Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Guy Laliberté (@guylalibertedj), the founder of Cirque du Soleil, One Drop Foundation, and Lune Rouge. Guy was named by Time Magazine as one of the most influential personalities in the world and has been recognized as one of the most creative and innovative minds by Condé Nast.
An artist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, Guy is a three-time winner of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, including World Entrepreneur of the Year; a Knight of the National Order of Quebec; and an inductee of the Canadian Business Hall of Fame. Guy has been granted the insignia of the Order of Canada, the highest distinction in the country, and in 2010 received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Guy now dedicates his time to his company, Lune Rouge, and his international nonprofit, One Drop Foundation, which aims to “ensure sustainable access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene for communities everywhere through innovative partnerships, creativity, and the power of art.” Visit Frooogs.com to discover Guy’s latest project.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Guy, nice to see you. Thank you for making the time.
Guy Laliberté: My pleasure.
Tim Ferriss: You are a man on the road, you are a man on the move. Which I suppose would be on-brand, as I did research for this conversation, you seem like a very hyperkinetic man. And I thought we might start in 1977, I might be getting the date right, I might be getting the date wrong, a trip to Europe. What prompted this trip to Europe and what was your experience?
Guy Laliberté: To understand this desire, hitting the road and engaging that journey, which was a very important moment or year of my life, we have to go back a little bit in my childhood. There’s always that famous question that adults ask kids, “What do you want to do when you’re an adult?” And my answer back then was, “Well, I want to discover the world and I want to travel.” And that came from three very important key moments in my life. The first one was the day of when my father brought the first color TV in the house. And the first program we watched was a National Geographic program that showcased basically something I’ve never seen in my life, which was animals that don’t exist in my own town or my country, colors of skin or dressing of people. I was just so amazed by this colorful impact that it had on me, that it triggered my curiosity. And it stays at that moment, and that grows slowly.
And obviously, I was a big fan of those National Geographic, every time it was coming, and it was like, yes, I want to see what’s more on this planet. Actually at that time, it made me realize, and my mom explained to me and said, “Listen, you’re not only living in a city or a province or in a country or on a continent, you’re living on the planet.” And that made me realize that the world was bigger than my backyard.
Second thing, 1967, which was the World Expo in Montreal. My mom, another very curious person that bought for the family passports, and almost every day of the summer she was bringing us to this international expo. And we visited pretty much, probably minimum of three times, each pavilion that was there, which again was putting me closer toward being in touch with the culture that I was seeing on the National Geographic. So not where they were, but close to me in a way that, again, it reinforced this desire of discovering what was out there somewhere. I didn’t know the notion of distance, but I knew it was far away.
And the third thing was, which I think put the cherry on the sundae was when Neil Armstrong walked the moon. I was in a summer camp, black-and-white TV that time, a bunch of boys, because it was a boys camp. And we spent the entire night, and it was a long program because they showed us all the process, the expectation was there, and suddenly this guy put a foot on the moon. And for me, it was very interesting because you could see the reaction of the other kids and even telling, “Wow, I want to be an astronaut, I want to go on the moon. I want to do what he’s doing.” And for me, my look at that moment was totally different. It was like, whoa, The Little Prince story could be real.
No, it’s very interesting. And then it triggered my belief that if I have a dream or anything that was dreamy, it could be achievable. So from that moment, it was really, okay, how could I shape my rest of my life to be able to travel and discover that world? So obviously, I was about 10, 11 at that time and I was still too young to hit the road by myself. Soon my parents were bringing us more in North America, and around the age of 14, 15, we did our first international trip to Cuba. And then this is where I discover green tomatoes, beautiful long legs, women dancing, dance that doesn’t exist in my place, colorful music, happy dancing. So it’s just like, wow, and blue color, the ocean, the sea and the ocean and fish that doesn’t exist in the lake. And it was just, yes, I knew it, here it is, the beginning of a great adventure.
But at that time, obviously I was a minor, so I really started to engage in discovering my province, hitchhiking, going in theater, festival, music festival. And at the same time, I picked up the accordion of the family of my father because I come from a family of musicians, but traditional music. And I started to realize that maybe I could activate a little bit this adventure, the adventure, using music. So I took the time to prepare a little show of myself singing songs, storytelling, music, and then short after connecting with a couple of other musicians, creating a band. And that for three years permit us to travel around Canada and a little bit of the States to encounter other musician to play on the street, play in the music festival. So I realized that, hey, listen, I could have fun playing music.
I discovered through this journey, the beginning of the pleasure of entertaining people, but mostly I was able to always go further and further geographically. And then obviously, after a couple of years, the 18 years old was coming soon and it was just like, I’m going to Europe, and I had enough money to pay myself open tickets for a year and about 50 bucks in my pocket. But an amazing number of contacts that either had met over the previous three years or people that had been in Europe say, “You should go in this bar to play,” “You should meet that person, he’s an interesting musician.” And went out, hit the road and basically spent almost a year in Europe, discovering the pleasure of playing in the street, realizing the impact of making people smile. But mostly I was achieving my dream. And I came back with more money in my pocket than I left with.
Tim Ferriss: You came back with more money than you traveled there with. So I assume, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that means you were busking and entertaining —
Guy Laliberté: Correct.
Tim Ferriss: — and earning money in that way. What were the keys to good busking? What did you learn about effective busking?
Guy Laliberté: First of all, where do you busk? Because not every corner of the street that you can get your bread and breakfast money. So one of them is really to rapidly identify in a city where’s the hotspot for people to busk. And obviously, there’s already buskers when you arrive, so you don’t invent the wheel, you’re just observe things. But then you have to deal with territorial situations. So you have two way of dealing with that, either you provoke and you confront, which normally is not the right way to do. Or you engage, you engage in the street neighborhood, which is not always busker, but it’s also a lot of different people of all kind, very colorful, very misfit people, very, very disrupting people, but also amazing personalities because a lot of artists are there and musicians. So you engage in a community that belongs to this city.
But what I realized is basically there’s two things the busking business in Europe, it was the permanent people, the people who live in that city that didn’t move and they were the one that were there every day. But there was the traveling people that rapidly recognized that if you play the game well, if you are socially engaged and respectful of certain rules that exist, and you have to learn about them, then you engage in a community that is really supporting of each other. And then you make friends and then you decide with the traveler when to do, I don’t know, two weeks with violin player or a week with the belly dancer or the fire breather person. So through this experience, it’s not only encountering a community that was much bigger in Europe than it was in Quebec, because obviously Quebec, we had the climate factor, which is a little difficult to busk at minus 30 on the corner street in Montreal. So the timeline is pretty limited and also the population is much smaller.
Paris was my base at the beginning, which is where I speak French, arrived there, and from Paris, then I met a lot of people. And then you start to engage, okay, do I go Ireland or I go to that festival? And I organically, at the rhythm or the speed of the wind, it was like, oh, I was waking up in morning, I was like, okay, let’s go there, hitchhiking. Again, depending the success of hitchhike you could arrive on time or not. So it was this journey of going from one place to the other one with people who are alone and making friends and engaged in jamming, making money, learning. This is where I learn all my fire breathing things. A little bit of, I would say the performance side of a busker because there’s a music side and there’s the performing side. So this is where that I start to also engage in learning.
I had never been a specialist of things, but I’ve always been a very good generalist. So time after time I was practicing things and basically my offer to the street was a little wider at the end after a year.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s talk a little bit about your mom and dad.
Guy Laliberté: Yep.
Tim Ferriss: How did your values differ from perhaps your parents when you got back? Maybe a different way of looking at that would be asking what their hopes for you were and what your hopes for yourself were.
Guy Laliberté: First of all, my parents were amazing characters to start. They were entertaining, not knowing they were entertaining.
My father probably a little bit more. My father had this way of triggering reactions from my mom, and always create amazing, funny, dramatic moment that was triggered their own story to be shared with us, with the children and my friends. They were entertaining us all the time. My mom come from a very specific type of family. Both of them were very poor. My mom worked her ass off to be a nurse, hit the road at the age of 18, she had her Studebaker at 18, hit the road to California as an adventure with two other nurses, workaholic, musician, piano player. My father come from the other side. He was coming from a neighborhood in Quebec, which is bunch of kids hustling, playing tricks, having fun and getting away with it by just being what some people would think, bad little boys. But they were having fun. And actually it was another weird theory, he always made his way, got broke so many times because he was a gambler. He was just like — but he was the most amazing entertainer.
He ended up his career as vice president of Alcon company. Not because he was formal or went to school of that, but because he was the best person in the company. When client, the international client, was coming to Montreal, he was organizing all the party. And all the client was going back, signing the contract, and whatever need, he was organizing it. So I learned this things. And by the way, and this is pretty special because I not met many people who qualify that. In all my life, and many years after I grew up or still now, I had never heard a bad word about my father. It was always, Gastón, clean, amazing guy. My father was always smiling, he was always like humor, smiling, not reacting to things. Where my mom was that little scorpion, it was like she was picking, picking. It was mama control. And the dynamic was interesting.
But I grew up in this type of family. One brother, we were fire and water together, but now we’re best friends because we’re both parents, we passed out last year. And then the grand family, my father was coming from a family of eight, seven sister and him, and the grandmother had a twin. So together on the father’s side family there was about over 120 people, uncle and aunts and things. And every weekend in one of the house, and nobody had money, nobody was the rich one, the richest one was the uncle that had a printer company. He was printing pamphlet and stuff like that, that tell you a little bit how rich we were. But every weekend, somewhere in one of the house, there was always, from Friday night to Sunday night, 48-hour party where the kids were, I remember we just sleeping, I don’t know, in a bed, on the floor. 10 kids [inaudible] they were doing music, playing cards, have fun, drinking, getting drunk, singing, arguing.
And all my life I’ve seen the family supporting each other in terms of, when one of them was screwing up, there was never judgment. And this is what I grew up on. So my roots is love, support, is community spirit. It’s understanding that nobody’s perfect. So I learned a lot out of that. I didn’t understand it at the beginning because obviously when you grow, especially at the teenager moment, and then it’s starting to be a little confrontation and there’s many story I could tell. But I don’t think it’s relevant more than saying in their heart, they try to educate you, parents, in terms of what they believe is a good thing for you based on their value. So at that time of my childhood, being a doctor, being a judge or whatever was the consecration, you’re an engineer, you get a good salary, you have security. And I was trying all my life to my teenager mom to try to explain to, well listen, I have a call, I was like, I don’t like that. And every time I do that, I learn more.
I have fun doing that. I do more money than that now than I’m doing, and it build up. I want to have long hair, no you have to shorten that, you have to go to church. It was like all this type of things. So I was very confrontational, and actually they helped me because when they were punished me, they were putting me into my room. And this is where I learned music, this is where I practicing my music. My rage, I was transferring my rage and in not being dark. That being said, I was in a dark moment from 11 to 14 for other reasons. But when my parents was all of that, then I left home at 14 years old, enough is enough. One amazing moment in my life. One teacher, moral science, because you could have the option of Catholic or moral science. Obviously I was rejecting the religion, but I was interested, again, in moral science. And then one day he threw a text to all the student in there.
