Jeff Staple: Do you meditate?
Aaron Levant: I was just [crosstalk 00:00:03]-
Jeff Staple: Yeah, but you’re not a meditator.
Aaron Levant: I downloaded Headspace. I used it once for 10 seconds.
Jeff Staple: And you’re like-
Aaron Levant: I got distracted.
Jeff Staple: … I got shit to do.
Aaron Levant: Then I put it in one of those folders in your phone, like little app folders, and then I pulled it back out recently and I’m like, “I’m gonna use it.” I put it in a really prominent location somewhere next to my email so I’ll try to use it all the time, and I never use it.
Jeff Staple: Do you get stressed?
Aaron Levant: Of course. Everyone gets stressed. If they say you don’t then either you’re some monk that I don’t understand or you’re a liar, but absolutely I get stressed.
Jeff Staple: So it’s all about how you handle it, I guess?
Aaron Levant: I feel like I stress myself out all the time. That’s how I motivate myself. I put my back against the wall and I have to fight to get out of it. I feel like stress is my energy, I guess, in a weird, sick way.
Jeff Staple: Do you have to release yourself from the stress?
Aaron Levant: The way that I release myself is by finishing the project, checking the box. There’s no way I’m going to go relax or take a vacation. That doesn’t relieve me from the stress if the project isn’t finished. I could be on a beach in Bora Bora, and if that thing that’s stressing me out isn’t done yet or handled then I’m stressed.
Jeff Staple: That’s why those meditation things don’t work for you.
Aaron Levant: I haven’t tried them, so maybe they will work for me, just honestly I haven’t given myself the proper time to go do that. Maybe driving is my meditation, I guess.
Jeff Staple: Right, in L.A. you get an hour and a half of downtime silence. I have a preflight checklist.
Aaron Levant: What does that mean?
Jeff Staple: Because I’m not so used to recording podcasts, so silence phones, you did that, I got to do that. Speak into the mic, this is your mic facing you.
Aaron Levant: Okay, clock’s ticking.
Jeff Staple: From HYPEBEAST Radio, I’m Jeff Staple and this is the Business of Hype, a show about creative entrepreneurs, brand builders, innovators, and the realities behind the dreams they’ve built. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Aaron Levant since the early 2000s, and seeing where his passions and career have taken him has been amazing to watch. He was part of a small T-shirt brand called Green Apple Tree that we stocked at my shop, Reed Space. That’s how we met.
Jeff Staple: Now before we get too far into this episode, I feel I need to shed some background information on what a trade show is, because unless you work in the industry, you might not exactly know what that is. Essentially if you have a brand, and mind you this is pre-Internet e-com sales, your goal was to get that brand into stores, and as many stores as possible, all across the country, all across the world. Now you could do that in one of two ways. You could get in a car, train, bus, or plane and literally travel around the world door to door trying to get these stores to buy your brand, which as fun as that sounds, you’d soon run out of money doing that.
Jeff Staple: Or, you attend a trade show. Now imagine a massive convention center, literally bigger than a sports arena, housing hundreds if not thousands of brands in your similar industry. There’s ones for tech, ones for golf, ones for golf, ones for mountain wear, ones for ladies’ lingerie, ones for shoes, ones for fashion, you name it. Now you go to these conventions for three to four days and all the world’s stores flock to you, rather than you flying around to see them. The other benefit is the networking that naturally occurs when you have hundreds of buyers, sellers, press, designers, et cetera, et cetera, all housed under one roof, so in principal, it’s a good thing.
Jeff Staple: Here’s the problem. As these trade shows grew and grew, and by the way, trade shows like ASR, which was Action Sports Retailer, and MAGIC, which was the Men’s Apparel Guild in California, no really, that’s really what it stood for, these trade shows would grow to become billion dollar behemoths. Soon a natural pecking order forms, right? Big brands with big budgets get all the love. Small brands that are filled with passion but not deep pockets get shitted on. You start to get this gentrified mall feeling.
Jeff Staple: Okay, so that’s the Cliff Notes version of what a trade show is. Now back to Aaron. Aaron is what I’d call a disruptor, because not only did he see a flaw in the system, he put into action a plan to turn the whole thing upside down. Now in this particular episode we get to witness a very successful entrepreneur closing one chapter in his life and opening upon a new one, and lucky us, we have the luxury of watching it unfold in real time.
Jeff Staple: So for those who don’t know, just give us an introduction of who you are and what you do.
Aaron Levant: I’m Aaron Levant. I am the founder of Agenda and I also produce an event called ComplexCon. I guess those are the two things that I’m known for, and I’ve done a bunch of other random stuff among the years not worth mentioning.
Jeff Staple: Not worth mentioning. So this podcast recording is at a very fortuitous moment, a crossroads moment in your life maybe, because just this week, it’s funny that I asked you what you do, but it’s just this week that you announced that you’re going to be changing what you’re doing.
Aaron Levant: Yeah, I announced I think yesterday publicly earlier this week, Bobby Hundreds announced that I would be leaving the company that I founded after 15 years. I’ve been working in apparel for almost 19 years, and I’m going to leave this chapter of my life behind and go pursue a new career.
Jeff Staple: Do you know what that new career is yet?
Aaron Levant: Absolutely. I think for me, I’m definitely looking for a new challenge. I feel I’ve learned everything I can learn about events, trade shows, festivals, that kind of thing. I don’t want to say I’m the best or whatever, but I’ve definitely learned a lot about that. For me, I’ve always been jumping, not in a negative way, but jumping from thing to thing learning about whatever. Graffiti, graphic design, I used to do motion graphics, and film editing, and I published a magazine. I’ve always tried all these different things and I learn about that thing and I keep going. One thing I stuck with the longest was the apparel industry and different iterations of that. I ran a sales agency, running Agenda, starting ComplexCon, starting Agenda Festival, just learning everything I can along the way and I think I reached the point where I have my doctorate in this business and I want to learn something else. I’m interested in media, I’m interested in other new types of platforms.
Aaron Levant: I’m always still interested in experience, but just different kinds of experience. Experience can be a lot of things, doesn’t have to be a festival or a con. Things like Museum of Ice Cream is an experience, or 14th Factory in L.A., if you’ve been to that. Those are experiences. Museums are an experience, going to The Broad is an experience. So, I just think I’ll always have a passion for building experience, but I think there’s a lot of different iterations of that I’d like to explore.
Jeff Staple: I think I read somewhere that you said people have three chapters in their life, I think you said, right?
Aaron Levant: Yeah.
Jeff Staple: This is sort of the end of your second chapter.
Aaron Levant: My first chapter.
Jeff Staple: Oh, your first chapter? Okay.
Aaron Levant: I think you have room for three major chapters in your career. In life, I think there’s more than that, but my career, yeah.
Jeff Staple: Okay, so you’re embarking on chapter two.
Aaron Levant: Chapter two.
Jeff Staple: Let’s go back to the beginning of chapter one really quick.
Aaron Levant: I mean, my very first thing I did in business, which I often forget about, but when I was like eight or nine years old, I still have an affinity for cars, but I had an affinity for cars at that age and I published a car magazine. I literally went and I cut pictures out of all my other favorite books and magazines and assembled them on a piece of paper with glue sticks and whatever. I did a nice cover, I did some typesetting, and I built this magazine called Hot Cars, and I was eight or nine years old. I went to my next door neighbor who was an Arby’s franchisee and I sold him the back cover. So I had an Arby’s ad and advertisement on the back cover. That’s my first sale that I ever made. I literally went and I photocopied off 15 copies and I started selling them to kids at school, and at camp, and that was my introduction into entrepreneurialism. Ever since then I’ve always just been trying to hustle shit.
