100: Max Levchin, Affirm CEO and PayPal co-founder

Max Levchin co-founded PayPal with Peter Thiel. The original idea wasn't the hit product.

Max Levchin co-founded PayPal with Peter Thiel. The original idea wasn't the hit product.

Affirm CEO Max Levchin learned to write code out of necessity. His mother's necessity, specifically.

Levchin co-founded PayPal, reaped a windfall from its IPO and sale, and became one of the best-connected investors in Silicon Valley. But before all that, he was a teenage refugee from the Soviet Union, figuring out how to make his mark at the dawning of the consumer Internet era.

Before the family had left Ukraine in the early 1990s, Soviet officials had given Levchin's mother a poorly translated programming manual, a PC, and a mandate: Learn to program it. Mother and son took turns reading each other the manual, and by the time they moved to the U.S., both knew how to code.

For my 100th episode of Fortt Knox, I sat down with Levchin to dig into his journey as an entrepreneur. He discussed his early failures, the evolution of PayPal, and what made Peter Thiel an ideal co-founder. We also talked about his latest company, Affirm, and why he believes it can continue to disrupt the credit card business, even if the economy cools.

1. Curiosity and creativity matter more than raw skills

Levchin and his mother taught themselves to code, and after the move to the United States, his mother worked for about 25 years in the software business. He credits this in part to his family's cultural tradition of valuing education. To me, it sounds like a real-life manifestation of the concept of a "growth mindset." If we believe there's always more to learn, we have the opportunity to constantly gain new skills and open new possibilities.

2. A brilliant team is better than a brilliant idea

It struck me that Levchin kept in touch with classmates from the University of Illinois and continued to work with them, and kept in touch with coworkers from PayPal and continued to work with them, too. (Levchin was chairman of Yelp for several years, a company started by U of I and PayPal alums Russel Simmons and Jeremy Stoppelman.) The origin of PayPal itself reads like an accident; Levchin tells me he was bouncing ideas off of Thiel, and one that had to do with cryptography and Palm Pilots eventually morphed into a massive digital payments company. Ideas come and go, but you need the right people to make them work.

3. Risk while you can

It's a lot easier to pour everything into a startup when you don't have much to begin with. That's why Levchin advises young people to start businesses before they get tied down by things like fancy cars ... or even not-so-fancy cars. PayPal was something like his fifth startup, and he says he wouldn't have had the courage to keep trying after the first four failures if he'd had much more to lose.

KIND Snacks founder Daniel Lubetzky; Plus, Tips to Beat Black Friday

Daniel Lubetzky's father survived the Holocaust; his dad's legacy of kindness informs his approach to business.

Daniel Lubetzky's father survived the Holocaust; his dad's legacy of kindness informs his approach to business.

KIND Snacks today is a business valued in the billions of dollars, but this wasn't Daniel Lubetzky's first food company. That would be PeaceWorks – a venture with the lofty goal of bringing Jews and Arabs together through mutually beneficial trade.

What they have in common is a strong sense of mission. KIND bars come in mostly clear packaging, intentionally showing buyers exactly what's inside. Lubetzky started out selling $100 worth of bars at a time – he says he now sells more than 1 billion in a year – and he believes in making a simple, straightforward promise about the ingredients inside.

In our conversation for the Fortt Knox 1-on-1 this week, I talked to Lubetzky about how his family's legacy as Holocaust survivors informs the way he thinks about entrepreneurship and mission. He also talks about mistakes he made along the way.

Also in this week's episode:

It’s upon us: the holiday season. I don’t know about you, but I got an email come-on from Amazon about early Black Friday deals the day after Halloween. Talk about scary.  

So: If you’re an entrepreneur, how do you break through the noise this holiday season? If you’re a shopper, how will you get the best deals?  

Joining me to untangle this retail riddle I’ve got a great panel of experts:  

Adam Glassman is creative director at O Magazine, and has been preparing for this season for more than six months. Stephen Sadove is former chairman and CEO of Saks, and an adviser to Mastercard. And Lauren Hirsch is a retail reporter with us at CNBC.com.

Subscribe to the Fortt Knox YouTube channel here.

98: BlackBerry CEO John Chen; Plus, How to Beat Amazon

John Chen has led BlackBerry for about five years, and serves on the board of Disney.

John Chen has led BlackBerry for about five years, and serves on the board of Disney.