The text was about Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet. At the page about the children it said, “The children are not your children.” I just like, it blew my mind. That text was everything. I want to say it to my parents. So I think within a week or two weeks after I got in conflict with parents and left home, hit the road. Because they wanted me to cut the hair, and there was another thing, and I took the page and I wrote on the piece of paper, “When you will understand that meaning of that text, then we’ll be able to communicate.” That’s pretty brutal. At 14 years old when you throw a text out down on the face of your father and mother, and actually it was a very important moment in my relation. This is where the first time I stand by my thing, before I was arguing, I was screaming, I was bitching, but this is really what I say, “Enough is enough. We have to make a point in our relationship because I’m not happy, at the point I’m questioning if you love me,” all the teenager turmoil.
This is very, being a teenager, this is the most fragile time in your life if you’re not being agressed sexually before the age of 10 or beat up. But if you have a normal life, this is a very fragile moment. So obviously, came back, my mom was crying and stuff like that, came back like 10 days after and then I sat down and said, “Let’s make a deal. We don’t agree on a lot of things, but I will continue my school. You pay for my lunch, my clothes, but I want to be having the rights of keeping my hair long and second work to earn my own money to pay myself what I want. Because I’m tired, Dad, of every time I ask you something, you ask me to do something for it. And enough, because sometime things could go there because I’m trying to ask you things to be able to achieve things, but it’s always a negotiation and you try to bring back in your way of things.” So I clear that and it worked.
Actually that deal worked pretty good because without supporting everything I was doing, it was at least a dialogue that took place and we’re able — and there was some up and down. But I realized, and this is where the first thing I realized, is actually at the end, all this courage that I have going and hitting the road, taking risks in my adventure, I always knew somewhere, and I realized that after, and it’s maybe that subconscious or this third eye or sixth sense or whatever, but I realized that, hey, wait a minute, I knew and I know exactly what they were about. They never told me, “If you cross that door, don’t come back,” first of all. And you know how many parents screwed up when they said that to their kids?
And second, I realized that if I screwed up, I would always be able to come back, I would have bed, food, and love and comfort. And this triggered this enormous wave of courage or desire to even engage more. They didn’t know that at the moment, they think I was crazy because I was doing more than I was doing previously. And then obviously there was this confrontation about starting to do business and entertainment, because it was one thing for them to understand that I was using art or music to live an experience.
In our conversation, I always made them believe that I will come back to school, but I was always, every year, extending the return to school. But when they realize at the age of 19 —
Tim Ferriss: Wait a minute.
Guy Laliberté: — that I was shifting and I consciously made the decision not go to school, but give myself the chance to live out entertainment. Whoa, that was difficult. With my mom, it took the first year of Cirque du Soleil to realize it and she collapsed, and now I understand. My father, it took three more years because it was still some issue related to, sometime I reached him a couple times for financial help to help to go through some tough moments. And he was coming back with his old moral or condition and it pissed me off. But we had a great conversation in a steakhouse, Moishes in Montreal, a good bottle of wine and with a big dill pickle and coleslaw salad, and we made peace there.
And from that moment, I brought them everywhere in the world with me. We became good friends. We had our ups and downs, but it was an amazing connection. In the life of children or any relationship with parents, obviously it’s not instant, but you always wish that the complete connection of the circle of this relationship is done before one of us dies. And I did accomplish that with my parents. This is another beautiful gift of life that I had.
Tim Ferriss: I may want to come back to that. I mean, I know a lot of people who have not been able to do that. And anyway, that may be for a bottle of wine another time. But I want to connect the dots to Cirque du Soleil. But before we get there, if you’re open to talking about it, and we can always cut this afterwards if you want to cut it, but you mentioned that you had a dark period from 11 to 14. My main question is how you got out of that dark period, but would you be willing to say a bit more?
Guy Laliberté: Yeah, I could share. I could share. I’ve been sharing. Yeah, it’s part of my life, my close friends know, and I have no problem talking about that. And that’s actually relate to a very big problem in the world that we’re living and it’s coming out and keep coming out year after year, which is all about this Catholic Church controlling schools, abusing children, and being excused because they were the voice of God. So at the age of 10, my parents sent me to a school in a college in Montreal, which was a boarding school. And obviously soon I realized with my friends that there’s a bunch of priests that want to abuse you sexually. So I resist that, I beat that up. But I had a friend who suicide himself. And so I start to be very, very reactive. And it brought me a lot of angriness because, what is the feeling?
First you resist. I’ve not been raped, but they try it and I caught their trick, I resist, I fought it back. But there’s some other kids there that didn’t have this courage of reacting, and they were my friends and they got beat up in the sense of kill their soul. And then one suicide himself. Obviously, I was incapable of saying to my parents at that time, remember, I was 10 years old, 11, and knowing my parents were religious, so obviously, will I be punished? I didn’t know, I was confused about the information. And I guess there was a taboo things because I see my parents were very religious. I was confused. So I kept that for myself and among my friends. So I built up this desire to destroy, to the point that at a certain moment, even because of another event later, I lived about two events a little bit like that.
And the last one, which is like the add-on of that, I arrived to a point where I’m going to kill the person. And actually I was not feeling that. So that dark moment really was present. I was doing things that was not necessarily creative, that was more destroying. I was doing things that is not how I was educated. It’s not what I was feeling, but I was doing it by rage. And this is where it’s super important to understand that what saved me out of that darkness is music, and this desire of traveling and actually activating the action of getting out of my city and getting out of my environment because that was toxic. It was contaminated by what I had lived as children, and I was not able to see the beauty and I was just seeing the darkness. And going out of this circle, geographical circle that permit me to slowly heal these things to a point where a certain moment, I remember there was a very, very precise moment where I have the address I knew where this person that tried to rape me was living. And I kept in my pocket always the address because I said, if I pass by there, I want revenge. And a certain moment and I physically took the paper, rip it off and put it in garbage and that was it. I was living my future and I boom it. But again, this is how lucky I am. Do you know how many kids, their life will be destroyed for things like that? So again, what that come from, is it the love of my parents? This understanding about your dad, this feeling that the way you think is not the way you want to be and overcome that.
You know how many friends have not survived that? How many people their life have been destroyed by living something like that. So obviously once I overcome that, I become so engaged in those type of value and defending that that I become very strong about not allowing those type of things in my surrounding, combat that, fight that not with my fist, but with my creativity. For me, making people live an emotion because they live a moment of joy. And when you’re capable of putting down the walls that people put in general around them to protect because they got hurt before, and you’re bring them to a point that they put down those walls and open their heart for you to plant a seed. It made me realize that part of my job was not only to be a merchant of happiness, but a soft medicine healer of the soul.
I don’t know how you could do that thing. And then it reversed totally. At the moment I start to feel this power to understand that feed the circle of life, it flew you back and it was very, very powerful. It’s like trying to explain it in a colorful way, but the dynamic is what I just explained you. So it’s very interesting because sometime people tell a story, but they don’t tell the source of why you are there. And there’s many other things that I’ve done that I learned my lesson, but this is a typical example that you could reverse negative and build it to even be better. So what do you believe in that? Of course, that person, those person was wrong because this is not right.
But on the other side, if I didn’t live that moment, maybe I would be a different person and not realize very young in my life that wait a minute, no, I would not be, and I would not use that type of power over other people. So it’s very interesting. We could talk and talk, this is my philosophical part of the brain, but those are typical way that I learn out of everything I engage in.
Tim Ferriss: Guy, thank you for sharing that. And I’m sorry that you and your friends experienced that and as a spectator, as a, I guess, participant, but from the stands. Someone who’s gone to many Cirque du Soleil performances, it’s beautiful for me to hear how you referred metaphorically to the lowering of those walls, those protective mechanisms, because — we don’t have to spend much time on this, but I was very badly abused when I was very young, two to four, and I have very well-established walls. But when I’ve gone to Cirque du Soleil performances, and there are a few places in life where this is true, but it’s where I can forget those stories and become engaged with awe and wonder in a way that allows me to exhale and experience these things very fully in a very tangible way. So I just wanted to reflect back my personal experience.
Guy Laliberté: Wow. And you’ll be surprised because I always said to hit the big seven, which is having the privilege on this planet, to be born on the right side of the planet. Having the love of your parents, water, food, not being beat physically before the age of tens were sexually abused. Whoa, has a question around…
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Guy Laliberté: I will tell you, there’s not many that sign in this or qualify for the big seven. So this is very important to understand. I believe in the society we’re living, there’s a lot of creepy and twisted things that happened to human beings and that human beings to each other. So again, Cirque du Soleil, I am so happy to hear your story because two things, my show we’re about, of course the spectacular of it, the things like that. This is like this was the big pleasure, but the fundamental satisfaction was coming from two things, really having the impression that each of my show was helping to build a better world in two ways.
First in exposing, because all my show was all about inspired by the culture of the world, either through to music, the costume, the team, and things like that. My artist was a mosaic of all these beautiful people around the world that was performing. So for me, I believe that I was a promoter of one world and by then opened the mind of people that there’s other people than you, and they could be beautiful too, and they don’t have to think like you, that one. The second one is really what I just explained about this wall because I believe strongly that the power of love overcome the power of hate because it’s a feeling. So when people feel something that extremely profound and deep in the emotion of joys, well they will try and they will look into living that again and again and again.
And the same effect when somebody suffers something, and this is why sometime one event of aggressivity could provoke a monster. Why? Because the emotion is there and he want to give revenge. So he’s building even more what he had there, so it’s like it goes both way.
I’m so happy to make that choice of my life that I could have this healing tools that I believe is — my job at Cirque du Soleil, I did a lot of things, but one of the most important function I had when we create a show, my job was to assure that every in my show, there could be a fraction, a second that talk, that any spectator in the place would say, wow, they did that for me, whatever it is. And if I was able in my show to make people feel that I did that for them, that was the most wall was falling down at that moment. So again, is an understanding the psychology, the world, different way, radical acceptance, a recognition that nothing’s perfect. This was like this is all came to my journey and Cirque was the sandbox in which I was able to build that castle.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s track your path to the sandbox because there are many people who busk. I actually did a very small amount of busking in Paris, actually, but it pissed everybody off because I wasn’t asking for money, I just did AcroYoga with another woman who was there.
Guy Laliberté: [foreign language].
Tim Ferriss: Where were we? I think we were actually near the, I’m not going to pronounce it properly, but near the gardens. What is it Tuileries?
Guy Laliberté: [foreign language] Tuileries. Yeah, yeah Tuileries.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, I was close. I was close.
Guy Laliberté: In front the Louvre.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly.