Jeff Staple: You know what’s ironic? That whole concept is so on trend right now. If you just made a zine, called it Hot Cars…
Aaron Levant: One of my buddies has a zine company. It’s funny, we’ve always been messing with zines and things like that, and I didn’t realize that was in the last couple years becoming very hot. That whole L.A. Book Fair, I went to that recently. I know the guy died or killed himself, it’s just really said. It was an amazing event, but yeah, that’s so crazy because it’s something I’ve had an affinity for forever.
Jeff Staple: So then what other entrepreneurial endeavors did you have?
Aaron Levant: I started a graffiti website when I was in ninth grade. I started a T-shirt company. I tried to put out a series of graffiti DVDs. I was really interested in street art and graffiti from a very young age. Did that for a while, and then I interned at Warner Brothers when I was in the tenth grade and I got kicked out of high school, running packages in the back lot, but I was working at Warner Animation and I started designing stuff, so I got interested in graphic design there. Then I got my life defining moment, I guess, the change from being the juvenile delinquent, wannabe graffiti thug to actually getting into the business world was when I got kicked out of high school in tenth grade. Then I started an internship with Gypsies and Thieves, iconic L.A. street wear brand in 1998, 1999.
Jeff Staple: What’d you get kicked out of high school for?
Aaron Levant: I was constantly getting in trouble for everything from fighting with kids to whatever, having weed at school, to being oppositionally defiant which continues to be my attitude to this day. Pretty much everything that you could do wrong, I did.
Jeff Staple: And they just kicked you out?
Aaron Levant: Yeah. They had a meeting with me and my parents at the district level. First you get in trouble with the school, then you get in trouble with the district, so the superintendent of the school district called me and my parents in and they said, “This is Aaron’s last chance, and if he does one more thing wrong he’s done at this school district forever,” kind of thing. Then the next week I got arrested at school. I just put the nail in my coffin pretty much forever.
Jeff Staple: Did you go to college?
Aaron Levant: No, I didn’t finish. I made it through the homecoming dance time, whenever that is, whatever part of year that is of tenth grade, and then I never finished high school. I never went to college.
Jeff Staple: Wow. Crazy.
Jeff Staple: It’s a cliched common anecdote that the dropouts are the ones who become the ridiculously crazy success stories, but speaking as a double dropout myself, I don’t think any of us are saying, “Drop out of school and you’ll be successful.” There’s obviously other elements needed. For Aaron, he even conveniently coined a term for us. All his life he practiced oppositional defiance. He looked at the way the system was doing things and said, “I think it should be done different. I oppose this. I defy this.” This could be the foundation of Aaron’s personality. He had a passion for the culture that surrounded him: graffiti, design, and street art, what have you, but he focused his passions into his contributions to the culture. He might not have been the best T-shirt designer or the best zine maker or the best graph artist, but what he did do best was provide a platform for these individuals to speak on. These three elements, the passion, the defiance, and the fact that nothing would stand in his way, not even high school, would be the ingredients that led to his success.
Aaron Levant: I did nothing for a while. Continued to follow graffiti and do stuff like that, and then I just randomly landed this internship. One of the first things I ever did randomly was I met the owner of the company through my friend Tal, and they needed help going to the ASR trade show, setting up their booth, so that was my first job, carrying boxes, helping drill in walls and stuff like that.
Jeff Staple: ASR back then was like the monster show, right?
Aaron Levant: It was huge. It was actually here in Long Beach, maybe was the first one I went to? I showed up and my eyes were wide open. Just wow, culture and just every famous skater and athlete and even Tribal had all these famous graffiti writers and this company GAT, all the graffiti writers that I was interested in growing up, who I was idolizing and looking up to. Guys from AWR and MSK graffiti crews out of L.A. and the west coast were all working at these companies as graphic designers, so not only getting to meet these guys, but see they were making careers out of their work. It was really interesting and I was glued. I just stuck around and talked the guy into giving me an internship, and never looked back from there.
Jeff Staple: Then where to you go from Gypsies and Thieves?
Aaron Levant: I stayed there for a long time, first starting off as an intern. Then working my way up from sorting the guy’s magazine to doing unpaid graphic design work and trying to make a promotional video for them, because I had this little bit of self taught background in film, and editing, and motion graphics, and stuff like that. One day the assistant graphic designer quit, and I just put my hand up and said, “Hey, until you hire someone, can I fill in for this guy?” Just volunteered and pushed my way in there. He was like, “All right.” I just started hustling at that and I filled the role and they never filled it and then I just worked my way up from that to head graphic designer, just kept working my way up the ladder, worked on marketing.
Jeff Staple: I love hearing stories like this. Aaron literally started at the bottom and grinded his way to the top. He didn’t ask for handouts. He patiently waited his turn to show and prove. You might have heard of the term, “entitlement.” This is the exact oppose of that. Like a running back who waits for the right block, Aaron and dozens of other successful entrepreneurs share this same trait. You train your mind, body, and spirit like you’re about to play in the Super Bowl, then you sit and wait for the call because in this world, nobody owes you jack shit.
Jeff Staple: Part of being great founder is to look for ideas everywhere. In fact, I say put your antennas up when you least expect to find a moment of inspiration. So often I hear sparks of genius occurring in the least obvious places, and for the last 15 years, the Agenda trade show has become a household name. “Jeff, what’s going on next week?” “Agenda, enough said.” Now we get to hear how the idea was born.
Aaron Levant: But through that process of working there, I’m obsessed with saving things. I would say I’m almost a pack rat and I have every Vapors Magazine, Accelerators Magazine, Complex Magazine, every graffiti magazine. I just have boxes of stuff in my garage rotting with mold on it, probably, but this guy Louis was big on saving stuff as well, and I found this flier in his warehouse. It said, “Agenda Art Music Beer.” It’s this old, funky little flier, and I asked him, “What’s this?” He said, “Yeah, we used to do these parties downtown, one night art shows with music and art, and it was really cool, dah dah dah.” I was like, “Well, this is awesome. Let’s do this again.”
Aaron Levant: So he was doing it in the early 90s, and I found this flier, and I convinced him, “So, let’s do this again in our warehouse in downtown L.A.” Around the time we were also starting GAT, was G-A-T, or Gypsies and Thieves, was having a hard time, so around the same year we relaunched GAT as a label called Green Apple Tree, which I think we used to sell you at Reed Space probably, and had this organic, earthy tone to it. It was still a street wear brand. Same year we relaunched Agenda as a warehouse party called Agenda Art Music Beer.
Jeff Staple: So it started as a warehouse party?
Aaron Levant: Yeah, in our warehouse. We’d clear all the racks out at the GAT warehouse and we’d have cool local artists, street artists like Coffee and Access and just a lot of people we’re friends with, and had different deejays come, and beer. That was it, and we did that three or four times somewhere in 2001, 2002.
Jeff Staple: Can you tell us at this point, are you making a lot of money now doing these jobs and stuff?
Aaron Levant: Making no money. I was working at GAT for $10 an hour, whatever.
Jeff Staple: Even with all these added roles that you’re doing.
Aaron Levant: Yeah, I mean the company was doing very poorly at that time. Green Apple Tree had just started and my brand never really made any money. I was just stoked to be there. I was living at home with my parents, and at that point I had my license suspended from, if you get arrested for minor in possession of alcohol before you’re 21 years old or whatever, they suspend your license from 16 to 18. So I was living in Agoura Hills, which is pretty for north in L.A., and I was taking two buses and subway to get to work every day. So I was commuting back and forth three hours each way every day and I was just so stoked to be there. I didn’t care. I live with my parents, I didn’t have any expenses, and the guy would buy me lunch, and I was stoked.
Jeff Staple: What did your parents think of what you were doing?
Aaron Levant: At first they thought I was a liar, because I had just been such a compulsive liar, horrible person until that point, and everything I said was manipulative, and I said I was going to my friends house, I was really going to a rave or whatever. I was always doing something bad, so when I told them I’m going to downtown L.A. every day they didn’t believe me. Then one of their friends was like a… I forget what he did, in some industry, who’d gone out of town. He was driving one day and he called my parents and said, “I saw Aaron walking on the street in downtown L.A. I think he’s buying drugs. Are you guys worried about him?” I was really just working. It was the arts district in L.A., which is now, there’s a [so 00:17:28] house going in, there’s always cool stuff, but you were talking about 1999, downtown L.A. was not a cool place to be.
