Career success is difficult. Multiple career successes are exponentially more so.
Today I speak with Jon Taffer, who is best known as the no-nonsense, in-your-face host of Spike TV’s Bar Rescue, where he drives failing bar owners to take ownership of their shortcomings to turn their businesses around. And while his particular brand of bedside manner is one of his greatest assets, he is also a man of many other talents. Along with being the host and executive producer of both Bar Rescue and Hungry Investors (Spike TV), he is also a best-selling author (Raise The Bar), award-winning restaurateur, renowned consultant, digital entrepreneur (BarHQ), and president of the Nightclub & Bar Media Group (which includes the Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show, and Nightclub & Bar magazine).
Taffer has excelled on numerous levels. And with his 30+ years of diverse experience, proven ability to adapt and work outside of the box, and above all, his intimate knowledge of the human condition, I sought out some of the lessons he’s learned on his way up the ladder. See our exchange below:
On People He Most Admires
Parnell: Who are some leaders or executives that you admire most? Maybe someone that you’ve used as a Northstar in your own businesses or career?
Taffer: Well, there are three people [about] whom I’ve read every book ever written, and anything that they’ve written. They’ve been very powerful influences on me. One is Thomas Jefferson, which might be a strange name to throw out. I have a thing for Thomas Jefferson (laughing). His vision, his conviction, his ambition, his politics, his finesse.
If I were to pick the life of someone whom I professionally mimic in many ways, it would be Howard Hughes, surprisingly. I’ll explain why. Howard Hughes created collapsible landing gear. He created the pressurized air cabin. He also created the uplift bra! (Laughing) That says it all! Yes, he owns the patents on the uplift bra. He won an Oscar for films. He created aircrafts, a drill bit that changed the oil business. He was a man who stepped outside of his box all of the time and stepped into new arenas and succeeded. At the end of his life, he was a nutcase, but he had injuries that caused that. In any event, anybody who can grow up as a manufacturer of tools, win an Oscar producing movies, build an aircraft company, and invent the uplift bra, is at a level of diversification that is very meaningful to me.
And the last one, which is probably an obvious one, is Walt Disney. A lot of people don’t know how difficult it was for Walt Disney to open Disneyland, that the blacktop was wet when they opened it because they just got the money to do it! Talk about stepping out of the box. He put everything on the line for a dream that other people thought sounded crazy. That’s Walt Disney.
On Reaction Management
Parnell: What is something in particular about Walt Disney that has influenced you the most?
Taffer: Walt Disney World had an apartment above the firehouse where you first walk through the gate. He would just sit in that little apartment above the firehouse with three windows in it, and from that vantage point, he would watch people. He could see the facial expressions of people on their way in, and the facial expressions of people on their way out. Now, i’m very reaction oriented. And I preach the principle of reaction management. He was really the pioneer of that. He created the transaction experience. And then he made the transactions twice the price.
On Where He’d Invest His Money
Parnell: Consider this: If someone gave you $1M with no recourse attached to it—if you lost the money on a losing investment, it would be no skin off your back—and said you have to invest it in something, what would that be?
Taffer: Considering the economic climate they we’re in today, and the consumer patterns we are seeing out there, it wouldn’t be anything bricks and mortar, I’ll tell you that.
It would be something technology-based because I think the opportunity today is to bring entertainment home, and not bring people to the entertainment. I think that the greatest growth in our future is going to be online rather than within four walls. So anything I would invest in these days would have heavy virtual or digital aspects to it. Even trade shows are becoming more digital. Virtual supermarkets: You can walk down the aisles of the supermarkets from your computer, pull stuff off the shelf, and then they deliver it. I believe that bringing the consumer experience to the home is where I would put my money.
On The Desocialization Of Today’s Culture
Parnell: It is difficult to dispute that entertainment is moving into the home via the digital space. I’m sure you thought about this any number of times, but the nightclub and hospitality industries surround social interactions—people interacting with other people. Virtual technology is the opposite of that. What are your thoughts on this?
Taffer: Let me give it to you another way. If you want to drink tonight, you can make exactly the drink you want at home. Papaya juice, mango, your flavor of vodka, you can produce exactly what you want at home. If you want to watch something on television, years ago, we were the only ones who had NFL Sunday Ticket. Now everybody has it. So, anything I put on my TV in my bar, you can put on at home. You don’t need me for video entertainment. You don’t need me to drink. And you don’t need me for music anymore; you can program your system at home. So, while you don’t need me for those things anymore, there still is something that you do need me for: social interaction. That’s the whole basis of what I call LBE: location-based entertainment.
