Donna Johnson and Thomas Tidlund are an iconic couple in the network marketing space. Donna has been a top earner with her U.S.-based company for 30 years. Originally from Sweden, Thomas is a successful leader in a Scandinavia-based company. A question they are often asked is, “How can you be married and build different companies?”
For Donna and Thomas, the answer is simple. They hold the highest respect for each other’s businesses. They have an abundance mindset and don’t cross-recruit or cross-sell between their respective companies. They put their relationship first and always support each other.
“To really thrive in a relationship,” says Thomas, “you need to have a foundation of love, integrity, mutual respect, and trust. Both Donna and I lead with love unconditionally, and speak the truth in good and difficult times. This can be uncomfortable and even scary, but for us it’s the essence of growth.
“One of the biggest advantages with partnerships like ours is that when you live, teach, and preach your principles, you always have an accountability partner. We both appreciate this, because we firmly believe in striving to do things right—ethically and in practice—100 percent of the time.”—J.G.
Donna, we’ve interviewed and featured you many times as an iconic leader in the profession. Give us a quick recap of your story prior to meeting Thomas.
Donna: I was a swimming coach and had no college degree. I went to a home party and just got hooked. I decided this was a great way to make money while making a difference. I did well in my first company. I found my current company 30 years ago and have worked it full time enjoying network marketing as my profession.
Thomas, how did you get started?
Thomas: I’m a high school dropout and started working at an early age, building small businesses. I worked as a teacher with children in need of special help, and played semiprofessional soccer in Sweden. A friend and colleague introduced me to network marketing in late 1998. I got hooked on the possibilities of time freedom and increasing my income.
Back then the Internet was just starting to become popularized. Information was not easy to come by, and I had to read American books and tools without knowing much English. The English dictionary became my best ally. Yes, this was before Google translate.
I started with a U.S. company and in 2005 moved on to my current company, which is based in Sweden, never soliciting anyone from my previous business.
Donna and I first met briefly in U.S. at a generic event back in 2009. Then in 2011 we connected in Dubai, where our company had invited Donna to speak and train at our leadership event. We instantly felt a huge respect and admiration for each other. We found out that our leadership styles are based on the same universal principles. Most importantly, we fell in love… We knew then we’d spend the rest of our lives together, confident that love knows no distance.
How did life change when you decided to continue the journey together?
Donna: When you fall in love with someone already in the profession, people think, “Oh, that can’t work.” But if your intention is of the utmost integrity, you realize there’s so much opportunity out there that you don’t have to bump into each other’s businesses.
As Thomas said, even though we were in different companies and countries, our leadership styles were very similar. Because of technology, not much has changed in the way we conduct our business. We reach out and present to people. We train and lead, and our teams know where to find us. We just have to figure out the different time zones. We love how our business provides the freedom and flexibility to work from anywhere.
Thomas: Another beautiful benefit we discovered is we complement each other. Where I’m weaker, Donna has strengths, and in Donna’s weakness I have strength. It has become second nature to honor and help each other, almost symbiotically. Nobody’s perfect, and by helping each other we can leverage each other’s strengths. Both of our teams know and appreciate that we keep our businesses completely separate.
What are some of the differences of building in different markets?
Thomas: Building in Sweden, I worked mostly one and one. We did business face-to-face. When I started to move back and forth over the pond I had to adopt more technology. I gradually moved my business online and did more conference calls. The U.S. is a much bigger market than Scandinavia, so it’s much more common to use platforms like Zoom or Skype. I had to learn to work more remotely when I met Donna. Today, my company is a global company, so I have benefits from adopting that early.
How much time do you spend in U.S. versus Sweden, and together versus apart?
Thomas: I probably spend 60 percent of my time in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world, and 40 percent in Sweden. We’re together 70 to 80 percent of the time. There’s usually two weeks here or there when we’re apart, which is unbelievable, considering that I still have my son part time and he goes to school in Sweden. We feel blessed with how our businesses allow us to be together so much.
Donna: What makes it fun is the opportunity we have to challenge each other. We’re both readers, and love to share ideas. It’s a fun journey together, because we can really encourage each other that way.
