Like an actual shark, Daymond John keeps moving.
How he's reached the top, and where he plans to go from here, are one in the same.
John is one of the investors on the popular reality show "Shark Tank." John is also the president, CEO and founder of the ground-breaking clothing line FUBU, and The Shark Group, a brand management and consulting firm.
John, 48, told IBD that everyone should define themselves in "two to five words. And mine are `I'm on a quest.' I'm always learning."
For John, life has been about working with a series of mentors. It started with his mother, his most important one. There also have been teachers, a small-business owner, and his stepfather. "Even in the last eight years I went after some people to hopefully help me, such as (marketing advisor) Jay Abraham, (entrepreneur) Seth Godin. I seek mentors."
Some of the people he reads about to draw life lessons from are Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, Bob Marley, Steven Spielberg, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and various titans of industry.
John's FUBU brand is estimated to be worth some $6 billion. He's earned the nickname "Godfather of Urban Fashion." Other clothing lines John has come to own and operate include Crown Holder, Kappa USA, Coogi and Heatherette.
Knowing His Customer
"The keys were building a strong community that believed in the product," John said. "The keys were failing a bunch of times at a very small level and learning what my customer wanted or didn't want, and knowing my customer better than anybody else in the world. They say that 90% of the most profitable products in corporate America came from customer complaints."
John points out that there is "nothing special about a T-shirt. It can be duplicated, you cannot make it proprietary." But what others cannot duplicate easily is "the community it has grabbed."
John initially catered to the hip-hop community, and found customers as far away as Japan. "Many people think it was about a color, but it wasn't, it was about a culture," John told the Washington Post in 2014. "It was about people who loved hip-hop."
In addition to being a sought-after speaker, consultant and best-selling author, John was named a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship by President Barack Obama. His numerous honors include being named Brandweek's Marketer of the Year, Advertising Age Marketer of the Year, Ernst & Young's Master Entrepreneur of the Year, and one of Details' 50 Most Influential Men.
"You need to outthink, out-hustle, outperform every one of your competitors," John wrote in "The Power of Broke: How Empty Pockets, a Tight Budget, and a Hunger for Success Can Become Your Greatest Competitive Advantage." "You need to work so hard you'll wonder how far you can push yourself."
Dave Heath, co-founder and CEO of Bombas, a maker of high quality comfort socks that John invested in on "Shark Tank," said of him: "Even though he often has a number of projects and businesses in progress at any time, when he sets his mind on something he gives it 100% of his effort and doesn't get distracted."
Randy Goldberg, Bombas' co-founder and chief brand officer says John's "ability to still hustle after all these years ... continues to fuel his success, and ours."
Among John's primary concerns today, in addition to his three daughters, is helping entrepreneurs succeed through his interactive Daymond On Demand website. "I don't want people going out there thinking you need money to make money, because you really don't," John said. "I didn't have any money."
John was born in Brooklyn and raised in New York City's Hollis Queens neighborhood. As an only child, he witnessed the strong work ethic demonstrated by his mother and father. John's mother raised him as a single parent after his parents divorced when he was 10.
John was working from the time he was 6, whether it was selling pencils in school or shoveling snow in the winter and raking leaves in the fall. Even then he was a young deal maker, insisting on an exclusive in the winter from customers in return for some free work in the spring.
His mother was a flight attendant who often worked additional jobs as he was growing up.
He's written that his mother was "disciplined, diligent, determined" — to make sure he had a chance to rise above negative influences in his neighborhood. "The crowd I grew up with was getting into all kinds of trouble. … And me, I got into my share, right alongside. (But I) wasn't so deep into it … mostly because my mother was on me to keep my head down and steer clear."
While John wrote that his mother knew he was "mostly a good kid with a good head on his shoulders," she wasn't going to leave things to chance. When John started high school she took out an $80,000 mortgage on their house for them to live off during the next three years — so she could be a stay-at-home mom. With servicing that debt and paying bills, the money had to be managed carefully.
"That $80,000 was like my mother's investment in me," he wrote. "Another way to look at it: Mothers are the ultimate startups, our true angel investors."
John's mother is now known as "Shark Momma John" and she offers advice on raising a "child shark" and becoming a "momma shark" from her website.
John adds his mother didn't hover over him, but she was present. "It made all the difference," he said. Among the main rules, Daymond had to be home by a certain time at night.
Sewing Up The Deal
"I made it my business to stay out of real trouble and push myself to achieve," he wrote. "Think big — that was like her mantra."
One of John's measures in evaluating a business, in and away from "Shark Tank," is "I want to know the scalability, where is the opportunity there."
While in high school John worked two jobs, at Church's Fried Chicken and Red Lobster. He invested his money in a beat-up 15-passenger Ford van to also get into the ride-sharing business, but lack of proper city-livery licensing stopped that endeavor.
His entrance into the world of fashion began as a passionate hip-hop fan who wanted to buy a tie-tip hat, but thought they were selling for too much. John decided he'd sew his own and soon was selling them on the streets of Queens.
A windfall day that produced sales of $800 worth of them led John and a friend to create their FUBU logo, which means "For Us By Us." They then sewed it on T-shirts, sweatshirts and hockey jerseys.
Brander At The Gate
While still waiting tables at Red Lobster with his small inventory in his basement, John considered ways to advertise and brand his product without the benefit of money.
"I asked store owners if I could spray-paint their nasty storm gates that are pulled down over all the stores in New York," John said. "I painted them white and put 'Authorized FUBU Dealer' in a good font. I spray-painted 300 gates from New York City to Philadelphia."
John says analysis has shown it would have cost $3 million to buy that advertising if they were on billboards and bus stops.
And he found other methods. "I was one of the first to integrate my products and other people's products into music videos," John said. Musical artists like Miss Jones and Brand Nubian were seen wearing FUBU T-shirts in their videos.
Ever the brander, John also asked his neighborhood friend, rapper and actor LL Cool J, to endorse a FUBU T-shirt for an advertising campaign.
To pump some seed money to capitalize on FUBU's opportunities, John and his mother again mortgaged their home, this time for $100,000. She then moved out so it could become FUBU's offices and factory.
After a 1992 industry trade show in Las Vegas, John and his partners came home with $300,000 worth of orders. That led to a contract with Macy's and an expansion of the line to include jeans and outerwear.
When John's mother took out a newspaper ad looking for financing a few years later, it led to a distribution deal with Norman Weisfeld, president of Samsung's textile division.
With $350 million in 1998 revenue, FUBU took its place in the public consciousness with other leaders in designer sportswear and was on its way to becoming the $6 billion brand it is today.
"People too often forget about it, but at the end of the day it's about how the customer relates to your product and why they need to come back to it," John said. "Customers always value the experience even more than the product. Especially today."
Founded the FUBU clothing brand. Nicknamed the "Godfather of Urban Fashion," he is a regular investor on "Shark Tank."
Overcame: Lack of money and steep competition from clothing giants.
Lesson: Work diligently, think big.
"I notice a common trait in the supersuccessful people I meet: Every single one of them … has got a killer work ethic."
So Said John
"The choice of whether to succeed — or not — is all mine."
"Let's be clear. We don't get where we're going by standing still. We've got to move the needle every day."
"We do the best job we can for our customer today and a better job tomorrow, and it keeps growing."
"Success is doing the thing that you want to do every single day and being around the people that you want to be around. It's also knowing that you define who you are. That you don't need anyone else's validation, unless the validation is out of love."
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