Human interaction is something that I believe, as humans, we crave for. And that is where bars and social environments come into play. What concerns me is the transformation that our society is going into where we speak less and type more. We communicate far more electronically these days than we do verbally. I can text people and say “Hey, thinking about you. I hope you’re doing well.” I don’t have to call anymore. So I don’t.
Society is causing us to talk less and interact more digitally. So, I’d be remiss if I didn’t believe that businesses will have to follow that same path. I think the one exception to that rule is bars, though. Because that’s the one thing that can’t be duplicated: the social environment.
On What Stresses Him Out
Parnell: What are some of the things that kept you up at night? Maybe when you first got your show? It may have been about your family, your career, whatever it was…
Taffer: You know, it’s interesting, when I created Bar Rescue, I didn’t realize that it would be so invasive. What I mean by that is that Bar Rescue is five days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. And that’s just what you see me doing on camera. What you don’t see is that I have to design the bar. I have to design the logo. I have to design the menus. I have to put together the pricing. And I do all of that while I’m there. And, while I’m shooting the show, I get 80 to 100 emails a day, picking paint colors, designs, furnishings, menus, logos, interior colors. So I have to do the projects while I shoot the show.
So Bar Rescue is so invasive—and I’m getting to your question now—that what kept me up at night when I first got [the show] wasn’t doing the show, but turning my back on everything that wasn’t the show. That’s what was scary to me.
When you’ve been successful your whole life—and look, I’m blessed to have the show, very thankful—but when you have these successful businesses and you get something like the show, and you want to do it, you have to move away from things that were successful to try something brand-new. And I did that. And at not such a young age. That’s what kept me awake at night.
Also, I’m going to share this with you—I’ve never shared this with anybody else—when I went to pitch the TV show, everybody told me, “You’re never to get the show on the air. You’re too old!” So that’s how it started. Everybody’s telling me I’m crazy and that I’ll never get it on the air and that it’s too smart—”Bar shows need to have T&A.” If they said that I could do it, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But they told me I couldn’t do it. And then I had to do it!
On The Combative Nature Of The Bar Owners On His Show
Parnell: On your show, the owners have quite objectively proven that they don’t know how to effectively run a bar. At the same time, you’ve quite objectively proven that you do know how to successfully run a bar. Now, from my viewpoint, as the owner of a failing bar, I’m thinking, “Whatever this guy tells me to do, I’m going to do.” But the bar owners are consistently pushing back on your advice to them. Why do you think that is? What you think drives behavior like that?
Taffer: Well, you know what’s interesting is that they’ve made thousands of bad decisions to have gotten them to that point. Let’s face it: They don’t have a great track record of good decision-making. I have to believe that it’s habit.
People ask me why I scream so loud. I’m not the first person to tell them that their bar sucks. Somebody had to tell them that before. I’m not the first person to tell them that their drinks suck, or that their bar is dirty, or that their food is burnt. They heard all this sh!# before. So, they’ve chosen not to listen other times too, right? You can’t run a lousy business without someone telling you that your business sucks, right? They have a history of being told their business sucks and them not listening. So I have to be the one that they listen to. So I shove it down their throat. I scream and yell and rant and rave and I force them to accept their failure.
On Lessons Learned About Failure
Parnell: You’ve no doubt learned about failure while doing Bar Rescue. A great Bill Gates quote is “It is fine to celebrate success, but [it is more important] to heed the lessons of failure.” Talk to me about the concept of failure.
Taffer: In my 30 years of being in the business, I’ve learned everything there is to learn about success, and not failure. I’ve now done 83 episodes of Bar Rescue, and I’ve learned more about failure than anyone in the world! I know the walk of failure, the talk of failure, the adjectives of failure, the facial expressions of failure. These people work in failure.
In going through 83 failures, and with these types of people, I know what the common denominator of failure is; I figured it out: it is excuses. Let me explain to you what I mean. If you wake up tomorrow morning and say that your business is failing because of Obama, because of Congress, because of the recession, because of the construction industry, because of the euro, whatever the hell you come up with, you have no reason to change. But if you look in the mirror tomorrow morning and say, “I’m failing because of me,” you’re not going to like it, and then you have a reason to change. Nine out of ten people who are failing blame their failure on somebody else. And that is the common denominator of failure.
As long as your failure is somebody else’s fault, there’s no reason to change. So once I look them in the face and make them say and really believe that they are a failure, they don’t like it. Nobody likes a failure, especially not thinking of yourself that way.
On Building A Brand
Parnell: Can you talk to me about building a brand?
