31: Playing the Long Game: Steve Ballmer Talks New Beginnings

 
Former CEO Steve Ballmer is the largest individual holder of Microsoft stock, because he hasn't sold much.

Former CEO Steve Ballmer is the largest individual holder of Microsoft stock, because he hasn't sold much.

Steve Ballmer retired from the Microsoft CEO job three and a half years ago. Then he bought the L.A. Clippers, the basketball team, for two billion dollars.

Ballmer has that kind of money because he's the one person in the world who owns the most shares of Microsoft stock. What's that? You thought Bill Gates owned the most? He did. But he's been selling a lot of it over the years.  

Not Steve Ballmer. He's sold a little, but he's held onto most of it. More than 300 million shares, to be precise. So let's do a little arithmetic. That's 300 million, times 71 bucks a share, which is about where Microsoft was trading at the beginning of June 2017. That's $21.3 billion dollars. 

I had the pleasure of covering Microsoft, and Ballmer, for a good stretch during the past two decades. I got some time with him recently in Rancho Palos Verdes California, at the Code Conference. We put a little of it on CNBC, but I decided to share the whole thing for this episode of the Fortt Knox Podcast. Here are just a couple of highlights:

Wall Street Doesn't Know Everything

According to conventional wisdom, Steve Ballmer's tenure as Microsoft CEO was fraught. The stock didn't do well. Google's search empire emerged and Microsoft couldn't catch up. Apple beat Microsoft in mobile. Ballmer tried unsuccessfully to buy Yahoo (a deal investors were glad didn't happen) and successfully bought Nokia (a deal investors wish hadn't happened).

But here's what the historians often leave out: Ballmer took over just before the dot-com crash, a no-win situation. Despite Google's brilliance, it failed to take down Microsoft Office with Google Docs. Chairman Bill Gates was still working full-time at the company as it missed the modern smartphone and produced the Zune. (If you've been following my writing on LinkedIn, you'll note that I've held this opinion of the Ballmer legacy for a long time: See "Ode to Clippers Owner Steve Ballmer, Underrated Billionaire.")

And ... this is controversial, but I'm just going to put it out there – Microsoft wasn't in such terrible shape when Steve Ballmer retired. When companies are in bad shape, new CEOs clear out senior executives and bring in new blood. New CEO Satya Nadella didn't do that. He has reorganized the leadership structure, elevated some people, made some bold acquisitions; the stock has roughly doubled. Here's how Ballmer put it:

"I think we did a good job building profits; over time there's some correlation that's got to exist between profits and stock price, although this market has sort of said we're willing to be very long-term patient with some [company stock prices] that are way out of whack with the current earnings," Ballmer says. "Frankly, I don't think the stock price had any chance to move as long as I was CEO. People were locked into a worldview about how things were, and sort of the change of CEO let people step back and say, OK, let's think about this thing again."

Facts Matter to Democracy

Another project he's spending time on: USAFacts. It's a trove of information about where our federal tax dollars really go – you can find it at USAFacts.org, and play with the numbers yourself.

Ballmer started digging after his wife asked him to get more involved in the family foundation's charitable work. Ballmer is passionate about making sure kids have the opportunity to do better than their parents did financially. I asked him if there's a philosophical grounding to the idea.

"I won't remember the quote – somebody gave me a Jeffersonian quote on this topic – something to the effect that if you want to have a representative democracy, you have to have an educated citizenry. And I think numbers are an important part of the education process," Ballmer says. "When push comes to shove, you're either writing a law, or you're deciding how much money to put into something. Or you're imposing regulation. Those are the real, three tools of government."

30: Tom vs. the Elephant: How One Billionaire Entrepreneur Keeps Going

 
Tom Siebel is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and survivor of a run-in with a five-ton elephant.

Tom Siebel is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and survivor of a run-in with a five-ton elephant.

To say Tom Siebel has had an interesting life would be putting it mildly. He’s a billionaire, a tech visionary, and the survivor of an elephant goring eight years ago that, by the odds, should have killed him.  

Several doctors told Siebel he would never walk again, much less sail competitively. But he does. 

So what do you learn about life when you’ve stared down death in the form of a five-ton elephant, been crushed by that elephant, and lived to tell the tale? What do you learn when you’ve invented one of the first killer workplace apps of the PC era, then sold it for about $6 billion dollars? 

After you’ve made all that, survived all that, why, at 64 years old, are you still inventing? 

Tom Siebel, now the CEO of C3 IoT, sat down with me for the at the Nasdaq Marketsite in Times Square to share some insight into what’s made him tick – and what’s helped him succeed. Here are some bits to chew on:

Never Say Die 

Tom Siebel had been on a walking safari with his wife and daughters when an elephant attacked him; he says that during his recovery he had 19 reconstructive surgeries and relied on an electric wheelchair to get around. One of his legs was almost completely shattered. Throughout the process, he kept looking for a doctor who could help him to make real progress. 

"I would go visit physicians, and they would explain that they're going to have to remove my leg, and I'd say OK, you're fired." Finally he called the maker of the device that was holding his leg together, and asked what doctor in the world had the most experience installing it. It turned out, the two best were just up the road in San Francisco.  

A few years later, Siebel made a full recovery.  

The lesson here is not so much in what to do if you're trampled by an elephant. (That's probably not going to happen to most of us.) It's in what to do if someone tells you that your goal is impossible: If that goal is important enough, don't just get a second opinion, get expert insight. 

Work for Someone and Learn 

Where did Tom Siebel learn to run a business? From working at Oracle. Where did the leaders at Oracle learn? Trial and error. I asked whether he thinks that's ideal. Actually, no, he says.  

“I think it might be a good idea to go work for another company first and learn about sales, learn about marketing, learn about accounting, learn about compliance, learn about human capital practices," Siebel says. "Maybe learn a little patience, get a little humility.” 

We tend to focus on the exceptions to the rules, people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. But many of the rest of us would be wise to spend a bit more time learning about business before trying to run one. 

Your Spark Doesn’t Need Approval 

After working for Oracle from its early days until it reached about $1 billion in sales, Siebel had an idea: Rather than just focus on databases, he wanted to build an application – a program that would help businesses keep track of their best sales prospects and close deals faster. He took the concept to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who said no. Was Siebel crushed? Discouraged? 

“I was satisfied that it was a good idea, I was satisfied that there was a market there. It was just not a market that Larry Ellison was interested in pursuing at that time," Siebel says. "And I mean, Larry is a very, very bright guy. His successes speak for themselves. But he didn’t have an interest. He didn’t see the market. I did. And I just decided to go for it.” 

Go for it, he did. Siebel Systems became a force in enterprise software, so much that Ellison tried to build his own version to beat it. Ellison eventually decided to buy Siebel out for $5.8 billion instead, with Tom Siebel's blessing. 

No matter how smart your friends – or bosses – are, they can’t make the big career decisions for you. Listen to their advice, and weigh it against what you’ve learned. If you believe you’ve got what it takes, go for it.

28: Married to the Game: Kevin Busque, TaskRabbit co-founder, Guideline CEO

Kevin Busque supported his wife Leah's vision for TaskRabbit, then got out of the way. Now he's launched a startup of his own.

Kevin Busque supported his wife Leah's vision for TaskRabbit, then got out of the way. Now he's launched a startup of his own.

By Deborah Findling, with Jon Fortt

You've probably heard of TaskRabbit – the online service lets you pay a contractor to run an errand, clean an apartment, put together an Ikea bookshelf – any number of odd jobs. Before there was Uber or Airbnb, TaskRabbit birthed the so-called "gig economy." 

