Terry Esau – His Journey from being known as the Jingle King of Minneapolis to Philanthropeneur

“There are a lot of talented people in the world who don’t accomplish anything. And there are a lot of people who are marginally talented who accomplish great things because they just don’t give up.” -Terry Esau

[00:00:00] Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is Philanthropeneur Terry Esau. Terry spent most of his career writing and producing music for TV commercials. Target, McDonald’s, Pepsi, Harley-Davidson, Honda, Dairy Queen, Golden Grahams, and everything in between. He worked with celebrities like Amy Grant, Jim Henson, Alice Cooper and Prince. After writing over a thousand commercial scoring films and writing for TV shows, he decided to take a break from the music business. And tried his hand at writing words. He’s the author of three books and one novel. 

Terry is a certified bike-a-holic. In 2010, he started a nonprofit organization called Free Bicycles for Kidz and has given away over 150,000 bicycles to kids in need. He holds the Guinness World Record for most bikes collected in one day, nearly 10,000, in Minneapolis. Free Bikes for Kidz is now active in 20 cities with a goal of being in a hundred cities and a million bikes given away in the next five years. Recently, Terry cofounded the new nonprofit Free Guitars for Kids.  They partner with music industry giants such as Gibson and Fender and other music leaders to put guitars in the hands of deserving young people.

Before we get too deep into your music and professional career, take me back to your childhood or your upbringing. What was that like for you?

[00:01:35] Terry Esau:  I grew up in a tiny little town of 2,000 people called Mountain Lake, where there’s no mountain and a man-made lake in southern Minnesota.

So yeah, small town. I don’t know. It was a typical small-town upbringing, just hanging out, riding my bike everywhere after school and I had a paper route because I got paid to ride my bike. My brother and I would build ramps and we’d collect neighborhood kids and have them lie down on the street and we’d see how many kids we could jump over.

[00:02:15] Tommy Thomas: Y’all must be pretty good salesmen to get somebody to do that.

[00:02:17] Terry Esau:  Yeah we usually made it. So it was that, and then I went to college at a school here in Minneapolis, Christian Liberal Arts School, Northwestern. Got a music education degree, which technically I’ve never used. But I used the music aspect of it for the rest of my career, so we can talk about that when you’re ready.

[00:02:45] Tommy Thomas: How did you get into music?  What was your first instrument?

[00:02:47] Terry Esau:  I got a guitar when I was, I don’t know how old, probably in sixth or seventh grade, through Sears Roebuck. A Silver Tone guitar. It was not a great guitar, but it was all I needed and I played trumpet in in middle school and high school band.

And then I just continued on that. When I got to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was interested in music and I played in a few bands and stuff like that. So, I continued in the music degree and then, through a kind of interesting circumstances, I ended up discovering what my career would be in music, but it had nothing to do with music education.

[00:03:35] Tommy Thomas: What’s something that people might be surprised to know about you?

[00:03:41] Terry Esau: Other than riding my bike across the country, I got to mix one of my songs with Prince. I did a Target Christmas campaign with Amy Grant. I did a Sam Goody campaign with Alice Cooper. I got to do some Sesame Street music with Jim Henson.

 And then my nonprofits.  I started two nonprofits that have given away 150,000 bicycles and now we’re doing the same thing with guitars. So yeah, I’ve gotten three books published. I have a very strange career trajectory. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

[00:04:27] Tommy Thomas: How did you get into making music for a living? When did you realize that, wow, I could make a living doing this?

[00:04:31] Terry Esau: So here’s an interesting story. My first day in college, my first day in music theory class, our professor said here’s your assignment.

Go home, write a jingle about milk, and come back tomorrow and perform it for the class. So, I did that. Never thought anything of it. Until three years later when I was completely out of money. So, I decided to take a year off of college and work. And I was teaching guitar lessons in a music store.

Almost went insane. I had 55 lessons a week and all I did all day long was teach junior high boys how to play Smoke on the Water. Do you remember that song?

[00:05:15] Tommy Thomas: That’s a limited horizon.

[00:05:16] Terry Esau: Yeah, but then I just, I walked in and quit one day, and I just said, I can’t do this one more day.

And I remembered back to that first assignment in music theory class, and I thought, huh. I wonder if anybody would pay me to do that. It’s a long story, but I ended up in the jingle business, working, writing and producing music for TV commercials, mostly. 

[00:05:45] Tommy Thomas: Do you remember your first big jingle?