Guy Laliberté: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And there are many buskers, many people who busk, but very few people who create something like Cirque du Soleil. So you come back from Europe, could you describe some of the key decisions or moments leading up to Cirque du Soleil after you returned?
Guy Laliberté: Actually, when I came back, I was not yet decided if I was going back to school or not. Again, I find another way to extend my year, not going to school to tell my father, “Well, I need to make money now. Could you help me, do you have a job?” He had a friend who had a factory to do window for the RVs and trailers. So I worked there for months. Obviously this was a factory job, but it was bringing a little money while I was playing in bars with music and still wheeling dealing, anything that could sell on the side. So I always had money in my pocket.
Tim Ferriss: What kind of stuff would you be selling on the side?
Guy Laliberté: Anything.
Tim Ferriss: Not baseball cards? Anything?
Guy Laliberté: Anything, anything. I will find anything. I was able to see opportunity to make a buck on anything.
Tim Ferriss: So you just buy a bicycle at a yard sale and sell it to somebody else?
Guy Laliberté: Exactly, something like that. Afterward, yeah, yeah, yeah. Or buy or sell a bunch of jeans and going things and making five bucks over the jeans at school, whatever. I was a wheeler dealer and I was a hustler also. I was good at backgammon. I was like pool and stuff. A little bit of everything, I always like to put to challenge. I love competition. I said same competition amongst people. I think this permit you to, it’s like playing poker. You discover personality of people by being a good chess player. That was nice. And actually it’s something I apply in business later on.
But at that moment we’re talking about when I come back to Europe, so 1978, ’79, got that job, and then there’s another friend my father had, because at that time the biggest job you could have was to go work on the dam in the north, the electrical dam. The wages there was like you were sent there, you had the highest wages, extra hours, you were working seven hours, was like you were doing so much money. So my father got me that job. So I go there. Then three days after I arrived there, my syndicate go on strike.
Tim Ferriss: Your syndicate is like the union of the workers?
Guy Laliberté: The union. Yeah, the union. Got on strike three days after. Here we go, my summer is screwed, my money is out. Bad timing. Then I come back, they want me to go picking, I have nothing to do with their things. To be honest, it’s a community that I didn’t even engage with. I was like, I didn’t know. I didn’t fell emotionally engaged to picking because they were giving you a check, a small check, but they were giving you a check. So what I decide to do, I said, where did I then go in my province? And there was one place, Baie-Saint-Paul, which is this little village, north Quebec, which had the reputation, I have one of the coolest youth hostel there. And I said, “Wait a minute, I have a little check. I’ll go there. I’ll offer my service to help against a bed and food.”
That was it, and I’ll wait. I didn’t know when the strike would stop or not, but it ended up to be all summer. So when I arrived there, climbed the hill and funny enough, I see Gilles Ste-Croix, that is one of the most important person in my life with Cirque du Soleil and another guy, Daniel Gauthier, that was my school friend, which was we left our relationship not on a good note, and then I go said, okay, why do I end up with this guy that I don’t want to see? But he’s part of this — it was a nonprofit organization and I arrived at the time where they were shaping the youth hostel. So we prepared a thing. I got the job of animating. So I was in charge of party.
Tim Ferriss: You were in charge of parties at the hostel?
Guy Laliberté: Exactly, yeah. Parties, organizing things. That’s what I was good at.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Guy Laliberté: I always been good at doing those things, organizing trips and stuff like to Louisiana at 15 years old, running the Mardi Gras. Many of those mini story there that we could talk for a long time. But this one was an important one because first, the deal was they were telling me, “We cannot pay you, but we could offer you a roof and a bed.” I said, “That’s okay with me, but could I have maybe the opportunity of making a little more money?” I said, “I’ll organize your party, but I want to be able to pick up every beer bottle on the site and earn the money of the beer bottle.”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, like the redemption, like you get the —
Guy Laliberté: Exactly, two cents —
Tim Ferriss: Few cents.
Guy Laliberté: Five cents.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah.
Guy Laliberté: But I’m telling you, after every day there was a truck on empty bottle, I made so much money going back and selling everything, those bottles that I end up having a very little contract of music and the bar and the cafe. I end up having a pretty decent thing. And this is where Gilles Ste-Croix, which was coming out of — was also a very interesting misfit creature. It was just coming back from an experience at Bread and Puppet in Vermont. I don’t know if you remember, I don’t know —
Tim Ferriss: I just heard about Bread and Puppet or Bread and Puppets for the first time from some of my family who live in Vermont. Literally last week they just told me about it.
Guy Laliberté: Because you’re probably too young to remember that they’re still there. But at that time there was this leader and the Bread and Puppet movement was antiwar. It came during the Vietnam War and they had that farm in Vermont that they shaped in and they had the Magic Wood, and every year they were doing this festival and they were the master of stilt walking. And Gilles came back of that and said, “I have an idea. Let’s do it. I’m doing music. We’re doing a little theater.” Said, “Let’s start a theater troupe on stilts.” That’s the end of ’79.
Then in the falls I got called for the strikes there and I go back to work on the dam and Gilles in the meantime choose another partner. I said, “Okay, well you’re not doing a collective, you want to do business. Fine,” I said, “but I won’t hire you.” I said, “Well, listen, I’m going in Mexico.” Came back, went to the dam a month after Gilles said, “I have the grant of the thing that you want to be an artist in my troupe.” I said, “I don’t know.” I really didn’t know.
Tim Ferriss: So a grant, this is from the government?
Guy Laliberté: The government, yeah. Basically they had those grants that you could have enough money to pay salary for the summer. In that region of Quebec, it was very simple. 80 percent of population was working on grant salary during the summer and get the unemployment check during the winter. Okay, this is what that region is about. So basically you need 20 weeks to work to get your check the rest of the year. And that’s what the life and most of the people was living on that pattern, but I didn’t know. So what I said, I said to my employers, “Listen…” I didn’t have a house. I said, “My house just went in fire. Could I have a couple of weeks to just go organize the thing?” I didn’t want to lose my job because if I say, “I quit,” that’s it. I’m done. I didn’t know if I will work.
So I lived that story, I got the permission, went there, never went back, but at least I had that back off. It’s always, you’re playing chess in life. It is like you make a move, but you want to know what’s your back move. That was one of them. So eventually I accept to be one of the artists in this theater troupe on stilts, which was in partnership with this guy, Sylvain Néron. We end up to be so bad for the business, so at the end of the season — actually, we had an amazing experience. It was a summer of my first big love in my life and an amazing theatrical original experience. But that relationship with the management, especially that guy. So everybody was like, “Eh, we don’t like the guy.” They end up bankrupt at the end of the season. Gilles said, “Well, like, I’m making mistakes.”
And we all decide to create the nonprofit organization, buy back the assets and started under a new company, which was the original, the foundation company that we built Cirque du Soleil with in the future. So step two of that was to manage. Then I was tour manager. I was assuming marketing, business function. I was able to give my skill and we had an amazing 1980 summer. This is the year also of the federal election. I was a candidate at the Rhinoceros Party. There was this crazy party that promising anything. I was a political candidate. We had a lot of fun in 1980.
Tim Ferriss: Quick question. So was the performance at that time still mostly theater on stilts or had it changed?
Guy Laliberté: Theater on stilts, music, fire breathing, but that moment I really had mastered — I would say in all the skill I had probably fire was the highest level I was mastering. So I had my pyro license, I was one of the best fire breathers in the world. I was developing device to manipulate fire. I was organizing showed fire, and this was my personal, I would say feature, and I was very proud about it and I was recognized for being one of the best Quebec fire players or fire masters. That being said, then we did one season and the winter I was always — again, 20 weeks of work and people were going and getting their paycheck for the rest of the winter. It was not my style. For me, it was about, okay, the job’s finished. I was hitting the road all the time.
One time on a motorcycle going to Montreal, Key West, then San Diego, and then jumping there. But in time, 1979 at the end of the first year, which was my love affair, I discovered Hawaii. Summer was a love of my life back then, first big love. And at the end of the year it was like the broken heart of my life. Within six months, seven months was like, I went from, “Wow, this is love.” And second, “Oh, heartbreaking is very hard. It’s very painful.” So I had to take care somewhere. So I was a friend that was in Hawaii on the Big Island in Kona that said — I passed by and arrived there and wow, I was discovering a part of the world that I didn’t see and I always wanted to go Hawaii because my parents told me so many good things about it.
And then I was there and it was very interesting. There was an interesting EP community performer there. There was the EP side, there was nice nightlife, simple life, a mellow things. But I was still in pain and it was a very interesting moment in my life. So for the two first week, it was fun, get to know people, but I had this sadness in inside of me. I was heartbroken and I was getting this little cafe or juice. I was not drinking coffee, but this milkshake type of things in the morning at the same cafe. And there was always this old EP there. I remember he was a magician. I learned that after, that was always same thing with me. And the same moment he approached me and he said, “Hey, what’s wrong with you?” I said, “What’s wrong with you? Why do you ask me that question, what’s wrong with me?” And I said, “Well, there’s nothing wrong.” He said, “You’re not on the vibe.” I said, “What do you mean you’re not on the vibe?” “You’re fighting the rhythm.”
This guy was throwing me like that was sitting down, didn’t even invite himself. He invite himself. He said, “Wait a minute,” I’m in my bubble of pain. And then he just keeps throwing me those things. “You’re not feeling the vibe of the island.” And he said, “You know what? I know I’m disturbing you there, but I will tell you one last thing, okay?” He said, “Try to feel the rhythm of the island and the island will bring you on the right side of your soul.” Boom. “Okay, what is that?” And at that moment — and I could be very thing, but I listened. Those type of philosophy, because then you have to understand, remember, the Kahlil Gibran and things is like my first philosophical reading and I ram on it. Everything that make poetic sense or whatever I was that got my attention after that because when you’re capable of reading behind the word and the meaning of it, I start to discover, and this is where I start to like words before that it was pain.
But now I start to understand and I really reflect on that and watching sunset, and then I start to just like — and this island changed my life. This is where I start to get inspired. I connect with luau troupes. I was doing my fire hands. I was playing accordion in the Italian restaurant, going and hustling at backgammon in the bar after and realizing that — actually, there’s so many things at that moment, I’ll try to mention all of that. First of all, at that time there was 101 types of religion or spiritual faction that was on there.
Tim Ferriss: On the island?
Guy Laliberté: On the island. Made me realize, wait a minute. Because at the same time you hear it about all those fights about religion and you say, wait a minute. There’s like, what is it? And then you suddenly see a piece of land on Earth that people live in peace with each other and respect. Wait a minute, something. Then you meet all those healers with potions, with growing herbs and stuff like that. And there’s this healing spirit on the island. You see people at a rhythm that doesn’t exist on the North American continent, there’s a pace that is more toward the pace of the rhythm of the wave of the island or the wind instead of the subway rhythm. And then you meet a bunch of performers that we hang out on the beach every day and perform on the naked beach, on the non-naked beach.
