Daymond John launched his career as an entrepreneur in the urban fashion industry by selling homemade apparel on the streets of New York. In 1992, he officially founded FUBU (For Us, By Us). In the decades since, John has continued to expand his business endeavors and has become an authority on branding and marketing. He is an author, investor and television personality who regularly appears on ABC’s reality television series Shark Tank.
During our talk, John offered insights into how he was able to turn his vision for a fashion brand into a reality, how he parlayed that into developing his personal brand and some of the biggest lessons he learned along the way. Most importantly, he offered essential advice to others who are hoping to create their own successful brands, develop an influencer marketing strategy and how stand out from the rest.
1) Your latest book, The Power of Broke, focuses on how starting off with very little forces you to be more creative. Can you give me some examples of how you can turn that hunger to succeed into innovation, especially when it comes to marketing and selling your brand?
Obviously, there are many ways to do it. I made sure I was in the right place at the right time when I put my t-shirts in videos that rappers were doing, because they didn’t really have enough money for clothes at the time.
But now we’re in a new day and age with social media. There’s this kid with 100,000 people who follow him on Instagram. Every Monday he paints a shirt. He tells them that for the next 24 hours they can get the shirt, for maybe $15, and whether they buy 1 or they buy 20 shirts, they’ll never see that shirt again. Everybody who likes the shirt prepays for it.
On Tuesday, he takes their money over to the screen printer, copies all the shirts that have been ordered, and Wednesday, Thursday, Friday mails them all out. And he does it again every single Monday.
He’s going to do about $1.2 million this year. You look at somebody like that, and he’s using the resources in front of him. He’s using a screen printer that’s in every single city, and his gift as an artist, and then he’s going out and finding an audience. So there’s a lot of ways people could do that in various different things, whether they’re health, fitness or fashion.
2) What are some of the most important lessons you learned when you started selling homemade fashion on the streets of Queens? Would you have been as successful if you’d had fewer obstacles?
One of the most important things I learned was that, at the end of the day, it’s all about the numbers. I had to close down my company 3 times from ’89 to ’92, because I ran out of capital.
I learned through closing 3 times that you have to put small amounts of money and large amounts of time in the thing that you’re interested in. Because if you just make affordable steps, you can always bounce back from that.
People know the story about the mortgage of my house, but that wasn’t step 1. That was after 8 years of making small steps when I finally took that big step.
3) What do you see as some of the key elements of successfully branding yourself?
Number 1, being very honest with yourself in regards to why you want to accomplish what you’re going after. If you really just want to make money, then don’t go out there saying that you’re creating a movement because you want to change people’s lives. Sooner or later people are going to see through it, and they’re not going to support you.
Also, you’re going to be miserable at what you do if you’re faking it. Faking it till you make it is convincing yourself that you’re going to be successful: walking around very proud, even though you’re selling just $5 worth of stuff.
If you’re saying, “Hey, I want to change people’s lives,” but really, at the end of the day, you just want to be famous for the aspects of ego or just want to make money—don’t do that with your brand. Because, sooner or later, people are going to see through it. We often see people who get eviscerated due to not being transparent about what they really want.
4) What would you say is the most important thing a new brand can do to stand apart from everyone else?
First of all, define yourself in relation to your market. What are the 2 to 5 words that describe you? What are the 2 to 5 words that describe the brand? Think about Apple (“Think Different”), Nike (“Just Do It”) and FUBU (“For Us, By Us”).
Don’t go out and assume who resonates with you. You know, when we first started selling FUBU, and we took out an ad in Right On! magazine or other little magazines that hit the hip hop market, the first places that started to purchase from us were Seattle, Washington and Japan.
Now, you would normally think that it would be Harlem, Compton and Detroit. But it wasn’t. It was the grunge skateboarders of Seattle who were very much raging against the machine, and they loved hip hop, they loved Public Enemy or Run-D.M.C. They weren’t African American.
And there were also the kids in Japan who really loved the hip hop movement of America and break dancing and things that are native. So we understood at that point that we were not about a color, and we never projected to be about color. People assumed that we created a brand about color, but we didn’t.
So you can think that you’re going to go out and be amazing in one area, and you’ll find out a whole other audience loves you.
It’s very similar to the way that Timberland thought they were only selling to hikers and mountain climbers, when the kids were buying Timberlands in Brooklyn like we buy Jordans today. And they didn’t want to be honest with their brand.
5) It’s been said that influence in marketing is the next big gold rush. What are your thoughts? What do you see as the role of marketing influencers?
I believe that influencers are absolutely always going to be the ones who push your brand, but it depends on who the influencer is.