[00:05:49] Terry Esau: My first jingle was for a little flower shop called Whiting’s Flowers. I wouldn’t call that a big jingle by any means. I don’t remember what my first big one was. Like I said, I’ve done jingles for McDonald’s and Pepsi and Harley’s and Hondas and Target and General Mills cereals and I’ve probably done over a thousand commercials, wow. It’s a strange career.

[00:06:19] Tommy Thomas: Have you had any mentors in your life?

[00:06:23] Terry Esau: I’ve had a lot of mentors. One of the guys who really helped get me started, his name was Dick Wilson and he was he was probably in his late forties or fifties when I was in my twenties. I don’t know if he saw potential in me or what, but he took me under his wing and he started giving me work and he was like the jingle king of Minneapolis in the 1940s and 50s, and that was when jingles were the deal. He took me under his wing and believed in me and convinced other ad agency people to believe in me. I’m not sure if you can make it in that business without somebody who’s there who already believes in you a little bit.

Yeah, so he was certainly a mentor.

[00:07:21] Tommy Thomas: Anybody at the school, at the college?

[00:07:25] Terry Esau: My theory professor, Maxine Woodbridge Postgate, it’s funny because we had a love hate relationship. I think she recognized that I had potential, but she was very conservative, and she was a great composer of choral music, but she believed in following the musical rules very strictly.

And I seem to have a bent to want to break the rules. I remember she called me in one day after it was a final composition I did for, I don’t remember if it was music theory 101, or the second year theory class. And we had to compose something and then bring in musicians and perform it.

So we did it. And the next day she called me in front of the music theory class, and she said, I just want you all to know that what Terry did was not music. And I’m giving him an F for that project. It was a little too avant garde for her. It was a little, like some of the more modern classical music, where it’s a little atonal and experimental and she just goes, no. She had a very narrow definition of what music was supposed to be.

Yet, she would keep trying to help me and give me opportunities because she believed in me. But she really wanted to make me into a composer like she was. And I’ve done some of that in my later years. I’ve composed some choral music that’s gotten published. But I believe in all kinds of music, and that was the beauty about being in the jingle business. One day I would have to compose something that was operatic, and the next day was country western, and the next was rock and roll. You do all kinds of music. If you listen to enough TV commercials that have music, you’re going to hear all kinds of music, right?

[00:09:34] Tommy Thomas: What have you done relative to mentoring others? What does that look like in your life?

[00:09:38] Terry Esau: I actually do a lot of that. I guess a lot of the mentoring that I do I don’t see it as career mentoring. I see it as personal growth and development and spiritual mentoring.

Because I feel I have some career paths in the music business, in the nonprofit business, in the book publishing business. So, I have experience there. So, if people want to talk about that, I’m obviously happy to do that. But I think it’s more important that if you’re mentoring young people, it’s like, how do you get them to grow up to be people of integrity and character and generosity and kindness and compassion?

And those are characteristics that will serve you through your life and make the world a better place. So, I meet with, especially a lot of young men who are in their twenties, maybe thirties. As I get older, it’s like the young men are older too. Yes, they are. And my wife sometimes says to me, she goes, you’re mentoring so many of these young guys.

And I go, but you don’t understand they’re mentoring me too. I don’t think mentoring is ever, well, mentoring shouldn’t be a one-way street. It should be a two-way thing. I feel like I’m learning as much from the people I’m mentoring as the people, as they’re getting from me.

[00:11:15] Tommy Thomas: It’s been said that probably most of us learn most from our failures or mistakes.  If that’s the truth, why are most of us so afraid to fail?

[00:11:27] Terry Esau: You know what, I’ve never, I don’t think I’ve ever been too afraid to fail. But I’ve always believed that you should fail quickly, and you should learn from your failures. I always look at it this way, if you’ve never failed, you’ve probably never tried. Or you’ve never taken on something that was a little bigger than you.

If you only attempt things that you know you can accomplish, I don’t think that’s a high enough degree of risk worthy of living a passionate life. So I’ve had plenty of failures. I’ve gotten three books published, but I have about four other books that I’ve started or even finished and haven’t been published. You could look at those as failures or you could look at it as I learned something from them. And sometimes, my writing is part of how I process life and come to understand what I think and believe. So even if a book doesn’t get published, it’s served in my personal growth, right?

