315: From Elaborate Events to a Major Ski Resort: How the Summit Brand Expanded Into A Global Empire

In 2008, Jeff Rosenthal and his co-founders Elliott Bisnow and Brett Leve convinced 19 people they admired to go on a ski trip with them to Park City, Utah. They wanted to spend one-on-one time with this small group of thought leaders to learn from them and glean some knowledge.

Little did they know that this was only the beginning of their long and successful entrepreneurial journey. What started off as a small event production company has morphed into a global behemoth that includes everything from nonprofits to funds to a major ski resort that all fall under the Summit brand.

While the company is still primarily known for its famous invitation-only events, its biggest impact is its tight-knit community of innovative, creative individuals from around the world.

In this podcast episode, Rosenthal talks about Summit’s explosive growth, what it takes to host a truly extraordinary event, and more entrepreneurial gold.

If there’s any other type of content you’d like to see that would be valuable to you during this time, please don’t hesitate to reach out at [email protected]

Nathan: The first question that we ask everyone that comes on is, how did you get your job?

Jeff: How did I get my job? Well, I guess we created our jobs. When we started Summit, myself and my co-founders, we were all in our early twenties. We were 22, 23 years old in 2008. We were all young entrepreneurs so we all had various small startups that had various small degrees of success. But when you’re a young entrepreneur, you typically screw stuff up and then hopefully don’t repeat those mistakes, that’s the process of learning. We were like, “Man, how cool would it be if we had our own peer group?” If we knew other young people that were also building companies or interesting projects. We would read about these people in magazines, we had no access to them, we didn’t get invited to any cool business conferences. We had no knowledge of any of these networks.

We thought, “Hey, why not us?” We cold-called and Facebook messaged people we had read about and we convinced 19 people to go skiing with us in Park City, Utah in 2008. Our next Summit event was six months later for 60 people, and our third event also that year was that the newly formed, Obama White House. We had this really exponential curve in our ability and convening powers around Summit. I guess, how did I get my job? Brett, my co-founder at Summit, and I were business partners in college, we actually threw parties together. He reached out to me when he had met Elliot, our other co-founder, and we were putting together one of those first Summit events. The first time I heard the concept I was like, “Man, this is the greatest idea I’ve ever heard.” At the beginning of that phone call, I had no excuse to reach out to anybody anywhere. By the end of that phone call I had, in my mind, the skeleton key, an excuse, a reason, to get in contact with all of these people doing all this inspiring work.

Nathan: Yeah. Wow, that’s really cool. I was saying offline that I have a few friends that always go to Summit and they say to me, “You got to go Nathan, it’s so cool.” I read the line-ups and the people that are speaking and I heard the community is really, really cool. I’ve got to go one day. I’m curious, you guys started before Summit though you were doing Powder Mountain?

Jeff: Yeah. Summit is a family of companies, and nonprofits, and funds that has formed over the last 12 years. We have the Summit Action Fund, which is our series A investment fund. We have the Summit Institute, which does a lot of our convening work on behalf of other nonprofits and other issue areas. We have the Summit Fellowship Programme, which has 90 fellows from 24 countries. The Summit Criminal Justice Policy Lab, which is led by a guy named George Gascon, who was the District Attorney of San Francisco, one of the leading progressive DAs in the United States, and Powder Mountain Ski Company, which is literally… it’s the largest ski resort in the US that we own and operate. Powder Mountain Development and Hospitality Company, which is called Summit Powder Mountain, which is the literal town that we’ve been building out in Utah for the last eight years.

But before all of those entities, the very, very first thing that we built was called Summit Series, which is the events and community organisation. In 2008, until 2012, that was really the only business. We launched our angel investment fund, I guess, in 2010. But that still is like the heartbeat of all of the other projects. It’s like the core offering, the community organisation, that powers all of those other entities. Over the course of, I guess, four years, we built and grew Summit from ’08 to the end of ’12. Right at the end of 2012 is when we were learning about these communities throughout recent history, people that had shared visions of what they’re interested in and how they wanted to live pooling their resources, professional, capital, intellectual, and otherwise, and building physical communities.