There’s party there, full moon party. And then I start to, for the first time in my life, got to what I believe still today, the closest to meditation on my side. I’m not a meditating guy. I never stopped the hamster in my head, nonstop. But when I watch the sunset, this is a very peaceful thing. And this Hawaiian sunset, this is where I start to think about a project. Remember every winter I was coming out of that, that was the second year of the — not first year, and then second. I went there three years before we did the La Fête Foraine, which I’ll talk. But the sun was my inspiration moment. So I start to think about project, creating this. So my creative mind exploded there, okay. The reason what the name Cirque du Soleil is for two reason, the inspiration of the sun of the Big Island, sunset which are amazing. And at that time in the symbolic book, the book of symbol, sun was the symbol of the energy of youth. So this is the name of my company I decided. It came later.
But before that, while I was there, every winter was going there finding my own friends and just having — it became my healing island that for the rest of my life, every time I have a business decision, an emotional distress, a question about my decision to be made, this is where I’d find my answers. Every time I was coming there I was planting the seeds of my question. And then I knew that when I come out of there, the answer would be there, whatever decision I made, and they were pretty much all good. So this is where the evolution of the theater troupe of stilts we were trying to grow. And then Gilles said, “Okay, we’ll do a winter version on skate and on the arena.” I said, “Not for me, though. I’m not spending a winter here. I’m a beach bummer, I’m not a ski bummer.”
And this is where I started to talk about the project of a street performing festival in Baie-Saint-Paul. And with Gilles, what we did in 1982, we went into this village, which is very traditional painting, this place is recognized by — this is a peaceful place for artists that paint a landscape and things like that. So we were already black sheep there. The [inaudible] people in this village of wolf mentality, you have to understand this is all the old traditional families that are direct line from the founders of Quebec, the people who got thrown in the boat by the French as bandits and built this country. And actually it’s very, it’s not the wolf mentality because it’s all very strong, established family. So when you’re a stranger coming there —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I see, they’re just aggressive, when you say wolf mentality.
Guy Laliberté: Well, yes, yes. And clan. Clan. They’re very protective. And you arrive a bunch of people who are [inaudible], and maybe dancing naked around a fire, taking substances. And actually the first business that’s been opened by our community there, it’s called the Mouton Noir, the cafe, the restaurant, it was called The Black Sheep. We made a statement that we will assume the perception that we have, so you could imagine. And they had that festival at that time, which is an art festival painting. It was very touchy, white glove, white glove festival. It was like an institution.
And we arrived wanting to close the street and do a street performing festival. So we have to go through all the political levels, convince and then sponsorship. We’re selling in our program, $75 little business card size in our program to the merchant. But we have to convince the people to give us a chance and it became a success. It was like financially, we lost a little money, but we had the attention of the big city in terms of culture. The merchant was super happy, the —
Tim Ferriss: So hold on one second.
Guy Laliberté: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So the black sheep go pitching this crazy idea in this, let’s just call it maybe a conservative town, protective town.
Guy Laliberté: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: What was the key to the pitch?
Guy Laliberté: I don’t know, I guess again, it’s so conditioned. Like I said, me and Gilles is a charming human being. It was like always pause, never raise. I was the jester, I don’t know, the —
Tim Ferriss: The jester.
Guy Laliberté: The jester, the Speedy Gonzales guy. I’m always like hands up talking like that, but with a lot of passion. But we arrived with something I believe was safe enough, colorful enough. Business wise maybe it will have a good economic impact for us. So we got a shot. We got a shot. And actually pretty well on, obviously. And again, the last day, the last day of the last show in the arena, because all those street performers there. There was workshop, people were learning how to do clowning in the wood, in the mountain, whatever. We organized a very nice program. It was not a big budget, but people showed up and mostly a lot of my international friends decided to come and visit us because we were booking, co booking.
The big paycheck was from the main festival in Quebec City. But I got the good deal if I was getting a deal for them in Quebec. So that justified them to come and I got them for a good price. But we had that closing show in the arena, which was everybody on the scene together. And where the last moment is the [foreign language] is there and I’m blowing fire. And that moment is a thunderstorm and we’re playing that track that’s called the funambule, which means the person that walk on the wire, it became more anthem tracks and we’re in the grand finally and suddenly the storm shut down all the electricity and we just with the flame in the can, super dramatic. And I still like this bomb and this, there was a big, big quantity of the Quebec street performer.
And this is where we look at each other. It was so emotional on himself. Okay, let’s think about, maybe would be time to think about creating our own circus. And this is what inspired me. The first flame of inspiration came like wow, look at all us together on stage. Imagine under a big top. Start to share that, but obviously starting at circus far more difficult than doing the street performing festival. So we did a second year, that was 1982. In 1983 we do the second version of it and that’s greater success. And then we got the attention of the government because 1984 was a celebration, the 450th anniversary of discovery of Canada, both celebrating by the federal side and the provincial side. And you have to understand the provincial, we’re French Canadian, we’re frogs or french fries. And then the Anglo accent on the other side. And obviously the government want to celebrate and both take a position, very political.
So there’s a lot of money that is thrown for cultural shows, activities or things, so special money. So I’ve been invited based on the success of Fête Foraine to depose or propose a project, and this is where at that moment I said, “Well, this is our window.” So we build relationship with the director of programming. But we’re still, remember I’m dealing now with the government, a cultural minister that is so in the high-end, classy, I’m hanging out with the stars. So you’re thinking about a government where this minister of culture is totally star system thing. In all the different department of culture, you have dance, opera, singing, whatever music, street performing circus was not there. Basically you have to understand the social reality there’s and the mentality of whatever festival was about, pay them a sandwich. They’ll entertain you for 50 minutes. So this is what we started —
Tim Ferriss: Lowbrow. Their assumption was very low.
Guy Laliberté: The low bread, it was down the food chain, okay? We’re way down the food chain. Everybody got the money, everybody get the contract and here I am with one other friend that was Robert Lagueux, which actually is the real co-founder, is not the other one. The other one came later, but there’s one real co-founder that left after the first year. So we engaged ourself of going pitching to the government. And then there’s different level of contract you could get. But there was this director of creation, artistic director that was in charge of programming, that Jacques Lenot that really we had connect. But I was pushing him to the — he was like, he was coming red sometimes. This is not what I’m asking you. We had to fit in a formula and I’m trying to pitch the first French Canadian and first Quebec circus, and I’m trying to explain to him he believe in it, he said, “You will not be able to sell that to the government.”
I said, “No, no, this is the time.” And then slowly by slowly, they oblige us to hire or put in our team somebody that was recognized by government. A friend of mine, we played with it, but she was absolutely not the same level. But slowly, and I will always remember that building, because there was that famous cap of a million-dollar contract. It’s not grant. Those were contract negotiating. And my project that what I want to do with some compromise, it was costing 1.7 million. But to have over a million dollar, you have to have to the minister console. So they didn’t want to bring a freak like me as a proposed content provider, especially not that minister that doesn’t like street performers. So basically I will always remember you pitch in front of commissary, the minister.
And so I have two documents on the table, one big cover colors, and I put a corner there and I have a black and white one. And then because he asked me to stay at 900,9999 and $1 under the million-dollar project. And I did work.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Guy Laliberté: So I present in black and white. Everything of my project, I present black and white. I said, “This is a project.” And there’s one, of course I’ve seen the document. I said, “What is that?” Well, what is this other document we call it? Well, I said, “Well it’s not important. This is the 1.7, you don’t want it.” And I raised, I’m playing the game full on the game. “No, no, this is what you get for a million.” And eventually somebody had asked me, convinced me, and it was part of the game actually. He says, all negotiation, colorful negotiation. They call that strategic thinking, understanding human nature, okay?
That is very interesting. And I learn all of that in the street because of the street is basically you have a fraction, a second to decide if you hit-and-run, if you hit or run fast or talk, but you don’t have one minute to converse if there’s a situation there. So one of the biggest skills in business I learned was in the street because of this dangerous environment. You make friends or you run or you’re ready to face a more physical reality. So, obviously, there was a compromise there where it was, “We cannot give you $1.7 million now, but let’s start with one million and we promise you that over the summer, we’ll be able, by exception, by exception, by exception, to get to your budget.”
So, basically, I have my $1.7 million contract. And with all the hard start, we were the star of the summer. Everybody was failing, huge failure. We failed, too, in the first month. But the beauty of it is we were the product that was going in their country, in the countryside.
So, the first month was a disaster. We lost our big top. It was raining. It was conflicts. The artists was fighting and there was a strike. Whatever happened at the beginning, we were in the mud up to the throat. But one month after, our show was so tight.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so you were able to prototype it in the countryside. So you’re able to be a mess, but it didn’t matter because you could refine it?
Guy Laliberté: Yeah, because they asked us. The minister want to keep the big city and the stars of big city. They put us on the third row. Go in the cheap country.
Tim Ferriss: The cheap seats.
Guy Laliberté: We were the piece of bread that was thrown in the country to satisfy, to touch everybody with a celebration thing. But at the end, it became the best thing that arrived for us because when we arrived in the big city, because we did play in big city, we arrived so ready, we became the success of the summer—press-wise, public-wise, and government-wise. Everybody was like — and prime minister was there, and he said, “Wait a minute. Those are the type of…” Because you have to understand, we’re right in the middle of the independent movement.
And the prime minister at that time was trying to always say, “We’re not done for a little bread,” coming out from the religious things by and then. And we lost everything to the English, rest of Canada, in terms of the economy. So this minister was like, “Believe in the French Canadian creativity, business skill,” and stuff like that. So, we became —
Tim Ferriss: The symbol.
Guy Laliberté: Totally. And I developed that relationship, that prime minister, and he fell in love with that. We were his case, the case or the product, and the example of what he meant.
So, basically, the second year, we twist the arm of the Minister of Culture. He said, “No, if you want that amount, you have to give them.” So it was a very important thing. So, obviously, your second was more being by yourself and the business, but this is the beginning, I would say. This is how it came and that’s how it take place.
Tim Ferriss: Let me pause for one second. So, in that meeting, you have the black and white copy, you have the color copy. So you’re playing on human nature and you’re doing it really well because of, in part, your experience learning lessons on the street. Still, when you walked in, I assume that their perspective was that street performing, again, lowest on the food chain. So what else was there in the presentation that made them change their minds?
Guy Laliberté: Well, over time. Because that was a year in preparation for meeting. We suddenly got ally.
Tim Ferriss: Developed some relationships.
Guy Laliberté: The chief financial officer, which is a big man, [inaudible] became our defender. Then the press person was in love with Gilles. There was so many, Jacques Lenot, director of creation, that was pushing he wanted our project.
