The Power of Innovation: Chris Denson

Loeb NYC logo hamptons background

“Now, as you know from listening to this here podcast, Chris Denson really loves innovation.” This line opens every episode of the Innovation Crush podcast hosted by Chris Denson, a self-proclaimed innovation fanatic and expert, global marketer, Director of Omnicom Media Group’s Ignition Factory, author, and speaker. Denson has built a bustling career off creativity, ingenuity, successful collaboration, and seeking out new and exciting ideas that will change the world. Denson stopped by Loeb NYC to discuss his book, the secrets of his success, his journey from stand-up to business, the magic of the creative process, and much more.

chris denson headshot

This post centers on the key takeaways from Chris Denson’s wildly informative and entertaining interview with Katie Loeb, Director of Strategy and Innovation, as well as on his life as an exciting and cutting-edge creative. The key points include:

It’s okay to bomb: The importance of trying and trying and then trying again. Denson discusses his early experiences in stand-up comedy and how that helped erase the fear of failure.
Thinking outside and all around the box: How diversity of thought enhances the creative process and ensures that a finished product has more staying power.

Don’t be afraid to dive in: Denson urges innovators to fully immerse themselves in whatever field they pursue in order to enhance the quality of services or products.

Always empathy: Empathy is a matter of business. Empathy is about playing both roles of innovator and consumer. (He has this approach in common with Dr. Helen Rothberg).

Knowledge is power: The wealth of knowledge knows no limits. Know enough to be dangerous. Know enough to have intelligent conversations and be open to learning more.

Denson’s book is titled “Crushing the Box, 10 Essential Rules for Breaking Essential Rules.” The book includes such chapters as “Kick Some Balls,” “Ruin Everything,” and “Eat Your Brain,” a far cry from traditional snippets of advice one would expect to find inside a fortune cookie promising a future of success. Denson wants to step way outside of the box, where innovation, collaboration, and creativity intersect and create opportunities for breakthroughs. “Crushing the Box” challenges the limitations of rules and encourages readers to not fear going against the grain in order to pursue their dreams.

Chris Denson book
“Crushing the Box” by Chris Denson

Meet the Man Behind the Mission

Chris Denson was born in Detroit, Michigan to Christine Denson, a school teacher, and John Denson, a theologian. Denson was an active student at his high school in Lathrup Village, Michigan. He took part in the marching band, swim team, track and field, and golf. He later went on to attend Michigan State University where he dabbled in martial arts and comedy as he earned a degree in packaging engineering. His early enthusiasm and curiosity for life would follow him throughout his career and lead him on a varied and colorful journey through business, stopping off—if only briefly—at Loeb NYC along the way for our regular Speaker Series.

From Comedy to Business

Denson first got into comedy while still a student at Michigan State. He describes his first stand-up experience much like being tossed into water without knowing how to swim. His first time doing stand-up was an audition to open for a Cedric the Entertainer show on campus – a gig he landed. This led him to pursue performing as many shows as possible, winning comedy competitions, and eventually moving to Los Angeles after he realized engineering was not for him. Denson’s experience in the entertainment industry goes far beyond the comedy stage alone. He has worked both on screen and behind the scenes for Paramount, BET, Playboy Television, Machinima, the American Film Institute’s Digital Content Lab, and has served on advisory boards for the likes of SXSW and Pluto TV.

Denson sees stand-up comedy as the pursuit of universal life truths delivered with a unique perspective. He notes the progression of his comedy style, moving away from first doing what he thought was funny to incorporating more about his personal life and finding humor in the otherwise mundane. The lessons learned from doing stand-up have evidently carried over into Denson’s successful transition into business, a venture that is still very much alive and growing. When discussing the nature of stand-up, he notes that the entire operation is a “you-endeavour.” Once you are up on stage, all that you have is yourself, your personality, and your perspective. The spotlight is narrow. He offers a protracted, thoughtful “It’s…literally…just you.” Perhaps Denson’s ability to hold his own in a multitude of fields stems from first learning how to be comfortable on stage with only himself as a resource.

Diversity of Thought

The first chapter Denson and Loeb discuss is “Put Women in Their Place,” a title he calls a double entendre mixed with a little bit of intended shock value. Denson’s call for a more level playing field in business involves erasing unconscious bias that seems to perpetuate discrimination. He discusses working with such esteemed women in business like Linda Boff (CMO at GE for the last fourteen years) without expecting an applause for encouraging diversity in a male-dominated field. For Denson, diversity should be natural, easy, expected, and absolutely essential for success.

What Denson calls “diversity of thought” is the inclusion of all different perspectives. He wants a TV writer, a photographer, and a scientist all in one brainstorming room in order to bring all different kinds of experiences, points of view, attributes, and skills together. He calls it the spirit of curiosity. For Denson, the creative process is dynamic, fruitful, nimble, and requires voices other than one’s own so as to avoid a stagnant echo chamber of one’s own thoughts. Innovation is about exploring outside the box, and then “Crushing” it after.

Denson also practices what he preaches. He discusses working with and learning from the likes of Dan Goods (Visual Strategist for NASA) and Bruce Duncan (a psychologist who works with the sentient robot BINA48). He has interviewed hundreds of innovators on Innovation Crush, including FUBU owner and Shark Tank investor Daymond John, writer, and producer Dan Harmon, musician Damian Kulash, entrepreneur Krizstina Holly, skateboarder Rob Dyrdek, and rapper Chamillionaire. For Denson, the pursuit of knowledge is endless.

chris denson and dan harmon
Chris Denson and Dan Harmon (Innovation Crush podcast #100 — “Revenge of the Nerd”)

Swim Like an Otter

Another key factor to Denson’s success is empathy. The chapter, “Swim Like an Otter,” was inspired by NASA artist’s Dan Goods’ experience in art school. One day, an art professor told Goods to draw a picture of an otter. He then told the young artist to meet him at the pool the next day. When Goods arrived, the professor said “now get in the water and swim like one.” How does this relate to business? For Denson, empathy is essential to success. He encourages innovators and marketers to strive for the deepest sense of empathy in order to provide quality services or products. “Go there. Be a part of the community,” he urges. Swimming like an otter is about fully immersing oneself in the pursuit at hand, with empathy always the Northstar.

