As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Joel N. Myers.
Named “the most accurate man in weather” by The New York Times, Dr. Joel N. Myers is considered the “father of modern commercial meteorology” and the nation’s most respected authority on the business of meteorology. Founder and Chief Executive Officer of AccuWeather, he has been recognized in Entrepreneur Magazine’s Encyclopedia of Entrepreneurs book as one of the greatest entrepreneurs in American history. He is a proven visionary leader, founding the company in 1962 and successfully establishing AccuWeather as the largest and fastest-growing weather media company as well as a global leader in weather-related big data, business, and predictive analytics. Dr. Myers continues to champion global business growth at AccuWeather while helping others.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up in Philadelphia. When I was three years old, I fell in love …… with snow. At seven, I decided to become a weather forecaster. When I was 11, I told my dad I was going to combine my burning desire to be a weather forecaster with my developing entrepreneurial spirit (I had a paper route and some other little businesses I started) as a means of starting my own weather business. I was very certain of my ability to be successful and very determined. My mother called me, “One-track-mind Joel.” When it was time for college, I went to The Pennsylvania State University, the only college we could afford. It turned out to have one of the best meteorology programs in the world.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your journey to found AccuWeather?
In 1954, I contacted the U.S. Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) and a local TV station and offered them weather observations from my house in North Philadelphia, which often had different snow amounts than the official readings at the airport. At that time, observation points were few and far between compared to what is available now. As an official cooperative observer, I would send in reports each month and called in reports of rain and snowfall amounts, which was really the only source of such observations 15 miles north of the airport and at an elevation of 300 feet above sea level compared to the airport being virtually at sea level. Sometimes the differences in the snow amounts were dramatic.
I won the American Meteorological Society’s Macelwane Award as an undergrad writing about these variations in a paper titled, “Snowfall Variations Across the City of Philadelphia.”
Between my junior and senior years in college in 1960, I was a summer intern at the U.S. Weather Bureau.
A few days after arriving on the Penn State campus, I convinced the city editor of the Daily Collegian to allow me to become the campus newspaper’s first-ever weather forecaster. And a few weeks later, I also began providing weather forecasts for the campus radio station. This gave me valuable insight into how the media works at an early age.
I earned three degrees from Penn State, and beginning in my first year as a graduate student, I taught the 400-level course in weather forecasting and then taught it continuously for the next 21 years, founding AccuWeather as a 2nd year grad student in 1962.
By the time I retired from teaching, it is estimated that I had trained 17 percent of the nation’s weather forecasters.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
For years I provided forecasts and insights about the upcoming weekend at the ski areas for the Poconos in Pennsylvania, the Catskills and Berkshires up through the large ski areas in New England to Michael Strauss, the ski editor of The New York Times, and sometimes he included my forecasts and insights into his column, which ran regularly for decades. On one Wednesday, he said he heard about a snowstorm that might bring snow to the ski areas that weekend. I confirmed there was a storm developing off the Carolina coast, but I told him I was not at all sure it would affect the ski areas; in fact, I said it will most likely go out to sea. He implored me, “What happens if it comes north? What happens if it brings snow?” I speculated, if it came north and it really developed to its fullest, it could produce 6–12 inches of snow, but I emphasized that is not what I was forecasting. Michael normally reported what I told him, but in this case, the two- column headline in the sports section of the Times was, “Myers predicts 6–12 inches of snow for the ski areas.” Of course, the snow never came. What I learned from that experience was to always be especially careful what I tell reporters.
None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
While a second-year graduate student, a local utility company called the Meteorology Department in need of daily forecasts. The department head and my mentor, Dr. Charles Hosler, knowing of my dream to start a weather business, referred them to me, and they became my first client, paying $50 a month for service for three winter months.
In addition to Dr. Hosler, I am very grateful to Penn State. I could not have developed AccuWeather without the great education, the special mentorship, and intellectual stimulation I received there as well as the exceptional opportunities to teach and conduct research. It also allowed me to hire my best students, resulting in a crucible of creativity at AccuWeather, where forecast meteorologists with a unique purpose and positive attitude feed off each other to create something great.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
As I started what eventually became AccuWeather, I faced the most difficult business challenge one can imagine with resistance from every conceivable area. My main competitor, the U.S. government, gave its product away for free! I had to convince prospective customers that we could bring much more value to their businesses than the fee I was charging them. That principle has been practiced for 58 years, and we must always keep that in mind.
