The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

Jonathan Levine at the Master & Dynamic office in New York City

Jonathan Levine

  • entrepreneur

Jonathan Levine is an entrepreneur and founder of Master & Dynamic, a design-driven premium audio company whose products are sold in over 450 retailers worldwide. Previously, Jonathan earned an MBA in Finance from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania. After working on Wall Street in banking and investment management from 1987-1993, he used his experience to start his career as an entrepreneur, launching two successful consumer products.

Tell me about your path to becoming an entrepreneur. I was an entrepreneur as a kid. I started small businesses all throughout elementary and high school and worked quite a bit in college to help pay tuition expenses.

After college, I wanted to go into the restaurant industry because I had worked at a four-star restaurant throughout my college years. I ended up working on Wall Street instead, like a lot of people my age did at that time. I worked on Wall Street from 1987 to 1993, but working in that field didn’t inspire the entrepreneurial spirit in me.

Since I love design and tinkering, I soon pivoted into consumer products. I built several small product companies. Most of them were automotive, hardware, or home goods sold at places like Walmart, Costco, and Bed Bath & Beyond.

Throughout that time, my eldest son was into music. When he was 13, he started to DJ; when he was 15, he started to give DJ lessons. I wanted to support him in his endeavors, so I became a roadie for him when he played shows. When he decided to start producing music at 16, I built a recording studio in my office, and it was a great way for us to spend time together.

I started to observe what was happening in the music industry, specifically in the headphone industry. I watched products like Beats by Dre come in and change the category dramatically. I thought, “What if I built a product that stood the test of time? Something that would perform well in the studio, but also feel and look good?” And that’s how Master & Dynamic started: it was a passion project inspired by my love for my kids.

Since you had created products before, you already knew what it took to design and bring something to market, but what made you decide to focus on headphones? I was already thinking about the headphone market due to my eldest son and our recording studio. I’ve always loved industrial design and materials and had a eureka moment at an exhibit I saw in a museum with my oldest son. The exhibit was about radio transmission and propaganda during WWII, and as we walked through, I saw a pair of vintage headphones. They were timeless and in great condition—they looked like they would still work today. I thought, “I want to build something that someone can still use and appreciate in 50 years.” That trip to the museum was the genesis of my decision to build something timeless and durable with industrial influences.

How did you start? I started by connecting ideas. While I love design, I’m not a designer, so I needed to find the right person to turn my vision into actual products. I used the website, Behance, to find a designer to work with.

I worked with four designers before I found the right one, and then we got started. I didn’t use a focus group and I didn’t analyze the market: I put blinders on and selfishly—and maybe a bit naively—designed a product that both myself and people around me would use. I don’t come out of the audio or music worlds, so I approached it from a design perspective. I started working on Master & Dynamic in 2013, and we launched in 2014. That kind of determination and focus is part of why we’re successful today.

If you speak to entrepreneurs, most of us tend to have higher risk profiles than other people, so it didn’t feel like that big of a risk. I saw an opportunity and because I have built and designed products before, I thought I could do it. I’ve never created a global luxury brand before but we seem to be doing it now. However, if I tried to build a digital company or an app, that might have been a little bit out of my wheelhouse. Headphones are in my comfort zone from a design, manufacturing, infrastructure, and logistics point of view.

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“I thought, ‘What if I built a product that stood the test of time? Something that would perform well in the studio, but also feel and look good?’ And that’s how Master & Dynamic started: it was a passion project inspired by my love for my kids.”

It was a similar process as the products you made before, right? Right. A lot of my prior businesses were focused on mass merchants, so over time it became a battle of price, price, price.

With everyone constantly undercutting each other? Yeah, just negotiating. In that situation, you’re not forced to necessarily cheapen your product, but you’re always looking to manufacture for less and less. It’s not a fun process, quite frankly, especially if you want to build the best product you can.

In the headphone business, that was never a consideration. I wanted to build the best, and I believe we do that. We’re certainly building the only all-metal and leather headphones on the market today. It’s not easy, but I’ve been persistent in finding manufacturing partners who believe in that vision.