Sometimes swimming like an otter requires less action and more observation. He discusses the business strategy of Starbucks, a brand name that has become almost synonymous with coffee itself. Starbucks incorporates an eleven week period in which C-level executives go to different stores, travel the world, and observe the ways in which different demographics experience the massive coffee chain at the ground level. Empathy is a matter of business. Denson stresses the importance of narrowing in on the day-to-day experience of a company, service, or product. He says that if one works for Nascar, go to the races. Stand in the lines. Experience the debris flying off the track. He urges: “Discover pain points that you can actually solve for that specific group.” Empathy in business is about playing both roles of innovator and consumer.

Know Enough to be Dangerous

Another role that his book encourages is that of a mercenary. The chapter, “Become a Mercenary,” is inspired by the quote “know enough to be dangerous.” Denson credits this mindset for his ability to interact with experts in their fields (the Linda Boffs and Bruce Duncans of the world) without necessarily being an expert himself. Denson speaks of an acrobatic ability to confidently mingle in various different fields with something of an omnipotent command over the conversation. Perhaps confidence comes from an undying willingness to learn, the spirit of curiosity that motivates much of his work.

Should we all become generalists? Denson says no. “Knowing enough to be dangerous” is about being able to have intelligent conversations that open the door for more potential collaboration and learning. For Denson, an innovator does not need to be a psychologist, an astrophysicist, an expert coder, and world-renowned pianist all rolled into one. Curiosity and the willingness to learn along the way will grant one access to a wealth of knowledge. Denson wants to expand the scope of experience, both in business and beyond.

Heart First

Finally, Denson leaves Loeb NYC with a story of one of his most impressive friends, one who lives with severe disabilities. He lists his friend’s various impressive accomplishments: he’s a documentarian, has a PhD from Stanford, and was an ambassador for President Obama for persons with disabilities. Denson speaks of the extensive trips he has taken with his friend in Kenya and notes the hardships his friend encounters on a day-to-day basis. However, his friend does not quit, “all because he wants to make the world a better place for people like him.” Empathy for others is what motivates such incredible efforts. Denson calls it working with your “heart first.”

So why should we break the rules? For Chris Denson, breaking the rules allows for such incredible breakthroughs that his friend exhibits. As his book states, breaking the rules is how Grace Hopper invented the first computer; how George Lucas brought Star Wars to life; how Chris Denson became an innovative extraordinaire.

Early in the interview, Denson jokes that his mother had always envisioned her son walking to work with a briefcase and a three-piece suit. Denson thought outside the box – and then crushed it.

Dr. Helen Rothberg: From Bartender to Business Badass

Loeb NYC background image lilac

As one of Loeb Enterprises‘ paid summer interns, I appreciate the value that their weekly Speaker Series brings to the Internship Program. It elevates the internship experience from being purely transactional to being actively enriching and growth-oriented. 

loeb nyc speaker series helen rothberg quote 1

Interns Climbing the Career Ladder

Throughout the summer, we have had the privilege of learning from an array of people ranging from the experienced angel investor Brian Cohen to the director of strategy and operations at 3×3 Insights, Noah Friedman. Most speakers discussed their personal experience in the realm of finance and various lessons that we could extract from their stories.

However, Dr. Helen Rothberg did something a little different. Dr. Rothberg’s talk followed the theme of her book, The Perfect Mixwhich contains stories from her career as a New York City bartender and how those lessons have applications in the world of business (where she has achieved resounding success as a Competitor Intelligence Strategist and Intellectual Capital Manager). The book, as the author describes it, is “About leading yourself, because how can you lead anybody else if you can’t lead yourself?”

loeb nyc Speaker Series Helen Rothberg

This premise instantly drew in the audience since many people our age (college interns) have experience working in the hospitality industry, given its prevalence in high school employment.  We can relate to the thirst, struggle, and aspiration of working tough service jobs with the hope of “making it” in the world of entrepreneurship, startups, and business. Dr. Rothberg says, “If I were queen I would make everybody work in a restaurant or bar because that’s where you really get to understand how people work and human nature.”

Dr. Rothberg embodies the spirit of the Loeb NYC summer internship. A self-described “CUNY kid”,  she worked as a bartender throughout her academic career up until she received her Ph.D. From working as a consultant for many years and subsequently as a professor at the School of Management at Marist College, Dr. Rothberg is a model of adaptability, guts, and persistence. Especially in the face of rejection, and hearing “no”. 

Taking ADVICE

Dr. Helen Rothberg’s book contains a cocktail at the end of each chapter which relates to that section’s theme. Her preference: vodka. But that’s not the only recipe she shares. Dr. Rothberg explains, “My book is about A.D.V.I.C.E. because bartenders give good advice. Action. Determination. Vision. Integrity. Communication. Empathy. Those are the ingredients that I think are essential to being able to lead yourself. Then I add to that two more things: Being who you really are, standing in your own shoes and not being afraid of change…because nothing stays the same.”

 

Taking Action: Do More. Say Less.

The concept of doing more and saying less is an extremely important life lesson in the digital age. Social media has fostered a culture of saying rather than doing, which has heavily influenced this generation. It is a valuable lesson, as it limits the times you over-promise and under-deliver. This is something that I am guilty of doing from time to time and is a pitfall a lot of eager young professionals and interns fall into as they attempt to create a good first impression.

