Daymond John Welcomes Frustration and Failure on the Path to Success

Entrepreneur, philanthropist, and angel investor Daymond John gets personal like never before in his new Audible Original, ‘Founding FUBU.’

Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.

Rachael Xerri: I'm Audible Editor Rachael Xerri, and with me today is author, legendary entrepreneur, founder and CEO of FUBU, and my personal favorite Shark from the TV show Shark Tank, Daymond John. We're going to be talking about his new Audible Original, Founding FUBU. Daymond, thank you for being here.

Daymond John: Thank you for a great intro. I mean, favorite Shark? I think the interview is done now.

RX: Don't tell the other Sharks, you know, in case we get to invite them into the studio as well.

DJ: Thank you for having me.

RX: So, Daymond, you have three other books on Audible, Rise and Grind, The Power of Broke, and Powershift, and now this Audible Original, all of which everyone should be listening to and should go download right now. What's different about Founding FUBU? What made you want to tell the story?

DJ: The other books are, and this one is too, educational, but this Original, there's stories that I have never told in the book and some that I didn't even remember until I was going through the files in my mind. I think that what it does is it brings people to the origin of why I took actions, and maybe they can reflect themselves on why they may have taken actions or not taken actions, and it wasn't this young man who was a visionary, because a lot of people, when they see a certain level of success, they think there's this visionary person that just had it all figured out.

No. They're going to realize that I made a lot of mistakes, I had a lot of fear. Somebody up there was looking over me, because a lot of times, a hand would step in and move me from one block on the chessboard to another magically. I still have that quest for life. But I just think this is going to be so amazing to people to understand that even in my business, when you think about having $350 million running through a system of making clothing a year, that there was a lot of bad people, there was a lot of good people, a lot of people suffered. It's a mixture of Sopranos meets The Devil Wears Prada meets Sex and the City, all in the same thing. There's just going to be so much that people are going to take away.

RX: I love that comp, and I was absolutely captivated throughout the entire recording. We're going to get back to the story in a second. But first I want to talk a bit about what the recording process was like. Your story was created entirely through interview sessions, and there wasn't a script. What was that process like for you?

DJ: The recording process was fun and challenging at the same time, because I'm working with the Audible team, who are professionals in extracting a story. So, it was fun, because I could just be myself, I could let my guard down. I knew that they were going to extract the proper information and scratch out what didn't work.

The challenging part is, if you want to bring any value to the person on the other side, if you're talking about challenging times, or even great times in your life, you can't just say, "Yeah, well, that happened, and she left me," or, "That happened, and I felt on top of the world." Well, what do you mean?

"It's a mixture of Sopranos meets The Devil Wears Prada meets Sex and the City."

After a couple of sessions, sometimes if I touched on something that may have been something that was hurtful in my life… Let's say I go, "Oh, yeah, and then my dad left." Well, they'll keep asking you why and how you felt and what happened, and before you know it, you're like, "Daddy! Where are you?"

It opens you up on the joyful side as well as it opens you up on the painful side. So it's kind of like you're at a therapist's office, you know? 

RX: It sounds like it was a very emotional experience, and certainly there are so many emotional moments throughout your story. So let's talk about the story. What really struck me was that you started your company, FUBU, with essentially $40 worth of fabric, a pattern, a few friends, some sewing skills you picked up from your mom, and of course, you had this passion for hip-hop that you really wanted to contribute to the culture. While all of that was happening, what was going through your head? How were you feeling about everything at the very beginning? And did you recognize that you were at the beginning of something really big?

DJ: No, at the beginning I was just doing something that I was really excited about. We clearly, myself as well as my partners, did not think that we were going to have anything bigger than maybe a clothing store, which was great as far as I'm concerned. But we were having so much fun going down the path of it.

So we weren't thinking… I see a lot of founders today say, "Well, I'm gonna do this, and I'm gonna have an exit, I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna..." No, we were enjoying ourselves at that moment. Every day we were finding more reasons to want to do the business, more reasons of validating our existing as young men of color who really didn't come from anything, so one day you look at $80-$800 worth of hats sold, you're like, "Wait a minute. I may not ever have to work for somebody. My destiny's in front of me, right? And I'm in charge of my destiny."

