Some people win the game of business by sticking to the rules. Other people win by changing the game. Most entrepreneurs are game changers not rule keepers. That’s why you go into business for yourself, right? You don’t fit into the gray cubicle world of corporate America so you build your own craft and launch out into the world of business.
A few founders go way beyond ordinary, though, when it comes to breaking the rules and changing the game, people such as Daymond John. You might know Daymond from ABC’s hit reality business show Shark Tank. He’s the shark who started with $40 and created a $6 billion game-changing fashion empire called FUBU. Today, Daymond, a boy with dyslexia from a middle class neighborhood in Queens, boasts a personal net worth of $250 million.
He didn’t earn it with an Ivy League education and a network of family friends, either. Daymond John built his business on sheer entrepreneurial skill.
Humble Beginnings Pave Daymond’s Way
Daymond got his first job in 1979 when he was just ten years old, handing out flyers on the streets near his home in the Hollis area of southeastern New York City. For his work, Daymond earned $2 an hour. Later, he sold more goods, everything from pencils to refurbished autos, to help out at home.
All the time he was hustling, he kept learning what it meant to be an entrepreneur. These scrappy enterprises became the school Daymond could succeed in when traditional school failed him over and over. Later, Daymond would say, “Entrepreneurship brings us hope.”
It certainly brought Daymond hope, along with plenty of fame and fortune, too. How did one man come so far with so little help? The answer is simple: he refused to play someone else’s game. When a traditional life didn’t work out for Daymond after high school graduation, he stopped abiding by the rules of traditional life and forged his own path forward. From his mom’s basement in Hollis, Daymond started changing the game of the fashion business. Here’s how he did it..
Entrepreneurial Prodigy or Floundering Scholar?
Like a lot of superstar entrepreneurs, Daymond’s childhood didn’t forecast much promise of his future success. He was born in 1969 to Carribbean parents in Brooklyn, New York. When Daymond was still small, his family relocated to Queens, and Daymond started elementary school. From the beginning, Daymond didn’t excel in anything that required reading. He was good at math and science, but he couldn’t make all those squiggly lines and letters in books make much sense.
Daymond’s failure to crack the code of the written word angered his father who would yell at him to stop slacking and get to work. But all his dad’s anger didn’t help Daymond learn to read. The school eventually diagnosed their pupil with a general “learning disability.” It would be decades before Daymond discovered the name for what he had — dyslexia.
In the meantime, the young man found other, less traditional outlets than school in which to express his extraordinary intelligence. In the first grade, for example, Daymond started a pencil business. He would shave off the paint and customize the pencil with his buyer’s name. And his customers, as Business Insider would later discover, were “exclusively the prettiest girls in his first-grade class.”
When Daymond was ten years old, his parents divorced, and from that time on, Daymond lived exclusively with his mom. He later described the economic fallout from his parents divorce as moving from middle class to poor, the opposite trajectory of the American dream. But all compelling business stories include a dose of failure. And for Daymond, failure just meant another chance to change the game.
Man of the House
Things changed at the Johns’ home after Daymond’s dad left. Now man of the house, ten-year-old Daymond went to work. He started by selling flyers on the street for $2 an hour. This job offered the young man more than a few bucks that his mom could put toward household expenses. It also provided him with a way to scratch that entrepreneurial itch he’d had since the first grade. More new ways to scratch the itch would follow.
Daymond hustled his way through a smattering of side of gigs around his school schedule. While these opportunities fueled the budding entrepreneur’s sales and business skills, they didn’t help him read with greater fluency or comprehension. School remained a struggle. Fortunately, Daymond’s local school had crafted the perfect solution for him, a chance to learn business in a hands-on, real-world environment.
At Bayside High School, Daymond entered a business co-op program in which he attended school on alternate weeks and worked a full-time job at First Boston investment bank in Manhattan. He would later tell LinkedIn executive editor Dan Roth about that time in his life. “I started to realize how much business was being done.” He also started to see clearly that he could use his whiz-kid math skills to make something new that other people would pay good money for.
Looking past High School onto the Future
After graduating from high school, Daymond knew he wanted to become an entrepreneur. But he had no money, no connections, and few prospects. So while he developed his entrepreneurial skills with an array of side hustles, Daymond waited tables at Red Lobster for a regular paycheck.
“When you work at Red Lobster, you don’t take your job home with you,” he told Business Insider. “No one calls you up and says, ‘I need more tartar sauce.” Besides being a standard pay-the-bills gig, Red Lobster also offered the young businessman a chance to learn about the world of business.
Daymond read the company’s quarterly shareholder reports, which gave him insight into what makes a small business profitable. He also saw how the eatery worked on the front end. Daymond realized, for example, that restaurants don’t make money on entrees. The valuable purchases are the appetizers, drinks, and desserts. To make a profit, therefore, restaurants need to sell their current customers one of those items. That’s part of why a restaurant doesn’t earn much money on a first-time diner. The money lies in the returning customers, people who eat there regularly and purchase a favorite add-on or two.
