It would be a serious mistake in judgment to think of Dolly Parton as merely a singer and actress. She is much more. Over the past 50 years, she has become one of the most adept investors in the world, with a portfolio of operating assets spanning everything from theme parks and hotels to media production and intellectual property. Her ability to identify opportunities, create markets, exploit openings in consumer demand, trust her own judgment even if her advisors are against it, and purposely, systematically, strategically set off chain reactions resulting in self-reinforcing virtuous cycles leading to lallapalooza makes her one of the first people any serious investor or entrepreneur should study.

In terms of intellect, her emotional intelligence is among the highest I’ve ever encountered in the thousands of case studies I’ve done for my own files over the years, so much so that I consider her one of the only people equal to, if not slightly exceeding, Charlie Munger in terms of a life well lived; certainly worth emulating and full of practical wisdom that can be extracted and adapted to your own journey.  Whether you are a software developer in Silicon Valley, a tire shop owner in Ohio, or a farmer in Vermont, there are certain strategies she has used, and behaviors she has demonstrated, that you can take for yourself, cost-free, and put to work immediately; things that can significantly improve your own happiness and net worth.

Dolly Parton Net Worth & Biographical Overview

Hall of Paragons Case Study Dolly PartonFull Name: Dolly Rebecca Parton

Born: January 19, 1946
Gender: Female
Nationality: United States
Family: Married to Carl Thomas Dean (Male) Since 1966
Education: High School
Estimated Net Worth: 450,000,000 to 900,000,000 USD
Source: Self-Made
Source Activities: Performing Arts, Intellectual Property, & Investments (Theme Parks, Hotels, Restaurants, Retail Shops, Ticketed Events, Real Estate, Media Production)

 

Dolly Parton Business Model

Born the fourth of twelve children into a family so “dirt poor” her father paid the delivering doctor at her birth with a bag of oatmeal, Dolly Parton has amassed a net worth that puts her comfortably head of the Queen of England.  Over a career spanning half a century, the country music royalty – in the genre, she’s the most celebrated female artist of all time – has adhered to a specific business strategy based on her own personal opportunity costs that allowed her to build her capital levels despite a lack of startup funds.

Spend years developing skill capital (musical ability) and beauty capital (maintaining her weight, never going out in public unless she looked like she wanted).
Create intellectual property in the form of songs, which are then licensed to other singers in exchange for on-going cash flow streams. No matter what the pressure, never sell the intellectual property; always choose the annuity stream.  (In later years, make a rare exception to this rule if a singer approaches you and offers to pay you a flat $500,000 fee to create a new song for them as the probabilities for maximum earnings are heavily in your favor.  On average, most songs won’t generate that kind of royalty stream and you can immediately invest the cash for passive income rather than waiting for the payments to come in over many years or decades.)“I hope that you will always care enough to be on time, to look your best, and to always give every task and every job everything that you possible have to give.” – Dolly Parton

Start your own music publishing company so you get to keep the publisher’s share of the earnings (which the songwriter usually has to split), double dipping into the cash flow stream.
Perform your own songs to build your reputation and network capital, opening doors to new customers for your intellectual property as well as providing you with your own “inventory”, allowing you to triple-earn on profits like Apple does with its Apple Retail Stores or NIKE with its online store; that is, if a song became a hit, you can then triple dip in the cash stream, taking your performing royalties as well as your “mechanical” royalties for the songwriting copyright and your publishing royalties for owning the publishing company.
Spend years working non-stop, 300+ days, on the road, touring every imaginable town and city, to build your customer base and increase your brand recognition. Continue working your proverbial behind off for decades, building a portfolio of more than 3,000 composed and performed songs, each pumping out cash for you and each serving as a potential future viral hit that could be one day picked back up again in a movie, television show, advertising campaign, or covered by another artist
Use your expanding fame to land carefully chosen roles in movies, which introduces new people to the large body of work you’ve already created. Write the theme songs for the films in which you appear, generating another funding stream. Later, begin your own production company so you can keep more of the earnings from your film appearances, triple dipping in the cash flow stream.
Live significantly below your means, and find a spouse with identical values, so the income results in surplus that can be invested after the taxes and expenses have been paid.
Identify opportunities for operating assets that work within your existing circle of competence, in an area where there is little competition and once you arrive, you get a “first mover” advantage that makes it almost impossible for others to compete with you. Ideally, it should have multiple branches of future expansion for the cash flow streams, while giving you an outlet to further enhance your brand image and have others perform your licensed copyrights, buying the music for future royalties. In Parton’s case, this meant a world-class theme park that has subsequently grown to include retail shops, hotel accommodations, ticketed dinner shows, and radio stations. These investments insulate you from the inevitable famine periods in the entertainment industry when you are out of vogue, freeing you to keep at your craft without ever having to worry about putting food on the table. It’s the same philosophy behind Berkshire Hathaway’s diversified income streams and fortress-like balance sheet.
Domicile as many of these holdings as possible in a low-tax state, such as Tennessee, so there is no personal income tax on anything other than dividends and interest. Over the years, the compounding advantage can be significant.
Behave in a way that causes you to be beloved by all so these factors reinforce each other. Someone might be introduced to one of your films or songs only to visit the theme park (or the other way around).
Reinvest large amounts of capital into your best ideas. Dolly Parton recently announced a 10-year, $300 million expansion of her theme park and hospitality holdings, giving her further competitive strength and a bigger monopoly on her clearly identifiable trade area (500 mile diameter is her target and for whom the pricing is determined to maximize revenue and profit; something that protected her during the Great Recession as families would still drive to the park when they couldn’t afford a trip to one of the coasts).