Jeff Staple: If you were walking there, you were looking for trouble.
Aaron Levant: Yeah, it was literally a warehouse district and Skid Row and some dilapidated buildings. It was not the hipster Williamsburg-esque area that it is now. So this a very different time, but I was just hustling there, working as hard as I could. Then yeah, everything-
Jeff Staple: So, how did the Agenda warehouse parties turn into something that generates money?
Aaron Levant: 2002 was a pretty transformative year. The brands were going, Green Apple Tree was picking up a little bit of hype, and we were going to a lot of events. We’d been going for the last couple of years to MAGIC and to ASR as a brand. I went with GAT, then we went with Green Apple Tree, and then when Green Apple Tree started catching a little steam we went to this thing in New York called TBC which you probably remember.
Jeff Staple: Oh, To Be…
Aaron Levant: To Be Confirmed.
Jeff Staple: To Be Confirmed, which was early trade show.
Aaron Levant: Really ahead of its time. I had gone to MAGIC and I’d gone to ASR and they seemed overwhelming to me. I went to To Be Confirmed in New York and essentially they just got this loft at the Starret-Lehigh building in Chelsea, wherever that was, and it was just a big empty floor. They set up some rolling racks, and these little signs, and a table, and a chair, and a cool deejay, and it was just a stark space, and it was just really cool brands there. It was more about the curation and the product than, there wasn’t really any flair of the show. It was just cool buyers, cool brands, cool music, some drinks, and pretty simple. I went there and I’m like, “Oh, this is pretty fucking cool.”
Jeff Staple: So you went there as an exhibitor?
Aaron Levant: As an exhibitor, yeah. Then maybe six months later I went to, Pool Trade Show had launched. They were in a hotel, it was just hotel rooms. It was really early days. It was literally, Josh from [Red Five 00:19:21] had the booth next to me, things like that. It was that era.
Jeff Staple: When you say Green Apple Tree at this point was starting to take off, do you remember what [crosstalk 00:19:32] the sales was?
Aaron Levant: A couple hundred thousands dollars, if that. Take off relative to what I thought was a big deal back then. GAT at its peak I think was doing millions of dollars, we weren’t there yet. We were just early days. If we were getting in some cool accounts, and getting written up in some Japanese magazines, and-
Jeff Staple: And you were happy, so stoked.
Aaron Levant: Yeah. We may have sold a shirt to BeamsT, we were so excited, but I didn’t have any relative experience what money was or profit margin or whatever, I was just excited there was energy and people wanted something that we had done. So I went to these shows, and then I was like, “Man, this is pretty cool. This is pretty easy. You rent a room, and you just call your friends who own brands, and you charge them some money…” At that point TBC was five grand, I didn’t understand that.
Aaron Levant: So, I was driving to the ASR show in September of 2002 and my mom was driving me, I still couldn’t drive at that point I think or whatever it was, and meeting me to go drop me at the subway or to [Louis 00:20:28] or whatever. I was like, “Hey, do you think I should…” I told her about these shows I went to, whatever. I was like, “I think I should, like, do this.” She’s like, “Yeah, you should go for it.” I’m like, “Okay,” and I showed up at that ASR show and I started talking to the guys around me. At that point it was maybe Immortal, Social Studies, this crew of dudes, Ricky Kim was there. It was a weird, we were all around the Stussy booth, who was the gods. I was just talking to my neighbors, and what was Wayne’s brand? [Rider's Bench 00:20:56].
Jeff Staple: Yeah, Rider’s Bench.
Aaron Levant: These kind of dudes, and I remember I saw Dennis from the Crooks guys there, they had a big game hunter, it was this era. I just started talking to people. I’m like, “Yeah, next show I’m going to do my own show across the street from ASR. Are you guys down?”
Jeff Staple: So these are all small little 10 by 10 brands that you’re just aligning. I guess everyone has a frustration, because otherwise [crosstalk 00:21:22]-
Aaron Levant: We were paying five thousand bucks to go to ASR or MAGIC, and there wasn’t a big hype around our category. This was the point where you’d be cool in America and you do some business in Japan, and maybe you get a couple boutiques in America.
Jeff Staple: Aaron’s patience at the GAT brand allowed him to rise up in the ranks of a small company. That same patience allowed Aaron to observe this flawed system, a white space that he felt he could fill. Well, that’s great, but how many times have you complained about something and did nothing about it? Well, Aaron did something about it. And here’s a secret: he didn’t wait to perfect it. He jumped into the pool and then asked if there was water in it. Taking that hunch, doing a modicum of research, and then executing on the vision was the key to success for Aaron.
Aaron Levant: So, it was just like they didn’t give a shit. We were just another number. I don’t know if we were frustrated, but it just didn’t matter. Why do you want to pay all this money and get very small ROI? There wasn’t this big street wear trend yet. There was still Billabong at the front and center, whatever it was. I just started talking with no real plan. “Hey, I want to do this thing, are you guys down?” “Yeah, sure, whatever.” So after I saw there was a consensus of people who were down, I found this place called the Naga Restaurant not far from here in Long Beach. The ASR was at this building at this point, and I found some Thai restaurant. It was probably a horrible venue.
Jeff Staple: You found a Thai restaurant nearby the convention center?
Aaron Levant: Yeah. Not even that nearby, actually. In retrospect, it was a horrible location. You got to get in a car and drive. There’s probably places I could have gotten right here, for me to rent a restaurant, but I paid them $3,000 to rent the restaurant for four days or whatever it was, called all my friends, I got 30 brands to sign up and pay $500 to have a booth there. I rented a shuttle bus that would take people, pull up the front here, I put some decals on it, pull up front the convention center. I got some of my friends from high school to stand in front with a sign saying, “Jump on in.” My friend had…
Jeff Staple: Did you have permission from ASR to do this?
Aaron Levant: No, no, no, no.
Jeff Staple: So you’re pulling accounts and customers away from ASR.
Aaron Levant: I had gotten a mailing list from my friend who was a rep for DVS or something, or stole it, I don’t know what it was, but I had this mailing list of all the skate accounts in the country, and me and my mom and my grandmother literally, before I knew what a mailing house was, literally I printed postcards and we were sitting there licking stamps and putting on labels, and literally I sent out 1,000 postcards to every skate account in the country. I ran some ads, I put up a little website, I self-published, and 250 buyers showed up at the first one.
Jeff Staple: And that was called Agenda?
Aaron Levant: It was Agenda, except I changed it from Agenda Art Music Beer to Agenda Art Music Fashion, and we had a very horrible logo at the time which I’m not proud of with a western font, which is, I don’t know, the worst font.
Jeff Staple: So do you remember the exhibitors in that first show?
Aaron Levant: Oh, all of them, yeah.
Jeff Staple: You got to…
Aaron Levant: Every single one of them, every single one is out of business except for two, which was a brand called [Howe 00:24:19] and Seventh Letter.
Jeff Staple: Which you own.
Aaron Levant: Yeah.
Jeff Staple: Wait, they’re all out of business?
Aaron Levant: Every single on of them.
Jeff Staple: Name some of them.
Aaron Levant: Apex Museum, do you remember that brand? It was a really fucking cool brand. Really cool. Social Studies. I guess Mass Appeal was in that show as a T-Shirt brand, but they had gone out of business on this new iteration, but it was literally [Adrian Molder 00:24:40] and Patrick [crosstalk 00:24:42]. They were there, that was sad. Lithium.
Jeff Staple: I remember Lithium.