The theme this week is "underdogs." John Chen has history in this department: His parents escaped communist China to Hong Kong, and his father had to work jobs beneath his education level so Chen could have a shot at a better life. At age 17 he came to the United States to finish high school. After he entered the workforce, Chen hit a roadblock. It wasn't common at the time for engineers to get promoted into broader management positions, and he was still growing in his comfort with communicating as a leader in English, his second language.

Fast-forward to today, and Chen has been CEO of BlackBerry for five years. He has taken the company from a dying smartphone maker to a stable provider of security and automotive software. And it's not Chen's first turnaround; after becoming CEO of Sybase in 1998, he led a reinvention that saved the company.

In all of my years covering Chen, I'd never heard his personal story. For the Fortt Knox 1-on-1 this week, I finally get to the root of why Chen is so comfortable playing the long game when it comes to leadership ... and how it ties back into the sacrifices he saw as an immigrant and the son of refugees.

For one, he consciously tries to keep his emotions in check when dealing with setbacks, or the reality that a business is in a pinch. For another, he keeps in mind a series of experiences where he had to prepare himself to reach the next level.

Taking on the Giants

I see it all the time on CNBC: the "Amazon effect" on rival stocks. For example, when news broke that Amazon was buying online prescription retailer PillPack this summer, CVSRite Aid and Walgreens all dropped more than 9% as investors quaked at the challenge. Pundits can slip into the bad habit of assuming Amazon always grinds its enemies' bones to make its bread.

Not always. Sometimes the underdogs thrive. Three years ago Amazon launched "Handmade at Amazon" to compete with craft marketplace Etsy; Etsy fell to around $7 per share, losing half its market value in the days after. But now it trades at $52. Best Buy has battled back after Amazon was poised to kill it. That's just two examples. So what's the secret? How do you beat Amazon?

This week on Fortt Knox we assembled a panel to answer that. Dan Rosensweig is CEO of Chegg, a company that got its start in textbook rentals – and in Amazon's crosshairs. Anthony Bucci is founder of RevZilla, a retailer of motorcycle parts and accessories that had to figure out how to grow and not get commoditized. And Nadia Shouraboura is a former Amazon insider who clearly still has a fondness for the company. In our conversation, they share examples of how smaller businesses can thrive by focusing on things that perhaps Amazon can't.

A couple of hints: Don't try to compete with lower prices or wider selection. And stay lean in other areas so you can invest in building unique insight into what your customer base needs.

97: Panera CEO Blaine Hurst; Plus, Why Parents Must Make A Screen Time Strategy

Blaine Hurst led Panera's technology transformation in food delivery and digital ordering, and is now CEO.

Blaine Hurst led Panera's technology transformation in food delivery and digital ordering, and is now CEO.

Panera had a problem. At lunchtime, customers were mobbing the counters to order and pick up, and it was a mess. It was frustrating for everyone involved, and management knew they were probably missing out on sales because of it.

The company's founder turned to Blaine Hurst to lead the search for a solution. As the company's chief technology officer, he put together a team to make Panera a leader in digital ordering and fast pickup. First through a website and in-store kiosks and now through mobile ordering and delivery, those tech efforts have paid off. The company is on pace to book $2 billion worth of digital orders this year.

To talk about how he got there, I sat down with Hurst for this week's Fortt Knox 1-on-1. The answer isn't what I expected. There was no getting buy-in from across the company about what the problem was before the team crafted a solution. And now that he's the CEO and not the CTO, he's had to shift his methods somewhat.

How Should Parents Set Screen-Time Boundaries?

I've got a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old at home, and we're doing the screen time dance. I call it a dance and not a battle because we have at least the beginnings of thoughtful rules. We’re not fighting about them, yet.

First, they don't typically get screen time during the school week. TV and video games are for weekends. Even then, they don’t get video game time until they’ve finished responsibilities like piano practice and cleaning up their toys. They get a specific amount of screen time, and they get to choose how they want to divide it between devices. They don’t have phones, and I’m not sure when they will. One thing I do know: When each gets a smartphone, at first it will do nothing but make and accept phone calls; my wife and I will enable other features as the kids show they’re responsible enough.

Does this plan make sense? I decided to ask some experts. Richard Freed is a child and adolescent psychologist, and the author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age; he joined me from San Francisco. Anya Kamenetz is lead education blogger for NPR, and author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life; she joined me in New York. And Katherine Omerod is a social media influencer and author of Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life; she joined me from London. In our conversation I got feedback and a few pointers on how other parents can set boundaries. Be a friend and share this episode with a parent you know.