I guess we thought, hey, for our community to exist over time it would need roots. We were really ambitious and really naive. We looked at hotels like Soho House type models and beaches. One of our Summit community members, a guy named Greg, came to us and said, “Hey, Powder Mountain, the best kept secret in US skiing, is quietly for sale. There’s already infrastructure that already goes to the top of the mountain, so a group that has its own preexisting community could purchase this place and literally build a mountain top village.” We were like, “That guy’s crazy. This is not possible, but we should go see.” 48 hours later we went to Powder Mountain, and I guess you were like 20, 26, 27 years old. We stood on the top of the hill and we looked out over four states and we were like, “Yeah, this is us. This is what we’re doing. We’re going to go for it.”

It’s been eight seasons now operating the resort and about seven as the owners of the mountain. Yeah, today we’ve built five neighborhoods and the largest lift expansion in US ski history and 90 miles of mountain biking trails and hosted tens of thousands of people out at the mountain.

Nathan: Yeah. Wow, that’s really cool. I guess what I wanted to kick things off with is, Summit, like I said, I’ve heard of it. I eventually will go to one of your events, and I’ve heard only good things. Why do you think that is? You guys didn’t have a… you said you have a background in running parties with your business partner, Brett, was it?

Jeff: Yes. That’s right.

Nathan: Yeah. What makes a good event? Because I don’t think it’s easy to create a great iconic event.

Jeff: No, certainly not. I think, first and foremost, we were not really into conferences for most events that we would go to or be invited to, frankly we’re still not into conferences for most events that we go to or are invited to, festivals or whatever. We love this term, the creation of social sculpture. It’s like the incorporation of all the different elements that create a heightened sense of experience, a really memorable, a different environment or a feeling that you’ll remember years later as a exalted memory in a sense. The way that you get there is twofold. One it’s through narrative and ritual. It’s like the story of the event, the provocation for why people are coming together. The quality of people that you then bring based on that provocation.

Then you have all of these different elements that you can use to really create a great experience. That’s the tastes, and the sounds, and the tactile materials and touches. There’s a word called ……, which means the deepening of meaning of all things. The more that you can create a narrative through this experience and attach all of these different pieces, and connect all these different pieces, I think that the better your experience. But to start from the very beginning, having a high quality of people, having great folks together that are going to be friends regardless, like a similar psychographic but from different backgrounds, you can hang out in the dumpster and everybody’s going to have a great time. You don’t have to do any of the other stuff.

But for us, over 12 years, we’ve incorporated, one, that really, really great community of people. We have a global community team that meets every single person that we invite to Summit events. It’s an invitation only community. The majority of people that participate were introduced to us by someone else that was already touching Summit. The criteria, A, are these people innovators in their field? B, are they kind, open-minded, nice people that we’d want to be around regardless of personal or professional success? This has always been the criteria for the Summit community and still is today. It seems pretty simple, but it’s actually pretty incredible. It allows for people to be really trusting and to build real intimacy, and that creates the foundation for them to build meaningful friendships that allow them to really build incredible things together.

One of our other maxims is that fun, dynamic, shared experiences are key to building and developing those relationships. You and I doing this interview will become a certain level of friends, but if you and I we went surfing and had a great white shark today. If we went and saw something beautiful together, had some real bonding moments, of course we’re going to have a deeper and more meaningful lasting relationship. At Summit events, it’s very much that intersection and combination. There’s wellness and adventure activities. There’s amazing content and talks and speakers. There’s a full music and entertainment programme. There’s a world-class culinary programme.

We graze the cows that we eat at Powder Mountain on Powder Mountain. We have a majorly plant-forward menu and a head chef named Haru Kishi that builds these… when we throw a 3000-person event that’s three and a half days long, we serve 20,000 meals. The way that we source food, to the chefs that we work with, to the way that we set tables, to family style service, all these things are in service of this idea of creating, one, and incredible atmosphere. Two, it communicates the values of the organisation, and three, we just want you to have the most fun dynamic shared experience with your fellow attendee so you guys end up having a lasting long-term relationship. Our key performance indicator isn’t our bottom line, how much profit we took home. Our key performance indicator is, what did our community get out of this and what bonds were forged that otherwise wouldn’t have taken place?