It is always a lot more satisfying to not only be able to meet goals that you verbally set but also be able to exceed them. I don’t think I know a worse feeling than telling everyone about something that you are going to do or want to do only for it to be a public failure that everyone witnesses. It is much better to keep it to yourself only to acknowledge it when whatever you are working on is in development.

Dr. Rothberg refers to a time that she applied for a job at a bar that she had carefully researched (proximity to a police precinct, far from her prying PhD supervisors, an expensive menu for good tips), only to be told: “I don’t hire women bartenders.” And yet she persisted. “Showing what you can do is the best way to show what you can do. I offered to come in on their busiest night and work for free. And then they could decide whether I stay or not, I wouldn’t even take the tips. The lesson: Do more, say less. Be willing to show what you’re made of before you take for yourself. Because then you’re always going to get more…Think about how you can look at it differently.”

loeb nyc Speaker Series Helen Rothberg 3

Determination and Vision

For college students, earning a PhD is an intimidating prospect, but Dr, Rothberg put it in perspective. “Working on a PhD has nothing to do with intelligence it’s all persistence and humility.” It is true that it is easy to mistake intellect, cleverness, and smarts as the only keys to business success. Really the ability to stay focused, keep fighting the fight and having the patience to keep moving forward is sometimes underrated. Also underrated – civility.

In the race to succeed in school, business, whatever, it is easy to get distracted by competition and competitiveness. Dr. Rothberg advises, “Determination is about getting things done with ingenuity and civility. It’s about never stepping on someone else to make yourself look bigger. It’s about if you can’t get something done, figuring out a way to go around and get that done.” This attitude puts the focus back on yourself, rather than seeking blame, validation or comparison from outside sources. “Vision is about seeing what’s possible and sharing what you see with others.”

I and the other 39 summer interns for 2018 have been able to see that Michael Loeb, Rich Vogel, and Loeb NYC is a place of vision and innovation. It’s a quality that Dr. Rothberg noticed about us too. She said she has visited Fortune 500 companies and startups of all kinds, but that what we have at Loeb NYC is a buzz and energy that is hard to find elsewhere.

Something that Dr. Rothberg pointed out, which has been demonstrated by the startup portfolio companies I’ve worked with during my internship is that while a plan can be executed without a manager sharing their vision with their underlings, a great leader brings their team along and keeps them informed. “A good manager can get things done in the dark.  [But] you have to know what you’re selling. You have to know what you’re trying to create and you have to be able to share that with others…Have a vision for where you can take yourself, your company, your team, your community.”

Integrity: Always Tell the Truth

College interns are used to the concept of competition. Finding a quality, paid summer internship where you will be making an investment in your future, rather than just fetching coffee, involves competing with brilliant students from all over America. Especially in the case of coveted commercial internships in New York City. Some internship programs only take students from ivy league schools – which is a whole different battleground.

In this context, it is tempting to get caught up in fiction, drama, and politics. But Dr. Rothberg has some grounded, almost zen-like wisdom. She also espouses the value of taking risks, not being afraid to fail and being willing to learn from mistakes.

“Tell the truth. All the time. It’s not an option. Don’t play into drama and don’t create drama. But if you do play into drama, own it. None of us are perfect, and that’s what’s perfect. Failure can be your best opportunity to learn. You’ve got to embrace it and not be afraid. Some of us really begin to play it safe after a while because we’re afraid that we’re not going to live up to some image that someone has of us, or we’re not going to get it right. The best thing you can do is not be afraid and have the courage to try things. If it doesn’t work: own it as yours.”

loeb nyc Speaker Series Helen-Rothberg 4

How to Communicate Better

One aspect of Dr. Rothberg’s Speaker Series talk that resonated with me was the idea of being a better communicator. It can be easy to assume people understand our intentions when we converse with them. However, communication extends way further than words alone. Adjusting body language and truly listening with the intent to learn rather than with the intent to respond is something that I am personally working on as I feel that it is an extremely important skill to learn.

Jason Blankfield, a Performance Coach, also touched upon this concept when he spoke to the interns at Internatopia. Internatopia is a feature of the Loeb Enterprises internship program. Michael Loeb describes it as “An entrepreneur boot camp comprised of programming developed by myself and other startup veterans to help prepare the students for their immersive summer experience.” Blankfield pointed out that we generally ask questions and instantly begin to think of how to reply to the answer we are given rather than truly listening to the answer and internalizing what it means and how it can be applied to our lives.

Sure, some questions and answers can be trivial, but one thing I am extremely guilty of doing is completely tuning out someone right after I ask them what their name is. I am horrible with names because I generally attempt to further the conversation rather than actually listening to the name the other person responds with. These kinds of miscommunications have significant implications in the business world. Better communication creates a situation where a manager is truly listening to the input of their team members. Effective communication is the foundation of a positive business relationship. Dr. Rothberg says, “The hardest thing to do is communicate in a way that what you really mean is received as you meant it.”

Cocktail for Success

In summation, Helen Rothberg challenged us to “Dare to care about yourselves, about your communities about the people around you. If you can do that you can lead yourself.” Her closing comments echoed another Speakers Series guest, Damian Woetzel, who told us “Live big, happy, lives”.  Rothberg’s version: “Lead yourselves to good, happy lives, to do good things for your companies, your community, your nation.” It must be significant that these themes unintentionally recur through Speakers Series.

From her engaging stories, relatable to college students and young professionals alike, to her vast knowledge of personal and professional advice, the hour Dr. Helen Rothberg spoke seemed like minutes.