96: Luis von Ahn, Duolingo CEO: Could Language Be Key to Closing the Wealth Gap?

Luis von Ahn is founder and CEO of Duolingo; he also pioneered Captchas.

Luis von Ahn is founder and CEO of Duolingo; he also pioneered Captchas.

Luis von Ahn is familiar with the idea that education is a great equalizer, but the reality he’s observed is different. More often than not, the opportunity for an exceptional education is available only to the wealthy – and it makes them even wealthier. 

So what can be done about it? 

Von Ahn was born in Guatemala, where much of the population is poor. So after he struck it rich selling a company to Google, he decided to build technology that really does address the wealth gap, by targeting one type of education that does make a difference: language. 

That was the genesis of Duolingo. Today, it has touched 300 million users, and has both ad-supported and subscription versions. 

95: HotelTonight CEO Sam Shank, Plus Cannabis Goes Legal in Canada


This week, Canada legalized pot. That’s a big deal because it’s the largest country to do it, and because it’s a major milestone in one of the most impressive rebranding exercises in a generation. When I was growing up, many warned against marijuana as a gateway drug, the province of hippies and slackers. Now it’s becoming a multi-billion-dollar global industry, and Elon Musk is toking during a podcast. Seems like an appropriate time to polish off that old meme: “We would like to congratulate drugs, for winning the War On Drugs.”

For the Fortt Knox 1-on-1 this week, I bring you my conversation with Sam Shank, cofounder and CEO of HotelTonight. That business is another example of seizing the moment. Shank had achieved smaller success with a travel technology businesses in the past, but this one was timed to a revolution when it came to life eight years ago. The idea: a smartphone app that finds you last-minute deals on hotel rooms. At first, you couldn't book any further out than a week in advance.

The concept has evolved significantly since then. Today, it’s not just on smartphones, and you can now book three months in advance. The startup has raised more than $100 million. Shank has some advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, intriguing insights into why HotelTonight needed to start the way it did, and an update on the prospects of an IPO for the company. 

93: New Rules of the PC Market: A Practical Buying Guide, with Patrick Moorhead


Phones are getting huge. Tablets are tweeners. PCs are on the uptick. Microsoft just announced a new lineup of its Surface PCs and tablets and HP unveiled a leather laptop, so it’s a good time to ask: What’s right for you? What’s the difference between a sub-$1K PC and a more than $2K PC anymore? 

Patrick Moorhead, a top industry analyst who also personally reviews products, joins me at the Microsoft Store in Midtown Manhattan for an unbiased look at the smart shopper’s approach to today’s computing market.  

92: SiriusXM Buying Pandora, and A New Cloud Alliance: Tim Westergren, Pandora Co-founder


SiriusXM, the satellite radio giant, has announced a plan to buy Pandora, the streaming music pioneer. What does it mean for the future of content and subscriptions online? 

And a big week in cloud computing: I was in Orlando on Monday, and sat down for one triple-play interview with the CEOs of Microsoft, Adobe and SAP. They've got a big idea for collaboration in the cloud that they call the Open Data Initiative. Why does that matter to the rest of us? Well, it's got some implications for this whole debate over who really owns your data. 

Joining me this week is Pandora co-founder Tim Westergren.

91: What the Most Successful Founders Have in Common: Maynard Webb, Scott Galloway, Robert Frank


We’ve got a fascination with founders in our culture – people who start stuff. Elon Musk. Jeff Bezos. Bill Gates.  

I’ve had a new generation of founders here on Fortt Knox: Stitch Fix founder Katrina Lake, and Guild Education founder Rachel Carlson to name a couple. 

So this week we’re going to dig into what successful founders do right, and what we can learn from them. Because hey: The way I look at it, even if you’re not starting the next Apple, the chances are pretty good that a lot of us have started something, or will before too long. Maybe it’s a small business – a major project on your job.  

My guests: CNBC Wealth Editor Robert Frank, who has chronicled the ways of successful entrepreneurs for many years now. And the irrepressible Scott Galloway, Professor at NYU’s Stern School of business, author of New York Times bestseller The Four, which examines the animating ideas behind Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon.

This week for the Fortt Knox one-on-one I’ve also got Maynard Webb. He’s former Board Chairman at Yahoo, former CEO of LiveOps, chief operating officer at eBay, and board member at Visa and Salesforce. 

90: Analyzing the New iPhone XS Max & Apple Watch with Chrissy Farr, Josh Lipton, Jillian Manus


Three new iPhone Xs and a watch that's a cleared medical device: That's what Apple announced at its biggest event of the year.