Thomas: When we met, both of us had decades of personal development under our belt. We had experienced growth and wisdom, as well as disappointments and failures. If we hadn’t been at that level, there would have been a lot more difficulties with being in the same profession. Six years into our relationship, I can say we are “better together.” We have grown together instead of growing apart. We had already long journeys behind us on our quest to become better, more compassionate people.
We are pretty relentless about always seeking to learn and understand more. We put a high value on our associations—who we bring into our lives and who we spend time with. We also want to be good examples, and in that process we have to grow ourselves.
Who are some of your role models? Any authors or mentors that have been particularly influential in your business and relationship?
Donna: I love Brené Brown, Sharon Lechter, Rita Davenport, Chris Widener, Eric Worre, Mark Fournier, Keith Kochner, to name a few. Many of these people are also dear friends to us.
Thomas: And Jesus, for sure. Our priorities are God, family, business—in that order—which makes it easy to make the right decisions. We follow the Golden Rule: “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” Another big influence for us is Art Williams.
Donna: That’s a funny story. One of the first books I ever read about network marketing was Pushing Up People. I don’t think you can even find this book anymore. When Thomas and I had these great talks on the beach in Dubai, we discovered we had a mutual business crush on Art Williams. It’s on our bucket list to meet him someday.
Thomas: I’d also mention Leo Buscaglia, as he has changed my life almost at the same level as the Bible. I was introduced to him in 1993, pre-network marketing, but it changed my life in a way where I almost get tears when I talk about it.
Any do’s and don’ts for couples in network marketing, whether in the same company or not?
Donna: The most important keys are communication, trust, and edification; and putting the relationship first. The only times we’ve had challenges are when our communication was not crystal clear. Speak the truth, in love. As the saying goes, “Virtue is vice.” We love this business because of the freedom and flexibility. Well, it takes a lot of responsibility to manage and discipline yourself with time management, efficiency, meshing our schedules, and so on. Having good communication, setting goals together, and making a plan is important as an entrepreneur, but especially when you’re a couple working together.
Thomas: Integrity in all your decisions, that’s huge. It’s not easy, but as I always say, “Nothing is easy, but who wants nothing?”
What are some of the situations that can pull you away from integrity?
Thomas: Shortcuts. One of my favorite quotes by Art Williams is, “What’s popular isn’t always right, and what’s right isn’t always popular.”
In our case, being in different companies, we can’t cross-sponsor or cross-sell, even though we constantly have opportunities to do so. It wouldn’t occur to us to break that rule, so it’s never been an issue. That doesn’t mean it’s never been a challenge.
Integrity is tricky, because it means something different to different people. It’s easy to put yourself on a high horse when talking about integrity, and that’s not helpful either. We just hope we live our day as an example of integrity. That’s our wish.
Donna: I call it “doing the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons.”
Can you share any cultural differences between building in Scandinavia versus the U.S.?
Thomas: I would say at the foundation, as human beings we are the same, no matter our nationality or gender. Yet, there are many differences, even between building in Sweden and building in Denmark. Each culture has its ways. Cultures vary from company to company. Even within companies we have different team cultures, and you can’t say anything is right or wrong. You just have to expect that if you move from one company or country to another, it will be different.
For example, in addition to Sweden, I have businesses in countries like Norway, Denmark, Romania, Poland, Italy, Germany, U.K., and North America. These are totally different cultures, which affects everything, from how you conduct the business to how you have meetings. The solution for me is just to trust the leadership in those countries. Even if the leaders are brand new, I let them pave the way, and I support them with core principles like the system and company culture.
I would say that because network marketing is relatively new in Europe, people are generally more aware of our profession in North America than they are in Europe.
This being said, in my experience the objections are the same, no matter where you are in the world. I learned that most people who turn down a business opportunity, do it because of one of two reasons. Number one, they don’t have the money to invest; or two, they don’t see what the business could give them in the long run. (Simply said, they don’t “get it.”) Being experts in coming up with excuses, as we all are, they will probably tell you all the other reasons why they can’t get started instead of telling the truth. That’s where we need to learn better communication skills so we can convey the real value of the business and products we offer.
Again, that could be just my experience. But the bottom line is, people fight the same issues, and if you are a good communicator you will solve most of the problems.
We love NVC (Non-Violent Communication), as taught by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. I believe if more network marketers would apply it, even more good things would be happening in our profession.
