- Tony Robbins is a life and business coach, known for his infomercials in the 1990s and his list of high-profile clients.
- He owns 33 companies and directly runs a dozen of them. He expects to generate $US6 billion in annual revenues this year.
- Robbins says he had four fathers and a mother who would beat him until he bled, so he wanted to help other people.
When Tony Robbins walks into a room, nearly everyone is magnetically drawn to the big guy with a booming voice and a personality to match.
He has used his commanding presence to build a career as the world’s most famous life and business coach, helping people like President Bill Clinton, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, and the Golden State Warriors.
“I love being surrounded by people who are geniuses in their own right, who are wickedly smart,” Robbins said. “Learning from them, growing, adding my two cents to it, and helping those businesses to grow.”
Robbins recently hosted the winners of the Shopify Build a Bigger Business competition at his Fiji resort, Namale, where he also sat down with Business Insider senior strategy reporter Richard Feloni. They talked about how his childhood experiences made him want to help other people, and how he was able to scale that interest into a multibillion-dollar empire.
We’ve turned that interview into a special episode of “Success! How I Did It,” Business Insider’s podcast. You can listen to the podcast below:
- Hearst Magazines CCO Joanna Coles
- Former CIA Director John Brennan
- Group Nine Media CEO Ben Lerer
- And a “Master Class” episode of advice from our guests
The following is a transcript of the podcast, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Tony Robbins: Robbins equals results, right? I can produce that result, and don’t pay me if I don’t. I hated motivators — never been a motivator. Motivation is like a warm bath, and you should take a bath probably, but you need more than that; you need strategy. I was a strategist, but nobody responded to that, so I was, like, “OK, what am I? I’m a coach. I’m not a guru.”
As an athlete, I had great coaches, and I was a better athlete than many of them, but they still were better than I was as a coach because they could see when I couldn’t see. I thought, that’s great, because I’m not better than anybody, but I do have the skills that I can help people. And so that part started to grow, and then all of a sudden, right when I was about to give it up, I was on “Larry King Live” and I worked. They’re asking me about working with the president, and he’s like, “What is this coach thing? You’re not a coach. You don’t coach teams.” I said, “I actually do coach teams, many of them.” I said, “It’s a different kind of coach.”
And I was about to give it up, and then all of a sudden, everybody was a coach. Therapists started calling themselves coaches, business people; it became a term of art. And so today that’s what I see myself as. I’m obviously a businessman, I’m a father, I’m a lot of things, but I really see myself as, I’m a business coach, I’m a life coach, I’m a person who really helps people produce peak performance.
The early days
Feloni: Something that you’ve been open about over the past 30 years is your upbringing. You had a lot of difficulties; it was rough. At 17 you ran away from home and had to spend time working as a janitor. At some point in your late teens, you meet the motivational speaker Jim Rohn. And then by the time you’re in your early 20s you’re making half a million dollars a year. What happened in between? What did you learn from Rohn and others that got you on this path?
Robbins: Just to clarify, I never spoke about this until my mother passed away, and I didn’t even talk about it then. But I was in New York, and I was dealing with a group of kids who were physically abused, and I was trying to share with them that they could still make their life the way they wanted. They’re not damaged goods. And I could just see in their eyes that, here’s this tall white guy who’s seemingly wealthy and they couldn’t relate. And so I finally just unloaded, and I told them about having my head beat against the wall till I bled, my mum pouring liquid soap down my throat until I threw up because she thought I was lying and I wasn’t. It’s so crazy when the person you love most is trying to harm you. She wasn’t a bad human being; she loved me. But the problem was she abused drugs and prescription drugs and alcohol so much that it changes your personality. And so I had to protect my brother and sister, so I became a practical psychologist just out of necessity.
Feloni: Just as a kid?
