by Dan Schawbel, contributor
I recently caught up with Ryan Blair, who is a serial entrepreneur
and author of the new book "Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain." Ryan
established his first company, 24-7 Tech when he was only twenty-one
years old. Since then, he has created and actively invested in multiple
start-ups and has become a self-made multimillionaire. After he sold his
company ViSalus Sciences to Blyth in early 2008, the global recession
took the company to the brink of failure resulting in a complete write
off of the stock and near bankruptcy. Ryan as CEO went "all in" betting
his last million dollars on its potential and turned the company around
from the edge of failure to more than $150,000,000 a year in revenue in
only 16 months winning the coveted DSN Global Turn Around Award in 2010.
In this interview, Ryan talks about how he re-branded himself after
being in a gang, the issues with the education system, and more.
How did you shake your criminal record and re-brand yourself?
I remember when I was working my way up in the first company that
employed me, I used to have nightmares that one day they'd find out
about that I had been in a gang, call me into the office, and fire me.
In the beginning I didn't talk much about what I'd been through. But
eventually when I got to a point where I had established myself as a
professional entrepreneur, I embraced my past, used it as part of my
branding, and crossed over.
In this day and age people want authenticity. Now that the world is
social, people know all about you. Assuming you decided to join
humanity, that is. It turned out that as I started showing my true
identity, so did the rest of the world. One of the reasons my company
ViSalus is one of the fastest growing companies in the industry today is
because we share our good, bad, and ugly. Like sharing a video of me
playing a practical joke on one of my employees, for instance. As a
result of embracing authenticity, I turned the company around from near
bankruptcy to over $15 million a month today. Unlike our competitors,
our distributors and customers know exactly who we are, and I'd say that
corporate America has a lot of catching up to do.
What's your take on the educational system? Will a college degree help or hurt your chances at starting a successful business?
As a product of Los Angeles's public school system, in a state with
the highest dropout rate in the nation (about 20 percent), I can tell
you from personal experience that some of our brightest minds are being
misidentified because of a one-size-fits-all learning environment.
Because I had ADD and dyslexia I never got past the 9th grade.
I recall sitting with a career counselor in continuation high school,
being told that I didn't have the intellect or aptitude to become a
doctor or a lawyer. They suggested a trade school, construction,
something where I'd be working with my hands.
The irony is that today I employ plenty of doctors and lawyers. Would
you rather be a doctor or a lawyer, or a guy who writes a check to
doctors and lawyers?
If President Obama phoned me today and told me he was appointing me
Educational Czar, I'd turn education into a business, a capitalistic,
revenue driven system, creating a competitive environment where each
school is trying to attract customers, based on quality of customer
As an entrepreneur, having a college degree or getting classroom
training won't hurt your chances for starting a successful business, but
it's ultimately not necessary. In Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers,"
he makes a point that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to master a
skill set at a professional level. That means experience, over
What three business lessons did you learn from juvenile detention?
I learned a lot about business and life from my time spent
incarcerated. I like to call these pieces of wisdom my Philosophies from
the Jail Cell to the Boardroom. One of the biggest lessons I learned
was that in Juvenile Hall, new guys always get tested. When I went in
the first time, I was just a skinny little white kid and I had to learn
fast. People will be bumping into you on the basketball court, or asking
you for things, testing to see if you're tough.
And everyone knew that if a guy let someone take their milk during
lunchtime, they weren't as tough as they looked. Soon you'd be taking
their milk everyday, and so would everyone else. It's the same for
business, if you give people the impression that you can be taken, you
Also, adaptation is the key to survival. In jail the guy who rises to
power isn't always the strongest or the smartest. As prisoners come and
go, he's the one that adapts to the changing environment, while
influencing the right people. You can use this in business, staying
abreast of market trends, changing your game plan as technology shifts,
and adapting our strategy around your company's strongest competitive
advantages. Darwin was absolutely right — survival is a matter of how
you respond to change.
The last lesson I got from jail is that you have to learn how to read
people. You don't know who to trust. It's the same for business because
a lot of people come into my office with a front. I have to figure out
quickly who is the real deal and who isn't. Based on that fact, I
developed an HR system that I use when interviewing potential new hires
that I call the Connect Four Technique. Yep, you guessed it. I make my
future employees — and I have hundreds of them — play me in Connect
Can everyone be an entrepreneur? Can it be learned or do you have to be born with a special gene?
No. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur. There are two types of
people in the world, domesticated and undomesticated. Some people are so
domesticated through their social programming and belief system, so
employee minded, that they could never be entrepreneurs. And they
shouldn't even bother trying. The irony is that this is coming from a
guy who teaches millions of people how to become entrepreneurs. I'm
literally selling a book about becoming an entrepreneur, telling you
that not everyone should read it.
To be an entrepreneur, you have to have fighting instincts. Are
instincts genetic? I don't think so, but you 'inherit' them from your
upbringing. Now, if you're smart you can reprogram your beliefs. But
there are still some people that would rather watch other people be
entrepreneurs, like the people in the Forbes "richest celebrity list"
than take the time to reprogram themselves, and live their lives like
rock stars, too.
Is there a need for business plans these days?
When you've really got the entrepreneurial bug, the last thing you
want to do is sit down and write a business plan. It's the equivalent of
writing a book about playing the guitar before actually knowing how to
play the guitar. You don't know what your new business is going to be
like. And just like a guitar, a business will have to be tweaked and
tuned multiple times, and you'll need long practice sessions and
repetition, before you can get even one successful song out of it.
In my book "Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain," I actually included
a chapter called "I Hate Business Plans" where I talk about this. Most
business plans that get sent to me, I close within seconds of opening
them up because they are full of fluff and hype. A business plan should
be simple, something you could scribble on a scratch pad. No more than
three pages of your business objectives, expected results, and the
strategy to get there. But the best business plan is one built from a
business that is already up and running and that matches the business's
The point is that you should be so obsessed with your business that
you can't sleep at night because that's all you can think about. And
that's your ultimate "business plan."
Dan Schawbel is the Managing Partner of Millennial Branding, LLC,
a full-service personal branding agency, and author of "Me 2.0: 4 Steps
to Building Your Future."