In the early days, weather forecasts left much to be desired. They were not well localized, provided few details, and they only extended a couple of days ahead. Trying to convince ski areas and other clients to pay me for forecasts, I had to explain that I could be more accurate, more localized, more detailed, and provide forecasts that were easier to understand and were prepared using the best information and were more valuable.
For example, ski areas needed forecasts of relative humidity and temperature variations pinpointed and localized to their slopes — they just did not know it yet. This information was not available from other sources, yet such forecasts were critical for their artificial snowmaking decisions.
To build my business, I had to work very long hours — sometimes 42 straight hours during snowstorms. You cannot imagine the level of rejection I experienced. Calling ski areas and other prospects trying to convince them that they should buy weather forecasts from me. I received rejection after rejection. I had to overcome serious headwinds, challenges that would have turned back most people. My “never quit” mentality included calling 25,000 business prospects and being told “no” 24,900 times.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When you believe in your dream, you must keep at it and not accept “no” for an answer. I remained focused and never gave up, and I was determined to know my business and articulate why my product had greater value that was worth paying for. I sold my benefits of my service. As I stated picking up one paying customer after another, I saved quotes from them on how satisfied they were with the service, how much money I saved them and allowed them to make, while continuing to refine the service and the advantages of the AccuWeather forecast and the marketing messaging. I tell everyone who comes to AccuWeather, “Drive, drive, drive until you succeed.”
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today the AccuWeather forecast is used by more than 1.5 billion people globally on every continent. We are available on every conceivable platform including the award-winning AccuWeather apps and our accuweather.com website. Our forecasts are in over 700 newspapers and on 100+ television stations and 800+ radio stations, in addition to our AccuWeather TV Network, which is broadcast to 36 million households as well as on digital out of home platforms and on over 180,000 third-party websites. We provide weather forecasts and warnings to more than half of the Fortune 500 companies as well as thousands of other business and government agencies globally. We have saved tens of thousands of lives and prevented tens of billions of dollars in property damage, and we were cited by Congress for our life-saving warnings during Hurricane Katrina, where we saved 10,000 lives.
We have thousands of real-life examples of saving lives and preventing damage during hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, high winds, flash floods, storm surges, lightning and thunderstorms and all types of severe weather. These stories have been reported by media and, of course, word of mouth has been amazing. During a Pearl Jam concert at Wrigley Field, Eddie Vedder spoke to the crowd that had come back after being evacuated due to a lightning storm, “We just got the ‘all clear’ from AccuWeather.” The concert resumed and no one was hurt.
What do you think makes AccuWeather stand out? Can you share a story?
Our Superior Accuracy sets us apart. It is foundational to our name — Accuracy+Weather= AccuWeather. In the latest and most comprehensive study of forecast accuracy every undertaken (20 million forecasts, 1,100 locations globally), AccuWeather was proven most statistically accurate in all categories tested — temperature, precipitation and wind speed — above all other sources. On top of this foundational accuracy, AccuWeather forecasts offer more useful detail, are more hyper local down to a user’s home or office address and are provided further ahead of other sources.
In 2020, we were proven the best on-air forecast in a Kantar research study as well. AccuWeather partners with ABC Owned and Operated stations in 8 top markets; the Kantar study proved the AccuWeather/ABC forecast was most accurate and provided the most useful detail than the competitor stations’ weather forecasts in those 8 local markets.
We have hundreds of examples of success stories to share, but here are just a couple of examples:
In Feb. 2008, we foresaw a tornado outbreak that generated 84 individual tornadoes, killing 56 people. The Caterpillar manufacturing plant in Greenwood, MS, our client, took a direct hit from one of those tornadoes and incurred $23 million in damage. 80 lives were saved directly by AccuWeather due to 23 minutes advanced notice. No one was killed or even hurt. No other warnings had been issued by the NWS or any other source. We have dozens of similar stories where we were directly responsible for saving lives and preventing bodily injury.