Robbins: As a little kid, like how do I protect them from getting hurt? I could take some of the hits, but I had to be able to anticipate her states, her emotion, what would shift her, what’s going on in her psychology. And then by the time I was in junior high school, I was obsessed with wanting to know the difference in people’s lives, because we grew up in a very tough environment, but I went to what I thought was a wealthy school, was actually lower middle class, but compared to our life it looked that way, and we were on the other side of the tracks.
And so for me, it was like, why are these people having such a beautiful life and we’re not? I had four different fathers, and I’m like, “Mum, I’m confused.” It made me obsessed with wanting to know the difference in people, and why is the most popular kid in school so mean? I started reading books; that’s where it started, even before Rohn. I took a speed-reading class, and I set a goal to read a book a day. I didn’t do that, but in seven years I read more than 700 books in the area of human development, psychology, physiology, philosophy, and I tried to apply it.
And then when I was 17, I went to this seminar. I was working as a janitor, I was in high school, and then to help support my family also I’d work on the weekends and I’d move people. And there was a friend of our family who had been doing really poorly, and now he was turning properties in California at a time when that was going really well. So I’m moving and we get to a break and I said, “My dad said you used to be such a loser, and how come you’re so successful now?” Only a kid can say that stuff, and the guy looks at me and goes, “Your dad said what?”
Long story short, he goes, “Well, I went to the seminar, this man named Jim Rohn.” I said, “What’s a seminar?” He goes, “Well, a man takes everything he’s learned in 20, 30 years of his life, and he pours it into like four hours, and you get to save a decade or two.” And I said “Wow! I’d like to go to those. Could you get me in?” And he said yeah, and then he didn’t say any more, and I said, “Well, would you?” And he said, “No.” I said, “Why not?” He goes, “Because you won’t value it.” I said, “Well how much does it cost?” And he said, I think it was $US35, and I was making $US40 a week as a janitor. And I said, “That’s a week’s pay.” He goes, “Well, then go, you know, waste 10 or 20 years doing it on your own.”
I made this big decision to spend a week’s pay to go to this event, and I sat there and I was mesmerised. And that’s what started the game for me.
Feloni: And when you were forming your own ideas, kind of your own system. How long did that take? Did you plan this out?
Robbins: Still going on. I set a goal when I was a sophomore in high school. I said, “In my 20s, I want to be able help any individual, I want to help change anything. If they’re committed, I’m committed. I want to have the skills to do it. In my 30s, I want to be able do that with small groups of people simultaneously so I could scale and help more people.”
I said, “In my 40s, I want to do it with large groups, and my 50s, organisations, in my 60s, maybe I’d worked in government, become a congressman, a senator, maybe eventually run for a larger office. And it was like my whole plan. I got ahead of that schedule very quickly, but it pretty much has been the path that I’ve been on. I’m just a little further ahead. I don’t know that I want to work in government anymore. I’d rather advise, because I’ve worked with multiple presidents and the system is not something I’m terribly excited about.
But I think that that vision is what really started me and then when I started developing these skills were I could wipe out a phobia in an hour and therapists were saying it would take five, six, seven years, I’d take their seven-year client and turn them around. I use that as the way to build my brand.
Building a brand
Feloni: In the early years, as you were building this brand, the way that you write about it in your first two books, it almost sounds like you were touring the country in a van like a band would do.
Robbins: Very much how it was. It was a very, very crazy life. I used to do four of these weekend seminars a month, literally, and in between I would have to fill them, so I would go do media to fill them and then I’d do a free guest event so I could show people that I really was the real thing and it wasn’t BS.
I was working as hard as a human being could work. That tempo hasn’t changed. I just have more diversity and more companies, and now I’ve got 33 companies so my dance card is full. Four kids and three grandkids, but I love that passionate lifestyle. I love constantly growing, I love seeing and feeling that you can have an impact. And gradually it went from just coaching to actually running businesses because I’ve had experiences that were life changing.