Practical Wisdom We Can Learn from Studying Dolly Parton’s Core Economic Engines

How is it possible that a girl who began with no financial capital, no real connections, no college education, and who largely avoided debt throughout her lifetime, ended up sitting atop an empire so expansive that one estimate of her earnings between June of 2014 and June of 2015 ranked her as the highest paid singer in the world, pulling in $8,000,000 per month, or $96,000,000 for the entire twelve-month period?  To put that into perspective, from her existing income streams alone, she could buy former Presidential nominee Mitt Romney – a child of a respected governor with a gilt-edged resume and pedigree known for his $250 million fortune – in less time than it took to pay off a short-term car note.  (An unfair comparison, to be sure, given the age differential and the compounding adjustment one would need to make but still useful for relative scale.)

Let’s look at her two primary economic engines: The intellectual property and the hospitality operating assets.

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The Intellectual Property: In the early years, the primary economic engine in Dolly Parton’s life was the intellectual property she created, mostly coming in the form of 3,000+ copyrights on her composed songs.  She behaved very much like a buy-and-hold investor who acquires blue chip stocks throughout his or her lifetime; a sort of musical equivalent to janitor Ronald Read, who amassed an $8,000,000 secret fortune despite working near minimum wage jobs all his life due to a penchant for buying, and almost never selling, ownership in firms that pumped out cash.  This meant she almost never, under almost any condition, sold her copyrights or intellectual property even if it meant turning down what looked like the biggest opportunity of her life by telling Elvis Presley he couldn’t cover her music (Presley’s manager, a man named Tom Parker, had his own rule of only letting Elvis release songs to which he had at least 50% of the publishing rights, giving the King of Rock ‘n Roll an annuity stream of his own since it was his fame that would turn it into a moneymaker in a lot of cases).  One of the things that often isn’t told in that story is that, the news was sprung on her the day before the recording session when the band had been hired, the studio had been booked, her friends had been told it was happening … she was totally undeterred by social proof.  She shut it down, refusing to let inertia to get her to do something she’d regret because Parton had identified her line in the sand and stuck to it.  She kept the annuity streams for her creations.  No matter how many people were disappointed, it wasn’t up for negotiation.

“Working hard is not just effort. It’s learning. It’s taking chances.” – Dolly Parton
This served her well because Parton instinctively knew a mental model called Pareto’s Law of Distribution, or colloquially, the 80/20 rule: A small percentage of your assets or efforts are going to result in a disproportionate percentage of your outcome.  As it applies to constructing an investment portfolio of stocks, I explained this in a post on the math of diversification.  You often cannot predict which of those assets or efforts are going to lead to the biggest payoff.  You can spend years laboring over something that goes nowhere, and five minutes on something else that changes your life.  It is the nature of the universe.  By taking the index fund or Pokemon approach (“gotta catch ’em all”), she can be sure someone, somewhere is writing her a check at all times, while the rest works itself out in the end.

Consider the song we just discussed; the one Elvis Presley wanted to buy, “I Will Always Love You”.  It was written in a single evening, yet would turn out to be the most lucrative work Dolly Parton ever composed.  How did it come into existence?  To paraphrase her comments, back in 1967, she had the good fortune of landing the gig as the female singer on the Porter Wagoner Show, which was a big deal for her at the time.  When she started working with Porter, she told him, “I had come to Nashville to be my own star and have my own group, but the money was so good, I told Porter I would stay for five years.  And he agreed to that.  Well, five years came [she actually stayed for seven] and I wanted to go and the show was doing great and Porter was having a real hard time with that – and he was stubborn, we used to fight like cats and dogs ’cause we were both stubborn – but anyhow, I told him I wanted to go on out on my own so he was just havin’ a fit about it and we argued a lot and I thought, ‘He’s never going to listen to me, he’s not hearin’ a word I’m sayin’, so why don’t you just go home, do what you do best, write a song.’  So I went home, wrote a song about it, came back the next day, and I said, ‘Porter, just sit down.  Let me sing you somethin’ then you’ll know how I feel.  And I just want you to know that I will always love you.’  And that’s what I [called the song].”

Porter said goodbye to her and she sang it on his show, with him introducing it to the audience …

The song hit #1 on the charts in 1974.  In 1982, Parton re-released it for a movie called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and it went to #1, again; the first time in history an artist had done such a thing.  Later, at Kevin Costner’s insistence, the song was licensed title theme of The Bodyguard soundtrack, taking it to #1 for a third time when Whitney Houston covered it.  Finally, when Houston died decades later, the song once again topped the charts, coming in at the #1 spot for a fourth time.  In each and every situation, across multiple decades, it was Parton cashing the royalty checks.  (Dolly is so fond of that particular song, Parton jokes, “When I’m dead and gone, the continuing royalties from that song might send a nephew or niece of mine to school”.)

“I always said my songs are like my children, and I expect them to support me when I’m old.” – Dolly Parton
Interestingly, Dolly Parton had no idea Kevin Costner had found her song and was pushing for it so hard, taking it to composer David Foster for a pop re-work.  According to a 2008 interview with Country Music Television, “Costner said he didn’t detect any great enthusiasm when he insisted that Houston sing Parton’s composition. Among those responding were Arista Records chief Clive Davis and the other executives from Houston’s label.  “When I said to Whitney, ‘You’re gonna sing “I Will Always Love You,”‘ the ground shook,” Costner said. “Clive Davis and those guys were going, ‘What?!’  “I said, ‘This is a very important song in this movie.’ I didn’t care if it was ever on the radio. I didn’t care. I said, ‘We’re also going to do this a cappella at the beginning. I need it to be a cappella because it shows a measure of how much she digs this guy — that she sings without music.’””