So, suddenly the administration, the people at the administration level, not at the decision level, well, middle-level decision level, started to recommend us. I said, “No, you have to have that type of programming and all this is diversity.” They became our defenders and actually, and we had certain ally, but slowly we convinced them by, I believe what they believe was a great creative project, but also were enthusiastic. We were a bunch of kids. You have to understand we were coming from the streets and this was a window. And as a wheeler dealer [inaudible], this is an important [inaudible] I’m not giving up. Unless the fish is cutting the line, I’m taking that fish out of the pond.
So, I was really always in this war, I was on a mission and I achieved it because what I was carrying on my shoulder is the dream of all the community in Montreal or Quebec. That for years was talking about the dream of doing a circus, but never nobody organized it. And I had the credibility of the tribes because I did the street performing festival. So I was able to ally behind me the entire community. And I was giving kind of like the carte blanche to make it happen and without having to go through this collective process of things. Because I believe in consultation, I believe in collectivity. But at a certain moment, I believe also that everybody in the organization have specific responsibility. And mine was to make the final decision. And I got the respect of that.
I had to gain it in the first month because there was a lot of challenge related to that. But at the end, I got the support of the community and the press, favorable critics, and the love of the public. So, once you have those three things in front of whoever, you have an army.
Tim Ferriss: You have an army. And let’s talk about maybe influences, philosophies. I read, and maybe this came later, so we could also pause this for later, but that your marketing inspirations were P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney.
Guy Laliberté: P.T. Barnum, obviously for people who know and read well, very complex character, but he basically then modern marketing. “Talk good, talk bad, but talk about it,” was his line. And this is the guy that was bringing circus in New York and will make sure that the biggest truck that carried the biggest elephant will have a breakthrough in middle of Times Square. And he will have a —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, a little breakdown.
Guy Laliberté: A breakdown, and will have the front page of The New York Times the day after that word, a hundred thousand dollars. He was a master of that. And for people that I understand, even if people think that he was abusing his freaks and stuff like that, he had decided yes to do business with all the misfit, but he gave them a roof in a community, and the other one is Walt Disney.
Tim Ferriss: Walt Disney.
Guy Laliberté: Walt Disney, oh, my God. It’s like this, I don’t know, we’re not on the visual here, but over in napkin he designed the entire vision of Walt Disney things. There’s a famous napkin drawing that he did.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, the parks, the merchandising.
Guy Laliberté: Exactly, exactly, exactly. So, this guy was so creative and so business, it was a perfect balance of the two side of the brain or person. So, obviously this was my other influence.
Tim Ferriss: And so, at the time that you get the million dollars with additional, maybe it adds up over time to whatever it was, 1.5 million from the government, then you do another year. At that point, what was your aspiration?
Guy Laliberté: Well, the other year was almost killing. The other year we were technically in bankruptcy. And what you don’t know in between, say once you have those contracts, well then you have to go and find a bank. It’s one thing to convince the government, but I’m telling you, it’s much more difficult to convince a bank.
Tim Ferriss: To help you with your finances.
Guy Laliberté: Yeah, yeah. Because government was signing your letter contract, but the payment process of government is a little longer than just signing a check every month. So we have to go and finance and find the bridge, which was banker and my God, this was like hilarious. I don’t know. I think we did every banker in a hundred miles around the city we were in and basically we’re entertainers. They all have a smile, but they all told us no with a smile saying, “Well, I like your project, but US Bank, we need collateral. And actually we don’t know what we’ll do with a trapeze, with tent or a crane truck or a counter of hotdog if you fell.”
Listen, this is a contract, but we end up and it’s very, very funny. We end up in the last financial institution we ever thought we could know or not. That was a little bank that was mainly known to finance strikes. So basically. if you’re a union that have a lot of money and things, when people go on strikes, they need a bank that will manage the strike budget or will have the account.
Tim Ferriss: Sorry to pause. How does the bank get repaid if they’re funding a strike? They take some portion of the settlement?
Guy Laliberté: No, no, no. Basically the union have a lot of money, but they use those bank, this is where they put their money in. So this is the number one bank in Quebec where the union put their money.
Tim Ferriss: Deposits their money.
Guy Laliberté: Deposit. So, most of their members are union workers. There’s not a business person in business with them, they’re all union. This is a union bank.
Tim Ferriss: I get it, yeah.
Guy Laliberté: I have no clue of financing a business or whatever. And this is the one bank that gave us our first bank account with a first credit line or advance the money that the government, because that’s what they get. They used to that they use that union will say, “Okay, give money to those people. We fund it. We guarantee the money.” So it’s in their DNA to advance money to people that have no money because they have people, big bank account that say, “We’ll pay.” Government is the same thing as a union. They have big bank account. Anyway.
So in this moment we established the first [inaudible]. That was not risky because it was all pretty much guaranteed and we end up with 50,000 profit out of the 1.7 million couple of equipment. But a lot of experience. But obviously it also told me that we cannot work under the model. We did that because it was a compromise. So we had to go to the market and then we were by ourselves. There was no more grant or no more contract from the government. But we had the prime minister out there that really loved it. And 1985 was the International Year of the Youth for young people, youth. That just need me for the one thing like that, for me to build all the next second year of Cirque du Soleil under the youth banners. And here we go. We build Cirque du Soleil, and actually even there, I recognize that we cannot survive with the ambition we had when build only in our province. We were condemned to export on time.
Tim Ferriss: I see. Just for financial reasons, you would have to —
Guy Laliberté: Yeah, there was not enough market. We analyze, we had on the things was okay, we could do three months, four months, but to run a circus you have to do nine months, 10 months over the year. And because of the climate and the population ratio that we have to export. So, our first line of exportation was on Ontario, Toronto and Niagara Falls. Two million visitors whatever by month or things like that. That’s what the government told us. There is the biggest tourist destination, Niagara Falls. So, the way we had no money from a market thing, you have to understand that we were tied, we had a little subsidies, we had things, but money was always coming at the end. And at the end, what make the success of entertainment is your marketing campaign. But we were always short on money for promotion. So, we were betting always on the first night or creating a P.T. Barnum event in the downtown city or whatever to get the little press.
And that year it was going well. Toronto was going well, but we were so fragile in terms of a general budget that one city, we could afford a little hiccup, but a drastic failure would create a drastic financial situation. So, we arrive, that’s almost the last city of the tour. We’re in Niagara Falls, we all prep for the opening night. There’s fully people there, all the politicians, the local people. And then normally the history tell us that the day after the sales tickets increase and we get our end result. Second day 10 tickets, oh, shit.
Tim Ferriss: Uh, oh.
Guy Laliberté: Uh, oh. Second show, 65 people in the room and I have 75 workers. Okay, second day, 20 tickets. So it went on. I was like, “what’s wrong? What happened?”
Tim Ferriss: What happened?
Guy Laliberté: And then I have a revolt of the artists. We’re not going to play in front of 15 people. This is where the rule of we will never perform, we made a deal with the artists that we will never perform if the number of public is under the number of artists. That was a moment we made a deal like that, but it was catastrophic. So then it’s like, what’s going on? And we did all kinds of things by [inaudible]. We tried to react but nothing was working. And this is where a certain moment is like, “What’s wrong? Why are we that bad?” It doesn’t work to then realize that yes, there’s two million people passing Niagra Falls, but the average of stay of people 45 minutes and the way to stay and the other one would stay long there honeymoon or in there are in their room having their honeymoon moment. So, we understand that the notion of market study really, but the result of that is we are technically in bankruptcy.
So, obviously again, and we saw that. So, this specific bang, and this is a true story, obviously we were about three quarters of a million dollars in deficit at that time. But to arrive there, we had to survive the end of the tour, pay the salary, and if we don’t do that, that’s it. So, we have a list of suppliers under $5,000 and over $5,000. We have a payroll to deliver every two weeks and we have our minimum OpEx costs and we cannot bill back. So, you have to pay cash. And then we have no more cash and we’re coming back in Montreal, we know we’ll get a little more money and we could reduce that and not overcome everything, but we have to survive that because if we cannot bring a little more money to balance a little bit, we’re done. And then who’s else? We have no money.
We cannot sell tickets. So, the banker, this union bank that we have, I don’t know, 100,000 that year or $200,000 credit line start to allow without approval of his committee. First it was every check we’re doing, we went over maybe another a hundred thousand. Then he said, “Wait a minute, you’re over your line,” and instead of telling “Yeah, you can’t do anymore,” he said, “Please could you don’t do check over $10,000?” I said, “Wait a minute, this is a banker. Thank you.” So we do check under 10,000. Then second call is please could you not do check over 5,000. It went down to $500. So he was in and the last thing we got of him, it was I think a 25 or $30,000 payroll. The last payroll of the season we went to there said, “Listen, I know we are way over.”
And the guy look at me and said, “I’ll lose my head. I have no authorization. I did things that I was not authorized to do as a director of the bank.” He said, “If this goes wrong, I’m dead.” But I said, “Yeah, but please, you’re definitely dead if you don’t help me to pay the payroll.” And the guy released another $25-$30,000 to pay the payroll and then end of season, my partner at that time, Daniel, we look at each other and we have maybe $20,000 cash that we put aside and we said to each other, “If one supplier come and make post an action of claim…”
Tim Ferriss: Like a lawsuit or yeah, claim.
Guy Laliberté: Just claim, just going to court, then it will trigger all the things. Then very soon what we did is I took all the supplier over them. I said to the bank, first of all, I said the bank, “Could I have five, six months? We’re doing another tour, we have a contract. They exploded in ’86 in Vancouver. We have good traction. It’s like we’re popular but we’re totally technically we’re broke.” So I went on with my director of administration and me, we went to every supplier and made a deal, didn’t pay none of them except three. And then we’d use the cash. We made a deal, postponed check eight months, and 12 checks, all of them. They all accept. Every supplier.
Tim Ferriss: Why did they accept?
Guy Laliberté: They loved us? They trusted us? I think they believed in us? We were up front, but we had to deal. We had a braid of six months minimum, eight months of each of them with postpone and check with the promise that if the cash was coming first, we’ll pay them faster. My God, this is angel flying and not only one, this is like 50 angels the same time. And actually there was about 250 supplier whatever from 500 to 10,000. The biggest one I think was a hundred thousand. And the bank and the guy, you have to go back.
Tim Ferriss: So, the bank, I have to ask, so this guy is clearly just breaking all the rules it seems like to give you guys this money. Was he, I want to know a little bit more about that. I mean was he just pissed off at his boss and he was going to quit in six months anyway?
Guy Laliberté: No, no.
Tim Ferriss: I know I’m being a bit of a joker, but why would he — I mean he’s risking his job I would think doing this.
