One of my life goals is to read all the books written by billionaires. That’s a tall order considering there are over 150.
If you want a quick book to start with on the list, A Passion to Win by Sumner Redstone, is a good choice.
Here’s what I learned from the book…
If you prefer listening to reading, I recorded a podcast episode you can listen to on this topic:
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Today’s billionaire case study is Sumner Redstone, who has a net worth of over $4.9 billion according to Forbes. Sumner owns a good portion of a company called Viacom. You may not have heard of Viacom, but you may have heard of some of its child companies and TV shows, like:
- Nick at Night
- Cartoon Network
I read his book A Passion To Win, which is a short read — maybe too short. I want to share with you some of the lessons I learned, some of which were shocking. Even though I’ve been studying billionaires for a while now and am used to many “success tips”, I was unable to unearth some gold.
For the average reader who isn’t digging for lessons learned, this book can seem frustrating to get success lessons from since Sumner doesn’t explicitly tell you. You have to draw out the lessons yourself.
Even if you’ve heard of some of these tips before, don’t overlook them. They are great reminders and there are subtle details to these tips that make all the difference.
Live a frugal life
Once again, another billionaire (Sumner) confirms the billionaire behavior of living frugal. Contrary to popular belief, many billionaires live way below their means and that’s one key reason they got rich — so much so that some seem genetically wired to not care about luxury. Warren Buffett’s a great example. Arnold Schwarzenegger talked about meeting Warren on the Tim Ferriss show [time stamp 42:20] and mentioned how he was fine with rooming in an ordinary hotel room.
Sumner has lived in the same modest home he bought for 40+ years, just like Warren Buffett. He still wears a modest set of secondhand suits, just like Buffett.
He lives a modest lifestyle: no mansion parties, no super cars.
Other similar case studies include Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Sam Walton of Walmart. They both stayed at cheap hotels for business meetings even when they were worth billions.
It might seem a little extreme, but when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Unnecessary business costs and purchases each up your profits quickly. A single unnecessary stay at a fancy hotel can cost $1000 to $50,000 a night.
The more you save, the more you can re-invest into making even more money.
Having said that, there are exceptions and billionaires who have more normal urges to spend more lavishly, like Richard Branson and Bill Gates.
Have a deep passion to live and win
At age 55, Sumner was caught in a horrible building fire that left him with third degree burns all over. 40% of his body was burned off and he went through a dozen surgeries. The pain was unbearable.
Sumner survived and was grateful just to be alive. He went through a long period of physical therapy just to walk again.
This reminds me of a similar story comes from fellow billionaire, S. Truett Cathy (the founder of Chick-fil-a)’s book. He was diagnosed with an illness he thought would kill him. When he survived, he was grateful just for life.
I’m not saying that all billionaires must go through a life-threatening event. Many have not. But it is a good reminder to always show gratitude for what you have because that alone can increase happiness.
Unlike other cliche stories, Sumner didn’t emerge from the accident any different than when he came in. He says he was always just as passionate to live and win as he did before the accident, and that’s why he was so successful.
He says you don’t have to go through a life-threatening event to start to live. You start when you want to.
I think this contrary to how 99% of people live. Instead of living life and pursuing their passions like their life depended on it, most people tolerate a mediocre life until it’s too late — they get old and start regretting their life.
As a child, Sumner attended one of the toughest high schools in the nation, Boston Latin. The school was extremely competitive and a pure meritocracy. There was no discrimination based on race, religion, gender, or anything else. If you deserved the grades, you got the grades. But that made the competition ruthless…
Sumner developed an intense work ethic here. He didn’t have any social life and studied every second of the day. He only recognized the person he sat next to in class during his time there. He graduated #1 in the class and went to Harvard.
At Harvard, he was disappointed because the drive to win and competition there wasn’t even close to up to par with Boston Latin.
I experienced a competitive academic environment in middle and high school too. But the competition was sometimes too intense for me and probably me do worse because I compared myself to others. I wonder if putting you or your child in such an environment is always best. Perhaps not.
Maybe if you have a certain genetic inclination for it, it would be a good idea because it would instill a great work ethic. But I’ve also seen many Asian American students crumble from the pressure or comparison.
Sumner definitely carried the spark to win and #1 throughout his life. He hustled hard as a lawyer after school. After many years of work, he became the highest paid lawyer in the world.
When his passion for being a lawyer started to wane, he confidently switched to business.
What to look for when hiring
When Sumner hires executives, he looks for three traits, something he calls the Three C’s. These are the same three ingredients he thinks creates success:
- Commitment: a passionate commitment to your goal
- Courage and dreams to take risk
- Character: the moral and intellectual character to realize the dreams worth pursuing and the best route to take to achieve them.