In fact, Parton didn’t even hear the version before it was released.  As she told ABC news, the first time she heard it was driving in her car on the radio.  “All of a sudden I hear this- this a capella sound, I just hear this, ‘If I should stay,’ and it didn’t register, and I thought, ‘what is that?'” Parton said. “And just still just kind of- ‘That’s my song,’ but it still didn’t register it was Whitney, because it was just this solo voice, and then all of a sudden it went into the ‘I will always love you,’ and I thought I was gonna wreck. It just overwhelmed me.”

This was only possible because 1.) she had this huge body of work out there, already completed, and 2.) the licensing availability already established so people could sign the contracts and send her checks through her publishing firm without her having to do anything.  She was prepared.  If all you do is sell your time for a paycheck, you can never wake up and find that you’re getting paid again for past work.  Here, cash was coming in from something she did decades prior; she didn’t even know it.  Do not underestimate the importance of this principle, even in smaller things; areas of life you’d think have no connection.

“People say, ‘That’s Whitney’s song.’ I say, ‘That’s fine. You can give her the credit, I just want the cash so send that check on to me.'” – Dolly Parton on ‘I Will Always Love You’
(For example: The few times this blog made the front page of Reddit, experiencing an extreme (and lucrative) influx of readers, it was not new posts that got the attention, but rather, old ones that were discovered.  It happened instantly, without my awareness.  Another highly visible online content creator on YouTube says the secret to her success was creating significant output even when nobody was paying attention so when her first hit went viral, there’d be this back catalog that would instantly monetize and drive her to the top of the channel ranks.  She turned out to be right.  In a matter of days following one of her videos reaching cult status, she became an overnight sensation as the aggregate activity from those going through her back, previously-unknown catalog, drove her to the top of the page view and advertising ranks.  Think of the Khan Academy videos – you find one of them and suddenly are watching dozens.  Think of online webcomics like Cyanide & Happiness; same thing.  Think of a video game franchise like Final Fantasy, where playing one can cause you to go back and play the others.  It’s a case of 2+2=200; a body of work with twice as much content can produce fifty times the page views or sales due to the interaction of these forces.  Each piece of content serves as both a potential introduction of its own, as well as a potential source of consumption for others who find it by association.)

The Operating Assets: Her 295-acre Dollywood amusement resort contains the flagship Dollywood, which brings in 3,000,000 guests per season making it the most successful for-profit tourist attraction in the entire state of Tennessee, the Dollywood’s Splash Country water park (which she developed in partnership with the privately-owned Herschend Family Entertainment empire of Branson, Missouri, known for its Silver Dollar City attraction), Dollywood’s Dream Resort, and Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction, the most successful dinner theater show in the world.  The theme park empire contains 27 rides, including 7 roller coasters, and is so well run it’s been recognized with the Applause Award, the most prestigious international theme park designation (to give you an idea of others who hold it, Disney’s Magic Kingdom won the honor in 1980, Epcot in 1986, Universal Studios Florida in 1994, and Cedar Point in 1996).

“Did you ever notice that there are a whole lot of people that do things just well enough to get by? But caring is striving for perfection. It’s about how you look. It’s about how you prepare and how you keep your commitments. Now, the very first movie I was ever in was called 9 to 5 … I wanted to be prepared, that was new territory for me. I think I overdid it because I memorized the entire script. … When I got there to do the movie, everybody thought that was the funniest thing they had ever heard of. And I was too dumb to be embarrassed, certainly after they started missing their lines …” – Dolly Parton
When she went to open it, her accounting firm and advisors, whom she said were wonderful people but long treated her like she was a “dumb country girl”, didn’t have faith in the project.  She fired them.  “It’s my money, after all”.  She knew there was a significant market gap for family entertainment within a 500 mile radius, where parents and kids could drive for a vacation who otherwise might not have been able to afford one, and through which she could generate a lot of jobs for the community in which she grew up; something she had vowed to do early in life if and when she ever became successful.  It began in the 1980’s and over the subsequent 30 years, through prudent management and a commitment to additional capital expenditures, she’s widened the competitive moat and built a world-class empire similar to Walt Disney; a self-contained ecosystem where, once you enter her gate, you’re pumping money into her pockets; shops, restaurants, lodging, musicals, concerts, rides … it’s a perpetual symphony of cash registers ringing.

It is estimated that Dollywood does $600 million in annual revenue, which should increase significantly after Parton announced a 10-year, $300 million expansion project, half of which will be for a resort and spa so they can keep the accommodation money from families traveling to her parks, the other half for new rides, attractions, and drivers of growth.  Here is a CGI rendering of the hotel she’s currently building:

Dollywood Resort Dolly Parton Net Worth

Dollywood Resort Hotel Room Dolly Parton Net Worth

Practical Wisdom We Can Learn from Studying Dolly Parton’s Personal Behavior

There is a lot we can adapt for our own purposes …

  • Throwing money at a problem is not always the best solution.  If you say, “I can’t write my book until I have a new computer” or “I can’t get in shape until I have new gym equipment”, you don’t really want it.  Dolly Parton wrote 9 to 5 in a hotel room using her acrylic nails as a percussion instrument for what is now one of the most iconic opening theme songs in film history.  There is almost never such a thing as the “perfect time”.  There is simply output.  Do great work, as Steve Jobs said.  Alternatively, the old folk saying applies, too, “It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools”.
  • Harness your own body’s biorhythms for maximum efficiency.  This concept was discussed in the research of the late Dr. Thomas Stanley, who wrote bestsellers studying America’s wealthy; books such as The Millionaire Next Door and The Millionaire Mind.  Successful people adapt the world to them rather than adapting to systems that make them lose productivity (though they can do the latter as a temporary strategy to get ahead, biding their time until they see an opening).  He wrote of a professor who would do most of his computer work in the middle of the night.  For Dolly Parton, she has stuck to a ritual for more than 50 years that lets her take advantage of what she calls “wee-hour wisdom”: She gets up at 2 a.m. and is in her Nashville office before the sun rises.  By the time you arrive at the office, she’s already put in half a workday, creating more annuity streams.
  • Stay true to yourself.  Money has not changed Dolly Parton.  Fame has not changed Dolly Parton.  Connections have not changed Dolly Parton.  Be settled in yourself and bring your light into the world, don’t let it drown out who you are.  “I don’t have maids or servants and my husband and I love waking up early and going to the 24-hour supermarket when there is nobody else there.”
  • Avoid addiction and (relapsed) addicts in general.  There is, perhaps, nothing that will take a person down faster in life than alcoholism, drug addiction, or other compulsions.  Avoid them at all costs, even if it means cutting people out of your life or isolating yourself from them.  Look at the trail of happiness Parton has left behind her compared to someone like Johnny Cash, who suffered years of misery on end.  While so many other entertainers fall by the wayside – to put it into perspective, this is a woman who was literally performing before Michael Jackson was born and is still going at it six years after the then-50-year-old King of Pop was buried – she didn’t need use chemical escapism to avoid reality, giving her a staggering advantage.
  • Marry someone who fits you.  Dolly Parton graduated high school on a Friday night and by Saturday morning she was headed to Nashville where she met her husband, Carl, at a laundry mat called the “Wishy Washy”.  Two years later, they were married.  They decided early on that they would be married for life, no matter what happened, putting their commitment to each other above all else.  Both are fiercely independent and there were years when Dolly was away from home for all but 6 weeks at a time.  They negotiated the terms of their partnership and found a complement in each other.  There have been rumors over the years they had agreed if one strayed, the other would forgive and look the other way but Parton largely denies this.  Even if it were true (and something I don’t understand, personally, as both Aaron and I are hardwired for strict, non-negotiable, iron-clad, till-death-do-us-part monogamy in the most rigid sense of the term) the fact they found what worked for them, and were open and honest about it, honoring whatever agreements they may or may not have had, is worthy of emulation in a world of serial broken relationships and fourth marriages.  This includes finding someone with similar money habits.  Talking about her husband, Dolly has said, “Carl is so stingy you’d think we had no money at all.”
  • Know your strengths and value.
    • “Did you always feel like you were going to be somebody?” – Oprah Winfrey.  “I always felt like I was somebody.” – Dolly Parton
    • “I’m not offended by dumb blonde jokes because I know that I’m not dumb.  I also know I’m not blonde.” – Dolly Parton
    • “I know I’m talented, so I don’t have to take myself seriously”.  Security in your own abilities is a wonderful, freeing thing.  You don’t get offended if someone questions your knowledge or thinks you’ve made a mistake.
  • Know how to inspire loyalty in your crew.  Dolly Parton didn’t behave like other celebrities once she became famous.  She wouldn’t segregate herself from her crew, taking the same tour bus as her stagehands.  She believes she is one of the working folks; a cog in the wheel just like everybody else.  This creates incredible devotion from her peers and employees, who see her as someone exactly like them.  She flattens the hierarchy in business school speak.  It’s quite incredible when you look at it closely.
  • Emotional genuineness, openness, vulnerability, and honesty is often met with the same.  Everyone who meets this woman loves her and it’s because she is who she is.  She isn’t different based on the context, she is wholly, truly, completely, and unapologetically herself.  That takes courage.  It takes bravery to let people see you.  There’s a neurological reason for this and it ties into human evolution; she’s tapped into it in a way that can make anyone, from nearly any walk of life, instantly adore her as if they had been friends for twenty years.  She inspires trust, which is a form of currency in and of itself (some would say, the currency, since it’s what underlies any economy due to the nature of counter-party risk).
  • Kindness is a form of power.  Parton believes there is good in most people and actively chooses to focus on that good.  Even when in conflict with someone, she is careful about what she says to and about others, which leaves the door open for reconciliation.  It’s a secret as ancient as civilization itself, yet one people forget.  The great proverb writer put it as, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”  Look at the Charleston, South Carolina shootings – murderer Dylann Roof said he almost didn’t go through with the crime because the people who invited him into the Bible service were so nice.  In a matter of an hour, they almost undid exponentially longer indoctrination.  It’s very hard to harm or speak ill of someone who is a constant blessing in your life; a source of refreshing, who makes you feel seen and valued.  As another saying goes, “People don’t remember if you are wrong or right, they remember how you make them feel.”
  • Grace is like a crown.  Wear it even when you’re attempted to fling it across the room.  At the time Whitney Houston covered “I Will Always Love You”, Parton reached out to Whitney and said she’d love to do a duet.  This is a woman who is literally the most accomplished songwriter in the country genre of all time, mind you … and Houston, by most accounts, effectively told her to go screw herself; the now-dead diva couldn’t be bothered with some quaint little Tennessee girl.  Dolly Parton has never once, on the record, spoken anything but glowing praise about Houston, thanking her for recording the song and generating so many royalties.  This is a woman who “leaves the porch light on” for reconciliation to even those who are cruel to her (even she and Porter Wagoner reconciled prior to his death, with her praying with him and holding his hand after he died).  It brings to mind something Jesus Christ once said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”.  That doesn’t mean you can’t have a temper – just know how to wield it responsibly and in a way you don’t do permanent damage.  When asked by Billboard, “As a Southern woman, how do you speak your mind and take care of business but remain likable?” she responded, “I’m open and I’m honest. I don’t dillydally. If there’s something going on, I just say it. Sometimes if I get mad, I’ll throw out a few cuss words just to prove my point. I’ve often said I don’t lose my temper as much as I use it. I don’t do either unless I have to because I love peace and harmony, but when you step in my territory, I will call you on it. People say, “Oh, you just always seem so happy.” Well, that’s the Botox. (Laughs.)”
