors and it's been quite a journey in the last two years, building this new platform. That's challenging retail and entertainment.
[00:54:16] Jordan Harbinger: A lot of people might ask why build a new platform? What about just going live on Instagram or TikTok or Facebook or all three? It seems like the easiest way to sort of get started, the best thing would be to simply take an audience that you already have, right? You already have followers there. Sell to them on a platform like Instagram. On the other hand, I would worry that Instagram is really crowded and you don't own the audience. You don't have their email addresses, contact info. All you can do is like hope the algorithm likes you that day and then sell people stuff, right?
[00:54:43] Aaron Levant: Exactly what you just said is the thesis, which is going through an intermediary. I don't care if it's Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, it's their audience. They own the consumer data. We're renting it from them. And even their whole business model now is preventing you from reaching your organic followers. "Oh, you have 10,000 people that follow you. Cool. We'll show your message to about 500,000. If you want to reach the rest of the people who want to follow you, pay us." We can't build a business that has asset value, right? So, you know, why would Spotify start when iTunes exists? There's room for innovation. Why did Zoom start when Skype and WebEx existed, right? There's room for innovation, there's room for building asset value and having our own relationship with our own customers.
[00:55:27] And I think it's much harder to do what we're doing, but the prize at the end of the rainbow is dramatically bigger than like, you know, how many people were big on MySpace, then you're big on Instagram and TikTok goes. There's five more things coming that I don't even know what they are. You're just chasing someone else's horse. We're making our own thing and it's more expensive. It's more time-consuming and the rate of failure is much higher, but if we do it, we can be a billion dollar company, right? No questions asked.
[00:55:53] So this is a pure ideological thing. And I've seen other people try to be shopping platforms on YouTube on Instagram and they'll be there, but I argue that we're going to be bigger. And I think what Spotify did for audio streaming, what Netflix did for video and content streaming, we want to be streaming equivalent for shopping. And I think it's that big of a paradigm shift that we're looking to disruptor in the industry.
[00:56:18] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. We'll link to the app in the show notes. I'll also, you have a hundred percent mind share of that audience, right? They will open that app and look for what you are selling versus opening the app and then your influencer or a player in that space. And then I come along and I'm like, "Look, I'm showing more skin than you. And I'm younger. So I got all the followers buying stuff from me now. It's like, no, no, no."
[00:56:39] Aaron Levant: Yeah.
[00:56:39] Jordan Harbinger: And if you build your own thing, if I want to chase you, I'm like, instead of just signing up for an Instagram account or a TikTok account and doing it better or doing it different, I now have to assemble a team, build an app market, the app, get all the vendor. I have to rebuild everything. So you have a moat around you, that's a much larger that allows you to keep your lead longer.
[00:56:56] Aaron Levant: Yeah. And whatever the next TikTok is, then I'm not chasing it, right?
[00:57:00] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:57:00] Aaron Levant: We're just going to stand still and do our own thing and not worried about what the rest of the market will use those tools to speak to consumers for communication, but that's not where we conduct business.
[00:57:10] Jordan Harbinger: You're not under the algorithm, the winds of the algorithm or of big data, just like really shine on you that day in order for you to survive.
[00:57:19] Aaron Levant: And also if you do something wrong, those people can just turn you off.
[00:57:21] Jordan Harbinger: Yep. Yeah. Oh, we don't like them because one of the guys who was the founder of the company got accused of something yesterday. So we're just going to like, not show any of their stuff for the next month until that's cleared up.
[00:57:32] Aaron Levant: Just turn off your account and then you're dead in the water.
[00:57:34] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Aaron, thank you very much. Super interesting interview. Really good business ideas here. Well, I should say some good business ideas, some really dangerous business ideas that people probably shouldn't follow, but really interesting conversation. Thank you so much.
[00:57:47] Aaron Levant: Awesome. Thank you, man. I enjoyed it.
[00:57:51] Jordan Harbinger: Special thanks to Hi-Chew for sponsoring this episode of The Jordan Harbinger Show. Hi-Chew is an incredible candy. I've been a fan for decades since I discovered it in Japan. It originally was invented as a gum substitute in Japan, which is kind of like, why would they substitute gum? But apparently in Japan, I didn't know this, which explains a lot, but it's really impolite to remove food from your mouth in Japan. Well, probably anywhere, but Japan, especially. Hi-Chew was innovated. It's got a texture like gum, but you can swallow it. It eventually melts right. Biting into a Hi-Chew, it's like an experience that will bring a smile to your face, let me just say. With over 200 unique flavors like dragon fruit, acai, stuff I had to Google that I've never heard of. They've got specific flavor profiles like Valencia orange versus Mandarin orange. Apparently, those are different. Don't ask me. And Hi-Chew has a dual layer. They're specialty patented flavor release technology. Sounds very fancy. A unique chewy texture. It's not a gummy. It's not a taffy, not too soft, not too hard. Single flavored sticks or variety bags are perfect for stocking stuffers this holiday season.
[00:58:48] Aaron is up to a whole lot more. He's got a hot sauce brand, which is awesome. It's called Truff. It's the best-selling hot sauce at Whole Foods. It's got truffles in it, hence the name. He also does some cannabis events. I mean, this guy is, as you can tell from the interview, and as you can tell from his stories, he's definitely a man of many foci, right? He can't focus is kind of the way that you might explain that, but he does such a good job of channeling his energy enough to get stuff done. It really is kind of the magic combination. This guy was wired to be an entrepreneur. Links to everything he does will be on the website, in the show notes. Please use our website links if you buy anything from guests like their book, usually. That helps support the show. Worksheets for the episode, again, those are in the show notes. Transcripts for the episodes, always in the show notes. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. Hit me up on LinkedIn. If you want to hit me up anywhere, I always love to get back to you and chat a little.
[00:59:39] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships, using systems and tiny habits over at our Six-Minute Networking course that is free. That's over at jordanharbinger.com/course. Please dig the well before you get thirsty, that's the way to do it. Most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course in the newsletter. You heard about networking in today's episode and the importance thereof. So I won't beat that to death.
[00:59:59] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. My amazing team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Millie Ocampo, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know somebody who's into apparel, entrepreneurship, or thinks they can't do it because they're learning disabled or they got ADHD, and they're never going to be able to do anything, share this episode with them — really. Hey, I hope you find something great. In every episode of the show, please do share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you. Next time.
[01:00:39] Jason Feifer: We are about to embark upon a historical quest. This quest is going to take us back, back, and back and back again. Then we will keep going and we will find out once and for all, if there ever was a golden age.
[01:00:55] Male: We will make America great again.
[01:00:59] Jason Feifer: When does the word again actually refer to?
[01:01:02] Female: When it was founded?
[01:01:03] Male: So for the slavery stuff.
[01:01:05] Female: Except for the slavery stuff.
[01:01:06] Male: Well, it turns out it depends on who you ask I suppose. Some people probably romanticized the roaring twenties is a lot of fun.
[01:01:16] Jason Feifer: And that sounds fun. We like fun. Rah-rah, look at this headline.
[01:01:20] Female: Are we moving too fast, too fast for health and too fast for thought?
[01:01:25] Jason Feifer: If only it seemed we could go back — back to another time, back before all this, back to — well, back to when? When was the golden age? What are the good old day? Could I find any time, any time in history that everyone agreed that was the good old days? Well, that would be pretty amazing. And if I couldn't, well, would that be a powerful argument against the nostalgia narratives we carry today and ultimately, what will it take to get backwards looking people more excited about looking forward?
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.