“It pays to be a winner, it pays to be a winner, it pays to be a winner!”
The words tumble out through the heavy panting of about 25 exhausted thirtysomethings, from lips covered in sand and sweat. The sun peers through the clouds, illuminating the inhabitants of the beach, who dot the sand like a troop of emperor penguins. Stout men in aviator sunglasses and fatigues patrol “boat” teams of weekend warriors who huddle together, nursing scraped knees and wounded egos. Nearby, waves crash in the Southern California surf.
The men and women taking this punishment–which includes sand sprints, submersion in icy waters, and heaving massive tires and 10-foot wooden logs–are all here by choice. Why, you might rightly wonder. They are C-level execs and founders from some of the biggest brands in the world, bonding bloodily over two hours of “light” Navy SEAL training, a hell-week sampler served by a quartet of former SEAL operatives. There’s VICE’s chief strategic officer, Spencer Baim, dry heaving next to a doubled-over vice president from Mattel, a few paces away from Adidas’s bulky general manager, who winces from a strained back.
The participants aren’t really gluttons for abuse. And this isn’t a new-age hoax. There’s method here: building trust and relationships through shared experience. And it’s about far more than which team wins the fastest times heaving 10-foot logs and tractor-trailer tires across the sand. The goal is learning the strengths and weaknesses of the guy next to you, and translating that know-how into a business situation. That is the real win-loss value, forging lasting friendships–and knowing how your peers perform in pressure situations.
Here, on the shores of the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, an affluent enclave just south of Los Angeles, these men and women are gathered for an immersive conference unlike any other. This is PTTOW!, the private, members-only summit.
The two-day event is the crown jewel in an organization that feels part illuminati IRL, part Davos, and Summit Series on steroids. That’s because it’s chock-full of some of the biggest business names on the planet (PTTOW! stands, modestly, for Plan To Take On The World). To hear PTTOW!’s CEO and cofounder Roman Tsunder tell it, his blue eyes lighting up and his smile widening as he works a room, “It’s the most influential group of brands and minds ever assembled in the world.”
More than 230 from 70 industries: tech, fashion, media, marketing, music. Huge companies. And lots of celebs. The combined brand portfolios of the attendees? A whopping $68 billion, a third of all U.S. media investments. Heads of mainstream multinationals like Coca Cola, Gap, McDonald’s, GE, Virgin, Mastercard, AOL, Taco Bell have attended–it’s a who’s who of CMOs and founders. Throw in popular upstarts like The Hundreds, Wattpad, Nasty Gal, and Medium, and suddenly Tsunder’s earlier claim doesn’t seem so grandiose. PTTOW!’s advisory board includes execs from Macy’s, Paramount Television, Quiksilver, MasterCard, and Roc Nation.
“We don’t consider it a conference,” says Tsunder. “We feel like we put on a show.”
That show incorporates 30 conversational think tanks, bucket-list adventures like boat racing and helicopter rides, big-name live performances, TED talk-esque fireside chats and keynotes–and some seriously decadent parties. Between the pop-up shows, gift bags filled with drones, beautiful young “ambassadors” that act as chaperones, pumping music, and flowing drinks, it’s clear that Tsunder intends to make his show a memorable one.
And yet, for all the panache, the fete is extremely immersive and hands-on. The idea is to create a community of leaders that build on their collective experiences. And surrounding those participants with other successes to make them comfortable enough to really let their hair down and lay the framework for collaboration.
In short: it’s a two-day networking blur, where notoriously private people actually bond without constantly being pitched.
Most events, even for the elite set, are carefully curated affairs with keynotes, open bars, and excessive executive expensing. This happens here, too, but PTTOW! is more like a cultured circus for grown-ups. This year, the seventh incarnation, which took place on May 6 and 7, the theme delivered exactly that. David Blaine staged live magic. GoogleX’s Astro Teller discussed his company’s secretive moonshots–particularly how many failures the self-driving cars project had before getting on the ground. Artists and musicians including Echosmith, Lindsey Stirling, the band Fun, and Jon Batiste played to a swooning crowd (PTTOW! would not disclose how much the performers were paid). Quincy Jones opened up about how the Depression fueled his ambition to graduate beyond the street life. David Guetta accepted an award for his contributions to electronic dance music. And in between clinking glasses of Veuve Clicquot, major deals began to take shape.
“We ask members two things,” Tsunder adds. “What are you most inspired by, and what are the biggest challenges you’re having? We’re all about wish lists. Delivering what inspires you most. Which opens you up to having this creative awakening of partnership opportunities.”
Past partnerships born from a PTTOW! conference have come from industries such as wearable tech, fashion, music, and film. They include: a five-year deal between the Bonnaroo music festival and Red Bull, a workout-accessory collaboration between Victoria’s Secret and the ecommerce shop Misfit, the Tribeca Film Festival tapping Levi’s for official sponsorship, and Lululemon and a leading sports-beverage brand working together. So far, there have been 77 partnerships in total, according to Tsunder, all created out of PTTOW!. Tsunder attributes that synergy to his program’s structure.