  • Do what is right even when it isn’t popular.  Like the Christians of the late 19th century who told their brethren in the Southern Baptists the Bible got it wrong on slavery, Parton was one of the few and only devoutly Christian voices early on in the civil rights movement to say the same thing about equal rights for gays.  She goes so far as to publicly, and frequently, call those who say gay people should be celibate or marry an opposite-sex partner “sinners” for not acting like Jesus and ignoring the evidence of what we know now about sexual orientation.  Agree or disagree, in the middle of Bible Belt Country, when some of your core fans are families like the Duggars and others who listen to preachers such as David Barton, who – if I recall correctly as recently as this year or last year – said publicly that scientists will never find a vaccine for children in Africa with AIDS because God designed it as a plague on gay people; that it needs to remain as a divine “penalty” that wipes them out, that takes extraordinary strength of character.  She will not be bullied into silence.
  • Do not be deterred by embarrassment.  When she graduated from high school, one of the last things they did was have everyone stand up and say what they were going to do with the rest of their lives.  They got around to her and she stood up, stating matter-of-factly, “I’m going to go to Nashville and become a star”.  Everyone laughed at her.  “I was confused.  I didn’t understand why they were laughing because that was what I was going to do.”  She talks about how, even though she was embarrassed, she was not going to let it change her mind.  She knew what she wanted and if having people mock her for trying to get it was part of the price, it was worth it even if she failed and it never came to pass; for her to know, “I gave it my all”.  You cannot allow social anxiety, fear, or social proof to deter you from what you really want.  People end up in careers they can’t stand, in marriages they regret, with friends they don’t enjoy, all because they aren’t confident enough, or don’t value themselves enough, to be honest about what it is they really desire.
  • Never forget the primary mission of your life.  I’ve written about the importance of clearly identifying the primary mission of your life, and Dolly embodies it.  She was very clear, and honest, about her motivations: “I wanted pretty things”, “I wanted to walk into a room and people know who I was”.  She would not let friends or family distract her from her long-term goals.  According to Stephen Miller in Smart Blonde: The Life of Dolly Parton, she told McCall’s magazine in 1981, “It’s not true that I’ve ever stepped on anybody to get where I am at.  I’ve maybe had to walk over a few people because they weren’t willing to budge or to walk with me.  I will always step over if somebody’s in the path of where I want to go but that ain’t bad.  It’s just necessary … you don’t get to where I am by being soft … you don’t have to harden your heart, but you can strengthen the muscles around it.”
  • Accomplishments matter.  Pedigree is worthless beyond signaling theory.  There are no doubt 25 year old Harvard and Yale graduates that would look down on someone like Dolly Parton, with only a high school education, were they to encounter a young version of her today.  This is idiocy.  The greatest CEO Goldman Sachs ever saw was a stock boy at a grocery store without formal education.  No matter what the system has told you, self-worth and ability is not determined by the piece of paper on your wall.  Yes, you should a great education because of its benefits but do not limit your search for talent to those who have it.
  • Accept that time is limited and among your most valuable assets.  When she left her friend, Porter Wagoner, it created a rift that estranged them for decades and led to a lawsuit that nearly wiped her out (she settled out of court to avoid the embarrassment of declaring bankruptcy, which she thought would humiliate her husband).  Still, she proceeded.  “I mean, what are you going to do, waste your youth … wait until you’re old and then regret never trying?”  She understood the 27,375 principle, as I call it – time is a form of capital and you have to allocate it wisely as you are forced to spend it each day whether you want to or not.
  • Be generous.  Just because you are shrewd and respect yourself enough to demand a price you think fair, doesn’t mean you can’t be kind.  Before her old partner Wagoner died, there were rumors that he was facing severe financial hardship.  In response, Parton calculated the residual earnings on all of the recordings and projects they had done together, even though she had bought out his interest in the portfolio years earlier and it had nearly bankrupted her.  She paid him on those residuals, anyway.  She had no obligation to do that.  She was entitled to every penny, but she chose to be generous far beyond what anyone had a right to expect.  That is an excellent example to emulate.
  • Crazy things can happen in the compounding department when you choose cumulative careers or economic activity.  A dancer can’t keep dancing when he or she is 50, 65, or 70 like they could when they were 22.  Certain fields allow for aggregation over time … where past knowledge and abilities accumulate.  Investing is one of these, whereas professional basketball is not.
  • You don’t have to enjoy something to know it’s going to sell.  Just as Aaron and I don’t like the taste of alcohol and still buy Diageo, Dolly is terrified of the roller coasters and rides at her park and still hasn’t ridden them.
  • Appeal to incentive.  Dolly Parton mastered the old Benjamin Franklin rule – appeal to a man’s incentive, not his reason.  She would tell folks, “Look, I think I can make us both a lot of money if you want to … work with me on this”.
  • Know the difference between dreaming and wishing.  Dreaming is a vision for your future that requires you to pay the price and do the work.  Wishing is hoping something happens to you.  Dream more.  Wish less.
  • Never blame anyone else for your failures or your dreams not coming true.  “That’s your department.”
  • Have tact.  When men would try to sleep with her as part of a deal to get ahead, she knew how to turn them down in a way that wouldn’t hurt their feelings or cause them to experience rejection too badly.  This avoided turning them into enemies and, in many cases, made them allies.  They were charmed by her.
  • Don’t get offended easily, use every advantage you have, and know how to handle odious people.  Driven by a mission – to make great music and amass a lot of money – she didn’t have time to get offended unless something was a big deal.  She didn’t waste a lot of emotional energy worrying about other peoples’ stupidity or bad habits.  “With some people, especially with me being overdone and over-exaggerated with the makeup and the hair and the way I dress, some people might have thought I was dumb but I would have the deal done and gone before they realized what had happened so I just looked at it like a business and I was always proud to be a woman. I never took their flirtin’ as an insult I thought it was a complement but I knew how to handle it.”
