Awkward conversation with the founder of Princeton Review

The awkwardness you’ll hear at the end of this interview is completely my fault, but I stand by the questions I asked.

I do wish, however, that I wasn’t so abrasive.

Adam Robinson

Adam Robinson

The Princeton Review

Adam Robinson is the co-founder of The Princeton Review which offers test preparation for standardized tests.

He currently runs Robinson Global Strategies, a global macro advisor to hedge funds and family offices.

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Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey, before we start, I’ve got to tell you that this interview got really awkward and I take full responsibility. It’s my fault. I know why I did it. I had some sharp questions to ask and I know that I’ve been seeing a lot of podcasters do interviews and just be really nice and supportive of everything that the guest says without doing any research and without challenging anything. I know as a listener, that bothers me.

I know that my guests like when I do research and like when I ask the sharper questions. But I also accept that in this interview, I did not have my usual soft touch and I wasn’t so much reacting to my guest as I was reacting to my need not to be like a lot of podcasters and interviewers. I don’t take back any of the questions I asked. I don’t take back any of the research. I think this was my style of interviewing from beginning to end, but I do wish that I wasn’t so abrasive.

I will tell you this—I continued to do research even after the interview was done. The photos of Warren Buffett that you’ll hear me refer to, I actually emailed Warren Buffett’s secretary and said, “Is this legit?” And she responded back very fast, “Yes, it was. Yes, it is. Those photos are legit of the two of them.”

I think my questions, as I said, were a little abrasive. I think that they are still useful and I think that this interview needs to happen and I’m not going to edit it because I think you need to see entrepreneurs as they are and not in a more polished way than they are. So, that’s what you get with Mixergy. That’s what you’re getting here. So, here’s the interview.

Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, where I do interviews with entrepreneurs about how they built their business. My goal is to understand how the businesses grew, the person behind the company and more importantly, to see what we can bring back to the audience of entrepreneurs who listen to my interviews. I’m kind of obsessed with these interviews, a lot of research, a lot of time.

Here’s the thing—before I got obsessed with these things, I was in high school, Brooklyn Tech High School in Fort Greene, which was dangerous at the time, but now it’s become really nice, very gentrified. I wanted to get out of Brooklyn and go somewhere good, go to a good university. So, I signed up for this SAT test prep, the one that my friend signed up for and I thought it was okay. It was just another boring class, well, a little more than a boring class but it was just okay.

My friend, Henry Balon, though, signed up for The Princeton Review. He got the freaking book. He showed it to me and The Princeton Review was a world apart from everything that we’d done in school. First of all, they weren’t just teaching you SAT words and how to think for the SAT. They were teaching you how to out-think the SAT. They had this fake character called Joe Boggs, I think—am I right about that, Adam?

Adam: Joe Bloggs.

Andrew: Joe Bloggs. Thank you. I missed a letter in there. Joe Bloggs, which was like the creators of the SAT created this like befuddled SAT taker that they were assuming we all were and here’s how they were tricking us or how we have to outthink them by understanding how think about us. Then I thought, “This is amazing.” But I signed up for the other program, what a mistake.

This company, Princeton Review, actually not only created this book that was a bestseller—bestseller SAT book? Yeah, bestseller SAT book. It also had this company that kept growing and growing, not too long ago was owned by Match.com. Since then, it had been sold to a company called ST Unitas.

All this to say that it’s an ongoing business, 2016 is the latest year that I can find revenues for it, according to Motley Fool, $104 million in revenue. So, it’s an ongoing business. I want to find out how this business started, how they were thinking about the SATs and how they grew the business. I also want to find out about the guy behind the company, the writer of this, the guy who came up with the Joe Bloggs character. So, I have him on with me today.

His name is Adam Robinson. Since then, he’s gone on to do other things. One of them is he’s created Robinson Global Strategies. I was just on the site earlier today. The site says that he is a global macro-advisor to the heads of some of the world’s largest hedge funds and family offices. That sounds a little bit beyond what we usually do here on Mixergy, but he’s totally accessible. In fact, he said, “Andrew, give everyone my email address.” So, I will. His email address is Adam@RobinsonGlobalStrategies.com. So, invited him to find out about the past, where he is today and the transition that he made since then.

This is all thanks to two sponsors you guys already know—boy, 3 minutes and 30 seconds I’m already into this interview and I haven’t even give you, Adam, a chance to talk because I know The Princeton Review so well—the two sponsors are HostGator and Toptal. I’ll tell you guys more about them later. Adam, welcome.

Adam: Thank you for having me.

Andrew: Let’s go back in time and see where this business, The Princeton Review, started. My understanding was you were teaching the SATs, just kind of doing it locally at the time, right?

Adam: Right. So, the way it started, I had gone to Wharton undergrad and got a law degree at Oxford. I came to New York City to seek fame and fortune. I thought at the time that I would be a writer. That’s what I thought. I went to the friend of my father, who had died when I was in college. This guy was a big Broadway producer. He said, “So, what are you going to do now, kid, now that you’re out in the real world?” I said, all enthusiasm, “I’m going to be a writer.”

He looks at me poker-faced for like a half a minute and he said, “I guess you better have something to say.” I thought, “What do I have to say? I’m 25. I know nothing.” I thought, “I should support myself while I’m writing the great American novel. How to do that?” I thought, “Okay, I can tutor kids.” Kids today don’t realize, even young people don’t realize that back then when I started, nobody was getting tutored. The only people who were getting tutored were people who were actively failing in school. If you were really about to drop out, then your parents would shell out money for a tutor.

I came along and there were 31 private high schools in New York. I remember this number because back in the day, I had to write the same letter 31 times to every private high school. I introduced myself and said, “If you have any students who want to prepare for the SAT, send them to me,” because I figure I’ll tutor a couple kids a day and then I’ll be able to write the great American novel. In the process of tutoring my first student, I figured out a way to beat the SAT.