Aaron Levant: This brand called Savier which was a skate brand that Nike owned when Nike [crosstalk 00:24:53] didn’t work the first time. They had bought a company before it launched called Savier and they were launching their skate-
Jeff Staple: I remember.
Aaron Levant: … an internal competitive exercise. So actually Nike in a way, I got a check for the very first show from Nike, Inc. for $500. I saved the check, which was cool. There were so many. Siphon.
Jeff Staple: Yeah, I remember Siphon.
Aaron Levant: Immortal. I mean just go down the list. So many just random little street wear companies. Outdoor Terrier. I don’t know if these brands are going to mean anything to you. I mean, it was just totally organic but some cool… Fred Segal, remember Tony from Fred Segal had the street wear shop, he showed up. We had Beams [end ship 00:25:33] showed up. Bloomingdale’s showed up. Some really cool stores showed up and people were stoked. They were like, “Yeah, $500, I saw some of the top buyers in the world.” Some people got some crazy orders and it was on.
Jeff Staple: So you were probably profitable from the first show, huh?
Aaron Levant: Yeah. I think I spent $6,000 and I made $8,000. Profitable to a small margin, but profitable nevertheless.
Jeff Staple: But it showed you I think the math. If I spend this and get the space, I get people to come, I make money.
Aaron Levant: Exactly.
Jeff Staple: Just now it’s tenfold, hundredfold, thousandfold, but it’s the same calculation as the Thai restaurant.
Aaron Levant: Yes, and things just got bigger. So I went from 30 brands to 50 brands, and each time I went from $500 to $600, then I get to 70 brands and $700. Then get a bigger space, the cost actually got cheaper, the price of the booths went up, I got more brands, I spent a little more money on promotion…
Jeff Staple: What do you mean the space got cheaper? The renting of the space?
Aaron Levant: Per square foot, I ended up getting a larger space that was more of an event space. There was actual space I could put people in rather than shoving someone behind the bar or in the little private [crosstalk 00:26:39]-
Jeff Staple: Next to the bathroom.
Aaron Levant: … or in a hallway. Some people are like, “What the fuck are you doing?”
Jeff Staple: Right. “Why am I so close to the men’s room?”
Aaron Levant: Yeah, just, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I’m not sure that I do now either, but I definitely didn’t know what I was doing then. It’s just this business formed.
Jeff Staple: Did it ever get to a point where you butted heads with the big trade show companies?
Aaron Levant: When I first did it, it wasn’t like I was thinking I want to make a business out of this. I just want to do this. So after the first or second show I actually called ASR, because I was running around, I’m trying to get his space, struggling to find space because ASR was smart, they locked up all the big spaces around them for this exact reason. Same reason Agenda does it now, too. I called the head of ASR. I just went to the website, I’m like, “Oh, who owns ASR?” I just picked up the phone, I’m like, “Hey, what’s up? I’m this dude.” My idea was, “Hey, can I just rent space from you?”
Jeff Staple: Since you locked it up?
Aaron Levant: It seemed logical to me. Instead of me running around doing all this hassle trying to get a space, and get racks, I’m like, “Oh, ASR has a bunch of space. I’ll just rent it from them and I’ll sell it to people for a little bit more money. It’d be great.” I didn’t even care about making money, I just wanted to do this cool street wear thing.
Jeff Staple: You’re just looking for space right now to house all this stuff.
Aaron Levant: So, I called them, and they’re basically like, “What?” They’re like, “You’re fucking crazy. Stop calling me. What do you want?” I kept calling him. I kept doing the show and I just kept calling him. He eventually decided to meet with me. He’s like, “I’ll meet with you in like a month. I gotta go to ISPO in Germany.” I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to ISPO,” which I totally lied, and I got on a plane and I flew to ISPO in Germany just to go meet this guy.
Jeff Staple: Just to meet him.
Aaron Levant: Just to meet the guy, and I just wanted to look like I was on his level. I’m like, “Oh, I’m in Germany, you must be in Germany,” kind of thing. “You must be important if you’re here too.” I was 19, 20 years old. I was very naïve. I showed up and I had this meeting with him and he basically dissed me. Then…
Jeff Staple: You didn’t have the meeting, or he dissed you in the meeting.
Aaron Levant: It was during the meeting. He was like, “Why would we sell you space? Piss off,” basically. That was a defining moment for me because I’m very competitive. I was like, “Oh.” I didn’t think it was a competition until that point. I’m like, “Oh, no, it’s on. Fine, you don’t want to get down with me? I’m going to go do my own shit.”
Jeff Staple: Because this whole time you’re just trying to almost work with him and give him money in a sense. You’re thinking…
Aaron Levant: I offered to pay them money for space inside their show. I asked for a discount. I said, “If I buy like 10,000 square feet worth of space, can I buy that at a lower price than I would if I’m buying one booth? Then I’m just going to sell it to people for a little bit more, and that’s my business, working a section.” That was my idea. I didn’t know any better, why that would be a bad idea to give them all my customers [crosstalk 00:29:05]-
Jeff Staple: But his reaction was like, “Oh, okay. This is a battle.”
Aaron Levant: His reaction was, “Why would we work with you? You’re a child. Who are you, child? Stop speaking to me.” I encountered that a lot in my career.
Jeff Staple: You must have heard of the expression, “Ignorance is bliss?” Yeah, that was Aaron. Almost adorably so, because it was this ignorance of just calling the owner of ASR, this ignorance of just flying to Germany to meet him, and the ignorance of thinking his then greatest enemy might actually be an ally. That was precisely the rude awakening Aaron needed to go into full overdrive on his dream of Agenda.
Aaron Levant: So, I just kept going, and then over the years just got bigger and bigger and-
Jeff Staple: So where did you end up finding the space?
Aaron Levant: Eventually in San Diego I found this big space called the San Diego Concourse. It was pretty big, I mean big relative, it was 60,000 square feet. You’ve probably been to that show. It was big enough for me to put a couple hundred brands in, 200 brands. This was before people were building booths, it was just a rack. Eventually Stussy and Obey came and built some booths and started the space race. Yeah, just running it from there.
Jeff Staple: Yeah, and it just kept growing and growing.
Aaron Levant: Growing and growing. We did have some times when it stopped working. When the industry started getting more serious and street wear really started to blow, our show, and then MAGIC was doing [Slate 00:30:34], and all these things were happening, bigger companies were catching on to the trend and they were really spending money. I was never really spending any money in the beginning. They were having these big parties, and had these nice looking booth systems, and all this shit. Our stuff didn’t evolve and then there was a point when people were like, “Oh, we’re going to stop doing it,” and ASR invented some copycat product called Black Box Mission, and they were offering all of our customers free space.
Aaron Levant: I had hiccups along the way. I was fighting to get people back. I distinctly remember I had this dinner with Dre Hayes from The Foundation. They had told me they’re not going to do the show anymore with any of their brands, and I took Dre out to dinner in L.A., begged him to stay at the show. He’s like, “Oh, it’s not worth it to fly my reps and put them in hotels.” I said, “Okay. I’ll buy you plane tickets. I’ll pay for your hotel.” I was so desperate to keep the show together. It was literally falling apart because the industry was maturing and I didn’t understand the speed at which I needed to reinvest in the business. I thought I could just keep throwing racks out there. It was at that time when I really started to reinvest and to really start to take the show seriously.
Jeff Staple: What year into the business was that?
Aaron Levant: 2007, maybe.
Jeff Staple: Okay. So, the five year itch is, most businesses, they hit a five year point and then it starts to stall.
Aaron Levant: Yeah. 2007, 2008 is also when we saw this economic crash [crosstalk 00:31:51] the country, so things were getting tough. Street wear’s exploding but the business was getting hard. I’m like, “I’m not giving this up. I like this too much.” That’s the year I decided to start flying buyers into the show. That was a big turning point for us. I started to go to all the coolest stores in the country, and I started spending money to fly them all in. That’s when we started to win, but then we hit our biggest roadblock that ASR, I still had kept an open dialogue with them, I kept hitting them up naively seeing if they wanted to then buy us I think, or partner with us. I was just naïve on business and mergers and acquisitions and all this shit.
