Okay, right off the bat: that subtitle is a little unfair. First of all, Cameron Johnson is now 19; and, you'll only find his four-year-old autobiography 15-Year-Old CEO interesting if you happen to read Japanese. Here's what I really wanted to put as the subtitle: "An Exceptionally Sensible, Articulate, Savvy 19-Year-Old Who Is Also a Delight to Talk With and Is Someone Most 40- and 50-Year-Olds Could Well Afford to Listen To." But that wouldn't have fit in the space.
What is especially striking about Cameron Johnson (about whom you can read more at, naturally, www.cameronjohnson.com) is not his outstanding business success, nor the fact that he began achieving it at such an early age. Yes, both of those are impressive, but even more so is the depth of his maturity and common sense. Preparing to interview Cameron, I half-expected an entrepreneurial wunderkind; might he be a bit brash, maybe even a little arrogant? But this could not have been further from the case. Instead, I spent a delightful hour of easy conversation, the 19-year-old Virginian's soft-spoken politeness and careful, thoughtful answers to my questions utterly devoid of any posturing or self-aggrandizing.
We ask him the secret to his success, and it is genuine ingenuousness when he replies, "I don't know...luck? I wish there were a better answer." There are better answers, plenty of them, and Cameron knows and offers them freely; but I like his first answer most of all for its self-effacing honesty. More than anything, Cameron reveals a powerful secret behind good business: being a good person.. -- JDM
How did you get started on the entrepreneurial path?
When I was nine years old, my parents gave me my first computer and printer as a Christmas gift. A month later I started my first business, printing greeting cards, stationery, business cards, letterhead and invitations.
What gave you the thought of starting a business?
At the time, I didn't really think of it as "starting a business." I just thought of it as printing greeting cards, and then selling them to cover my expenses and make a small profit.
A year later, when I was ten, my parents set me up with my own checking account, which taught me the basics of managing my own money.
When I was 12, my sister gave me her Beanie Baby collection to sell; I sold it online for about $1000, gave her $100 and kept $900. After that experience, I started selling Beanie Babies over the Internet, and became a retailer for six different Beanie Baby manufacturers. Soon we were shipping about 40 orders per day, doing about $50,000 a year in sales! That was my first major business.
Was there ever a moment when you said, "Holy smoke, I'm in business!"
[laughs] I never even had time to think about it, really.
Your dad owns a Ford dealership; was that a model for you? In the sense that for you, the idea of successfully running one's own business was something you just saw as normal?
Yes; everyone in my family has been an entrepreneur in one way or another. My great grandfather started our Ford dealership back in 1938, so I've grown up with my dad and grandfather both being businessmen. My grandmother on my mother's side was also a businesswoman. Her husband died when my mom was 14, and she took over his business; a few years later, my mom then took it over for her.
You've been quoted as saying you credit being given a checking account at the age of ten as being the significant event that put you on the entrepreneurial path.
Definitely. When I say my parents gave me a computer at the age of nine, it can sound like they were pushing me to get computer-savvy, but actually, the opposite's the case. My parents were so intent on not spoiling me that they held off getting me a computer. Not only was I not the first kid on my block to get a computer, I was the last of my friends to have one! I spent all the time on it I did because I felt like I was catching up.
How did 15-Year-Old CEO came about?
In 1999, when I was 14, a friend of the family saw a notice in USA Today saying that Junior Achievement [a nonprofit educational organization] and BrightLane.com [an Internet business guide] were co-sponsoring a national search contest "for a young Michael Dell." [Called the Young Information Technology Entrepreneur of the Year Award, the contest was open to anyone from 12 to 18 who owned their own successful information technology business--Ed.] They sent the notice to my dad and said, "We think Cameron ought to apply for this."
I sent in an application, and before long got notice that I was one of the three finalists; the other two were both 16. Even though I made more money than either of the other two nominees, I didn't end up winning the award. I think this was mainly because they figured, since the other two were already 16, I'd have more time to win it again in the future.
Yeah, those other guys were already getting pretty old...
Exactly. [laughs] So I didn't win, but I did end up hiring the winner to work for me in a new company in a new idea I had, an online advertising company, SurfingPrizes.com, where users got paid to surf the Web. That company went on to do about $15,000 a day in sales.
How did the book happen?
