You know Tony Robbins. He’s the world’s most famous performance and motivational coach. He’s advised everyone from Bill Clinton to Serena Williams, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Oprah Winfrey (who calls him “superhuman”). He was called in to advise Bill Clinton during his impeachment and counts billionaires such as Virgin’s Richard Branson and casino magnate Steve Wynn among friends.
He first broke onto the self-improvement scene 30 years ago, with the publication of his first bestseller, Unlimited Power. His follow-up, Awaken the Giant Within, went on to sell millions of copies. Then he moved into seminars and personal coaching to some of the world’s richest men. Indeed, a ticket to one of Robbins’ six-day courses costs between US$4,000-US$8,000. Want to talk to Robbins daily? That’s a cool US$1 million a year.
Today, Robbins Research International – the parent company that combines all his coaching, training and events businesses – takes in nearly US$5 billion a year. And that’s not counting Robbins’ other activities, from asteroid mining to 3-D printed prosthetics. It’s fair to say that Tony Robbins is a billion-dollar guru machine. But for the past five years, he’s been teaching another form of self-help.
Every October, some 150,000 registered attendees invade the city of San Francisco for Dreamforce, the annual conference put on by software powerhouse Salesforce.com. Now in its 14th year running, it’s grown from a small customer event of 1,300 visitors to the rock concert of corporate events. It virtually shuts down central San Francisco, with over 1,400 workshops and sessions scheduled around the city. Previously, it’s played host to the politicians like Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, media Baroness Arianna Huffington, tech and investment visionaries Marc Andreessen and Reid Hoffman, and even musicians like Will.I.Am and Neil Young.
But this year, the only session that really matters is Salesforce CEO and co-founder Marc Benioff’s opening to the conference, featuring a very special guest. Speaking at the introduction, Benioff tells the audience, “Very few people have had such an enormous impact on me – my ability to be successful, my ability to give back.” Benioff, who has attended many of Robbins seminars, credits the guru with providing the leadership model at Salesforce, now one of the world’s largest software companies (expected to take in US$5 billion in sales this year). “All of that came out of Tony’s work.”
Benioff first found the self-help guru when he was a 28-year-old. The aspiring entrepreneur was working at Oracle when he began listening to Robbins’ tapes. When Benioff decided to quit his job and start his own company, it was Robbins who he turned to. Benioff now makes use of Robbins personal coaching services, and regularly invites the guru to Salesforce events like this one. The two even holiday together sometimes, travelling to Robbins’ resort and spa hotel in Fiji.
As Robbins walks onstage in front of ten thousand sales executives – to the roaring beats of the Black Eyed Peas, ‘I Gotta Feeling’ – the two embrace. Then Benioff hands the big stage over to his mentor and the motivation begins.
“Today we’re living in a world where kids learn how to use an iPad before they learn to tie their shoes,” says Robbins, moments after stepping up, “And we have this technology that’s growing geometrically. I’ve seen some of the things that Salesforce are doing right here, and I think we can all agree that it’s just the beginning. It just keeps improving.”
“The questions is where we are with the software that runs all this stuff, between our ears and in our heart. That’s the place that is my domain. I love technology, but I know that it isn’t technology that changes lives. It’s the human beings that apply that technology.”
For the next hour and fifteen minutes, Benioff sits in the front row nodding his head enthusiastically watching Robbins’ six-foot-seven frame move up and down the circular stage. He’s an imposing figure for sure, dressed in a black button-down shirt and dark jeans; he projects his trademark baritone voice into the crowd, encouraging audience interaction by yelling things like, “everyone who agrees, say ‘Aye’!”
“The common denominator for success is what everyone in this room already has. There is a certain amount of passion, a certain amount of drive, and if I were going to give it one word it would be hunger” says Robbins, “Because the most successful people never lose it. And the people that fail never find it, or they find it for a while, and they get too fulfilled too quickly. If you agree say ‘Aye’!”
Robbins tells the audience that he recently found a study that says only 29 percent of employees in the US are engaged in their work, and that 24 percent are actively disengaged, that they don’t even want to be there. It’s the job of everyone in the room to attack that problem, saying that the most profitable companies are those in which employees are the most engaged. “You want to get someone engaged, you engage” he yells, “that’s your job as a leader. You can’t maximise resources if you don’t have engagement”.
If there’s one thing Robbins understands, it’s engagement. His seminars don’t involve a few thousand people sitting idly listening to him talk. He believes his audience must participate. “Think about the people who have the power to change you. They have an energy about them, don’t they? Richard Branson, now there’s a man who has energy.” Robbins’ job then, is to up the energy in the room, or in this case, getting six thousand people – sales executives, marketing professions and software developers – to shout three potent words at each other. “Find somebody and tell them, ‘I own you’.” exclaims Robbins, “Don’t just say it to them, scream it at them. Make them believe that you own them.”