Impact’s hugely important to us. Wellness is hugely important to us. We have these six pillars that we weave together. Not to give you a 10-minute answer to what was a very simple question, but how do you make a cool event or how do you make a good event? I mean, we have to break the law of diminishing returns every year for the most difficult group of people to create value on behalf of on an ongoing basis possible. All this stuff is pretty essential in our mind to what we do.

Nathan: It’s really, really fascinating to hear, because I agree with you. There’s not that many conferences or any that I think of that really excite me right now. I’m just heads down. Especially here in Australia, and it’s all happening in the US. For me to want to go somewhere, I guess, overseas to an event, it’s got to be special. I’m curious people listening now that want to start… they perhaps are in a certain level of their business where… a lot of companies now they start creating events. We interviewed the founder, Drew Houston, of Dropbox. Part of that was, we had to go to his event, and it was really, really interesting, around how they rally the Dropbox community. One trend that I definitely am noticing is a lot of technology companies or any companies of that matter, they want to bring together their best communities, I guess, best customers, best partners, and start to have a yearly event. Anyone listening right now, where do you think they should start if they want to create a great event?

Jeff: Yeah, I mean, Summit requires all of the firepower that I just described because we have a very, very wide tent. It’s multidisciplinary, it’s multigenerational, it’s international, and that means… one of our maxims is, the more diverse the inputs, the more complex and impactful the outputs. If your community that you service, your company, is much more specific and targeted, it’s exponentially easier to do. Just because you’re not having to service 100 different archetypes, you have a couple of archetypes in terms of your customer base or your key community members. The first pipeline piece of advice that I would share just on how to make your event special or interesting is, you know how people say, keep it real, Nathan?

Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeff: Well, yeah, you shouldn’t do that. Everybody keeps it real. You got to keep it surreal. You got to do things that are a little bit beyond other people’s imagination. When you do that and you surprise people, it’s delightful. I think that so many of these events are so run-of-the-mill, they follow a very, very similar cadence and structure. I think that people also model their experience and behaviour off of the leaders or organisers of these companies and events. If you want people to have a certain kind of experience, you have to pattern that and show them yourself, in a sense, what you’re looking for them to accomplish and experience there. The more authentic and humble, and the more that you can shave down the pedestal and really explain to people, authentically, why you’re doing what you’re doing, they will become partners in the experience creation with you.

Certainly over the 10 years that we’ve built Summit, half the time, all the time, especially by doing so many things at once in our events, we get things wrong, we mess stuff up, things don’t end up working. Because our community is so bought in and because we’re so bought in, they help, they want to get their hands dirty. I think that trying to sit in your office or in the lab and create the perfect experience and build this brilliant idea, I don’t really believe in that, we don’t really believe in that. We get people involved really early on. We think of ourselves as a platform and we empower people that are the best at what they do on top of our platform. I’m not going to become a world-class chef or a caterer. Summit is not going to be the best in class at hosting meditations or wellness sessions. There’s certain things that we’ve become really great at and that we do in-house and the rest, we really try to work with the best people we can, empower them on top of our platform.

I think there’s a direct correlation between creativity and a lack of capital. I think that oftentimes you can have these huge budgeted events that are still as bland and boring and also run as everything else in the world. But I think that if you can identify what the outcomes are that you’re really looking to get for yourself and for your customer, and then you include the five most creative people that are in your network in the building process, in the ideation process. If you have an idea that you think is great, don’t get people to poke holes in it. I know I’m not I’m not giving you practical, practical like, “This is how you book a venue, this is how you…” But, I mean, we do a very specific kind of eight figure global annual event, but we also do tonnes of small, 10, 12-person dinners that use the same science, if you will, behind the art of gathering.

Nathan: Yeah, I see. Interesting. I’m curious as well. How do you manage it all because you’ve got these different, I guess, entities underneath the Summit brand. Because I think it’s really smart. You’ve built this incredible brand and I think that’s a really key takeaway is, because you’ve built this great brand, you can start to build out and bolt on other ventures or other arms of the business, like your action fund, or Powder Mountain. I’m curious, how do you manage that? Because that would be difficult to be world class in different areas.

