Today we’re going to look at how a man went from living on welfare to becoming the first African American to make it onto the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in the world. By the time he died he was worth an estimated $600 million.
„When I see a barrier, I cry and I curse, and then I get a ladder and climb over it… Failure is a word I don’t accept.“ – John Johnson
John Harold Johnson (January 19, 1918 — August 8, 2005) was an American businessman and publisher. He was the founder of the Johnson Publishing Company, and in 1982, the first African-American to appear on the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in the world.
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Action Item #1: Don’t Get Mad, Get Even
Until you prove yourself as an entrepreneur you’re going to have a lot of people doubt your ability to succeed. They’ll tell you to „play it safe“ and get a job. They might also tell you that your product or service idea has been done before or is too crazy to do well. Part of your entrepreneurial journey will be using criticism as a counsellor but not as a jailor – listen to what can help you and don’t let harsh words prevent you from moving forward on your dreams.
All his life, Johnson had been told that he would not amount to much. He was a victim of the racism that was so prevalent in the U.S. at the time. Time after time, Johnson was discouraged from thinking he could one day be great and was blocked every time he tried. In addition to being denied bank loans because he was black, Johnson found it impossible to even purchase an office for his new company once he had obtained the money. When Johnson went to purchase a building in Chicago’s downtown area to be his company’s headquarters, he couldn’t make the deal – he was refused the purchase because he was black.
But, like at so many other times in his life, Johnson refused to give up. He wasn’t going to let a racist property manager stand in the way of his success. His advice: „It’s better to get smart than to get mad… Long shots do come in and hard work, dedication and perseverance will overcome almost any prejudice and open almost any door.“
Action Item #2: Master the Art of the Sale
In his best-selling autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds, Johnson wrote a chapter entitled, „How to Sell Anybody Anything in Five Minutes or Less.“ Johnson’s elementary rule to making a sale was that your pitch „be based not on your self-interest but on their self-interest… When I go in to see I never say, ‚Help me because I am black‘ or ‚Help me because I am a minority.‘ I always talk about what we can do for them.“
Johnson had three rules for successful selling. First, he would grab the client’s attention in the first few seconds of a meeting with an emotional statement that „hits him where he lives or does business.“ Second, Johnson would try to find his client’s vulnerable spot. He felt that „everybody has something that will make him or her move or says yes.“
Johnson’s final step was to find a similarity with his client. According to Johnson: „Successful selling is a matter of finding common ground, no matter how narrow it might be, on which you and your client can stand together… Whether I had five or thirty-five minutes, I always based my presentation on these three tried-and-tested rules.“
Action Item #3: Communicate Success
If you’re going to build a business beyond yourself you’re also going to have to work on your communication skills so your staff understand where you’re trying to take the company and how they can help you get there.
Johnson believed that if he couldn’t communicate effectively with his staff, it didn’t matter how good his product was, his company was not going to prosper. Developing this talent was something that Johnson took great pride in and he ensured his senior staff was equally trained in the art.
Here’s Johnson’s advice: „I was born in poverty and spent two years on the welfare rolls, and I learned early that I had to communicate or die. And so I talked my way out of poverty — I communicated my way to the top… I’m a hands-on, hands-in, hands-wrapped-around manager, and I believe it’s impossible to separate good management from good communication. For the best manager is the best communicator.“
Have you had to overcome criticism to launch your business? How have you learned to communicate your message to your staff? What part of John Johnson’s message impacted you the most? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts if you leave a comment below!