Stick to businesses and industries you understand
Sumner re-invested a vast majority of his money back into businesses he owned, operated, and understood, mainly in the entertainment industry. He doesn’t believe in diversification. Instead, he says you should focus your time and money on a few businesses that you know well.
Keep in mind: this methodology requires a lot of confidence in yourself and your decision. Therefore, doing your due diligence and research on a company and industry are key.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to know everything there is to know about a business or understand the culture of its customers. Sometimes, that’s impossible in a rapidly changing industry. As you will see, some of Sumner’s investments were in company’s with wild, teen culture — something he didn’t fully understand from to back as an adult…
Do what you’re passionate about
Sumner says few people who are motivated by money make lots of money. It has to be a stronger motivation, like becoming a champion or impacting the world.
Sumner was making $100,000 a year as a lawyer (over a million a year inflation adjusted), but after a while, he got bored of it. Because the business was there to make money, it became just about the money, which he didn’t like. He decided to move on to start his own business.
This is something most people are scared of doing.
I understand that it’s easier to switch careers to something you’re passionate about when you’re already rich as Midas. But don’t use that as an excuse. Maybe it’s a clue to make money first so you can pay the bills and then work on switching to a more exciting career on the side.
Content is king and always will be
Sumner invested in companies that are still recognizable today, like Paramount, MTV, and Nickelodeon. But he was already pretty old when he did so and these companies often catered to the youth. So how was he able to understand the culture and vibe of a company when he wasn’t young himself?
Sumner understood the value of great content. He says that content is king and will always be king, an idea Bill Gates also believes.
These companies were putting out incredible content that was creating a huge impact and impression on its audience. Sumner may not have understood the content himself or vibed with that generation’s music, but he saw the impact it was making on people, which leads to the next point…
Invest based on the Impact and Culture
When I was a kid, there was no YouTube. TV shows dominated a child’s free time and Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon dominated. There were no other contenders for the market, except for the Disney Channel. There was WB Kids but that got shut down. And PBS Kids, with shows like Sesame Street and Arthur, got old real quick. Even as a teen, I remembered thinking many times that Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network almost had a monopoly on the child’s TV business. Their shows, like Spongebob, Dexter’s Lab, Drake & Josh, and Drazon Ball Z were so on point. Sure, they had trippy, weird shows I avoided, like CatDog, but overall, they were so good at what they did.
I wondered who owned these companies and if they were making a killing. At the time, I was a kid so I had no idea. But I was right.
Sumner says you can’t measure the value of a company just by the present value of their assets. You have to factor in their future growth value. You have to believe that a company currently worth 10 million can be worth 20 million.
Sumner saw the growth and power of these companies and went with it.
Back then, everyone else measured companies by only their current tangible assets (radios, video cameras, lights, etc.), but he measured companies by their content (what shows they were producing).
He invested in MTV because he saw that it was rapidly becoming the face of the youth of America and influencing millions of teens across the nation.
At the time, MTV wasn’t making much money. And even though he wasn’t part of the generation, he could see how passionate this generation was towards MTV. He knew it was a great opportunity to capture the market share of a powerful up-and-coming generation.
When he visited headquarters, it looked like you would think it would: a college dorm. There were CD cases everywhere. Sumner loved the vibe, even though he preferred an older generation of music. He loved the spirit.
Immediately after he saw the first Star Wars movie, he walked to a pay phone across the street and bought over a hundred thousand shares of the company behind the movie.
I find this incredibly fascinating. I wouldn’t impulse buy just because a movie rubbed you the right way, but accounting for the influence and passion a business creates through content and storytelling is underrated.
Be careful not to sway into the other extreme and get over-eager and over-project how much money a business will make in the future. this is a problem that Warren Buffet has preached on, something Silicon Valley has been burned on, and what brought the downfall of leveraged buy out’s.
Stand up for yourself when you’re mistreated
It’s your duty to stand up for yourself when you are being mistreated. Sumner’s first business after quitting as a lawyer as in the film industry. His movie suppliers were mistreating him, cutting out profits, and imposing discriminatory regulations. He knew it wasn’t fair, so he sued and got everything he asked for.
Lawsuits are an ugly part of business but you can’t be so timid that you shy away from ever using them to your advantage because you will eventually run into someone who pushes their boundaries and exploits you.
Despite winning a great majority of his lawsuits while he was a lawyer, Sumner doesn’t like suing. He will avoid taking someone to court unless they step on his toes. Unfortunately, people sometimes treat him unfairly and he ends up taking them to court.
Here’s an interesting piece of advice of his: Lawsuits are about justice. If you’re truly being treated unfairly, you should bring it to court.