Aaron Levant: Then they finally come to us, and the show was decently big at this point, we were making some real money, and they offered us $200,000 to buy the company. At that point I was smart enough to know that that was an insulting amount of money. We didn’t take it, and then they did some really gangster shit and they, my partner at the time had forgot to fill out one of our contracts for the next future show or something, or the season after the next show. He had a contract on his desk, it was a formality, he forgot to return it in time and they swooped in and bought the longterm lease on the building for all future show dates. Because we’d always wait for them to release their show dates and then we’d book next to them. They knew all their future [inaudible 00:33:00]. They bought the next five years, and then they bought every other space in town. There was basically nowhere to go. Then we even tried to go and get a tent, and they gangster-ed us out of getting the tent. They had a relationship with the parking lot and all this crazy stuff.
Aaron Levant: We basically were in a position where we knew we had one more show left on our lease and after that we had nowhere to put the show. We were like, “Fuck. Our business is over.” Even though that’s where we were really starting to catch wind, and then that’s when I decided to take the biggest leap of faith that I ever took in my business career and moved the show from San Diego, from being a little show across the street from the big show, we were one of those little fish that sucks onto the shark? We were like that, to saying, I’m going to pull off of the shark and we moved to Huntington Beach all on our own. It was a big risk. That’s when I really started to understand the dynamics of selling windows and time cycles because ASR was February and September, but people really wanted to be selling in January and July.
Aaron Levant: Then I partnered with the U.S. Open of Surfing. In one show, this one pivot, the tipping point, or whatever you want to call it, this was 2009, every customer that I’d been calling for the past 2003 to 2009 who wouldn’t return my phone calls, wouldn’t give me the time of day, just because of the alignment with the U.S. Open, the timing, the energy Agenda was building, and the fact that I got Hurley and Nike to come in with me, everybody came, Quicksilver, Vans, every big brand. Literally within one year of us making that move, ASR went out of business.
Jeff Staple: Within one year?
Aaron Levant: One year. ASR was 37 years before then.
Jeff Staple: 37 years and in one year they went out of business?
Aaron Levant: It was just one gangster pivot on the business. We just innovated. Not even that big of an innovation, we just simply put a trade show in a time window where people could actually be more productive with seeling goods at a time when wholesale was still doing well, put it in a desirable location, kept it still uniform. Also, this was 2009, so the market, everyone was just crushed because of the real estate market crash. People didn’t want to spend money on a marketing show, these big booths. So, our show was always about simple format. So, people are like, “I can go here, actually do business, spend less money, still be cool.” There was everything, there was this perfect alignment. You ever see the stars align? Well, the stars aligned and it all just happened for us. All the years of hard work and eating shit and not making that much money and getting told to go fuck ourselves by lots of people. Just boom, overnight.
Jeff Staple: So ASR’s gangster mafia move, which at the time seemed smart, was actually its checkmate demise on itself?
Aaron Levant: Yes. Their attempt to block us out was essentially their…
Jeff Staple: Their death.
Aaron Levant: Yes.
Jeff Staple: Wow.
Aaron Levant: Otherwise, I never would have moved. I just would have stayed there and been the little…
Jeff Staple: Sucking the little titty. [crosstalk 00:35:36]
Aaron Levant: We were very happy with that. I was making an all right living. It was fine, and then all of a sudden that happened.
Jeff Staple: Right. So, wow, that’s an incredible story. Then there was the move to then move to Vegas and attack the big [crosstalk 00:35:52] over there at MAGIC, right?
Aaron Levant: It’s funny because I had actually been a consultant to MAGIC early. Same year I started Agenda I actually helped the MAGIC show develop a section called Enclave, which is funny, and I did this really cool stuff for them. I was working on that while I was trying to do up Agenda. It was a good learning experience that I’d always had a good relationship with MAGIC, lot of my friends had worked there. I just always say them as this big monster that wasn’t that cool. They’re a very corporate company, and I didn’t think there was any cool people that worked there. They would try to hire cool consultants, but they never really had any authenticity inside the company. They were always very successful, but as Agenda really started to gain steam here in southern California, I just saw that as a target.
Aaron Levant: I’m very competitive in business as I said, and in 2013 got together with my friend Sam who had started the Project Trade Show and sold it to MAGIC. He had told me his noncompete was up, and he was interested in getting back into the trade show market, and he wanted to go start a new show in Vegas which would be called Liberty, then our other friend Deirdre who already had a show in Vegas, and then we go this idea. Let’s all get together and launch this thing that [crosstalk 00:37:00] Capsule Agenda, we called it Modern Assembly, like The Collective. That’s it. We launched Agenda into Vegas, and within two shows we basically annihilated the street wear section at MAGIC. I think everyone who meant anything to the show left in the very first show out of the good will we had built in the community. That was probably my fastest success, overnight. It went from nowhere to making millions of dollars overnight.
Jeff Staple: It was that strategic alignment that…
Aaron Levant: Strategic alignment, the timing, the clout that Agenda had with street wear and the industry at that point. I don’t want to sound boastrous but we were hot, or whatever that means. When you’re hot, people are malleable to your will. I think the February show that I announced that I took, and I think you were there, I took every head of every street wear brand to dinner, Fogo de Chao, and I made this big PowerPoint presentation in front of everyone. I did it and just everybody got down. It was great. It was amazing.
Jeff Staple: It was only a couple of years before that that you were struggling still, financially struggling. Now here you are, putting ASR out of business, number one show in Vegas. I’m sure for you personally the money changed.
Aaron Levant: We started to make significant money from 2009 on. It was a different world.
Jeff Staple: How do you feel when you look at your bank account, and you can probably still vividly remember $10 an hour, taking two buses to work, and then now you see your bank account. Is it surreal to you?
Aaron Levant: Honestly, I’ve never…
Jeff Staple: Never looked at your bank account?
Aaron Levant: I wouldn’t say I’m not driven by money but more the thrill of the hunt is the thing that drives me. I distinctly remember a moment where, whatever, I’ve always been so naïve about business. I’m not even the business guy. Do people see me as a business guy? I’ve always felt that I’m more the creative guy, but I didn’t know a lot about banking, this and that. So, whatever bank I use, my mom was like, “Oh, this is where you should put your money, or bank it.” So one day my mom’s accountant called her and my mom called me because I had deposited a $200,000 cashier’s check at the bank and the banker was concerned that I was drug dealing or laundering money, so he’d called their accountant to call me. My mom was like, “What the fuck are you doing?” They thought I was literally doing criminal shit. I’m like, “No, I’m just selling trade show booths.” [inaudible 00:39:22] I’m like, “Oh, I made enough money where people are alarmed. Oh, okay, I guess this is real now.” So, that was the moment where…
Jeff Staple: So you never really care about the money much, it’s just part of the process and part of the rewards maybe.
Aaron Levant: Yeah, I mean the freedom that money buys you is nice, to be able to do what you want when you want, but I don’t think it’s the dollar figure that I’m chasing. I like the victory, and the process. I like doing all the creative shit that I can do. To be honest, I burned a lot of my money trying to do more creative shit that didn’t pan out, so if I was just concerned about the ultimate number in my bank account then I wouldn’t do half the shit that I do.
Jeff Staple: This is a common theme I hear among those I talk to on the Business of Hype. The money, the accolades, or the fame, these are the rewards of the work. Let me say that again: Money is the result of the work, not the purpose of the work. Too often people are obsessed with how much money they may or may not make and then proceed with the method. I can’t speak for everyone, but most people I know that attempt this method run out of steam along the way. Without the passion you simply won’t have the stamina required to weather the storms of starting your own business.