Guy Laliberté: Totally, totally. But I guess you have to be there at the origin. We came like we were a storm of color, of happiness and what we’re doing we’re totally what people never saw in the circus thing. So, we were clearly, we were inspired and we were working hard and we were working on businessman and everybody understand if we break that things, it could be a huge success. But we were just young entrepreneurs that was living everything a young generation have to face when you do business. And suddenly everything, every wall of those people that normally would put a wall in front of kids at the side, and I didn’t interview everybody of it, but I would say for the banker point, because he became a great, great friend.
It was just like I just believed and I was ready to go battle with my bank committee and say we should and banks should — actually, this philosophy was banks should sometimes take risks, business risks and not only protect themself. His principle would do so much money that a portion of our things should be when we feel it to take greater risk over and above what the rules of bank rules is.
And that’s what he was defending. Actually he was using my case and actually this bank that we stayed until I sold Cirque du Soleil, we were super faithful then and for him it became the bank that every young cultural enterprise or young things were to go because they made a model, all of that and they have been able to service there. And it was just like, again, this was a type of thing. And then ’86, we went to Vancouver in one year we pay everybody the bank and stuff like that. It was all done. And then ’87 we hit L.A. It was a live or die in L.A. opening night again at work almost died that night.
Tim Ferriss: Hey, did you say you almost died that night?
Guy Laliberté: Well, listen that day, okay, you have to understand we are going to Los Angeles Festival, art festival super again, institutional things. Director of Programming Canada came late and said, “Well, we’re interested, but we have no money to book you.” I said, “Well…” She says, “I’m going from Quebec to Canada, I have to put everything on things.” And one of my partner was saying, “Well, let’s go to Vermont. What the hell Vermont would tell you if we will be successful or not? We have to hit the big city, New York or Los Angeles.” And we had an opportunity there. So I made a deal with the Los Angeles Festival. I said, “Okay, I’ll go. I’ll take my own risk, but please could I have the opening night of the Festival and please could you just at least make sure that in your promotion, your generic promotion, you put us?”
And I said, “And third, could you make sure we have good press the big name of Hollywood on the opening date?” But here we are, we in a Little Tokyo where they put out in Little Tokyo. Everybody else is in the forum of that, all the big institution. They threw us in the middle of the worst neighborhood. There is Little Tokyo, downtown L.A. in a site that is the middle of side, which basically is the middle. On one side you have one street gang and the other one you have the other street gang. Is one of the biggest crime place things.
That is murder every day. It’s just like, wait a minute. So we end up having to deal with the neighborhood there and we have two choice either we [inaudible]. So we decide, and I’ve been able to negotiate kind of a truce between the two gangs saying, “Listen, I’m coming. I come from the streets,” I put all my street story behind. I made them laugh. I did the clown of myself, but I got their approval. Why? Because I said, “Your wife, your kids, I’ll give them job other than selling drugs or killing people, whatever, stealing.” My God. Two memorable moments.
And it was a very interesting because people tell us, “Put the 20 foot…” No, no, I cannot afford 20 foot things. We’ll give job. So, everybody had job, the security parking cars, cleaning, ushers, selling hot dog, whatever. Everybody that was hired from the two gangs there. And actually I think for a very long time, that was the first time they were not killing each other in the same roof. Anyway, so there’s two events that happened that made me laugh. One is about that opening day, which you see people arrive the big limo with the big Mercedes, the big Rolls-Royce.
And they give the key to the hood, this little kid that usually would break in the window when the guy was going parked the place in the worst place you could park that type of car. So just that thing was like, wow. Wow, wow, wow. Just that for me was an interesting mission accomplished somewhere to be able to make that. But the most freaky moment was the opening was in the afternoon and it was so what? And people arrive in Hollywood, they don’t arrive on the dot. It was like it take 45 minutes.
Tim Ferriss: Fashionably late.
Guy Laliberté: Oh, my God. We were dying just as that they had people, it was like a hundred degree people were sweating and then, okay, it’s not complete. And the organizers, wait a minute, this star’s coming. He’s on his way. So we decided to send the clowns to animate the place. And you had the mayor. You have the governor. It is like all the big shebang is there and they’re on time. It’s just a [inaudible].
Tim Ferriss: So, they’re just sitting down waiting until they’re inside, right?
Guy Laliberté: And the clowns go, and they’re trying to go because we have to give a little animation. Preshow. So, I said to my bunch of clowns, “Okay, just go. Don’t do the things that the pre-show, but you have enough tricks to make them laugh.” My one Benny clown, one of the clown. First thing is coming is with a hose, a water hose.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, water hose. Yeah.
Guy Laliberté: Water hose. Open the hose and start to spray everybody, anything. I said, “I’m dying, I’m dying. I said, “I will really die in L.A.” And then suddenly in fraction a second because you could see people reacting in soul and then you see the first body talk where there’s suddenly a bunch of people altogether give it more. They stand up and it was like, give me more water, magic moment. Then we did the show, got standing ovation —
Tim Ferriss: That could have gone a lot of ways. Could have gone.
Guy Laliberté: I thought it was going the other side. So finally do the show standing ovation and the day after is like sell, sell. We were sold out and it was the beginning of never looking back again. We did that bumpy road and stuff like that. But from that moment, there’s only one year, the year of a growth crisis in our growth that we lost a little money. But since then Cirque except the bankruptcy year. We’ve been doing money, money, never been on a deficit year. It’s interesting.
Tim Ferriss: Super interesting. So, if you look at L.A., so you’ve told a bunch of stories about L.A., you’re headed to Vancouver, you do really well in Vancouver, you don’t want to repeat Niagara Falls, obviously. Now Vancouver is very different from Niagara Falls, but was there any planning or changes that you made to the preparation before going to Vancouver that made a big difference?
Guy Laliberté: No, you understand that we start to build wealth on reputation and we’re able to do media deal. So we’re starting to be much more strategic in our communication. Remember the first year was very difficult because we have all the money for the operation, but we’re very tight in the — so what I’m saying is suddenly we start to generate cashflow in profit. So, again, it’s support a good campaign. So we’re able to buy a full page in The New York Times and hit and create. I would set attention, but still betting on the product. We were very famous to every opening night at that time it was an amazing party that everybody wanted to be there. And then after that sales was going and the model was click, click, click, click, and then we expand two show. And then the breakthrough of Vegas with Steve Wynn, it was just like life or the universe. And that was presenting us opportunity and we were, or highs was enough open to see them and seize them.
It goes both ways. And I believe this is something that’s very important for people to understand how we were thinking said somewhere in this space or this dimension, there’s something for us and we have to find it. But not only we had find it, but it was coming to us. And this is all the notion of the blue ocean concept versus the red ocean environment. We basically created a blue ocean by, so, if we were ahead of our time, we packaged, we didn’t reinvent nothing that the hard form of circus was there. We just put color on something that was very dusty and apply a theatrical approach versus a circus show approach.
And we are [inaudible], and once we start to have money, we reinvest and we supplying our organic growth in the same time that we’re building relationship and having access to bank money. So we became great business people. And that always related to when at the beginning of Cirque, when I tried to convince bank, put a place on the board where nobody want to be a board. I said, “Well now I’m condemned to play business.” And I still played business, a lot of fun playing business because it was always about the game. It’s like we come from nothing, so what was the worst situation? Go back to nothing. I could live that. That’s where I come from. And while I was seeing successful people failing because they were starting to nurture to not having tomorrow what they have today, and start to nurture fear. And it was like, no.
Tim Ferriss: Could you say that again? Could you explain that a bit more?
Guy Laliberté: Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of successful enterprise. There’s many things that kill success, right? The first one I’ve seen is about once you have success, you get a lot of reward, financially, economy. And then you starting to nurture the fear of not having tomorrow what you have today.
Tim Ferriss: Right. I see.
Guy Laliberté: And that changes your entire way of addressing things. So, suddenly you’re not the same person. You don’t address your business the same way. You don’t address your vision and things because you’re not your fear. Okay? So, my say or that is like danger, there is, but please evaluate danger. Don’t nurture fear. Because at the moment you call for you nurture fear. There’s a good chance that you call your fear and the result of the fear. So, that’s one thing.
And I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs shifting their way of being. Shifting or transforming what they are and denying where they come from. So, at the end, not being themself and having a business or success, changing their soul, their way of doing things and becoming other people, which again could affect the results of the company.
And the other one is more recognizing or realizing that a certain moment you’re not the person to bring your business or your baby to another level to be able to step out when you realize that you maximize for different reason, your contribution to the success of your enterprise.
Tim Ferriss: So, let’s talk about the first part of that just a little bit longer. Because I lived in Silicon Valley for 17 years and I have a lot of friends from that period of my life. Many of them have shifted, I would say, into trying to defend what they have or have experienced more fear because they don’t know who to trust, et cetera. I mean there are many stories about it. So what else would you say to those people? There are people you care about, you see them maybe changing or feeding the fear. What else would you say to them?
Guy Laliberté: You mentioned something about trust. There’s a thin line between wasting time of doubting versus trying to see the best side of a person and work toward making a merge of a person’s best side. And this is a conversation I still have, whatever with my kids, with my ex. And the actual business is this notion of to which level you trust without compromising the fundamentals. And that is very difficult to conclude because I’ve lived the two spectrums of that life. I got some of the best rewards by trusting people and focusing on their beautiful souls versus their dark side. And that has been very rewarding.
Like I live the entire side by the certain moment when you want to give chance and you give tools to people to be greater. And then they fail because they fell in the trap of greed, ego, ego and power side of life, versus the love, respect, and trust side of life, which is what we had built our things with.
And that brought me a lot of deception to people I really trust. And I believe that we had enough experience together and they fell on that part. And again, it happened in my own little ethos, but look what’s going on in the world. We’re driven by this tension between the two sides of it. And obviously the people are driven by greed, ego and power, every morning they wake up and they’re thinking about how they could be better us on the side of the love, peace, and love and stuff like that. We get it on the face, we look at the sun, we meditate and we are a little more slow to react at that. So I guess we have to be a little more organized.
Tim Ferriss: If I’m understanding you correctly, I mean it sounds like you’re suggesting maybe defaulting to trusting people and expecting sometimes you’re going to get punched in the face, but that’s just the tax you pay for being optimistic or are there other ways that you protect the fundamentals?
Guy Laliberté: No, I would say at the end there’s more success than failure, but the failures are more touching than the wins of trust because it’s usually attached to deception. So I’m talking more about the deception. You’re in business, you win, you lose, you make good decisions, you make bad decisions. That’s part of it. Nobody’s perfect. And nobody’s perfect in the choice of who you work with, who you trust or not. It’s part of doing business. It’s deeper than that, what I’m saying.
So this is why I guess as much honest conversation at the beginning to establish not the contract, this is why in my contract I always not put just the legals part, I always start the first page by the assumption, the spirit of how a deal is done. Because my wish that if there’s conflict before going on the legal battle, you look at what the spirit of the deal was. And if you have sensitive people, intelligent people, they will relate to this foundation version, the word of the legal things.
Tim Ferriss: And that’s actually a page in the document that has the contract?