But what does it mean for Apple? Which, if any, of this stuff is worth buying?

Jon Fortt breaks it down with Christina Farr, CNBC.com health reporter who has been breaking stories left and right on Apple's health advancements; Jillian Manus, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and CNBC tech correspondent Josh Lipton.

89: Nike’s Gamble; Facebook & Twitter Go to Washington. With Charles Duhigg & Ellen Pao


Big week for social media.

Colin Kaepernick tweets his new Nike ad, Nike retweets, and it’s on. Did Nike just make a big mistake, or did it lock in the loyalty of a valuable customer base?

Plus, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey go to Capitol Hill and … I know what you’re thinking, no, Dorsey didn’t go for a Civil War battle reenactment, though with that beard he’d make a dashing Rufus King – I’m just saying – with a bow tie? That’s fresh.

No, they went for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, to talk about what they’re doing to make sure foreign powers aren’t futzing around with our Midterm elections, which are coming up in just two months.

This is Fortt Knox, rich ideas and powerful people. I am Jon Fortt of CNBC.

Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning contributor to the New York Times Magazine joins me; he has covered the legal upheaval coming to the social space. And Ellen Pao, CEO of Project Include, former CEO of Reddit, and canary in the “Me Too” coal mine joins us.

88: How to Get Pay-Boosting Skills Without Going Broke


The economy's supposed to be really good, if you look at the official numbers. According to the U.S. labor department the unemployment rate was under 4 percent in July, which is a level that a lot of people used to consider "full employment." Everybody who wants a job has one.  

Except … not really. 

The system isn't working the way it's supposed to for working people. Here's what I mean. Typically in the past, when so many people have jobs, pay goes up. I mean, how else are you going to get people to work for you if everybody has a job. You've got to pay them more.  

But that's not happening – at least not anywhere near at the level it should be. The Labor Department reported last month that if you look at median weekly earnings, and you factor in inflation, the typical worker is just treading water.  

And what about the future? Having a job and making a living are not the same thing. The cost of a four-year degree rose about 25 percent in the last decade according to the College Board, to $34,740 a year. Meanwhile student loan debt Is exploding.  

So: wages flat. Traditional schooling expensive. We haven’t even talked about the cost of raising a family if that’s your thing. What are you going to do if you’re not already in the job you want to be doing for the rest of your life? 

Today we’re going to find the smart way to navigate all this. Getting the skills for a better job or higher pay without crushing your bank account and going deep in debt.  

Joining me on the show to help you make your plan: Here with me at the Nasdaq, Laura Pappano is an education reporter who lives and breathes this stuff, writing in the New York Times, the Hechinger Report and more.  

Joining us from Denver, Rachel Carlson, cofounder and CEO of Guild Education, a company that helps employers offer education as a benefit to employees, kind of like healthcare – clients include Walmart, Lowe’s, Taco Bell and Chipotle.  

And finally, joining us from Cambridge Massachusetts, Anant Agarwal is an MIT professor and CEO of EDX, a free-to-learn platform.

87: Dinesh Paliwal, Harman CEO; Plus, A Subscription Shakeup and Media's Wild Summer

Dinesh Paliwal is CEO of Harman, which includes the AKG, JBL and Harman/Kardon audio brands.

Dinesh Paliwal is CEO of Harman, which includes the AKG, JBL and Harman/Kardon audio brands.

The conversation with Harman CEO Dinesh Paliwal begins at 27:58. 

Free speech is getting exhausting. It’s a game of online publishing whack-a-mole as wingnut Alex Jones, of Infowars fame, finally gets suspended from Twitter, only to direct his audience to Tumblr. How should those of us who still love America feel about the amount of crazy that’s going on in the media game these days? 

MoviePass is testing its business model … on Solo. Borrowing a page from Darth Vader’s Cloud City book of negotiating tactics, movie theater subscription company MoviePass is altering the terms of your deal – pray they don’t alter it further.  

And skinny bundles are the new skinny jeans. In further evidence of a trend I like to call “The Great Rebundling,” digital distributors and content companies are hooking up faster than you can say, “Ban Alex Jones.” The latest to swipe right on each other: Verizon doing a deal for free Apple Music and Samsung doing a deal to pre-load Spotify on all its devices.  

