Benioff first discovered the self-help guru as a 28-year-old. The aspiring entrepreneur was working at a big corporation when he began absorbing Robbins's tapes and attending his seminars. Eventually, he credited Robbins with his decision to start Salesforce years later, now a $6.6 billion San Francisco enterprise behemoth.
This is not uncommon. Robbins boasts a star-studded network of clients, several of whom, including Benioff, have seen their relationship with him morph from one of master and student to that of friends. In July 2012, while Benioff was vacationing with four buddies at Robbins's Namale resort in Fiji, Robbins decided to show them something in the middle of the night. He shuffled them into his jeep, drove to a bridge, and then came to an abrupt halt in the middle of it. Below was a raging river. Robbins said they were all going to jump off to face their fears. "I'm afraid and nervous," recalls Benioff about staring down at the water swirling below. "I have no idea what's going on." But he jumped anyway.
Robbins waited until they were in the water to tell them about the poisonous snakes. Shortly after he mentioned them, Benioff saw one swimming next to Robbins. "Tony didn't seem to care about the snakes," says Benioff. "But I did."
What could have been a reckless game of chicken was, for Benioff, a teachable moment. "Tony turned that night into a seminar," he says, articulating, in part, why high-power executives, politicians, and celebrities keep Robbins at the top of their contact list. "Tony realizes that the only thing that prevents you from focusing on what you want is fear."
This has been a central message of Robbins's long career. It may be among the most ancient pieces of leadership wisdom, yet when it falls from Robbins's lips, people listen, and they have for more than 30 years. "When everybody's unsure what to do, and there's somebody who fucking knows, everyone pays attention," says Robbins. "Someone who has certainty, even if they're wrong, will lead other people."
Robbins's otherworldly persuasive powers and brash brand of popular insight have grown into Robbins Research International, a life-coaching empire that includes a massive book business (15 million volumes sold globally), an audio business (50 million programs sold), a life-coach certification business, and seminars for which attendees pay as much as $8,000 to be in the same room with the man himself.
His business empire, however, is hardly limited to self-help. He has leveraged his formidable personality and network into a diverse web of businesses, building and investing in companies as far-flung as asteroid mining, credit cards, hospitality, nutritional supplements, private equity, sports teams, 3-D printed prosthetics, and, most recently, wealth management. By Robbins's count, he's involved in 31 companies--12 of which he actively manages--to the tune of a reported $5 billion in annual revenue.
In late July, Robbins was in Traverse City, Michigan, for a film-festival screening of his latest project, a new Netflix documentary called Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. Reclining his 6'7" superhero-size frame across a hotel room sofa, Robbins shares what he calls the single most important bit of business advice he gives his clients--something he's become adept at following himself. "There are always two businesses you've got to manage," says Robbins in his deep-throated baritone. "There's the business you're in, and the business you're becoming. If you just manage the business you're in, you're going to get knocked out by a new technology or new competition. But if you're constantly managing those two businesses, you won't have to quit or pivot, because you're always doing something to innovate, or to change, or to improve." In other words, the man never, ever stops.
But lots of people don't stop. Lots of people run successful businesses. Lots of people offer sound, incisive advice. But none of them could get the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company to jump into a snake-infested river in the middle of the night. So why can Robbins?
Robbins's entire business is built on his insistence that anyone can learn to be confident, but the fact is, confidence appears to be native to him. As a 15-year-old in Glendora, California, he decided to become a sports writer after failing to make the baseball team. But instead of taking writing classes, Robbins printed up business cards proclaiming himself a sports journalist. By the 10th grade, he had wooed a who's-who from the sports world to let him interview them for the local newspaper, including sportscaster Howard Cosell, Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, and baseball Hall of Famers Tommy Lasorda and Leo Durocher. Even back then, it was clear in his writing that he was wired to be an agent of bravado. "PRIDE!" young Robbins wrote in a 1975 article in The Azusa Herald. "The word which stands for the most powerful emotion known to man. It has been proven to be unmatched in force. It can change anything!"