Jeff: Totally. I think when you’re small, it’s okay. You can be really inefficient and you’re actually still more efficient than any efficient large organisation. When you’re small and everybody’s around each other all day long and you can ideate and collaborate on things in real time, it’s okay to not have that great of a structure or organisation. But as you scale and as you grow, it just becomes an absolute necessity. I’d say that on our own founder journey, at first you want to be the key man. You want to score the winning goal, that everybody gets to celebrate. The star on the court in a sense. Then as you grow, you realise that that’s a huge rev limiter in your organisation if you’re the person that’s responsible for doing all this kind of stuff. Then, I think this is a path that’s pretty similar for a lot of entrepreneurs is that you have to retool from being the player to being a coach, to being a good manager, to thinking about structure and organisation in a way that empowers other people to achieve things that even you couldn’t in that discipline or in that silo of work.

At first, we literally didn’t have departments at Summit. The first couple of years, there’s no need. It was an annual event and a couple of investments here and there, it’s not that big of a deal. At this stage, all of these independent entities have their own boards, they have their own CEOs, they have their own governance structures, they have their own teams. Inside of Summit, just specific to the conferences and the events and community company, there’s a world class production team, music and entertainment team, content and programming team, wellness team, art and creative director, a culinary team, and an impact team, that all focus on their own areas all the time. By having specialists, by having department heads that not only are responsible, but they’re frankly ideating a lot of the stuff that we’ll end up doing, that way it’s not just you that’s brought in it’s the entire team that’s bought in.

Some of the great advice that I’ve gotten from our way more sophisticated and successful mentors is, “Stop doing everything.” If you do everything, if you’re telling everybody what to do, or if everybody’s reporting up to you personally, you’re a pretty shitty CEO. You really are limited in what you’re going to be able to go and build and do in the world, and you can’t really empower people around you to take it to another level. I think for us, because we have this platform approach and it’s really not about ego for us. The last thing we need or want is another press piece on ourselves. It makes us a lot happier when our team gets mentioned in media. When we have our own wins from our own investments, it feels a certain amount of good. But when we know that our platform resulted in amazing things coming together, that otherwise wouldn’t have taken place, even though we don’t have personal participation in it, it actually… I mean, this is how we’re wired. It’s why we’re good community builders. We get more serotonin and dopamine from our friends’ wins than from our own.

I think this is something that we’ve grown into. I’m 35 now, I was 24 when we started Summit, 23, 24. You’re just so naive, you know so little, and it means that you can take much bigger risks when you’re on that beginning curve. The more infrastructure and organisation you build typically like that makes organisations more risk adverse over time. But one of the things I will say about that is that it’s actually empowered more creativity for me personally, I was really fearful of the organisation and operationalization of our businesses, because I want to be able to have optionality. I want to be able to be hypercreative, all these things. The reality is that once you build the structure and the foundation around you through empowering other people, you’re really able to grow and move and do things for yourself and for your organisation that are even more important in the future. I love the line of, what got you here, won’t get you there.

Nathan: I agree with you. It’s actually more fun. You can do more fun things. New things.

Jeff: You really have to. If you’re still doing the same things in your organisation that you were doing five years ago, that just means your organisation must not be growing very fast or very well. I just don’t think we live in a world anymore where stagnation… you can’t really just do the same thing for 20 years. I think that in order to just stay relevant… I think the thing that we’re all battling as entrepreneurs is irrelevance, that’s your main competition. It’s not someone else that’s in your industry. It’s just, we’re all battling irrelevance. In order to stay relevant you have to grow, you have to continue to improve. Yeah, I mean, the best way to do that is to empower people around you. None of this stuff came natural to us. This is all stuff that we learned by getting too big for our lack of infrastructure, for our lack of team leadership, and then asking the smarter people and more successful people around us how they did it. That’s really what’s informed our structural growth over time.

