How a Red Lobster Waiter Built a Business Empire

Since the mid-nineties, Daymond John’s company FUBU has cleared over $6 billion in global sales. Perhaps best known as one of the regular cast members of ABC’s Shark Tank, Daymond serves as a living example of a person who pulled himself up from meager beginnings to become one of the world’s best businessmen.

Birth of an Empire

At the age of 10, Daymond’s parents divorced and he was forced to begin working to help his mother pay the bills. His first job was handing out flyers in his Hollis, Queens neighborhood for $2 an hour. After graduating high school, Daymond took a job working as a waiter at Red Lobster. At the age of 20, after his mother asked him what he planned to do with his life, Daymond responded that he planned to create an apparel line for men. So, his mother showed him how to sew a wool beanie-styled hat that was popular then in the hip-hop culture. Daymond made 80 of them and began to sell them on a street corner in Queens. He sold them at $10 a piece and within an hour-and-a-half, had sold them all. For it, he made $800. Within an hour of his last sale, Daymond was making more hats. Soon, recognizing her son’s potential, Daymond’s mother mortgaged her home to help finance her son’s business.

Identifying Untapped Markets

Soon, Daymond began screen printing t-shirts with slogans like, ‘What happened to poor Rodney King?’ and ‘Free Mike Tyson’. Daymond remarked in an interview with the Washington Post that, ‘It showed me something about the reason people buy clothes—that when there’s an emotional slogan or an emotional connection, products sell quicker. That’s when I started thinking about this concept of “for us, by us.”’

According to Daymond, at the time he’d heard that the top clothing lines were shying away from making clothes for hip-hop and rap culture because they didn’t want to be associated with it. Daymond saw this as an opportunity to move into a niche market where his message of ‘for us, by us’ would resonate. Thus, FUBU was born.

On the Hustle

At the time, Daymond and a small group of four co-workers would drive to large events and expos across the northeast and sell the hats and t-shirts. At the same time, Daymond had been able to convince several well known rappers to wear the attire in their music videos. Though he didn’t even have enough merchandise to allow them all to keep the attire, the appearance of the brand in so many high profile videos gave the brand the appearance of being much larger than it was. Despite his merchandise appearing in over 30 music videos, Daymond still was still working full-time at Red Lobster. Soon however, the 60 hour weeks at the restaurant were taking too much time away from his company and Daymond had to quit waiting tables to concentrate on the business full-time.

A Very Close Call

The company progressed with financing from savings and credit cards, until a ‘Magic’ convention in Las Vegas in 1994 saw retailers place over $300,000 worth of orders. The small operation didn’t have the capital to fulfill these orders, and after being turned down by 26 banks, the decision was made to take out a second $120,000 mortgage on his mother’s house to raise the money. The house was quickly converted into a makeshift factory, and the merchandise was soon flying out the door. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Having never dealt with the financial responsibilities of paying staff, waiting on a supply chain, and covering overhead before, the company soon ran out of money and it looked as though Daymond was going to be faced with losing his mother’s house. So with the last $500 he had left, he took out an ad in the New York Times which read, ‘A million dollars in sales. Needs financing.’ The Hail Mary connected and according to Daymond, ‘Samsung America’s textile division saw the ad and gave me a call, and we ended up doing a distribution deal with them. That changed everything.’

Beyond the First Venture

Today, FUBU has earned over $6 billion in sales worldwide. Though the appeal of the brand declined in the 2000’s, Daymond’s star continued to rise. He soon booked a principle role on ABC’s Shark Tank, and has invested in, and served as mentor to, many successful businesses. He is also the New York Times bestselling author of ‘The Power of Broke’, and was even appointed a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship by President Barrack Obama in 2015. Today, Daymond John’s estimated worth sits at over $300 million; a far cry from his days selling hats on the street corner in Queens.

 

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