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Ted Leonsis still has the snow cone machine that launched his first business venture. He was a college student at Georgetown University during the bicentennial summer of 1976. “Lots of tourists were coming into the city, and I said: ‘Boy, I need to find something that I can sell them.’ And so I came up with the idea of a snow cone business—red, white, and blue snow cones. ‘Be a patriot, eat a snow cone,’” Leonsis tells staff writer Sheryll Poe during an exclusive interview with Free Enterprise magazine.
Leonsis is one of the country’s premier businessmen and a pioneer of the Internet industry. After selling his marketing company, Redgate Communications Corporation, to America OnLine in 1993, he worked for AOL for 13 years, including serving as president and vice chairman. During his tenure, the company’s subscriptions jumped from 1 million to 18 million, and revenues grew from $115 million to $4.8 billion.
Leonsis is known in Washington, D.C., and in the sports world as the founder, majority owner, chairman, and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment Group, which owns and operates the NHL’s Washington Capitals, the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, and the 20,000-seat Verizon Center in downtown D.C.
At age 26, with $1 million in venture capital, Leonsis founded a technology magazine called List. Two years later, he sold it to a British publishing company for $65 million. “Early on I learned that it’s the combination of expertise, capital, and mentoring that helps make for great success and great companies,” he says.
After surviving an airplane crash landing in 1983, he drafted a list of 101 things to do in life and has done many of them, including owning a sports franchise.
I was programmed that if you work hard in school, you’ll get good grades, and if you get good grades, you’ll get a good job. And if you get a good job, you’ll make a lot of money, and if you make a lot of money, you’ll be successful. And I started my first company, and a couple of years later, I sold it for $65 million. So I declared victory! I was programmed like that, and then I got on an airplane and everything that I had been taught and programmed all of a sudden wasn’t that important because I was facing a life-and-death situation. And that was a real reckoning.
Leonsis’ belief that happiness drives success, not the other way around, is captured in his autobiographical and inspirational book titled The Business of Happiness: 6 Secrets to Extraordinary Success in Work and Life. “If you’re happy, you can be successful; if you’re successful, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be happy,” he says.
One thing that makes Leonsis happy is mentoring the next generation of entrepreneurs and creating great companies. “Now that I’m a little bit older, I think I get my satisfaction from not only starting my own companies but helping entrepreneurs start their companies and meet their aspirations.”
To guide entrepreneurs, Leonsis, along with former AOL executives Steve Case and Donn Davis, has raised $450 million to launch the Revolution Growth fund, an investment fund backing innovative, high-growth companies on the Eastern Seaboard that have the potential to disrupt existing business models.
“This fund is a throwback to the original formation of venture capital,” Leonsis says. “We said, ‘Let’s embrace entrepreneurs and companies outside of Silicon Valley and not just provide capital.’ We can provide some value-added experience with the power of our Rolodex because we’ve been around for a long time and have a track record of helping build these iconic companies.”
Leonsis says that would-be entrepreneurs shouldn’t be discouraged by the slow economy.
There’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. The tools to create and launch a business, with the advantages of all the digital platforms that are available, are just enormously ubiquitous now. And young people who have embraced living their lives on the Internet can take advantage of it and tap into angel investment networks, startup entrepreneur venture funds, growth funds— the IPO market is being renewed.
Leonsis advises business owners to be guided by a larger mission, not by financials. “Being mission-based is something that great sports teams, winning sports teams, and great organizations have in common—a kind of surrender to something bigger than you. Certainly the great companies—the Googles, the Facebooks, the AOL back in the day—they all shared that, where they think they’re doing something important, and there’s financial success that comes from that.” Even with his sports teams, Leonsis says the mission is the driving factor.
My hockey team—its winning record has been excellent for the last four years, and our aspiration obviously is to win a Stanley Cup. But it has a higher calling. It’s to bring our community closer together; it’s to generate memories between husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and best friends that last a lifetime. And when you get your team or your company connected to the higher calling, I just see greater success being generated.
Another example of that “double bottom line,” according to Leonsis, is Chicago-based Groupon, the deal-of-the-day website where he serves on the board. “It does well, and it does good. One of the ways that it does good is it supports small businesses, entrepreneurial businesses. It not only drives customers and builds brands for small businesses, it also provides them with cash flow.”
Leonsis is also inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs within his own household. His son started his first venture at 16 years old. “His aspiration is to be an entrepreneur, so I’m thrilled that, in that regard, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Leonsis says.
Leonsis’ daughter, a sophomore at his alma mater Georgetown University, has entrepreneurial aspirations of her own. “The other day she came to see me, and she said, ‘Dad, would it be OK if I brought the snow-cone machine back to campus and opened a business this summer?’ And I’m really proud that she would want to do that. I said ‘yes’ of course.”