Were either of your parents entrepreneurial or creative? My father died when I was four, but he was a world traveler and renaissance man of sorts. I have a lot of influences left over from him, and I had a great support network of family, friends and relatives who took me under their wing after he passed. My mom, who is still alive, didn’t push me in any one direction. Instead she supported me in whatever I wanted to do, so I was an independent kid, a good kid, and a great student.

So you were just naturally entrepreneurial? Yes, I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I grew up in New Jersey and lived right across the street from one of the top golf clubs in the country. The US Open was held there every 13 years, one of which was in 1980 when I was a senior in high school. What a lot of people did back then was charge people to park their cars near the event, so I took the week off and leased my neighbors’ properties on the left and right, which gave me a better system than everyone else.

That’s pretty creative for a high school student. I recently read an article about creativity that mentioned a quote by Sir Ken Robinson: “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.” Some argue that we’re all born creative geniuses, but somewhere along the way, creativity is taught out of us in schools or not supported by the adults in our lives, so we lose it.

I’ve found that in this business creativity feeds on itself in a positive way. As we become more creative as a company, we gain access to more creative people in our network. In turn, those conversations inspire new creativity. At this point in my life, I feel like I’m at the peak of my creativity because of those amazing conversations. I take meetings with almost anybody because I never know what I’ll learn from them or how we’ll end up supporting each other.

Jonathan Levine in Master & Dynamic’s design and development studio in New York
Jonathan in Master & Dynamic’s design and development studio in New York; photo by Christopher Sturman

“If you speak to entrepreneurs, most of us tend to have higher risk profiles than other people, so it didn’t feel like that big of a risk. I saw an opportunity and because I have built and designed products before, I thought I could do it.”

You’re in business with your partner in life, Vicki. How did that come about and did you know what it was going to be like to work together? I didn’t know what it was going to be like, but I invited her to join me so we’d be able to spend more time together and we both thought it’d be fun. It’s still a lot of fun, but I don’t think either of us understood how much work it would be. Vicki went from saying, “I’ll help out a few days a week for a few hours a day,” to being in the office full-time. We share an office and sit right across from each other. Sometimes we’ll look at each other like, “Be careful what you wish for.” I’ve had business partners before, but this is the first time I’ve ever had a business partner who is also my life partner. It creates great opportunities, but it requires a lot of trust. There are some stress points, and there’s not a lot of down-time.

How do you balance your work and personal lives? We try to find balance. We basically carve out x amount of time on weekends to discuss business and then decompress and just be a couple. But in a fast-growing business, there is always something to deal with or an opportunity we need to address. We love what we do and we’re having success, so it’s fun. If it were a different type of business, it might be more stressful.

Working with your partner is great, although it does changes the dynamic of the relationship. It depends on what you do, and it isn’t for everyone, but it does help to have complimentary skill sets. Exactly. In my case, I have a frenetic, energetic management style: I like to be in motion constantly. But Vicki balances that out by backing me up, making sure everything is done perfectly, and following through. In that respect, our dynamic works really well. Vicki is stronger with color than I am, so she makes sure all the colors match on leathers and packaging. (laughing)

What’s your one piece of advice for romantic partners who are considering going into business together? If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d probably have a different answer; and if you ask me a year from now, I’ll probably have a different answer. But at this point, the most important piece of advice is to carve out absolute private time. As hard as it is, it lets you regroup and refresh. Any business, and certainly a fast-growing business, can overwhelm and consume you. I’m sure a lot of relationships have failed because of that.

I’d like to be able to spend more time with Vicki outside of the office. In the early days, before we were even in production, Vicki and I would have time to go out to lunch and take a Friday off in the summer. Now it’s a little bit tougher to do that.

“I’ve had business partners before, but this is the first time I’ve ever had a business partner who is also my life partner. It creates great opportunities, but it requires a lot of trust.”

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Have you had any mentors or influential people in your life along the way or have you learned on your own through trial and error? This isn’t meant to sound sad, but if you lose a parent at a young age, you look to other people to engage with and give you guidance. There isn’t one main person who sticks out as a mentor because there have been a lot of really good people.

That said, one of my uncles was a successful architect, so I wanted to be one as a kid. Designing and building Master & Dynamic feels close to that. I’m building something timeless, and I’ve become friendly with some well-known architects who appreciate my products through that process.