[00:12:43] Tommy Thomas: What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

[00:12:53] Terry Esau: I would say when I quit the music business. I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I’m actually doing a TED talk this summer and the title is the sharp elbow of restlessness.

Some people say when God closes a door, he opens a window.  There’s all these cliches. I feel like before doors are even closed for me; I start to feel restless. And restlessness is something I can’t ignore, because often it’s when I start to feel like I’m lacking in purpose.

That’s when I start to feel restless and without purpose, I always feel restless. So, in my music career, after 25 years, I could not ignore this feeling that I feel like this chapter of my life is supposed to be over. And I didn’t know what I was going to go into. I didn’t know what the next chapter was, but I felt very, I don’t know.

I felt very certain and willing to take a risk that I need to walk away from this and discover what is next. So, I did that and that was a pretty big risk, I think, at that time. Because I’m in my late 40s, probably peak earning career. And I just walked away.

I sold my recording studio. And that led to my getting my first book published. Which then turned into a speaking career. So again, all of those things were a risk because I didn’t know what I was going into. It was a risk because I’ve never made the kind of money doing all of these new things that I do that I did in the music career.

I was risking some financial opportunity, but sometimes having purpose in your life and meaning pays bigger dividends than finances, right?

[00:15:15] Tommy Thomas: Yeah, tell us more about the TED Talk. How does one get invited to give a TED Talk?

[00:15:21] Terry Esau: So anybody can apply to be a TED speaker.

Okay. But it had never occurred to me to even think about that. But I got an email one day from a guy who’s the head of the acquisitions team that searches for speakers. And I got an email and I was scanning it and I was just about to click delete because I thought it was just another one of those scam things, hey, send us 200 and we’ll put your name in this book of great entrepreneurs or whatever.

I’ve seen so many of those things that I just delete them. But this guy, he said, hey, could you meet me for coffee? So, I’m going oh, so he’s local and he actually wants to get together in person. So, then I read a little more and I go, he’s part of the TED organization. I’ve always respected and enjoyed watching TED talks.

So I went and met with him, had coffee and he goes, yeah we like what you’ve been doing in your career. And we think you might have an inspiring story to tell. So here I am next on August 12th. I’m doing a TED talk at Orchestra Hall here in Minneapolis. 

[00:16:42] Tommy Thomas: Wow, congratulations. We’ll have to look on that and see when it gets on the schedule.

[00:16:47] Terry Esau: Yeah, they upload those things to YouTube and you can search them. And yeah, so I’m basically talking about the thing I’ve been telling you about is that how restlessness should not necessarily be viewed as a negative thing. I say you might want to look at restlessness as like a light on the dashboard of your life saying, hey, it might be time for you to change, to try something new, take a risk, so it’s happened to me multiple times in my careers and so far I believe that restlessness is something I need to pay attention to because it’s always led me into something really interesting.

[00:17:34] Tommy Thomas: I know you’ve started two nonprofits, Free Bikes for Kids and Free Guitars for Kids. Take us into the early days of those. I get questions often from people who say, why don’t you do a podcast on how to start a nonprofit? Tell us about the early days.

[00:17:51] Terry Esau: Once again, I never intended to start a nonprofit.

I started a hobby. I actually got a call from a friend and he said, hey there’s this kid in our neighborhood who doesn’t have a bicycle, his parents can’t afford one and it was December, so Christmas is coming and so I just got together with some of my buddies and said, hey, why don’t we collect bicycles this December, fix them up and we’ll give them to kids who don’t have a bicycle and can’t afford one.

And so that first year we gave away 250 bikes. And we all said, that was fun. Let’s do it again next year. And that year we gave away 750 and the next year it was 1500. And that’s when I said, okay, this has gone beyond the realm of hobby. This is like a second job for me.

How about if we form a nonprofit, put together a board of directors, I’ll go find a corporate sponsor. And we did. And that year we gave away 5,000 bikes. Sometimes you just, you follow your nose, and you do something that you think, oh, this, there’s a need here. There are millions of kids in the U.S. who don’t have a bicycle, can’t afford one. Millions of kids who are unhealthy, diabetes, obesity. They’re spending all their time in front of a screen. I thought, there are probably millions of bicycles sitting in garages that have been outgrown or aren’t being used. What if we collect those, fix ’em up?

So now we’re in 22 cities. We’ve given away 150,000 bicycles. We’re now partnering with Target. So Target is giving us all of their return bikes, 30 to 40,000 bikes every year. And now we have a goal of being in a hundred cities and giving away a million bikes by the year 2030.