Feloni: Yeah. And then after this initial level of success in your early 20s, things started to really accelerate. You have your first book, “Unlimited Power,” becomes a best-seller, but then the one in ’91, “Awaken the Giant Within,” sells even more. Then in ’88, you start doing these infomercials that become insanely popular. You’ve said in the past that you were used to a schedule that was relentless, but at this point it kind of became exhausting.
Robbins: It did.
Feloni: How did you deal with a new level of celebrity and demand?
Robbins: Well, if I was just doing it for the money, I would have stopped. I was making more than a million dollars a year, and then 3 and then 4, you know, the economics grew, but it wasn’t really what drove me. I don’t have to work another day of my life, thank God, but I’m in a place where I probably work as hard or harder today than I ever have, but I do it because I want to, not because I have to. What is the difference between work and play? I think the difference is purpose. When your vocation becomes your vacation, the old quote, you know that’s when you made it.
So I’ve always had that. So yeah, the celebrity, the demand from celebrity, where people want something every minute from you certainly increased, but I’ve never been frustrated or angry by it, because it’s a privilege. And so how do you deal with it? I train more intensely, I devote more tools to strengthen my body and my mind. I just sharpen the saw even more so that I could cut through the limitations quicker.
Investing and growing a business empire
Feloni: We’re here at Namale, which was one of your early investments. At what point in your 20s did you realise, “I have enough money now that I can actually make investments,” and then what were you looking for to invest in businesses or start your own?
Robbins: I wasn’t focused on investing at that stage because I was what, 24, the first time I came here, and 29 is when I bought this place. I didn’t buy it because I wanted an investment. I wasn’t that financially oriented or intelligent, frankly. I just found this place to be heaven on earth. I’ve been to many places and islands; it was really the culture here. Kids learn to sing in four-part harmony when they’re 4 or 5 years old. The level of joy — like somebody drops dishes in the kitchen here, most people look at me, they just start laughing uncontrollably. They’re not making fun of the person; they just think it’s the funniest thing in the world. It changed me. First, I wanted to have a place here so I’d have to come back, because I knew I’d get caught up on our normal life. And it’s been an incredible balance for me.
Feloni: And this is just one of many businesses that you have. I think a lot of people, even those familiar with your career, would be surprised by how many companies that you either run or are invested in. How many do you have now and how much money does that generate?
Robbins: Thirty three, over $US5 billion; this year we should hit $US6 billion in annual revenues out of it. But they’re really diverse companies, so I only run 12 of those directly. But to give you an idea, I’m very interested in things that change people’s lives. I’m involved with Bob Harari in stem cells, one of the top guys in the world in that area; we’re working with the Harvard stem-cell institute, kind of integrating, buying the Panama City Institute. I own and I’m partners with Peter Guber and a group of my friends, to give you an idea, and virtual reality, we have NextVR, we have exclusive rights for the NBA, which starts the end of September, Tuesday night NBA games, the very beginning of that.
We have the UFC exclusive, we have Live Nation for all concerts, so you can experience them a whole other way. I’m one of the owners of the LAFC, the new Major League Soccer franchise, and being a part of creating that and building that is really fun. I have an e-sports team, Team Liquid; we just won Dota, so went from last place to first and generated more money than any e-sports team in history on that day. I love the challenge of being involved with these things and I love being surrounded by people that are geniuses in their own rights, who are wickedly smart. Learning from them, growing, adding my two cents to it, and helping those businesses to grow.
Feloni: And you also have your foundation that you run, and that seems very connected with your whole coaching philosophy related, even, to your personal life. Is there a common thread between those?
Robbins: What started me on this journey, really, more than anything else, was when I was 11 years old and we had no money and no food. It was Thanksgiving, which magnifies the situation massively. I go to the door and there’s a guy standing there and he’s got two giant bags of groceries in his hands and he had a pot on the ground, a big black pot with an uncooked turkey in it. My father always told us, “No one gives a damn,” you know? And I developed a new belief that day that strangers care, and if strangers care about me and my family, I wanted to do something. So that day I said, “Someday, I’m going to feed families.”