You might not know that Kevin Busque co-founded TaskRabbit with his wife, Leah, who he is quick to admit was the brains behind the operation all along.  

In an unusual twist on the typical Silicon Valley story, Kevin and Leah were high school sweethearts, married right after college. They worked at the same company more than once, bootstrapped a business together, and eventually moved across the country to realize the Silicon Valley dream. Leah served as CEO of TaskRabbit for years, and is now executive chairman. Kevin recently launched a new venture, Guideline, a 401(k) platform.  

That unique background as entrepreneur, CEO spouse, and CEO gives Kevin a fresh perspective on how to make big ideas a reality. He shared that with the Fortt Knox podcast. Here are some highlights:

Provide Your Own Path 

Growing up in a military family, Kevin Busque felt the pressure of money being tight. He knew early on if he wanted anything extra, like a car, he had to do it on his own. 

“For me it was really about work ethic; I needed to provide my own path. That's why I started [my first] company – out of necessity,” he says. By building computers with the help of his father and his uncle, he made plenty of extra money. 

Kevin has been working in tech since high school. The first company he worked for, Iris Associates, led to a job at IBM.  

Get Up and Move 

IMG_3840.JPG

When it came time

for the married couple to move ... the logistics weren't easy, but the decision itself was. 

Before too long, Leah had a startup idea: Run My Errand. When it came time for the married couple to move from Boston to San Francisco, the logistics weren't easy, but the decision itself was. 

“For us, it was never about the outcome, it was always about the journey,” Kevin says. “That was the kicker really. Yeah, let’s go do this. If not now, when?” 

He credits their ambitious nature as part of what drove them to move. Once settled in Silicon Valley, Leah took her first investment from Dave McClure's Facebook Fund. Soon after, she met entrepreneur and investor Tim Ferriss, which led to connections with more investors. This became their funding path, a lifeline for a company trying to find its legs. 

Persistence Counts Double 

As a co-founder and behind-the-scenes player in TaskRabbit's path to growth, Kevin put his full trust in his wife, Leah. Before the company took its first outside investment round, he signed all his stock over to Leah. The vision was hers, anyway. She would be the CEO, and he would support her. 

“I think for us, you just realize that nobody knows your business better than you, even if they have better experience.” he says. “That’s what it takes to be successful in start-up. It’s about hard work.” 

As he supported TaskRabbit's growth as the company's chief technology officer, Kevin realized a lot of the young employees weren't taking the time to sign up for 401(k) retirement plans, perhaps because the process was too complicated. And that's what led him to start Guideline.

27: Solitary Genius Is Not Enough: Citrix CEO Kirill Tatarinov

Kirill Tatarinov got a deep technical education in the former Soviet Union, but realized he needed a new education in teamwork.

Kirill Tatarinov got a deep technical education in the former Soviet Union, but realized he needed a new education in teamwork.

Kirill Tatarinov grew up in the former Soviet Union, the son of a government computer architect. The family didn't swallow state propaganda: His grandfather once spent ten years in a soviet gulag.  

To achieve his dreams, young Kirill would have to get out and move to the other side of the world.  

Tatarinov is now the CEO of Citrix Systems, a tech company with tools that make it easier to share information and get work done from anywhere. His journey to this point – to leading a company with a $13-billion-dollar stock market valuation – includes stops in Israel and Australia, working for startups and for Microsoft.  

It also included a wake-up call about what it really takes to drive a company toward success. 

Genius Is No Substitute for Teamwork

The Soviet educational system focused on deep skills in math and science, but spent practically no time on teamwork.  

"I got my first real management, leadership job in an American company. I saw that I'm lacking the skills, and I saw this gap in my upbringing. And I realized that I urgently needed to fix it," Tatarinov recalls. He was in a company that needed a quick transformation but didn't know how to do it. Tatarinov had been brought on board to speed the process, but he found himself unsure how to bring others along. "After trying it for three or four months, I said, 'I need to learn something new.'"

Part of the answer was an executive MBA program where all the coursework was team projects. Coming out of that experience, Tatarinov found he was able to not only devise a strategy for change, but also communicate it to the team in a way that got them to buy into it and execute.

Marketing Matters

One of the smartest groups Tatarinov had ever worked with was at a networking company in Israel, called Fibronics. 

"It was amazing learning for me. I was a 26-year-old working in that engineering culture. These were all Phd-level programmers," he says. "What Fibronics built back then was without a doubt the best network management system on earth .... They did nothing to market it. As a result, it basically died seven years later."

The underlying message here was similar to what he would later learn about working with people: Quality ideas don't count for much if you can't communicate them. Doing that inside an organization looks like teamwork. Doing it outside looks like marketing. Often success requires both.

Get Broad Knowledge

Tatarinov warns against focusing too much on subject matter expertise to the exclusion of everything else. It's important to have technical skill, of course. But he would advise today's college students to spend years studying subjects like literature and history before diving deep into engineering.

"You really need to have the broad perspective. Because frankly, even if you go deep into one field, the breadth of knowledge and ability to grasp different disciplines and correlate them in your head is very important," Tatarinov says. "It's not just about correlating math with physics – of course, they're inseparable. It's about thinking through history's lessons."

That way you'll know which lines from Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky to quote to rally your team around the new strategy

26: Starting a Business and Keeping it Going: Dell CEO Michael Dell

Since Michael Dell launched his company 33 years ago, he's amassed a personal fortune that Forbes estimates at more than $20 billion.

Since Michael Dell launched his company 33 years ago, he's amassed a personal fortune that Forbes estimates at more than $20 billion.

Michael Dell founded his company 33 years ago, in his freshman dorm room at the University of Texas, Austin. He had $1,000 to buy PC parts, and took orders over the phone. 

After that, it ballooned like crazy – and made Dell Computer one of the fastest-growing companies ever. The stock price went on a dizzying tear throughout the 1990s, roughly doubling most years throughout the decade. It also made Michael Dell a multi-billionaire. 

Since then, the path hasn't been easy. The era of gonzo growth in personal computers and corporate servers – Dell's bread and butter – is over. Now attention has turned to smartphones and cloud computing.  

Sensing weakness, legendary investor Carl Icahn tried to buy out the company four years ago, which probably would have resulted in it breaking into pieces. Michael Dell fought him and won, taking his namesake company private, and then making it bigger than ever. 

I went to Round Rock, Texas to talk to Michael Dell just days before his Dell EMC World conference in Las Vegas. We talked about the product news for CNBC viewers, but we also talked about his journey for the Fortt Knox podcast – about almost losing a company he's spent nearly two thirds of his life building, and how he developed the skills he needed to become a legendary founder-CEO … and survivor. Here are just a few highlights:

Be Unique 

Dell recalls that he had a love for numbers growing up – and that led him to pursue different activities than a lot of his peers in Texas in the late 1970s. 

"I was in seventh grade math class, and we had this thing called Number Sense. So, I wasn't on the track team. Wasn't on the football team. Wasn't on the basketball team. I was in the Number Sense Club," Dell says. "So this math teacher got a Teletype terminal. So you'd write a program, Send it off to the big computer in the sky, and the answer would come back. I was pretty fascinated by that." 

At a time when society is encouraging kids to tackle all sorts of activities to pad their college applications, it's instructive: Sometimes it pays to be different, and focus on the talents and skills that are unique to you. Go deep.