I don’t know, I think we might be able to do it. Huh?

[00:19:47] Tommy Thomas: Yeah. You said you formed a board, so what did that early board look like and how did it view itself?

[00:19:56] Terry Esau: They always say there are two kinds of boards, like a working board or a governance board.

Usually when you start something from scratch it’s generally a working board, right? Yeah. So, most of that early board was made up of people who were my friends, who I would go out and ride my bike with. And they loved bicycles, and they thought every kid should have a bicycle too. So, the board was mainly made up of people who were passionate about it and wanted to actually volunteer and help make it happen.

Then, over the course of several years, as the organization started to grow and blossom, now the board must transition from a working board and start becoming more of a governance board, to give direction and oversight to the organization as it gets bigger. But I think, if you’re starting a nonprofit from scratch, you gotta have people who believe in the mission and are willing to invest some sweat equity in it, right?

It’s hard though, I will say that. It’s hard to start. It’s hard to start a nonprofit from scratch, because you’re inventing everything. Yeah, it’s just flat out a lot of work.

[00:21:22] Tommy Thomas: So when you started Free Guitars for Kids, I guess you had a few learning lessons under your belt.  How has that one gone?

[00:21:31] Terry Esau: It’s interesting. So yeah, it was like, okay we figured out how to do this with bicycles. So, what if we just translate that to guitars? Because we go, I bet there are millions of guitars sitting in people’s homes collecting dust that never come out of their case too. So, we were going, okay we’ll start this and we’ll get some celebrities to do a pro bono concert and we’ll say, you can’t buy a ticket to the concert.

The only way to get in is you have to bring a guitar to donate. And we thought, oh, that’s a great idea. Then you go, okay, now we have to get celebrities to do this. And then where are we going to put the guitars and who’s going to help us restring them? And then we ended up going, okay it’s not exactly apples to apples comparison with bikes and with guitars.

So, we went out and we started talking with Fender and Gibson, guitar manufacturers, and said, would you want to partner with us? Would you want to help us make sure that they’re under resourced kids who get a guitar? And they were like yeah, we’d like to be part of that. So now we’re finding we’re getting people who are donating dollars.

And they’re helping us fund and Gibson and Fender are either giving us screaming deals on guitars. And sometimes like they just gave us 200 free guitars. Gibson did, which we gave away in Nashville a couple of weeks ago. And last week we gave away 150 some guitars in Alaska.

And now we’re going to be doing it in Las Vegas. Going to be doing an event with a TV show down in Austin, Texas. In September, November, I can’t remember. But yeah, so we learned a few things. So, with Free Bikes for Kids, there’s the Mothership nonprofit, and then all the cities are like, they’re independent nonprofits.

It’s like a franchise model. So when we started Free Guitars for Kids, I go, I don’t want to do that franchise model. It’s just complicated. Yeah. And it doesn’t make as much sense with the guitar thing anyhow. So it’s just one nonprofit. But we’re starting what we’re calling our sounding boards in various cities.

So we’re getting people together. Right now, we’re just doing it in music cities. We have a sounding board in Nashville and one here in Minneapolis and Portland and, we’ll be doing it in Chicago and LA and Austin and New York and wherever else. And those sounding boards, they’re not board members, but they’re advocates in the city who are going to help us put on events and give guitars away in those cities.

We’re continuing to learn and like you said, we’ve realized with free bikes for kids, we made some mistakes and we’re trying to remedy those and then with free guitars, we’re trying to not make any of those mistakes and I’m sure we will, but whenever you try something big, you make mistakes, right?

It’s not mistakes. Those things don’t bother me that much. I figured everybody makes mistakes. We just keep trying, keep doing better, and yeah, we’re making kids happy and healthy. Good.

[00:25:01] Tommy Thomas: If you had deep pockets, and you were on a nonprofit version of Shark Tank, and you had people like yourself presenting their case for nonprofit funding, what questions have you got to have solid answers for before you open your checkbook?

[00:25:23] Terry Esau: First of all, whatever you’re pitching, it has to solve a problem and there has to be a resource to help solve that problem. Like for us, it was like, here’s the problem. Kids in America are unhealthy, they’re obese, there’s poverty, so they can’t afford a bicycle. Can help solve some of their health issues, not just physical health issues, but mental health issues, right?