Last but not least, for the Fortt Knox one-on-one this week I’ve got Dinesh Paliwal, CEO of Harman International, the high-end audio company Samsung bought for 8 billion dollars last year. He’s talking straight about the future of music formats and the right way to play business hardball with China.  

Welcome to Fortt Knox, rich ideas and powerful people. I am Jon Fortt at the Nasdaq Marketsite in New York’s Times Square.  

Joining me on the show today to break down the headlines: I’ve got Ed Lee of the New York Times. Dan McComas, former senior vice president of product at Reddit. And joining me a bit later, Brent Lang, the senior film editor at Variety; and Cherie Hu, columnist at Billboard.

Dinesh Paliwal is CEO of Harman International, the high-end audio company Samsung bought for $8 billion last year. He sits down with CNBC's Jon Fortt at the Nasdaq Marketsite in Times Square. He talks straight about the future of music formats, his journey from India to America to the international business world, and the right way to play hardball with China.

86: Startup or Corporate Giant? How to Decide What Kind of Employer Fits You

At the Nasdaq Marketsite in Times Square, this week's Fortt Knox tackles the plusses and minuses of working for a startup vs. an established company.

At the Nasdaq Marketsite in Times Square, this week's Fortt Knox tackles the plusses and minuses of working for a startup vs. an established company.

I've got something different for you this week: A big conversation about work. As in, where should you work? What kind of company: Big or small? Young or established? 

The idea for this episode came from my CNBC colleague Sharon Epperson, who's just great. Sharon covers personal finance, and I'll often stop at her desk and strategize about work and life.  

Sharon did a piece on how to land a job at a startup, and I wanted to expand the topic to, should you take a job at a startup, even if you can? So I huddled with CNBC producer Evan Falk, as I do every week to talk about Fortt Knox Live, and we decided to put a show together. Get Sharon, a couple of top-flight venture capital investors, and I wanted to get some students and recent graduates, too. I mean, they're the target audience for this stuff, right? 

So that's what we did.  

My guests are two venture capitalists: Jeff Richards, managing partner at GGV Capital, and Graham Brown, partner at Lerer Hippeau. Three students: Ahmad Eshghyar, an MBA candidate at Yale; Roni Barak Ventura, a doctoral candidate at NYU; and Raymond Willey, an MBA candidate at Baruch College. And one CNBC colleague, Sharon Epperson.

85: Roger Lynch, Pandora CEO and Sling TV co-founder: The Great Rebundling

Pandora CEO Roger Lynch was the founding CEO of Sling TV; his strategy includes lots of deals.

Pandora CEO Roger Lynch was the founding CEO of Sling TV; his strategy includes lots of deals.

Pandora, the music streaming service, has a culture that's heavily musical. So as a new CEO of the company, it helps that Roger Lynch not only plays guitar, but he actually still plays live gigs with a band. 

Lynch sat down with me above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, before the opening bell. He's been in the job for less than a year – and he's got his work cut out for him. Spotify just went public, and has grabbed a lot of attention. Meanwhile, many of the most powerful companies in tech are competing with him in the market, including a few little names like Apple, Amazon and Google. How does he plan to win? 

Lynch started out a scientist, became and investment banker, and found his groove as an entrepreneur – he's the founding CEO of video streaming pioneer Sling TV. 

84: George Kurian, NetApp CEO: A Twin and a Team Builder

George Kurian sat down with me at the New York Stock Exchange about three years into his tenure as NetApp CEO.

George Kurian sat down with me at the New York Stock Exchange about three years into his tenure as NetApp CEO.

George Kurian is the CEO of NetApp, a storage technology company whose stock market value is more than $20 billion. Normally I like to start off talking about what makes my guests unique. But in this case, George has a lot in common with another Silicon Valley tech executive named Kurian – his twin brother Thomas is president at Oracle. 

George and I could spend a lot of time talking about how unlikely it is that anyone climbs to the top level of a multi-billion-dollar Silicon Valley tech company, much less that two brothers would do it. We did talk about that a bit. But we also talked about strategy, and the challenges he's faced leading in a period of rapid change.  

81: Tobi Lütke, Shopify founder and CEO: Snowboards Don't Sell in Spring

When business at his online snowboard shop slowed, Tobi Lütke founded Shopify to sell the technology behind the store instead.

When business at his online snowboard shop slowed, Tobi Lütke founded Shopify to sell the technology behind the store instead.

Tobi Lutke is the founder and CEO of Shopify, a public company worth 17 billion dollars. The shopping landscape is changing fast, with new tax laws, same-day delivery, in-store pickup and mobile payments adding new twists and capabilities all the time. Lutke, and Shopify, provide technology tools to simplify all that for merchants. 