Ideas Aren't Everything 

I asked Dell what he thinks tomorrow's Michael Dell is noodling with in his or her dorm room right now. I mean, he's probably not building PCs. In 1984, personal computers were cutting edge; in the mid-1990s it was websites and web portals. Is it artificial intelligence? Virtual reality? 

His response: It's not the what so much as the why

"You have to do stuff that you're actually incredibly passionate and excited about, and you know something about," Dell says. "The oppor-tuneurs don't do as well as the entrepreneurs." 

In other words, he believes his success was less about him building PCs in 1984, and more about him following his technology obsession. It recalls the advice Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson gave on Fortt Knox: Don't pursue a business venture just because it sounds like a sure-fire moneymaker. 

Study Up 

No matter how successful you are in the beginning, you've got to keep learning. Five years into his Dell Computer adventure, in 1989, Michael Dell flew to California to take business classes at Stanford. While he was there, he decided to put together his own advanced curriculum. 

"I called up a bunch of the CEOs of Silicon Valley companies, and said 'Hey, can I come and see you? And I'd like to learn about what you're doing.' And I don't know, most of them said yes," Dell says. "Irwin Federman, and Jimmy Treybig, and Andy Grove. ... You go see these guys, and you know, 'How do you manage a big company?' and they would talk to me. That was great. I was doing everything I could to learn and get help." 

25: How Alexandra Lebenthal Has Taken On Wall Street's Boys' Club

Alexandra Lebenthal has been connected to Wall Street all her life; her grandparents founded Lebenthal & Co. in 1925.

Alexandra Lebenthal has been connected to Wall Street all her life; her grandparents founded Lebenthal & Co. in 1925.

Alexandra Lebenthal is a third-generation Wall Street power broker. Her grandparents started Lebenthal & Co. 92 years ago, helping to redefine the municipal bond business.

Her company has seen better days — she's in the process of selling much of it to South Street Securities Holdings, though she'll maintain control of the corporate bond operation.

Through the years, Lebenthal has shown a determination to maintain the family business, and to blaze a path in the boys-club world of finance. I sat down with her for the Fortt Knox podcast to talk about growing up in New York's financial world, her view of gender imbalances in the corporate environment, and how she feels now that her college-age daughter has surprised her by deciding to follow in her footsteps.

Here are some of her insights:

Find your gym

Though she grew up watching her grandmother Sayra run the family business, Lebenthal says she realized she still needed confidence boosts. An all-girls school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the Nightingale-Bamford School, provided that environment in high school.

Lebenthal particularly remembers headmistress Joan McMenamin: "If she said it once, she said it every single day: 'Girls, you can do anything you set your mind to.' For anyone to hear that over and over, it does drill into you. … You always need to hear it, at every stage of your life. Even as you're a grown-up."

The universal lesson here: Even after we've heard the motivational speeches and seen success up close, we still need a tune-up now and then. Find the places and people that help you shore up your weaknesses and gain confidence in your strengths.

Never hear no

When Lebenthal decided to rebuild her business 10 years ago after selling control, Merrill Lynch, which had acquired the family name, at first refused to sell it back to her. She didn't give up.

"That is one of the things I have learned in life, is, never hear no. Just think of it as a placeholder until you figure out how to get to yes."

How many times did she hear no in that case before she figured it out? "I got four, and one of them was from Stan O'Neal [the CEO at the time]."

She also remembers a time in the 1970s when her father faced a crisis that nearly sank the business. Things worked out in the 11th hour. "As an entrepreneur, you're always going to have moments of great challenges. And the trick is keeping yourself together and getting through them."

Stand out

Lebenthal never has been much of a wallflower, and that's reflected in her fashion choices. Don't expect to see her in a boxy, black power suit.

"Believe it or not, I actually embrace being in a room where I'm the only or one of few women, because I think, 'Hey, here's my opportunity. I don't look like everyone else. I don't dress like everyone else. So let me be in as bright colors and big jewelry as possible, and just figure out, OK, how can I make this ultimately be something beneficial for me in business.'"

It's a lesson in taking the trait that otherwise could be a disadvantage and finding a way to make it work for you.

24: Be Sure the Sleeves Match the Cuffs: Ford CEO Mark Fields

Ford CEO Mark Fields had to compete with two older brothers growing up, which forced him to aim high.

Ford CEO Mark Fields had to compete with two older brothers growing up, which forced him to aim high.

For Ford Motor Company CEO Mark Fields, the love of cars started early; he still remembers the set of Matchbox cars his dad bought him for his 6th birthday.  

Of course, love of cars alone wasn't going to get him to the helm of the second-largest U.S. automaker, and a brand that's been around for more than a century. That would take a mix of competitive spirit, adaptability, and a knack for getting teams to focus quickly. 

Mark Fields leads a company that last year sold more than 6.6 million cars, bringing in more than $141 billion from vehicle sales. In the era of Uber and Tesla that's getting harder by the day. 

I talked to Fields for Fortt Knox about his leadership philosophy, his motivation, and how he made it to the top. Here are a few highlights: 

Run to the Fire 

Fields was CEO of Ford's Mazda subsidiary in his late 30s, a stunningly fast ascent. How had he risen so quickly? He chalks it up to his eagerness to find tough problems and volunteer to solve them.  

"I've always had the philosophy, always run to the fire," he says. "Run to those really challenging situations or businesses that you can learn a lot, but also contribute a lot." 

Pull this off this a few times, and you're likely to get a reputation for making the bosses look good. When you've done that on high-profile projects, that's often a ticket to a promotion.  

Punch Above Your Weight 

I was curious about Fields's motivation. How had he developed his drive to succeed? 

"I'm the youngest of three boys," Fields says. "So listen, if you weren't fast at the kitchen table, or in sports, because you know, you get knocked around – that was part of it." 

Birth order isn't destiny. But for someone looking to fuel his ambition, it's one of many things he could draw on.  

Be Sure the Sleeves Match the Cuffs 

Several times in his career, Fields needed to quickly get a new team working toward a common goal. He has an interesting method for getting people to trust him when they barely know him: He'll take a half day and do a session on who he is and what he values. 

"So from the get-go, people can say, 'Oh, OK, I kind of get the gist of this guy. And so once you get that out of the way, then you can get on with the work. And then importantly, I have to live up to what I talked about in terms of my leadership. Because if the sleeves don't match the cuffs, people just think you're trying to manipulate them." 

It's a tailoring metaphor that works: If the sleeves don't match the cuffs, you've getting ripped off. Effective long-term leadership has to be authentic, too. 

23: He's Not in Kansas Anymore: How FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's Roots Will Influence Internet Policy

Ajit Pai is the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, elevated by President Trump. 

Ajit Pai is the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, elevated by President Trump. 

Ajit Pai doesn't come across as the sort of guy who'd be crossing swords with Silicon Valley. 

Question him about controversial topics and his answers come quickly, but always tempered by a Midwestern sincerity. Among the current crop of communication industry regulators, he was the first on Twitter. 

But yes, Pai is a controversial figure in the tech world. President Trump appointed him chairman of the regulatory body, and one of his first moves was to roll back regulations that would have prevented broadband providers from using your Internet browsing history to sell you advertising. I asked him about that – and more – for Fortt Knox. 

Here's some of what he told me: 

It Goes Back to Kansas 

Pai is the son of two doctors, and recalls growing up in rural Kansas, where his dad sometimes would have to drive more than an hour to see patients. He says that aspect of his background – being disconnected from big-city and suburban conveniences – influences the way he looks at his role shaping policy. 

