How a part-owner of the Atlanta Hawks turned one lesson into
25 years of hitting success after success
Music or brownies…
it was a coin flip for American University senior Jesse Itzler’s plans for after graduation.
His friend’s aunt would send them delicious treats every month. They were the best. He believed she was using some kind of magical ingredient because they made everyone happy – really happy. Who can’t build a business model from that?
When his advertising professor assigned a project to create a fictitious brand, Jesse decided he was going to use it as a test… a chance to research and develop Aunt Franny’s Brownies.
One beautiful spring morning weeks later, Jesse walked across campus to his advertising class. It was presentation day and he was unprepared. But only five students, pulled at random out of a hat, had to deliver a “State of the Union” address for the company they created. Since there were more than a hundred kids in the class, Jesse liked his chances.
He settled into his usual seat near the back row of the large lecture hall. The professor handed out the hat and instructed each student to write down their name on a piece of paper, pop it in, and then pass it. That’s when Jesse got a brilliant idea – he wrote down “Ronnie” instead of his own name.
Ronnie was a clown who sat in the same back row… He made everyone within a 10-foot radius of him miserable. And he’d been doing it for four years. Jesse wrote down “Ronnie” on as many scraps of paper as he could until the hat finally reached his desk. He stuffed 20 ballots in.
There was no chance the professor wouldn’t pull Ronnie’s name. And no chance that Ronnie had prepared.
Jesse was grinning in anticipation when the hat made its way back to the professor… It was going to be fun to watch Ronnie squirm up there.
The professor reached his hand in, pulled out the first name, and unfolded the paper.
“Jesse Itzler,” the professor said. “Can you please come up to the front?”
Jesse looked down the row to see Ronnie laughing uncontrollably. That jag-off must have done the same thing to him.
As Jesse descended down the steep steps of the lecture hall, he tried to prepare his pitch. He had to come up with something – fast. When he got to the front of the room, the professor stepped aside to give him the floor.
He stood there silent for a moment, looking out at his expecting classmates.
“Hugs and kisses in every bite,” Jesse started. “Aunt Franny’s Brownies.”
From there he launched into his pitch. He was winging it the best he could, but being in front of an audience felt natural to him. He liked it. “And I can promise you that it’s the best tasting brownie you’ll ever eat.”
He was thirty seconds into his pitch when…
“Stop,” the professor said. “Just stop.”
His professor then asked a question that would define his career… “What’s your point of differentiation?”
“They’re homemade, moist, and delicious.”
“A thousand brownies come out every year,” the professor said. “If you want to be a brownie then you have to be better – different. A new, better brownie.”
“They can be gluten free.”
“You can sit down now.”
By the time Jesse returned to his seat, he had already begun changing his plans for after graduation. The year was 1990 and hip-hop was starting to explode on the music scene. He knew he could write rhymes and rap. He loved it. And well, he was white. Not too many white kids in the hip-hop scene in 1990.
Jesse had found his new, better brownie. He calls it his $160,000 lesson. It’s the only thing he remembers learning in college – you have to be better. And different. It’s been more than 25 years since he learned it, but that wisdom has catapulted his success into the music business, airline industry, beverage industry, and publishing a New York Times bestselling book…
From Mistaken Identity to the New York Knicks
Months after graduation, Jesse sat in Mike Ross’ office at Delicious Vinyl… a hot new independent record label with signed artists like Tone Lōc and Young MC.
As he waited, he looked around the dimly lit room to see album covers, celebrity photos, and graffiti art hanging on the walls. He wanted to be a part of it. It didn’t matter that Ross’ assistant mistakenly set up the meeting thinking he was Brooklyn-born rap star Dana Dane. And it didn’t matter that Jesse hadn’t corrected her when she made the mistake.
He was exactly where he needed to be.
“Who are you?” Ross, president of Delicious Vinyl, asked when he saw Jesse sitting in his office. “Where’s Dana?”
Jesse used a Harry Truman technique, “If you can’t convince them – confuse them.” He started throwing words at him: Dana’s late, I record with him, I have my own tape, he’ll be here in 20. And it worked – Ross was confused.
But after Jesse played his demo, he heard the four greatest words an artist can ever hear, “Who is your lawyer?”
Jesse’s first single, “Shake It Like a White Girl,” reached No. 74 on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart in 1991 and received play on the Yo! MTV Raps hit television show. Not bad for a white Jewish kid in a predominately black industry.
But reality wasn’t much like an extravagant hip-hop video… Not even close. Money was tight, touring was grueling, and a second album wasn’t offered. The music industry was sending him a message… It was time for a new recipe.
Back in New York, he sat across from Nancy Grunfeld in a small conference room. She was the wife of the New York Knicks owner. The meeting had been set up to discuss radio jingles he was working on for her. For Jesse, writing and performing jingles was an easy way to get a small paycheck while he waited to make his next move.