Guy Laliberté: It’s a page in the contract. It’s a page in the contract where the first page is not about legal stuff, it’s about the philosophy, the spirit of why we’re doing the deal, what brought us to that deal. What is the spirit of the deal? I made the mistakes to forget that sometime and this was the most chaotic things because I’m telling you, it is like if you not attached to the spirit and it’s just legal, we’re living in a country, not America, specifically in the States, [inaudible] will make me happy, making mistakes and not clear. It’s much more difficult for a person to deny the spirit if it’s been written down. He will deny it and say, “It’s not what I say,” because when you try to bring the spirit in oral conversation, they will always find a way to justify that it’s not what they say. But write —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s smart.
Guy Laliberté: — the thing, it’s very difficult for them. Then it’s betrayal. You understand?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Guy Laliberté: Then you know it’s a betrayal, it’s not a misunderstanding.
Tim Ferriss: Is that first page, I’m very interested in this, is it almost just like regular text, like it’s paragraphs or is it bullets?
Guy Laliberté: Yeah, yeah. It’s understanding that we desire to conquer planet [Mars], We will do everythings to. It’s very poetic sometimes, very philosophic, it’s very mission-oriented. We all do document in business a mission and vision and so. Why are we not putting those principle right in the contract when two parties do things? Because this becomes a new mission, this is built on new value. And I think this is, I believe, an antidote against persecution or legal process.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s very smart.
Guy Laliberté: Well, I’ve not been that smart all the time because in some cases that I forgot to put it or my family office, I forgot to put it. But now I’m telling you, this will be for now on. Even with experience I did forget to put it because I guess I even trusted more and I believed I then should not put in it, and that became the biggest betrayal in business I ever did. So now it’s there, forever.
Tim Ferriss: So you mentioned a name earlier that I’d love to hear you say more about. So I think you mentioned Steve Wynn. So how does Steve Wynn fit into this story?
Guy Laliberté: Game changer. Steve Wynn, a game changer for me. When we start Cirque du Soleil I always found myself going to see as much shows as possible. So right at beginning of Cirque, I would go visit the artists and I would always make a stop in Vegas to see the entertainment there. And then suddenly Mirage arrived there and the Siegfried and Roy show was there and not the entire show, the first 20 minutes, really it was mind-blowing. I said, “Wow.” I was so inspiring and impactful for me because I realize and it make me realize that wait a minute, Vegas is as is baby food of modern entertainment. You have New York on one side, London on the other side, but Vegas is still cheesy. They have big production but still not deep in the, what we call the theatrical, the artistry.
It’s very flamboyant, it’s big thing and they put a lot of money. You have a volcano, you have showers or whatever, a hundred dancers, you have the spectacular. But when you analyze that in the artistic quality things, it’s level one. And then with this 20 minutes, I say, “Wait a minute.” I look around, it’s one, two, three, four, five, say, casino, they don’t have big show or this big show has been there. So I suddenly realized, I said, “Wait a minute, this city have the potential of becoming the third-biggest entertainment city in the world after New York, or with New York and London.” And this is where I start to put a lot of focus. Then we have, Caesars was the first one to approach us from a vice president entertainment part, Caesars location. So we engaged in the development of the deal, which I had at the time to put $300,000, they put $300,000, and we develop a concept of a show, it’s called Timeless Kiss.
But Timeless Kiss is basically the first show which is Mystère, okay? Mystère at Treasure Island. But we went through a level, presented the board, Henry Gluck, Terry Lanni, and Century City in Los Angeles, all those very aged person with a couple of young executive. And we pitch and we believe at that moment that we did a great pitch. We were confidence in the show. And actually the deal with them was far away from the deal I made in the future with Steve Wynn. So I’m back in Montreal waiting the answer, received a phone call, I was on my treadmill, and this vice president said, “Well sorry, I have a bad news,” I said, “What?” He said, “Well, the board think that your show is too esoteric for Las Vegas.” Esoteric was the word to explain me why they’re not go ahead with the deal. I rage, I don’t think ever in my life had we done so many hours of Step Master in my life in a row. I was raging, screaming for three hours. And then it was like, wait a minute. And that was $300,000 investment at the moment, we’re talking 1990, ’91, beginning of our success.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And that was into the concept development?
Guy Laliberté: Yeah, well yes, yes. We were trying to make a deal with one of the casino to put a product there. Then that fell. So we went around, next one is the Hilton, where Elvis Presley was there at that time it was like a Broadway show was there. Same story, pitch, pitch, pitch, suddenly, “Oh, it’s too complex.” And then that one I didn’t rage because having received that answer once I was expect. And then a week after I received a message, “Steve Wynn called you, call back.” So I call back, “Monsieur Laliberté,” he’s with this very more radio voice than me said, “I heard you were flirting with my competitors. Have you made any deal with my competition?” I said, “No, why?” He said, “Why didn’t you come see me?” I said, “Well, you have the best show in town, I didn’t even think that you’ll be interested in my product, you have the best show in town.”
Well he said, “I would like to have conversation with you. I think you have some things that we could bring Cirque du Soleil.” I said, “Have you seen Cirque du Soleil?” “Yeah, I’ve seen it in Santa Monica in 1987.” “Oh,” I said, “We have a new show. It’s called Nouvelle Expérience. Have you seen it?” “No.” “Oh, I want you to see it.” He said, “Where are you?” Said, “Well, I’m in Toronto now.” But I said, “Before we converse, I want you to see what I am about now.”I don’t know at that moment that he have his eye problem and vision problem. So he said, “I’ll be there Friday with my CEO and one or two board member.” So he flew in, proceeded in, look at things. And then I see the guy, we go intermission, he said “I like it. So I would like to bring this show behind the Mirage and we could set up there.”
He turned around, he said, “Deal?” And I look at that deal, and he presented his hand. I said, “Well, we have to negotiate,” he said, “This guy will make sure that you will have a good deal and I will have a good deal and we’ll make it happen. I need to be activated very fast.” Shake hands, day after, make a deal. They bought all the new equipment, build the tents behind the Mirage. And I didn’t know at that time that for him he have something else, he have the Treasure Island what is mine and actually he wanted lock me down. He did that contract just to lock me down so I could not talk to others because in two years after he was building his thing and it costs his money. And on the top of that, opening night, my God, again, all the big shabang of Vegas. And Steve Wynn had very powerful and influential friends in the political things, they had the business side, he had his bankers there. And opening night, one artist, animation, again. But this one could have been turned very bad. He did that 2,000 times. He’s lying on a rope from the tower, over the head of people, on the stage. We about to start a show, I’m seeing from the side of my eye, the artist fell on the people.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, God.
Guy Laliberté: I think I experience what it means and what is the temperature and the feeling to be in the tomb. The sound. The sound of the big top, the CEO Bobby Baldwin see the same thing and Steve Wynn don’t see, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” And CEO said, “Well, there’s an artist who fell on the head,” and he knew who fell, I think it was a banker, one of the major banker. Said, “He just fell [inaudible].”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no.
Guy Laliberté: And Steve said, “What?” And dead silence. So thank God he was just kind of hurt on the shoulder. He could have break his neck, basically one inches on the side to break the neck. And that was it for me. It was done.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, terrifying.
Guy Laliberté: So we go to show and it was a hard show, to start a show and build up success. So the reaction at the end was good, but it was not [terrific], it was not overwhelm. It was like everybody was like, “Is he okay?” So we overcome that moment that could have been crucial. And then two, three months after, he said, “The real reason why I want to lock you down is because I’m doing Treasure Island and I want you to do the main show of this thing.” So the show gave us and became the Timeless Kiss that we made Mystère. We tried to explain him our creative process, which we need, “You give us a theater, we’ll design it for a show,” but we need [inaudible] free and we need time to rehearsal and we’re clowns, we need a audience to test things and stuff like. So theoretically get everything. First dress rehearsal, another magic moment with Steve Wynn. My clown, the same Benny, by the way, the same Benny that is my clown, he want to do a satiric —
Tim Ferriss: The fire hose, right?
Guy Laliberté: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: The water hose.
Guy Laliberté: The same one who done that, still believe he’s one of the best clown in the world, but he want to do an original clown act which is about a satiric number of boxing in Las Vegas. And his game is to set up kind of boxing things, theatrical one, invite an audience member to have a boxing fight that end up to throw each other tarts, cream tarts. But the test people are only the worker of the casino plus all the executive because Steve Wynn ask all these top executive, “Go check it out.” First, we don’t even call that a lion den dress rehearsal, we call that a lion den, meaning it’s a cage for lion.
Because the risk we’re taking there and we just want a little bit, normally we invite friends and family, small crowd. The room is probably 50 percent of the execs there with the tie are right there and the number go wrong. Benny panic, the clown panic, and he start to throw all the tart on the audience. So of course I receive a phone call from Steve Wynn that’s doing ski in Aspen, he said “What the…” well, I will not use the word, “…happened?” He’s like, “What are you doing? What is it to throw tarts to people in the room in the new theater?” I said, “Steve, it’s like this was a lion dens and we testing, it get wrong and stuff like that. The clown panic. We’ll correct that, don’t worry. That’s part of the process.”
Tim Ferriss: The clown panicked.
Guy Laliberté: And he said, “There’s no F way.”
Tim Ferriss: You can say it on my show. That’s okay.
Guy Laliberté: No, I just don’t think with all those things. I like —
Tim Ferriss: There’s no fucking way.
Guy Laliberté: Exactly. Well I didn’t say it, you said it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah.
Guy Laliberté: I just tried to play with the situation. So he said, “Listen, I’m flying tomorrow. I want a private view of the show, and there’s no way you will open the show, and I will tell you what’s work, what doesn’t work. I have the experience of that in Las Vegas.” And everybody’s freaking out. So I’m cranking because we took months to explain him this process and now he’s like threatening me to not open the show, whatever, in the Steve Wynn way. So we arrive, I’m not sitting with him, I’m sitting with Bobby Baldwin, a CEO, because he’s my friend and that’s the one I made the deal. Franco Dragone and Gilles Ste-Croix, the director and the director of creation with Steve. And you could see Steve.
And those show that have so much mechanic on it, you cannot put the artist on risk. So you don’t run the show at real speed. You run the show in a safe way, so you mark the step. It’s a process. So I’m obliged to run a show that’s supposed to give him the information what the show is about, but instead of being a hundred miles an hour, it’s running at 75. So obviously you don’t see the beauty of the race car. It’s like it is just safety, safety, safety. You mark, your tech, your client lining, there’s a light could affect an acrobat, there’s all these hundreds of detail. So obviously everything is slowed down. So at the end of the show, stand up, we have a meeting with him and he’s around the table, and he talk to us like, “What the fuck is this show?” He said “It look and feel like a fucking German opera.”
