At just 36 years old, Ryan Blair has already lived a lifetime. He grew up in poverty in Los Angeles and joined a gang when he was a teenager just to feel like he was part of a community. His life revolved around organized crime until he turned 17 years old and his mother started dating a millionaire who relocated them to an affluent neighborhood.
Blair resisted the move at first; he didn’t want to be away from his friends. But within months he began embracing his new life filled with, as he says, “boats and gigantic bird atriums and geese in the backyard,” and set a strong goal. “My stepfather was worth around $50 million. I decided that I was going to be a billionaire.”
While he isn’t quite there yet, Blair is getting pretty close. Today, he is the CEO of ViSalus, a weight loss and fitness company based in Detroit. He has a private jet (“That was one of my goals,” he says) and multiple homes—one in Michigan, another in Los Angeles (“That," he says, "was another goal."). But his success didn’t come easily.
While working as an employee at a software company when he was 19 years old, Blair started helping friends in the evenings with computer maintenance. He soon attracted enough clients to incorporate a computer repair business, but when told by a venture capitalist (while trying to raise money) that the business would never be scalable, he sold his share to his partners, barely breaking even.
In 2001, he saw wireless communications become more and more popular, so he used $15,000 of his own savings to acquire a fledgling wireless company and operated it until he was in his mid-20s. He sold the company for a few million dollars, but found himself back near the poverty line only a few years later due to bad financial decisions.
Blair began networking again and in the process met two founders of a budding health company named ViSalus. They invited him to join them, and he jumped at the opportunity.
Looking back, Blair credits one thing to his success during his darkest days: “When I was dead broke, I knew the only thing I had control over was my calendar, so I would put appointments on there every day.”
“It’s all about building personal momentum. If you master those 31 boxes, eventually you will have a better pitch, better articulation and a better network. Then, things will start to happen.”
Blair recently spoke with OPEN Forum about his amazing rise to near-billionaire status.
Have you ever worried that members of your former gang would come after you now that you are successful?
Oh, definitely. It was a constant fear in the beginning. I thought I would be a victim of extortion or that my family would be targeted. One of the most liberating things I’ve done was to write about my whole experience [in the book Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: How I Went From Gang Member to Multimillionaire Entrepreneur].
There is a lot of jealousy out there. To this day, people will write to me. Some will say good things and some will say bad things.
How did you go from poor teenager to founding your first company? Did your stepfather help you get on your feet?
My stepfather always believed in me. I started by working for him in his house, cleaning his boats, his atrium, shining his shoes. He was in real estate, so he taught me the ropes there. I got my GED and then fell in love with the concept of computers, which is how my first two companies happened. I was working at a software company when I started my first company on the side. It was very grassroots, just one client at a time.
How did you go broke after your second company was sold? Didn’t you get money in the deal?
It was a stock deal so the money was on paper. I had a couple $100,000 in the bank, but that went quickly because I acted like an idiot, buying sports cars, jet-setting. I'd forgotten to continue doing the very things that made me successful in the first place such as sacrificing, not going out and looking into investment opportunities. By the time my business partners came to me with the idea for ViSalus, I was operating on less than $1,000 per month.
How did you live on so little cash?
I stayed in an apartment that my family had acquired in a foreclosure, so it was rent-free. And I would do talks around L.A. about entrepreneurship and sometimes get sponsors for the talks. Chipotle was a big sponsor of mine and they would give me free meals. I would eat there seven days a week. If I asked a girl on a date, she had to be OK with the fact that we were going to Chipotle [laughs].
When did things start to turn around for you?
It was February 2005 when I was approached to help start ViSalus. I was introduced by the two founders at a fundraising event. They wanted me to come on in an operations capacity and I was interested in the company because it was focused on health. I'd let my health get away from me in recent years and this job would pay me to stay in shape.
By April of that year, I started trying to raise money and by December I had raised $1.8 million.
How did you raise so much money in such a short amount time?
I read every book, every magazine, attended every conference and tried to learn everything there was to know about raising capital. I was single-minded in my goal and it worked.
We invested the $1.8 million right back into the business and grew from there, focusing on improved infrastructure, back-of-the-house, shipping and logistics. Eventually, we started turning a profit.
Did you keep raising money after the initial $1.8 million?
Yes. We ended up partnering with a private equity firm that acquired a good portion of our business, which helped a lot and put some money in our pockets. To date, we've raised around $30 million.
What fundraising lessons have you learned along the way?
I've learned not to take rejection personally. In fact, I appreciate it when a firm or investor tells me "no" quickly because it saves time on both of our ends.
I've also learned that people invest for two reasons: fear and/or greed. They don't want to look like they passed on a great opportunity, so they may invest out of fear. Or, because they want to make lots of money, they will invest out of greed.
Now that you’ve achieved success, what motivates you these days?
I look at other individuals and think that I haven’t done anything yet. I’m 36, but I haven’t reached my maximum potential. I look myself in the mirror and know that I can do better, which motivates me every day.
Meet more inspiring entrepreneurs in our Building an Empire series.
Photos from top: Sally Peterson, Thinkstock