Part philosopher, part businessman, Toby Hecht subscribes wholeheartedly to the idea that "knowledge is power" -- and he has built a business around applying this concept. As founder and CEO of The Aji Network (the name comes from an ancient Japanese strategy game that's also known as Go), Hecht and his four coaches teach students how to change the way they think about business and study it like they would medicine or law, developing a deep knowledge base of its fundamentals.
The majority of the program's students are entrepreneurs and business owners of the baby-boom generation who start out seeking to break into the next income bracket and secure their retirement. But after two years or more of Aji's correspondence training -- which includes mandatory Tai Chi classes at conferences three times a year -- they end up with balance and an understanding of how to leverage power in the business world.
BusinessWeek Online reporter Erin Chambers recently spoke with Hecht about his unique approach, which the former disco-dance instructor says has translated into an average 80% increase in income for more than 2,500 individuals who have taken the course over the past 20 years. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: What do you call yourself?
A: I'm a teacher. I don't do training. I don't motivate. I don't consult. I teach. I'm a business leader, too, in the sense that I lead the students. We have education in a two-year course, and we have membership in the ongoing LEIP program, which stands for "leadership, entrepreneurship, innovation, and the accumulation of power."
Q: And what exactly are you trying to teach?
A: Who we're addressing here are those who are changing their understanding of business and philosophy. Most people in the marketplace live in the philosophy of the Industrial Revolution over 100 years ago. What that means is their orientation toward business is hard work, a positive attitude, and determination to produce results.
But I joke with people that if they didn't get the memo, the Industrial Revolution ended. You would never go to a heart surgeon with those principles of hard work and determination. If your heart surgeon said, "I've never been to school, but I'm going to work real hard for you," you wouldn't accept that.
Our students replace that orientation toward labor with an orientation toward knowledge, just like doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Those are all professions based on knowledge. Surely those people work hard. But they go to school. Nobody figures out medicine by themselves. [If] people think they're going to figure out business by themselves, they're crazy. Nobody figures out engineering or law by themselves. They just go to school.
So when people come to the business professional's course for two years, they get a real dose of knowledge. And we've designed it so that it's really low-cost [$8,000 per year].
Q: Who are your students, and what does the program entail?
A: We don't take anyone [who earns] below $80,000, no matter what. They're entrepreneurs, business owners, managers, executives, salespeople. We don't accept people below 30 years of age. Between 30 and 50 years old is our range.
My group of professionals, usually about 80 to 90 people, go through a two-year course. You get seven assignments via e-mail in the year. You read the papers that come with the assignments -- I've written over 200 papers on a whole range of business topics -- and talk with the other students in your class by telephone and e-mail all over the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Our coaches then read what you wrote and call you up on the phone to discuss your assignment with you.
The first one, for example, is called organization and structure. And entrepreneurs, when they read that paper, they go, "I had no idea. I didn't know the difference between organization and structure, and I'm going to completely change how I run my business in that way."
There are also two conferences per year for three days, or in the LEIP program, three conferences per year. And our people have to pass a test of 117 essay questions, an oral examination, and a test of their trustworthiness, identity, and integrity in the marketplace. Otherwise they don't pass the course.
Q: What are the program's goals after two years?
A: The goals are interesting because they start one way, but end up with broader goals. Most people begin with [the goal of] simple income. And what we produce is top 1% income earners, which is over $230,000 a year.
And then when they graduate from the business professional's course, the best ones are invited to attend the ongoing LEIP program. Some people have been in that for 13 or 14 years. We have many multimillionaires.
The [top 1%] income goal was set by the LEIP program years ago, when I asked them how much money they needed to live a good life without compromise, but also no luxuries. They do need a lot, but they came up with a definitive answer: $400,000 to $500,000 per year, which means $8 million to $10 million of capital at work at retirement. People's goals are to get up to that level of income and maintain it.
Q: You require your students to take Tai Chi. Why?
A: When you go to McDonald's you don't pay attention to people's bodies like it matters because they're just putting hamburgers together. But if you're going to a heart surgeon who's going to operate on you for six hours, and they were fat and out of shape and not strong, you would kind of go, "Well I don't know, man, I don't have much confidence in him." Our students' customers look at them and go, "Do I trust you just by looking at you?"
And I'm not talking about being a model or being pretty. It's a question of whether they're balanced, coordinated, strong, flexible. Do we believe that when they work, they can get the job done? When people's bodies aren't strong, they don't have that confidence.