“We should do a song for the Knicks,” Jesse said to Nancy as their meeting was wrapping up. “The one now is outdated… We should do something new.”
She was intrigued. So he went home and wrote “Go New York Go” on his couch that night. Two days later, they played it for Knicks owner Ernie Grunfeld. He loved it.
“Go New York Go” became the No. 1 requested song on New York radio. Every game at Madison Square Garden, fans sang alongside Jesse’s rap song. It became the team’s anthem. Visiting teams wanted in on the action. And fortunately for Jesse, he was the only guy selling this kind of brownie. It was better – different.
But Knicks fans had no way of purchasing his song. So Jesse took “Go New York Go” and licensed a few other hot songs played at the games to make a CD. In between songs, he added great moments in the team’s history. The album sold 50,000 units… And his phone started to ring with other professional sports teams, television networks, and national brands wanting his services. The NBA had him write and perform the Emmy-winning “I Love This Game” song.
The result, a company he co-founded called Alphabet City, married his loves of sports and music… and it would set him up for his next idea.
Cashing Out and Moving Up
Jesse was blown away the day he stepped onto a private jet for the first time.
He was 28 years old. The day before he and his partner sold Alphabet City to SFX, his bank-account balance was $87. The deal was for cash and stock totaling $6 million… with another $10 million as a possible earn out.
It was time to celebrate… They were guests of Bob Sillerman, the president of SFX, for a boondoggle to the Bahamas. As he prepared for takeoff and buckled his seatbelt, he looked around the luxurious aircraft and then over at his partner.
“How do we get to do this all of the time?”
There were only three ways at the time to fly private: own, buy a fractional share with a five-year commitment, or charter a plane – none of which was very accessible to a large demographic. It wasn’t realistic even if you made $1 million a year.
So he and his partner created an untapped market for people who wanted to fly privately a few times a year. The company was different.
To get a deal with Warren Buffett’s private-plane operator NetJets, they marched Carl Banks from the New York Giants, music superstars Run-DMC, a top sports agent for NBA players, and a Wall Street guy who owned his own firm into NetJets’ office.
NetJets had a fleet of 500 planes. Their idea was to sell a 25-hour prepaid flight card to get access to one of NetJets planes… all of the benefits, none of the long-term responsibility. They brought the focus group to them and one by one each of these stars explained how and why they’d never buy a fraction of a jet, but they would spend $100,000-$200,000 on a jet card.
Soon after, Marquis Jet was formed. Flying first class would never be the same.
Berkshire Hathaway, the parent company of NetJets, bought Marquis Jet in 2009. That same year, Jesse took yet another step up. He created and founded the 100 Mile Group – a brand incubator and accelerator. It was an opportunity for him to take “shots on goal” on the many startups he thought had potential.
Now he was picking and choosing which brownies he wanted to eat…
“It seems like there’s a trend with the consumption of healthy beverages,” he said to his assistant one day. “There’s a new craze every four years. I think the next one will be coconut water.” If you’ve seen the grocery stores lately, he was right…
The 100 Mile Group partnered with Zico Coconut Water and Coca-Cola. A few years later, Zico was acquired by Coca-Cola.
Throughout all of Jesse’s business adventures, he’s always been sort of a fitness freak. So much so that he hired a Navy SEAL to move in with him and his family for 31 days in 2010. He wanted to get in the best shape of his life – both mentally and physically. It resulted in the New York Times bestseller Living With a SEAL... a funny and inspirational book about pushing yourself in all facets of your life.
“But I’ll tell you,” Jesse said while standing in front of a rapt audience at his lake house in Connecticut this past July. “Aunt Franny’s brownies were really good.”
Jesse was speaking at the Live Life for a Living Retreat he was hosting. He’d gotten an idea to re-invent business retreats… They all seemed the same to him. He wanted to do something better – different.
So he invited 50 people from across the country to participate in a networking getaway where they could learn from people in the top of their industry. I was thrilled to get an invite and opportunity to speak.
Who knows what’s next from Jesse… but in the meantime, “Who’s hungry for a brownie?”
Jesse Itzler is a serial entrepreneur. If you’d like to hear him speak, he will be a featured guest at the Stansberry 2017 Las Vegas Conference… along with one of the “Sharks” from Shark Tank… the son of a U.S. president… a former Fed insider… and many more. Click here for full details on how to get access from the comfort of your couch right here.
Turney Duff is a former trader at one of the biggest hedge funds in the world, the Galleon Group, where their founder and several Galleon employees were found guilty of insider trading. Turney rose through the ranks and then fell prey to the trappings of Wall Street: money, sex, drugs, alcohol, and power. Turney chronicles his spectacular rise and fall in his bestselling book, The Buy Side; A Wall Street Trader’s Tale of Spectacular Excess.