Secrets of His Success

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FUBU founder, CEO recounts company launch, rise and road to “Shark Tank”

Daymond John talks to 700 business students, others at Kennesaw State                                                                                                     

KENNESAW, Ga. (April 3, 2012) — FUBU founder and “Shark Tank” star Daymond John regaled an audience of more than 700 with vivid stories that shed light on the secrets of his success turning a makeshift factory in his mother’s house into a multibillion-dollar global fashion brand.

John, 42, was the keynote speaker at the Tetley Distinguished Leader Lecture Series hosted by Kennesaw State University’s Michael J. Coles College of Business on March 28.

The entrepreneur and branding guru talked about how 27 banks turned him down when he was launching FUBU, how he almost went bankrupt, and how a Gap commercial featuring LL Cool J with a FUBU hat sent FUBU sales through the roof. He also related how he embraced hip-hop early on, stalked rappers so they would wear his shirts and sacrificed his family along the way.

“I have failed way more than I have succeeded,” John told the audience during an animated talk interspersed with tunes of hip-hop and top-40 hits from the past. “I’m a shark. Sharks die if they stop moving and if they stop swimming. You have to keep moving.”

John, CEO of FUBU (For Us, By Us) and creator of the untapped urban apparel market, walked onto the stage wearing sunglasses, sleek jeans, a black FUBU top and a Ralph Lauren vest. He shared five “shark” tips for success with his audience, composed mostly of business students and faculty and members of the business community. His five shark tips: 1. Set a goal; 2. Do your homework; 3. Love what you do; 4. Remember that you are the brand (and be able to say in two to five words what your brand is about); 5. Keep moving.

In the audience were 12 students from Coles College of Business entrepreneurship professor Jim Herbert’s “Entrepreneurship and Creativity” class.  Since 2009, Herbert has required his students to watch the ABC reality show “Shark Tank,” where budding entrepreneurs make pitches to a panel of investors. At the end of the semester, student teams must make a presentation of their business venture in front of a panel of judges.

“Ultimately, we use ‘Shark Tank’ as another teaching and learning platform,” Herbert explained. “We get to observe the different perspectives of the investors/sharks. We witness the entrepreneurs defending the viability of their venture, pitching their product/service, and negotiating the deal. Seeing these activities in action adds tremendous value to our learning experiences.”

Herbert said that John’s talk was “uniquely creative, much like his successful fashion line. Daymond John’s life story represents the quintessential model of African-American entrepreneurial success, from the ‘hood’ to the ‘boardroom.’ ”

Among the lessons John taught the students: to do what they love and forget about making money. “The money will come. … Success is not money,” he told the audience. “We never thought we’d have more than a little store.”

John, who did not attend college, said he was in awe of being a “distinguished” speaker addressing college students. “Never in my life did I think I would be talking to a university,” he said.

John grew up poor in a “very happy household” in Hollis, Queens, and came of age when hip-hop was germinating in New York City during the early ’80s. Early on, he embraced hip-hop. “It was more than just music,” he said. “This music, it had a way to talk, it had a way to dress but it also had a way to walk.” Hip-hop, he explained, went from 100 people dancing in New York  parks to 30,000 people dancing in stadiums all over.

“My life changed from black and white to Technicolor,” John said, referring to his embrace of hip-hop at age 13 and the realization that he was going to be part of the hip-hop world. “I knew I had found my destiny.”

He started sewing his own clothes at age 11 and got started in sales by peddling clothes he bought on Delancey Street out of the trunk of his car. He went on to sewing hats and at first named his company BUFU. “I wanted to sell hats at first because they were easy to make,” John said.

John related how he turned $40 worth of materials into tie-top hats and made $800 selling the hats in a few hours. “I could not believe it,” he said. “I was on to something.”

For three years, he had only 10 shirts, which he took around to rappers so they would wear them on their videos. He would stalk celebrity hip-hop artists to get them to wear his shirt, and would take photos of them wearing his shirt. He was working at a restaurant at night. “I’m still a waiter at Red Lobster with 10 shirts,” he quipped. 

At a trade show in Vegas, he recounted how “five young black guys,” with no money and no passes to the show, sneaked and snagged $300,000 in orders. After being turned down by 27 banks, his mother mortgaged their home. John took out all the furniture, chopped it and burned it so he could bring in sewing machines and turned the home into a factory. “The whole house is filled with purple smoke,” he recalled.

Struggling to keep the business afloat, he partnered with electronics manufacturer Samsung, which had textile factories, after his mom bought an ad that said “million dollars in orders, need financing.” When he closed the deal with Samsung, his expectations were to sell $5 million in three years. Instead, he sold $30 million in three months.

After he got Hollis native and hip-hop star LLCool J to wear one of his hats in a Gap TV ad, sales of FUBU skyrocketed to $300 million. “My life changed at that point,” he said. “I started to meet with heads of state. I started traveling the world.”

After appearing on TV shows offering advice to entrepreneurs, he was contacted by successful TV producer Mark Burnett to do a new show that Burnett described as “American Idol-meets-business.” After turning Burnett down a few times, John joined the cast of ABC’s “Shark Tank” in 2009 as a shark. John, who is still on the show, said he has dedicated about $3 million of his capital and resources to businesses pitched on the show over the past three years.

Even now that he’s made it, John, whose office is located in the Empire State Building, keeps himself very busy. He travels 200 days a year and sleeps three or four hours each night.

Aixa M. Pascual