"It's the fundamental driver of the policies that I'm trying to promote at the FCC, because I've seen for myself in my own childhood and as a commissioner having traveled around the country from Alaska to Mississippi, that there are some big gaps in America in terms of connectivity," he says.  

The first policy priority he lists on his FCC bio is the expansion of broadband, including to rural areas. That might even help doctors to see more patients digitally when they don't specifically need a house call. 

Same Rules for Everyone 

The way many of the headlines about Internet privacy rules are written, Pai's stance on letting Internet service providers market your usage data doesn't make sense. Why would you want to let Comcast (the parent company of CNBC's Fortt Knox) or AT&T, or Verizon, etc. sell that information? Pai argues that's not the point. Companies like Google and Facebook already have access to tons of information on us, Pai argues. Unless we set a level playing field, we let them off the hook. 

"We just want every company that is handling consumers' data to handle it in the same way. I think that's something that would give consumers a much better sense of confidence when they go online," Pai says. 

In other words, if you're outraged about Comcast selling your browsing habits, you should be just as outraged about Silicon Valley doing it. First level the playing field, then make rules that apply to everyone. He has a lot of skeptics to win over, especially in the tech world. 

A Light Touch 

Like many Republican public servants in government, Pai argues for a light touch when it comes to interpreting the law. (You'll see similar language coming out of new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.) That sets up an interesting contradiction when it comes to tech issues. 

Silicon Valley loves to smash regulations when it benefits their innovation argument. Look at Uber and Airbnb trying to smash taxi and hotel regulations, for example. When the shoe is on the other foot, though, Silicon Valley leaders tend to love regulations like Net Neutrality, which they argue keeps broadband providers from stifling innovation. 

That's why some in the tech industry are skeptical of Pai, who argues for a light touch in some places where they want a heavier hand. 

"I view my role as being a rather boring, frankly, and humble one," Pai says, "which is to take a look at the papers that are in front of me, and analyze the facts soberly, and make an informed decision based on the law and the precedents." 

In a time when the rules in technology and content are shifting at an unprecedented pace, we'll have to see what that really means.

22: A Founder-CEO's Secret to Success: First Get Started, Then Get Smarter: Twilio's Jeff Lawson

Twilio co-founder and CEO Jeff Lawson learned that you get more done by tackling big problems and doggedly improving as you go.  

Twilio co-founder and CEO Jeff Lawson learned that you get more done by tackling big problems and doggedly improving as you go.

 

Among the many business lessons Jeff Lawson has learned, there's this: Don't expect to get things done if you wait until you're perfectly prepared. 

Lawson is co-founder and CEO of Twilio, a company that makes it easy for apps to contact you. (Ever wonder how you can send a text to your Uber driver in the app, or get one in OpenTable when your seat is ready? Twilio does that.) 

Twilio went public last summer at the New York Stock Exchange, and is now worth about $2.5 billion. As it pushes to make apps communicate better, the scrappy San Francisco company has developed a culture that favors boldness and taking initiative, and frowns on perfectionism.  

I caught up with Twilio's CEO at a tech conference in Barcelona, Spain to talk about his journey from curious kid in the Detroit suburbs to CEO of a public tech company. Among the things I love about Lawson's story? It's about the setbacks as much as the successes, and learning along the way. 

Here's some of what I gathered: 

Ask for the Keys 

Lawson likes to tell a story about his grandfather, who worked in a factory and needed to earn more money. 

"He went to the owner and he said, 'I need to make more money, how do I do that.' The guy said 'I don’t have any other jobs. The only job I have is driving the truck. Do you know how to drive the truck?' My grandfather's answer was, 'Give me the keys.'" 

What his grandfather didn't mention was that he'd never driven a truck before in his life. But he got the job, figured it out, made more money. 

Chalk it up to genetics or coincidence, but in middle school Lawson started a company shooting video footage of weddings, and he used the proceeds to buy more sophisticated equipment. 

"The best way to learn something new," he says, "is to commit yourself to doing it." 

You've Got to Love It 

There were some false starts. In college during the dotcom boom, Lawson learned software development and started a company that sold for millions of dollars … in stock. He thought he'd made it big, but when the bubble popped, his windfall vanished.  

Later, he got the opportunity to be founding chief technology officer of StubHub, a ticket sales company that would later sell to eBay for $310 million. But Lawson didn't stick around for the payoff.  

"It was a fine business, but I wasn't the customer and I didn't feel passionately that the world needed the product we were building." He wasn't a concert goer, so he didn't feel inspired to keep working on it. "As an entrepreneur, I think you need that." 

Hindsight being what it is, it's easy to fault Lawson for missing his share of a nine-figure payday. But remember, he's got a share of a 10-figure payday in Twilio. 

Knowledge and Reputation 

So how did Lawson do it? How did he rebound from a missed nine-figure payday cleanly enough to do himself one better? First he made another valuable mistake or two, which you’ll learn about listening to the podcast. More important though, he was able to focus on the two most important assets he was building in each of these experiences. 

"The best thing that we have as we go through our careers is our knowledge and our word – our reputation," Lawson says. "If you're constantly building those two things, I think generally speaking, good things end up happening to people."

21: Innovation From Spotting Details and Asking Questions: Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell

Bracken Darrell launched products like deodorant and washing machines before leading one of tech's hidden turnaround stories.

Bracken Darrell launched products like deodorant and washing machines before leading one of tech's hidden turnaround stories.

Not many executives can say they've studied the finer points of everything from deodorant and washing machines, to Bluetooth speakers and gaming keyboards. 

Bracken Darrell can. Darrell is CEO of Logitech, a company that once specialized in mainstream PC mice and keyboards. One of the remarkable things about him is his appetite for learning. His curiosity has led him from a modest upbringing in Western Kentucky, to leading one of the smartphone era's most remarkable turnaround stories. 

I sat down with Darrell for the Fortt Knox podcast to find out how his upbringing shaped him, and how his curiosity helped him find his way to the C-suite. Logitech's stock has quadrupled since he took over four years ago; the company's now worth $5.5 billion. 

Start from the Bottom 

Darrell's parents split up when he was a preteen. He grew up in Owensboro, Ky., one of four siblings raised by a single mother. As a result, he never had to look far for motivation. 

"I had it easy. I didn't have a choice. I had to make it," Darrell says. "We literally would wear the same jeans all the time. Like a lot of people – I'm not a Horatio Alger story, I mean, we had plenty to eat. But we didn't have any money. It didn't make me particularly money-conscious, but I certainly did always envy the opportunities that I thought were available to people who had money that I didn't. It's really ironic, because now that I look back on it, it's the biggest advantage I ever had." 

It's a lesson that applies no matter what your circumstances are in the beginning. If you understand what it means to make do with less, it can help you stay focused and resist a sense of entitlement.  

See the Whole Room 

Darrell turns to literature and the arts to help him think about things in new ways. One book, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, shifted the way he looks at solving problems. A conversation with leading brain researcher Henry Markram helped illustrate just how much information we miss every day. 

"He said when you walk into a room when you're a little, tiny child, you soak in the whole room. You see it all. When you walk into the room as an adult, you see this sliver in the corner, and you build the room in your brain. You actually don't even see it," Darrell says. "That made a big mark on me. Think how many mistakes we make in our roles because our brain's building based on pattern recognition, and we're not seeing or thinking anymore, objectively." 

The rub, here: From a primitive perspective, it makes perfect sense. If you're walking through the savanna, you don't need to notice every blade of grass, but you need to see the lion that wasn't there before. 

But business is different, Darrell says. We need to force ourselves to look at ordinary things in extraordinary ways if we want to win.  

