Daymond John materializes from out of a crowd in the lobby of a Pasadena hotel, and with a panel discussion in front of hundreds of journalists scheduled in a few minutes and a flight to Las Vegas immediately after, it would be understandable if the branding expert, motivational speaker, founder of FUBU clothing company, and resident “shark” on ABC’s “Shark Tank” was harried. He’s not.
In a word, he’s impeccable. As the world hurries by, checking blackberries and talking on cell phones, he’s calm, polite, patient, focused, and thoughtful. His suit is perfect, his tie dimpled in the center under the knot, and his shirt perfectly pressed. He looks fit, and later, he says, “Even though I am from the inner city, I am avid outdoorsman. I fish and snowboard. I used to race jet skis.”
It’s no accident he looks like a million bucks and lives even larger. As the founder of FUBU (For Us By Us), John made a fortune, earned the moniker “The Godfather of Urban Fashion,” and then evangelized his inspiring life story and business secrets in two bestselling books, including “Display of Power,” which Library Journal named one of the best business books of 2007.
Two years later he signed onto “Shark Tank” as one of the sharks, though when producers Mark Burnett and Clay Newbill first offered the job, John said no. “He saw me on the the ‘Donnie Deutsch Show,’” he recalls. “I wasn’t investing in people’s ideas. I was breaking them down. Giving my best advice to people about what they should do with their company. Then Mark and Clay called and asked me to go on the show – and warned that I was probably going to spend a million or more of my own money investing in businesses. I said no. I was supposed to get paid for being on TV, not spend my own money.”
He laughs. “Then I realized it was Sony. It was ABC. It was Mark Burnett. These are three of the biggest brands in the world. Plus I was already investing a million or two or even three million dollars of my money annually. But I was only getting pitched deals about clothing companies. I didn’t need any more clothing companies. I needed anything else but. So I said yes, and I went on the show and sat up there with very knowledgeable people that I want to stab in the back.”
He laughs again. “It’s been a great experience.”
Now in his fourth season of “Shark Tank” (watch the latest episode below), John sits among fellow Sharks (extremely successful entrepreneurs) Mark Cuban, Robert Herjavec, Lori Greiner, Kevin O’leary, and Barbara Corcoran. The premise is straightforward: entrepreneurs pitch business and product ideas to the Sharks, hoping to get the funding they need. But the Sharks have a goal, too. They want a return on their investment and own a piece of the next big business idea.
“This season, look forward to much bigger fights between the Sharks,” says John. “Also much bigger and better deals because, after four years on the air, real companies are coming in.”
John believes the show goes beyond entertainment and offers valuable lessons in business. “Where else can you see millionaires and billionaires conducting actual negotiations with people and see the questions they ask?” he says. “You get a ringside seat. If you watch, you’ll learn how to negotiate, how to analyze a company…and you’ll learn you may not want a partner because you don’t want a guy like me calling you every day asking where’s my money?”
John was always a quick study. Born in the Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Queens, the only child of a watchful mother, he was only 10 years old when he began an apprenticing as an electrician in the Bronx. “I helped wire abandoned buildings,” he says. After graduating Bayside High School, he “worked at everything from Church’s Fried Chicken to Red Lobster to driving people to flea markets.”
As he searched for a path toward a better future, his mother provided the best and most lasting advice. “She said, ‘Daymond, it’s not going to be your day job that will make you rich,’” he recalls. “’It’s going to be your hobby-slash-homework.’” She was right. In the early ‘90s, he combined his love of fashion and music and began making hats and selling them outside concerts.
At $10, they were half the price of those he saw in stores. After making $800 one night, he convinced his mother to take a second mortgage on their house for $100,000 and invested the money in his new company, FUBU. In 1993, LL Cool J, a childhood friend, wore a FUBU hat in a GAP commercial. Five years later, FUBU generated $350 million in revenues.
“What made FUBU take off is the frustration in the market for the African American people. FUBU was more affordable and as equally fashionable as other existing fashion brands at the time,” he told talkingmakeup.com in 2009. “FUBU stands for “For Us By Us” and that message touched the Hip Hop community, African Americans, and New Yorkers. It brought a sense of empowerment to these people.”
What inspires John now? “My kids,” he says without hesitation. “Those little brats are very smart. They’re the new moguls of the world. My mother is still my inspiration. Jay Abraham, the legendary marketing genius. Muhammad Ali is someone I have been lucky enough to meet and he’s inspired me. And I just started working with the artist Peter Max, who has been incredible with me. And then of course my partners who helped me start FUBU.”
As a Shark, John is admittedly still hungry for the next big deal. But he’s also dedicated to giving back and inspiring people to follow in his path. “You can give back monetarily but there is no comparison to the sense of fulfillment you get when you inspire someone spiritually and seeing a change in them,” he told talkingmakeup.com. “When FUBU came out so many people walked up to me on the street and said to me that FUBU has changed their life. FUBU meant to people a whole new era where the whole concept of African Americans as business owners was finally acceptable and possible. And that’s very rewarding to me.”