So, this girl’s score shoots up like 200 points. I don’t remember exactly, but it was like 200 points in a few weeks. She tells all of her friends. Then I had like 10 kids and their score all shoots up in a matter of weeks. No one had ever done anything that I had created like this. They told 10 friends. So, a year later, I’m tutoring 80 to 100 kids a week. No one believes me about that until they look at my old schedule. I had kids coming to me every hour on the hour from like 7:00 in the morning to like 7:00 or 8:00 at night. That’s how crazy it was.

In fact, I remember one student who was so desperate, she said, “I’ll come to you anytime.” I laughed and I said, “The only slot I have for you is 6:00 in the morning.” I still remember her name, Hannah, she said, “Okay,” without trying to negotiate. I took her on at like 6:00 in the morning.

Then I teamed up with a guy who had just graduated from Princeton named John Katzman. He, in fact, had worked for an old classmate of mine, an old Wharton classmate of mine while he was at Princeton and he had created a really cool computer system, which I’d like to get into in a bit because it was fascinating. We were doing big data analysis back in the early 80s, way before it became popular like it is today. Everything we did we tested rigorously to see whether it actually improved scores.

The test prep business is very ruthless. It’s kind of like standup comedy. A standup comedian, if he doesn’t make the audience laugh, it’s really obvious whether he’s succeeded or failed. In the test prep business, it’s really obvious. Your score either goes up or it doesn’t. So, we measured everything. We could tell on every given student what mistakes that student was making, not only that but why the student was making those mistakes.

Andrew: So, this was a test that you would administer the test to the students, put their results into the computer system and then the computer would tell you how they did where they could use a little more improvement. You’d work with them and then you’d give them another test, run it through the system and the computer would tell you whether you improved the student’s results.

Adam: Yes. Well, when you say the computer told us, obviously we programmed the computer. So, the computer really just had a series of rules, hundreds of rules, thousands of rules that we had programmed into the computer. For example, let’s say a geometry question asked, “What is the area of a circle of radius 10?” And you selected the answer 20 pi. Well, that’s not correct. On a superficial analysis, you might assume that the student doesn’t understand circles. Actually, what the student wrote down was the circumference of the circle. So, maybe the student misread the question.

Andrew: I see.

Adam: So, then the program would look for other questions that the student might have misread. If he misread a few, print out a comment, “You tend to misread geometry questions.”

Andrew: We’re looking at—the Princeton Review started, I think, 1982. So, back then, it’s a series of if/then questions, if they picked this, then there’s a chance that they misread it. If they picked C on this answer, it’s a chance that they misread it. If they picked B on this question, there’s a chance they misread it. If they see enough of these misreading chances, then you think, “Alright, this person is probably misreading these questions.” This was internally. You weren’t selling it. It was just you guys?

Adam: No. By the way, there were also techniques. Let’s say for example that on a given geometry question, the student could have gotten it right if he or she had used a certain technique but got it wrong. Then we’d look for other questions for evidence whether the student was using the technique or not, which would tell us—let’s say the technique was plugging in numbers on algebra questions.

The student tended to miss algebra questions that he couldn’t gotten right had he used the technique. Then we would know as an administrator and also the teacher would know that the student needed to work on that technique, he wasn’t using that technique. By the way, as an administrator, we would also monitor the teacher results.

So, let’s say in a given classroom, a lot of the students in Susan—let’s Susan’s one of our teachers—a lot of the students were misreading questions. We would know that we would have to train Susan to do a better job of getting—

Andrew: I see. Susan was a Princeton Review teacher.

Adam: Correct.

Andrew: The company started how? It was John Katzman starting the company and then you guys teamed up?

Adam: Well, we both kind of started simultaneously. I actually started a little before him. At the time, I was tutoring nearly 100 students. He had about ten students in his mom’s apartment. So, we teamed up. It was pretty much simultaneously. Then, again, it was his computer system. He had a lot of insights into the tests as well. So, we combined my techniques with his computer system. We were doubling in size every couple of months.

Andrew: And then you wrote—

Adam: It was viral before there was an internet.

Andrew: Sorry?

Adam: It was viral before there was an internet to go viral with.

Andrew: Part of it you guys wrote the book and I know there was some internal debate about whether you should write the book and give away your techniques, the ones that people are paying to come into class for. As I understand it, and I don’t have it here in my notes, but for what I remember, you were advocating for writing the book and putting it out there, he was a little more skeptical.

You ended up coauthoring this book on the SAT. I remember that the first letter of the first letter of every paragraph in every page said—I’m going to say it—”Fuck the College Board,” or something or whatever company it was that was at the time putting it out. But if you look at that, the first paragraph started with an F, the second paragraph started with a U, right. That’s partial why it went viral. Is this true? Talk about that?

Adam: Yes. That’s what John’s sway of tweaking the nose at the testing establishment. We later had to amend the book.

Andrew: Why?

Adam: Why? It got us the notoriety. It was clever for students, but I don’t know, I think we could have been a little more judicious in our use of words and a little more sly in encoding it, encrypting it in the book. But we got a reputation for beating the SAT. After all, the original title of the book was called “The SAT: Cracking the System.” We were very counterculture and we’re going to show you how to beat the test since the test is out to beat you and it was a lot of fun. It was in keeping with our anarchic spirit. We were anarchists.

Andrew: That’s what separated you for me. Henry Balon, my friend from school, would not have told me about an SAT book unless there was something going on in there that was a little bit anarchistic, as you said, a little fight the man, which is the way we felt at the time.

Adam: Yeah.

Andrew: Okay. You guys are working together on this. The partnership, though, is not an even partnership, is it?

Adam: Well, partnerships, this is something that all entrepreneurs have to work out. It’s tough to go in a partnership without a clear understanding and also tough—we became really good friends and it’s hard to go into business with a friend. I’m sure you’ve done segments on that, where entrepreneurs have cautioned with friends or family members. So, it was a rocky partnership, but we’re best friends now.

Andrew: You are?