The Young Entrepreneur nominations were published in The Wall Street Journal and the Japanese equivalent, the Nikkei, and the story kind of focused on me because I was 14. A businessman in Japan read the article and contacted me, inviting me to be an advisory board member and spokesperson for their company. He wanted to fly me to Tokyo, all expenses paid.
I told my dad about it, and he said, "Yeah, right...I'll believe it when I see two plane tickets." Two weeks later two first class plane tickets to Japan arrived!
When we arrived, exhausted from our 14-hour flight, it was four in the afternoon and they had it set up for me to give a speech that evening! They had turned it into a huge media frenzy. We were absolutely hounded by media at the airport; they had security lined up to escort me to a limousine. It was ridiculous.
Suddenly Cameron's a rock star...
Exactly! They told me I was bigger than Britney Spears, bigger than anyone from the US. That's how far out of proportion it all was. They were using me as their image, so it was important to them that I be as big as possible. It was pretty grueling, but a lot of fun, too.
How'd the speech go that night?
Pretty rough. The good thing, though, was that I had to pause every 30 seconds for the translator to translate, then they'd ask a question and we'd wait while the question was translated--so I had a few minutes to think about each question!
I gave maybe 30 speeches and interviews at various events; at one, I was approached by a Japanese author who said he wanted to ghost-write the story of my life. We spent a few days doing nine-hour interviews every day, asking every possible question; that ended up as a 180-page book, 15-Year-Old CEO. It was published as my "autobiography," but obviously, since I couldn't speak Japanese, it was really written by him.
I went back a few months later for a book tour across the country; that was pretty exciting.
It doesn't exist in English?
No; we'd planned to do an English version later that year, but I just got so busy....
Have you had an opportunity to get to know Michael Dell?
I don't know that you could say I got to know him very well, but we did speak together on the same platform, and I had the opportunity to speak with him the day before he gave his presentation.
What makes him a hero, for you?
Because his business started off small, with nothing but an idea. He took that idea--a simple concept, cutting out the middle man and selling computers right to users--and took it to the highest possible platform. Bill Gates is another.
What do you take from those two, Dell and Gates, as examples; what can we learn from how they went about what they did?
They're prime examples of the American Dream--not the rags-to-riches story, but the story of starting something so small, based on nothing but a powerful idea, and growing it into something so big and successful. And doing it without going the traditional route of spending $150,000 and eight years on an education, but by surrounding themselves with great people.
When you talk about "starting small," it makes me think two things: a) starting without huge capital, and b) being forced to scrutinize early mistakes.
Exactly. You have to watch every single expense and justify it. That's why the dot-com bubble burst: they weren't watching expensing, they were burning through capital. How could it possibly cost $20 million to create a web site for a business? It was ridiculous. They thought they could brand themselves overnight, and wanted to have huge numbers to justify everything they'd done. You can't start out big. They tried to, and that's why they failed.
Where do you see the Internet in its evolution as a tool in business?
Technology is going to keep evolving, and it's only going to make business easier, better and more efficient. The Internet allows you to share more information with your dealers, your suppliers and your customers, worldwide.
When the government's Do Not Call registry came out, thousands of people and most corporations were against it. Estimates are that it's going to negatively affect businesses to the tune of $50 billion in its first year. It really could hurt business in many ways.
My dad was approached about eight months ago by a company looking to sell him a service. They told him he needed to subscribe to the new Do Not Call telemarketing list so he could search each number before you make any outgoing calls, to make sure it wasn't on the list. They wanted to charge him $1000 a month to do that! It was plain price gouging; they were just trying to kill the auto dealers.
My dad gave me all the information and said, "Is there any way you could do all this, but cheaper?" And I said, "Well, certainly." One of my companies, Zablo.com, offers web site services to about 100 car dealers around the country.
I put my guys on this and they built it in a matter of weeks. We had a product that was better than the competition, and we marketed it to the dealers for $895 a year or $100 a month. That's a tenth of the cost or less! Now dozens of dealers are using it.
Speaking of the Do Not Call list, here's what I thought was somewhat ironic: the regulations don't limit political parties or nonprofit organizations from calling names on the list!
The Internet certainly seems to have leveled the playing field in terms of age groups. It's hard for me to imagine the Cameron Johnson story in some traditional heavy industries.