Jeff Staple: So, fast forward a little bit now, and Agenda’s going along, it’s doing really well, but then there’s a shift just in all of retail happening. Wholesale starts to slow down a lot, and the trade show environment starts to slow down along with it, so you start to see some other opportunity, right? Tell us about the birth of ComplexCon, essentially.
Aaron Levant: I think there’s a couple key points in there. I’d recognized the market had been struggling for a long time in the last few years, and in 2012 we merged Agenda with a company called ReedPOP, December 2012 or January 2013. ReedPOP owns New York Comic Con, they own every major consumer facing pop culture event in the world, pretty much. They own PAX, biggest video game show in the world, all this stuff. The thesis behind that deal was that I saw even that early in 2012 that the trade show thing in its purest form had a lifespan, but I saw this comic con thing as really amazing, this fan celebration [crosstalk 00:41:45]-
Jeff Staple: Tons of energy at Comic Con.
Aaron Levant: Yeah, 200,000 plus people were at this year in New York. ComplexCon’s not even scratching the surface on that. So I knew that they had a core competency that I didn’t have yet, and that was part of the plan was we’re going to continue to make these trade shows as long as we can, but I saw that vision. The one thing I didn’t see at that point was, how do I get all these fans to come? Agenda had a strong industry presence, but I didn’t that think we had enough muscle with kids to get them to come. So it wasn’t just open the doors for Agenda and then [crosstalk 00:42:19]-
Jeff Staple: Because Agenda is straight industry.
Aaron Levant: Yeah, it was very industry. The brands had the attention, and I couldn’t always depend on the brands to market for us.
Jeff Staple: So here you have, you built this baby, what was it, twelfth year? Fifteenth year?
Aaron Levant: I did the deal on the eve of our tenth year anniversary.
Jeff Staple: Did you ever feel like a lot of entrepreneurs who birthed a child, you’re giving your baby up now for adoption? Did you have that feeling or were you ready to let go of it?
Aaron Levant: No, I mean, to me I didn’t see it as letting go. I did that deal five years ago and I’ve never been in more control of the company than I am now today, on the eve of my departure. The way the deal was set up, it isn’t like it was about them taking control, it was about them giving me the resources to invest in the company to create explosive growth, where before when I was running an independent company all that risk fell on me personally. If we made one bad move, one bad season, we were wiped out. We didn’t have reserve funds, so everything we had was invested in the company. It either worked or it didn’t. We were either making big paychecks or we weren’t, so we were hesitant in our investment. This culture now of a round of investment, and I’m doing my A round, C round, whatever, this Shark Tank culture that we live in now, I didn’t even think about that. Even though we were a profitable company, I never thought about raising money. We never took out a loan from the bank.
Aaron Levant: We just did everything organically, rolled over from that very first show in Long Beach in 2003, just kept reinvesting the profits, and getting a little bit bigger, and taking money home. We just didn’t have a lot of capital. The ReedPOP deal gave us the ability for me to go out and get aggressive, so within those first two years, three years we launched Vegas, launched New York, launched Miami. I launched Agenda Emerge, this education platform. I launched a video platform. I just launched a women’s show called Axis. We acquired Capsule. We started just going crazy. Everything I wanted to do we could literally do. They go it. They got me, and they just back me basically. They gave me infrastructure, and resources, and legal help, and finance help, so it was it. Anything that I could dream up that was a good business decision, we were running at it full speed.
Jeff Staple: Can you talk a little about what you had to give up in order to get that-
Aaron Levant: Equity in the company, the majority.
Jeff Staple: The majority, okay, but you also got paid for that?
Aaron Levant: Of course. It wasn’t like some companies, they raise capital against putting more operating capital in the company. We gave up controlling stake of the company and got capital to operate, so it’s the dream deal, got to take chips off the table to be financially secure for the future. If you’re an entrepreneur, that’s your dream situation.
Jeff Staple: Right. For you was that stupid, dumb money, that now you don’t have to think about money for the rest of your life?
Aaron Levant: It was good money-
Jeff Staple: Evil laugh.
Aaron Levant: As long as I’m not an idiot, I don’t know if it’s like Dave Chappelle, he’s talking about, “Rich is some shit you can lose in one summer with a drug habit.” Anyone, I’ve seen a lot of people, especially some of our friends in street wear, lose some stupid money. Luckily I’m not the bottle popping, Ferrari buying type, but I did well. I’m very happy with that. As long as I remain to be the modest person that I am I think I’ll be all right.
Jeff Staple: I mean, what is the different between living like someone who does stuff for no money, literally not receiving any money, to the guy who money doesn’t matter now because it’s in such abundance? Is it the same brainwave or is it you have to reprogram yourself now?
Aaron Levant: I think it’s the same for me. You’ve known me for a while, I don’t think I’ve changed very much. I’m not driving a Prius anymore, but my motivation is really the same. I drive off of the shit that interests me. I want to be involved around shit that interests me. I’ve had lot of other opportunities to do other shit and I just wasn’t interested.
Jeff Staple: So what do you think goes wrong for those people you mentioned where, money changes people, that’s a common phrase.
Aaron Levant: I don’t know. Maybe it’s a matter of how you’re raised. I didn’t grow up poor by any means, so maybe some people if they grew up not having a lot they maybe get money, and then it’s a shock for them, and then they need to go out and spurge. I think it’s just a personality thing. I have good parents and they raised me well. I didn’t feel the need to go out and be an asshole. I don’t know. [inaudible 00:46:51]
Jeff Staple: Maybe you got your asshole out when you were in high school, and…
Aaron Levant: [inaudible 00:46:57] My version of being an asshole was going out and riding on someone’s property, not necessarily buying a $10,000 bottle of champagne at a nightclub, I don’t know.
Jeff Staple: Aaron is literally the personification of determination. Yes, there’s stress, there’s fear, there’s anxiety, but if you invest the time, talent, and energy into the product, the product will speak for itself. Your job as the founder is to break past all that fear and allow the work to speak for itself. An extremely wise lesson from Aaron learned the hard way, true trial by fire.
Aaron Levant: In January 2015, I had a chance meeting. I already knew Marc Ecko, but I had a meeting with him in L.A. He invited me out to some conference and he was there with his head of sales, [Orsiero Maksha 00:47:55] at some conference and we got to talking. This organic conversation developed where I said, “Well, we should just create ComplexCon then,” because I knew I was trying to do something consumer but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. This conversation we were having escalated to, “Yeah, we should do something together,” and they’re like, “Yeah, come in and pitch us.” So I went to New York for Agenda New York and then I got a meeting with Noah from Complex, Rich, Maksha, and Marc, the four heads of Complex at the time. I put this deck together and I pitched them this idea for ComplexCon in January of 2015.
Jeff Staple: Which essentially was taking the expertise that you had of running a show and their consumer facing fan base already and merging the two, right?
Aaron Levant: Exactly. They had lot of great curation and a lot of great reach. I think reach is really the biggest thing there. Really Marc, you know Marc well, others I’m sure know of Marc, he is really genius, sometimes has these amazing ideas. I think the idea that I had was Agenda, open to the public, comic con version of it, but Marc really helped take the vision to a higher level where he’s like, “Let’s throw Pharrell in there, and let’s throw Takashi Murakami in there,” and Marc really had the access to people that I didn’t have, as well as a consumers’ market where they really helped polish the idea and make it something bigger than what maybe I had originally imagined. It was that combination of brain power of my execution and relationships with brands, and Marc’s relationships with some of these really high level influencers, and Complex’s reach.
Aaron Levant: It’s the secret sauce that is ComplexCon. Even Maksha’s ability to bring in [non-endemic 00:49:32] brands to help underwrite some of these really cool activations, some of the coolest stuff at ComplexCon. Those brands don’t have money, so it’s just putting those things together. Art activations that don’t make us any money. We jammed on trying to do a contract for most of 2015. In November 2015, the deal got signed, and one year later we launched the show.