Adam: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

Andrew: You guys had, from what I understand, a real back and forth where you would disagree with each other and then became friends, disagree—you sued him, I think. I’m looking at one article here from the Wall Street Journal, 1999—you’re smiling, you know this one.

Adam: Yeah.

Andrew: “The dysfunctional duo that built the SAT prep firm winds up in court.” They called you in the headline the dysfunctional duo back before clickbait.

Adam: Yeah.

Andrew: You said that he offered you three percent of the business and you said, “No, that’s not right.” Is that true?

Adam: Yes, it was. I had other percentages of the books, for example. We split the book royalties. So, again, we went into business without a clear partnership agreement. You should always, it’s crucial, especially when somebody feels he or she doesn’t need an agreement. You’ll often hear two friends talking like, “We’re friends, what do we need an agreement for?”

Andrew: Right.

Adam: It’s kind of like couples going, “What do we need a prenup for? We love each other.” Then there will come a time when you may not love each other, you may not be friends or you may actively disagree or there might be third parties that assert rights and you’ll wish you had a contract. But we settled that. Really, I’m not just saying that. We are best friends today.

Andrew: I can’t imagine. As I understand it, he offered you three percent. You said, “No, that’s what I would give a secretary,” at the time. You settled on 10 percent of the business plus 50-50 ownership of the publishing rights of the books, right?

Adam: Correct.

Andrew: You sued him. I didn’t find the resolution of this lawsuit. What happened at that?

Adam: We settled.

Andrew: I see. Okay. Then you also said, “Look, over the years, I was the Steve Wozniak to his Steve Jobs,” right?

Adam: I did. Back then, yes, I did.

Andrew: And then you also said—I’m going to go with one more quote here from this article, “Not to emasculate myself here, but I was like a wife who’s married to a husband with all the assets in his name,” and you were seeking as much as $10 in compensatory damages.

Adam: Right.

Andrew: This was you guys in friendship, “You officially formulated the business, put it in your name, fine, we have an understanding,” and that’s the mistake that you made there.

Adam: The mistake was we were in business together for almost 6 or 7 years before we had a joint contract. It was a long time. Don’t ever do that. That was a mistake I’ll never make again. So, do not go into business with someone without a contract. You should both get separate lawyers. Be sure you do that.

Andrew: Did you get a buyout from him before you left, where he said, “Here’s $200,000, this thing is done, our relationship, go off?” Did you get $200,000 and then you went back to renegotiate?

Adam: No. It was a little more complicated than that, but it would take me a while to go into the details. So, he was just trying to buy me off.

Andrew: And you didn’t accept the buyout.

Adam: Exactly.

Andrew: Can you say what you settled for? How’d you end up with this multi-million dollar business that’s still ongoing to this day?

Adam: Well, I sold my interest, I was completely gone except for ongoing book royalties by about early ’92.

Andrew: And what did you get out of the agreement?

Adam: 50 percent of all book royalties.

Andrew: I see. It was 50 percent of all book royalties, but did you get any more out of the test prep program, the company?

Adam: Yes, I did.

Andrew: You did, but you’re not comfortable saying what that is now.

Adam: Yeah. The settlement was confidential.

Andrew: I see. Okay. Wow. How do you go back and become friends after that?

Adam: Well, we were young. We were right out of college. You learn. You become older and wiser. You learn something about the world. You both realize that you had made mistakes, misunderstood the other person and you remember that we started it as friends. So, it’s not surprising that we would return to that friendship, not at all.

Andrew: I feel like you would be—I’ve done some research on you, I heard you with Tim Ferriss, you’re someone who loves other people, who loves gift giving. I feel like you would be the person who would reach out to John and say, “Hey, John, let’s bury the hatchet. Is that what happened?”

Adam: I think it was pretty much mutual. John, to his credit, he is very pragmatic and he doesn’t stew on his emotions and whatever make the most practical sense, like a friendship, he’s not going to hold a grudge, not at all.

Andrew: Okay. Let me talk about my sponsor and then we’ll come back and the shocking thing that I heard you talk with Tim Ferriss about I’ve got to bring up and go through more details on, the depressive period and this new business.

But first, my sponsor is a company called HostGator. If you’re out there listening to me and you hate your hosting company, you switch to HostGator. I have to be honest with you guys, HostGator sponsored us—Adam, I think you’ll appreciate this—they’re were long-term sponsor, one of my best, they bought more ads, I think, than anyone other than second sponsor, who people are going to hear about in a moment. Then I paused them and said, “I don’t think we can run anymore ads for them.”

My team and I all agreed and we went back in and we said, “Look, here’s why.” We went through all the emails that we’d gotten from people about HostGator, some positive, but truly some neg and we brought them all the HostGator and we said, “Hey, HostGator, here’s the negative stuff that we’re hearing. I don’t think we can work with you until you understand what’s going on here. You have to take better care of our customers than anybody else would. Otherwise, why would we recommend you? There are tons of other hosting companies.”

HostGator responded to each and every one of them. I went back and I talked to people who complained to us. One person was so apologetic that he wrote a post on his Facebook page to explain that he made a mistake. Here’s the big mistake that I can be clearer in this ad for HostGator and the mistake was all made.

HostGator has some of the cheapest hosting packages out there. If you want to host a website, I’m looking at their website right now, HostGator.com/Mixergy. For $3.48 a month, they’re going to host your freaking site. That’s super cheap. But that’s shared hosting. If you’re someone who is like me, starting a business with tons of traffic, you need hella good up time, you need much more security, much more work from them, they have packages that escalate up, all the way to the best of the best.

So, what I’ve been doing was talking just about the cheap plan. Frankly, if you’re just getting started, don’t give them any more money than you have to. Go for the cheap plan, it’s good, it’s solid, it will work. But if you’re someone who like me was starting a website where you’re expecting a thousand people to hit your site at the same time and you want more control over your site and want this other stuff, they have every package that you would want.