Franco Dragone, the director, turn around and say, “Thank you, Steve. This is the biggest compliment you can ever told me about the show I create.” Swear to God, this is true story. And Steve is just like, “What? I just tell you the show is a piece of crap and you’re telling me thank you by telling you that?” And yeah, Franco explain German opera is very important in the world of opera as an institution. And Steve is totally destabilized. And then he starts to say, “I like that, I don’t like that, I want you to change that.” And then I intervened and said, “No, Steve,” I said, “I explain you, we explain you the things, we’re not done yet with the show. This will be a great show, trust me. And by the way, I have the last word contractually about what will be the show or not.”
And his reaction, “Yeah, but I control the room, and if I decide nobody goes in…” [inaudible] on you! Then you’ll be in penalty. Because if I deliver a show and I have the right, if you don’t want to let people in, it’s your problem. I would have done my job. And then he turned rage because he said, and you have to understand Steve Wynn always had control hundred percent of his narrative. Everybody’s at his foot. Here’s a little kid from Quebec standing in front of him saying “No,” when people tell him “Yes” three times in a row to make sure he understand yes. And then he turn to Bobby Baldwin, CEO, he said, “What the fuck is that contract? I don’t have the last word?” And he said, “But Steve, you asked me to make a deal with them and that’s what would break the deal. You asked me to make sure that it will be with us. I did it. That was a condition, it was a break deal. I signed it.” To the credit of Steve, to the credit of Steve, at the moment the CEO said this is contractually binding, Steve said “Okay, then. I will have to trust you. I hope you’re right and you will prove me wrong. But here it is, I will trust you. See you at opening night.”
Tim Ferriss: Just like that?
Guy Laliberté: Just like that. Opening night, day after, sold out, sold out, sold out. We were the hit new show, rock Vegas. Then after that there was a whole show and you know the story. It’s like bang, bang, bang.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, game changer.
Guy Laliberté: There was to a certain point that after he sold MGM, there’s a moment at the pinnacle of things, we were responsible of six percent, of over about 40 million visitor, of primary reason why people were coming in Vegas. And we were controlling almost 39 percent of every entertainment tickets in Las Vegas.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Guy Laliberté: So we did contribute a little bit. Now Vegas is a total red ocean, but we arrived, create a blue ocean and just squeeze it with beautiful show. And they were giving us all the money we want to create the most amazing show, and O is an example of it. It was like masterpiece. It was like, that’s the perfect match with somebody who believe in you, have a lot of money, and a team that arrive at creative maturity to do this masterpiece.
Tim Ferriss: So I’ll just mention for people blue ocean, the Blue Ocean Strategy, also a great book worth reading that gets more into this concept. But I would love to ask you —
Guy Laliberté: Which was a test case, hey? Cirque story is part of —
Tim Ferriss: A case study.
Guy Laliberté: — a case study on it. And it’s very interesting. And for people who will read it, it’ll really make you understand how addressing a red ocean by creating a blue ocean could totally be a game changer for an enterprise and the way of thinking about your envisioning strategy.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, total game changer. And I would love to ask you more about Steve Wynn. We might come back to it, but I know we’re coming up on two hours, so I want to be respectful of your time. But let me ask you this question, which is, I would love to get your perspective on maybe what people miss about Cirque du Soleil and why it became successful? Because I imagine there are many people listening to this who will wonder, and I’ve wondered this too, why didn’t someone else do this besides you?
Guy Laliberté: Well, we were a pioneer, but after the success, like any good success, you have impact to creative mind of production company. Some will have the easy reaction, a lazy reaction of trying to copy you. Very bad for them, very bad for the business, very bad for my brand. Why? Because they will play inspired by, they will call that a Cirque De La Lune, Cirque of that, to try to grab the flavor and attract them by trying to sell that beer at the same level, right? Disaster. And this actually for me, it’s lazy people who do that and non-creative people. There’s some of that and you have to deal with that. Some try, usually they don’t last long, but it does affect your credibility for a period of time, but people are not stupid. They will understand what is the real recipe versus the fake one, right? We’re the original.
Then there’s the other one that you inspire, okay? Young artists. And I had a lot, I was responsible with a lot of new emerging entertainment company that inspired themselves about what we did and became the second generation. It’s like an art. You have the first generation, you have the second generation, and you have the other one that, or we call the derivative, derivative are the bad one that sometimes make money out things, but they just copy and they have no contribution to the evolution of the art. But today we have nurtured, Cirque du Soleil have nurtured dozen of second generation of artists and things. Look, and it’s not necessarily always about circus. Meow Wolf for example, I don’t know if you know Meow Wolf.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Guy Laliberté: So for example, Meow Wolf, without saying they’re second generation, but they are, because I know the founder, or some of them. And obviously we had a huge impact in inspiring cultural or artistic entrepreneur to use us as inspiration. And Meow Wolf, some of them have said, “Well listen, you’ve been very important in inspiring us,” and many other like that. And when you see this, or even in circus as being little troops, Cirque [inaudible], Cirque things, all like babies of Cirque du Soleil that define their own style, that inspire and contribute to the elevation of the art of circus. And that’s beautiful. And there’s more of that than there’s failure. And actually, it’s very rewarding to see that type of impact you could have on the next generation. So yes, it’s people who try, but the clever one are the one who don’t try to copy but try to make their own signature.
Tim Ferriss: So Guy, I want to be respectful of time. Do you want to keep going for 10, 15 minutes or would you prefer to start to —
Guy Laliberté: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Guy Laliberté: I would like to talk about the community, which is, again, the beautiful 40 years that I lived with amazing, colorful people that come from the same environment of work, which is funny. Then obviously I sold Cirque du Soleil, 2015, many things happened, another story to tell. And I’m jumping to the conclusion where went from family office, different portfolio, explore a lot of things, I don’t want to go details, rough moment COVID, I was about to activate new content, new project, and COVID killed it all, lost my investors and stuff like. Starting to lose not every year, now it’s like at least couple of months friends that are dying. It made me realize that, wait a minute, I’m not saying clock is ticking, but let’s say time passes fast and it does have an impact.
And I realized that what became important for me, lost my parents, and then suddenly it was about, wait a minute, one of my dreams, because I had some dream of life, but the recent dream was about hey, I would love to go back with all my group of people or friends, invite them on the island, Hawaii or [inaudible], whatever, and spend a couple days or night just with a good bottle of wine and just listen what their life was about. Just to see the people you love, what they evolved. Because a lot of them, I always keep contact with them, but to some I’ve not seen for 20 years and we’re still in contact. We just would love to hug ourselves and have a good conversation again. So it changed the last couple years really, and especially from last year, about 14 months ago, I really went through this period of, whoa, what are my priorities? First, not family office type of money management, investment, not my type of, I’m an entrepreneur, okay? I need action. I don’t have the patience of most of the things.
One of my investments was the biggest betrayal of my life. I said, “Wait a minute, I want to be with my friends, I want to be with my loved ones, I want to be with my tribe, I want to be with my family.” So it shift and made me the decision that I said, “I want to do shows again.” So the last year about, since last September, yeah, about a year, I’ve been gearing up and developing concepts and some of it with my old friends that we told ourselves, “Let’s do something again.” And a bunch of young, new kids, young people that have the fire, the drive, and that I invite to play with us and make sure with all my elders that we use the opportunity of creating things and transfer the knowledge of what we have or the wisdom or form them and give them and work with them so they could carry on a nice entertainment environment.
And at the end, what does it mean? What is the conclusion of that? It’s like, in life you could have all the success you want, you could have all that, but what is the most important? Your family, your friends, your tribe, the people you have lived a life with. And the comfort of that is so much more important than anything else after. Which at the end, if you realize that, and for me this exercise of starting up a new entertainment company with a new show that I cannot disclose today, but I believe they pretty ass kicker also there. First of all, we have a lot of fun. We’re laughing our ass out every morning that we’re writing and create that thing. So the public, we live or die from the public reaction. But among the team here, we’re cranking up and we have a lot of joys.
But at the end, what all this will permit me is somewhere hopefully to this new adventure engage in, which I didn’t have to, is maybe end up having achieved to one of my goal at the end, which is, I just mentioned it before, being a good ancestor. And this is all the desire of giving back as much I could in the time left. And I hope there’s another 30 years, whatever, my goal is at least until a hundred years. But I was fed by so much love, so much joy, so much opportunity that what I got was bigger than what one individual have. So I’m trying to find a way that how could I give back of all that through what I know best is creating shows and creating entertainment company. So this is where I am. We talked about the tone one, there’s a tome two and I’m starting to engage to engage tome three, basically.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, very, very different and also very interconnected chapters, it would seem. And how much of the getting back to performing or shows, is the performing in the shows the content versus having a reason or an excuse to get together with your old friends and the performers?
Guy Laliberté: Well, there’s different factor on that. One is I realized I didn’t do my epilogue. I left, [inaudible], I visit things. I had a bad result things for X reason. Again, another conversation. But what is my epilogue in all this amazing creative production adventure? And what I’m working now is my epilogue. The second thing is a challenge. It’s funny. As much I’m very active, sometime I have the impression that I could become very lazy when comfort is there. So I always perform the best when I’m on the cliff. It’s true, it’s true. And knowing that if I decide to come back on that, and I’m risking a lot, I cannot do what I did at Cirque du Soleil. I have to find a different way. I have to address every angle of the artistic experience I’m about to do with a different look at it. And this is intellectually so, so challenging and interesting. So I’m having a very interesting brain activities with all those hamsters that’s been rolling. The hamsters are definitely awake in this brain.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, alive and well. Dancing on the cliff. Well, Guy, is there anything else you’d like to say? Any request of my audience or anything else that you’d like to add before we close this first round?
Guy Laliberté: Yeah, but if I open my mouth again it will be $5 by word that I say from now on. I’m joking.
Tim Ferriss: No problem. No problem. Well, this has been incredibly fun. I’m glad that this finally came together.
Guy Laliberté: Me too.
Tim Ferriss: And I really appreciate you taking the time and sharing everything that you’ve shared. And hopefully we’ll get a chance to do a round two.
Guy Laliberté: Have a good bottle of wine together.
Tim Ferriss: And have a good bottle of wine, absolutely.
Guy Laliberté: Where are you based?
Tim Ferriss: I’m based in Austin, Texas. But I travel a lot. I travel a lot. So I’m on both coasts. I’m international frequently. So I’m sure there’s an opportunity or we can make an opportunity.
Guy Laliberté: Okay, well I spend a lot of time in Vegas, especially by activating certain things. And I would love, let’s make sure we don’t lose contact. I will definitely, either a good bottle of sake over a good Japanese meal or a good bottle of wine, the red wine, Burgundy, over a good meal.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Sounds perfect. And really appreciate you taking all the time. And to everybody listening, we will link to everything in the show notes and more at tim.blog/podcast. And as always, be a little bit kinder than is necessary both to others and to yourself. Until next time, thanks for tuning in.
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