I talked with Tobi recently at the Nasdaq Marketsite in Times Square, as talk of tariffs and taxes are swirling. We talked about what's allowed Shopify's stock to double in a year, and how he went from a teenage German apprentice to a Canadian entrepreneur … who's now a billionaire on paper, by the way. 

80: Q-Tip, the Abstract: Championing Creativity in the Digital Age

Q-Tip, of pioneering hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, has branched out as a producer, solo artist, artistic director at the Kennedy Center, and soon a lecturer at NYU.

Q-Tip, of pioneering hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, has branched out as a producer, solo artist, artistic director at the Kennedy Center, and soon a lecturer at NYU.

The mission of the Fortt Knox podcast is to bring you one-on-one, unfiltered conversations with interesting entrepreneurs and leaders, and show what makes them tick. Most of the time, they're CEOs or founders. Sometimes I get to spend time with a guy like Q-Tip, whose approach to his craft has shifted the way we think about modern music.

Q-Tip is probably best known as part of A Tribe Called Quest, a group that emerged in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Hits like “Can I Kick It?” “Scenario” and “Bonita Applebum” cemented Tribe’s place as innovators, both in their lyrical cadence and the way they used sampling and a broad mix of musical genres to make something new. 

 A Tribe Called Quest released its final album in November 2016. Member Phife Dog, Malik Taylor, passed away from diabetes complications earlier that year. I talked to Tip about his new music, his other creative efforts, mourning Phife, and the state of the music business. 

Here's a bit of what he shared. For the full conversation, subscribe to the podcast or stream the video on the Fortt Knox YouTube channel.

On working with Elton John on the last Tribe album and a tribute record with Demi Lovato:

I was working with Jack White, and we had this song, and I was like – man, we should get Elton. And we reached out, played it for him, he dug it, flew out to London, cut it – and he was just extremely gracious and just open and it was just a great experience. When the time came for him to do his legacy piece, where he had all these different artists cover, you know, he reached out and gave me the pick of the litter – so many great songs he’s done – to choose from and redo. And I was like maybe "Don’t Go Breaking My Heart," because at that time it was crossing into disco, it was still a great song, it had some soul. So I was like, let me take it, and flip it, recut it. Reached out to the great Demi Lovato, who’s amazing, and we knocked it out.

He’s kind of rooted in blues, country and soul. He’s really on more of a blues-man, piano-playing, kind of edge, rather than a modern-rock thing. That’s his rearing. Obviously having the facility as a musician – he and Bernie were able to kind of pen some of the greatest songs of the last century and in this one. They had a connection, they had a real partnership creatively, and they rode it till the wheels fell off. It’s, like you said, such a diaspora of different idioms that he melds into what’s uniquely him.

I think that’s what keeps him going – is just his joy and his love for what he does. You know, he’s on the road right now probably doing three hundred shows. He’s one of those people that’s definitely an inspiration.

On his friendship with Prince, one of his biggest musical influences:

Major. One of my major influences. You know, I have a few, and he’s definitely in there. Since his first album. I feel like, especially in today's world, the word 'genius' gets used carelessly, but it’s appropriate in his case. You know, you’re talking about a prodigy who at 18 recorded his own album, and self-produced it, which was kind of unheard of in 1979. He’s somebody that I’ve always admired, studied – he’s just so much a part of what I do, even still to this day. As I went into my career, having the opportunity to have worked with him and knew him intimately – that was my boy. He was like my big brother. We would have just hours and hours and hours of conversation about music, life – everything you could imagine. To be able to share the stage with him, and work in the studio with him – I mean, I’m pinching myself.

… That was my big brother. He would tell me other stuff, and he was like one of the first guys on the Internet. I remember him telling me all about it and setting up his sites and stuff like that and watching it. It was just really a great – you know, he’s one of my mentors, and I miss him dearly. That whole year, 2016, of the loss, because right prior to that I lost Phife. I think he reached out but I didn’t get to speak to him because I was just in the middle of all the bereavement and all that stuff. Then a few weeks later, he was gone, and it was just like, "wow" – it was a heavy blow. But his contribution is timeless. When the archaeologists come to go through the rubble and they look for, "What was this culture?" They are going to look to the art first, and I’m sure they’ll find his follicle.

