The Ted Leonsis event blew out Startup Grind DC’s event capacity as one of the most popular speakers interviewed yet. Ted is a local hero in DC, a Georgetown graduate affectionately referred to as “Uncle Ted” by many of the young people who grew up with his kids. As the billionaire owner of the Verizon Center, he also owns the Caps and Wizards, making him one of the most popular DC residents.
Ted’s story proselytizes the classic American dream realized. “When you’re an ethnic kid, you’re raised with the idea that you can do better than your parents’ generation.” Born to a Greek immigrant, the first of his family to go to college, Ted is a self-made entrepreneur who continues to instill wisdom and work ethic not only in his children, but in hundreds of thousands of Americans through his book charmingly not on entrepreneurship, but happiness.
His choice of Georgetown was a fortuity; the alma mater of one Ted’s lawn mowing client’s saying “I like the work you do. Are you going to college?” A recommendation letter and a paper application later, and Ted would find himself on scholarship to Georgetown, and starting his first business.
The Startup Joy
“It’s a startup joy, not a grind, the joy of being independent”, espoused Ted. “I was a freshman at Georgetown University, and I had a rich roommate – dumb money, just like the kind you all want.” It was the summer of 1776, with 40 million tourists coming in for the bicentennial, he thought “gotta be something we can sell to 40 million people.” With his roommate’s financial backing, Ted was determined to spend his summer in DC.
His first entrepreneurial epiphany? Snow cones – with surge pricing. “For 0 – 80 degrees, it was 50 cents. At 80 – 90 degrees, a dollar. Over 90 degrees, and we would negotiate how bad you would want the cone,” he explained. Classmates, especially pretty coeds, and even a dog were employed to market the snowcone business. The snowcone tradition has continued with Ted’s daughter, a Georgetown senior who employed old snowcone machine to make money last summer.
Hard Work Really Matters
“You can do studies on what makes for an entrepreneur,” says Ted, citing the Kauffman Group. “I don’t buy into any of that. I think it’s an individual experience that comes from having high levels of self-expression, and really a chip on your shoulder. The best entrepreneurs that I’ve met really have a strong point-of-view, that’s powered by a belief that you can do something better than someone else.” His take more eloquently paraphrases the best quote of Startup Grind 2014 by George Zachary, “My screwed up childhood was a competitive advantage [for entrepreneurship].”
Sharing insights from one of his mentors, Congressman Paul Sangas, Ted explained “His thesis was hard work really mattered. He said [to me], ‘if you work this hard for a business you’ve started, you’ll be a millionaire by the time you’re thirty.’” Translating it to businesses today he explained, “The ability to work one on one with customers, the ability to take it to the streets, and be able to work person by person…I believe you can connect through hard work, through authenticity, through building a sense of community, and you can scale big businesses.”
Liberal Arts and Technology Come Together
Like most of Ted’s answers, his first foray into coding was a story, a story of man versus the Jesuit priest’s homework assignment.
“I was very busy,” said Ted of his youth. “I learned a lot about bandwidth. In college I got a little lazy. I discovered girls, I played sports. At Georgetown, you had to write a senior year thesis…so I went to the library to find the smallest book I could find. I was on a mission. It was Earnest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, ‘It was a good day, the sun was hot, then wind blew’. Chapter two.”
“My professor read my thesis and said ‘Why don’t you read it again?’. So I read it again, and I thought ‘I’m going to do something on Hemingway’. I went and got a second book, Across the River and into the Trees. It was 400 pages, and it was nothing like Old Man in the Sea. So I started reading other random works. ‘I said I don’t think he wrote Old Man and the Sea later in his career, I think he wrote it when he was a journalist, and started writing these novels later in life, then he took the book out from his drawer and published it.’”
“My professor said, ‘Now that’s a great idea! Let’s prove it.’ I said, ‘How are we going to do that, talk to his publisher?’ And Father Dirkin, a 76 year old Jesuit priest says, ‘We’ll use a computer’. There was one computer on the entire campus at Georgetown University…in the registrar’s office. Father Dirkin inspired me to create one of the first mashups of all time. We created the first algorithm applied to a non computer science application. They had me go at midnight some nights and input the first 500 words of a work written in 1950 or 1930.”
“It literally felt like magic to me. And we asked the computer, ‘When was Old Man in the Sea written?’ and it said ‘1933’. Father Dirkin said ‘I think is the first time liberal arts and technology have come together. Someone asked Steve Jobs once why Apple was the most valuable company, and he said ‘Apple is where liberal arts and technology come together’. Father Dirkin had said that in 1978.”
Things to Do Before You Die
Tracing his life through his first computer, to pitching his business (he was told “you could sell snow to an Eskimo), to telling his parents he was “getting venture capital”, Ted Leonsis beat Sangas’s estimate, becoming a multi-millionaire at 26 in 1983. So what do you do at 26 when you’ve made all the money you could possibly need at 26?
Flying on the wrong airplane, Ted’s plane hit turbulence. He found himself praying to an unfamiliar diety: God. He found himself “cutting a deal. Let me get through this and I will leave more than I take.”
“I said I was going to change, but I didn’t know what to do. So I made a list, ‘A Hundred and One Things to Do Before I Die’. It’s a terrible list. It was written by a young person in turmoil and stress, but I made the list. And the list became this powerful envisioning tool.”
The mostly lighthearted talk ended with what seemed the perfect question, who was his favorite superhero? Leonsis said it was Superman although he could never understand why in the old TV show Superman would laugh at bullets but dodge the gun when it was thrown at him. The Startup Grind team, no doubt echoing the view of a lot of the local tech community, declared Leonsis a kind of superhero himself and presented him with a custom Ted Leonsis superhero action figure to much laughter and applause.