Jeff Staple: I heard from some people at the first ComplexCon that even days before ComplexCon, because it comes down to kids coming in for the show to be successful, and you don’t know if the kids are actually going to show up or not, right? It was nerve-racking all the way until the opening doors.
Aaron Levant: We sold 10,000 ticket sin the last 48 hours of the first ComplexCon.
Jeff Staple: Right, so 72 hours before, no one might be showing up.
Aaron Levant: Literally five days before, I’m like, “We’re fucked. We just sold the stream and there’s not enough people coming. Not enough kids are coming. We’re fucked.” I was literally having a fucking heart attack. That’s it. You’ve just got to keep a smile on your face, act calm. Keep calm and… Those stupid…
Jeff Staple: Yeah, those stupid T-shirts?
Aaron Levant: Keep calm and put on ComplexCon and go.
Jeff Staple: What happened in those last 48 hours?
Aaron Levant: What happened?
Jeff Staple: Kids just procrastinate?
Aaron Levant: That’s it. I learned that unless you’re Coachella, and you have this reputation that you can’t get it, which maybe ComplexCon will develop that over the years, people just, they were going to wait. This is a social media, short attention span generation, and they’re going to do things like… I kept telling people, I was nervous and I asked some young, Joey in my office, 25 year old guy, and he’s like, “Hey, I hang out with 20 year old kids. It’s Monday. If you ask him what he’s doing on Thursday, he has no fucking idea. Aaron, you have a Google calendar that tells you everything you’re doing for a month. These kids don’t know what they’re doing fucking tomorrow. You’re freaking out, but you’ll be good.” He told me, he’s young, he had better perspective of life than I did. Kids are fun.
Jeff Staple: Kids are having breakfast like, “Should we go to ComplexCon?” “Yeah, let’s go.”
Aaron Levant: Exactly. I just didn’t think like that because I had tens of millions of dollars on the line I was nervous about losing.
Jeff Staple: So you just recently made the announcement. Does that mean you’re also walking away from ComplexCon?
Aaron Levant: I’m walking away from everything in the sense of working on it full-time. I’m still going to be an advisor to the company that I built, and from afar help make sure they don’t fall off the tracks, and make sure they’re pointed in the right direction, which has been a big pivot going from a B to B company to a consumer facing, with Agenda Festival and ComplexCon and some other stuff that I’ve been working on in the background, point in this new direction. I’ll be a high level strategic advisor and clean slate starting something new.
Jeff Staple: I mean, you just finished ComplexCon two. Everyone talks about ComplexCon like it’s been here for ten years and it’s the most game changing experience, we’ve only finished a second one and you were future thinking enough, because obviously there was years in the making of ComplexCon before the doors opened. You spend all these years planning it, called in the right people, made the right deals to make it happen, you’ve done two and now you’re like, “I built the future, now I’m walking away,” drop the mic, and will walk out the room. What the fuck?
Aaron Levant: That was the hardest part, man. I mean, Agenda’s my baby, ComplexCon is my baby [crosstalk 00:52:45]-
Jeff Staple: It’s your new baby.
Aaron Levant: Yeah, and I just…
Jeff Staple: Everyone’s so excited about it.
Aaron Levant: … I’m really…
Jeff Staple: What’s in your head?
Aaron Levant: … I’m really, really at the point where I feel I have to achieve some major shit with my time on this planet. Not that I’m trying to get into my political or religious beliefs, but I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in an afterlife, I don’t believe in anything past this. I feel I have a very finite amount of time on this planet. I also believe that I have a third chapter in my career where I have to go and do something that is meaningful and philanthropic. Essentially as much as I love what we do, and the culture, and the design, and this and that, essentially everything I’ve done is meaningless. It helped people move cotton T-shirts from one place to another more efficiently and in a cool way, and the next thing I do will probably be in that same vein, but I know that with this finite amount of time I have to do one more big business thing, and I have to do something really meaningful for the planet or humanity or whatever. So I’ve got these two big things, I’ve got to get to them.
Jeff Staple: Wow.
Aaron Levant: I believe that this next thing, it’s either going to be the biggest thing that I’ve ever done and be way bigger than ComplexCon or anything I’ve ever achieved. I look at someone like Mark Zuckerberg or whatever, and Mark Zuckerberg is younger than me, but one of the biggest fucking companies on Earth. As much as ComplexCon is amazing, it’s small in the big scheme of life and the world. I want to make bigger impacts and do bigger things because the one thing that rings true, I’ve always taken my winnings from whatever that is and helped whatever it is. I give money to dog charities, or I do philanthropic shit, whatever. So the bigger impact I can make through business, the bigger I can double down on the things I really want to do longterm. So for me the winnings here are not big enough and I need to risk all the winnings, I’m going to double down, put it all on red or whatever, all on a certain number, to help make 10x to then do something meaningful. So this is [crosstalk 00:54:37]-
Jeff Staple: So you finished chapter one, you’re now embarking on chapter two so you can get to the chapter three, which is the personal life changing shit. Is that a mathematical calculation that told you that what you did in chapter one is not enough to just leap for up to chapter three, or it’s a gut feeling, because I think you have a lot, you probably can make a lot of positive change?
Aaron Levant: If I want to do something in politics, if I want to do something on a Bill and Melinda Gates level foundation, you need hundreds of millions of dollars to make an impact in this world, and I don’t have that. I’ve done very well, but I don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars. I want to make that much money, not for the sake I want to be a billionaire personally so I can be a dickhead with a private jet, I want to give it all away or do something meaningful with it.
Jeff Staple: Those are goals. I want to talk quickly about other investments that you’ve made too, because you’re known for Agenda and ComplexCon, but you also have a portfolio of your own as well. Can you talk about some of the brands that you’ve helped along the way and are involved with? Not brands, but companies.
Aaron Levant: Along the way, when Agenda first started, I actually incubated two companies. I incubated Agenda and a company called Agenda Showroom, which was a brand management firm where I helped identify up-and-coming brands and helped distribute them. Agenda Showroom eventually became morphed as Agenda and Agenda Showroom got confusing, we changed the name to a company called The Network Agency. So many different cool brands we work with, when I found them, when they were literally doing nothing, and helped incubate them doing millions of dollars. A brand I found that I loved out of San Francisco called The Imaginary Foundation was doing $45,000 in sales. I met the guy at the MAGIC trade show in early 2000s and helped him become a multimillion dollar company. I met the brand Primitive when they were doing a couple hundred thousand dollars in sales and helped them become a multimillion dollar company, and help expand brands’ distribution and help them set up that sales infrastructure.
Jeff Staple: Let me ask you this, to a kid who’s listening to this podcast right now, he’s got a brand, he’s done $50,000 in sales. What do you look for in a brand, because I’m sure you get hit up by dozens and dozens of brands, what is a yes brand and what is a no brand? What is the checklist criteria in your head?
Aaron Levant: At one point for me I was just looking for cool design and cool graphics, and I don’t have the company anymore, which I’ll get to that part in a minute, but I just literally, I’m a graphic designer as what was the majority of my career before doing this, so I just am obsessed with graphics and typography and whatever, I’m obsessive, so I just saw cool T-shirts, I’m like, “That one. That one. That one. That one,” just whatever caught my eye, whatever I thought was marketable. Later on I think it became more about items that can penetrate. As the market became so many clothing brands, so many T-shirt brands, whatever, things like Herschel bags, or Slowtide Towels, or Stance Socks, only some of those companies I was involved with, but the point being is these category plays where there’s white space.
Aaron Levant: Now, even if you have great design, that’s not enough. You need to have great design, great marketing, great product placement, great this, great that. Too many variables to win, where some people just, “Oh, there’s no one making shoe laces,” or whatever that is. There’s like this white space, so now I think from an investment standpoint and at the network I think we were looking for brands that had a white space. One of those brands was Herschel Supply Company, which was one of the early brands we were involved with, and we ended up eventually selling the company to Herschel last year.
Jeff Staple: That’s interesting that you say that Herschel had a white space because, because of Herschel’s success, there’s a lot of shit talkers about Herschel. The common shit talk about Herschel is, “It’s a fucking JanSport with a white label instead of a blue label.” So what’s the white space? There’s plenty of backpack companies. What did Herschel do? What did you see in Herschel that that was, “No, this is a winning horse.”
Aaron Levant: I think you could make the same argument there were plenty of vodka companies before Diddy came with Ciroc. They had a unique vernacular in the way they marketed and communicated the product. It looked like a heritage company even though it was a new company. I thought the design was better. JanSport to me never seemed that interesting. It seemed like a bag you could buy at Staples. Even though, yeah, there’s always lots of bags, just like there’s lots of socks before Stance. There’s no shortage of socks in the world, it’s just someone re-imagined it, and marketed it, and packaged it, and graphic-ed it, and did everything smarter and newer in a way that appealed to my generation or whatever, the generation below me.
Jeff Staple: So it’s a bit of a reinvention?
Aaron Levant: It’s just a repackaging. The white space was that there’s a boring commodity that’s there, and someone is coming and breathing energy into a category. I think that can be argued with many different things. Let’s look at in popular culture today, there’s tons of game shows on television that you can win money by participating, and I just saw this HQ Trivia thing, have you seen this?
Jeff Staple: No.
Aaron Levant: There’s this app called HQ Trivia that 700,000 are tuning in to twice a day every day, and they’re giving $10,000 for answering trivia questions. It’s the most genius fucking thing I’ve ever seen. It’s no different than Jeopardy or something else, but it’s that slight variation of how it’s presented. That to me is the white space, and you can argue that with many different things.
Jeff Staple: So that’s what you look for?
Aaron Levant: Yeah.
Jeff Staple: Then you mentioned about now, so you sold the network to…
Aaron Levant: We did the network for a long time. Herschel ended up buying the company from me and my partner Kellen. Then you asked about other things, I’m an investor in a company called Slowtide Towels, have you seen them?
Jeff Staple: Yep.
Aaron Levant: It’s a really cool company, beach towels, amazing artwork on it. Of course no shortage of towels or beach towels, but they’re putting amazing artwork, an amazing lifestyle brand around that, and also just the idea of focus on a category opposed to trying to make 100 things, to make one thing. Make a towel. Big towel, small towel, round towel, it’s towels.
Aaron Levant: I invested in a beer company called House Beer. I previously invested in a very successful beer company called Saint Archer Brewing Company which ended up selling for a lot of money. It was the first action sports focused beer company, that was a big point of differentiation. They had a skate team, surf teams, all very social media driven. Invested in a juice company called Pressed Juice, very successful. I recently launched a hot sauce company called Truff, which mobile first, social media driven, direct to consumer luxury hot sauce company doing very, very well. Only been out a few weeks, received tons of praise and engagement online. Got some art galleries in L.A. that I’m a part of, Seventh Letter and Known Gallery, and a bunch of other stuff.
Jeff Staple: Are you into investments that you’re not really actively taking a part?
Aaron Levant: I have stocks and bonds and stuff like that. There’s definitely some investments that I’ve done that are, I’m not an advisor, but I like to do things where I have some connectivity to the company, that’s part of my value. I like taking lot of stuff that I’ve learned from this market, and how do you apply that to a boring consumer product, because I think the way in which you or I would market T-shirt or a sneaker, whatever, is somewhat white noise within the world of this stuff. You do it better than anybody, but there’s a lot of people trying to collaborate on a sneaker, whatever. If all of a sudden you were doing that, if you took your expertise and applied it to a dish soap or any product that Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson makes, it’s revolutionary. It’s game changing. Just look at Dollar Shave Club. They just simply put a little pivot on the distribution, and the voice, and the marketing on a razor, and Gillette bought them for a billion dollars.
Aaron Levant: I just think that we learn so much in this high stakes, high paced environment of fashion and lifestyle. Just taking those learnings and applying it anywhere else is become so interesting than just trying to apply it internally. I think it’s a very good thesis for where the world is going.
Jeff Staple: You mentioned before about the Shark Tank culture. You and I always get pitched on by small companies that are like, “I have this idea,” so speak to the people listening to this. What’s a good pitch?
Aaron Levant: I mean, you know what…
Jeff Staple: What are some tips on a pitch to you?
Aaron Levant: I got to like the people. There’s no tips. Honestly, most of the deals that I found, I called them before they were looking for an investment. I called the Slowtide guys before they made a towel. I saw the press-
Jeff Staple: They didn’t even pitch you.
Aaron Levant: I called them and I said, “I want to invest in your company.” They’re like, “We’re not even taking investors.” I’m like, “Well, I want to invest in your company.”
Jeff Staple: What?
Aaron Levant: “Well, what? We’re not even launched yet,” and I’m like, “I don’t care.” I just saw the idea and I’m like, “Boom.” I was laying there focused on finding stuff. I would say 99% of the decks that have in come to me and sought investment I haven’t ever gone with, always been me going to other people asking if I can get involved, so better to go with people who aren’t looking because those people are successful. People who are looking either haven’t incubated the idea, haven’t done the hard part, they have an idea. There’s a lot of fucking ideas out there. I have a lot of fucking ideas. I’ve had some horrible ideas. Find the people who actually are doing the ideas [crosstalk 01:03:32] and then try to get involved with them. [crosstalk 01:03:34] They’re making it happen. They’re the smart operators. They got some capital on their own, they have some capital. They’re risking.
Aaron Levant: These guys from Slowtide, they took everything that they had from working at Billabong and the respective places they had worked and they basically gave up everything to put it all into this company. Those are guys I want to be involved with. They’re willing to put their own neck out there on the line to make this happen and I’m just adding a little fuel to the flame.
Jeff Staple: Well, have anyone pitched you and you went with it?
Aaron Levant: Ones I regret.
Jeff Staple: Really? That’s it? So your model really does work, for you anyway.
Aaron Levant: For me, yeah.
Jeff Staple: If they put in the time to pitch you it means there’s problems under the hood.
Aaron Levant: I don’t know if it means there’s problems, it just means that maybe some people are more focused at, there’s this trend, the Shark Tank-ification of the world like, “I’m in my A round. I’m in my C round. Running around.” They’ve more consumed with raising capital than they are with running the business or with how great the product is. Again, all my years of running Agenda, I never once thought about raising money. It just never crossed my mind. I didn’t even know that was a thing until I saw Shark Tank. I didn’t know what a round was. I just think you should find people that just are doing great shit and then ask how you can get behind them to further the great shit.
Jeff Staple: All right. I think that’s a good way to end it. Do you have any other last bits you want to say about what you’re going to embark on or anything? Do you want to give any hints?
Aaron Levant: I’m very excited about it. I’ve been working on it for the last couple months, and I think it’s going to be big.
Jeff Staple: Cool, and you’ve only been working on it for a few months?
Aaron Levant: Yeah.
Jeff Staple: Okay, but it’s pretty baked already?
Aaron Levant: The idea is baked. The structure is baked.
Jeff Staple: Exciting. All right. We’ll look forward to it. Thanks, man.
Aaron Levant: Thank you.
Jeff Staple: Thanks for listening to the podcast. You can find out more about the show or listen to past episodes at hypebeast.com/radio. You can subscribe to us wherever you listen to podcasts, I use Overcast, and reach out to me on Twitter @jeffstaple. Check us out on the web at businessofhype.com and you can email us any questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Business of Hype is directed by Daniel [Nobeta 01:05:43], edited and produced by Bryght Young Things, you can check them out at byt.nyc. Engineering was done by Patrick Morris, and this was recorded at Sibling Rivalry Studio in New York City and on location in Long Beach, California. I’m Jeff Staple and you’ve been listening to the Business of Hype on HYPEBEAST Radio.