  • Harness signaling theory to your advantage.  Dolly Parton is a signaling theory genius.  She knows what she is doing and how she is doing it.  She said, “All these years, the people have thought the joke’s been on me but the joke has been on the public … I know exactly what I’m doing and I can change it at any time.” and “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap” … “but I don’t act cheap”.  You will be treated differently if you are in shape or fat; in a suit or sweatpants; well-groomed or disheveled; whether your shoes are polished or scuffed; nails bitten or manicured.  Most communication is non-verbal.  Depending upon your setting, be sure you are communicating the message you want to be communicating at a given time or place.  If a certain look is going to give you disutility, fairly or unfairly, accept that your opportunity cost is different and make an informed decision.  Sometimes, driving an expensive car can put you at a disadvantage.  Other times, at an advantage.  Context matters.  Choose wisely, and purposely, to further your own objectives based upon the situation in which you find yourself.  Charlie Munger talks about this; how it can be intelligent for a lawyer to have the flashiest car in town with an office in the most prestigious building as it causes potential clients to assume a lot of things about competency and success, leading to higher billings, but it would be madness for the President of Whirlpool, living in the same town and attending the same church as his workers, to do the same thing even if the latter earns a much higher income as it will invite envy, discontentment, unfavorable attention, and resentment.
  • Invest within your circle of competence.  This was not a woman buying things like auction rate securities en masse prior to the Great Recession.  She had grown up poor and knew she wanted things she 1.) could understand, 2.) could see with her own eyes, 3.) could improve based on her own talents, and 4.) would outlast her, pumping out torrents of money by the second while, 5.) simultaneously benefiting, through employment, the community and people she loved so much.  She also has a penchant for real estate, telling Billboard, “I’d rather buy property than play the stock market.”.
  • Respect the people who pay your bills and the time/money of others.  “In my business, I truly love and respect everybody in my audience … it would just kill me to disappoint them for any reason because they pay my bills.  I always think ‘These fans are spending their hard-earned money on me’ so it would just embarrass me … to do a mediocre job.”
  • Know when to break the rules.  Somehow, someway, Dolly has broken one of the primary commandments of business success and gotten away with it: Thou shalt not hire relatives.  She has 100 members of the Parton clan on the payroll of her empire.  It would be worth studying how she achieves this.
  • Give information, not advice.  “I usually try not to give advice.  Information, yes.  Advice, no.”
  • Restrain from judgment.  “… if you truly care for people, you won’t judge ’em and you will learn to appreciate the uniqueness in every single soul.”  You can criticize actions, or judge behavior, but respect the person.
  • Keep excellent records.  Dolly Parton was nearly wiped out because of handshake deals and lax record keeping in the days of her partnership with Porter Wagoner.  When their business relationship went south and she settled, it took years to recover; years that wouldn’t have been necessary had everything been handled with precision and perfection upfront.  Later, after she learned this lesson, she reflected on it, “We were just country folk trying to make music”.
  • Not everyone is going to accept you immediately.  When she got the gig on the Porter Wagoner show, people would yell, “Where’s [the former girl]?” when she was performing.  Walking into an organization, group, or environment where you’re the new outsider sometimes means you’ll be immediately disliked through no fault of your own.  Deal with it.
  • Wealth is not limited to money.  “One is only poor if one chooses to be”.  There are multiple forms of wealth – financial being one of them.  (The primary form of wealth is health; all the cash in the world won’t do you a bit of good if you don’t have that.  Warren Buffett told students at Columbia he would give up his entire fortune to trade places with them, even if he had to start with nothing.)
  • “We’ll always be growing” – A philosophy she applies to the theme park assets.  It immediately reframes the mind to ask, “What’s the most intelligent thing we can do; that makes sense based on capital returns?”
  • Keep perspective.  “I’ve always counted my blessings far more often than I count my money and my blessings are many.”
  • Synthetic equity and intellectual property really are goldmines if you’re talented. Just as Aaron and I used synthetic equity and intellectual property (licensing our writings, software code, and some other stuff we created) in the early years to fund our first business, Dolly Parton started with a guitar.  She wrote songs and signed agreements with other performers, who would pay her to use those songs.  She manufactured an asset with commercial value out of thin air and found people who wanted it.
  • “If you can make millions rather than thousands .. (smiles) … and you’re going to be in this business, anyway, why not?” – “As a business person, I’d like to think there’s more money to be made.” Amen, Dolly.  Amen.  She’s always looking. If you are going to do the work anyway, why not get 10[x] based on a slight structural change?  Think of Buffett and his partnerships – if he’d been managing funds for a flat salary at the local bank trust department, you’d have never heard his name even though he would have made the same profits, in many cases, for several of his investors during those early years.
  • Control your own inventory.  I mentioned this earlier but it’s worth noting, again.  Anytime you can be the manufacturer, distributor, and retailer (or, in her case, the song writer, publisher, and performer), you are in a stronger position.  It’s harder to write you off.  You have better negotiating power.  Go the Apple route, not the Microsoft route, whenever it is possible.  You want as few people as possible between you and the end consumer who is handing over the cash.  Every additional degree of separation is a degree of power and potential profit lost.  There are times you’ll ignore this rule – Yankee Candle, for example, was better off selling through authorized retailers because the returns on capital were much higher given the total lack of outlay necessary to supply a store and they could pretty much find anyone in a community willing to carry their products – but think carefully before committing to a distribution model.  It can be hard to change later.  Microsoft has been trying to get Microsoft stores open forever and they haven’t taken off despite a lot of cash thrown at them.
  • Pain will come, sadness will come, you need to push through it.  Parton and her husband wanted to have children – even had the names picked out – but some fairly severe female problems arose that made it impossible for her to conceive.  It came out years later that the emotional devastation of this was so bad – this was a woman for whom family is everything and had dreamed of being “a mama” her entire life – she nearly committed suicide.  She spiraled into a depression that lasted several months.  (If you wonder why I consider her the female version of Charlie Munger, listen to how she resolved it and you will understand my affinity for this woman: “Then one day, I just said to myself, ‘Right, get off your fat butt, or if you really are suicidal, then go and shoot your brains out,'” she says. “I thought, ‘Maybe God didn’t want me to have kids so that everybody else’s kids could be mine.”)  Grieve.  Deal with it.  Move on.  Don’t wallow in your sorrow, it doesn’t do you any good.  Do not give into the temptation of self-pity.  It’s a miserable addiction.
  • Read everything, be a blessing to the world, and and use your pain to be productive.  Making good on her “everybody else’s kids could be mine” philosophy following heartbreak, she decided to take action and do something about it.  Parton is a proponent of self-education through reading; that if you can read, the whole world is open to you because you can learn about any topic you want to master.  She combined this with a way to honor her dad, whom she loved very much.  Knowing he couldn’t read or write due to a lack of opportunity, she wanted to make sure that any child had access to high quality books regardless of family income; rich, poor, doesn’t matter.  She started the Dolly Parton Imagination Library that will give any child a free book, every month, from birth until 5 years old, mailed to them at home.  As of June 2nd, 2015, the program has given more than 70,000,000 books to 845,810 children.