Nathan: Yeah, I see. You said something interesting to me where you said that you guys don’t measure an event’s success on profitability. It sounds like you have a decent-sized team. What does success look like for a Summit event and how do you ensure that you guys can build a sustainable business?

Jeff: Well, I think that, yes, you have to build a profitable venture in order to do anything. Things that lose money typically shrink and disappear, things that make money typically grow. Events, in general, are a really difficult business. They’re just expensive, there’s thousands of moving parts, it requires a lot of people, they don’t scale efficiently. WhatsApp can have billions of customers and 30 employees. It doesn’t really work that way in the events business. Our events business really is the cornerstone, the lifeblood, of the rest of our organisation, all the other things that we do and touch. If we optimised for profitability and said, “Hey, let’s do half as many talks, let’s cut lunches, let’s not serve organic food, let’s serve inorganic stuff that’s half the price, cut the coffee, let’s half the music budget.” We can make a few million more dollars every year if we were to do that. But the problem is that your community wouldn’t show up or the quality of community that comes now wouldn’t show up. We are very qualitative as well as quantitative in the way that we manage our business.

Yes, I don’t want to say profitability isn’t important, it’s the most important. I’m a big believer that market-based solutions are the only thing that are going to change the world at scale to the degree that we need and the time that we need them. Policy which follows sentiment, literally laws changing, or market-based solutions. It’s just really hard to achieve the scale that we need to and to battle against the forces that are destructive, that are profitable, without having that type of a vehicle. While we support many nonprofits and there’s tonnes of work, it has to be done through those types of vehicles. The reason Summit is a for-profit entity is specifically because of that. What I’m really saying though is that, the score takes care of itself. If you focus on the quality, if you focus on the experience, if you focus on…

There’s terms like net promoter score or product market fit. What these things are really measuring is sentiment. They’re measuring how people feel about your organisation or your product. If it’s a 10 out of 10, if people would be highly, highly disappointed if they could no longer receive your product, well, then you always have another day to fight. You can always optimise for profitability in ways that don’t hurt the product. You can always add more revenues from new projects and new programmes so long as you protect the house, you protect the core value proposition. I find that a lot of people who have something magic end up sacrificing that magic in order to make the thing profitable, which you do have to do it to some degree. Oftentimes most modern startups don’t have revenue models to begin with. That’s not us, we’re not like a tech company that is growing and spending billions of dollars to do so.

We have actually always had a revenue model through registration fees for our events that made it so that we could survive. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed woman is queen. 12 years ago, there were many other community organisations for entrepreneurs that were starting up. Today you can count them on one hand, that have lasted the test of time in a sense. Having a revenue model, having a profitable business, is the only thing that’s going to keep the lights on. It’s the thing that pays for our staff’s lights and feeds their families. It doesn’t work otherwise. I’m saying that, for our core organising principle, if you are in a for-purpose business… all of our employees could go make more money elsewhere, straight up. That’s not why they come to Summit. It’s not why they’re here. They’re here because of the mission of our organisation. If you make the mission of your organisation make more money, then that has a cascading effect on everyone. You can’t really have it both ways.

We’re really hyperconscious of both at this point. I think that we had plenty of confirmation bias early on like, “Oh, that was successful. This one was successful. That made money, that made money. Why would the next one not?” We’ve learned those lessons the hard way where we that have lost significant amounts of capital and had to retool and had to figure it out, how we were going to pay the bills in a couple of months. Luckily we’re now, both the mountain and the community organisation, deep into the timeline of our startups. We still think of our businesses as startups, even though we’re closing in on a decade at the mountain and over a decade at Summit. Everything is like a 20-year overnight success story. That’s just the way things work, that are established and important.

Nathan: Yeah. I agree. Thank you for sharing, man. I didn’t mean to be contradicting. I was just curious to understand what you guys measure success. How do you measure success? Because you can poll people, but you said something around the long lines of, what was the response? What were people saying? But sometimes it’s what people don’t say, right?