Sniff Out Genius 

Problem-solvers also need to get smart about odd topics in short order. One of the best ways Darrell has found to do that? Find the smartest people in your organization and pick their brains. It might sound obvious, but people are often intimidated by the engineers and scientists who might hold the key to figuring out a business problem. They're not always invited to the meetings where decisions get made. 

Darrell saw the benefits to this up close while working for Procter & Gamble. He was working on the Old Spice deodorant product, trying to reinvent the brand and turn it around. He sat down with a chemist and told him he wanted a simple, visible way to show their product was better and lasted longer. 

"He said, 'We have propylene glycol in this.' And propylene glycol evaporates less fast, and that's one of the reasons why this product is better – not the only reason, but it's one of the reasons why it lasts longer," Darrell says. The result was a commercial for high endurance deodorant that showed a time lapse video of the competitor's product evaporating faster than a swipe of Old Spice. 

"Those were the most boring commercials in the world," Darrell says now, "and I'm responsible for them." (I'm not so sure about the boring part. More than 20 years later, this Gen Xer still remembers them.)

20: She Didn't Take No For An Answer: This Exec Cracked Silicon Valley and D.C.; Color CMO Katie Jacobs Stanton

Katie Jacobs Stanton ran Twitter's international business and launched Google Finance; now she's helping to lead a genetics startup.

Katie Jacobs Stanton ran Twitter's international business and launched Google Finance; now she's helping to lead a genetics startup.

Katie Jacobs Stanton knows how to create her own options. 

Stanton, a veteran of Twitter, Google, Yahoo, and a presidential administration, now serves as chief marketing officer of genetic testing startup Color Genomics. Her professional journey from East Coast to West, and back and forth again, has given her rare insight into the workplace cultures that shape us today. 

I sat down with her for the Fortt Knox podcast to talk about the environment for women in tech, and her journey to the executive ranks in Silicon Valley. Here are some key lessons I pulled from our conversation: 

Outsmart the Culture 

Stanton's timing was great, joining Google in 2003 after a stint at Yahoo and a maternity leave. But she encountered some obstacles right out of the gate. 

"When I was at Yahoo, I was hired as a product manager for Yahoo Finance, and helped build the site and build it internationally. And so when I came to Google, naturally I thought, 'I can be a product manager here.' And Google said 'No, I'm sorry, you don't have a computer science background.' And I was like, but I just helped build this great product on the web, and I've been there for three years, and I was promoted." 

The leadership structure at Google was unmoved. No computer science background, no product management. 

But that didn't stop Stanton. She found some engineers who would work with her, and brought Google Finance to market. Along the way, she gained a reputation as a person who could ship new ideas.  

Move Around 

Stanton is from New York, went to college in Tennessee, ditched the East Coast for Silicon Valley in her 20s, and did a stint as director of citizen participation in the Obama administration and as a technology advisor in the State Department before heading back to California. International travel has helped broaden her horizons; she was serving as vice president of Twitter's international business when the company went public. That now influences what Stanton looks for when she's hiring. 

"I look for people with international experience, something I believe strongly in. People who speak foreign languages, I think, have always stood out to me." Stanton says she looks for those qualities even in roles that don't require it. "I think it just brings a different lens and a different empathy, a different perspective to things." 

As someone who hadn't traveled internationally when I started my career, I couldn't help but notice that in some ways, Stanton's preference for well-traveled people could be as limiting as Google's preference for coders as product managers. The key, it seems, is to show you can deliver what the job requires even if your résumé isn't the obvious fit. 

Find Role Models 

Stanton was fortunate enough to work for a string of female bosses during her six-year run at Google, an experience that's pretty rare in Silicon Valley's tech scene. She says having women in leadership positions will also be important to the next generation. 

"You can't be what you can't see. I think for a lot of girls, not seeing other female professors of computer science, other leaders in business" can be a barrier. "We still have a lot of work to do for women in leadership positions." 

She's certainly doing her part.

19: How To Make Your Second Act An Empire: WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell

WPP CEO Martin Sorrell started building his company at age 40, after serving as CFO for Saatchi & Saatchi. He's still going strong at 72.

WPP CEO Martin Sorrell started building his company at age 40, after serving as CFO for Saatchi & Saatchi. He's still going strong at 72.

Sir Martin Sorrell is arguably the most important advertising executive in the world.

As CEO of WPP Group, he oversees a global marketing machine that he's assembled over more than 30 years. His group companies include J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam, and more than 100 others. Clients include two of every three Fortune Global 500 companies.  

When I sat down with him for the Fortt Knox podcast, I wanted to talk about his childhood, his career, and the pivotal choices he made. He didn't disappoint.  

Here are some of the best lessons: 

It's Never Too Late 

Sorrell was chief financial officer at upstart ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi when he decided to quit and build his own company. He was 40 years old. In an era when Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Spiegel and the Google founders are starting companies in their teens and early 20s, that might sound like a late start, but Sorrell doesn't see it that way.  

"I thought it would be good to have a go. I'd made a little bit of money, and borrowed 250 thousand pounds," he says. "Forty in those days used to be a pretty critical age. Because you think of yourself starting work when you're about 20, you come out of college, and finishing when you're 60. Now, of course, here I am at 72 still going." 

Then again, Sorrell doesn't seem to obey the calendar like most people. Today he's the father of an infant daughter, his fourth child.  

Grow a Thick Skin 

Sorrell's tactics building WPP have not always been genteel. As he aggressively built out his holding company, he sometimes employed hostile takeovers. At the beginning of one such campaign, when he targeted Ogilvy & Mather, founder David Ogilvy famously referred to Sorrell as an "odious little s--t." (In the press, the comment was sanitized to "odious little jerk," and Sorrell seized upon it as a point of pride.) 

Sorrell later won Ogilvy over. I asked him where he learned to shrug off the attacks that have come with the job.  

"It gets into fairly tender stuff. When you're from the northwest London ghetto – I use the ghetto loosely, because it wasn't really a ghetto – Golders Green, Edgware, Mill Hill – you probably develop a pretty thick skin. People say things at school," when you're one of the few Jewish kids, he says. "In those days there was a fair bit of invective, and it's water off a duck's back. What I had to go through was nothing near what my parents had to go through, or my grandparents had to go through." 

No one should have to suffer bigoted put-downs, but a young Martin Sorrell was able to build up a degree of immunity to it. It clearly helped him in business later. 

Hunt Buried Treasure 

When Sorrell targeted ad agency J. Walter Thompson for takeover, one of the things he had his eye on was freehold property – land and buildings that the target owned outright. From his days as a chief financial officer, he had learned that this often could amount to buried treasure. Companies weren't required to re-value such real estate holdings as their value rose. To make a long story short – even though WPP paid a pretty penny for JWT, Sorrell quickly discovered hidden real estate holdings that effectively paid him back a huge portion of the sticker price. 

The universal lesson here for your career makeover? Sometimes finding buried treasure is just a matter of knowing where to look. Fortunately, Sorrell's previous job had armed him with that knowledge.

18: Tom Steyer: A Billionaire's Surprising Rules of Winning

Billionaire investor Tom Steyer talked about his career and his activism when we sat down at the New York Stock Exchange.

Billionaire investor Tom Steyer talked about his career and his activism when we sat down at the New York Stock Exchange.

Tom Steyer became a billionaire by solving puzzles.  