Donna: We have noticed that universally people have the same challenges. They want to start dreaming again. They want to have a vision board, and not limit themselves to their paycheck. Being able to give them an opportunity to start dreaming again, no matter what country they live in, is an exciting opportunity for us to share.
Thomas: That’s where “the truth is good enough” comes in. People think the shortcut is embellishment, hype, and exaggeration. “If I can just say the right things or make something look better…” I think if you simply are persistent with the truth, that will have a bigger victory two years from now, five years from now, than the shortcuts will have. It’s about building the relationship. Find out their need, and fill that need.
I just had a conversation with a new U.S. partner who asked me, “What level of investment in products should I start with?” I have never said no to anybody for investing in too little product, but I have told people no when they wanted to invest in too much product, because I prefer if people want to buy more product later than loading them with too much product at first. I trust that when people like the product, they will order more, but if they have too much product, you may never come to that opportunity. Once again, this is about long-term thinking versus short-term thinking. In the end we all know that to be successful we have to be a product of the product we choose to work with.
My position with prospects is always, “How can I help you find out what you need for you and your family?” Then you establish a relationship where people feel heard and empowered to make their own decisions. No one likes to be told what to do. That’s why so many people want to get away from a job.
This reminds me of the fact that you were a special needs teacher. Everybody has their own special needs, right?
Thomas: Yes. I started as a teacher when I was 19 years old. I was very close to the age of my students. This became my pre-personal-development journey. I just did what I thought I had to do, and I was learning and growing with the job, because I really liked it. Then I got promoted with bigger and better tasks without having the education. It put me on the edge all the time to learn more. Other teachers at the school were looking at me sideways, thinking, “I wonder if this is going to work out, with him being so close to the age of the students.” The students were trying to suck me in, “I wonder if we can use him against the other teachers?” I always held that high standard of not being on anyone’s side, walking the road less traveled.
I also made sure to create an environment where my students enjoyed learning. For example, we had music in the classroom, which was a novel thing in the 90s. If someone had their feet on the table, I didn’t put energy into making them take their feet down. If that was the way they could learn better, why not? I don’t know why I took that position, it just happened naturally. Of course, the evidence came out pretty good, so that kind of elevated me for the next employment.
You saw the value in allowing people to enjoy doing things their own way. Would you say that’s an important concept in business as well?
Thomas: It’s funny now that I think of it. When you’re 15, 16 years old, you have idols. You have heroes. So I invited the world champion of motocross and other sports, people I knew through my associations, to come in and teach their success secrets to my students. The positive results where mindboggling. Of course, when I got involved in network marketing I adopted that myself to just seek wisdom. I traveled to the U.S. in 1999 to meet successful people, and it’s been an ongoing search for me, even today. I always surround myself with successful people I can learn from. It doesn’t mean they have to be number one in their field. Even in our daily lives, most people we meet have something we can learn from, if we choose to listen.
What are some of the biggest challenges you see in network marketing?
Donna: Our business is easy to start, so it’s easy to stop. That can really mess with people’s minds, as in, “Why did I fail my new person?”
Look at the Screen Actors Guild and how many actors and actresses are not making money. It’s the same with our profession. Getting a starter kit does not guarantee your success. How much you spend to launch your business does not guarantee your success. What guarantees your success is this recipe of desire, skill, activity, and perseverance to see it through.
I always share with the people I’m launching, “You’re either going to be a rising star or a shooting star. I don’t know which one you’ll be, but I encourage you to lock arms and stay on this journey together, because it’s not instant gratification. It’s not get-rich-quick. It’s a process.”
Most people have to learn a whole new mindset and new way of doing business. You can’t beat yourself up if you launch someone and a couple of months later they’ve hit some dream stealers or some doubts or disappointments, and they go into the “witness protection program” (you never hear from them again).
You can’t let that shatter your dream and your belief. You have to keep on going, because some will, and some won’t… You just have to keep growing and sponsoring and building, and leading. Be the leader! Thomas and I talk about it all the time: leadership is not just developing followers, but developing leaders.
You both have rock-solid belief in the profession, and that didn’t come overnight. What were some factors that helped you build that belief?