Jeff: Well, that’s a different topic in a sense, but we think of complaints as great guests. Only those that really care about you will give you true critique. Because if you don’t care about us, then you just won’t say anything, you’ll just move on with your life, or you’ll talk to others about all of our shortcomings. Those that will actually come to you. Everybody will celebrate in the end zone with you when you crush it and everything’s awesome, and they’ll tell you all the great aspects of what you do. But you really should prioritise those that have critical feedback that is sensible. If somebody is just talking negatively about your product because they’re peanut butter jealous, that’s a different story. That shouldn’t affect you emotionally at all either, because how amazing is it that you have something that someone else finds the need to talk about. It means that you’re still doing something that’s important enough that it’s on their tongue.

But yeah, I think that we are like heat-seeking missiles for criticism and critique from those that are in our inner circle. Our method is then to overcorrect, and create constellations of efforts to solve for the things that people are sharing with you. Typically, if somebody gives you critical feedback, it’s not like they thought about it for days and then gave you a real action plan, they said, “Hey, by the way, I experienced something like this.” It’s on you to then go back and really workshop that and really extrapolate it and think about all the ways that you can put that feedback into action. Then when you go back to someone that gave you critique and said, “Hey, thank you for that. This is all the stuff that we did with it.” If they still aren’t into your programme or platform, it’s really on them, not on you.

I think that since we were so young when we started Summit, we really are servant leaders. There’s this term servant leadership. We embody it in a very meaningful way because we were the youngest, least sophisticated people in the room from the very beginning of this organisation. The smart thing for us to do is to really ask our audience, ask the Summit community, who should speak on what topics, what kinds of things should we incorporate into the experience? If you can listen well, all the answers to the questions are right in front of you.

Nathan: Yeah. I love that, because think it’s so key, especially for the level of intimacy. I have a friend that goes to all the events or quite often and you said, “Who was his name?” And I told you his name and you knew him. I’m curious, how do you attract incredible speakers? I watched the interview that Jeff Bezos’ brother did interviewing Jeff Bezos. That was really fascinating by the way.

Jeff: Thank you. Well, I mean, I could ask you the same question. I see Richard Branson on the cover of your magazine. As a startup entrepreneurial platform, how are you attracting these incredible people? I imagine its value proposition on one hand. It’s like it’s an audience of your peers at Summit. Most people in our crowd can get paid to speak at all the other conferences they go to. We don’t pay any speakers. We wouldn’t be able to, just with our budget and the model, but we’ve been able to extract all these remarkable people from all of these different disciplines and backgrounds because we are very forthright in our admiration of their work. We understand what they’re doing, and we’re very, very strategic about being as helpful as we can towards the missions that they are currently stack ranking at the top of the list.

In the case of Jeff Bezos, I think that has a lot to do with our format too. One, it’s a multi-year process. Mark, his brother who interviewed him, long time friend, participated in Summit for a long time. When he was with the Robin Hood Foundation, we did events together and supported his organisation really without the expectation of anything in return. We’re not trying to extract value, we’re trying to create opportunities that are value-created for everyone involved. In the case of Jeff, and that example that you gave, I think that was right around the time that he became the richest man in the world. I think that celebrities and the global elite, it’s very dehumanising and I’m not saying that Jeff has a tough life, he’s having a blast. Don’t get me wrong, he’s having a lot of fun. But there is, the human element of all these people is totally lost.

At Summit, we don’t love the prepared 20-minute presentation style talk, unless you’re one in a million who do that professionally, like Sir Ken Robinson and Esther Perel are the Michael Jordans of public speaking. They do this all the time, and that’s what they do for a living. Most of these business leaders or impact leaders, they focus all of their attention on their work. They’re not working on building incredible talks. Frankly, when it is in the interview structure, there’s this whole got you journalism thing now that, the more salacious, the more clickbaity it is, and when you’re going for the widest audience, there is a incentive now to do that to these people.

Whereas for us, whether it’s Jeff and his brother or any other example, we prefer having dialogues with people that are close to you, with friends of yours that can ask you really meaningful questions and know the right places to follow up. I don’t hang out with Jeff Bezos, I don’t know him that well, so I wouldn’t really be a great interviewer for him. I can research everything, I can read what’s online, I can talk to analysts at Amazon or whatever. Who cares, man? You’re going to get that information anyway. What’s really interesting to us is, what are the practises? What are the processes? What are the values? What’s the foundation of these people, or the stories, that they can tell us from their own perspective that we can really learn from? I think that’s been a really refreshing way in which to engage with these people.

