Arianna Huffington: 'No brilliant jerks allowed'
She’s the media magnate behind the Huffington Post, but now Arianna Huffington is more concerned with sleep. In a new FT series, Female Founders, we ask her about her latest business venture and what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.
Executive Produced by Vanessa Kortekaas. Edited by Richard Topping. Filmed by Gregory Bobillot and Ben Marino. Still images by Bloomberg and Getty.
She's the self-made media magnate who launched the Huffington Post website. These days, Arianna Huffington is more concerned with sleep. I met her at the Manhattan offices of Thrive Global, her latest business venture, whose mission is to end the stress and burnout epidemic.
So Arianna, you founded Huffington Post and Thrive Global after a long and varied career in other areas. What difference do you think it makes having experience before founding a business? Because most of your career up to then had not been about --
I was a writer. Yes. I had written a dozen books, [I was a ] journalist, a speaker. I think, obviously, you bring all your earlier experiences to any new undertaking. For me, more important than my early experiences was my upbringing. You know, I was brought up in Athens, Greece by an amazing mother who had always made me feel that I could take risks because she kept saying failure is not the opposite of success, it's a stepping stone to success. So I think being comfortable with the possibility of failure, which was incredibly high when I launched Huff Post, meant that I was willing to take the risk.
After 12 years at the Huffington Post, Ms Huffington sold the news site to AOL for $350 million before launching Thrive Global.
What did you learn?
The first thing I learned, the most important thing is to make sure that you don't hire people who may be great at their job, but they are toxic in terms of the culture. I call it no brilliant jerks allowed. And I think it's my number one management rule. It's very tempting when you find someone who is good at what they do, who delivers results, to overlook the toxic impact they have in the culture and on their colleagues, because of who they are and because of their character. Now, I do believe that everybody is redeemable, and people evolve and learn. But it's at a very high cost for a company, especially a start-up.
And now at Thrive Global, I am very conscious of the fact that the first 100 people you hire will determine the culture of the company.
Her aim at Thrive Global is to help people and companies improve their well-being and performance. The company offers everything from online advice to products such as smart watches and even miniature beds where you can tuck in your phone at night to charge, as part of a quest to encourage a healthier relationship with technology.
Tell us a little about the difference between setting up Huffington Post and setting up Thrive Global.
Thrive Global has been a lot easier. I think, I'm sure it's partly because it's not my first rodeo and because we're very lucky to be able to raise capital easily, both for the Series A and then the Series B. It was easier to recruit great people, which is so key for any start up. But I think more important than that is that I think we tapped into a moment in the zeitgeist. After sort of decades of believing the wrong thing, we are waking up and realising that this delusion, that burnout is essential in order to achieve and succeed, is something that has actually cost us a lot in terms of health, productivity, and ultimately, results.
Would you have achieved as much, do you think, if you had understood this earlier?
Oh I have no doubt about that. In fact, I can trace all the mistakes I made to being tired. To running on empty.
Have you got an example of a mistake?
Mostly hiring mistakes. When you have like, a list of people you are hiring, it's so tempting, when you are tired and exhausted and confronting your long to-do list, you want to cross something off the to-do list. And that's when you kind of ignore the red flags.
How much, obviously, does your personality play into it? Its been fundamental at Huffington Post, and now at Thrive, that you are involved and contributing from the top. Does that put a huge amount of pressure on you personally to understand the and lead the culture?
I don't see it as a pressure. I see it more as creating a family feeling. From the first days of Huff Post, when we were five people, I would go buy everybody sweaters at Christmas. And we maintained that tradition. You know, we went from sweaters for 850 people, to PJs for 850 people, when I started writing about sleep. But my point is that, it isn't just giving people a bonus or or a card to buy something. It's the way you would treat people in a family.
What sort of skills, other skills and characteristics do you think you need as a company founder?
I think you definitely need a sense of mission. The recognition that there is a value you can add to peoples' lives. Whether that's in the tech world or in customer service or in product or in this case, in media, the sense that you are adding value is a big driver when things don't go well. And there is no founding story that is all success and glory. I mean, I still remember the first review we got um...
Very critical. It said, the Huffington Post is an unsurvivable failure. It is the movie equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar, and Heaven's Gate all rolled into one. For those who are not movie buffs who are watching, these were all incredible flops.
What do you feel you've learned from seeing other founders and business people?
I think I've learned a lot about the importance of culture. We're just beginning to understand how central culture is to the bottom line. Culture is the immune system of a company. You're not going to improve human nature overnight. But a strong culture can protect the company from bad behaviour of any kind.