So, HostGator scales up. We actually leveled up with them and I think we’re paying something like $150, $200 a month because I wanted the best out there and their competition for that was charging like $400 or $500.

So, here’s the deal, guys, if you’re listening to me and you have a hosting company and you hate them, switch over to HostGator. If you only have a Facebook page for your company and you have like a really weak internet presence, start with HostGator. I really love them and it’s not just me saying it.

You saw that they were off here for a while, I checked every freaking one of them, if you come to my office, I happily will show you every message that I sent HostGator about every single customer and their response and my response back. We will stand up for every single customer of ours who goes with one of our sponsors. If you’re happy, tell me, if you’re not tell me. This is a lot of work I’m going to do just for like a hosting package, which I don’t think I need to, but I can’t stop myself from doing it.

So, if you’re out there and you want to sign up, go to HostGator.com/Mixergy. If you have a friend who need a website hosted, go to HostGator.com/Mixergy, unmetered disk space, unmetered bandwidth, unlimited email addresses and they start off cheap and level up to give you every feature you want from their competition at a much better price and I think better service, HostGator.com/Mixergy.

Alright. Here’s the thing. I was listening to you on the train this morning with Tim Ferriss and an hour and 30 minutes into the interview, Tim Ferriss says, “Let’s talk about the depressive period,” and you said, “There was a lifting in 2007. I made an abrupt decision. I made so many mistakes before.” What happened? Talk about that depression, if you don’t mind.

Adam: Sure. By the way, I felt comfortable speaking with Tim about it because Tim has been very candidate about his own struggles with depression. For me, it was very much a lifelong struggle. My father succumbed to the disease. Between the ages of early childhood through 30, it was on one unrelenting depression. Then from about 30 until about the next decade or so, it would be episodic.

Andrew: You’re saying that until you were 30, you were depressed constantly?

Adam: Yes, continually, unrelenting.

Andrew: What does it feel like to be depressed continually?

Adam: It’s hard to convey because it’s a sort of pain and a blackness that has no analogs. Nothing seems worthwhile. It’s very difficult to motivate yourself. You just don’t care. The thought that keeps going through your head is, “What’s the point of it all?” The real sinister element to depression is that while you are depressed, you believe that you’re thinking clearly and when you aren’t depressed, you’re, as it were, deluded.

Andrew: Do you have an example of something you were feeling depressed about and it seemed silly in that depressive period, like, “Why would I have cared about it for a second in my life?”

Adam: Well, I’ll tell you. Depression never seems silly. You don’t get depressed about certain things. It’s a biochemical state.

Andrew: What I mean is—I don’t mean to jump in and share my part, I remember when I was feeling depressed, I thought remember when you love someone, then it’s exciting. Love seems so silly. But what about when you had that kiss, it was so good? Just putting lips one on top of the other, that’s exciting? How stupid was I to even care about that and to fight so much for it and to spend so much on clothes and going out and looking like a fool for that little thing? So, in a depressive state, kissing, which can be so heart elevating—

Adam: Magical.

Andrew: Did you have something like that related to business that you felt, “Why did I even care?”

Adam: I had to struggle to get through school. I did very well on tests. I went to great schools, Wharton and Oxford, but everything I did was a struggle. I did it pretty much out of sheer force of will. I remember once, to give you an idea of how trivial the thinking can become, I remember my junior year at Wharton and I called up my mother and I said, “I have to drop out of school.” She said, “Why?”

Mind you, I had straight As, was doing outstandingly well and I called her and I said I have to drop out and she said, “Why?” I said, “I think I ruined a pot.” An electric skillet that I had, literally I thought I had ruined it. Now, big deal, $20. She said, “Well, Adam, why don’t you get a new one?” I said, “No, you don’t understand. I have to drop out because I ruined this skillet.” It’s mundane things like that. I stayed. I wasn’t depressed over the skillet. It’s a sign of how overwhelming depression is, that even something as trivial as that can make you think your life is over.

Andrew: I see.

Adam: So, it doesn’t take a major catalyst to set you off. It’s not like, “Oh my gosh, I failed out of college and I have to drop out.” It could be something really trivial. There’s a video of someone that went viral, a wife posted it of her husband who was laughing 36 hours before he took his life. You see him laughing his head off being the life of the party, then 36 hours he was to take his life. Depression is almost evil, the effects it has on someone’s psyche. It’s very difficult to escape, very difficult.

Andrew: I had a past interviewee that I’d been talking to in private. She was going through a rough period though. I talked to her just to check in because something in the news seemed depressing and I wanted to hear how she was doing. She goes, “No, life is so good. It’s such a silly thing.” Then a few days later, I heard from someone close to her that she committed suicide, bullet to the head, I think, is what it was. I thought, “How did I miss this? I’m an interviewer who’s supposed to understand. I talk to her. I see this.” I don’t know what to make of it. Did you ever feel that way? Did you ever get to the point where you were suicidal?

Adam: Absolutely.

Andrew: How close?

Adam: When I said it was unrelenting, it was every day I felt suicidal.

Andrew: How do you get past that? Not get past it, I mean how do you day to day live with that and get things done?

Adam: Part of it is there was an inner voice that—I had a very difficult childhood and there was always an inner voice that I will not be conquered. I talked about this on the Tim Ferriss interview. I was bedridden for two and a half years between the ages of four and six and a half. My parents would come to visit me two hours every Sunday, which meant 166 hours of the week I was all alone in a bed, unable to move between the ages of four and six and a half. I resolved them that I could not be conquered.

So, when depression overwhelms you—I’ll give you a metaphor. I was once in Lake Michigan and a wave—I was all alone. It was in late September and actually after postseason and this tiny little wave came up and sucked me under water. It was an undertow, vicious undertow and dragged me—I still have scars on my back from the rocks on the bottom of the lake and I thought, “If I just hold my breath, this lake will deposit me up on shore.” Getting through a depression is a little bit like that. You hunker down and you get through it.