The next minute it's, well, I'm getting access to video sets, because I'm coming with T-shirts, and normally I would have got kicked off of it, and I would pay to be on those video [sets]. And then next minute you're trying to holler at a girl, then she's like, "You didn't go to college?" Or looking at you like you're an idiot, and you're like, "No, but I got my own business, baby."

There was always that we found ways to validate ourselves. People today with customers, they're not people who have this long vision. They're people who just do the best they can do for their customer today, and they wake up tomorrow and do the best they can do for their customer tomorrow.

RX: Yeah. I hear what you're saying about being challenged. Oftentimes there are people who say they're really intimidated by business, and as Audible's business editor I hear from people all the time that maybe they're even too scared to pick up a business book because they feel like it's not for them.

What would you say to our listeners who feel like the door to entrepreneurship isn't open to them?

DJ: Entrepreneurial thinking has nothing to do with being an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurial thinking is finding out that there is a problem and learning how to solve it with a couple of key ingredients of doing your homework, executive on it, taking small steps, thinking outside the box, and realizing that everything you see around has been done by somebody, so why can it not be you?

"You didn't go to college? No, but I got my own business, baby."

So, you could be a stay-at-home mom or dad, and you're probably doing more entrepreneurial thinking than somebody that works at a company, because if you have two kids or one kid or four kids, they don't care about your time schedule. They have problems, they get hurt, they need attention, food, money, whatever the case is, and you are figuring it out every day. You have the same exact 24 hours I have. You are wearing every single hat, so you are entrepreneurial thinking as a parent. The process of entrepreneurial thinking is something that we all need to know.

RX: Thanks. I love that answer. I'm gonna think about that the next time I'm tidying up at home or something.

In your own business journey, you had a few setbacks that you dig into in Founding FUBU, and thinking about the part where you lost your first profit from selling hats by rear-ending a driver when you didn't have insurance or that very vivid scene where you're burning extra fabric in your yard, and you're half-purple. What kept you going when things got tough, and what is your advice for how others can stay motivated when they run into issues?

DJ: Some of the things that kept me going: I took affordable steps, and I was able to recover. But also it was a little bit of being naïve. I had a couple people, but I didn't have the internet or a lot of things that could teach me some of these critical things that I needed to put in action today. Could I go to the library and have encyclopedias of books written 100 years ago, 50 years ago? Yes, but unlike today, where you can hit people on social media who are doing 24-hour screen-printed shirts right away, and understanding that, or an Alibaba, I didn't have that.

And so a little bit of that was being naïve, just going down a path. But my love for what I was doing, and the fact that I had great partners who challenged me and had my back, and I had theirs, the minute that I wanted to quit, I had their back the minute they wanted to quit, were the things that kept going.

We got to the point where I had so much at risk, and it was like, I'm in trouble. If I don't figure this thing out, this is no longer a hobby. I got my mother's home at risk, I have capital at risk, I have years of work at risk, my friends have quit their jobs. I have a lot of customers out there who hope that I will provide for them, and if I don't get those goods out there, somebody else is gonna take 'em. So all the people that I was trying to fight against exploiting our culture, I just warmed it up for them to take further advantage.

There's a lot of emotions, and of course I share that all in the book, of the emotions that I was going through.

RX: You just mentioned that you did have some help, specifically from your mom of course, but also from your close friends, and you also talked about having support from other business owners and entrepreneurs. What role does community play in your success, and why is it important for other entrepreneurs as well?

DJ: I think community is a huge part of success, because you become what you think about most of the time, and the people that you see right in front of you are the ones that show you it can be done. And they're generally the community leaders. They know that they have an obligation to help their community, help who they are, you know? Turn these kids from Crips to corrections to kids to college.