So when I was 17, I fed two families, and the next year, four, and my goal was double it every year. And then about — gosh, what — five, six years ago, when I was writing “Money: Master the Game,” I’m interviewing 50 billionaires who are literally the smartest financial people on earth — Warren Buffett, Carl Icahn, Ray Dahlia. I mean, the best of the best. And I’m watching Congress take our food stamps, which is now called the SNAP program, and cut it by almost $US7 billion, which if you figure it out, it means every family that gets support, needs to go without meals one week out of a month, 12 months out of a year.
I said, “How many people have we fed?” I asked my team to go back, and it was 42 million people over a lifetime. So what if I fed 50 million a year? And then I got more excited. So what if it’s 100 million? And then I found Feeding America as my partner; they are the most efficient group there, they really deliver. I fed 100 million people, and then I set a goal to feed a billion people, so in the last three years we’ve fed 300 million people, and I’ve had 350 million in total. And I’m going to feed a billion people over the next seven years. And that’s what my life is about, and then it’s also coaching, education, my family, and the rest of my life.
Building a network
Feloni: And something through this entire journey, whether it’s working with your foundation or coaching, you’ve been able to reach so many people because of this tremendous network that you’ve built. And that spans business, Hollywood, professional sports, all kinds of things.
Robbins: Financial world.
Feloni: Yeah, the financial world. How did you go about doing that? What was maybe like the domino that kicked that off at the beginning? How did that build steam? How do you build relationships with all these people?
Robbins: What I really like is changing a life, helping someone change a business, change a family. In the beginning, it was because I was willing to only be paid for a result. I wasn’t a therapist; there were no such thing as coaches back then. You had to be a therapist and it had to be paid for by somebody, and I saw what therapists did and I was honestly disturbed by it, because I see people in therapy for five years and I was, like, “This is absurd.”
Feloni: So what was your pitch? How much were you charging? And then you were, like, “Only pay me if … “
Robbins: The very beginning. I’d charge a thousand dollars. I think my first sessions were 500 bucks, and I went to a thousand, then 5,000, and then, you know, went up. But I get a million dollars a year to coach somebody now for a year. It wasn’t about the money; it was about wanting people to know that you pay me nothing unless I produce the result.
I got crazy stuff — huge eating problems, drug addictions, depression, you name it. But I was able to get results, and then I was able to challenge traditional therapists in the early days. These people call me their coach, but it’s total bullshit. Like Marc Benioff says I’m his coach; he tells people that Salesforce.com wouldn’t exist without Tony Robbins, and there’s some truth in that, but it’s a bit of an exaggeration. Marc did the whole goddamn thing, right? But I helped. I’ve been on this journey. And so while I’ve been coaching them, you can only imagine how much I’m learning. I mean, God, you learn so much. You’d have to be an idiot not to pay attention, or so filled with your own ego to think, “I’m just going to teach them.” That’s dumb.
Feloni: And one of these longtime clients and friends is the investor Paul Tudor Jones. And I read somewhere that you have daily correspondence.
Feloni: Can you give an example of what that back-and-forth would look like, and then what checking in in person would sound like?
Robbins: We’re good friends. But I see him four times a year for our direct sessions, and they usually go for an hour and a half, two hours of total immersion. And every time I see him, the market’s changed, the world’s changed, and my job is to help make sure he’s maximizing his resources. And so, look, once you know the markets and once you know your business as well as somebody like Paul … I mean Paul, for people who don’t know it, in 1987, is still the largest percentage stock-market crash in a day. I mean he made, that year — he had a 20% drop that day and he made 50% for his clients that time, during that year. So it’s beyond what people can imagine. But then he lost money.