You can be a great builder but a bad operator
Sumner said the executives who built the massive movie rental chain, Blockbuster, were great builders but bad operators. They knew how to build up a company’s revenue, but not how to operate the inner workings.
They wanted to build out all sorts of new products and services not related to their competency of renting DVD’s, including a theme park. Sumner shut these down.
This is a common theme I hear when I listen to millionaire interviews on podcast shows, like Eventual Millionaire. Many of the millionaire guests mention that you sometimes have to hire other people to take over your duties or pass over the business to other people because some people were made to build businesses but not operate them.
Don’t underestimate your competition
Sumner didn’t underestimate others, whether it was people he was negotiating with on the price to buy a business, or other competitors that weren’t doing as well as his business.
Extend the lifetime value of a customer by growing with them
Each of his successful TV channels was catered to its special community. Nickelodeon was for kids; MTV was for teenagers; and VH1 was for the older age group.
Each viewer felt like they belonged because the show catered to their demographic.
Also, since Viacom owned all these different shows, they keep hold of a customer throughout their life as they age because they graduate to the next show as they get older.
They were able to get a lot of advertisers on board because they told them that a part of their TV show’s brand would rub off on anything they advertised. And it was true.
Life can still be a blast when you’re old. Don’t start slacking.
When he was in his 60’s, Sumner was not slacking off. He was having the fight of his life trying to acquire all of Viacom.
The initial bid offer of $2.7 billion was denied. They kept pushing the price up with counter-offers. The negotiation meetings would last 20 hours a day. They pushed the price so high that Sumner had to pull every string he had to get more money, including selling junk bonds.
The whole process was infuriating because he felt the other party kept increasing the price to play with him. They even broke agreed-upon bidding rules by requiring a higher price after agreeing on the final price.
He had to consult with friends a few times because he thought the price had gotten too high. But he believed in the company.
Eventually, he acquired the company for $3.4 billion. The media said he overpaid. Over the next few years, he made the company lean and paid back a lot of the debt. Viacom became successful and he proved the media wrong.
When you negotiate it’s important to not only understand what you want, but also accurately understand what the other party wants.
You should always be courteous.
You can still be courteous and an aggressive, assertive negotiator.
You can push but there is a point where you shouldn’t push past.
Tips on getting investors
It’s not worth engaging in business with shady people. Period.
Bob Evans, the producer of The Godfather, widely regarded as one of the best films of all time, later went on to fund another film with investments from a variety of different investors.
Some of these investors were shady people. When his film went over budget, they sent five men to get the money back. Bob ended up begging Sumner for help. Sumner came to the rescue and told these men that he would send the attorney general and FBI after them if they tried anything. After the ordeal, he told Bob never to do this again.
Should you listen to Sumner’s advice? Charlie Munger on Sumner Redstone
29 minutes and 8 seconds into a 2017 Q&A session with Charlie Munger, Charlie talks about Sumner Redstone. Here are some quotes from what he said:
“Sumner Redstone was a very peculiar man. Almost no one else was like him. He was a very hard-driven, tough tomato. Almost nobody ever liked him, including his wife and children…
He’s a very determined, high IQ maniac – but nobody like him and nobody ever did…
I’ve used Sumner Redstone all my life as what I don’t want to be but for sure talent, hardness, and shrewdness, you wouldn’t find anyone stronger than Sumner…
He didn’t care if people liked him. I don’t care if 95% like me – I really need the other 5.”
As echoed through Sumner’s own book, he had a sheer force of will and drive that no one could match. While that got him somewhere in terms of wealth and career success, Charlie makes a great point that there is more to life success than how much money you make.
Warren Buffett said in a recent Charlie Rose interview that nobody he knew was ever unhappy who had children who loved him. Family and relationships are another important piece of the puzzle.
Sumner Redstone lived an interesting and he truly was born and set up for greatness. Anyone can learn from his example and take these tips to improve their own life as well as increase their business skills.
You don’t have to develop the work ethic to be working 20 hours a day at 60 years old or to become the highest paid lawyer in the world. But you can learn from his example and work a few minutes or hours harder every day and chase your passions like your life depended it on it — because it does.
My favorite lessons from this book have to do with the lessons on investing and the power of great content. Sumner’s investment style is different from Warren Buffett’s, which focuses much more on assessing tangible assets and drawing a conservative estimate of future earnings that are almost guaranteed. Sumner, on the other hand, focuses on large acquisitions of company’s with a potentially great future because of their content and influence but are harder to predict for sure.
There’s another book, not written by Sumner but about him, called The King of Content: Sumner Redstone’s Battle for Viacom, CBS, and Everlasting Control of His Media Empire, that will be released soon.
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Now, I want to hear from you:
What’s the best thing you learned?
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