Ryan Blair didn’t get off to a good start. At age 16, when most kids born into a middle-class household are starting to wonder which colleges they want to apply to, he was sitting in a jail cell in Los Angeles, the result of his 10th arrest as a juvenile.
In the previous few years, he’d left the family house because of his father’s meth addiction and violent behavior, spent almost a year living in a toolshed in his half-sister’s backyard, and joined a gang. (He’s got the tattoos to prove it.)
His numerous siblings had already spent a collective decade doing hard time, and Blair seemed a good bet to join the family club. Luckily, that last stint behind bars—26 days—scared him straight.
Fast-forward a few decades. Owner of a sprawling home in the Hollywood Hills, Blair today is the chief executive officer of ViSalus Sciences—seller of Body By Vi, a weight-loss and fitness challenge program.
The company is on track to hit $600 million in revenue in 2012. (He sold ViSalus, which he founded, to Blyth (BTH) in 2008.) While he never went to college, he’s still got a résumé an MBA would kill for: as a self-made millionaire, a serial entrepreneur (he’s founded half a dozen other companies over the past decade), and a New York Times bestselling author of a fast-paced guide to entrepreneurship, Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: How I Went From Gang Member to Multimillionaire Entrepreneur. Bloomberg Businessweek caught up with Blair to find out what he learned on the streets that helped him succeed in business.
Don’t Let Anyone Steal Your Milk
“The new guy in jail gets tested right away, usually by someone walking up and demanding their milk at lunch. If you give it away without a fight, you’ve got tough times ahead. The same thing goes on in business every day: People are always trying to get their hands on your equity or get money out of your company, whether it’s by renegotiating agreements or hitting you with lawsuits. You have to stand up for yourself and your principles. Because if you allow one person to steal your milk, others will follow.”
Make People Earn Your Trust
“A lot of times in business, your natural inclination is to trust everyone, in particular potential business partners, financing partners, and the like. That’s a mistake. You never trust a brand-new person on the streets, and I use the same philosophy now as I did then: You have to earn my trust, and I am constantly verifying people’s intentions and motives.”
The Strongest Guy Isn’t the Most Powerful Person in the Room
“The one with the most influence is. This is as true in the boardroom as it is in a street gang. You might be the primary equity holder in a company you founded, but watch out for an influential board member who’s gunning for you. They can take you out just as easily as a guy with a gun.”
Street Smarts Trump Book Smarts Any Day
“If you want to impress me, don’t throw rhetoric, résumés, or buzzwords my way. Tell me a practical vision you have for getting the job done, whether it’s in leadership, management, or processes.”
Get My Name Right
“There are plenty of people in my old neighborhood who didn’t want me to succeed. And there have been plenty of people since with their fancy degrees and who have done it all by the book that don’t appreciate my route to success. Talk about me all you want—good or bad—because I’m not paying attention. But just get my name right, will you?”