In a rare, in-depth interview, Q-Tip, the Abstract, a.k.a. Kamaal Ibn John Fareed talks to CNBC's Jon Fortt for an episode of the Fortt Knox Podcast. They discuss the state of the music business, the creative process, reflections on the Native Tongues movement in the '80s, the role of streaming platforms, and a lot more.

On the danger of artists losing themselves in record contracts:

We exist in a paradigm here where it’s capitalism, we have to capitalize. So then when we enter into these contracts, into these deals, everybody, I think, is trying to look out for their best interests, but it seems the controlling factor goes beyond looking for their best interests – control. If you don’t have faith, and I’m not just talking about a faith in your talent or a faith in what you were gifted, but a faith in where that comes from. It could be rough, because you’re always going to be dealing with challenges.

On the consequences of the music industry coming late to the Internet:

I think that the music industry has missed a step or two, but one of the major steps that I think that they missed in the latter part of the last century, which they’re still kind of licking their wounds from, is not embracing the Internet and how the Internet can be another conduit for them to put out product. Where the music industry was still a little bit fat off of the CD explosion, because it’s all about ‘how many different ways can we present this that’s in a hardware?’ It’s vinyl, then when they figured out they could put the same thing out with no cost, but just on a different medium which is cassette, they reintroduced that. They have these talks with different audio companies and car companies on how they can change their formats that now can assist this – it gets a wider reach which is great for the audience and great for the artist, because now it’s dispersed on another medium. Now here comes the CD, and when everything was reissued on CD in the 90s, or the 80s rather, the music business saw a crazy surge because their catalog just got bought again by all of the consumers.

When the Internet came along, I think a lot of the gatekeepers were like ‘get away from here, kid.’ It was something they didn’t have the vision to see that far ahead – it was kind of a new thing for a lot of us on that end in the business. They didn’t really have people that could see the explosion. So now, the music business, kind of, has to re-approach it. Re-approach the contracts, re-approach how they deal with artists. They cut off different arms of their companies, like artist development arms and things of that nature, to save costs, and now it’s really about analytics and numbers and metrics to try and gauge what’s what so they can try and jump in.
On the importance of artists taking time to craft high-quality music, even though it's easier to release it now:

Putting your music out, like you said, you don’t have to wait around – you can get it going on your own. It’s really liberating to do that. The other problem on the other side of that is that because of that availability, because of that instant access, to be able to professionally gather your ideas, launch it out yourself, is that because of the ease, now a lot of people think like they can do it too, kind of. That’s a problem, because for the actual work – like I didn’t just wake up and just do it – I had to still work, it’s work. You have to put that time in. You have to put the hours in. You have to put the days in. And you can’t cut corners, because if you do, all that easy access to be able to make stuff and push a button and put it out – you may catch a look initially, but because of the lack of work and substance that’s there, it’s going to be short-lived. So, I would encourage everybody that, because yes, there is an ease and a quicker track to getting your thoughts and ideas out there, you still can’t duck the responsibility that you need to have to your craft.

On how music has become a part of the way he has coped with the pain of loss:

It’s cathartic. It’s a refuge. That’s one of the things that unifies all of us under the auspices of art. It could be music, or literature, or film or what have you; these things are able to potentially encapsulate where you are in your life, good, bad, or otherwise. These things are able to encapsulate how you feel about yourself or the world or about others in a specific way. These things are able to encapsulate your queries or your pains or your questions or your sadness, and they’re also able to help build you, and make you, and inspire you to go forward. So for me, watching my father basically pass for over a year in front of me, and then him passing when I was 16, the music was always a safe haven for me. It was a place where I got to express myself. It was definitely a refuge.

On performing as A Tribe Called Quest (On Saturday Night Live), without Phife:

It was very trying, but it was also cathartic too. We were still working it out. I’m sure some of the people who were watching or listening were still kind of working out that loss for them, but just loss in general. For me personally, it was something – you know, after that we did a few shows. But I couldn’t move without him there. It was definitely a lot. But I’m happy I accepted that challenge and went through it and experienced that. And I’m able to call it out and notate what I was feeling. I think that was instrumental for my continued growth. But yeah, it was tough. When you hear the voice, and you’re on stage – it’s something that not only did we build it, but I knew him since we were four years old. To lose your friend – it’s not many people that you grow up with since four, that you still stay in contact with through your latter years, and on top of it, create something with that person, and make something with that person. And, on top of that, make something that people seem to dig, you know what I’m saying?

