Thomas Tull: Following Intellectual Curiosity – The Knowledge Project

Check out The Knowledge Project Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Be as brutally intellectually honest about your own makeup as you can be (your skill sets, what you enjoy, what motivates you, etc.)
    • If you try to fit a profile you’re ultimately not, you’ll just end up frustrated and not as productive as you ought to be
  • You NEED to be able to examine situations and differentiate between:
    • Things that happened which were out of your control
    • Things that happened because you didn’t put yourself in an optimal position
  • Be careful of momentum and inertia in life – take advantage of them, don’t let them take advantage of you
  • Every movie you make is like its own startup company
  • Great company culture will trump a great business plan any day of the week
  • If at the end of the day you know you did the best you could and you’re living towards what you truly believe in – that’s all you can ask for

Books Mentioned

  • Thomas highly recommends Why We Sleep by Dr. Matthew Walker
    • It had a profound impact on how he thinks about sleep and recovery
    • For a primer, check out these Podcast Notes from Dr. Matthew Walker’s appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast

Intro

What was it like growing up with a single parent?

  • Thomas grew up with 2 younger sisters – their father left them when he was still quite young
  • His mom worked two jobs to support the family
    • Thomas did quite a bit as well to bring in his own money (things like mowing lawns and shoveling snow)

College

  • Thomas went to Hamilton for his undergrad – this was a transformative experience for him:
    • Being surrounded by ambitious people and notable alumni made him realize that he personally could have an impact in the world
      • “Suddenly your worldview opens up and you realize that maybe there is something you can do with luck and applied work”

Early Entrepreneurship and The Laundromat

  • Thomas planned to go to law school after graduating, but ultimately decided to go in a different direction
    • He ended up opening a series of small businesses (a laundry mat chain and an auto repair center) – Thomas digs deeper:
      • “What I’ve been good at throughout my career is looking at an industry or business model and finding the points where I could improve it and make it more efficient”
  • Thomas adds – “That was one thing I was fairly certain of at a young age, that I was unemployable”

Intellectually Honesty

  • “Be as brutally intellectually honest about your own makeup as you can be”- your skill sets, what you enjoy, and what motivates you
    • Doings so puts you in position to be successful
    • If you try to fit a profile you’re ultimately not, you’ll just end up frustrated and not as productive as you ought to be
  • How is Thomas intellectually honest with himself?
    • He examines his mistakes and tries to honestly evaluate them, examining for the common threads/patterns of where things might be going wrong:
      • He might ask himself:
        • “Am I not taking in the right information?”
        • “Am I being too emotional”
        • “Am I surrounding myself with the right people?”
      • “If you’re in the World Series and it’s the bottom of the ninth and you’re a relief pitcher who throws 98 mph, don’t get beat on your curve ball”
        • What’s the meaning behind this? – Make sure you’re doing everything you can to put yourself in a position to be successful
      • You NEED to be able to examine situations and differentiate between:
        • Things that happened “just because”
        • Things that happened because you didn’t put yourself in an optimal position
      • If you examine your life closely, you’ll often find that momentum took you to a certain place when you should have, in fact, abandoned ship earlier
        • “You’re letting inertia take over instead of saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t the destination we want the training going. Let’s stop it.'”

On to Legendary Entertainment

  • In 2003, Thomas became fascinated with movies/media and wanted to get involved in producing – so he founded Legendary Entertainment:
    • Keep in mind – he was far from an expert
      • “But I really had conviction, I had looked at the economics and felt that if I could build it in a different way…if I could have the right structure….then I could build a nice business”
    • “But like anything else, there’s tons of luck involved”
  • A few lessons Thomas learned in the movie business:
    • Stand as close as you can to absolute talent
      • Try to differentiate between the truly talented folks and those who are “just in the right place at the right time”
    • Make sure you’re spending the appropriate amount of money
      • “If you’re trying to make a global hit… you can’t just spend $30 million”
    • If you’re aiming to produce something smaller, you need to think about:
      • How you’re going to get attention /market the film
      • “Each film is like a startup company”

The Entertainment Trend Spotter

  • Going to the movie theater used to be a lot more common
    • “There have been some massive fundamental changes related to entertainment experiences. I certainly don’t think movies are going away… but one of the things I’d says is we’re in the golden age of television.”
      • Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu have changed the game
      • The idea of having to show up to a movie at a certain time in a theater is just so foreign now
    • Even if a movie trailer does everything right,  less people are going to go to see it in the theater than ever before
  • Attention spans are dropping
    • We have access to an unlimited amount of entertainment in our pockets – why tolerate anything less than great?

Did Legendary ever have any box office flops?