I call my bike my carbon fiber therapist because, you’re a cyclist. It’s like I get on my bike, and I go for a ride. I could be having a bad day, but by the time I get done with my ride, all that stress has just been washed away. Yeah. So I’m Shark Tank. I think you’d have to go.

What’s the problem? What’s the solution? And then on top of that you have to go what’s your strategy to bring the solution to the problem? What are the logistics? What are the resources that you need? People who give money to causes they really have to sell them on the fact that you are going to change the world in some small way, at least that’s in the nonprofit world.

In the for profit world, then you have to prove to them, hey, you can make your money back on this investment. For us, we say, yeah, you’re not making money back on us, but you should feel really good about what you’re doing to change the lives of children.

[00:27:06] Tommy Thomas: What’s the best piece of advice anybody ever gave you?

[00:27:11] Terry Esau: One thing I would say is persistence is greater than talent. There are a lot of talented people in the world who don’t accomplish anything. And there are a lot of people who are marginally talented who accomplish great things because they just don’t give up.

Here’s something my dad said to me when he was on his deathbed at 92. He pointed to himself, and he goes, Terry, up here, I’m 92. And then he pointed at his head, and he goes, in here, I’m 17. And I think that was true of my dad. Some people get old and they go, I’ve got nothing to offer.

They get grumpy and they get ornery and, get off my lawn. I think what my dad was saying is, if you want to stay young, first of all you can stay young mentally. You can’t do that physically, but you can stay young mentally. And I think you do that primarily by staying a curious person. Curious people continue to learn all the way through their life into their old age.

So I think in some way, my dad was saying, don’t settle, stay curious. Because life is too interesting to just go into autopilot mode, keep seeking for the adventure of life, keep learning, keep growing. My dad never said those words, but I think in some sort of way, I think that’s what he was saying.

[00:29:02] Tommy Thomas: If you could go back in time and tell a younger version of yourself one thing, what would you tell?

[00:29:08] Terry Esau: Oh, what would I tell myself? 

I think I would say don’t be afraid of failing. Failure is not the worst thing that can happen to you. It’s not trying is the worst thing. I don’t think I was ever too afraid of failing.

But I think I worried a little bit more when I was younger. What do people think of us? Or if I do this, what will people think? That’s one of the great beauties of getting older. I don’t really care that much anymore. This is who I am, this is what I believe, this is what I think, this is how I’m choosing to live my life. You can disagree with it, and you have every right to, and I won’t judge you for it, but I’m not going to let your view of me change what I think or how I choose to live my life and I think our culture has a lot of that going on, with social media and stuff, it’s the comparison thing, yeah.

I think comparison is not a very useful concept, because everybody compares up, nobody compares down. Like, I’ve talked to my family about this a few times. Look at so and so, they just went on this vacation, and they just bought this or they bought that and go, yeah, you’re comparing up.

Now let’s compare down. We have so much more than so many other people. So I think in America, maybe it’s part of a characteristic of capitalism. You have to have more and you have to have better. And so we always compare up. And I think if we compared down a little bit more often, we would have more gratitude, we would be more grateful for what it is that we do have.

We don’t have as much as that guy who’s the CEO of some Fortune 500 company, but we live better than most of the people in the world, right?

[00:31:23] Tommy Thomas: I want to thank Terry for taking time to be with us from what is obviously a very busy schedule. John Somerville, who was our guest for episodes 109 and 110 suggested Terry as a guest. I had no idea of the treat we were in for.

Thank you for joining us today. If you are a first-time listener, I hope you will subscribe and become a regular. You can find links to all the episodes at our website: www.jobfitmatters.com/podcast.

If there are topics you’d like for me to explore my email address is [email protected].   Word of mouth has been identified as the most valuable form of marketing. Surveys tell us that consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all other forms of advertising.

If you’ve heard something today that’s worth passing on, please share it with others. You’re already helping me make something special for the next generation of nonprofit leaders. I’ll be back next week with a new episode. Until then, stay the course on our journey to help make the nonprofit sector more effective and sustainable.

“Failure is not the worst thing that can happen to you. Not trying is probably the worst thing.” -Terry Esau


Links and Resources

JobfitMatters Website

Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas

The Perfect Search – What every board needs to know about hiring their next CEO

Be the Surprise – Spontaneous Elements of Faith

Blue Collar God / White Collar God

Free Bikes for Kidz 

Free Guitars for Kids

TEDx Talks – Harnessing the power of restlessness | Terry Esau | TEDxMinneapolis


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