That wasn't his technical job description – he actually founded Farallon Capital, a hedge fund in San Francisco, 30 years ago. As an investor, two signature moves stand out: One, he got his alma mater, Yale, to invest a portion of its endowment with him; the success of that arrangement sparked a trend. Two, he often made his own luck by investing deeply in countries and industries.   

As Steyer scouted unusual investments in unexpected places, he followed some basic rules. Now that Steyer has set his sights on politics and policy – he's rumored to be considering a run for California governor – I sat down with him for Fortt Knox. He gave me some of his best insights on how to succeed, and why he's fighting the new administration in Washington, D.C. 

No Lopsided Deals 

Steyer has a different take on dealmaking than fellow billionaire President Trump does. In his experience, building an investment giant from scratch, it's important not to push your advantage too far. 

"I don't want to take advantage of you. I really don't. Because you're smart. And so if we do something together and I get 80% of the value and you get 20%, why would you ever deal with me again? What I want to do, is do 25 things together where we each go 50-50, and we don't have to fight each other. We each spend all of our time trying to make the whole pie as big as possible, and no time fighting about how to slice it up." 

I point out that Mr. Trump seems to have done just fine treating people the way he does; Steyer's response is thought-provoking. 

Execution Beats Planning 

These days, the culture tells us we're supposed to have a long-term plan for everything. Steyer's experience gives another point of view. Rather than always trying to devise the perfect roadmap for life, which is bound to change anyway, we should focus on getting the most out of the opportunity in front of us. 

"I went to Yale College. Why did I go? Not sure. … I went because I thought it was a good school, and what that meant, I'm not sure I knew. Because it was sort of famous. And so I thought, I'll go to a school that has a reputation for being a great school. And I don’t think it was that much more complicated," Steyer says. "I wished I'd gotten recruited to play sports. And I played sports all through college. I was the captain of the Yale soccer team. But I walked on to the Yale soccer team. And you know, I thought – I love sports. I'm playing sports because this is super, super fun, and I love doing this." 

Strategy is still important. But the biggest wins often come in un-plannable moments. 

Curiosity Rules 

At a certain point – after tens of millions of dollars in earnings, one imagines – Steyer's wife pointed out that he didn't have to keep working. Their family goal, he says, was to sock away enough to have a house, pay for healthcare, and fund retirement. Anything you do from here on out, she said, you should do because you love it. Steyer agreed – and he kept investing. Why? 

"I love puzzles. I love figuring things out. I'm someone who really is interested in how companies work, and how industries work, and figuring out – that's the biggest puzzle in the world! How do you think about a Saab dealership in South Africa," he says. 

Curiosity is a prized attribute in an investor, but it applies to other fields, too. It not only helps to keep the work interesting, but also pushes us beyond what's been done before.

17: Michael Phelps: The Toughest Battle Isn't Mastering the Job, But Your Head

Michael Phelps is going from the water to the board room, and bringing some lessons on how to perform under pressure.

Michael Phelps is going from the water to the board room, and bringing some lessons on how to perform under pressure.

We love to have these debates about who's the greatest of all time in any given sport; maybe it's because you don't even have to be an expert to get in on them. All you need to know is the yardstick for success. Serena Williams or Steffi Graf? Tom Brady or Joe Montana? 

That's what makes Michael Phelps special. There's no debate. He's the greatest swimmer and most decorated Olympian of all time. He won 28 medals over four different Olympic Games, 23 of them gold.  

The question is, how? Well, Michael Phelps is not a fish. Doctors have shot down the notion that his abnormal wingspan and flexible joints give him an outsized advantage.  

It turns out, Phelps worked hard on his craft. He also does a few mental exercises that the rest of us would do well to emulate. I sat down with him for the Fortt Knox podcast to get some of his best insights. Here's a sampling:

Watch your language 

Visualization was an important part of Phelps's training; he would literally picture himself doing races the way he wanted. That, combined with a grueling training regimen that saw him spending hours in the pool seven days a week, allowed him to fine-tune his technique even on dry land. A less-discussed aspect of his mental approach: His coach had him use language to shape his ambition.

"One of the craziest things my coach tried to get me, when we first started to train together, not to say the word 'can't.' So that I could broaden my mind and believe that I could do whatever I wanted to. And I think that was a key of us being so successful."

Phelps is applying similar goal-setting techniques into his post-swimming business career, which includes both endorsement deals and his own MP swim brand. Whether it's running through a sales pitch in your head or avoiding negative conversations and language, others can adopt similar tactics.

Convert Trash to Fuel 

Some athletes are masters of trash-talk: getting inside an opponent's head with an insult or boast. (See: Muhammad Ali.) Phelps was not. 

"I'm staying in my lane. I'm doing what I have to do – what I want to do – to be able to try to be the best," he says. "For me, at the end of the day, when I was training, it was like, as long as I figured out what I needed to do in order to accomplish my goals and dreams, that's all that mattered. Nothing else mattered. Everything else would just play out. I can't control what other people do. So for me, I was always worried about myself, and what I needed to do. And it worked." 

He did, however, love it when his opponents talked trash. It riled him up and motivated him to perform at his best. Combined with his visualization and focused language, this seems to have a profound effect: He enhanced the effectiveness of his positive effort by replaying it in his head, and reduced the potential impact of fear by limiting the language that triggered it. On top of all that, he developed the skill of turning nay-sayers into cheerleaders. That made him really hard to throw off his game once he dove into the water.

Bounce Back 

Once the competition was over? That's another story. Phelps had well-documented struggles with discipline outside of the pool, including a couple of DUIs and a photo of him with a bong. He's now able to reflect on the depths of the depression that led him to those moments, and the focus that helped him to climb out. After more than a decade of mastering the mind of Phelps the swimmer, he finally began to consider the mentality of Phelps the man.

"I’ll be the first one to admit a mistake when it’s made. It’s the only way you’re able to move on and learn from that mistake. By no means has my life been absolutely perfect," he says. "I think I’ve seen the darkest of the dark, and there are days when I didn’t want to be here. But being able to come out of the other side, and just to work and learn things about me that I never knew or I didn’t want to know at that point, I think it changed my life." 

16: Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs Recruited Her. Here's Sue Decker's Best Advice

Sue Decker was president at Yahoo, and has served on the boards of Intel, Pixar, and now Berkshire Hathaway and Costco.

Sue Decker was president at Yahoo, and has served on the boards of Intel, Pixar, and now Berkshire Hathaway and Costco.

More than a decade ago, Steve Jobs asked Sue Decker to be the chief financial officer at Pixar. She said no. 

Decker did, however, accept his offer to join Pixar's board of directors.  

At the time, Decker ran finance at Yahoo. The decline of Yahoo has become the stuff of Silicon Valley legend; today the company is in the process of getting absorbed into Verizon, at a fraction of its former value. Decker, on the other hand, has done just fine in the eight years since she left the Internet company. 

Case in point, she's one of the few people that some of the top U.S. companies seek for guidance. Beyond Pixar, she has also served on the boards of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, chip giant Intel, retail powerhouse Costco, and others. On her path to those board rooms, Decker has gained a rare perspective on what works – and what doesn't – when you're trying to work your way to the top. 

That's why I wanted to sit down with Decker for the Fortt Knox podcast. We discuss the lessons she's learned, and why she decided to start her own company, Raftr, instead of taking the CEO seat at an established business. Subscribe or listen to the stream above to get the full picture, but here are some highlights: 

You're Like A Stock. Invest.

This is especially important for young people, but it applies to everyone: It often takes a decade or more to become really good at a handful of things. During that time period, it's especially valuable to focus on understanding your strengths and finding the learning opportunities that will enhance them.  