Now, today, they have medications that they didn’t have when I was dealing with it. But even the medications can have awful side effects. I want to address something that you just said because it’s really important and it explains why that video of that man who was very happy and then 36 hours later, he took his life, I believe the most vulnerable time if you know anyone who suffers from severe depression, the vulnerable time is actually when they begin to improve.

Andrew: Really, why?

Adam: Here’s the paradox—when you are truly depressed, you’re in bed. You don’t take any action. Even the idea of suicide itself doesn’t matter. Ironically, in a good sense, tragically, it’s when you begin to recover that you get enough energy that you go, “Good.” Here’s what happens, you get depressed, really depressed. Then you begin to improve and here’s the most dangerous time, when you begin, after you started to improve, to get bad again. I believe that’s the moment people act.

Andrew: You still have the energy now to do something about it and you’re in a negative momentum.

Adam: They’re not going to go back to where they were.

Andrew: I’m looking at you on Facebook. You are being held up by these five women at the gym because you’re there exercising and they’re cheering you on. You look happy. Have you beaten it?

Adam: Yeah. I haven’t dealt with depression for seven or eight years.

Andrew: How do you know you don’t go back to that? I’ve never had really bad depression, but I’ve been really happy and easygoing for the last 20+ years and I keep thinking, “What if this is building up and it’s going to be worse, then it really becomes a thing?” How do you know you’re done with it?

Adam: I guess you don’t know. I’m going to offer some suggestions. One is part of depression, I believe, it’s biochemical, but part of it is living an inauthentic life. An authentic life, you are in touch with yourself, your needs and your mission in life and if you are living in authentic life, all parts of you, all of your needs and emotions and drives are working in harmony. If you’re living an inauthentic life, there are parts of you that are at war with each other.

So, I think it’s important that each person get in touch with his or her needs and also a mission, a mission life because there are times when yourself are going to feel like, “What’s the point?” But if you are attached to a larger mission that will help you get through times, in the same way—this is a trivial example—but you can have a workout partner and you can wake up one morning and go, “I don’t feel like working out today.” But if you’ve got a workout partner, you know, “But I can’t let this person down.” So, you show up.

Andrew: So, inauthentic life, you have to stop that or you did and then have a mission. Can you expand on that and be open now that it’s been about a decade? When you say you were living an inauthentic life, what do you mean?

Adam: Well, work-wise and relationship-wise, I was in a relationship that wasn’t satisfying. My work was not satisfying either.

Andrew: What was the work you were doing at the time?

Adam: Well, I was consulting. I was beginning to consult. Actually, a previous example of what I’m doing now. I was creating statistical models for a hedge fund to predict market turning points, but I had concerns that the models weren’t working. I don’t mean my models but statistical modeling of human behavior is not a viable approach to financial markets. So, I didn’t like what I was doing and the relationship I was in was problematic and I made the decision to leave the relationship and I made the decision to embark on a whole new career.

Everything I’m doing now is something that I choose to do. So, I believe I’m living as authentic a life as I can. And by the way, I think another point I’d like to share is that there are two places your attention should be focused on in life and it’s either the task at hand, whatever you’re trying to do well or on other people, that self-doubt—all negative emotions, self-doubt, discouragement, anxiety, frustration, all of those emotions stem from an over-obsession with ourselves.

I’m not saying it’s that easy, but if you focus on the task at hand, whatever that may be or you focus on other people, then you’re far less likely to feel those negative emotions. For me, a negative emotion now is a signal that I have to redirect my attention, either on to someone else or on to the task at hand. Michael Jordan once said that he never thinks about missing a shot. The reason he never thinks about missing a shot is his attention was completely focused on making a shot. So, there was no room for doubting whether he was making the shot or not.

Andrew: He wasn’t giving space in his head to thoughts of, “What if I miss it and it’s on television?” and all that.

Adam: Exactly right.

Andrew: I’d love to get to be better at that. That’s one of my challenges—it’s one of all our challenges. That’s one that I want to work out. That’s a challenge that I want to spend a lot of time on. I want to talk about my second sponsor. It’s a little early in the interview for me to do it, but I want to get it out of the way because I want to dive in to some of the things that you’ve said. People might have heard me clicking because there are things that I’ve been dying to ask you and I took notes so I could follow up.

Guys, the second sponsor is a company called Toptal. You’ve heard me talk about how I use Toptal here at Mixergy. I don’t want to tell you anymore about it because you’ve heard me a lot. I want to tell you instead about a guy named Drew Gorham. I think that’s how he pronounces his name. I only met him at dinner once, but never found out the pronunciation of his last name. He ran a company called the App Factory. It’s a software consulting company.

He said, “Look, I felt the need to say yes to a lot of deals, a lot of opportunities that came my way, but there’s no freaking way that I could hire a specialist in all these different things that people need. Somebody need a web specialist? Great. What if they need an iOS? I don’t have it.” So, he said, “My secret was I worked with Toptal.”

So, when somebody came to the App Factory and asked for something that he didn’t have a person who was an expert in, he’d just go to Toptal and say, “Hey, Toptal, here’s the job, here’s what I need, here’s how long it is, here’s how many people I want, find me the best people.” Toptal would find him the best people. The people then would act as if they’re working for the App Factory because frankly they are. He’s hiring them through Toptal, but as soon as the job was done, they’d be doing other projects for Toptal clients.

I’m saying this because if you are running a consulting company and you can’t possibly have enough experts in all the areas your clients need you for, especially as things start to ramp up in chat bots and voice, Google Home, etc., you want to be able to take care of your customers. What you could do is go to Toptal and hire the best of the best. Or if you’re running a business and you don’t want to hire one person just for a project that’s a short-term project or won’t take up a lot of your time internally, go to Toptal.

The URL I’m going to give you is a special URL they created just for us. Toptal has been created by two Mixergy fans. Frankly, one of them was interviewed here on Mixergy. He couldn’t believe the results he got from the interview, so he bought an ad from us years, years later. So, since they’re fans, both of them, and they see the power of Mixergy through that one interview they did, Toptal created a special offer for Mixergy listeners. It is 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when you pay for your first 80 hours and that’s in addition to a no risk trial period of up to two weeks.