Nathan: Yeah. I’m curious. That particular talk, how many people were there? How intimate was it?

Jeff: I think that theatre holds something like 1,800 people or 1,900 people. That’s a bigger talk for Summit. That’s as big as they get.

Nathan: Yeah, I see. When you’re talking about that kind of… how do you even… you don’t really know him, so you wouldn’t be the best person to interview him. I thought that was really humbling and really interesting, because it reminded me about, now like four years ago or so, Arianna Huffington was in town in Melbourne. She did this intimate talk, it was not publicised or anything, and it was at someone’s house, and I got invited. I remember thinking to myself, it was really, really fascinating because the person interviewing her was a really close friend, and it was just with a group of maybe 100 people. What I took away from that was, wow that was really, really incredible. The reason the interview, whether it was an interview or a talk or whatever you want to call it, that gathering. What made it really, really interesting and really, really impactful for me was because the person knew her quite well, and it was so intimate. That’s why I asked that question.

Jeff: I love that you keep tracking back to intimacy. If someone, and this is a bit of a non-sequitur, but talking just about how do you change people’s thinking? If someone attacks you about something, your defences go up. If somebody comes at you, you have to defend yourself. It’s just a natural reaction in a sense. But when somebody presents something to you in private, and gives you the opportunity to realise either your own hypocrisy or your own shortcomings, and gives you the opportunity to improve upon those things, it has the greatest effect on cognitive dissonance possible. If I have a better set of principles or logic for my opinion, versus your opinion, and we just argue with one another, and we see it worldwide right now, nobody’s mind is changing. If I attack you, you’re going to defend yourself. The ways in which you’ll respond to the questions, to the cue, is totally different.

If somebody is a friend and you know that you can trust them and you know they have your best interest in mind, even when they ask you difficult questions, even when they ask you challenging questions, you can answer from an honest place. Dara, the CEO of Uber was interviewed by his friend and former board member, Brad Gerstner when he was at Expedia at Summit LA19. Brad was asking very challenging questions about Saudi Arabia, about sexual assault, and all these other things. I just thought it was amazing, because if it was a total stranger or a senior journalist or whatever the other format was, there’s just a posture that the interviewee has to take that is defensive. You just don’t get authentic answers.

Even if it is somebody you’ve never met before, we certainly work with plenty of senior journalists as well. It’s not always fireside chats with friends interviewing friends. That’s my favourite format. But even when it is something that is a little bit more traditional in terms of an interview structure, we are very, very involved. We help structure the talk, we make sure that they have calls with each other ahead of time. We work with the speaker on choosing the moderator. We’re not forceful with any of this stuff. I think that the critique that you could make of Summit as this global thought leadership organisation is that, it could be pandering to these speakers. It’s like, well, these guys are… case in point, Amazon has plenty of societal impacts that are not all positive. I don’t think that it’s on Jeff personally to solve those things. I think that he has all of these people that…

If you resonate with Summit, you probably have some kind of world positive desire and design as well. But I mean, the reason we all use Amazon all the time is because it’s awesome, and because it’s made our lives better, and it’s brought us access to millions of things at the click of a button that arrive the same day. It’s literally from the future. All of these things that are positive have negative externalities, it’s just the nature of life. One of the things that we just have to be careful of in this format, in a fair critique, is that, “Hey, how do you really hold people accountable? How is this not a softball interview?” I think that that’s something that we’re still working on today. It’s like, this is new stuff. Because it’s our platform, we get to experiment with it as we see fit, and other people haven’t really done this. There’s not a lot of historical examples or practical examples where you’re like, “Yo, let’s do it that way.”