Rather than mentors, what’s been helpful for me in this business is early and consistent points of validation along the way, whether it’s from consumers or other entrepreneurs who appreciate my products. When I receive a compliment like that, it means something. It makes me feel like I’m doing something right, and that fuels me.

Someone asked me recently if there was ever a point when I thought about giving up, and I told them no. The reality is, there are always points of frustration or things you don’t expect and have to push through. It’s the process of pushing through those points of frustration that bring you to a new level. Those experiences become catalysts for future growth. It’s ironic that the points people think are the toughest are actually the brightest beacons of guidance.

What has your proudest moment been as an entrepreneur? The fringe benefits of this include building a great team of young, talented people. We work hard and have fun together. We have a very low turnover rate, and we’re able to attract more talent as we grow because people reach out. I’d like to think that the people who work for us now might become entrepreneurs on their own if they choose to, and I’d be happy to support them. That’s very rewarding.

As someone who is self-taught in many ways, it’s exciting to get my kids involved. They’re proud of what I’m doing and I like having them be part of the process. They’re both creative and I want to inspire them to use their creativity. It’s also a way for them to learn to be risk-takers. I want them to feel comfortable taking risks, not just in business, but personally as well. When they see me building my business or my relationship with Vicki, I hope it inspires them. If you can inspire and be inspired on a daily basis, that’s a recipe for a happy life. And that happens every day for me.

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“Failure is a part of life—not just business. Almost every successful person we admire has experienced some type of failure, but their failure becomes a big part of their future success.”

Do you consider yourself to be a mentor? Do you feel compelled to give something back to the world in some way? If my story can inspire another entrepreneur—hopefully not in headphones (laughing)—then that’s great. I’d be proud if someone said, “I was reading an article about Master & Dynamic, and I decided I was going to go for it.” That would make me feel proud, whether they succeed or not. Succeeding doesn’t really matter: it’s choosing to take opportunities that counts. No matter what you do, be the best you can be and contribute and give something back in that way.

When I think about feeling compelled to give something back to the world, I think about needing to be morally aware. I feel responsible for our team of employees: a lot of them have left bigger companies to join our team. When my chief product officer decided he was going to leave Bose after 10 years and move to New York with his wife, I didn’t take that decision lightly. He and I do great work together now, and I think it’s working out for everybody.

Are you creatively satisfied? Yes. Master & Dynamic has become the vehicle for me to express my creativity, to scratch that itch. It’s not just about the products: it’s also about how we build the brand, engage with the people, and the opportunities we create. It’s a lot of fun.

Do you have any upcoming collaborations? You’ve collaborated with fashion brands like Carolyn Rowan and Proenza Schouler. Yeah, Jack and Lazaro were amazing to work with. We did that early on and we were very lucky. In 2015, we took a year off from doing any type of fashion collaboration because we had a lot of products we were launching and didn’t want to become too busy. But we’ll definitely be launching a lot more products this year and plan to partner with other like-minded companies. We’re following a concept of mastery and engaging with what I call “best in class” brands and companies, which is very exciting.

What do you think we can learn from failure? Failure is a part of life—not just business. Almost every successful person we admire has experienced some type of failure, but their failure becomes a big part of their future success. I’ve certainly had my failures, but you can’t wallow in them. You have to get back up and believe.

Sometimes people’s difficulties and failures are edited out and people don’t hear the backstory, only their successes. Telling the whole story is more inspiring. When you hear stories about great people like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Ford, they all went through their own personal traumas and persevered.

Or Thomas Edison, who grew up in my hometown of Port Huron, Michigan. Oh, really? I never knew that.

Yeah, he was a brilliant entrepreneur, but his mother pulled him out of school early on because he didn’t fit the mold and he was labeled “difficult.” I think a lot of entrepreneurs and inventors might be viewed like that. I agree. I like to joke that I have to be an entrepreneur because I’m pretty much unemployable. (laughing) I had to create my own job instead.interview close

“Succeeding doesn’t really matter: it’s choosing to take opportunities that counts. No matter what you do, be the best you can be and contribute and give something back in that way.”

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