  • Lady in the Water
  • Great Wall (with Matt Damon) which they released in China
  • How does Thomas look back and examine for the most probable causes of these flops?
    • (This is hard to do because there are so many variables related to a movie’s success – when it comes out, the script, who’s in it, etc.)
    • One important question he ponders – “Was there a fundamental rejection of the concept?”
      • This was the case for one of their movies – Blackhat
    • “When you’re making a movie, you’re taking a stack of papers with words on it called a script, creating a mini city, and sending human beings in to see if they have chemistry….whatever is going on in their own lives can have an impact, how the whole cast interacts…there’s tons of variables, a lot of things have to come together”
    • Sometimes the movie is made at the right time and the mood of the country/world just fits with the film (like Straight Outta Compton)
    • It goes back to distinguishing between:
      • The things that were within your control and you made bad decisions
      • Those variables where you just couldn’t have done anything (like there being an ice storm on the east coast during your opening weekend)

A Legendary Culture

  • One of the things Thomas spent a lot of time on at Legendary was optimizing their company culture
    • “Great culture will trump a great business plan any day of the week”
      • Business plans change constantly – If you have a culture of excited employees with the right mindset, then making those changes along the journey will be much easier
    • How did he do this?
      • Being really transparent about the vision and what they were working/currently focused on

The NFL

  • Thomas has been a part owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2008 (this was the year they won the Super Bowl)
    • Growing up on the Pennsylvania border, this is a dream come true for him
  • The similarities between Legendary Entertainment and the Steelers:
    • “Your’e squarely in the human being business”
    • Everyone’s extremely talented and has an innate ability to understand their work and improve where they need to

How do you separate among great talent in the NFL?

  • Because everyone’s talented, what separates people?
    • A lot of it comes down to grittiness, your ability to overcome obstacles, and training yourself to be comfortable being uncomfortable
    • Thomas brings up someone like Antonio Brown who he says has a constant desire to identify his weaknesses and improve upon them
      • Someone like Antonio “never takes a rep off” and does all the little things right when it comes to taking care of his body

Using Data & Analytics in the NFL

  • There’s so much information available now  (as an example, you can tell exactly how fast someone is running on the field)
    • For example – if you suspect that someone’s minor injury might be hurting their reaction time/speed, it’s easy to determine if that’s the case
  • The person who runs the Steelers analytics division is from Carnage Mellon – one of the top universities in the world for AI and machine learning
  • “It really is a blend of art and science”
    • The highest and best outcomes come about when you use the information technology generates to inform your decisions
    • You still need to be able to think about how human beings will function in leveraged situations
  • Baseball is easier to apply analytics due to the surplus of 1-on-1 matchups
  • Will we ever see the AI version of an offensive/defensive coordinator when it comes to calling plays?
    • “That would not surprise me”
    • When? – “Technology usually happens slower than you think and then suddenly”
      • But Thomas estimates sometime in the next 5-10 years

Tulco

  • This is a holding company that Thomas started
  • They look to “buy companies that are in large but sleepy spaces and reimagine the way they do business by deploying technology and hopefully getting a pretty big result”
    • “We partner with people who have deep domain expertise to provide the capital and technical wherewithal to help them really propel forward”
  • An example:
    • FIGS is one of the companies they partnered with (they reinvented medical wear/scrubs by making them antimicrobial and more fashionable)
      • With Tulco’s involvement, they’re in the process of building an online/mobile platform where they’ll be selling directly to healthcare professionals

How does Tulco make decisions about which companies to buy?

  • Just to note – It’s not a venture fund, so they’re not placing very early bets
    • The companies have to be of a specific size yet still have lots of potential
  • The management team (of the company they’re looking to buy) has to be filled with experts AND be willing to embrace change (which is rare)
  • Thomas always tries to ask the question: “If we execute, does it matter? Is there enough upside?”

Life Advice

  • At the end of each day, Thomas tries to ask himself:
    • “Did I spend the day the way I wanted to?”
    • “Am I still intellectually curious and excited about what I’m doing?”
  • “Unless somebody invented something I’m not aware of, the one thing we can’t make an more of is time”
  • “If there’s someone who’s important to you, whether a family member or a mentor, take the time to express it”
  • If at the end of the day you know you did the best you could and you’re living towards what you truly believe in – that’s all you can ask for

Additional Notes

  • Eric Schmidt used to be a shareholder at Legendary
  • Thomas highly recommends Why We Sleep by Dr. Matthew Walker
    • It had a profound impact on how he thinks about sleep and recovery
  • “You can always lose yourself in a book… I’ve always been a pretty voracious reader across a variety of topics”
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