 

Loeb NYC Speaker Series: Damian Woetzel

loeb nyc logo green

On May 30, 2018, Damian Woetzel attended Loeb NYC’s Manhattan offices as the guest speaker for Loeb NYC’s recurring Speaker Series. Woetzel is a world-renowned ballet danseur and recently appointed Juilliard School President.

Ed McCabe, Executive Director at Loeb NYC, moderated a verbal “Pas De Deux” which led us through engaging topics such as; the effect of tech on the arts and arts accessibility, how to maximize creativity and ingenuity, and why New York City is especially fertile ground both for the arts, and for unique companies (like Loeb NYC) which operate in its midst.

This is a blog post about Damian Woetzel’s fascinating life and career, and how what he has learned as a dancer and proponent for arts education, applies to entrepreneurship and startup culture.

Ed McCabe, Damian Woetzel and Michael Loeb at Loeb NYC Speaker Series
Ed McCabe, Damian Woetzel and Michael Loeb at Loeb NYC Speaker Series

Damian Woetzel at Loeb NYC

Damian Woetzel grew up in Newton, MA. His father, Robert Kurt Woetzel, a professor of political science and international law, was born in China to German parents. At the conclusion of World War II, Robert Woetzel migrated to the United States. His experiences spurred an idealism that ensured that his sons, Jonathan and Damian, received a broad and deep cultural education. He wanted his sons to live “big lives”.

Woetzel’s mother, Sheila, brought Damian to an international and humanitarian perspective, building off of her life at UNICEF as a program officer based in four continents over the course of her career.

As young children, Damian Woetzel and his older brother took lessons in flute, guitar, martial arts, Chinese, athletics, and ballet (Woetzel started ballet lessons at 4 years old).

It was a time of in-betweeness both personally and for performing arts in america

This is not the narrative where an infantile wunderkind is introduced to an art-form and is instantaneously revealed to be a prodigy. Woetzel acknowledges he did not love ballet “right off the bat”, but does remember certain pivotal points that kept him on the path, for example, an enjoyment of music and his performance in a production of The Nutcracker as a 6-year-old in Boston, running around backstage and knowing every “nook and cranny like it was home”.

Woetzel shared a memory from the age of 12, sitting in the car with his brother, on their way back from their Sunday morning lessons. Jonathan said he would give up dance and continue learning Chinese. Damian wanted the opposite. These early choices reflected (or predicted) the future trajectory of both brothers’ “big lives”. Jonathan Woetzel earned a Ph.D in Asian studies and has been with McKinsey & Company in Shanghai since 1985.

Woetzel’s focus on ballet first “widened and then narrowed”. Initially, Woetzel learned and absorbed all he could about ballet: history, theory, and practice. Access to information was restricted to books that could be found on the subject, as well as the occasional film. Woetzel thirstily absorbed as much information as he could. The narrowing of focus, to a particular style and genre of dance, came later in New York City.

Big Leaps in the Big Apple

The site of Woetzel’s New York debut was the Joyce Theater, at age 18. He fondly describes the Joyce as “a revolutionary startup at work”. In Chelsea, 1985, the theater’s immediate surroundings were relatively barren, culturally speaking. The success of the Joyce’s creative engine attracted public grant investment and a rejuvenation of restaurants, community, and vibrancy to the area.

Woetzel’s performance reviews were good enough for Damian’s parents to approve his pursuit of ballet as a career path. As Woetzel puts it, this was a “time of in-betweenness”, both personally and for performing arts in America. Institutional titans like Carnegie hall had reached a zenith and were moving into a new phase. Icons like Bernstein and Balanchine passed away. A new type of performance was experiencing its adolescence. Jerome Robbins, one of the creative geniuses behind West Side Story, sponsored Woetzel’s career and created roles for him to perform at the New York City Ballet.

Damian Woetzel at Loeb NYC Speaker Series
Damian Woetzel at Loeb NYC Speaker Series

New York City is culturally speaking “the room where it happens” as Lin Manuel Miranda might agree. It has, Woetzel says, “a special foothold and a gravity that matters. So and so did that on this stage. It’s important”. Artists and giants leave their footprints here and their legacies echo through streets and stages. (See: “Loeb NYC Plants its Flag at SXSW” to find Michael Loeb’s perspective on “legacy”.) The “NYC” part of “Loeb NYC”, was selected because businesses can thrive in this dynamic and vivacious environment. Art dances with technology, technology elevates art.

As contemporary American ballet grew, so did Woetzel’s prowess and profile. Woetzel joined the NYCB in 1985. A principal dancer in his early 20s, a top-tier principal in his mid 20’s and an in-demand entity in his mid-to-late 20’s, he was invited to speak at conferences and attend forums.

Damian Woetzel quote: New York City has a special foothold and a gravity that matters

One such forum was a young leadership conference in China. Woetzel remembers sitting next to another young leader, Gabrielle Giffords, who was then a State Senator (the youngest elected to the Arizona Senate). At the age of 33, Woetzel was considering retirement from ballet and his next step (so to speak). Giffords suggested the Kennedy School Masters program at Harvard. Woetzel followed this lead. Woetzel has subsequently lectured at Harvard Law School, he says if he hadn’t been a danseur he might have been a lawyer.

Woetzel’s Second Act and Juilliard School

Having retired from ballet performance in 2008, Woetzel proceeded to “carve another life”. One of his enterprises has included directing the Vail International Dance Festival (marking its 30th anniversary this year) in Colorado. Woetzel describes the festival as a “creative engine and lab” where musicians and dancers can experiment but are also “exposed” and are not insulated from external review or critique. He has also acted as Director of Arts Programs at the Aspen Institute.