If you’re talking about public influencers, such as the well-known celebrities on TV, it all depends on the demographic they’re hitting. Let’s say you’re going after one of the top Victoria’s Secret models. Who is really following those Victoria’s Secret models?
If you look at 10 million followers, maybe 2 and a half million of them are women who absolutely adore these beautiful individuals and they think that they’re God’s gift to earth, another 2 and a half million are women who love to hate these women because they weren’t born like that and another 5 million are men, who just absolutely adore these women who are wearing sexy clothes and have lollipops in their mouths.
Now, take that and then go look at a regular influencer like the young man I talked about with 100,000 followers.
Most likely, that person doesn’t have a public stage. Ninety percent of the people following that person are following him for a very specific reason.
They are not forced to do it. They don’t see him walking around in Victoria’s Secret clothes, they don’t see him on a reality show, they don’t listen to his records. They’re like: “I seek this person out because he has a skill set or something he delivers to me.” So the ability to influence is stronger with the everyday influences that you find on social media.
6) As an investor on Shark Tank, how important is branding or marketing yourself when you consider proposals competing for your support?
I think it is the most important thing. Because we really invest in the people who are there. We want to know that they can run the company. We want to know that in the event something happens and we don’t have enough money, is this person going to say, “Oh, well, nothing else to do now,” or are they going to say, “I’m going to be creative; I’m going to find a way to work this thing out”? Because it’s not really about the money; it’s about operating a business.
7) What factors do you consider before you lend credibility to other brands and labels?
Number 1, I consider the person running the company. How is that person going to operate the company? Do they have a really strong passion about that company? Are they resourceful? Do they have a history in that area of business? Have they failed enough to know what they need to do going forward?
Number 2, I look at where are they in the cycle of business. Are they on the upturn? Are they suffering because they’ve been trying for 10 years and they can’t get it going? Are they on to something new?
Last but not least, I look at the numbers. How is it going to be operated? You could be doing $10 million of business and negative $2 million every year, when you need to be doing $1 million of business and positive half a million. It’s all about the numbers at the end of the day.
8) What advice would you give to a brand that has had initial failures? How do you pick up the pieces and begin again? Or is it better just to start over and rebrand yourself?
Very tough to say. I think that at any given point, every brand needs to adjust their branding. I don’t know if they need a clean slate.
In the way of advertising, don’t think that you’re going to announce: “All right, we’ve hit a brick wall. Let’s spend another $10 million on advertising.” That’s not necessarily going to help you.
If people have believed for some reason you’re crap, then adding $10 million of advertising behind your crap is $10 million of saying, “Hey, we’re even crappier than you thought.” Right?
I’ll give you an example with FUBU. A couple of years ago we wanted to understand why FUBU was slowing down, other than the natural reasons why fashion lines slow down after about five years—we’re not talking about the unicorns like Ralph Lauren, Nike and Louis Vuitton.
We looked on social media and hashtagged the name FUBU—not the people who were following us; the people who weren’t following us. What they were talking about was, number 1, we’d sold the company; number 2, what we have out now is crappy, and number 3, all we make is baggy jeans.
So before we could go out and tell them about the new stuff we had, we had to address those concerns. And I’m not saying that we cleared them all up, because it’s a big whirl, and it takes a lot of time.
We could have gone on with the advertising—“Buy FUBU today!”—but we had to address those things first and say, “Number 1, we don’t make only baggy jeans. We’ve been making form-fitting and slim-cut jeans for Europe for the last 20 years. It was the American kids and the Japanese kids who wanted the baggy stuff. Number two, we didn’t sell the company at all. That was just a rumor. And number 3, we haven’t distributed in the United States for quite some time, so any product you’ve seen that looks crappy is either counterfeit or something that we made in 1998.”
We had to really address those things first.
9) If you could tell your 20-year-old self one thing, what would it be?
Go to school, go to college, get a financial education. The 3 or 4 times that I risked financial failure was because I just didn’t know how the tool of money worked.
The second thing I would say is try and get together with like-minded people who have the same agenda. Don’t go out there and think that just because you want to create something the other partner wants the same thing.
Maybe they don’t want to create something. Maybe they want to just go out and date a bunch of people. Maybe they want to live recklessly—you just don’t know. Make sure those partners are on the same page.
10) What is your favorite book and why?
Besides the Bible, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill is my go-to book, for various reasons.
First of all, I’ve read it about 20 times over the last couple of years. Because I’m dyslexic, I have to read several times, and I absorb things in a different way. It taught me about the process of goal-setting, and it also gave me an insight into the world of entrepreneurship and what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.