With these business lessons and more under his belt, Daymond started searching for the magic idea that he could take to entrepreneurial success.
The First Forays into Small Business
While working at Red Lobster, Daymond experimented with new business ideas at night. There was the hat project, for starters. Since Daymond loved clothes, he got the idea to make tie-top hats, wool ski hats tied up with fishing line, a popular item in Hip Hop culture at the time. In one night, Daymond and his neighbor stitched up 90 of these hats to sell at concerts and festivals. They ran through the entire lot in a single day, and Daymond and his neighbor took home more than $800.
With that success fueling him on, Daymond figured he could sell more hats if he could make more of them. So to help him stitch up new products, he recruited three buddies, Alexander Martin, Carl Brown, and Keith Perrin. The team worked out of Daymond’s mother’s basement, making and selling the popular hats. It wasn’t long before the Johns family sensed that the project in the basement held potential. Real potential.
Daymond’s mom remortgaged her house to get the $100,000 he needed for the startup capital of a brand-new fashion company. (Notice something about a lot of winning entrepreneurs: they had committed moms or dads who believed in their ideas. Think about that if you have kids.) Quitting the Red Lobster job, Daymond gave himself 100% to his new company. He later said that he figured if the fashion biz didn’t work out, he could always head back to the seafood restaurant.
With his mom’s money to get them going, Daymond and his team dug in to the real work of building a business. First, Daymond knew, his fledgling company needed a powerful name if it was to compete with the big boys of fashion.
FUBU: How Daymond John Changed the Fashion Business Game
Daymond thought a four-letter word such as NIKE has would make a good name for his new business. So he came up with FUBU, which stands for “For Us, By Us.” With the $100,000 from his mom’s mortgage, Daymond and the team started stitching FUBU labels onto t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hockey jerseys along with the now-popular hats. Daymond sent his products to major hip hop artists, knowing that if he could get a wave attention from influencers in his community, he could ratchet up his sales.
Sure enough the FUBU logo proved irresistible. Rappers wore the jerseys in more than 30 videos over the next two years. Demand for the products escalated. Stores began ordering FUBU merchandise. It was growing nicely, but the business really caught fire when megastar LL Cool J, an old neighborhood acquaintance of Daymond, wore a FUBU shirt in a promotional video.
The next year, Macy’s ordered $300,000 worth of FUBU products. Such a massive order went way beyond what Daymond had the money to provide. Once he again, he turned to his most trust advisor — his mom. She suggested placing an ad in the New York Times for a funder. It was an unorthodox approach to securing venture capital, but it worked.
A South Korean company called Samsung Textiles ponied up the funds, and Daymond delivered the goods to Macy’s. Today, FUBU has raked in more than $6 billion in sales and has been featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
The Shark Tank Years
With his world-famous business now pulling in $350 million a year, Daymond John became a hot commodity himself. Of course, he liked the idea of being a star, but somehow, no matter how hard he tried, Daymond just couldn’t crack into the top echelon of celebrity entrepreneurs. He later said, “If you really want something, stop chasing it.” He meant that the minute he quit trying so hard to achieve fame, it happened to him.
In 2009, Mark Burnett offered Daymon a spot on his hit show Shark Tank. This four-time Emmy winning reality show lets promising young entrepreneurs pitch their ideas before a team of the world’s best and brightest founders, including Daymond John — the boy who couldn’t read well, started his career waiting tables and Red Lobster, and described his childhood as a trajectory from middle class to poor.
At first, it looked like the show wasn’t going to make it since ABC kept moving it around to unlikely time slots. But Daymond and his fellow sharks kept plugging away, using all their entrepreneurial savvy. Today, millions of viewers tune in each week to watch the critically acclaimed production. To date, Daymond has starred in the show for its entire 11-season run.
Daymond doesn’t seem to be letting fame get to his head, though. According to INC, he remarked that “The only difference between you and me is that I have a camera on me.”
The Future of the Game for Daymond John
So what does the future look like for a game changer such as Daymond John? A bigger company? More slots on popular business shows? A gig helping other people like himself to succeed?
So far, it looks Daymond could be heading down all those roads. After a few years of struggle, FUBU is poised to make a comeback through a collaboration with Century 21. Daymond himself is a regular face and voice on popular shows such as The View, Good Morning America, and The Dr. Oz Show. And he’s helping other people with dyslexia through the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity as well as encouraging entrepreneurship among older Americans.
Daymond has also emerged as a New York Times bestselling author, having written Display of Power: How FUBU Changed A World Of Fashion, Branding And Lifestyle and The Brand Within: How We Brand Ourselves, From Birth To The Boardroom.
From a boy who couldn’t read to a New York Times bestselling author, Daymond has achieved success by changing the rules of the game, and now, he’s helping others play to win, too.
Stephanie is the Marketing Director at Talkroute and has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur as a leading authority on business and telecommunications.
Stephanie is also the chief editor and contributing author for the Talkroute blog helping more than 100k entrepreneurs to start, run, and grow their businesses.