Daymond John plays the badass on TV’s entrepreneurial reality show, Shark Tank. But behind the scenes, he practically invented the urban apparel market and is now helping top consumer brands reach the youth market.
Twenty years ago, the hip-hop and rap culture was largely ignored by mainstream brands. In fact, brands such as Timberland actually made efforts to distance themselves from this market. However, Daymond John saw this as an opportunity. As a young man in Hollis, Queens, John grew up in the same time and place as Russell Simmons, LL Cool J, and Salt-n-Pepa. He founded the apparel company FUBU, with the goal of giving that specific culture and demographic a voice, and making consumers feel valued by the people making the products they were purchasing.
In the early 1990s, John founded and ran FUBU with $80 and his American Express card, until six years later when he secured a $100,000 loan. He began by making tie top hats, and eventually expanded to create a full line of apparel. As the urban market exploded, mainstream brands struggled to catch up. John grew his business to an international empire that earned approximately $350 million in revenue in 1998. However, the apparel business has suffered major blows as a result of the drop in consumer spending; so John has diversified.
While still at the helm of FUBU, John has personally rebranded and re-emerged as a marketing expert. He founded Shark Branding, a marketing consulting company, and counts Turner Networks, Stream Energy, AT&T, Crown Royal, Aprilia motorcycles, Vespa scooters, Nike, and Metro PCS as clients. He has also worked with celebrity clients such as the recording artist Pitbull and the promotional juggernaut that is the Kardashians.
He is author of two books, Display of Power: How FUBU Changed a World of Fashion, and Branding and Lifestyle and The Brand Within: The Power of Branding from Birth to the Boardroom. He was recently named entrepreneur-in-residence at Babson College, and spends a lot of time working with the entrepreneurial program students there, who he considers his “Sharks-in-training.”
On February 3rd, John will return for a new season of Shark Tank, the ABC-TV reality show that features a panel of successful entrepreneurs, referred to as “sharks.” The sharks evaluate and negotiate investment proposals from business owners, or wannabe business owners, seeking capital. John’s fellow sharks include Barbara Corcoran, Mark Cuban, Kevin O’Leary, Robert Herjavec, and Jeff Foxworthy.
With all the success John has had with marketing consumer products and branding celebrities, one of the most challenging campaigns he has faced has been his own personal branding. While it has been more than 20 years—and millions of dollars generated—since John began sewing the signature tie top hats, he is still known to many as “the FUBU guy.” Recently, NY Report executive editor Daria Meoli sat down with John in his office in the Empire State Building to discuss how he has evolved as an entrepreneur and how he is working to foster the next generation of business innovators.
Daria Meoli: Why do you think FUBU resonated with consumers?
Daymond John: It resonated because there was a shifting of the guards at a certain time. It was closely attached to emotionally based products—music and lifestyle. It was really very raw, the essence of it, so it was a way for kids to rebel, as well as something for people to point a finger at, so it evoked a lot of emotion.
DM: Since the beginning, the FUBU brand was closely tied to the music industry. How did you position your company that way?
DJ: The meaning of FUBU is For Us By Us. A lot of people thought it was about a certain color, when it was never about that. It was about a lifestyle and a culture. The culture was based on rap music. I was a really big fan of the music and happened to live in a place, Hollis, Queens, where there was something in the water. It is where Russell Simmons, Salt-n-Pepa, A Tribe Called Quest, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and a lot of other people came from. So, one way or another, you knew somebody’s cousin, brother, uncle, or something, and you could get to the artist. While other labels were out there saying, “We don’t make clothes for rappers,” we were big fans of the music and appreciated the artists.
Prior to that, rap artists weren’t respected by brands. With me, these artists had an owner of the company who was somewhat starry-eyed to meet them, who made things for them, and who went out there showing appreciation to them for wearing his clothes. Once we started making money, we compensated the artists for it.
DM: When did you realize that FUBU was really going to take off?
DJ: It was around 1998. LL Cool J had done a Gap commercial where he mentioned “For Us By Us” in his rap. The Gap executives didn’t pick up on it, so the commercial aired and people started going into Gap stores asking for FUBU. That also was right around the time we got into the Macy’s windows and we started opening stores in South Africa and Japan and places like that. We were on every single artist, athlete, and actor.
DM: What were some of your most painful growing pains as a business owner?
Daria Meoli is the Executive Editor at The New York Enterprise Report. She can be reached at email@example.com