In late 2016, Woetzel received a call asking if he was interested in applying to become the 7th president of Juilliard. In May 2017, the application process culminated in Woetzel being offered the role. Woetzel anticipates that he will be able to combine the threads of his passions and experiences from “arts education to education writ large, the future of arts and arts and humanities”. Woetzel will still be involved with the Vail Festival, and will bring Juilliard there – the two will “feed each other”. Woetzel officially takes the helm in July 2018, and has spent the past year shadowing his admired predecessor, Joseph W. Polisi, who Woetzel describes as a “role model”.

Woetzel’s goal is for Juilliard to be an engine for innovative work (not dissimilar to his description of his early years at The Joyce Theater), for Juilliard to produce students who edge and push each other and for it to be an avant-garde incubator that upholds and advances its global reputation. This (realistic) idealism and expectation for Juilliard’s students echoes Woetzel’s own “live big lives” philosophy.

Loeb NYC CEO and founder, Michael Loeb, is a member of the Juilliard Board and supports Woetzel’s goals and ambitions for that institution. Loeb also believes in ‘giving back’ and actively contributing to NYC’s community and culture. For example, every Halloween, Michael Loeb opens his “haunted house” to the public. Thousands of guests attend at no charge. He was also honored by Build.NYC for his contributions to that organization. Loeb extols the virtuosity and talent of Juilliard students and recognizes the extremely high standard of work that the students perform at.

The “Edge Effect” and Advice for Young Entrepreneurs

Loeb NYC is home to many trailblazers and those with great aspirations. Woetzel is a person of diverse interests and curiosities. He mentions the “Edge Effect”, a concept he learned about from Yo-Yo Ma; “When two ecosystems meet, at the edge where they meet, you have the most diversity, and new life forms”. Incidentally, the floor where Loeb NYC resides was designed by Michael Loeb and Rich Vogel with a “rainforest” theme, because a rainforest represents the highest rate of growth and a diversity of species. The Edge Effect, Woetzel explains, is “where the spring meets the valley.” Where sections overlap and diverse elements are unified, that is where the richest invention is found. New York is one of those “edge” places: The home of hundreds of cultures and a city of contradictions.

In this fascinating video, Yo-Yo Ma explains the Edge Effect and gives the example of the Napa Valley.

Within Loeb NYC the “Edge” exists in many forms, for example, it is evident in the types of companies we are investing in and the industries in which they operate, from beauty to transport and health to the beverage industry, surprising symbiotic relationships and connections are revealed daily. Our staff has a wide range of backgrounds, talents, interests, and training. One thing they have in common is the “Entrepreneurs’ Gene.”

Woetzel’s advice to his students could equally apply to our young entrepreneurs: “Don’t separate the things that interest you” the overlapping of interest is a wellspring of invention. Take risks: “Be thoughtful about the level of risk you want to take… but I’m glad I took risks as a dancer” (Woetzel says he is lucky not to have suffered any major injuries through his career).

Tech and the City

The impact of the internet and technological developments on the arts has been, like on anything else, both positive and negative. Woetzel is interested in the “democratization of education and advancing opportunities for access to culture…to see Baryshnikov when he was young took effort.” Now access to information and digital content means that the gap has narrowed. Despite the screens we surround ourselves with, Woetzel also reminds us of an “appetite for experience” that transcends our virtual culture. In this vein, Vail performances are intentionally new and context specific. You can’t experience them anywhere else.

Before the internet age, one could only learn ballet “in the room” from a teacher, in a sort of oral tradition. Today, technical aids make the art-form more accessible, both to practitioners and to audiences. Woetzel observes technological advancements have “democratized choice on what is considered good”. But the shortening attention spans of the modern audience is an issue. “Taste is a valuable commodity and arbiters of taste are missing.” The glut of available opinions makes it harder to navigate between artistic trash and treasure.

Damian Woetzel quote don't separate the things that interest you

Dance is a beautiful form of communication and expression. Having the ability to be expressive and convey emotion wordlessly takes practice and dedication to achieve. This is a concept Loeb NYC’s marketing teams likely relate to, as we strive to seek ever-more effective methods of communicating messages and connecting with people.

The Loeb NYC Speaker Series has a few quirks and rituals, one of which is that our guests literally leave their mark by writing a message on one of the walls. Woetzel’s message to us is similar to what his parents’ might be… but with a sunny addition: “Happy big lives”.

Damian Woetzel Signature on Loeb NYC wall happy big lives
Damian Woetzel’s signature on a Loeb NYC wall

Loeb NYC Plants its Flag at SXSW

I was sitting on the stairs of a packed house in the middle of downtown Austin. The room filled with people, many of them the brightest minds at South by Southwest (SXSW). Brand marketers and influencers mingled with investors, founders, artists and everyone in between. Yet everyone’s attention was fixed on the front of the room, where entrepreneur and a good friend to Loeb NYC, Bonin Bough was moderating a fireside chat, between Gary Vaynerchuk (of Vayner Media) and my boss, Michael Loeb.

The discourse ricocheted between topics like the state of entrepreneurship, the blessing of “micro failures”, parenting techniques, and tombstone carvings. Prominently marked on banners throughout the room was the unmistakable logo of “Loeb NYC”, proudly displayed our brand to the world. Michael was captivating the audience,

“I want to prove Keats wrong. Keats said, our ‘names are writ on water’…The legacy I want to have is going to be enduring. I want somebody to point to me and say I learned something from that guy, or he built something for me, or he changed something, or he made things better.”

Loeb NYC quote I want to prove Keats wrong. Keats said, our ‘names are writ on water’…The legacy I want to have is going to be enduring
Michael Loeb on “Legacy”

Select founders and operators of Loeb NYC investment portfolio companies were dotted throughout the room, as were members of the Loeb NYC team itself. Given the size of the crowd, the room was remarkably silent. There was a palpable, powerful energy and excitement that manifested in an unmistakable buzz. It was at this very moment—when the nucleus of SXSW seemed to have converged within the “Loeb House”—that I realized I was witnessing a defining moment in the life-cycle of Loeb NYC. At this moment it became undeniably clear that we, Loeb NYC, had planted a flag and boldly announced to the world, “We are here. We’re here to play. And we’re here to stay.”