Donna: I’m completely unemployable. People look at our lifestyle and when they see us at the gym in the middle of the day, they ask. “Are you on vacation? Did you take off work today?” “No. We have our own business. We work our business around our life, not our life around our business.” That just intrigues people. When we’re traveling, “How is it that you have three homes, and you can travel all over? What do you do? Where do you work?” It’s fun to give people a different mindset of what’s possible for earning a living, aside from getting a job and working for someone.
I think that’s built my belief—the lifestyle and opportunity we enjoy in this profession. Thomas and I don’t have college degrees, and yet we can be at the top of our companies. That’s inspiring for everyone, and the fact that we have an opportunity to offer people so that they can have that as well, makes it even better. We get to sponsor others, so they can take the stage or be on the cover of the magazine. We get to spread the wealth.
Thomas: My belief was “ignorance on fire” in the beginning. I sold myself on the concept of network marketing when I heard my sponsor at the first company presentation. He said, “You and I can be millionaires in dollars.” That triggered a lot of questions in my head. I was working full time, and I was a semiprofessional soccer player, so I was getting paid twice. Yet, I still didn’t have extra at the end of the month. When I heard “millionaire in dollars,” my question was, “What would I do if I made that amount of money?” I didn’t do any due diligence of the profession. I was more looking at how it would change my life.
I started to dream, and one story that came to my mind was Aladdin and the genie in the bottle who grants you three wishes. I started to dream again and I was envisioning all the perks, like luxury cars, homes, travels, and being able to contribute to the lives of others.
Starting to dream fueled everything. Even if people could explain better “why it wouldn’t work” compared to my ability to explain “why it worked,” it didn’t matter. I was bulletproof, because I was on a mission. I knew where I was going.
One thing I did wrong in my first company is when I heard about the car program, I announced to family and friends, “I’m going to have a new car.” At that time I had never owned a new car in my life. Of course, the people around me held me responsible for that. Most of them never joined the business, but they always kept asking, “When is your car coming?” One week later, one month later, “When are you getting your new car?” It didn’t affect me, but I could see how it could easily kill the fire in people when you have to put your energy into fighting those objections. And you are the one who created the opportunity for those objections by putting it out there. Share your goals only with the people who support you, and prove the others wrong by showing up with the victory.
Then remember when you win and people see you “walk on water,” most of them will still tell you, “It’s because you can’t swim.” Now that you know, don’t let that discourage you; let it fuel your desire so you can stay strong and rise above.
My belief also sky-rocketed when I traveled to my company convention in 1999. I didn’t have the money to travel to the U.S. so I used my credit card. I remember at the Anaheim Convention Center I clearly got the picture that this is really true, this could really happen. I was a middle-rank leader at that time, growing my business. I had the opportunity to meet Zig Ziglar in person, and the top income earners in my company, and even a former President of the United States. There was so much social proof and excitement, and I also saw humility. That made me even more bulletproof.
What are some of the ongoing challenges and lessons you experience today?
Thomas: The first 12 to 18 months after Donna and I got married, I struggled with my business in a way. I found excuses everywhere. I had negative self-talk and came up with stories like, “How can I build this while traveling all the time? We are in different companies…” I was fortunate enough to have a leadership position so that money kept on coming, but I was distracted with my focus. “How can I get myself and my business to the next level where I want to be, instead of just maintaining?” What I found out is that all excuses are equal. It doesn’t matter where you are in life, in your business, whatever. You write your story.
As soon as we get rid of those excuses, big things start happening. It doesn’t matter if we are in the process of saying yes to the business, in the beginning of the business, middle of the business, successful in the business, or wanting to maintain instead of building. If we just get rid of the excuses, we can achieve anything we want.
Of course, for Donna and me on that level of leadership, we are just swimming through obstacles and problems every week, if not every day. I’m not saying our problems are bigger than anybody else’s. It’s just stuff that needs to be taken care of. It’s never, “I’ve arrived. I’m done.” Life just keeps happening. There’s always more to learn.
I also think that, even if you lead with love and compassion, you can’t satisfy everybody. Taking a fight is the life of a hero, especially if you want to “stand on the rock of truth,” as our mentor Art Williams would say. Working together just multiplies the possibilities to help even more people, because of the synergy it creates.
In hindsight, we wouldn’t change a thing. This profession is the best gig in town, and we’re grateful to be on this journey together.