Daymond John is an unlikely tenant for the 66th floor of the Empire State Building.
In 1992, as a teenager in Hollis, Queens, John sold home-sewn, tie-top hats and dreamed of starting an apparel brand. So he drew up a logo, expanded into T-shirts and called his brand Fubu (“For Us, By Us”)—his response to what he saw as outsider corporations selling clothes to black kids they otherwise wanted nothing to do with. When 27 banks turned him down for financing, John and his mother mortgaged their house for $100,000 in startup capital. And though he did not possess a marketing degree, John made a shrewd and fateful move: He gave some Fubu gear to rapper LL Cool J (who’d grown up in Hollis, too) and asked him to wear it. L did—in concert, no less. Practically overnight, Fubu was the word on the street. After Samsung stepped forward as an investor in 1995, Fubu went global. To date, the brand has done $6 billion in sales.
The Fubu brand has receded a bit from the spotlight in recent years, but John, 42, is back out in front. Now an investor and consultant, John is a venture capital “shark” on the ABC reality show Shark Tank, which began its second season on March 25. The show represents a turning of the tables for John, who’s now in the position to offer startup entrepreneurs the kind of financing that the banks refused to give him 20 years ago.
Adweek staff writer Robert Klara took the ear-popping elevator ride to John’s office to talk about the clothing business, building brands and how marketing has changed since the early ’90s.