Appeared in Forbes, Written by Dan Schawbel, contributor
I recently caught up with Ryan Blair, who is a serial entrepreneur and author of the new book “Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain.” Ryan established his first company, 24-7 Tech when he was only twenty-one years old. Since then, he has created and actively invested in multiple start-ups and has become a self-made multimillionaire. After he sold his company ViSalus Sciences to Blyth in early 2008, the global recession took the company to the brink of failure resulting in a complete write off of the stock and near bankruptcy. Ryan as CEO went “all in” betting his last million dollars on its potential and turned the company around from the edge of failure to more than $150,000,000 a year in revenue in only 16 months winning the coveted DSN Global Turn Around Award in 2010. In this interview, Ryan talks about how he re-branded himself after being in a gang, the issues with the education system, and more.
How did you shake your criminal record and re-brand yourself?
I remember when I was working my way up in the first company that employed me, I used to have nightmares that one day they’d find out about that I had been in a gang, call me into the office, and fire me. In the beginning I didn’t talk much about what I’d been through. But eventually when I got to a point where I had established myself as a professional entrepreneur, I embraced my past, used it as part of my branding, and crossed over.
In this day and age people want authenticity. Now that the world is social, people know all about you. Assuming you decided to join humanity, that is. It turned out that as I started showing my true identity, so did the rest of the world. One of the reasons my company ViSalus is one of the fastest growing companies in the industry today is because we share our good, bad, and ugly. Like sharing a video of me playing a practical joke on one of my employees, for instance. As a result of embracing authenticity, I turned the company around from near bankruptcy to over $15 million a month today. Unlike our competitors, our distributors and customers know exactly who we are, and I’d say that corporate America has a lot of catching up to do.
What’s your take on the educational system? Will a college degree help or hurt your chances at starting a successful business?
As a product of Los Angeles’s public school system, in a state with the highest dropout rate in the nation (about 20 percent), I can tell you from personal experience that some of our brightest minds are being misidentified because of a one-size-fits-all learning environment. Because I had ADD and dyslexia I never got past the 9th grade.
I recall sitting with a career counselor in continuation high school, being told that I didn’t have the intellect or aptitude to become a doctor or a lawyer. They suggested a trade school, construction, something where I’d be working with my hands.
The irony is that today I employ plenty of doctors and lawyers. Would you rather be a doctor or a lawyer, or a guy who writes a check to doctors and lawyers?
If President Obama phoned me today and told me he was appointing me Educational Czar, I’d turn education into a business, a capitalistic, revenue driven system, creating a competitive environment where each school is trying to attract customers, based on quality of customer experience.
As an entrepreneur, having a college degree or getting classroom training won’t hurt your chances for starting a successful business, but it’s ultimately not necessary. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” he makes a point that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to master a skill set at a professional level. That means experience, over traditional education.
What three business lessons did you learn from juvenile detention?
I learned a lot about business and life from my time spent incarcerated. I like to call these pieces of wisdom my Philosophies from the Jail Cell to the Boardroom. One of the biggest lessons I learned was that in Juvenile Hall, new guys always get tested. When I went in the first time, I was just a skinny little white kid and I had to learn fast. People will be bumping into you on the basketball court, or asking you for things, testing to see if you’re tough.
And everyone knew that if a guy let someone take their milk during lunchtime, they weren’t as tough as they looked. Soon you’d be taking their milk everyday, and so would everyone else. It’s the same for business, if you give people the impression that you can be taken, you will be.
Also, adaptation is the key to survival. In jail the guy who rises to power isn’t always the strongest or the smartest. As prisoners come and go, he’s the one that adapts to the changing environment, while influencing the right people. You can use this in business, staying abreast of market trends, changing your game plan as technology shifts, and adapting our strategy around your company’s strongest competitive advantages. Darwin was absolutely right — survival is a matter of how you respond to change.
The last lesson I got from jail is that you have to learn how to read people. You don’t know who to trust. It’s the same for business because a lot of people come into my office with a front. I have to figure out quickly who is the real deal and who isn’t. Based on that fact, I developed an HR system that I use when interviewing potential new hires that I call the Connect Four Technique. Yep, you guessed it. I make my future employees — and I have hundreds of them — play me in Connect Four.
Can everyone be an entrepreneur? Can it be learned or do you have to be born with a special gene?
No. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur. There are two types of people in the world, domesticated and undomesticated. Some people are so domesticated through their social programming and belief system, so employee minded, that they could never be entrepreneurs. And they shouldn’t even bother trying. The irony is that this is coming from a guy who teaches millions of people how to become entrepreneurs. I’m literally selling a book about becoming an entrepreneur, telling you that not everyone should read it.
To be an entrepreneur, you have to have fighting instincts. Are instincts genetic? I don’t think so, but you ‘inherit’ them from your upbringing. Now, if you’re smart you can reprogram your beliefs. But there are still some people that would rather watch other people be entrepreneurs, like the people in the Forbes “richest celebrity list” than take the time to reprogram themselves, and live their lives like rock stars, too.
Is there a need for business plans these days?
When you’ve really got the entrepreneurial bug, the last thing you want to do is sit down and write a business plan. It’s the equivalent of writing a book about playing the guitar before actually knowing how to play the guitar. You don’t know what your new business is going to be like. And just like a guitar, a business will have to be tweaked and tuned multiple times, and you’ll need long practice sessions and repetition, before you can get even one successful song out of it.
In my book “Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain,” I actually included a chapter called “I Hate Business Plans” where I talk about this. Most business plans that get sent to me, I close within seconds of opening them up because they are full of fluff and hype. A business plan should be simple, something you could scribble on a scratch pad. No more than three pages of your business objectives, expected results, and the strategy to get there. But the best business plan is one built from a business that is already up and running and that matches the business’s actual results.
The point is that you should be so obsessed with your business that you can’t sleep at night because that’s all you can think about. And that’s your ultimate “business plan.”
About Dan Schawbel
Dan Schawbel is the Managing Partner of Millennial Branding, LLC, a full-service personal branding agency, and author of “Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future.”