At 21, newly back from working with the poor in Ecuador, Bryan Johnson had already decided to become an entrepreneur and not an employee. His goal was to retire young with enough money to make the world a better place. By 36, he had done just that. 

In an onstage interview last week with Inc. executive editor Jon Fine at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, Johnson explained to a standing-room-only audience just how he did it--and how he plans to meet his world-changing goals. Along the way, he shared some wise advice you can use to fulfill your own oversize dreams. 

1. Be audacious.

At 21, Johnson had already decided he would make enough money to quit working and change the world by the time he was 30. (He missed by six years, he cheerfully admits.) He was sure of this goal, and not shy about telling others his plan. "It just didn't occur to me that I wouldn't do it or couldn't do it," he said. 

That same year, he began selling cell service on commission. He was in the middle of a sale when it dawned on him that he could make more money if he hired other people to sell for him the same way he was selling for his employer. "I literally left the sale and ran home," he said. He started his own cell service sales company two days later.

2. Always look for opportunity.

Johnson told the audience he kept a notebook and every time something annoyed him, he would write it down. "If I wanted something to eat and there was no drive-through, I'd ask, 'Why is that the case?'" he said. "If I wanted to do something on my phone and I couldn't, I'd ask, 'Why is that the case? Why do I have to enter my credit card information in a Web browser? Why can't I just press a button?'" That last question led to Braintree, the online payment system company he founded in 2007 and sold to eBay for $800 million in 2013.

3. Get good at sales.

Johnson's career would likely never have happened if he hadn't learned early on to be killer-good at selling--a skill shared by many of the world's wealthiest entrepreneurs. Johnson was so good at it that at one of his sales jobs, he became the top sales rep and broke all the company's sales records, even though he was only doing it part time.

4. Go all-in.

Many experts advise having a backup plan and staying out of personal debt when you start a company, but Johnson went into debt "up to his eyeballs" to get his startups off the ground. That approach cost him when two of those companies failed.

But it helped him when selling payment-card processing, an offering most potential customers greeted with extreme suspicion. So Johnson would say, "Look. I will give you $100 for three minutes of your time and if I can't convince you to work with me, the $100 is yours." And he would pull out a $100 bill--his last. 

If they took the offer, he would spend his three minutes explaining that while all credit card processors offered the same service, he would always be straight with them and also offered excellent customer service. "People believed me," he said. "I had something like a 75 percent close rate." He would use that to his advantage too, because then he'd go next door and say, "You know what? John, Mary, and Frank all use me."

5. Get inspired by real-life heroes.

For Johnson, one such figure is Ernest Henry Shackleton, who led an expedition to cross Antarctica via the South Pole, a mission that could have ended in disaster after his ship became trapped and then crushed in pack ice. Shackleton kept his cool and kept his men together, eventually bringing every one of them back safely across 720 nautical miles of stormy ocean. Johnson now subjects projects to what he calls the "Shackleton sniff test." "Would this be Shackleton-approved?" he asks. "Would he agree it's an endeavor--it's that audacious?"

6. Don't tolerate mediocrity.

Following Shackleton's example, Johnson insisted on only hiring the best for Braintree. The company's job postings listed reasons prospective candidates should not apply, among them, "That mediocrity is acceptable." In fact, on the theory that someone who was looking for work likely wasn't the best possible candidate, he would offer job seekers a $5,000 finders fee if they could refer someone better.

Once someone was hired, he added, "We didn't have safety nets." There was no capacity to train an underperforming employee. "We didn't have it. They were out," he said. "We had a high expectation of what people would do."

7. Create a happy workplace.

Customer satisfaction is a high priority for most B2B startups, and Braintree was no exception. But the company put just as much effort into delighting its employees. "I figured the most important thing was getting people to feel good about life and themselves, and that they were understood, and that we could solve problems," Johnson said. For example, he held town hall meetings where he encouraged people to tell him what he was doing wrong.

"By doing this kind of thing, we were able to maintain a spectacular culture where people knew I cared about addressing their needs and making sure it was a fantastic place to work," he said. When your employees feel good about what they're doing, he added, "Everything else kind of falls into place. If you don't fix that core thing, it just falls apart."

8. Have a mission.

Johnson's larger mission was to make enough money to make the world better. But he knew Braintree needed a mission too, and it was this: First, to make customers so happy that they would send love letters; second, to have employees think Braintree was the best company they had every worked for; and third, to be the best at processing payments. 

"That's the kind of stuff that fueled us," he said. "I think creation of purpose in any industry is key--that people feel they're involved in something meaningful and big."

9. Tackle big problems.

Braintree was founded to disrupt an entire industry. Johnson's current project, the OS Fund, is a venture fund devoted to projects that "rewrite the operating system of life," Johnson said. You might as well go big or go home.

10. Don't accept accounts at face value.

Johnson drew this lesson from the life of John Adams, he said, and Braintree is named after Adams's birthplace. "I feel like the storytelling is not necessarily fair to him and his contributions," Johnson said. "We read stories in history books and elsewhere that define our reality." Reading Adams's biography made him rethink some of what he'd learned in school. "I became skeptical of all stories," he said. Adams is a reminder that "I don't need to accept stories that are given to me. I can create my own by trying to find out the truth for myself."

11. Don't listen to advice--even this advice.

When Fine asked his advice about being an entrepreneur while raising small children, Johnson answered, "We all live within this construction of assumptions: whether you can raise a family as an entrepreneur, how old you can be to run a company. To me, it's all irrelevant. There are no assumptions. You build your own assumptions in life, so I'm always hesitant to give any advice."

In fact, he said, "My advice is, don't accept any advice."

Published on: May 16, 2016
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