April 7, 2020 15+ min read
This story appears in the April 2020 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
“There is a before,” says Dany Garcia, “and there is an after.”
Here is before. It’s around 1998, and at the time, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson is a burgeoning wrestler in the WWE. Garcia is about halfway through a career at Merrill Lynch. They are newly married, eating dinner at a restaurant, and discussing Johnson’s path. “I was having a little bit of a challenging time turning the corner in terms of my fame,” recalls Johnson, “because I just, by default, am more reclusive and quiet. And I also can’t hide.”
Let’s be clear: He can’t hide because he’s enormous. His biceps, then and now, are the size of other men’s heads. People were recognizing him from across airports and creating a mob scene. So, sure, he had fame, but it seemed chaotic and uncontrolled, and not advancing his ultimate goal. He didn’t just want to be famous. He wanted to be…bigger than that. More meaningful than that. But how?
Johnson and Garcia were talking this over at their table when another couple approached. The people were shaking nervously. “Excuse me,” they said, “but can we have your autograph?”
Johnson wasn’t in the mood. He slowly, coldly, looked up at them. “Sure,” he said, in the tone of a man who’d rather say no.
The fans grew regretful. “I’m so sorry,” they said.
“No, no, no; it’s OK,” Johnson said.
He signed his name to something and handed it over. They went skulking off.
Johnson turned back to Garcia, and the horribleness of his action sunk in. “We immediately, immediately identified it,” he says. “I had an opportunity to make that person feel so good, and instead they walked away apologetic and feeling awful, when the reality is, I’m a lucky son of a bitch that somebody would care enough to come up and ask for my autograph.”
Johnson and Garcia are analytical people. They like to break things down — to see how A leads to B. So they decided to run an exercise. “And the exercise was: Let’s think about what happens when all of a sudden they’re eating, and they look up, and there I am,” he says. “What’s the conversation they have? The husband goes, ‘Oh my God; there’s the Rock. I’ve got to go over.’ ‘No, don’t go over.’ ‘No, I have to.’ And they work themselves up, and they come over. And that was very helpful for us.”
There is a before and there is an after, Garcia says. That was the before. And this is after: At that dinner, where Johnson and Garcia were puzzling over how to build his career, they’d suddenly been given an answer. “We have the opportunity to make people feel good,” Johnson says. “And that’s a powerful thing to have.”
It’s a powerful thing for anyone to have — and everyone does have it. Every brand has it. Johnson and Garcia had intuitively known this. He once lived what he calls a “circus life,” traveling the country to perform in wrestling matches at flea markets and used-car dealerships. The entire goal was to give people a great show; to make them feel good. Garcia, meanwhile, was the child of Cuban immigrants, with a father who worked in an auto body shop since he was 16, and who was ever grateful for his new homeland. Together, Johnson and Garcia understood the power of happiness — but in the haze of fame and the anxiety of career building, they’d lost sight of it.
No longer. They saw it now. And they saw that Johnson was in a position to do it on a massive scale. Because an emotion like this is bigger than any one person, no matter the size of their biceps. This is what people want, far more than they want a good wrestling show, or a good movie, or a good anything. They want a person who can deliver an experience. They want to be happy.
But there was something Johnson and Garcia couldn’t have seen back in 1998. At that time, they were not actually equipped to fully seize the opportunity. Not yet. To do that, they’d have to redefine their partnership entirely. Because no business changes without the leaders changing, too.
Image Credit: Nigel Parry
Here’s an exercise worth doing. Ask yourself, What am I at my core?
We are salespeople, or accountants, or writers, or investors, or plumbers, or actors, or CEOs — but none of that is our core. That’s just what we do. If you define yourself by what you do, then you are too easily disrupted. You could identify as a CEO, but your job could disappear. Then you are not a CEO, which means you are nothing.
So dig deeper. What drives you? Why do you aspire to the things you aspire to? What is the passion that, deep down, could fuel a dozen different jobs? I’ll give you an example. I used to think of myself as a newspaper reporter, then a magazine writer, then a magazine editor…and then I realized that, no, these things are transient. They come and go. So what is my core? It is this: I tell stories in my own voice. I can do it here, in this story, or as editor of this magazine, but also in a talk or a podcast or anything else where I control the narrative. That’s my core; I communicate. Maybe at your core, you build. Or solve problems. Or impact your community.
