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An internet pioneer and a billionaire entrepreneur, Ted Leonsis lives by a philosophy as novel as the fateful experience that created it: focus on happiness and success will follow.
More than a decade before companies like Google and Facebook made the word “entrepreneur” ubiquitous, Ted Leonsis helped define the term for the internet era.
Not long out of college, this son of immigrant parents raised money from investors, started a company, ran it successfully for several years, and then sold it for tens of millions of dollars. It was the mid-1980s and he was only 28.
With a success story of this kind at a young age, many biographies of other successful entrepreneurs would end here, but Leonsis's was only just beginning. In the same period that he saw monumental success, a jarring experience on an airplane brought Leonsis to a profound truth. “I was already wealthy and successful as a young man,” he writes, “but I wasn’t happy.”
I believe with all my heart that my pursuit of happiness has made me a better businessman.
As he took aim at the problem and honed his ideas over three decades, a philosophy emerged that is unique in American business: happiness, rather than traditional measures of success, should be the end goal. And it should be actively pursued.
“I became happy in the same way that I became successful in business: by developing a plan,” Leonsis writes in his book, The Business of Happiness. “I became happy by paying attention on a continual basis to how I was tracking against my plan.”
He started with a list of 101 things he wanted to do in his life – a personal scorecard – and began to complete them. This evolved into a set of principles about happiness that includes ideas both large and small. For example, Leonsis argues passionately about the importance of a connection to others, the need to join communities, and to give back to those communities in meaningful ways. These ideas, he says, can be broadly applied.
“I’ve learned that there aren’t only happy people; there are happy businesses and companies,” he writes. “Some of the same rules seem to apply to institutions as individuals.” To build further on this, Leonsis developed the concept of the “double bottom line” – the idea that organizations can both increase revenue and have a positive impact on people’s lives. This is now the philosophy that guides all of his business endeavors.
Perhaps most important, Leonsis argues that by pursuing happiness, traditional measures of success almost always follow. As he put it, “Happiness is a driver of success, not the other way around.” It’s hard to argue with his record.
Leonsis founded a company that was bought by AOL. He then served as a senior executive during AOL’s spectacular rise as an early catalyst for the digital evolution in America and worldwide. As a founder and partner at Revolution Growth, a venture capital firm that bankrolls passionate entrepreneurs creating disruptive new products and services, he has helped guide many budding companies that are now household names.
Today, Leonsis’s primary role is CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment.
On his 101 list, owning a sports team is one of the goals and dreams. With a portfolio as extensive as his, it’s clear Leonsis has far surpassed his own expectations.
Monumental owns NHL’s 2018 Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals, NBA’s Washington Wizards, WNBA’s Washington Mystics, NBA G League’s Capital City Go-Go, Arena Football League’s 2018 Champion Washington Valor and Baltimore Brigade, NBA2K’s Wizards District Gaming, and Capital One Arena.
The cutting-edge enterprise oversees the management of Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the state-of-the-art training facility for the Capitals, and George Mason University’s EagleBank Arena. It also partnered with Washington, D.C., and Events DC to build a new, ultra-modern Entertainment and Sports Arena at the St. Elizabeths campus in Ward 8 in Southeast Washington, D.C., which includes the MedStar Wizards Performance Center practice facility for the Wizards, and the home court for the Mystics and Go-Go.
Monumental Sports Network, a digital platform that covers the D.C. region’s sports and entertainment news across mobile and OTT streaming devices, is also part of the MSE collection.
It’s a lot of work. But, as a team owner and business leader, Leonsis continues to put his unique philosophy into practice.
He makes a point to stay deeply connected with his people and teams, and is known for profoundly personal gestures that show his commitment to helping others. He treats his leadership role with great care, alternately referring to himself as “chief cheerleader” and “chief worrying officer,” and explaining that fans are one of his most important communities. “I have a deep-seated belief that there's a huge social responsibility in owning these iconic brands,” Leonsis says. “The teams really aren't owned by me and my partners. They're really owned by the city itself. And so we want to be in service to the community.”
He also continues to innovate, most recently by working to broaden the field of American sports, evolving Arena Football teams and acting as a vocal advocate for sports gamification. "As an entrepreneur, I've always been shocked at how long it takes for some of these things to take off, and once they hit how fast and how big they become,” he says.
With audiences, Leonsis shares his uncommon philosophy for creating success that’s rooted in happiness. Ebullient and energetic, he presents the key factors of living a life with purpose – fortified by a harrowing and emotional reckoning at the height of his early success.
A successful entrepreneur described as one of the founding fathers of the internet, Leonsis saw his millions top $1 billion when achieving happiness became his guiding principle. “Happiness is a driver of success,” Leonsis writes in his book, The Business of Happiness. “Not the other way around.”
Leonsis argues passionately that companies can increase revenue and have a positive impact on people and society – a concept he calls the “double bottom line.” This philosophy is now the overriding pursuit in all his ventures. "I believe that by pursuing happiness, people, and businesses alike increase the odds that they will be successful in achieving their broadest goals," Leonsis writes in his book, The Business of Happiness.
As an internet pioneer, serial entrepreneur, and venture capitalist, Ted Leonsis has well-defined ideas about what makes a promising startup.
Like many, he looks for new and disruptive ideas. The sweet spot, as he sees it, is finding and building technology-enabled businesses that empower consumers and disrupt existing, multi-billion dollar industries.
Yet through his work with Revolution Growth, he is also looking for companies that achieve a “double bottom line” – promising revenues and a benefit for people and society – run by confident entrepreneurs with a mission that extends beyond money.
In this conversation, Leonsis shares his passion for helping the next generation of entrepreneurs change the world. He knows what it means to be a true partner – in the trenches – acting as a relentless advocate for people and ideas.
The Future of Sports
Ted Leonsis is working to broaden the field of American sports.
He’s invested in Arena Football League teams and competitive video gaming, also known as e-sports, as it becomes a billion dollar industry with professional teams, star players, and a massive fan base.
Leonsis is also a vocal supporter of sports betting and gamification, with teams and leagues leading the way. "You'll see sports teams and leagues becoming more and more like technology, big data companies,” he tells The Washington Post. Thinking back to his early days at AOL, Leonsis couldn’t resist jumping back into this world.
But even as sports enters a new frontier, Leonsis believes the industry can’t be successful without a deep commitment to its communities.
Known for being one of the most media-savvy and accessible owners in professional sports, Leonsis communicates with fans every day through his blog and through email, and says he strives to answer every concern that comes to his attention.
In this talk, he describes team ownership as a public trust – saying it should be viewed as a higher calling. “Sports plays an unbelievably special role in people’s lives. We’re relatively small businesses, but our psychic footprint is incredibly large,” Leonsis says a Washington Times article. “I want to bring the community together, and make lifelong memories.”
The Business of Happiness
After a jarring experience on an airplane early in his career, Ted Leonsis reached a hard truth: he was successful, but not necessarily happy.
Thus began a decades-long exploration of the relationship between success and happiness and the conclusion that happiness drives success – not the other way around.
In this conversation, based on his book The Business of Happiness, Leonsis describes six important factors that have a vital impact on both.
From developing higher levels of empathy and self-awareness to pursuing a higher calling, he asks audiences to not pour all their energy into one person, place, or thing, and to instead live with greater purpose and intention.