Generally, an entrepreneur, a community leader, they generally started a business or became a leader because they felt that there was something wrong, and they took it on themselves to solve the problem. So that's why they're generally very, very, very caring individuals, and I think that the stigmatism of, especially the community I came from, that there are no great leaders in those communities and nobody to stand up, it's absolutely wrong. Absolutely wrong. Also, you'll hear in this Audible Original that there were people not from my community, of all the colors, that helped me.

The stigmatism that in the Black community there's nobody there to help you is wrong. The stigmatism that people of other communities, because they don't look like you or whatever the case is, want only the worst for you, and never want to help you? It's absolutely wrong. And when you see somebody who's been able to be the beneficiary of both communities, all people that come together, then hopefully those who listen to this, will say, "We need to stop thinking like that," if they are thinking like that. "We need to stop thinking like that. It's out there, go get it, look at him, he did it, and he's an example, and there's a lot to learn from this book, from Founding FUBU."

RX: Speaking of a lot to learn, there's this one part of Founding FUBU that I'm really dying to talk about, because it really blew me away. FUBU Records turned down both Eminem and Ashanti. You point out that you hadn't turned them away because they weren't talented. In fact you recognized their talent, but you turned them away because you were really honest about knowing your records limits at the time. That just struck me as such a humble moment. Where did that humility come from, and why is it important in business?

DJ: You'll see us do this on Shark Tank often, where we'll say, "I love you, you're a rock star, I don't add any value here." You can't hold back a rock star, and a rock star in anything. I'm talking about a rock star as an artist, I'm talking about a rock star as a businessperson, whatever the case is. 

It's kind of like one of my favorite records, "Piano Man." "Sit at the bar, put bread in my jar, and say, man, what are you doing here?" When I looked at Eminem, and I thought, I said, "Man, what are you doing here? Get the hell outta here and go be something."

"If I don't get those goods out there, somebody else is gonna take 'em."

I never want to be on the receiving end of somebody saying, "You held me back." Because I will never allow anybody else to hold me back, so I think that, to sum it all up, to see Ashanti's greatness, and Eminem's greatness, they would've signed with us, and it would've been only a couple of months till they were like, "What am I doing here? Why didn't you tell me that you couldn't help me?"

That's just been the way that I've been in all my life, and I love living like that.

RX: There were so many incredible stories throughout this memoir. That comp that you gave at the beginning of our interview to The Devil Wears Prada, all of it, it's all in there. Were there any stories that you wanted to include that just couldn't fit into this Audible Original?

DJ: Maybe that's for the Audible Original II, but I'm too close to it. I love the fact that I work with people who are not close to it, who said, "I find value in this." I think all of us have 10 books in us, you know? But it all depends on the lens that we look at it through, the end user, and the way that we articulate it.

I don't look at what it could be 10 years down the road, the next one, the next one. I am so excited about this one, and so excited about what was picked, and what was put into it, and the way that it was crafted and put together. I'm just excited about this one.

RX: We're excited about it as well. Near the end of Founding FUBU, you talk about your legacy. What does the word "legacy" mean to you, and what does success mean to you?

DJ: I think success means that you know that you've challenged yourself as much as you could. I think success means you were down and out here and there, none of our lives are perfect, and you picked yourself up. I think that it means you tried your best not to let the ones that matter in your life down. I think that's what success is to me.

I don't really know what my legacy would be. I think it's always going to be that I didn't come from anything, and I didn't have a special talent. I say it all the time: I didn't have a special talent of being an athlete or musically inclined, and that I made it. I'm the blueprint to making it, meaning just apply yourself, and be humble, and surround yourself with mentors and all those things.

Maybe I'll have grandkids that will say, "This was who my grandfather was," and they'll always be proud of it. And maybe they will try to live up not to me and who I am, but try to keep the name in a positive way, you know? And be good people, make the planet a little bit better. But I really don't know what I would like a legacy to be.

RX: Thank you, Daymond. It's been such an incredible conversation, and thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

DJ: I appreciate it, Rachael. Thank you.

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