Keys to Leonsis's success: Networking and dedication to work, no matter how menial
Former AOL mogul Ted Leonsis is riding high.
His Washington Capitals are the hottest team in the National Hockey League, selling out every game and setting franchise records for television viewership.
Leonsis, 54, and another former AOL guy, Steve Case, each pocketed tens of millions of dollars when they sold their Revolution Money start-up to American Express last year.
Now comes Leonsis's book "The Business of Happiness," which details his rise from a lower-middle-class Brooklyn, N.Y., kid to super-rich entrepreneur, sports team owner and documentary film producer.
The book isn't bad. I knew some of it, but not the whole story. The chronology, in Forbes 400 speak: son of cook, graduated from Georgetown University; started in public relations at Wang Laboratories; founded early software magazine, which was sold to what eventually became Thomson Reuters, helping him pocket $20 million at age 27; started a new media marketing firm called Redgate Communications, which he later sold to AOL for $40 million, taking stock in the deal; personal net worth reached $800 million at AOL's peak; bought Capitals, chunk of Wizards and Verizon Center in 1999; was early Google investor, and now funds start-ups and documentary films.
I phoned Leonsis and asked about the key takeaways from his life as a successful entrepreneur.
He offered one I had not heard before: attacking even menial jobs with vigor and using them as stepping stones to something better.
"Enjoy it and use it as a way to get to network," he said. "No job is too small to covet."
Sounds corny, but he referred me to a section early in his book about when he was attending the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, where his parents had moved to be near family. Leonsis mowed lawns for extra money, and one of the lawns was owned by a wealthy stockbroker and Georgetown alum named Jim Shannon.
Leonsis cultivated Shannon, cutting his grass with extra care to impress the older gentleman. Leonsis later asked Shannon to write a letter to the Georgetown admission office. Leonsis said he wasn't going anywhere until he entered the D.C. school.
Another break came when he threw himself into a college English project to prove that Ernest Hemingway wrote "The Old Man and the Sea" years before the book was published. Leonsis, with encouragement from a mentor, the Rev. Joseph Durkin, used computers and primitive punch cards to prove his case. It introduced him to the power of computers, and he never looked back.
Leonsis said networking and cultivating "influencers" have always been keys to his success. One only need look at the luxury suite at Capital games, often filled with politicians, journalists, businesspeople and decision-makers, to know that Leonsis still follows his own advice: "If you don't have good connections, good networks, nothing will happen."