What Makes Russell Simmons So Successful?

By Tiffany Black
Sep 21, 2011

Russell Simmons is recognized globally for his influence and entrepreneurial approach to both business and philanthropy. As co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, founder of the Phat Farm clothing line, and author of the best-selling book, Do You! 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success, Simmons is the quintessential serial entrepreneur. He spoke with Inc.com‘s Tiffany Black about his controversial financial services business, the return of Def Comedy, and how he finds balance through meditation.

You have started a lot of businesses. How did you know when it was time to sell or to walk away?
I start a business and no one understands it. I work the hardest and then somebody else comes along and they start to get it. Eventually there are a few people that share the vision, then a whole team who get it. Usually a few people on the team emerge and they are much smarter in that business than me, which is exciting. My attention or focus may change a bit and then I have those guys telling me what to do more than me telling them. And that’s usually about the time I start making phone calls to set them up because they are really doing a better job at it than me or they have a handle on it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to sell, it just means I’m less attached.

I’m attached when I’m really building something. I am attached to my financial services company. I see all kinds of creative things that have to be done. I wish I had 10 times the development team. I’m always looking to hire people to help develop programs for my financial services company [UniRush Financial Services], which is my virtual bank and financial well-being business.

Your financial services business recieves the most criticism. How do you respond to that?
If I adhered to criticism or controversy I wouldn’t be here today. My financial service business is the absolute best thing I have done to empower the poor. I run many charities and fight many political causes, but my financial service company is the greatest gift I’ve given. Now people are starting to figure out that there are a lot of other ways besides paying the bank a fortune to manage your money. A free bank account costs twice as much in many instances, certainly for most of my customers, than having a UniRush account.  We also sell discount healthcare, we offer discount prescription drugs, we provide financial well-being products like budgeting tools, which 75 percent of our people use. The banks are like Tower Records and I’m a lot like iTunes. They can kiss my ass. I don’t care what they think. I do care that the consumers are educated because when the consumer is educated they just laugh at the criticism.

You just got involved with Skinny Water. What’s your vision for it?
Skinny Water is a vehicle to create super foods and really healthy alternatives. The first product we are going to do is alkaline water. It’s used to balance the pH in your system. And that’s the reason why I invested in Skinny Water—so I can help give them direction and support in building the kind of products that really make a difference in peoples lives.

I saw on Twitter that you were going to make an announcement related to Argyle Culture, can you share it?
I am going to have a lot more distribution. I have a design partner who is very famous and who really gets my vision. And more than his fame is his experience. The fabrications he showed me and his manufacturing sources are superior to what I have had. And I’m very excited about it because we have always done a great product but now this is going to step it up a lot. And also the distribution will be stepped up tremendously, which is a big deal for me.

Are you going to revive Def Comedy Jam or Def Poetry?
I shot eight episodes of Russell Simmons Presents Stand-up: The Ruckus for Comedy Central with J.B. Smooth, the guy from Curb Your Enthusiasm, as the host. And a lot of the guys who I think are right under Chris Tucker, Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac and Steve Harvey are all guys that came off Def Comedy Jam. Those guys made it from Def Comedy and credit Def Comedy for their success. And there hasn’t been a show that gave comedians the kind of rise and opportunity that Def Comedy gave. So I felt after watching the build up of talent that it makes perfect sense and I shot it for Comedy Central. And that show is coming in January, maybe February 2012.

What are some other projects you are working on?
I’m going to buy a TV network, so I guess there will be another season of “Running Russell.” I’ve been working on buying a TV network for about a year. I have great partners. I am very aggressively pursing it.

When taking on new projects or starting new businesses, what factors play in to your decision?
I want to get involved in things that makes a difference in peoples lives and lifts them up. I don’t want to be apart of anything that’s not inspiring or helpful to the community that I’m serving. Second, I want it to move me. I want to feel like I’m doing something that is fun and creative.

Any advice for someone who has an idea for a business and wants to know how to get started?
There is a great yogi that says, ‘the imagination is God. Faith, dedication, and resilience is God realization.’ Just have faith in your idea and you ain’t gonna starve. You have to have a little courage. You have to take your thoughts and put them into a business plan—then you are on your way. But you gotta do the work. A lot of people have ideas, but ideas without effort are worthless. Resilience, hard work and dedication is what makes those ideas reality. You have to start, have courage, continue down the path and you can’t quit. There is no reason why an imagined idea doesn’t come to work except that you don’t come to work. 

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