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Mother Knows Best

FUBU co-founder Daymond John has become a go-to guy for business advice. But the nuggets of wisdom he doles out to budding entrepreneurs, he says, are mostly his mom’s.

Author Reyna Gobel

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PHOTO BY STANLEY DEBAS

WHEN DAYMOND JOHN WAS 8, his mother took him with her to flea markets, where he helped sell the skirts and blouses she designed and sewed to pay the bills. By age 10, he was running a snow-shoveling business with 20 employees in his Queens, N.Y., neighborhood. While other kids were running after ice cream trucks, John was busy amassing a fortune (albeit a very small one).

John’s self-confidence eventually gave rise to an enterprise that would make him genuinely rich: the hugely popular, hip-hop-inspired FUBU clothing line, which he started with three friends in 1992. After all, from the get-go, confidence was pretty much the only thing John had. He and his co-founders made FUBU’s early products themselves, primarily hats, and sold them on the street outside the New York Coliseum.

Now 44, John is a billionaire, author, motivational speaker and one of the “investors” on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” a reality show in which successful business execs advise would-be entrepreneurs hunting for capital. For John, though, seed money is far from being the most important element in a startup. “They can get cash anywhere,” he says. “It’s the advice they need.” And he has plenty of that to offer, much of it based on his experience as a self-made man—with a little of his mother’s common sense sprinkled in.

First lesson: No whining. A “Shark Tank” hopeful named Rachael Mann made the tactical error of complaining to John when a manufacturer couldn’t keep up with the demand for the body jewelry she co-designs with her sister, Mackenzie Burdick. “Stand up and be a CEO,” he barked. “Call the manufacturer and ask for discounts.” It worked. Her confidence grew every time she followed his advice, Mann says—including the directive that she and her sister write individual notes to customers explaining and apologizing for any delays.

For his part, John says he was simply passing along a version of something he’d learned from his mother, Margot. Being the family CEO required that she fix the problems she faced, rather than use them as an excuse for self-pity. When she got a bill she couldn’t pay, for instance, she’d drive her car along a bus route and pick up people for cash. John drove that route, too, when he needed money in his late teens. It gave him the idea of starting a commuter van service when he graduated from high school.

Second lesson: You’re ultimately responsible for everything your company produces. Mann eventually fired her manufacturer and hired a new one. “You can’t blame anyone else for problems in your business,” John told her. “Did you sit there in the factory and watch them make it?”

John learned to take responsibility for himself after his mother yanked him out of Catholic school. He had become rebellious—a reaction, he says, to his parents’ divorce. Told he had to pass one test to go on to the eighth grade, he had blown it off, filling in answers he knew were wrong (he identified the U.S. president as comedian Nipsey Russell). So his mother sent him straight to public school, which was a significant punishment, considering how overrun with gangs the local schools were at the time. John would get robbed “here and there,” he says.

At first he resented being put in that position, but he soon realized he was accountable for his own fate. And that understanding, ultimately, is what led him to co-found FUBU. He hired people to work for him as the company took off, but stuck to the principle of personal responsibility. “If anything happens, if the business goes down,” he’d tell himself, “it’s your fault.” John put FUBU on hold three times between 1989 and 1992 due to a lack of money, and each time he held no one accountable but himself, he says.

Third lesson: Perfect one idea before moving on to the next. In Mann’s case, when she called John to say she and her sister were ready to add a clothing line, he told her to slow down, to first make sure everything was running smoothly—from manufacturing to financing—in the body jewelry business. Once that happened, they would be primed to expand. And now they are. The sisters’ first few clothing pieces will debut this fall.

John knows how vital it is to have a sounding board. In FUBU’s early days, he spent hours brainstorming with Stephen Serota, who’d dated John’s mother for years and who became something of a second father to him. “Do you think we could try to build a business?” John would ask. “Do you think we should borrow some money?” Serota responded by outlining the options: John could get investors to establish a retail enterprise, or he could cut out the middlemen and sell his products directly.

Eventually, having decided on the latter approach, John started making the rounds of clothing stores to hawk his wares, picking up investors along the way. Even when John seemed uncertain about which path he should take in establishing his business, Serota never doubted he had what it took to succeed. “Daymond always had a quiet confidence,” he says. “It was part of his DNA.”

REYNA GOBEL is a New York–based health and finance writer who has always made a point of taking her mom’s advice.

2 Responses to “Mother Knows Best”

  1. Dana Harris Carter Says:
    May 13th, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    Awesome and inspiring story. He certainly reaped what he sowed :-) Blessings!!!

  2. Theresa Pate Says:
    June 3rd, 2013 at 12:17 am

    Shark Tank is one of my “must-watch” TV programs.

    I respect Daymond’s straight-forward but (usually) compassionate responses to guests’ business ideas.

    Reading this article on a flight from Washington Dulles back home to Houston IAH affirmed my impression of Mr. Johns as a man of great integrity. I was most struck by this passage: “…he soon realized he was accountable for his own fate. And that understanding, ultimately, is what led him to co-found FUBU. He hired people to work for him as the company took off, but stuck to the principle of personal responsibility. ‘If anything happens, if the business goes down,’ he’d tell himself, ‘it’s your fault.’ John put FUBU on hold three times between 1989 and 1992 due to a lack of money, and each time he held no one accountable but himself, he says.”

    Thank you, Hemispheres Magazine, for this excellent interview.

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