The Joy Bucks Club

New York Times/January 16, 2005
By Gary Rivlin

Atherton, Calif. -- Toby Hecht wants to make you rich. Not run-of-the-mill, drive-a-Lexus, McMansion-owning rich. But villa-by-the-sea, nary-a-financial-worry-in-the-world rich.

One of his disciples, Jonathan Lee, the founder of Corio, a business applications company traded on the Nasdaq, said he was "beyond skeptical" when he first learned about Mr. Hecht, a Silicon Valley-based guru to the aspiring wealthy. Now, however, Mr. Lee credits Mr. Hecht with helping to catapult him into the net-worth stratosphere. "I'm a deca," Mr. Lee said, meaning he is a decamillionaire, with a net worth above $10 million.

Mr. Hecht invites people to "apply" to pay him $7,500 to $30,000 a year to attend long-weekend workshops and complete homework assignments by e-mail. Roughly 1,400 students have finished a 24-month program in the 17 years since Mr. Hecht created what he calls his Aji Network. His promotional materials say students have seen annual incomes soar by an average of 80 percent during the program's two years.

"People try to figure me out, but it's not easy," said Mr. Hecht, 54, a former disco instructor with iridescent blue eyes and a preternaturally upbeat demeanor. "I think one problem is that to my knowledge no other business out there is making the kind of offer I make to my customers," he added, a claim hard to fathom for anyone who has spent at least part of a sleepless night captivated by infomercials.

What exactly Mr. Hecht teaches is difficult to describe. At one of his workshops, given at a conference center near the San Francisco airport in October, 200 people watched a video of Mr. Hecht reading from a dense biology text for most of the first morning. For the bulk of the next day people either practiced tai chi or learned the finer points of go, the ancient board game popular in Asia.

Even longtime acolytes say they cannot quite sum up the Aji Network, except maybe to note that the name is borrowed from go and means the ability to see many moves ahead. Most of Mr. Hecht's students move on after those two years, but a cadre of true believers like Mr. Lee continue to pay him to be their financial leader for years.

"Our friends and families ask us what we're spending all this money on, but we have difficulty explaining it," said D. C. Maxwell, who has studied with Mr. Hecht for seven years. She offered this opinion over lunch at a table with eight longtime Aji disciples. There were nods all around.

For Rob Oberg, though, a 41-year-old salesman from Houston who dropped out of Aji last year, the answer is simpler. He didn't believe a word of it, he said. The homework assignments reinforced basic business principles, he said, like the importance of follow-through.

Don't even think of getting in touch with Mr. Hecht unless you are earning $80,000, among the top 10 percent. "That's as low as I'm willing to go," he said. He promises to vault students into the top 1 percent. "Those not in the top 10 percent have failed to prove that even with my help they can think or act or perform like people in the top 1 percent," he said.

Roughly three people in every 10 who have paid their first-year dues leave the program. As Mr. Hecht tells it, he boots out most of those because their income is not rising fast enough. He says he is acting responsibly, refusing to take money from people not up to the task of making it into the top 1 percent of earners. That may be true, but the forced attrition helps Mr. Hecht claim a higher rate of success with long-term clients. Imagine mutual fund managers boasting of their performance numbers only after factoring out their losing stock picks.

Mr. Hecht and his wife and business partner, Linda, live with their two children in a wonderland of a home in Atherton, an enclave for some of Silicon Valley's most successful players. In preparation for my visit, the couple set out a platter of expensive cheeses and a bountiful bouquet of cut flowers, and Mr. Hecht had a legal pad filled with talking points. Still he struggled to explain his teachings.

On his first try he spoke of the difference between the "unconventional wisdom" he says he teaches and the "conventional wisdom" of business schools. "People believe in hard work, but hard work just makes you tired," Mr. Hecht said, shifting into high-sell mode. "The problem is that people at work are basically amateurs. I teach them how to play at business as a professional."

Yes, but what do Aji students learn specifically? Mr. Hecht began a long discourse on the inaccurate way television and the movies portray the very wealthy. Asked again, he responded with his life story.

Mr. Hecht, who grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., moved to the San Francisco area, where for a short while he worked as a bartender. When he was in his early 20's, he and his wife opened a dance studio. Their timing was perfect. "Saturday Night Fever" was released soon after, in 1977, ushering in a disco craze, and before long the Hechts were running seven dance studios. Mr. Hecht also became deeply involved in EST, the now defunct self-improvement cult run by Werner Erhard.

When the dance craze subsided, the Hechts and two friends opened a small chain of computer stores. But larger players invaded the market, and the stores were not worth much in the end, Mr. Hecht said.

"The lesson of all my hard work is that common knowledge and common sense produce common outcomes," he said. He ran sales training seminars over the next five years. Meantime, he put to paper what he had learned as an entrepreneur. "My teachings either work in the real world, or they don't," he said. "The numbers don't lie."

No, but they don't tell the whole truth either. Mr. Hecht says students see their annual income spike by an average of 80 percent in the first two years they belong to Aji. But when pressed, he concedes that figure does not include salaried employees, only those working on commissions.

"They spend a lot of time on self-promotion," said Evan Brown, 37, a Chicago area sales executive, who studied with Mr. Hecht for 15 months and dropped out in 2002. "They were constantly reminding people, 'We're the best, Toby is the great Allah, the grand poobah.' That was a real turnoff to me." Still he said he would have continued with Mr. Hecht if he could have dropped in and out of the network on his own schedule.

At a four-day Aji conference in South San Francisco in October Jeanne Bellew, who is Mr. Hecht's sister and the president of the network, took the stage at precisely 9 a.m. "Good morning," the crowd called out in near-perfect unison and with a lusty cheerfulness. A break designed to last 15 minutes lasted exactly 15 minutes. Ms. Bellew or Mr. Hecht had only to step onto the stage for the room to go eerily silent.

The gathering was for those who had graduated from a two-year course, and according to Mr. Hecht's staff, those attending had earned on average $181,000 in 2003 and boasted a net worth of $897,000, discounting equity in a home.

Mark Duvall, an adviser to the very wealthy, said his net worth has doubled in his three years with Mr. Hecht. "Toby helps me to see better," he said. "Nowhere else in my life do I talk business fundamentals, and that helps me be a more powerful financial adviser."

Mr. Hecht has only contempt for those more or less in the same business as he is, better-known rivals like Thomas J. Peters, the management guru, and Anthony Robbins, a powerhouse of the self-empowerment movement. To Mr. Hecht, Mr. Peters is a purveyor of the obvious, and he said that several sessions of sitting in on Mr. Robbins's seminars "made me sick to my stomach."

Yet Mr. Hecht displays the same tendency as most self-help authors to deconstruct the familiar and establish their own language. In his world one does not sell but instead makes an offer. He likes to play linguistic tricks, asking his newer disciples to define commonplace terms like "knowledge" or "money" and then pouncing when one of them cannot conjure up an accurate definition.

A shared vocabulary seems to help explain why his program works for many of those willing to plunk down the cash. Mr. Hecht has created a community in which people believe their very membership is proof that they are extraordinary. "The primary thing I've gotten out of 14 years working with Toby is this incredible network I'm now a part of," said Susan McHan, who has joined forces with Mr. Lee, the decamillionaire, to create a financial services company in Palo Alto.

None of this is a surprise to Dr. Ronald A. Heifetz, the author of books about leadership and a founder of the Center for Public Leadership in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. "In general having a community of aspirants, a community that generates a sense of confidence and provides people you can lean on when losing faith, matters a lot, especially when working with entrepreneurs," said Dr. Heifetz, who was trained as a psychiatrist.

Dr. Heifetz stressed that he was only speculating about Aji because he had not heard of it or Mr. Hecht. But to him the specifics of the network were not as interesting as the wider world in which it fits. "There are so many different kinds of training programs and training experiences that look like bunk, smell like bunk and might in fact be bunk, but people say they make a big difference in their life," he said. "It's a common phenomenon out there."

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