Ryan Blair was the kind of kid who was always looking for an angle. Who could blame him? His childhood in Torrance, California, included an abusive, meth-addicted father, two siblings in prison, friends who committed suicide, and more than one trip to juvenile hall for his gang-related activities. So, when his mother asked a wealthy man she was dating to have a chat with him to set him straight, he agreed.
"I was hoping he’d give me some money," Blair says. "[I thought] he’d magically want to adopt me."
Instead, Blair’s newfound mentor, real estate investor Robert Hunt, gave him homework. Listen to self-improvement guru Earl Nightingale's audio tape series, Lead the Field, and write down some goals. In exchange, Hunt would buy Blair some new clothes to go job hunting.
Blair was just about to turn 18 and was in need of some new clothes, so he agreed. He says listening to the tapes was transformative for him. They talked about attitude and shared stories of people who went from poverty to riches through dedication and hard work.
Blair says he had never been exposed to that kind of inspiration. Something inside of him clicked. He listened to the tapes repeatedly, often before bed. When he heard the "pop" that the cassette ended, he would wake up, turn it over and continue listening, he says.
At first, Blair's goals were small. Make more than minimum wage. Play basketball three times each week. As he started achieving them, he was increasingly sold on the power of goal-setting and hard work. He began working for Hunt, who married his mother and became his stepfather as a "guy Friday," running errands and picking up rent checks. Soon, he was helping collect rent and manage evictions. Hunt eventually allowed him to invest in some of his properties.
He began attending Moorpark Community College in Moorpark, California, and landed a job at a tech company where he learned network support. When Blair turned 20, he decided to set out on his own and start a business in computer repair and networking, 24/7 Tech, which offered on-call tech support around the clock.
"I got an MBA in what not to do in starting that company," he says. "I had to learn everything from how to scale a business to how to deal with customers."
He eventually sold 24/7 Tech and bought a stake in Sky Pipeline, a small Internet service in Santa Barbara, which he sold in 2003 for $25 million.
But two years later he had blown most of the money on what he calls "materialistic living," when he met Michael Seidman, a surgeon who developed a line of nutritional supplements. Blair was so impressed with the products that he and two cofounders scraped together $80,000 to "buy the science" and take the products to market.
Since then, the trio have built that investment into ViSalus Sciences, a multi-level marketing firm that sells weight-loss supplements and meal replacement products, with headquarters in Los Angeles and Troy, Michigan. It was sold to Blyth, parent company of multi-level marketing company PartyLite, in 2012, once again making Blair a multimillionaire.
In 2013, he published a New York Times bestseller, Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: How I Went from Gang Member to Multimillionaire Entrepreneur.
But Blair’s guts and street smarts are still being put to the test. The company hit $623 million in 2012 revenue. However, the subsequent quarters haven’t been as kind. In 2014, ViSalus's fourth-quarter net sales slipped 50% from the same quarter the previous year. The company chalks that up to a reduced salesforce and expansion investment.
Blair is going back to the early teachings of his stepfather and Nightingale: set goals and make a plan. He says the company is shaking things up by moving into overseas markets, while sharpening the focus of its weight-loss challenge message to appeal to customers, and building its base of direct sellers, which it calls "promoters." During the first quarter of 2014, ViSalus has expanded into Germany and Austria. It recently began operating in the U.K. as well.
Blair says he wishes he knew sooner the power of commitment and perseverance, which he’s using even today to improve his company’s performance. That insight might have kept him from traveling down the dark paths of his youth. Many of his decisions were driven by fear and short-term thinking. Today, he says, he can take a longer view because he knows that he’s been in tough situations before and has been able to turn them around.
"Simply put, if you put the time in; if you’re committed to putting the hours in, you’re going to get a massive result," he says. "If you’re constantly growing and learn whatever subject you’re passionate about, you’re going to find success."
[Image: Flickr user Allen Brewer]