"It's not unlike an investment. You think about what your outlay is now, but your return on it may happen in five to 10 years. Most companies in the S&P might trade for 16 times earnings, it's how fast those earning grow in the out years that are going to determine really what the value of it is today," Decker says. "Think about ways to create options for yourself, to develop your skills. In your 20s and 30s is when you become really excellent at something. How much it pays for the first job is irrelevant to the long-term value you're going to create." 

Focus on What You Want to Learn

Decker turned down Jobs's offer to be Pixar CFO, but took a seat on the board. Why? Because it was going to teach her things that would help in her day job running Yahoo's finances.  

"Yahoo, in my mind, was the marriage of content and distribution online. And I thought if I went to a pure content company and learned how they did their business the best, and a pure distribution company in the case of Costco, I would learn a lot from both cases that would help me." 

You might not be invited to sit on the board of a multi-billion-dollar corporation anytime soon. But it's a good idea to choose outside activities that give you deeper knowledge into the problems you're trying to solve. 

Start Something

Decker also developed a remarkable insight while spending time with Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett: Companies often work best when they reflect a founder's core strengths. Jobs had the mind of a craftsman, paying attention to artistic detail. Buffett knows how to put money to work and produce growth. 

"Pixar, it took them four years to make one movie. They were absolutely legendary about, if the movie wasn't going the way they thought it should go, they would go back and rewrite. And Ratatouille had a lot of that when I was there. They weren't going to release it until it was perfect," she says. "At Berkshire I would say, the one thing they do exceptionally well that overwhelms everything else is allocate capital." 

That's why she decided to start her own topic-based social media company – Raftr – rather than take a CEO job. With her background in digital content, it'll be fascinating to see what it becomes.

15: Clothes Made in the U.S.A: American Giant's Founder On How He Beats the Odds

Bayard Winthrop shipped American Giant's first hoodie five years ago. The company makes clothes in the U.S., from domestic cotton.

Bayard Winthrop shipped American Giant's first hoodie five years ago. The company makes clothes in the U.S., from domestic cotton.

Bayard Winthrop is the latest guest on the Fortt Knox Podcast: rich ideas, powerful people. iPhone and iTunes, subscribe hereGoogle Play, subscribe here.

Bayard Winthrop got his inspiration from Silicon Valley. If we could put a touch-screen computer in the palm of everyone's hand, why couldn't we actually make the next great American clothing brand … in America? 

So five years ago, Winthrop shipped his first American Giant sweatshirt, made in the U.S.A. from domestic cotton. Now he's producing thousands of shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, and sweatpants for men and women every month. And it's not all lounge gear: he's just introduced the brand's first dress.   

It's Presidents' Day in the U.S., and there's lots of talk about bringing manufacturing jobs back to America these days. American Giant is actually doing it, and doing it the hard way. The company owns its factories in North Carolina where Winthrop says he employs hundreds of workers sewing clothes.

Winthrop has a distance to go to achieve his goal of becoming an iconic American brand, but he seems to have touched a nerve at this unique cultural moment. Here are some lessons from how he's built American Giant into a contender:  

People, Not Robots 

Before he founded American Giant, Winthrop ran other companies that used offshore labor. He knew that to make this brand work, he would have to deliver a different level of quality. To keep product quality on the path where he wants it, over the past year and a half Winthrop has changed the way his workers make clothes. Rather than do things assembly-line style, with one person specializing in a narrow piece of a garment – say, the sleeve – he is moving to a "team sew" model where each worker is more broadly responsible for product quality. 

"Our perspective is, it is all good. It means that an operator can make more money because they have control over their own throughput," he says. "One of the best parts for me, just personally, is being able to walk into a factory in Middlesex, N.C. and talk to men and women that have jobs now, that are working. … To be able to talk to women that have been sewing for 30 years, and walk me through changes to a sweatshirt that are going to make it better because of the knowledge that she has."  

The aha moment for me came when Winthrop explained that he got better-quality clothes more efficiently when people acted more like old-fashioned craftsmen, and less like robots. A robot might be pretty good at laying down the same stich over and over again to sew on a sleeve. But it's not so good at making sure each garment is put together exactly the way it should be in every proportion, and at figuring out ways to do it better. 

A New Kind of Retail

Winthrop knew that if he was going to make clothes in America, he would have to approach the business differently. Worker salaries would cost more, so he would have to save money by doing away with splashy marketing. 

"There's a really fundamental shift going on in the marketplace, driven by consumers – there's this increasing awareness among consumers, and a desire to support brands that have values that they share, that reflect their own values," he says. If you can tap into that, "you're less reliant on massive marketing budgets, huge store rollouts." 

Know How to Leave 

Winthrop learned plenty along the way about management – of the business, and of himself. One key lesson was how to leave one job to start another.  

"The guy who got me the job at the bank – my first summer job – he gave me two pieces of advice that I've kept with me my whole life," Winthrop says.  

The first? Winthrop's first boss was a former Marine, tough guy. The first thing his boss would say to him every day was, "Hey: Go get me a coffee and a bagel." Eventually, the routine bothered Winthrop so much that he complained to his mentor about it. "Make it the best cup of coffee he's ever had," was his mentor's advice.  

The second? "When I decided to leave, he said to me, 'Good endings, good beginnings.'" 

Whether you're quitting to start the next great American brand, or just getting a promotion to another department, it's sound advice.

14: How to Future-Proof Your Brand: Gene Simmons of KISS

Gene Simmons started KISS in 1973 with Paul Stanley. It's arguably the hottest band brand ever: and they're not done.

Gene Simmons started KISS in 1973 with Paul Stanley. It's arguably the hottest band brand ever: and they're not done.

Gene Simmons is the most outrageous member of one of the most outrageous bands of all time: KISS. 

There's a lot more to KISS than shock. It's the number-one gold-record-earning group of all time, at 30, when you include the four solo albums that band members released on the same day in 1978. Fourteen albums went platinum. 

This is a band that's known for its hits: "I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day" seems like it's a phrase as old as rock itself. The band is known just as much for its look. There's the black and white face paint, the pyrotechnics, and a few details that are signature Gene Simmons. There's the blood-spitting, the axe guitar, and of course the tongue so long it's almost a fifth band member. And guess what: They're still touring.  

I sat down with Gene Simmons at the Studio Hotel in New York for the Fortt Knox podcast, to talk business and marketing. Simmons is a guy who not only managed to launch an iconic brand in his early 20s, he and cofounder Paul Stanley remade it several times along the way with different band members, different looks, and a voracious appetite for merchandising.  

Simmons also managed to become a brand on his own.  

He has had more than one turn on reality TV. He was on the Celebrity Apprentice with now-president Donald Trump – we talk about that, of course – and he had his own show, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, that features wife Shannon Tweed and kids Nick and Sophie. 

Here's a sampling of some of the wisdom he shares – in typically colorful fashion – in the podcast: 

Stand Out 

It's not exactly a shocker that a guy like Simmons doesn't recommend blending in; but Simmons has very strategic reasons for spectacle. He traces the lesson back to trying to sell fruit on the side of the road in his native Israel. 

"The bigger of a nuisance and the bigger of a spectacle I made of myself, the more we sold. That's the first lesson of mother nature and in show business," he says. "You have to grab life by the scruff of the neck and demand to pay you some attention." 

In your workplace, that probably doesn't mean carrying an ax guitar and spitting blood. It probably does mean zeroing in on which of your skills benefit the organization most, and making sure they get noticed. 