Loeb Enterprises has been operating for roughly ten years, and in that span has produced results many accelerators and incubators only dream of. Three companies, most notably, sit perched within the “trophy case”: Synapse Group, Priceline, and Script Relief, each of which have achieved storied status within its industry. Additionally, as of today, upwards of 15 companies operate within the greater Loeb NYC portfolio. So why did SXSW feel like a watershed moment for Loeb NYC? What had changed? Why did this moment, in the illustrious history of the company, feel different?

loeb nyc quote we are here we are here to play and we're here to stay

To answer those questions, let’s consider that simply put, the dynamics of media and consumer attention are going through tectonic shifts in style and technique. Past operating styles and methodologies will not cut it for firms that want to survive and thrive in 2018 and beyond. Those who want to be in the game and, more importantly, win are required to take a new tack, if prominence and reputation are at all important to them. For Loeb NYC, these things matter, not only for legacy, but for efficacy.

We believe that what we do day in and day out is special. There’s a magic inside the walls of Loeb HQ that allows us to view the world with optimism and the future with possibility. In the words of Katie Loeb, Director of Innovation at Loeb NYC and the mastermind behind our Austin event, our program at SXSW was an activation, a deliberate statement to the world of our presence and vision.  

The better one gets to know the man in charge, Michael Loeb, the clearer it is that his vision and ambition for Loeb NYC is massive.  In the words of Mr. Loeb himself, the vision for Loeb NYC is “What my partner, Rich Vogel, and I envisioned a decade ago when we concluded that for us Synapse was not the last chapter, but the opportunity for a bold new one.”

Bonin Bough, Michael Loeb and Gary Vaynerchuk at Loeb NYC's SXSW activation.
Bonin Bough, Michael Loeb and Gary Vaynerchuk at Loeb NYC’s SXSW activation.

This vision is clear and enticing. A company factory: vertically integrated company-building from an idea, to execution, to exit. The nomenclature is simple, it more or less describes the lifecycle of almost any successful startup investment. But in the case of Loeb NYC company-building, both the theory and practice are very different. Traditional venture capital firms and accelerators generally think of themselves as hotbeds for successful market disruptors and innovations. As places where exciting early-stage ventures blossom into unicorn companies with regularity. The reality is that it’s difficult to build a company – read Michael Loeb’s post, “The Entrepreneurs’ Gene” to see the proof from a man who has done it many times over. Most early-stage companies will fail, plain and simple.

So, how does one create a closed-ecosystem with better odds and better pathways to success for early-stage companies, at scale? From my perspective, the model at Loeb NYC achieves this by removing the constraint of constant-capital raising from founders and CEOs, so they can focus on running their companies. Providing back-office support and advice to the early-stage companies so that the headaches of administrative work are largely mitigated. We challenge the odds by offering portfolio companies access to expert teams of marketers so that they can quickly augment a small marketing with a larger, advisory one. A real sense of community means that companies can leverage each other’s networks and speedily earn credibility and connections with customers. Place this in a beautiful working space that can compete to attract talent with the best of ‘em. Add outstanding talent, commitment, and creativity to that mix and you have something special. We have this. We have it now. And at SXSW, we told the world.

magic inside walls at loeb nyc

Loeb NYC is a place where true talent can thrive and where meritocracy is honored and respected. Above all else, it is a place deeply passionate and committed to building successful enterprises across multiple industries. That is our foundation and inspiration. Walk around our offices at 712 Fifth Avenue and a clear sensation is realized of the kinetic energy and momentum present in this environment. Startups pack the floor, each targeting a different industry with intensity and drive. One common thread emerges; an undying commitment to results and growth. The aforementioned confluence of success-factors cannot be created overnight. It is possible through years of focus, merged with a willingness to test, experiment and iterate. You can feel it the moment you step off the elevator.

Mike Provance, the CEO of 3×3 Insights describes his company’s relationship with Loeb NYC in terms of a streamlined symbiosis:

“Our company is housed inside Loeb NYC, and we can’t go a day without spending time talking to Michael about what we’re doing. He’s very hands-on in the way that he engages with his portfolio companies and is constantly thinking of ideas that help us better execute on what we are trying to do, whether it’s sending emails any time of the day, or wandering through the Loeb NYC incubator, Michael is always available to us, as are his team of experts in various areas of marketing, of product development, direct mail, about anything you can think of he’s got some sort of experts who can support the efforts you’re trying to do.”

Personally, I have been in the Loeb orbit for the past three years or so. In that time I’ve seen expansion into two new floors in our midtown Manhattan headquarters, and a threefold growth in the size of our portfolio. Sitting on the stairs in that Austin house at SXSW, it’s apparent that the last ten years of innovation, company-building, and pure hard work have been leading up to this moment: a powerful declaration of our identity and intentions.

Our efforts at SXSW excited and encouraged me about what’s still to come. As the team returned home and settled back into our rhythm of operating and building, one resounding statement from our time at SXSW remained fixed at the front of my mind: We are just getting started.

My Top 3 Transferrable Skills

National Job Action Day

Didn’t realize it was Job Action Day?  Me neither – and I’ve been working in career development for almost 10 years (with my company, WORKS – a partner to LoebNYC). So I did a little research and discovered that this auspicious occasion was created in 2008 by LiveCareer. In the spirit of 2017’s theme; “Survive and Thrive: Using Transferable Skills to Give Your Career New Life,” I’ve picked the top three transferable skills we need to continually hone if we want to kick-ass in our careers.