My Personal Favorite Lesson from Dolly Parton: Do Not Complain About the Best Possible Outcome

One of my other heroes, Charlie Munger talks about the stupidity of complaining about getting old because it’s the best possible outcome – the alternative was to die young and miss out on life.  Dolly Parton embodies this, “Isn’t it obvious you should be grateful?” philosophy.  Film star Julia Roberts once told a story about her that encapsulates Parton’s spirit.  I’m going to paraphrase it, and I’m sure I’ll get a few of the details slightly wrong, but it goes something like this:

“We were filming Steel Magnolias and one of the scenes was supposed to take place in the winter, when it was cold.  We were in these huge sweaters and it was miserably hot – like over 100 degrees.  Everyone is complaining.  We’re throwing fits.  Everybody’s sweating.  It goes on forever and it’s unbearable.  Finally, after a few hours, I see Dolly sitting on a porch swing, singing to herself, smiling.  I go over and sit down next to her.  ‘Doesn’t this bother you?  How are you so happy?’

I’ll never forget what she said.  It changed my whole perspective on life.  She looked at me and replied, ‘Honey, I grew up in a tiny cabin.  My mama and daddy had twelve kids and daddy worked in construction and farming just to keep us fed.  We didn’t have two nickels to rub together and I told God all I ever wanted was fame and fortune, that I’d go out there and do whatever it took to get it.  I’m rich and I’m sitting here, with you, living my dream.  This is exactly what I asked for and I got it.  How could I be so ungrateful to moan over a little heat?  What kind of person would that make me?”

And she went back to singing, and swinging, and smiling.

That is wisdom.  That is applied rationality.  That is how each of us should live our lives.  If there’s something bothering you, and you can change it, great.  Change it.  If not, tolerate it and be happy it’s a cost of getting what you want; a toll that has to be paid on the highway to your destination.

Case File Note: This is one of the sample case study files being migrated to the new case study repository on the site upgrades.  It will disappear, be modified, and move around over time as we work with the code.

Update log: Last Updated Sunday 1:50 a.m., CST, July 12, 2015 | Completely re-written Sunday, 5:51 p.m., CST, July 12, 2015 | Clarification and Slight Expansion, 6:39 p.m., CST, July 13, 2015 | Added Line About Information vs Advice from University of Tennessee 2009 Commencement Speech, Tuesday, 10:58 p.m., CST, July 14, 2015 | Wednesday, July 15, 2015, 4:42 p.m. CST, added Imagination Library Information

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Just Because …

If I were a producer or director, I’d find a way to use this in a film …

You might also want to watch this interview from 10:04 onward, especially. She talks about how she was so successful in business – her dad couldn’t read or write but he was great at making deals.

  • Jeff

    Thank you Joshua. This is wonderful. Keep the case studies coming!