So my job is to figure out what’s going on, turn it around. And then daily, he sends me a checklist of what we measure, everything from his nav to his weights, what’s happening in his body, to his focus, to ratios of risk-reward that we’re measuring, and then he does a narrative for me. And so I see that and then I know the pattern, if we need to do something right away, I can make a phone call or send him an email or fly there in person when it’s necessary. But at this point, it doesn’t take that much because it’s a refined machine, we’ve been working together 23, 24 years I think now, to give you an idea.
That also helped me because he introduced me to Ray Dalio, who was a fan of my work. I didn’t know that, but I mean, Ray is the Da Vinci of investing. And the network got bigger. Jack Bogle, you know, Ray Kurzweil, all the people that you start to meet in that world, when you really serve people and care about them and you’re not trying to take, you’re trying to give. They’re used to people taking from them, and so when you sincerely are giving, you develop a friendship. That’s what I’m more interested in. I’m not trying to get something from them, but I am interested in learning from them.
Feloni: And in 2014, when “Money: Master of the Game” came out, that seemed to be the beginning of a new chapter in your career. And looking at that, that seemed to be around the same time you were looking to connect with a younger audience as well, people now in their 20s and 30s. When you started this new chapter of your career, were you planning on trying to reemerge or rekindle something?
Robbins: I had one goal. I wanted people to really learn the tools that could change, because I taught finance for years, I network with people in their 20s, obviously, and all ages I’ve worked with. But I wanted to just take that to another level, and I also, quite frankly, was just angry. I was angry about the level of abuse I saw in 2008 that happened to people. I knew what happened, I had made a fortune during that time because when things melt down — and they’re going to again; life is cyclical — it’s one of the greatest opportunities in your life.
I looked at that and said, “I’ve got to help people.” And I hadn’t written a book in 20 years. I hate writing books. I like the live, raw, real, and it’s always changing and you never know what’s going to happen. I’d be bored to death otherwise. So I didn’t like it, but because I was mad and because I had access, I said, “I’m going to interview these 50 people; I’m going to bring the answers to people that are unassailable. Not my answers. The answers are the best on earth.”
And so that’s what started it, and then people started to say, “Holy shit, this guy is a strategist. This guy knows how to take the most complex things and really teach them where you could really use them.” And then also, I started to share more of what I was doing in my foundation. I wasn’t doing that because I wasn’t doing it for stars on my chart. But I realised that by talking about it, I got more help, I got matching funds, I got people to help out, and that doubled my impact. So I started doing that. I was conscious about wanting to increase my impact. And to do that, I needed people to know more of who I really was, and to do that I needed to go to a different subject matter.
Working with Trump
Feloni: Speaking of comparing past and present, looking at “Awaken the Giant Within,” from 1991, Donald Trump is a figure that recurs repeatedly in that book.
Robbins: Yeah, I know.
Feloni: Yeah, and that was at a point where his businesses were failing, and it looked as if he might have bottomed out. Then, of course, in the 2000s, he had this resurgence, and today he’s president of the United States. Looking at that, following his career and analysing it, and comparing that to your work with President Bill Clinton and looking at the other presidents we’ve had, do you still see him as someone who’s driven by the pain of being second best? And if you were able to talk to him on the phone right now, what would you tell him?
Robbins: I know the president quite well, and I also know Hillary quite well, for many, many decades. We’ve never shared values, he and I. But I respected his ability to turn it around. I remember the banks couldn’t afford to have him go under and he was able to turn it around and the market turned around, all those things turned around. So I respect somebody who can turn things around and be successful. I think the president’s communication style is the most difficult thing because he actually does care, people who know him know he cares. If you see his kids, and you get to know his kids, you can see there is a good man in there. But his style of communication, his combative approach, the elements of ego that are obviously there in all of us but seem to be more easy to see in the president sometimes than other people, get in the way of his capacity to lead, unfortunately.
But I gave him his first big speech. Those days would be like a couple hundred people, and he came and we had 10,000 people and he was floored and he was scared. It was overwhelming.
Feloni: This was in the ’90s?