Own Your Persona

Simmons is very specific about this: When he appears on stage as "The Demon" it's not a character, it's a persona. The difference is, he's not pretending to be something else as much as he's giving free rein to one aspect of his personality. 

"If I put on the red lipstick and the star over my eye, I wouldn't be convincing," Simmons says, contrasting his persona with Paul Stanley's. 

Lest we think personas don't have power, remember Steve Jobs, and think of Mark Zuckerberg. Jobs began wearing a black mock turtleneck and jeans later in life as a sort of uniform – or superhero suit. Mark Zuckerberg used to wear jeans and a hoodie or fleece; now he's most often seen in a gray t-shirt. Jobs's persona communicated attention to design and simplicity. Zuckerberg's communicates a connection to the programmers who try to keep the company relevant. 

Sometimes You've Gotta Take It Off

For more than a decade – from 1983 until 1996 — KISS took the makeup off. The band's popularity had been on a downward spiral. Aside from Paul and Gene, the band members weren't getting along.  

"We decided, there's nowhere else to go. Let's take the makeup off," Simmons says. "It's much harder to be yourself. Much more difficult. You're aware people are looking at you." 

But removing the masks that had made people pay attention, it turns out, proved to be a novel way of making people pay attention again. 

13: He was born in poverty. Now Darren Walker leads a charity worth billions.

Darren Walker went from humble roots to Wall Street. Today he leads the multi-billion-dollar Ford Foundation.

Darren Walker went from humble roots to Wall Street. Today he leads the multi-billion-dollar Ford Foundation.

The key to understanding this moment in American history, in black history, is empathy.  

That's what Darren Walker is saying. And one could argue that if anyone is positioned to understand this dizzying landscape, he is. 

Walker grew up poor in rural Texas, became one of the first kids in the Head Start program, and made it big on Wall Street in the 1980s. But his true calling was even bigger: He's now president at the Ford Foundation, an $11-billion philanthropy giant that's aiming to address social justice and inequality around the globe.  

It's the first Fortt Knox episode of February, Black History Month, and I invite you to listen in on a conversation with a unique American leader who happens to be black. Walker recently made Fast Company's list of the Most Creative People in Business, and there's no shortage of reasons why. 

To start, his background as an African American and a businessman gives him a unique perspective on what it will take to mend the rifts in our culture and economy. He speaks with equal passion about his gratitude for the opportunities he's had as an American in this era, and the dangerous threat that income inequality poses to continued progress. He declares that black lives matter, and shines a light on the concerns of Rust Belt whites. 

"People like you and me, who are black, sometimes need to put ourselves in the shoes of white people, to understand what may be happening to them," he says. "I think that's part of the political phenomenon that we're seeing now. Because I think that there are many white Americans – upstanding, outstanding citizens – who are hurting, and they don't feel that the system is working for them." 

Here are some of the incisive thoughts Walker shared about having an impact for good in tense times: 

Stay Grounded

"The experience of my family today keeps me grounded. When I have seven of my male cousins who have served time in state penitentiaries, one of whom killed himself in a county jail, I stay grounded because I'm connected to them." 

That carries over into how he plans his itinerary as president of the Ford Foundation. When he visits a city like Lagos in Nigeria, he visits both the ambassador and the Makoko slum. The poverty provides a reality check, but so does the people's resilience. The takeaway: If you want to help people, you have to have perspective to see beyond their strife and into their strength.

Even Mandela Was A Risky Bet 

Long before Darren Walker dreamed of making a difference, the Ford Foundation was making bold bets on ideas that were controversial. In the mid-1960s, a group of Mexican Americans asked the foundation to help them form an organization to help their community find a voice. Those efforts became National Council of La Raza.  

Even bolder: the foundation poured money into understanding Apartheid in South Africa when it first emerged in the late 1950s, paying for black students there to leave and explain their plight around the world. "Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo were enemies of the state," Walker reminds us. 

The Ford Foundation's guiding rule is to put money behind institutions, ideas and individuals. That sounds like if you feel the ideas are valuable, the institutions are promising and the individuals are trustworthy, there's an opportunity to make a difference.  

Technology and Youth Are Game Changers 

As we've seen again and again in recent weeks, it's far easier than it ever has been to organize a massive crowd. 

"You can in one day mobilize 100,000 people. I would have taken months to mobilize 100,000 people. It took Dr. King years to get to the point of being able to have that march," he says.  

Also: Young people aren't so attached to the idea of hierarchical leadership. Perhaps the two phenomena are related. When you can start a movement over a couple of weekends in a Facebook group, does it really matter if there's a president and a corresponding secretary? 

So where does all that leave us during this fractured moment on the global stage? "I think we are absolutely in a rough spot," Walker says. "But I am more hopeful today than I have ever been." 

12: Empowering Women to Invest with Confidence: Talk to Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz's first job was a file clerk in her father's firm in its early days. Now she's an executive at the company.

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz's first job was a file clerk in her father's firm in its early days. Now she's an executive at the company.

When you see Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz's name, you might assume the daughter of Charles Schwab grew up quite privileged.  

After all, the Schwab name has become synonymous with wealth management. Didn't she end up working in the industry by default? 

Actually, no.  

Schwab-Pomerantz's parents divorced when she was a child, and her father's firm didn't become a financial force until she was well into her 20s. She was already there working with clients when Bank of America bought the company in 1983, and continued after the company split off again four years later. 

Today, Schwab-Pomerantz is Chairman of the Charles Schwab Foundation, and a senior vice president at the $56-billion company. She's a certified financial planner, and focuses on reaching out to groups like women, minorities and young people, who tend to have less experience managing their personal finances. 

I talked to Schwab-Pomerantz for the Fortt Knox podcast to get a sense of her personal journey – successes and mistakes – and also to dig out a lot of practical money tips for professionals who are trying to save for the future while planning big purchases and even raising a family. It's January, after all. There's still time to make good on those money resolutions.  

Marriage: Don't Get Lopsided  

One of Schwab-Pomerantz's key pieces of advice is, in marriage, make sure both people understand what's happening with the money. 

"I think involvement leads to financial security. For anybody, you want to understand the basics of money management," she says. "Basic in a marriage, or a partnership: Don't totally abdicate. You can delegate, but not abdicate. So that means know where your assets are, what are you invested in, and always be involved in the big decisions." 

Kids: It's About Value (and Values) 

When one of her sons was a teenager, his friends started getting cars as gifts from their parents. One got a BMW. 

"I, coincidentally, had just bought myself a car, and I looked at the BMW and I looked at different cars, and I ended up getting the Acura, which was $15,000 less," she says. When she heard about the friend with the BMW, she made sure to emphasize to her son that it wasn't the sort of thing their family would do. Not that there's anything wrong with buying nice things. "We're more about value." That's part of the reason she insisted that her sons get summer jobs; one bagged groceries at a local market. 

Future: Know the Rules Before You Break Them 

Not that she's always made perfect financial decisions. When she got out of college, she almost went to work for another financial firm instead of Schwab, until one of the company's managers convinced her to come back. Then Bank of America bought the company, and she had the opportunity to buy the mega-bank's shares for no commission. At 23 years old, she was a little too conservative. She bought only two shares at $22 each. "I was a little scared," she says. "I always joke that I was the smallest shareholder at Bank of America and my dad was the biggest." 

Schwab-Pomerantz has since gotten bolder in her love of stocks as part of a savings and retirement portfolio. But she advocates knowing the financial basics first and foremost. "Those people who invest in equities are outperforming those who are not, and that's what separates the haves and the have-nots," she says.