Friday, April 26, 2013

From gang member to multimillionaire entrepreneur: a Q&A with Ryan Blair

Ryan Blair, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller "Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: How I Went From Gang memer to Multimillionaire Entrepreneur," will be in town at noon today at the Concord Mills Books-A-Million, 8301 Concord Mills Boulevard, for a book-signing. 

His book chronicles his unlikely path to entrepreneurial success. He grew up in an L.A. gang, lived with a meth-addicted father, went to jail, dropped out of high school and yet, thanks to the help a mentor-turned-stepfather, Blair was able to transform his life. 

Blair, 35, is the co-founder and CEO of ViSalus, a lifestyle and health company that just announced a total of $1 billion in revenue. Even at ViSalus, he experienced big mistakes and great gains. 

ShopTalk spoke with Blair about his former life on the streets and his new life as an entrepreneur. 

Q: Tell me about your life as a gang member on the streets of L.A. 

A gang is simply a group of illegal entrepreneurs. They don't have the formalized training, but generally the way it works is there are individuals at the top of the economic tree, determining how the gang profits and where it focuses its time. 

I was young when I was involved. I was forced in when I was 13 years old. Eventually I went to a continuation high school, essentially a school for kids that get kicked out of school. I'd hang out with the gang members, try not to get arrested. I ditched school, started to get arrested, was put on probation and was forced to start modifying my behavior. 

Ryan Blair 
It was really when I wrote a letter to a judge begging for leniency and the judge told me I should be writing in college, not in jail. I'd had no career counselor, no probation office, police officer, anyone who said "Ryan, you could go to college." And no one had told me I could write. I'd always journaled, but never shared them with anyone. That was the seed of an idea that I could one day be a writer, one day go to college. And as a result of my mentor, I ended up getting my high school diploma through a GED program and I went to community college. 

Q: What did you journal about? 

I still have a lot of those journals. I wrote fantasy stories about living a different life, about being wealthy, rescue stories. When I was in juvy, I would write letters to my mom and grandma. Writing was my favorite thing to do. My only outlet. It still is. 

Q: There's one part in the book where you mention having to fire your friend Michael because the venture capitalists financing your company told you to. What is it like walking that tight rope between running a company and being beholden to the people writing the checks?  

One of the chapters I I wrote about was on raising money, and I share all the provisions and little compromises I said yes to that I shouldn't have. If you don't have money, you need it, so you have to do your best to get it. But you have to be extremely smart. You can't trust anyone. Trust your gut, your instincts. And the best way to keep the sharks at bay is to perform well. I learned the hard way. That's why I was so transparent in my book about the bad deals, the million-dollar mistakes. I was swimming with the sharks and was so green. 

Q: In your book, you chronicle a number of difficult business decisions you've had to make. How do you make them? 

It's a skill you have to build. You have to assess your own decision-making tendencies, the cost and consequences of each. You have to put a price tag on the decision you're making. You have to take your time with it. I'll often go away for a couple of days just to think and analyze every different variable of the equation: Is this best for our brand? Is this best for our employees? For our promoters in the field? For our customers? 

Q: Do you speak to at-risk youth who deal with similar issues you dealt with when you were young? 

I speak to kids all over the place. Thursday I was in Orlando at a juvenile detention center. It felt like a flashback. The guards were telling the kids to pay attention, and I'm seeing kids just like me, scrawny little kids who have made dumb decisions, sitting there on lock-down in a bad environment. I was marveling yesterday as I was signing books for them and taking questions because I was that kid. 

Q: What kind of questions did they ask you? 

If you're a kid in "juvy" you're most likely money-motivated. So they were asking me how much money I had, what celebrities I know, what cars I drive, do I live in a mansion -- those are the questions a lot of people have but never ask. I answered their questions because I'd rather show them something entrepreneurial, rather than them watching rap videos and following the instructions of common rap songs that say you can get (rich) through criminal activity. I was showing them that you can have exactly what the rappers have with legal entrepreneurship. 

I have a son now, an 11-year-old boy. I was at that juvy thinking, "I do not want my son to turn into this." I wanted to grab these kids without fathers with bad attitudes and bad role models. They're one mentor away from potential success but they don't have them in their homes. 

Q: Your son has autism. How do you handle that stress?
I have to make sure I'm constantly learning about autism. I'm able to invest in his life. I can't say I'm a pro at it yet, but I will help my son take his disadvantages and turn them into his advantages. I'll help him find the gifts he has as a result of it. 

Q: What's your day-to-day life look like now? 

Well, right now I'm on day 80 of my book tour, so my day-to-day routine is quite dynamic. I get on a jet, go to a city, a charity event, a book-signing and various events in the evening. It's almost like I'm running for president. 

Q: So all the proceeds of your book go to charity. Which one? 

A bunch of different charities: Big Brothers, Big Sisters, churches, Urban Born (an L.A.-based education nonprofit devoting to making a paradigm shift in urban communities nationwide). We specifically funnel all proceeds to charities that focus on at-risk kids. I've added a charity event on each of the book-tour stops. 

Q: You say your best advice for entrepreneurs is to find a mentor. How should they do that? 

That's the key to the success I've had. They're all around us. It's easier to create a relationship now than ever before. Leverage social media. Connect with people on Facebook, Twitter and a variety of social outlets. There are hundreds of potential mentors out there who want to help people. I reach out to people all the time on social media. 
For example, I'm studying martial arts and I've created relationships with some of the greatest online. Now they're teaching me a thing or two. 

Q: There's a chapter in your book when you talk about a dream-come-true, when you were invited to speak at a church in Detroit, at the same pulpit where Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama, and President Bill Clinton had stood before. What was that moment like? What did you talk about? 

I shared my testimony, my path to getting where I am. Praying. I share specific stories about how we can make an impact in the community. My grandmother was a Christian and she gave me a lot of lessons. I didn't start applying them until later on, after I got on my feet, and I realized the adversity I'd been gifted with was a blessing, not a curse.