At 17, Robbins says, he attended a seminar by the motivational speaker Jim Rohn. He soon got a job selling Rohn seminars and it was then that he realized his own professional calling. His rough upbringing--which includes a revolving door of stepfathers, an alcoholic mother who chased him around with a knife, and a period of homelessness--makes a compelling origin story, a tale he still emotionally unspools at his seminars decades later.
One of the first clients to put Robbins on the map was a young swimmer who won gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Mike O'Brien was introduced to then-24-year-old Robbins after he'd made the U.S. team. The swimmer and his teammates had met with numerous sports psychologists, and the sessions he had with Robbins, he says, weren't all that different--except for the physical presence of Robbins himself. "I'm 6'6," and I felt small next to him," says O'Brien. "He exudes so much confidence that without even saying the words, he's relating that 'I believe in you. You have the potential to excel.' So you start to believe it." (These days, however, O'Brien is more measured than some in his praise of Robbins: "Would I characterize his interaction with me as the thing that caused me to win the gold medal? No. Would I characterize it as a useful tool? Possibly.")
No matter for Robbins. The state of his own mind is something he never stops tending to. His mornings begin with a dip in a 57-degree coffin-size plunge pool; before he goes onstage, he jumps up and down on a mini trampoline, as if he were plugging himself into a human-battery- charging station. He also engages in another ritual he's performed for 30 years: "I do a little shift in my body to get myself in a strong physical state, and then I say, 'I now command my subconscious mind to direct me in helping as many people as possible today.'""There's the business you're in, and the business you're becoming. If you're constantly managing those two businesses, you won't have to pivot, because you're always doing something to innovate."
All that maintenance is vital for Robbins's business, because self-mastery has been central to the teaching he has been delivering for three decades. Many of his most-quoted mantras slice and dice the same basic message: Fear holds you back. Confidence--to live life fully, to take action, to strive passionately--drives you forward.
That message has drawn in business titans who pay him a staggering $1 million a year for personal coaching. Clients include Peter Guber, chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group, and financial trading whiz Paul Tudor Jones. Guber, who has been coached by Robbins for two decades, and become one of his closest friends, calls his counsel revelatory. "I have had many cataclysmic and painful failures in my life," Guber says, emphasizing that Robbins "helped me overcome and move through them faster and more efficiently. I like the fact that the uncertainty doesn't threaten me. It did threaten me before."
Robbins has continued expanding his entrepreneurial footprint by turning high-profile clients into business partners. (See "Billion-Dollar Guru Machine.") How he's done that is a study in the creation and tending of strategic partnerships. "My primary question is just, 'How can I help?' " Robbins explains of his dealings with other people. "When you're doing that on an ongoing basis, that builds a relationship, because you're not asking for things. You're giving all the time." Clients who have become friends tell countless tales of meeting him at the end of one of his 12-hour seminar days--Robbins exhausted from giving out as much energy as a nuclear power plant to a room of thousands of acolytes--because he wanted to help with a project or problem, even at 2 a.m. "The secret sauce with Tony is that he recognizes that he's not in the transaction business," says Guber. "He's in the relationship business."
Ultimately, Robbins has created a lucrative virtuous circle: As his business and personal networks grow, he gains access to new ideas, opportunities, and relationships. He and Guber have since become co-investors in a Major League Soccer franchise. Jones features prominently in Robbins's recent book Money: Master the Game. Joe Berlinger, the Oscar-nominated documentarian who typically exposes social injustices, was invited by Robbins to one of his seminars. Soon thereafter, Berlinger shot I Am Not Your Guru, an homage to Robbins. "When Tony works with someone he is excited about, or wants to invest time and energy into, he also wants to invest his money," says Benioff. "It's become a good financial strategy for him."
Silicon Valley self-helper Tim Ferriss, another fan-turned-friend, says Robbins has outlasted so many other life coaches because he doesn't just dish out advice--he actually takes risks. "Most have no chops," says Ferriss. "They've never built real companies; they've never dealt with high-profile clients in high-stakes circumstances." After all, most gurus would have no problem telling someone to plunge into a raging, snake-infested river. It takes another kind to jump right in there with them.
[Updated on September 21, 2016. An earlier version misstated some elements of Robbins's teaching.]