Go check them out at Toptal, top of your head, tal as in talent, Toptal.com/Mixergy. I really like the look of the photo that they have on their site, the gorgeous person on there.

Alright. Adam, the relationship—I looked it up. This was Laura Day, the psychic.

Adam: Yeah.

Andrew: How did you meet Laura Day, the famous psychic, the one that’s like psychic to the stars?

Adam: I’d rather not get too into that personal relationship, but a friend introduced us.

Andrew: Okay. Here’s what I saw. I read that first of all, I went back and the first time I saw your name related to her was an article about her from the telegraph, November 2008, the quote that I saw there was, “This woman knows nothing about finance, yet claims she can predict turmoil in markets months before it happens because she’s a psychic,” and then in there was a line about Adam Robinson, her boyfriend, and how you guys had a girl zone in the house and a boy zone in the house, which sounded kind of cute. You were in that relationship and then you sued her because she took the royalty payments you were getting from the Princeton Review, right?

Adam: Yeah. I signed a contract I shouldn’t have signed. I’ve been in a lawsuit about it. The contract was drawn up by my lawyer. So, make sure you have an independent lawyer. Don’t make that mistake. Don’t share a lawyer with someone that you’re going to go into business with.

Andrew: I can’t believe that the lawyer could represent both sides of the deal.

Adam: Exactly. Shouldn’t have and did. It’s a big part of the lawsuit, actually.

Andrew: I actually see the result of the lawsuit—

Adam: No, there’s no result. It’s still ongoing.

Andrew: Here’s something from Melvin Schweitzer, the judge from—

Adam: I know what you’re talking about. That was an early decision, but the case is still ongoing.

Andrew: Oh, it is?

Adam: It’s been seven years.

Andrew: I had no idea. I thought once you get that, that’s it, that’s done. Here’s the thing that stood out for me—

Adam: Just so you understand, when someone brings a lawsuit, if I claim, for example, that so and so broke my bicycle and I file a lawsuit, but I don’t show in fact, I don’t allege that the bicycle was mine. Let’s just say I don’t allege that. The lawsuit can be dismissed and say you didn’t allege that the bicycle was yours. Then you refile and say, “Wait a second, the bicycle is mine.” You just refile. It doesn’t mean it’s over. It hasn’t been decided.

Andrew: I see. This says it was denied, but it’s just because of this one part of it and that lawsuit is ongoing.

Adam: Yes, the lawsuit is still ongoing.

Andrew: Is this the same judge?

Adam: No.

Andrew: Oh, good. This judge said, “I don’t believe anything that Adam Robinson says,” essentially, right?

Adam: You should read the later decision where he reinstated the case. Not only did he believe me, you should read his decision. But this is still ongoing. We are not on our third judge. I’d rather not talk about it. It’s an ongoing lawsuit.

Andrew: Here’s the one line that stood out for me from the lawsuit, “Robinson, as [inaudible 00:42:21] had a psychological infirmity in handling his personal finances.” Is that true, that you said that you cannot handle your own personal finances?

Adam: Well, remember, I was suffering from depression.

Andrew: I see.

Adam: In fact, again, I’d rather not get into it. I don’t even know that I’m supposed to be talking about this. It’s an ongoing lawsuit. But I was seeing a psychiatrist for depression when I signed that contract.

Andrew: I see.

Adam: So, that’s another thing. If you’re depressed, don’t sign contracts.

Andrew: One last thing, at the time, you had no more money. The money you had from the Princeton Review deal was gone. You weren’t able to pay the IRS bill, am I right? That seems painful.

Adam: Well, all my money was tied up in the lawsuit and put into escrow until the lawsuit was settled.

Andrew: But you did have money until the lawsuit is settled?

Adam: Well, I reinvented my career. So, now I’m doing very well, in fact, better than ever as a global financial analyst. I analyze economic trends using game theory to predict market turning points.

Andrew: Here’s what I don’t get. This is coming from—just like people know I’m a researcher, they also after 1,500 interviews, you can see I’m trying to come from a good place here, which is why I think I can ask these questions so starkly, but how does someone who can’t manage his own finances, who can’t pay his taxes advise hedge funds how they should invest other people’s money?

Adam: I don’t tell them how they should invest, I tell them what will happen. For example, I might say the price of gold will decline. I don’t tell you to short gold.

Andrew: You’re just saying it’s going to decline. That kind of sounds like that subhead that I read before where the psychic says, “I don’t know anything about the markets but I can tell you where to invest your money. It feels a little bit suspicious.”

Adam: Well, believe me, people would not be following my work and paying me for years if it didn’t work.

Andrew: But didn’t you also write the psychic—Laura Day’s psychic books you said you’ve written. Do you believe in astrology, that you’re actually predicting the future in these books for people?

Adam: No. Those were her ideas, not mine. I don’t use that. I use game theory.

Andrew: You’re saying you were just writing the books for her, you didn’t believe in it.

Adam: No, not at all. This is someone who believes that she can—again, I don’t want to besmirch anyone now. I’m in a very different place and that lawsuit and those events occurred when I was depressed. I’m not longer depressed.

Andrew: When you’re saying you felt inauthentic, was it writing other people’s work that you don’t believe in, is that part of what made you feel inauthentic?

Adam: Yes, exactly.

Andrew: The thing that I’m wondering though is as someone who’s written someone else’s books, basically you ended up with 10 percent of a business you say you co-created—

Adam: And 50 percent of the book royalties. By the way, I had left at that point. I wasn’t there anymore. He was still running the business.

Andrew: I think what I’m trying to do is like figure out how much of this is real now and am I falling for something—there are photos of you and Warren Buffett. I’m trying to figure out what the relationship is with Warren Buffett. I’m trying to discern the authenticity so that I don’t pass someone off as authentic when I can’t confirm it, when what I’m seeing instead is, “I’ve written a book for someone else and I don’t even believe in what I’ve written. I am not good with my own finances, but I’m going to help hedge funds who manage people’s money.”

Adam: I don’t help people manage their money.

Andrew: You tell them about macroeconomic—

Adam: Macroeconomic trends. For example, I would say interest rates are likely to decline and we will know that if the dollar-yen declines. That has nothing to do with whether you ought to invest.

Andrew: You do it based on game theory.

Adam: Yes, game theory and Bayesian analysis and behavioral economics. That has nothing to do with—let me ask you a question. Do you think lawyers ever get into legal trouble? Do you think psychiatrists ever suffer from depression?

Andrew: Yes. I don’t mean to say that mistakes keep you from doing it, from being good at your work.

Adam: By the way, do you think every psychiatrist is well-adjusted?

Andrew: No.

Adam: Right. Do you believe every football coach is a good football player?

Andrew: Right.

Adam: So, just because someone—and let’s be clear, managing my personal finances while I’m depressed is very different from my understanding the world and predicting economic trends, very different.

Andrew: So, who are these hedge funds who are hiring you?

Adam: I sign NDAs.

Andrew: And what’s your relationship with Warren Buffett that Tim Ferriss called him your pen pal?

Adam: He’s a friend.

Andrew: He’s a friend. Okay.

Adam: Strictly a friend.

Andrew: You don’t do work with him. Does it have something to do with chess? Is it that he’s interested in chess? How did you guys connect with Warren Buffett?

Adam: It’s my friendship with Warren. Thank you.

Andrew: You’re saying it’s kind of a personal friendship.

Adam: Well, I thought we were on here to talk about my entrepreneurship.

Andrew: I am. I feel like this new business is the one that is the latest business, Robinson Global Strategies and I’m trying to understand it. I’m trying to understand—

Adam: Well, ask me questions. You haven’t me questions.

Andrew: Sorry?

Adam: You haven’t asked me questions. By the way, I am not marketing myself. I am not looking for customers. I have my current slate of clients—I’m not looking for new clients.

Andrew: Is it okay for me to ask you about Warren Buffett when I see Warren Buffett as your photo on Twitter, your photo on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, your photo on Facebook.

Adam: I have other photos.

Andrew: It feels like that’s a credibility hook for you, am I right?

Adam: No. I’m not soliciting clients. So, I don’t quite understand your point.

Andrew: I’m just trying to understand—

Adam: He’s a friend. I was a friend with Andy Warhol and Bobby Fischer. I can send you pictures of those guys too. They’re dead now. So, I have lots of friends and there are other pictures on my website. I’m not seeking—if you think I’m here to promote myself, that’s not what I’m here for.

Andrew: I do, actually. I think that’s totally okay. I’m here to promote myself. My goal here with these interviews is to get people understand about the guest and understand about business but also to promote myself and my business and my sponsors and I think that’s perfectly fine, but I just want to understand as someone who’s advising hedge funds, if that’s the business, I want to understand it.

Adam: Well, ask me a question. Go right ahead. I told you, I use Bayesian analysis, behavioral economics and game theory as well as systems thinking to predict global markets.

Andrew: When you say hedge funds, how many hedge funds? I understand you can’t say the names of the hedge funds. How many hedge funds are you advising?

Adam: 11.

Andrew: Okay. Do you get paid per result? Are they paying you for your research?

Adam: They’re paying you for my research.

Andrew: I’m noticing is I think you said in the past hedge fund used to mean protection, protecting people, wealthy people’s money, now it doesn’t necessarily mean that anymore.

Adam: I wasn’t speaking about my clients. I was speaking about hedge funds in general.

Andrew: What I’m noticing now is there are different levels of hedge funds. How much assets understand management do they have? What’s the range? Are we talking about smaller hedge funds with a few million dollars or bigger ones with billions of dollars?

Adam: No, multi-billion and up.

Andrew: So, what is your goal with doing interviews, with doing Tim Ferriss, you’ve had someone on your team reach out to do an interview on Mixergy, which I’m happy about. I love The Princeton Review. I really wanted to find out about what you’re doing now. What is your goal if it’s not to promote your business? Why do these interviews?

Adam: Have you looked at my Twitter feed?

Andrew: I have.

Adam: Good. You’ll find no reference to business there.

Andrew: Entrepreneur, systems builder, wizard, shaman of the global financial markets, manifester, didact, do-gooder, alchemist, etc. I do see a link to your business. Even if we’re talking personal stuff, we’re kind of connecting it to business.

Adam: I’m sorry, you connected it. I thought we were here to talk about The Princeton Review. I’m glad to talk to my advisory work, but I’m not seeking clients.

Andrew: Right. I’m asking what is the goal with doing interviews like this and with Tim Ferriss’ and others?

Adam: My goal is I have 2,500-odd tweets that I’ve made and you can read through them and you will see I don’t think I’ve mentioned business once, 2,500 tweets in the last six months. I think maybe once I mentioned business. It’s really about heart-centered working and living an authentic life. If you read the tweets, as anyone can, you’ll see that. I call myself a wizard. Not once do I talk about business.

Andrew: I see. “If you’re looking for love, not being loving and lovable, we don’t find love. Love finds us when we are being our best selves.” I do see you writing about love, about uniting, I see here on Twitter. Your goal is to share your vision for relationships for love.

Adam: My vision for what it means to be an authentic person, to live as resourceful and as full a life as anyone can. I’ve always been about that. My goal when I was an SAT tutor was to help people do the best they could on a test with what they had. That’s always been my goal, to help people live as full a life as they can. That’s what my Twitter feed is all about. By the way, if you see my Do Lectures video, which I sent you a link to, I didn’t talk about business. I talked about living a free life and finding your calling. That’s what I’m promoting.

Andrew: So, is the next thing to do—will you be teaching that? Is that the next business, to help people find their calling.