“It’s a year-round community,” he says. “That’s why these brands and artists come. They’re not wasting their time to hang out. They’re here because Shaun White wants to do a partnership with Macy’s, for instance. Aloe Blacc wants to reinvent what music means to him. Everyone wants to do game-changing deals.”
The annual soiree is the icing on the cake. Members, who pay as much as into the six figures and can make referrals for other creative types to attend in the future, get access to PTTOW!’s heavy Rolodex to facilitate connections. Members are able to reach out to PTTOW! at any time to make introductions to other members. And that makes PTTOW! different from other similar organizations–such as the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, or Summit Series–because it functions as ersatz brand and talent reps. Sometimes PTTOW! gets a piece of the action, but Tsunder says by and large that income is reflected in membership fees that can be adjusted and based on those partnerships.
Two-time Olympic gold winner Shaun White, who was introduced to the events by founding members Tony Hawk and Kelly Slater, looks at the program as a less formal way to build his Air+Style sports music festival, calling it “a casual approach to business. The discussion, the topics, everyone’s guard is down. It’s not ‘come to the office and sit in the boardroom.’ It’s less confrontational, so I really enjoy that.”
First-time attendee and Grammy nominated artist Aloe Blacc told me he uses the vehicle as a strategic tool. “Part of the reason I’m at PTTOW! is to engage in other business ventures that can be an exit strategy from the music game. I want to continue to make great songs that will stand the test of time without playing the industry game of chasing the popularity and celebrity. I’d rather develop a killer app and be home to raise my child instead of on the road.”
For someone like the legendary Quincy Jones, who was honored with an icon award, PTTOW!’s version of a lifetime achievement award, his Quincy Jones Global Productions team is scouting and parlaying with potential future collaborators; his company dabbles in everything from artist management to licensing and endorsement, production, and investments.
In-Q, the spoken-word performer who recited an ice-breaker poem at the opening ceremony, sums up the value of the collective activity at play here: “When people do something together that bonds them, it helps move their ego out of the way.”
That’s a big part of what Tsunder says makes the big names attend–and see the value. And he’s adamant he’s not trying to turn this formula into a Tony Robbins-like success infomercial, or water down PTTOW!’s value. “We cap the membership at 250 people. We’re not trying to scale. The most curated and influential minds and brands in the world are here. That’s not an accident.”
Rubbing elbows with so many power players is a far cry from Tsunder’s humble beginning, and he quotes the Dalai Lama to make a point. “A thousand-mile journey starts with the first step.”
His first step towards success began when he and his family defected from Communist Russia in 1978. At 16, Tsunder moved to Orange County, California, essentially starting from scratch. He admits it was tough fitting in and making friends in the OC beach culture. Looking back, “One thing that made me feel cool was having Quiksilver board shorts.” Years later, when Tsunder would sit in the offices of Bob McKnight, Quiksilver’s founder, he realized how far he had come. “No way growing up in the OC I thought I’d have this opportunity to be part of something like this,” he says.
To hear him tell it, PTTOW! is a passion project that’s not about social climbing and celebrity as much as building on an ethos that’s grown through hard work and sweat equity, a real American immigrant story, something increasingly rare in the current entrepreneur climate.
Tsunder launched PTTOW! in 2009 with the ambitious goal of creating a community linking every major industry, and built for CEOs, CMOs, and cultural icons. The first big name to join was Tsunder’s hero, McKnight. After that, Tsunder reached out to the Dalai Lama through his personal emissary for peace. Tsunder pitched his sweet spot: empowering the youth, a major tenet of PTTOW!. After six months and two trips to Dharamsala, India, his holiness joined. According to Tsunder, “It was the first time he ever spoke to a business group, and the reason was, in his words, ‘I believe what you are doing is a good thing.’”
Since that moment, things have taken off for Tsunder. He now develops the project with cofounder Terry Hardy, president of Zosea Media Holdings, and creative director Jim Sullos. Four years ago, PTTOW! became big enough for Tsunder to quit the firm he founded, Access 360, a fashion-media network that created in-store video content. PTTOW! continues to expand, and now operates out of a Culver City office with a staff of 12.
Now Tsunder says his next steps include creating Worldz, sort of a pop-up version of PTTOW!, that will be open to non-members. Same style–more accessibility.
“It’s not about the money,” Tsunder repeats, sounding genuine. He’s like a modern Bobby Fischer working life’s chessboard. Except his platform is serving up what he calls a “creative awakening” for people with the power to legitimately shape modern culture.
“There’s no rush, I’m not trying to sell, I’m just trying to be present though this journey.”
He thinks, considering the journey ahead.
“Our goal is to be the best in the world.”