On the legacy of Native Tongues and the emergence of A Tribe Called Quest in black culture:

I think that at the time, we were just blessed to be able to be at the right time at the right place – that’s part of it. Also, prior to us, you were starting to see the different shades of black complexity through this music. On its initial implosion from the early '70s up into the '80s, it was kind of like a smaller dimension, but like most things that grow, it started to widen, and then through that it was able to carve out paths for other people to enter. You know, at that time, we were able to express that we were more than one dimension. We don’t just do X. We do A and D and H and J – just like everybody else. Because we were one of the first to have that position about showing our complexity, and showing our levels, and showing our depth – I think that’s probably why you still, you see J. Cole and you see Kendrick – there’s still outgrowths of that.

On whether he's an "iceberg" who has 90 percent of the music he's made still unreleased:

Yeah, yeah I do. Which is probably why Prince is my boy. I have a lot of stuff, but I’m striving to put it all out. There’s other things that happen in life that you kind of have to tend to, as well, and take care of, but I’m confident that all of that stuff will see the light of day, and I can continue to do that.
On the work that goes into creating Abstract Radio on Apple Music:

You can’t get that time back. So I try to make it enjoyable and again, palatable, for everybody who can be potentially checking it out. It makes me happy. I feel connected, energized, peace with it – you know, fun. It informs – because I get to through mixing, I put myself where I have to listen to a whole bunch of new things. I really try to source out certain things and make certain musical connections between something that could be present day that people haven’t looked at and something that could have been yesterday …

… and is the lesson from your to do work that makes you hone the fundamentals of your craft …?

…that makes you work. That makes you not think about the fact that you’re doing work. Do work that makes you not think about the fact that you’re doing work. Before we set off to do our work, we could be anxious or doubt or nervous or whatever. But the minute we drop into, and we step – 'cause we have to do it – so when you drop into it, and you get into it, it’s almost like when you start running for all you runners out there. After you hit a certain pace, your endorphins kick in, it gets bright, and you can go a bit further. You don’t think about the pace, at a point, that you’re running, because you’re working and it starts to feel good and it builds you. So when you do work that makes you not think that it’s work, and you drop in, you start to do it – it feeds you, it builds you. The work it becomes rote, it’s a mediation, and then by the time it’s done, it’s like, "Wow, I did that?"
On the uneasy alliance between artists and streaming services:

For them it’s really about market share. It's about consumption. It’s about having the most to be the biggest. Because when you’re a conglomerate in that way, you kind of become – like, I don’t know if you’re into comics, but you become Galactus. And Galactus was the one going around swallowing worlds. That’s all he did was swallow worlds.

So, who's going to be Silver Surfer?

See? Silver Surfer. And that’s where I believe Jay-Z is Silver Surfer, and QuestLove is Silver Surfer, and I can be Silver Surfer. Instead of airing complaints and stuff like that, you have to kind of see it from both sides. You have to put yourself in their shoes, right? So I understand that in order for Galactus to survive, his practical need is to eat worlds. In order for Norrin Radd, or Silver Surfer, to save his world, he says, look, "I love my dear world of peace so much, I’ll go out and get other ones, but leave this one alone." So I understand Norrin Radd’s position. You’re dealing with something that’s just one-dimensional, you have to consume, cause if they don’t have market share, then they fall. That’s bottom line. There’s thousands and thousands of people who work at these companies. People. They have to sustain themselves and their lives.

A big shout-out to CNBC producer Tyler Eyre, who worked to book Q-Tip, transcribe the interview, and get the video edited.

79: Scott Wagner, GoDaddy CEO: Big Plans for Small Businesses

Scott Wagner has taken the CEO seat at GoDaddy after the company has moved beyond shock marketing into a very different approach to its small business customers.

Scott Wagner has taken the CEO seat at GoDaddy after the company has moved beyond shock marketing into a very different approach to its small business customers.

Few companies have gone through the kind of image transformation GoDaddy has over the past decade. 

Back in 2005, GoDaddy launched its first commercial that used women in revealing outfits and sexually suggestive themes to sell web services. Wagner became GoDaddy's CEO at the beginning of this year, and those commercials are long gone.  

Today's GoDaddy bears little resemblance to the one of a decade ago, which is probably a good thing given how cultural winds have shifted. I talked to Wagner about his journey to the CEO seat, and what he's working to do with the products and culture.   

I got some time with Scott Wagner at the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. We talked about leadership, culture, and what it will take for small businesses to thrive in this latest wave of the digital economy. We also streamed the conversation live on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the CNBC apps on Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV.