John Terzian knows a thing or two about building a brand out of life’s tipping points. From studying entrepreneurship at USC, to graduating Pepperdine law school and moving back in with his parents at 25 then starting from scratch again at 27, to going on to build what has proven to be one of LA’s largest nightlife companies, he quickly learned how to adjust his expectations and redefine his vision.
Partnered with longtime friend Brian Toll, Terzian co-founded The h.wood Group in 2008, just months after the duo lost nearly everything in a few substantial venue flops. “We have had our fair share of failures,” Terzian says, “but I have always had a no-fail mindset.” Having used that tenacity to find and establish success in the nightlife world, the native Angelenos are now focused on growing their brand and giving back to their community. CSQ sat down with Terzian to speak for the partnership about how they were able to turn that resistance into resilience.
The h.wood Group as we know it – the eclectic nightlife and burgeoning hospitality powerhouse perched above Sunset Boulevard – blossomed out of a small seed of doubt planted in the minds of Terzian and Toll in 2007. After overhearing a colleague publicly suggest the two were merely promoters who had little-to-no say or stake in the venues they were working on, Terzian decided instantaneously to branch off onto his own ventures. “Even though we had a big following of loyal locals, nobody really thought we could be operators. And that stuck with me. It was a sore spot,” Terzian admits.
That frustration compelled Terzian to go back to investors, family, and friends with his newest concept idea in 2008. With little to reassure them other than his word, he considers the success of this second round of funding a direct result of having always remained above board in business – a practice imparted by his father. “We never took a salary. We made sure to communicate openly. We maintained good rapport and strong financials. We always had a good reputation for that,” Terzian says. “And reputation is something you can’t ever buy back. People may not like me or Brian, but even our own enemies won’t question our integrity.”
When asked to identify what exactly lit the fire for him to start building up The h.wood Group, Terzian attributes it to an inner dialogue. “A lot of entrepreneurs are like that – they are crazy competitive with themselves,” he says. “I don’t have anyone else to prove anything to. I have supportive friends, a great family. I compete against myself.”
Learning the Nightlife Landscape
But from where does this drive stem? And why nightlife? “I have a passion for creating spaces,” Terzian states, reclining back briefly into the white glow of his office’s custom neon installment. His passion extends beyond the spaces he creates to the people who occupy them. With a priceless Rolodex filled with A-list celebs, trending tastemakers, and a loyal list he considers “family and friends” since the beginning, Terzian emphasizes that his single most impactful business asset has been the relationships he has built.
“… the difference between one of our tiny, eclectic venues and every other entertainment space is that very few in this industry are offering that same level of service.”
Much like his venues, Terzian’s introduction into the industry was a bit unconventional. After playing football for USC, he began working with legendary sports agent Arn Tellem to help recruit high school kids to play college ball. His promotion work started organically as he began taking the recruits out to entertain them. “That is where my level of service came in. Most of my core [business] relationships started from and around sports and athletes. It’s a major aspect of what we’re doing at h.wood Group,” he says, nodding to the work they’ve done with the NFL, the big Superbowl party they throw every year, and the ESPY Awards events they host.
To nourish those relationships, Terzian’s team keeps record of everything from drink preferences to dietary restrictions and so on. “We found that, at the end of the day, the difference between one of our tiny, eclectic venues and every other entertainment space is that very few in this industry are offering that same level of service. It’s a forgotten craft,” he says. “So, that is what we strive to do. I don’t view myself in the bar, nightclub or restaurant business. I view myself literally as a personal concierge.”
This individualized hospitality model, which thrives on exclusivity and exceeding expectations, just gained global room to grow with the team’s recent addition of Hakkasan Group. “We built a friendship with the heads of Hakkasan, and they bought out our old investors for a 51 percent stake,” says Terzian. “They’ve been pretty amazing. [Brian and I] are born and bred in LA. Our strengths are capitalized on in this city. Hakkasan has a wide reach globally and significant international access.” Together, the nightlife firms will elevate that relationship-based business to a whole new level.
A Shared Vision of Hospitality
Partnerships are rarely so sweet, though. When asked how he and Toll have been able to sustain their lasting partnership in such a volatile industry, Terzian replies, “We are essentially family at this point. The key is that we are different [yet] the different hats we wear overlap, and the overall vision we have is the same.” He admits that they may disagree over small issues but never over the core values or vision of the company. He emphasizes the strength of their opposite personalities when he says, “I am extremely artistic, and he is extremely bottom-line oriented. That works. If you put me in charge, we would be homeless. When we are doing a deal, I let Brian handle the negotiating. A majority of the deals stem from my relationships, and he is the one who closes the business side of things.”
While business relationships are of great importance to Terzian, we wondered how his business has in turn affected his personal relationships. Events and entertainment moguls are probably propositioned frequently for favors and special treatment. “It’s hard,” he shrugs. “But I have learned to cope with it by reminding myself that, when you don’t have much, no one is asking you for much. The minute I don’t have those requests, I am doing something wrong. So I don’t really shy away from it. I do what I can,” he says. “But, for the most part, all of my friends ask for very little. It’s the people who don’t know me who ask for a lot.”
“If you email me … I’ll meet with you. Because no one ever met with me. Whomever I can mentor, I will.”
Giving Back and Making Rain
One thing Terzian prides himself on is visibility in meeting, mentoring or advising. “I didn’t really have a mentor, aside from my father. And I felt that,” he says. He wants to do things differently for future upstarts in his industry. “If you email me,” he says, “I’ll meet with you. Because no one ever met with me. Whomever I can mentor, I will.”
He also prioritizes giving back through charity. “I used to volunteer. But, as our events business has grown bigger, I have been able to leverage that experience and success to help charities throw their events and raise money for their foundations.” He personally supports The Children’s Hospital in Hollywood and Imagine LA, a homeless rehabilitation and sustainability program for which he throws an annual Imagine Ball.
The h.wood Group has paved its own path in an ever-changing industry, and Terzian has strayed far enough away from the set standards to help elevate the nightlife experience overall. His biggest advice to other entrepreneurs? “The biggest strength you can have is your own ability to rain-make. Your own book of business.” He’d also remind them that relationships, reputation, resilience, and respect are four core assets that don’t cost a thing, but cannot be bought back once lost