Today my core has taken me to a film studio in Atlanta, where I’m telling this whole crazy thing to Johnson and Garcia. It doesn’t need a lot of saying, but: They aren’t sitting at restaurants puzzling over Johnson’s career these days. Garcia is his manager, and they are business partners overseeing a sprawling, complicated bundle of interests. There is Seven Bucks Companies, an enterprise that produces film, TV, marketing, and branding projects, which drove $1.9 billion in box office numbers in 2019. (As we talk, we’re sitting in the production offices of one such project, a Netflix movie called Red Notice, which Johnson stars in.) There is The Garcia Companies, a holding enterprise that launches or manages investments in a wide range of brands. (Garcia also manages the actor Henry Cavill.) And of course, as stories about Johnson often stress, he achieved the status of highest-paid actor in Hollywood.
But I want to get underneath all that. So, the core. I’m telling them my own experience as a big, elaborate way of asking for theirs. What are you at your core? The question is hard enough for one person to answer, but a successful business relationship requires two good answers — two people who are self-aware enough to know what drives them, and how their core missions are complementary.
They ponder it for a moment. Garcia goes first.
“Focus,” she says. “I have an incredible level of intense focus. And the ability to engage in the complete experience that’s going on.” She doesn’t just want to tell a story, she says. She wants to tell “the story of the story” — to understand the biggest of the pictures. So this is her core: She digs deep, while simultaneously floating above.
Then it’s Johnson’s turn. To answer, he rewinds to another pivotal moment in his career, when he finally identified his core. In the early 2000s, he was transitioning from wrestling into movies, and the road was bumpy. “The business we were doing was OK,” he says. “But there was more. There was something more, and I hadn’t identified yet what that power foundation was. And then finally I felt like, to identify myself, I realized that it was important not to be narrow. I wanted to be a 10-lane highway approaching the world.”
This is a good metaphor, so let’s roll with it. Most people aspire to one lane. They want to own that lane — to go fast in that lane. But not Johnson. He was driving in one lane but realized there were actually nine other lanes he couldn’t see. He was stuck in one lane. His core was this: Own all the lanes.
How did he plan to do that?
“I felt like I had to do a clean sweep,” he says. It was time for a new regime — new publicists, new manager, new everybody, and it needed to be led by someone who shared the vastness of his ambition. So in 2008, he chose Garcia.
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This was an interesting choice, because 2008 was also the year Johnson and Garcia got divorced. But they’d been friends since college, had remained friends despite the divorce, and she’d always been involved in his career, even as she’d risen the ranks to become a vice president at Merrill Lynch and then founded her own wealth management firm. “Dany’s acumen was tremendous,” Johnson says. “It was a very easy decision at that time.”
Remember the core: A person isn’t just the job they do, or even the kind of relationship they have. They are defined by something deeper. Johnson knew this. He needed another 10-lane-highway thinker.
“We knew we had to do the work,” Garcia says. “It’s not like, This isn’t gonna work. It’s like, This should work — you just have to do the work.”
Image Credit: Nigel Parry
With Garcia on board, it was time to get everyone else in Hollywood on board, too. That was going to take a little more convincing. So they started with some meetings.
“We would sit in a boardroom,” says Johnson, “and we would have all these high-level studio and agency execs in there, and I’d say, ‘We would like to build the biggest movie star enterprise on the planet. But then we would also like to look at this where there’s not just a limited number of spokes on the wheel.’ ”
By that, Johnson meant he didn’t want to limit his brand. It’s a critical mindset. Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author and podcaster, once put this nicely to me: “Self-conceptions are powerfully limiting.” If you think of yourself as only one thing, then you have access to only one set of experiences, and one set of potential accomplishments. Johnson wanted infinite potential accomplishments.
“OK, great,” he remembers the executives saying. “How are you going to do that?”
“I’m not quite too sure how we’re going to do that,” he’d say, “but we have faith and we have the ability to put in the hard work.”
As Johnson is recalling this moment today, Garcia cuts in. “That’s such a Dwayne Johnson line — ‘I’m not sure how we’re going to get there, but I know we’re going to get there.’ ”
“You have to believe,” Johnson says. “So we will be in these meetings and I’ll say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. It’s going to be incredible, and we’re going to trailblaze. It’s never been done before. We’re going to put in the hard work. I need everybody to buy in.’ And everyone, of course, is like, ‘OK, I buy it. Even if I can’t see it, we’re going to make it happen.’ And I say, ‘OK, great. I’m going to leave the room. Dany’s going to take over.’ ”
It’s like literally putting someone between a rock and a hard place. The Rock leaves, and now Garcia has the hard work of executing.
Garcia has a philosophy on growth: Don’t be the wrong kind of disruptive. It’s good to challenge the way business is done, but it’s not good to make abrupt and unearned change. Richard Branson doesn’t suddenly appear on Broadway, and McDonald’s doesn’t release a $75 dry-aged steak. If a person or a company wants to grow in a new direction, then Garcia believes they need to do it deliberately, step by step, to bring their customers and partners along with them.
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This meant that Johnson couldn’t go from one to 10 lanes of a highway all at once. They needed to plot a course, lane by lane. And the most logical first step was to gain more control of the movies he was in. “So the idea of a production company was very natural,” she says. But rather than just launch a production company and insist on control, Garcia stuck to her philosophy. “We always did the work first to validate the credit that came,” she says.
In Hollywood terms, here’s what that means. When a star signs on for a movie, they typically send in a few pages of notes focused solely on themselves — which lines they’d like to improve, what scenes they’d like to change, ways they can look better and cooler. But Garcia decided to think bigger. She assembled a team and, with Johnson, built a production company called Seven Bucks (named for a moment early in Johnson’s life, before wrestling, when he was cut from the Canadian Football League and had only seven dollars in his pocket). Then, even though Seven Bucks wasn’t actually producing any of Johnson’s movies, the company just started acting like it did.
This meant carefully combing over the entire movie, looking for opportunities to enhance every actor’s role — not just Johnson’s. “So, how can we improve the other characters?” says Hiram Garcia, Dany Garcia’s brother and an old friend of Johnson’s, who is president of production at Seven Bucks’ TV and film arm. “What thematically can we do for the whole movie to make it better?” Their first big attempt at this was on Journey 2, where they focused a lot on helping Johnson’s costar, Josh Hutcherson. Then they joined the studio’s marketing meetings, which is something an actor’s team rarely does.
“We were comfortable with knowing, right now, we’re going to put in the work,” says Johnson. “You may not give us a credit now, but eventually we’re going to become powerful producers in this business.”
In time, studios did give them credit. And did start paying them. And Seven Bucks would go on to produce all of Johnson’s work, from Jumanji to the HBO show Ballers, as well as many projects he’s not starring in at all.
So that was another lane. “And then,” Garcia says, “social media happened.”
Image Credit: Nigel Parry
Social media is a business built on irony. It’s driven by authenticity — when an Instagram or Twitter feed feels like the product of one person’s hands and eyes. But as any social media influencer will tell you, “authenticity” does not happen by accident. It is the product of strategy. Posts are crafted and scrutinized. Data is examined; learnings are extracted. Authenticity is what happens when willingness meets persistence.
Johnson went all-in here, growing an Instagram following of 173 million strong. His colleagues always describe this in personal terms. “Dwayne treats it as a personal relationship he has every day,” Garcia says. “He’s always giving his fans a front-row seat to his everyday life,” says Maya Lasry, chief marketing officer at Seven Bucks Companies.
But entrepreneurs should know: Effective social media does require more than that. And if you look closely at @therock on Instagram, you can see signs of it. The “front-row seat to his everyday life” is photographed beautifully and often packaged into video; that’s a financial commitment to an on-the-go team whose cameras are trained on him. (During Entrepreneur’s photo shoot and interview with Johnson and Garcia, for example, their team filmed the entire process for later use on his social feed. Most cover subjects don’t do that.) He regularly posts his extravagant “cheat meals” — awesomely indulgent food that breaks from his strict athletic diet — and that’s what social media managers might call a franchise, or a repeatable concept built around what gets a great audience response. Everyone with a personal brand should develop their own franchises.
There’s something else you’ll see throughout his social channels: things for sale. Everything that Johnson and Garcia have built or invested in — from movies to brand partnerships to a tequila called Teremana that they just launched and also conveniently brought to the Entrepreneur photo shoot — makes careful appearances. Here, Lasry, the CMO, will offer a takeaway for other entrepreneurs: “One of the biggest learnings we found is that the more the audience sees just how truly involved [Johnson] is — from the production all through the marketing campaign — they are so much more interested.” That insight helps inform these posts. It’s not enough to just show a product and say it’s for sale. No — you lead the audience into it and make them feel a part of the process. Johnson tastes the tequila. He refines the tequila. He thinks about the tequila. He works on the tequila. And then, at the end, he doesn’t really need to sell it. The audience has already bought in. (Ditto for the story you’re reading right now: Johnson posted an image of our interview a full month before it hit newsstands — to Entrepreneur’s great surprise, and delight.)
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This is a valuable formula, because the end result — the sales — helped them continue to expand into other lanes of their highway. And that’s what they started to do once they’d established ownership in Hollywood.
“We have a conversation: ‘Take a look at our history. This is the amount of merchandise that people have engaged with Dwayne,’ ” Garcia says. “Translate that to ‘This is why we should do this partnership with Apple,’ or ‘This is why Project Rock is fantastic.’ You know, you can begin to give examples and case studies. People want to take a leap of faith, but we help them to take a leap of faith.”
Some of these projects felt obvious — like, say, pairing Johnson with wellness or entertainment brands. There is, for example, Project Rock; that’s a brand partnership with Under Armour. In October, they’re debuting Athleticon, a two-day fitness event in Atlanta. They also invested in, and serve as advisers to, the water company Voss and social media ticketing platform Atom Tickets. And there’s more. But you don’t build a 10-lane highway just by doing the expected. Those are simply the starting points — the places from which Garcia can execute her philosophy of deliberate, step-by-step, bring-the-audience-along-with-you disruption.
That’s how they ended up also investing in and advising a quirky, Portland, Ore.–based ice cream company called Salt & Straw.
“I was not looking for this at all,” says Salt & Straw’s cofounder and CEO, Kim Malek. “It was completely serendipitous.”
Malek’s friend had been doing some work with Garcia and offered to connect the two. Malek was hoping Garcia might become a Salt & Straw adviser, and maybe even a board member. Some emails turned into a meeting in Los Angeles, which was supposed to be 45 minutes but went on so long that Malek missed her flight. The two companies found a lot of common ground. They both think of themselves as storytellers — Seven Bucks with its myriad of entertainment and marketing projects, and Salt & Straw in the way it develops flavors. For example, it recently had a symphony play in its kitchen and interpreted the music into ice cream. And to highlight the amount of food waste that happens in America, it once made a menu out of ingredients that were going to be thrown away.
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“I think they were excited about the opportunity to move into other areas that maybe weren’t as obvious, outside the entertainment industry,” Malek says. Soon they were brainstorming all sorts of projects—which eventually led to Johnson and Garcia investing in the company, and Salt & Straw releasing a series of Johnson-themed “Dwanta Claus” flavors, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The ice cream sold out in two days and has benefited Salt & Straw in ways Malek couldn’t have anticipated. As she scouts locations for new stores, for example, landlords return her calls faster now. Though Dwanta Claus did leave some people scratching their heads: Johnson, the very picture of fitness, promoting ice cream? But Malek got it.
“I just think of the power of their appeal to everybody — they’re a unifying force in the world,” she says of Johnson and Garcia. “We need that. And if you think about it, ice cream is that, too.”
It sounds exactly like the insight Johnson and Garcia had years ago — that their big opportunity wasn’t just to make movies or sell products. It was to make people feel good. And Salt & Straw confirmed it.
Image Credit: Nigel Parry
What’s the difference between an ambitious business and a business that’s achieved many of its ambitions? There’s scale, obviously: more money, more work, more people. There’s also risk tolerance. You might think that a larger organization has more to lose, but Garcia sees it differently. “We were actually very risk-averse” in the beginning, Garcia says. “We didn’t have that understanding of the audience. But as you become more mature, it’s different. You can actually take greater risks, because everyone has a sense of who this individual is, and so therefore the extensions make more sense.”
By “individual,” she means Johnson, but the same can be said of any organization. Once customers understand and love a brand, they’ll follow it, too.
That may sound like common sense. But what Garcia says actually goes against the natural gravity of most companies. Maxwell Wessel, the chief innovation officer of SAP, once wrote this in Harvard Business Review: “Big companies are really bad at innovation because they’re designed to be bad at innovation.” Once a company succeeds at something, he argues, it learns to do that thing as efficiently as possible. It stops discovering new things and becomes an expert in itself. That’s when it stops taking risks…which is when a smaller, more nimble competitor can come along and destroy it. Blockbuster versus Netflix. Sears versus Walmart (versus Amazon!). It’s an old story.
This can happen with a leader, too. A leader can be amazing at overseeing one phase of a company — the startup phase, the cleanup phase, the first-burst-of-growth phase. They fashion themselves as the right leader for the moment, and they serve it perfectly. But when the company enters a new phase and needs them to be a new kind of leader, they’re unable to adapt. Great and enduring leaders, therefore, are the ones that can change along with their company. They’re a new kind of leader at every stage.
So what does that look like for Johnson and Garcia, as Seven Bucks and The Garcia Companies have taken up more and more of that 10-lane highway? How have they become different leaders than the way they began?
“Oh, that’s good,” Johnson says, when I ask the question. Then he turns to Garcia.
“You want to take that?” They laugh.
But Garcia has a ready answer. “What we did this year, we did not do last year,” she says. “We are not attached to process. We are only attached to outcome.”
Garcia’s process has changed a lot over the years. She used to be involved in every conversation and all logistics, she says. But that’s not what their companies need now. “So I became a different type of producer,” she says. “Now it’s ‘How do all these enterprises work together? How are they tied to what’s happening in the global economy? How does it tie to the global audience that he now represents? Who is he today after every film? And how does that tie back?’ ”
Johnson has a similar perspective. Leadership, for him, involves asking a lot of questions — and constantly forcing himself to see things fresh. “I’ve felt my leadership ability and qualities grow,” he says, “but they could not have grown without the capacity to go, ‘OK, let’s always think this is my first day of school, first day on the job, and I don’t know shit.’”
Garcia describes Johnson as “the deliverable”—he is both a creator of a product and the product himself. That puts him in a unique position as a leader. And Johnson agrees: He must be as good as everyone’s expectations. He has to be the hardest worker.
“For me, what has really helped is just leading by example — really leading by example and always putting in the work,” he says. “And if we fail, it’s OK; we fail. But I’m always going to put in the work. These guys will tell you — you know, we’ll fly to China, we’ll land in Beijing at 4 a.m., we will immediately go to the hotel, then we’re going to go to the gym, and then we’re going to start our day. And it is a long day, right? But I’m right there with you. Yeah, we’re going to do it together.”
These answers should sound familiar.
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In the beginning of my conversation with Johnson and Garcia, we talked about our cores: What is the thing that fuels us? The thing we know how to do best? Garcia said it’s to “engage in the complete experience” — to simultaneously dig deep and see the big picture. Johnson said it’s to “be a 10-lane highway approaching the world.” They figured out these things years ago, when Johnson was just a guy puzzling over his fame. Now their place in the world is very different. Their lives are defined by billion-dollar deals. But when I asked how they evolved as leaders, they restated a version of their cores: Garcia is digging deep and rising above. Johnson sees massive opportunity and is fully committed to owning it.
That’s what happens when you have a well-defined core, and when you understand exactly how well it interlocks with your partner’s. Lots of things will change after years of experience and billions of dollars, but the core will not. It cannot.
“Because the process, it’s just a cycle,” Johnson says.
“It has to refine; it has to improve,” Garcia says.
“The refinement is so critical,” Johnson says.
But the starting point is everything.