Robbins: Mid-’90s, I think it would be. And then he got addicted to it. But his talk was get a prenup, like, breakthrough insights. But because of the TV show he had, he had such a following of people and people wanted to hear what he had to say. And I’m an American so I want whoever’s president to win. I’ve worked on both sides of the aisle always. And if he asked me to help, I would. President Obama just reached out for some on the projects he’s working on and so I’ve worked with a variety of presidents over the years on both sides of the aisle and congressmen and senators, so I’m not into trying to demonize anybody.
What I think is our problem is demonization. It used to be that people would fight like hell on the floor of the house and they’d go have a beer together. Now it’s like you’re radioactive if you talk to the other side, which keeps us from getting anything done. I don’t feed the narrative. I see the president’s weaknesses and strengths, like I hope everybody can, but not everybody does. And I’m here to help whoever — either side of the aisle — if someone’s a good human being and wants help, I want to help them. I’m not politically driven in that area. I’m an independent personally, and I vote for who I believe will make the biggest difference.
Overcoming your fear
Feloni: We’re here at Namale for the Shopify Build a Bigger Business competition. You’ll be spending a lot of time mentoring up-and-coming entrepreneurs. If you could distill one fundamental lesson from all of these talks that you’re going to be having, that you would give to an entrepreneur who wants to build an empire around their passion the way you have, what would you tell them? What do you think that common ground is?
Robbins: I always tell people: Life is the dance between what you desire most and what you fear most. You’ve got to be able to deal with the threshold of control. And what I mean by that is, do you ski or snowboard?
Feloni: I’ve skied.
Robbins: OK. So most people are intermediate their whole life.
What happens is, they go, they learn a little bit, and then one day they think they’re on a blue and it’s a double black diamond. And they’re like, “Holy shit, I’m going to die.” And it looks like you’re going to go off the cliff. And those moments are threshold-to-control moments.
What I mean by that is, you’re going, like, out of control, you know you literally can die, you could go over the edge, and so you have two choices: Focus like crazy on what you want and carve, find the way to carve, or focus on what you’re afraid of. And then if you do that, all you’re going to do is slam yourself on the ground and try to hang on for dear life. Well, most people do the latter, so they’re terminally intermediate. They never become a master at anything. The people who become the masters are the ones that the fear is there, and it’s uncontrollable fear. Courage isn’t that you’re not afraid; it’s you’re scared shitless but you decide that you’re going to focus on what you’re here to do versus on what you fear and you push yourself. Once you figure out how to do that first carve and then another, another, then all of a sudden, the black diamond is your bitch. You’re no longer afraid of that. And you become a masterful skier or snowboarder or whatever it is. And when you learn how to overcome those instead of collapsing. I think that is the single most important thing.
It’s like Joe Gebbia from Airbnb. He was telling me that when he was getting coached by Y Combinator, and the guy was saying to him, “Here’s the key to success: Don’t die” — you know, just don’t die. And that’s my way of saying, that’s what the threshold control is. If you can keep pushing through those thresholds, then all of a sudden the muscle in you grows and what used to be hard to do is easy. If you don’t deal with that threshold of control, let’s talk about the fact. Half of all businesses are gone in a year, 80% are gone in five years, at the 10-year mark, 96% fail, 4% succeed, but that doesn’t even mean they make any money; they could be not profitable or just still standing.
Business requires an unbelievable level of resilience inside you, and I tell everybody, the chokehold on the growth of your business is always the leader, it’s always your psychology and your skills — 80% psychology, 20% skills. If you don’t have the marketing skills, if you don’t have the financial-intelligence skills, if you don’t have the recruiting skills, it’s really hard for you to lead somebody else if you don’t have fundamentally those skills.
And so my life is about teaching those skills and helping people change the psychology so that they live out of what’s possible, instead of out of their fear, and they produce the kind of certainty inside themselves so they really execute.
Feloni: Thank you so much, Tony.
Robbins: I’ve really enjoyed the time. Thanks for coming all this way to Fiji — thank you!