But we’re basically trying to combine these different needs at the same time in order to elicit just the best knowledge possible. Again my, my intent isn’t, “Wasn’t that the most amazing talk?” I just want to learn. We all want to learn. We’re here to learn from these archetypical leaders. We’re not here to create news. That’s not my goal with Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos talk. I don’t care if it’s in the global press. Certain other global conferences, that’s the main point. For us, it’s all about what’s happening in the room. It’s all about what are the actual takeaways that people can then go back to their businesses, or their families, or their activism and really apply those things. Truthfully, if you can listen to somebody talk for an hour, and there are three or four takeaways that you remember years later, that is as good as it gets.

Nathan: Yeah. I agree 110%. Well, look, I’m a mindful of your time. Man, I’m really enjoying this conversation, but we have to work towards wrapping up. A couple last questions. How do you tackle the challenge where probably you could, hypothetically right now with the Summit brand, scale up big time and double the amount of people while maintaining that curation of great people. Like you said, inherently, growth is really important, personal and also company. How do you tackle that? Then the last one is. Where can people find out more about yourself and Summit?

Jeff: Totally. Well, it’s like these opposite pieces of advice are both at play here. We want to grow and scale, it’s important to keep growing. Yet we want to maintain the qualitative components and the intimacy of the experience, which is the antithesis of growth in some cases. It’s a really tough question and it’s a constant battle. Just like in nature, there’s no such thing as homeostasis, there’s no balance. You never get to a final place where you’re like, “Okay, it’s perfect.” At some points in our history, we needed to scale, and expand, and become more of a significant brand. In 2016, we moved from our flagship event being Summit at Sea where we would charter an ocean liner off the coast of Miami in international waters, which was an amazing event and really, really fun.

It’s a floating temporary autonomous zone, but it’s not serious. It’s an ocean liner. The medium is the message. We could do all the environmental partnerships work imaginable. We built a 90-mile no-take zone in The Bahamas when we went to The Bahamas in 2011. First national park in The Bahamas we funded with the nature conservancy through a Summit event. But all that is to say, you still can attract the top speakers in the world, or the institutional family foundations that can underwrite your nonprofits or fellowship programmes because it’s still a cruise ship. We moved the event to LA, which is one of the global major cities. We did it in downtown LA, which has these amazing theatres and these parking lots that we transformed into parks and these beautiful new hotels.

It’s just a unique environment where all of the things that are there to make amazing are present. It’s also got a terrible homelessness issue, and it’s very much real world. We wanted to not be talking about saving the world or solving the problems of humanity from our exalted place on our ocean liner out in international waters, we wanted to bring the event really, viscerally, into the centre of a place that really needed our work and our effort. Simultaneously, that’s the year that Jeff Bezos came and Reed Hastings came and Mellody Hobson spoke at this last year’s event and Rosalind Brewer and all these unbelievable thought leaders that are not going sailing with us.

After three years of doing a 2,500-person downtown LA event, we’ve now retired that event model and we’re doing two smaller events this year that are much more intimate. One 1500-person event, and one 1000-person event. The same number of attendees, but broken up into East Coast and West Coast event. Because when you look at that core proposition, the size of the events and just all of the things that it brings detracts from the connectivity and the multitude of coalitions that you’ll have with the same people in order to finally form a real relationship. Because we did three years in downtown Los Angeles, we now have a plethora of these really high level relationships that we can now transmute to an event in the desert or an event out in the ocean again.

The thing that was right for the right time then can be right in the future. But that’s my point. We’re always shifting and changing based on what we think is most important for the community at that moment in time. Sometimes it’s scale, sometimes it’s reputation, and other times it’s intimacy and it’s adventure. I just think that these things are always living and breathing because they’re community organisations. It’s just the way that we roll. In terms of learning more and finding out more, you go to, just to learn about, our events, our community, Powder Mountain. There’s videos of certain talks from our events in the past. Then, end of this year we actually, myself and my co-founders, have a book coming out called, Make No Small Plan on Currency, which I hope will make its way to Australia as well.

Nathan: Amazing. Well, look, thank you so much for your time, Jeff.

Jeff: All right, brother. Thanks so much.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Most Popular

The Founder Magazine is an editorial-driven newspaper featuring the most successful founders, entrepreneurs, and executives around the world. We strive to enhance reader experience by providing real editorial value to our readers.

Copyright © 2021 The Founder Magazine

To Top