  • Thank you Joshua, this was a very interesting look at Dolly Parton. I hadn’t realized how great of an investor she was in addition to being country music royalty.

    You mentioned investing as a career/economic activity that is cumulative in nature. Would you mind giving some other examples? While I am constantly working to improve my investing acumen and understanding in a cumulative nature, it would be great if I also found a career that fit the same sort of cumulative growth pattern. Even better if it is suited towards annuity based incomes instead of simply salary/hourly based income.

    Also, I’m curious as to how you choose who to develop a case study. Is this simply done through copious reading and research as you look for companies to invest in? Were these case studies suggested to you? I’m interested in your methodology, so I can learn to think of and write my own.

  • Nicholas Archer

    Awesome. Didn’t realize the extent of her influence and talents. Quite a powerful look into a fascinating lady you have created. Loved the porch swing in the heat story. Very good attitude she has.

  • dave (nestle)

    F’ing Masterpiece Research/Post!!!

    • dave (nestle)

      And thanks alot…

      now (happily) I am humming a tune “Texas has a …” while picturing Dom Deluise in that suit.

  • Hexar

    She will be making money for a long, long time thanks to “I will Always Love You”, not to mention her other endeavors.

  • Adam J. Mead

    Question: When you write case studies and go back to revise do you save older versions to reflect on the changes later on (where your mind has gone/improved), or do you just blaze forward? If not, in what instances would you recommend saving prior versions to reflect upon? Business case studies? Mental model lists?

    • It depends. Certain articles I save, most I modify and blaze forward. There are some About.com articles, for example, that are now 5x more expansive than they originally were and there’s no record of the early versions, which is kind of sad. It’s a question I’ve been thinking about lately as part of this redesign but don’t, yet, have an answer.

  • Mustafa

    Hey josh, who is the Youtube content creator you mention in the article?

    • A female comedian and singer named Colleen Evans (née Ballinger). She has a YouTube channel for her, the person, and a YouTube channel for her most famous character, named Miranda Sings, who serves as a caricature of those in the performing arts who have no talent, are oblivious to the fact, and take their craft very seriously.

      Between all of her outlets, and her appearances as a guest in other videos, I think she’s brought in somewhere north of 1 billion page views. Even under the most unfavorable scenarios, she has to be in the top 1% of household income from advertising revenue alone, which is impressive given she is only 30 years old and many other artists can’t even pay the bills. She didn’t wait for a big break, she created it out of thin air, systematically and intelligently building a body of work despite no one paying attention for a long time. She now earns a speaking fee in the thousands of dollars per appearance, has had doors open on Broadway, and has appeared on national television.

      You can see the difference between her, the person, and her, the character, in this “duet” she did between the two personalities. I think she’s a model for what media production and success will look like in this century. You will have people working from their homes making hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars a year as they can connect directly with their audience.

      • This is exceptionally similar to Michelle Quan as well, who has a million dollar makeup business. She built a back catalog of makeup videos, then perfectly gamed the Youtube algorithm with a post that went viral.

      • stegner

        Reminds me of Nardwuar. Deep research, a one of a kind approach and the guy has built the kind of interviewing record (from scratch) that would make Rolling Stone blush. A wonderful example of ingenuity. Artists look forward to his interviews!

  • Bill Larson

    Never knew anything about Dolly; good stuff.

  • Great case study. She is a really inspiring person, as well as a savvy businesswoman. Thanks for the writeup!

  • beginwithinthekitchen

    I never comment, but frequently enjoy ‘lurking’ around here. This is my favorite of your posts yet… and that says a lot!

  • Roundball

    Mind. Blown. That was eye-opening. I’m one of those people who has scoffed at Dolly Parton over the years- not anymore after this read. What initially drew your attention to Dolly Parton as a case study?

  • We’re about the same age, and for you to so casually say you’ve been collecting case studies of people (for I assume decades?) blows my mind. I’m still trying to build that type of mental system at 30. You are certainly in the 1% for intellectual curiosity and rigor at a young age.

    I hope you keep sharing these. I learned a lot that I had never heard about Dolly Parton. I naturally assumed the blonde hair, makeup and “enhancements” implied she wasn’t very bright either.

  • Roundball

    You mentioned professional basketball in this post; the NBA (and other sports leagues) are littered with millionaires who squandered their money. Magic Johnson is a a notable exception, someone who may fit your description of a paragon. I love this anecdote about him, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and success in business

    http://prodigyresearch.com/2013/06/believe-in-magic/

  • caleb

    Joshua,

    You absolutely, positively, have to keep doing more of these case studies. This was great.

    I’ve been a voracious reader/studier of successful people as well … but I’m not as systematic at recording my thoughts and note taking like you have. This is pure gold. Please keep it up.

  • Caleb Hutson

    I agree with other Caleb.

  • Pablo

    She’s like pre-Madonna and pre-pre Beyoncé! Bow down b*tches!

  • winterfan

    Great case study! I’ve always loved Dolly and I don’t particularly like country music. I think she’s a great songwriter. If you watch an interview with her, it’s obvious she is smart. She has a very quick wit.

  • DaddeeMack

    Great summary, but, as you indicate, it only scratches the surface. Ms. Parton took some big risks, but she was never outworked. We need more men and women like her.

  • Great case study – looking forward to more of these! What really impresses me is her constant commitment to produce quality work and the intelligence with which she structured her various economic engines.

  • Saundra Dunn

    This is such an excellent blog, fell here accidentally, thoroughly enjoyed the story. I was researching the Parton story with Wagoner and the concept of generosity. This article has impacted even more my love and appreciation for this woman. Thank you for writing it Joshua.