Taffer: Well, people think that you build a brand, and then you act that brand. I think the opposite. What you do is the brand. You don’t create a brand; you execute a brand. Your posture is a brand. How fast you walk is a brand. Let me give you an example: Go to a high-end steakhouse, the waiter walks slow and the lights are dim. Go to a low-end steakhouse, the lights are bright and the waiter walks faster. If the waiter walks faster in a high-end steakhouse, that steak isn’t worth $80 anymore, is it?
So, everything we do is branding. Most of the mechanics of the business are branding. The visuals of the business are branding. These are the things that create a brand. So, where I see people blow it is when they think that they’ve created a brand on paper. There’s no such thing as a brand on paper. Brands are executed, they are not written. Brands are delivered, they are not conceived.
On Truisms About Human Nature
Parnell: Being in the bar business, the entertainment industry, and the hospitality industry, no doubt you’ve dealt with all types. At this point in your life, what would you say are some truisms about human nature?
Taffer: You know, there’s an evolution that our culture is going through, which is one of convenience. Everything is created today for our convenience. Less steps, less money, less energy, less this, less that. Unfortunately, those ethics transferred over to the business arena.
Business success was never convenient before. You had to work hard to be successful. As a matter of fact, success was typically inconvenient. Today, convenience is too important. And it affects attitude. And I find a general lack of assertiveness, today, as compared to 20 years ago. I see owners and managers who expect things to be more convenient than they did 20 years ago. And you know what, excuse my language, but there’s nothing #$%&ing convenient about becoming rich! (Laughs) It’s hard, man!
I see a big difference in the owner culture, too. If the owner wants it to be convenient, the employees are certainly going to want it to be convenient, too. I’ve seen this as a shift in attitude. And I often say to people, “Are you just lazy, or are you just ignorant?”
On His Most Beneficial Traits
Parnell: What are the top one or two traits that you credit your success with? You’ve had a very interesting career. And certainly you’ve taken it to a very high level. What are the top one or two things about your personality that helped you achieve this?
Taffer: I think the number one thing about me, about my personality, is my ability to connect with people. Consider this: I show up at your bar and within an hour I’m cursing you out, calling you a bum, calling you a loser, a failure; I’m beating the hell out of you. The average person that did that would get punched in the face and thrown out. I don’t, because I have this ability to look into someone’s eyes and connect with them in a matter of minutes. So the point is that they trust me enough to take it from me.
Now, if they look in my eyes and don’t believe in or trust in me, then everything falls apart, and that’s why Bar Rescue works. When they look into my eyes, they sense that I mean well; they sense that they can trust me. And their employees know that they can trust me. My clients know they can trust me. What you see is what you get. I can be an ass sometimes—and you can quote me on this—but there’s a fine line between being assertive and being an ass. It’s a very fine line that I cross a lot, but I can cross it because the people around me trust me. They know that I mean well. So connection and trustworthiness are number one. Number two is—and you can see this if you watch enough of Bar Rescue—that I really do care. I am going to leave these people in a better place if it kills me. (Laughs)
So if people trust your intentions and are willing to take a chance on you because of that trust, and if people believe that you care about them, then they will get behind you. You can become the Pied Piper. Without those, you can have all the experience in the world and it doesn’t mean anything.
On Business Lessons That Transcend Industries
Parnell: What would you say are the top one or two lessons that you’ve learned over the years that transcend industry boundaries?
Taffer: Well, nobody achieves greatness in business without managing someone. This is cold and hard and I don’t mean this in a negative sense, but he who manipulates the best gets the most out of their employees.
Now, if I give you a raise at 50%, that’s not a bad thing, is it? But I did it for a reason. I didn’t do it for you; I did it for me. It’s a kick in the ass to get you to do better. That’s not a bad thing. I’m helping you in the end. So “manipulation” is kicking you in the ass with a raise. It’s reprimanding you. It’s motivating you. But at the end of the day, he who manipulates the most productivity out of their employees is going to make the most money.
So, what I’m saying is that I achieve my objectives by the exploitation of employees and the customers around me. If they don’t respond to my exploitation of them, then I don’t win. So I say exploitation in a positive way. I exploit my employees. I exploit my customers. That’s what I do. But I have to make them want to be exploited.
On His Legacy
Parnell: Now let’s go out 30 years or so—and this a bit macabre—but imagine there we are at your funeral looking at your tombstone, your epitaph; what do you want your legacy to be? If there can only be one sentence on your tombstone, what would you want to read?
Taffer: “He took his business and his career to a level that other people haven’t.” I think that says it all.
David Parnell, Forbes Contributor