Daymond John knows something about selling a lifestyle. Back in Queens in 1990, before anyone could imagine an urban streetwear industry worth more than $70 billion, John was in his early twenties working at a Red Lobster. The hip-hop community was making millions for fashion labels it had incorporated into its uniform, but reaping none of the rewards—brands didn’t want to be affiliated with rappers. Timberland went so far as to release a statement: “We don’t sell our boots to drug dealers.”
It was in this climate that John created FUBU, or For Us, By Us, with a few hats and t-shirts he made on his mom’s sewing machine. He had grown up on the same street as LL Cool J, who had already released four platinum albums, including Mama Said Knock You Out, and John badgered him until he agreed to take a picture in one of his creations. He snuck the photo into a trade show in Vegas and walked away with $300,000 in pre-orders, his first step on the road to building the $6 billion FUBU empire that would establish him as the “Godfather of Urban Fashion.”
These days, when he’s not starring as a shrewd business hawk on ABC’s hit angel-investing series Shark Tank and its spinoff, Beyond the Tank, he’s managing his own company, Shark Branding—which handles strategy, licensing, design, events, media, endorsements and marketing for clients across the spectrum from AT&T, Forbes and Google Plus to Miller Lite, Pitbull and Lil Jon. He’s also busy performing his duties as President Obama’s newly minted Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship, which brought him to Kenya this summer for a summit with small-business owners—an experience he found incredibly humbling.
“Here I was thinking I was going out there to inspire them, but those people are always thinking like entrepreneurs—not only to gain financial independence, but to save lives,” he says. “They inspired me.”
As a branding expert, John knows it also can’t hurt to be photographed rolling around in the presidential motorcade. In a sunlit conference room in his Empire State Building offices, he gestures to the walls around us, where a rainbow of Etonic sneakers are on display—spoils from a recent acquisition—and lays out the secret to staying relevant in the age of digital media. To win over the 78 percent of Millennials who prefer to pay for experiences over things, you have to sell them everything but the product.
“Take this running shoe here,” he says. “If I’m trying to sell it on social media, then I should talk about the best places to run, the best doctors to go to for your feet, hydration tips, what causes shocks to your knees— things this specific shoe has nothing to do with, but ways to be a part of that life.”
John believes the increasing capacity of online entrepreneurs to convert their social followings into sales—and cut out the middleman—is a thrilling development that’s “giving the power back to the people.” In the same spirit as FUBU, many of his latest projects are about empowerment, including his Shark Tank investment Bombas socks, which gives a pair of socks to a homeless shelter for every pair it sells, and a company featured in the upcoming season that employs women to make goods in regions recovering from war. John is also in the process of launching a small-business incubator, with plans to provide an entrepreneurial curriculum and office space to worthy startups.
“We’re all born thinking like entrepreneurs,” he says, “but whether it’s out of love or fear, other people bust that dream. They say, ‘You need security.’ But this is an amazing time to start a company—you can empower yourself with such ease.”