Time Management Skills

One day, I decided to go running. I got back and said to my then-husband, “I just ran 15 minutes.” He was like, “that’s great, babe.” The next day I went out and ran a little further. I texted him at work: I ran 20 minutes. He came home that night and presented me with a sports watch so I could track my progress. The next morning, I went out, ran past my 25-minute marker, looked down at the watch and discovered I’d only run 7 fucking minutes. The point of this story is that when we’re doing something that is challenging, we tend to overestimate not underestimate, the amount of time we spend doing it.

You might have read Malcolm Gladwell’s, Outliers: The Story of Success (if you haven’t, pick it up).  He suggests it takes 10,000 hours to get to phenom status.  That’s a lot of time, a lot of dedication, and a tough threshold to reach when you’re sneaking peeks at your Instagram every fifteen minutes. Managing your time is no different than managing your money or your weight – tracking your progress is the key. Pick a skill, goal, passion project that you’d like to succeed at and track how many hours you actually spend doing it. My guess is that you’re going to be surprised.

Nicole Williams Book Cover Girl on Top
Nicole Williams, “Girl on Top”

Motivation

Ten-thousand hours doesn’t come without commitment, and the root of your commitment is your ‘why.’ Why are you doing what you’re doing? For me, my mom worked in a paint factory while I was growing up and I hated how it sucked the life out of her. My why started out as, “Sure as shit that won’t be me,” but it turned into something larger, “I want to help others.”  There’s a secret to the why, the deeper you go… the more altruistic you go, the more likely you are to sustain it.  Your first answer may be “To pay the rent,” but think about what you’re contributing to the world, how you’re making people’s lives better, dig into that ‘why’ and find the wellspring of motivation.  Another book suggestion. Pick up Simon Sinek’s, Start With Why and find one of my favorite quotes as it relates to business; “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  What’s your why?

Relationship Building is a Skill

I was in the office of the Academy Award-winning producer of Silver Linings Playbook – in the pitch of my life. I was out of my mind nervous and used the trick of the trade in that kind of situation: get the focus off of you. I looked around his office, and on his wall was the framed Oscar-winning card with American Beauty printed on it (another film he produced).  I asked, “What was that moment like?”  He took a minute to think about it and told me a story about allowing himself to want, really want, to win, so that in the event he did win he could sink into the moment. 

Anyways, the meeting was a success and months later he told me, “You know, I’ve had the envelope framed on my wall for years. Everyone is so busy pitching me, no one thinks to ask about it.”  Our natural inclination when trying to build a relationship is to make sure we get seen and heard and that’s all well and good but the truth is the best way of making a good impression is by letting them take the lead, especially when it’s you in the selling seat.  Be armed with questions like; “What do you wish you would have known going into that situation?”,  “What was that moment like?”,  “Why did you make that decision?”

The above tactics are applicable and useful, whether you are looking to grow your current career, switch to a new career – or are simply looking for greater satisfaction in your current role.

Nicole Williams Job Quote
Click the quote to download Nicole Williams’ “Get the Job You Want” FREE ebook

Nicole Williams

CEO, Career Expert, Best-selling author, LinkedIn spokesperson and Today Show career correspondent.

After working both as a Career Counselor and as a Sr. Business Consultant, Nicole Williams founded WORKS in 2006, with the help of Michael Loeb. Nicole had the vision of building a business that not only helps young women create the careers of their dreams, but also supports the companies attempting to recruit and retain them as employees, and the businesses that are interested in providing products and services aimed at enriching their lives.

WORKS

WORKS is a career brand dedicated to inspiring, revitalizing, educating and energizing professional women striving towards career success. Today, under the WORKS banner, and with an incredible team, Nicole Williams has authored three bestselling books: Wildly Sophisticated: A Bold New Attitude for Career Success, Earn What You’re Worth, and Girl on Top. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies including LinkedIn, Ford Motor Company, Banana Republic, The Limited, and Proctor & Gamble on hiring, retention & marketing programs. Nicole has had her career advice covered in national outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Marie Claire, TODAY, Good Morning America & CNN.

What is Loeb NYC's "Company Factory"?

Michael Loeb, Entrepreneur and CEO of Loeb Enterprises

Michael Loeb, a serial entrepreneur, is the Founder and CEO of Loeb Enterprises, a New York City venture capital firm. He and Richard Vogel (COO/CFO, Loeb Enterprises) used their expertise and legacy of success to create Loeb NYC, a privately funded lab. Loeb NYC builds and grows startups from inception to exit. Here Michael Loeb describes his concept for a “Company Factory” and Loeb NYC’s unique Shared Services model.

Michael Loeb quote michael what you have at loeb nyc is uniqueLoeb NYC’s Company Factory

Swinging by Loeb NYC’s Midtown Manhattan office not long ago was a brilliant and remarkably successful entrepreneur, Jonathan Klein. Jonathan and Mark Getty were founders of the eponymous Getty Images. All that company did was revolutionize the stock photo, editorial photo, and film business. With his work largely done – Getty was sold years back to Carlyle for $3 billion-plus. Jonathan serves as Getty Images Chairman, has sat on the boards of two other unicorns since their relatively early days (Etsy and Squarespace), works with various non-profits and advises multiple VC businesses, all while traveling the world to seek out great companies and investments. To be sure, Jonathan has seen a thing or two … but not our model, not once.

“Michael, what you have here is unique, isn’t it?” Jonathan is South African but has lived in England for 20 plus years, so he can be British in tone. So, the quizzical “isn’t it” is at once charming, colloquial, rhetorical, and by turns confounding.

