Ryan Blair is a former California gang member turned serial entrepreneur and self-made millionaire. At the age of 21, Blair founded his first company, 24/7 Tech. Now, at age 35, he has founded and sold numerous businesses for hundreds of millions of dollars.
In 2005, Blair started his current business, ViSalus, a company that manufactures weight loss and nutritional supplement products. Blair sold the company to Blyth Inc, but within just a few months, ViSalus was headed toward bankruptcy. As CEO, Blair personally invested his last million dollars so that he and his two co-founders could become the largest shareholders in the parent company. In less than two years, ViSalus went from $600,000 to $30 million in monthly sales. In 2011, they increased sales from $34 million to $231 million and today the company is currently valued at over $600 million. In August 2011, Blair authored the New York Times Best Seller, Nothing To Lose, Everything To Gain: How I Went From Gang Member To Multimillionaire Entrepreneur, which details his troubled youth and how he turned his life around though entrepreneurship.
Daria Meoli: You’ve started several companies. What are some of the most valuable lessons about running a business you had to learn from experience?
Ryan Blair: Hire the best possible people that money or equity can buy. The number one thing I can do is make sure that we have the smartest, most talented people on the planet working in our company. Right now, I’ve got about 500 full-time employees and growing and I’m still constantly interviewing for jobs and positions. I have two full-time recruiters on the inside of my business and a number of outside recruiting firms that I utilize.
Even when I was in a start-up situation, I would do the exact same thing. I would network and work with recruiters. Many times I’d hire employees that made more than me as a CEO of the company. When I was hardly able to pay myself $70,000 year, I’d hire people and pay them $150,000 to $200,000. That was always an odd thing for people to get their heads around, but I realized that I would eventually make my income through equity and the way to build equity was to hire talent and put them to good use.
DM: What if your business doesn’t have the means to pay competitive salaries?
RB: If you don’t have money, use your network, your company’s equity, your vision, your passion for the business, your cause. If you do have money, spend it.
DM: Now that you have 500-plus employees, how has your role changed from start-up founder to CEO of a larger organization? RB: In the past three years, we went from a company that was worthless, to a company that’s valued at more than half a billion dollars today, and growing. So, my role has changed a lot. I have to deal with investors and Wall Street. I’m also more focused on culture now than ever before, because I can’t let the culture get away from me. A company is the combination of all of its employees, the culture of those employees, and the ability for those employees to work efficiently.
My job is to meet with people all day long—I meet with vendors, I meet with various teams and convey the company’s short-term focus and our long-term focus and strategy, and I meet with employee candidates. So, it’s evolved from me being behind a computer a lot, to me sitting across the table from people a lot. I actually enjoy operating at this level more than I did at the smaller levels.
I’m having the time of my life right now because we have a significant amount of resources and we’re a highly profitable business. I’m able to focus my energy on areas that then are able to get results. I have organized the business like a start-up. Instead of buying into management consultants and all kinds of other people’s belief systems around how a company should run, we built our own processes, our own functional organizational team, and we built our own model.
DM: Why did you decide to write Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain?
RB: I decided to write the book because I had a story that I wanted to tell. I saw what was going on in the recession and I saw how difficult the times were with regard to people losing their jobs. I saw how undereducated the world was on entrepreneurship. So, I really wanted to write it to say to the world, “Here is a subject that’s not taught in schools and a subject in which I’ve learned to become professional.” I really wanted to spread the seeds of entrepreneurship.
The secondary reason I wrote the book was that it was a form of liberation. I took my skeletons out of my closet and put them on the bookshelf. And as a result, I was able to kind of free myself from my past, my family’s past, and hopefully to help a lot of people do the same. I get emails every day from people who thank me because after reading my book, they were able to get over their own poor decisions that they’ve made in the past or realized that they, too, can be successful, having overcome their past.
DM: You are very active in an organization called Urban Born, based out of Los Angeles, which teaches entrepreneurship to youth in underserved communities. Why is this cause important to you?
Daria Meoli is the Executive Editor at The New York Enterprise Report. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org