Adam: It’s not a business. I’ve written a book called “The Invitation to the Great Game.” I mentioned that in the Tim Ferriss podcast. I mentioned it in the Do Lectures. It will be coming out in a few weeks. I’m really proud of that. Again, if you see the Do Lectures and you look at the very end of it, I say that my advisory work with hedge funds is my day job. It’s not my calling. I’m doing this because I have a message that I’d like to share with the world. I’ve written 13 books and this is the one I’m most proud of. That’s what I’m doing it for. I’m not looking for hedge fund clients. Your audience is not my—

Andrew: They’re not the hedge funds that are going to be working with your business.

Adam: Yeah, not at all. I would be surprised if they were, but they manage billions of dollars, all of them. They’re all big boys.

Andrew: I see. I think that part of my challenge is to fully understand and stand strong in my questions and my doubts and my excitement. I could see how sometimes it comes across as a little jerky and I can see like a little bit like some of my questions are harsh. I think if we’re introducing you as the founder of Robinson Global Strategies, it’s okay to ask you about your finances and the work you do to help in relationship with that.

Adam: That’s okay. It’s not what you said you wanted to talk about. You said you wanted to talk about The Princeton Review. I was prepared to do that.

Andrew: I thought I made it clear with a transition to what you were working on today.

Adam: I’m sorry, what?

Andrew: I thought I made it clear before that there would be a transition to what you’re working on today and that’s what we’re doing. It feels out of balance for you to—

Adam: It doesn’t feel out of balance at all, but you haven’t actually asked me questions about it. You haven’t said, for example, “How do you use game theory to predict markets?” Tim Ferriss did. You haven’t asked me how I use Bayesian analysis or behavioral economics? You haven’t asked me how I get clients when I have to sign NDAs? Those are interesting entrepreneurial questions that you haven’t asked me about.

What you have asked me about is, “Hey, I thought you said you were depressed and you couldn’t manage your affairs and now you claim to tell other people what to do with their money?” I never said that. I don’t tell people what to do. I assess probabilities of global market trends. What people do with that information is their business.

If I told you, for example, that there was likely to be—if I was a meteorologist and I said the weather in Southern California is going to be great, I’m not recommending you take a vacation there. I’m just telling you it’s great. Use the information as you will. That’s all.

Andrew: Okay.

Adam: Remember, I’m not marketing myself. I’m not holding myself as anything, certainly not to your audience.

Andrew: I get that. I stand by my questions, but I’m glad you’re able to force your frustration with it or why you think it’s not on track or however you feel. I’m glad you feel comfortable voicing your feelings about it.

Adam: I’m not frustrated. I wasn’t asserting feelings. I was asserting facts. I’m not frustrated.

Andrew: I don’t think that it’s fact that I wasn’t asking you questions. I think you’ll see question marks in the transcript all over. I think I was asking questions. Maybe they weren’t the right questions. But I get it.

Alright. I can see how it’s gotten kind of awkward and that it might be harder to undo this. If you and John Katzman can be friends after what you went through, I hold out hope maybe this thing could be okay, but frankly, I stand by my questions, but I also appreciate your openness about your response to my questions. Why don’t we leave it there? I can give out the email address again and I’m sure you’re going to get a lot of support, Adam@RobinsonGlobalStrategies.com and of course the Twitter profile, for anyone who wants to read your Twitter profile, it’s @IAmAdamRobinson is the Twitter name. I appreciate you coming on here.

Adam: Sure. Thank you.

Andrew: Thanks, Adam. Thank you all for listening. Bye, everyone.


  • Tough moments in interviewing.

    I get why Andrew got aggressive with this interviewee, and I also think the founder had some compelling parts to his story.

    The interviewee claims to be able to predict macroeconomic trends using game theory. However, he married an individual who claimed to be able to use astrology to predict stock markets. There’s a credibility problem there. Given that track record, how rigorous can his judgement possibly be?

    The interviewee praises the importance of living an authentic life. He mentions in the interview that in a previous job he was using statistical modelling of human behavior, said that “it is not a viable approach to financial behavior”, said he felt “inauthentic” doing this job, and left. Yet, as previously mentioned, he went on to marry the astrology person. There’s a contradiction there. His current gig is in the business of predicting macroeconomic trends using game theory, and now he claims to be living an authentic life. Something isn’t quite right here.

    On the other hand, the interviewee gave one of the more eloquent descriptions of depression I’ve heard. It is a biochemical phenomenon, and the events that bring out severe depressive episodes can seem extremely trivial. His example of the broken skillet was perfect. Furthermore, in the midst of depression, you have a voice in your head telling you that you’re garbage and a fraud, and in an effort to try and minimize it, one is deeply compelled to take a path where one avoids doing things that feel “inauthentic”. I totally get that. He was bang on.

    I would have liked to have heard more about the nuts and bolts of how the Princeton Review was built, even if it has been decades since the founder was involved and the story is well known.

    Not the end of the world. I would rather see this interview than have it consigned to the dustbin.

    Interesting to see how both parties dealt with an awkward conversation.

  • TheEmergencyMonkey

    I didn’t think the interview was bad but I will say I had a hard time understanding at first why you took the turn the way you did. It went from a nice discussion to suddenly an accusatory barrage of questions. As a listener I had no idea where it was coming from and therefore had little idea where the interview was going. It wasn’t until you made a comment about being on other podcasts and asking about self promotion that I understood your doubt about his intentions. The line of questioning didn’t transition well enough to get to the point you were trying to. Keep up the great work though!!!

  • annalisajoy

    I think this was the problem with the interview: “I think what I’m trying to do is like figure out how much of this is real now and am I falling for something”. This research should have been done before the interview. If he passed your assessment and was deemed authentic, then interview him. If he didn’t pass, then don’t.

    It’s weird to me that you would be trying to do this during the interview. What came off is that you basically didn’t trust him, so it didn’t matter what he said, you were going to continue to question him about it because you didn’t know if you could believe the answers.

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