A few years after AccuWeather became the exclusive weather source for 1010 WINS, the news radio station in New York City and the most listened to station in the U.S., there was a storm off the coast and every other radio station was calling for a major snowfall as was the National Weather Service — everyone, that is, except AccuWeather. I recall being on the air live several times per hour and being interviewed by the news announcer who asked me when was the snow going to start? And I had to continually correct him that he must be listening to another station because the AccuWeather forecast on 1010 WINS does not call for any snow. I have to admit, radar was not as accurate in those days, and I was using much more rudimentary tools than we have today, but still due to our forecasting prowess, we stuck to our guns. Even though the snow came within 30 miles of New York City, there was nary a flake in the city. All the other stations that predicted from 3–8 inches of snow had egg on their faces, but not 1010 WINS — and not AccuWeather!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I always tell my team to think entrepreneurially — think about one thing, problem or process you can focus on and do a little bit better each day. If you improve by 1 percent each day for 365 days, at the end of one year you would be 38 times better than you were to begin with — 38 times! Conversely, if you lose 1 percent of some skill each day, at the end of the year you are only 3 percent of what you were or 97 percent worse. So, in applying this to your work or anything you want to do in life, when you are trying to achieve or perfect a certain skill, if you improve 1 percent a day versus losing that capability of 1 percent a day, that is a difference of 1,260 times — and that is extraordinary compounding.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As I mentioned, AccuWeather has saved tens of thousands of lives, prevented bodily harm to perhaps 100,000 people and, by providing advance notice, we probably allowed millions of people to minimize their loss of property and possessions. That is a legacy I am extremely proud of and few people can point to such an achievement in life.
I am extremely appreciative of what the people of the company I build have achieved, and I do my best to give back and set an example for my children by donating my time and resources to several charitable causes. I founded the Dads’ Resource Center, which promotes the well-being and healthy development of children from separated or divorced families by helping to support and encourage fathers to be fully and actively engaged in the lives of their sons and daughters. I also support the American Cancer Society and many additional causes, including the local food bank.
In 2020 I made a gift to the State College Discovery Space, a science museum for very young children up through elementary school, to help them remain open after a devastating financial blow due to the pandemic. The gift will cover the costs for a new, cutting-edge exhibit to teach children about science and weather.
I have also been a donor to Penn State, where I was served on the Board of Trustees for 33 years and am Trustee Emeritus today. I gave a multi-million-dollar gift to Penn State for The Joel N. Myers Weather Center, a state-of-the-art teaching facility, in addition to donating the weathervane that sits atop Beaver Stadium, in addition to campus sundials and to football scholarships.
AccuWeather itself is a give-back organization, and we are proud of what we do every year. AccuWeather donated enough coats through Operation Warm to clothe the entire student bodies of two elementary schools in 2020 and another elementary school in 2019. We also donated many chrome laptop computers to middle school students this year and last.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
I had to learn on my own:
- How to manage people — I started AccuWeather as a second-year grad student while also teaching at Penn State; my primary interactions were teacher to student.
- The business world — I never took a business course, except for a 3-credit insurance course because my father was a real estate and insurance man, but certainly I would have benefitted from learning those skills. Instead, I learned this on my own.
- Entrepreneurism — Entrepreneurism is a skill that can be honed and sharpened. Entrepreneurship is useful for more than building a business. It also describes a frame of mind that can help you achieve your professional and personal goals. Being an entrepreneur is a pattern of behavior. It is the drive that pushes you to accomplish new goals every day — and it something that you think about as you lie awake at night. An entrepreneur is always on the look-out for opportunities. Entrepreneurs are driving for that next success. They are continually thinking about and preparing for opportunities. They are constantly engaged in the practice of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs know their business, they seize opportunities and take action and then drive until they succeed and beyond.
- The value of teamwork — I learned I could not do it alone. Entrepreneurship is a team sport! Clement Stone said, “Tell everyone what you want to do, and someone will want to help you do it.” I have been blessed by many committed, loyal people who have helped AccuWeather achieve greatness, and in so doing they got promoted into positions of greater responsibilities and have had opportunities they never dreamed of. All things being equal, we prefer to promote from within.