That's certainly true. The Internet allowed me to create a business with little or no overhead, in my parents' home. At any given time I had 5000 Beanie Babies in our basement; we were shipping 40 orders a day. In one article, my lawyer said, "Cameron used his computer as a gateway to the world," and that's exactly right.
The people dealing with me didn't necessarily know I was 12 or 13 years old. They would have known if they'd heard my voice on the phone--I hadn't even hit puberty yet! But I knew how to write properly and form intelligent emails, and I knew about good customer service and everything that comes with it, from reading.
You talk about starting with an idea, and the Internet is certainly a platform where the idea is king. Still, a lot of people start with good ideas and don't get to where you are. To what else do you attribute your success?
I don't know...luck? I wish there were a better answer! But I'm sure there's a teenager somewhere who did the exact same things I did, and even did them better, who hasn't gotten to where I am today. How do you account for that? I don't know.
Certainly, there's been a lot of hard work and effort involved. The overhead was almost nothing; $15 a month to host a web site--you sell two or three Beanie Babies and you've made a profit!
What did your friends think about your business life?
Nothing, really; I've pretty much kept it all to myself. I have friends I've grown up with all my life who didn't know anything about any of my businesses until their parents happened to read about it in Newsweek or Business Week. This week, an article came out in our local magazine, and some of the employees at the dealership came up to me and said, "Hey, I didn't know you did all this!" I don't talk about it. I don't want to come across as conceited or bragging.
It's great that you place such a strong value on keeping things in proportion. Success can be fleeting, but friends last forever. It's good not to lose track of what's real.
Yes, exactly. Thank you.
Why aren't there a whole lot more Cameron Johnsons?
I think the main reason is that nobody teaches kids about money. I was fortunate enough to learn about money at an early age. When I was ten, my parents gave me two shares each of three different stocks for Christmas.
Stocks in the stocking...I like that. Which companies?
Two shares of Toys R Us, two shares of Disney, two shares of CFX Railroad. That got me interested in the stock market. I believe in Warren Buffet's method, "Invest in what you know," so then I invested in Dell; it split six times over the next five years, and my $600 investment turned into $6000.
I look at my friends who are 18, 19, 20 years old; many of them don't even have a checking account yet. I have friends who work at a job and make $100 a week, cash it and just spend it. They don't know to do anything else.
It's also important to have credit cards and an understanding of how to manage your credit wisely. I have friends who get credit cards with a $5000 limit; next thing you know, they're paying the minimum payment--"Hey, it's only $30 a month"--and they're $8000 in debt! At my age!
It's insane. I've never carried any debt; I pay off my cards every month. But they just don't know any better. Their parents didn't tell them, and they obviously don't teach it in schools. That's why we're having a record number of bankruptcies and record numbers of people are deep in debt.
And this affects everything. People get upset over it, they commit suicide or violent crimes, or they live paycheck to paycheck and can't afford to pay for what they buy. It burns me up more than anything, because it doesn't have to be that way--but again, it's not taught in schools, and it's not taught by the parents.
Are you familiar with network marketing?
Yes, we used it in SurfingPrizes.com: you were paid so much per hour to surf the web, but you could also refer friends to the service and get a percentage of their earnings as well. You could go two or three levels deep, if you wanted, and be making a substantial amount of money, and that's what really kept the whole thing going. It's certainly better than shoveling $20 million into advertising--which just goes into the media companies' bottom line.
In the past few years, the whole model of affiliate marketing and click-through plans has helped legitimize the model of network marketing for a whole new generation. Network marketing is huge. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising.
What's next for you? What are your aspirations?
I want to be someone who is very successful, but also very generous. That's what makes me continue to work so hard.
What can those of us who are older learn from today's young entrepreneurs?
It's never too late, or too early, to start a business.
Also, when you say, "I'm going to start a business," it doesn't have to be with the expectation of growing into something big. You don't have to look down on yourself because your company's not the size of Microsoft or Dell. And you don't always have to look at success in terms of growing your business; sometimes growth is what kills a business, especially trying to grow too quickly.
You can start small and grow it huge; but you can also start small, stay the same size your whole life and still be happy. Many restaurants who are locally owned by a family, they'll start small and they have plans to stay small forever. "Successful" doesn't necessarily mean big; successful means successful.