His words were high praise. Our model – a self-funded Company Factory – is, I suspect, accurately referred to as unique. It’s what my partner, Rich Vogel, and I envisioned a decade ago when we concluded that for us Synapse was not the last chapter but the opportunity for a bold new one. What was then a germ of an idea is now burgeoning into full flower.

helen rothberg quote loeb nyc vision

Accelerator vs Incubator vs Company Factory

When described, our factory model sometimes draws comparisons to an Incubator, or its cousin the Accelerator. I describe these as ‘pieces in the middle’: desk space where cohorts of startups or young companies, filtered in by type (adtech, health-tech, fintech, whatthehecktech) are paying tenants for 3 to 12 months, and enjoy, ostensibly, the benefits of sage advice from some grey hairs and community.

What a traditional Incubator is not, is the pieces in the beginning – the ideas, capital or talent. Nor is it the pieces in the end – more and more capital and the exit. For its trouble ‘the house’ gets a sliver of equity and may or may not write a check for a modest $50k or thereabouts. The true value of the incubator model for the entrepreneur? Connections to capital. Famously, Y-Combinator, la creme de la creme, has a queue of VCs – the likes of Andreessen, Sequoia, Greylock – lap up its graduates like Skittles at a Halloween bash.

Add to this the disadvantages of this common startup model. They don’t tell you this in entrepreneur’s school, but founders spend half of their time raising round after round of money, and then more time keeping the money happy. Other hours are spent coding bills, planning payments, nudging receivables, pouring over leases, contracts, and the like. Alas, what about the business building? Um, well, not so much.

Another thing they don’t tell the newbies: the game is kinda-sorta rigged. VCs know that the universal rules of construction apply: the business of building a business takes longer and costs more than the business builders presuppose. Starter-uppers are optimists who ask for too little at first, and upon the re-ask, VCs often invoke the ‘down round’ edict; that is, more equity for less. Ever hear of Waze? A friend and founder Uri Levine told me he owned just 3% of his company when it was it was sold to Google after the VCs had their “waze” with him.

Greedy? Attribute more to odds and probability. Most VC’s will candidly tell you that only 2 startups in 10 have an appreciable return. A little verity from a shot of Casamigos and they will confess to less. Moreover, they are counting – banking actually – on the performance of a rare winner (the most profound of which are fancifully referred to as Unicorns) to pay for all the losers … and their wood-paneled offices, partner mortgages and a long list of green fees.

Shared Services – a Turnkey Solution

By contrast, our model spans the business lifecycle from ideas-to-execution-to-exit. We are self-funded, so our starter-uppers spend not their precious time soliciting investors, but rather soliciting results. Our Shared Services are world-class talent in tech, digital business development, accounting, finance, analytics, data science, promotional design, manufacture and a dozen direct-to-consumer marketing sources, which allows small startup teams to punch way above their weight and have access to capabilities other companies can only dream of.

We think our model is also a magnet for talent. With so many companies in the factory, the odds of collective failure are markedly reduced, and the work is more varied and interesting. The net effect: the chances of success for each company and its rate of growth is markedly increased. The #1 cause of death for a start-up is not the lack of a good idea, it is the lack of capital. But not at our shop. #2 cause of death is dismal execution. But all the less likely with our accomplished and experienced practitioners. I say of us today that once every 5 years we start 10 companies. In truth, it could be twice that number at this very moment, depending on how you count ’em.

‎Another promise of an incubator is a community. But inasmuch as all startups in a conventional incubator are more than a little bit competitive – they share the same physical and metaphysical space after all – not much is collaborative. And that is also part of the dream that Rich and I had: the making of a bonafide entrepreneurial community. A band of start-up pirates, all sharing best practices, and best resources, all participating in the spoils.

michael loeb quote time

Loeb NYC Speaker Series

We believe in giving our staff every tool they need to grow professionally. One of the opportunities for enrichment comes in the form of our Speaker Series. This is a program where “persons of excellence” in any and all fields (from high net-worth business people to actors and dancers), are invited to Loeb NYC to speak. The Speaker Series ramps up in frequency in the summer months, with a weekly guest speaker. This is so that our cohort of paid summer interns can benefit from learning from the successes, failures and philosophies of inspiring and motivating personalities.

Speakers have included Carolyn Everson (Facebook Head of Global Marketing), David Blumberg (Blumberg Capital, one of Silicon Valley’s most prescient Venture Capital firms) Tim Blake Nelson (actor/director), Katie Meyler (a Time Magazine “Person of the Year”) and Damian Woetzel (famous ballet danseur and president of Juilliard School).

When Dr. Helen Rothberg, Intelligence Strategist and Corporate Consultant visited,  she “got” the Loeb NYC vision right away,  “This whole place feels like one big, buzzing vision to me. I was in the “rainforest” and that place is pretty amazing. As an outsider who’s walking in, who’s been to many different companies over the years; Fortune 500, small tech startups, there’s a buzz, there’s an energy, there’s a vision here.” 

The “rainforest” refers to the floor of Loeb Enterprises where all of our startup portfolios are based. The theme was chosen deliberately, as rainforests have the fastest growth rate and highest diversity of species. It is a fertile environment which fosters life, evolution, and renewal.

katie loeb quote shared services

Loeb Enterprises Paid Summer Internship

One of the programs that we are most proud of is our paid summer internship program. In 2018 we received over 1,000 applications and hired 40 interns. The interns gain immersive, hands-on experience in New York City startups and are matched with portfolio companies with which they share a mutual interest and passion. We welcome the contributions, ideas and drive offered by the enthusiastic interns. Many go on to gain full-time employment at Loeb NYC, and have attained positions at our startups like AllTheRooms, Thnks, 3×3 insights and more.

At Loeb NYC we still have much to do. Unique is hard, unique takes time. But we are getting there one groundbreaking startup at a time. And for that, I thank you – our community, our merry, exceptional band – all.