- Believe in your dream and do not let anyone deter you from it — In the 1950s and 1960s weather forecasters were often the butt of jokes and cartoons, “The only job you can get paid for by being wrong.” Many meteorologists — including yours truly — were passionate and driven to improve the accuracy of forecasts and build respect for our trade. Even my own family had doubts when I told them I was going to start a commercial weather business to charge companies a fee for providing them with weather forecasts even though the National Weather Service, a government organization, gave weather forecasts away for free to anyone that wanted them, but I did not give up.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Change is constant. I have learned to never stop embracing change and transforming.
AccuWeather has had a revenue increase 55 out of 58 of our years in business by continually transforming ourselves many times over from a company that sold tailored weather forecasts to utilities and ski areas to the fastest growing weather and digital media company whose brand is known and trusted everywhere in the world.
Entrepreneurship combined with innovation and a “can-do,” “get-it-done” mindset are key hallmarks of our corporate culture. We also emphasize a spirit of collaboration both within teams and between various segments of AccuWeather, often working as cross-functional teams and committees representing various viewpoints to inspire the best thinking and the best results. Open debate is encouraged, and the best ideas can come from anyone regardless of their title or position. Discussion, debate and collaboration is what leads to the best outcome. We always want the best solution no matter where it comes from — regardless if it’s from someone in housekeeping or the head of the IT department.
Today, I am proud to say we have instilled throughout AccuWeather a crucible of creativity — an entrepreneurial spirit that has greatly enhanced our ability to fulfill our mission. Still, we must keep sharpening our entrepreneurial skills and everyone needs to be engaged.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
Learning from mistakes is essential to creative solutions. If the first new idea does not work, then they try again. The great inventor Thomas Edison tried 10,000 materials before coming across the right one to use as the filament for the electric light bulb. He did not become discouraged. After all, he said he learned which 10,000 things did not work. I told you already that I called 25,000 prospects before I had my first 100 clients. That means I had to deal with 24,900 rejections. But I kept at it. And now AccuWeather serves more than half of the Fortune 500 companies and thousands more customers all over the world and over a 1.5 billion people globally through radio, television, newspapers, digital signage, the AccuWeather app, our 24/7 national AccuWeather TV Network and our mobile and desktop websites, all while competing with free from government sources worldwide and from other companies. Since I founded AccuWeather, I have seen over 100 companies in this space try to compete with us that are no longer in business today.
I would never have been as successful as I am today if I did not develop the discipline that I learned in high school and particularly in college, many times learning things that were of little or no value to me specifically in business, but it was the disciple of learning, achieving and accomplishing, whether passing tough courses and solving researching problems, that discipline combined with drive and an unending spirit to be successful is the answer. It is the combination of factors that is key — an education by itself does not guarantee success. Drive by itself does not guarantee success. Trying to do it all yourself probably means you will not succeed, so you have to understand the benefits of teamwork; you must be able to bring people together to collaborate for a greater cause. You should be focused on achieving something worthwhile, that you believe in that will help motivate you and others who will believe in you and will want to follow you. It takes all of these ingredients to be successful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would teach the beauty of capitalism and how competition, with the proper regulation, has brought the greatest standard of living to our country and to the world, allowing people to strive for success and keep some of the rewards from their achievements. This has empowered so many people to get educated, become disciplined and strive for success so they can keep a fraction of what they earned and by doing so they transformed humanity over the last 500 years.
People have a natural desire for comfort and seek “the easy way.” Just like there is no royal road to learning, there is no royal road to prosperity, and in the end, there is no free lunch. Take away all incentives and society collapses. I remember the story about the Swedish entrepreneur who came in to work one day and an employee convinced him it wasn’t fair that the programmers were making 4 times what the cleaning people were, so he decided to pay everybody the same amount no matter what their job was and no matter how hard they worked. Four months later the company went bankrupt.
We need to apply that principle to our schools, and we need to do a better job of teaching these concepts in schools because in the end, we are all the beneficiaries from capitalism. Unfortunately, the U.S. seems to be moving further and further away from this with each passing year as our national debt increases because money is handed out and redistributed.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
People can follow us on accuweather.com and our free AccuWeather app for both iOS and Android can be downloaded for free in the Apple and Google Play stores, respectively. Our AccuWeather TV Network can be streamed on fubo TV and Philo. AccuWeather forecasts are carried on over 180,000 third-party websites as well as online on the sites of our media partners including over 800 radio stations, 100 TV stations and 700 newspapers. We can also be found on all social media, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.