A fly on the wall would naturally assume this is all a complicated charade. A self-help ruse designed to get an audience fired up, ready to believe just about anything Robbins might tell them. But while there are many self-made motivational speakers in the world, and many run successful businesses and offer sound advice. None of them are the CEO of a multibillion-dollar empire. In Robbins own words, “Belief is a poor substitute for experience. You can believe something all you want, but if you experience something you know, it’s true.”
In addition to his core work; inspiring the masses, Robbins looks after a diverse portfolio of businesses. From CloudCoaching International, a holding company that owns businesses focused on “corporate improvement” and has clients like Dell, to Unlimited Tomorrow, which is working on 3D printing limbs for the disabled, and exoskeletons that might someday allow paralysed people to walk again.
Robbins was one of the first investors of Peter Diamandis’s asteroid mining company and has significant shares in Beringer Capital, the private equity firm that recently purchased Adweek magazine. Robbins is even a professional sports team owner – along with Peter Gruber, and celebrities like Will Ferrell – of the Los Angeles Football Club, which has just pledged US$250 million to build a new downtown stadium.
To see him standing at the front of a room of a thousand men and women all screaming, “I own you” at the top of their lungs, Robbins is the picture of confidence. You wouldn’t think that he’s the product of a broken home, with a mother who was an alcoholic and a pill user.
Robbins was forced to take care of his little brother and sister, cook the meals, shop for groceries and even lie to pharmacists to refill his mother’s prescriptions. One night when he was 17, his mother chased him out of the house with a knife. He never returned. Instead, he worked as a janitor and found a small apartment. He was forced to abandon his dream of attending the University of Southern California, and instead took a menial job with a motivational speaker named Jim Rohn. That was the beginning of his career in self-improvement.
It’s this background that makes him ideally suited to talk about failure. “What’s the common denominator for what makes us fail?” Robbins asks the audience. The crowd yells back things like, ‘lack of time and money’ and ‘bad management, terrible staff’. “So you’re all saying you don’t have the resources.” exclaims Robbins, “In my experience resources are never the problem. It’s always a lack of resourcefulness.”
“If you went back to 1978, and looked at a little company called Walmart, you’d find just 78 stores. Other brands like K-Mart and Sears had hundreds and hundreds. If you go back and read the newspapers from back then, they were telling people to sell. They said there was no market for people who wanted huge discounts, and that Walmart had maxed out its resources. Investors left in droves. But look at the stock exchange today. How is Walmart doing? There are more than 10,000 stores today, with almost half a trillion dollars in turnover. Not bad.”
“So it’s not about resources, it’s about resourcefulness. But what does that mean? Resourcefulness comes in human emotion, that invisible force that makes everything else work. If you’re creative enough, can you get the money?” Robbins goads the crowd. “If you’re determined enough, can you find a solution to the problem? And if you care and are compassionate enough, can you get people to help you if you can’t figure it out yourself? Yes or no?” An audience of ten thousand are now out of their seats, cheering and screaming the affirmative towards the stage. Robbins has whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
Robbins spends the next hour talking about topics such as motivation, overcoming challenges, goal-setting and how to recover from failure. He gives the crowd examples from some of the largest companies on Earth (he uses Marc Benioff as an example no fewer than five times). He talks about how people must change their state of mind “how you feel will affect everything you do today, good or bad, happy or sad” says Robbins, before teaching the audience how to be courageous, gracious or joyful at a moment’s notice (it involves visualising memories from your past).
Much of this is frankly, rather obvious. A fact that Robbins doesn’t shirk away from, “Frankly, most of what I share is common sense. I work hard to make it common sense. Most people like to make things much more complex so they feel smart, but then they never do it. I try and make everything basic.” He goes on to ask the crowd how common they think common sense really is, “If you know it, but you’re not doing it, you don’t know it. They say that knowledge is power, but that’s bull. The knowledge that’s acted on, now there’s real power.”
Perhaps this is Robbins greatest skill. They say the number one way to sell anything to anyone can be done in one easy step: make something that people want to buy. Tony Robbins doesn’t sell sales tactics, he doesn’t try and streamline organisational structures or provide tips on attracting new leads. He sells a way of life. His way of life, one of a successful billionaire CEO, with over 30 profitable companies under his stead.
It is an hour into his session at Dreamforce, and the energy is just as high as it was the moment Robbins walked on stage. People are clapping, jumping, hollering and whooping. People are taking notes; “Write this down,” says Tony, “if you write this down, you have 90 percent more chance remembering it in future.” What everyone fails to notice, as they scribble down Robbins wise words, is that they are already under his spell. Robbins isn’t so much teaching how to be a more competent businessman, as much as he is demonstrating it. And that’s what makes him the greatest salesman on earth.