When he was nine years old, Cameron Johnson started a business creating stationary, greeting cards, and invitations for friends and family. Since then, he has launched dozens of successful companies while usually maintaining a healthy social life and serious focus on school. When he was fifteen-years-old, one of Johnson’s companies was actually bringing in fifteen grand a day.
He’s been featured on Fox’s The Morning Show, CNBC’s The Big Idea, in USA Today and other papers, and countless other media outlets. And he was a finalist on Oprah’s Big Give television show.
Johnson’s book, You Call the Shots: Succeed Your Way –and Live the Life You Want– with the 19 Essential Secrets of Entrepreneurship contains lots of great advice to entreprenuers, much of it applicable to authors striving to build a writing career. He spoke to me about his history, about overcoming a fear of rejection, evaluating an idea, the importance of contacts, and other topics.
Slushpile: You launched your first business at the age of nine. As you progressed through your teens and got more and more involved in business, were there any books that inspired you?
Johnson: Yes, most definitely. I actually began reading business biographies when I was probably only 10 years old. Success stories from such icons as Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Michael Dell, and Richard Branson. The fact that they all started at a very early age gave me the extra inspiration to get started when I was so young.
Slushpile: Your passion is creating businesses. So why take time away from that to write a book? What was your goal in writing You Call the Shots?
Johnson: Very good question and that’s very true. Every week, I receive hundreds of emails from entrepreneurs and from young people who either have a question, or who just appreciate me sharing my story. It’s flattering, yet it seemed natural to partner with a brilliant business editor, John David Mann, to help me co-author my book and make it available to the masses. While the book tells my story, it’s much more than that – it shares the lessons I learned along the way and enables the reader to take their own idea and get started with very little capital or experience.
Slushpile: When you sat down to write the book, did you have any role models or other texts that you used as an example of how your book should function?
Johnson: My number one priority was to make the book as beneficial as possible to the reader. Over the years, I’ve personally read enough business books to know what I like and what I dislike. I wanted to include as many lessons, or “secrets,” as possible and to explain those through my story.
Slushpile: You mentioned that John David Mann received a co-author credit on You Call the Shots. What was it like co-writing with a partner?
Johnson: John is a brilliant writer and fortunately for me, we also have a great friendship. You Call the Shots would have never happened without John’s experience and expertise. It couldn’t have been a better experience and when I was building businesses, I would always try and surround myself with the best possible talent – and this book is no different.
Slushpile: How did this book get published? What was your experience in finding an agent and then submitting to publishers?
Johnson: As many writers know, finding an agent is hard enough – yet alone getting in front of publishers. I was fortunate we were able to get the book in front of one of the top business agents who fell in love with the book. Once you have a top agent in your corner, it makes it a bit easier to get publishers interested. Luck might be the best answer as we were definitely fortunate in such a ridiculously competitive industry with so much talent.
Slushpile: You write that one of the key aspects of being a successful entrepreneur is that “you have to put yourself out there and ask for what you want.” A lot of aspiring authors struggle with facing rejection and they have a hard time submitting their work to what might be a harsh reader. How does someone get over the fear of rejection, the fear of putting yourself out there?
Johnson: Selling is a very important trait. Whether you’re selling yourself in a job interview or selling your book to an agent or publisher. When someone says “No,” that’s actually when you start selling. First, you have to be 100% passionate about whatever it is you’re selling and if you’re a writer, that’s most likely not your problem. Second, you have to separate your passion to then try and understand why your idea or proposal was rejected. Then, you have to overcome those obstacles.
I hate rejection and won’t say I handle it better than anyone else but we can’t let it slow us down. Chicken Soup was pitched to 30+ publishers who said “No,” before finally getting that yes. Whether you’re a writer, actor, entrepreneur, or CEO, chances are those who make it to the top – have overcome plenty of rejections. Use it as motivation.
Slushpile: While you lead a full life of sports, friends, and socializing, you are known for your ability to focus intently on business. You devour business magazines and advise that if people “put the kind of energy into this that others put into keeping up with celebrity gossip, you’ll be way ahead.” What can aspiring authors learn by studying publishing trade journals and industry news? How does this benefit them, as opposed to keeping up with Paris Hilton’s latest escapades?
Johnson: I’d turn that question around and ask yourself how keeping up with Paris Hilton’s latest escapades benefit you? If you take a second and write down everything we do in an average day, or week, I think you’ll definitely see how it can be beneficial to read, and study, trade journals and industry-specific magazines. Before I published my book, I studied the publishing world and tried to learn everything I possibly could.
Slushpile: You write that many successful businesses are based on improving an existing idea. “Never underestimate the potential of a good idea,” you write. “And never underestimate the better execution of a good idea that someone else is executing poorly.” How do you improve someone else’s idea, without seeming too similar? Even though another burger chain may introduce a sandwich that has three pieces of bread, two patties, and a sauce, don’t they need to impart their own vision, instead of just carbon copying the Big Mac?
Johnson: Their own vision: yes. It’s rare that simply a carbon copy will succeed as you must differentiate yourself from the competition. What makes you better? Or maybe you’re cheaper? Faster? Easier to use? Any of these questions can separate you quickly from the competition. Study what works, and even more importantly study what doesn’t. I think entrepreneurs overlook the simple ideas. Apple didn’t invent the mp3 player, they just made it better and easier to use. When you look at new products or ideas, you’ll find the simple ones, and often simple variations, are sometimes the most lucrative.
Slushpile: And how would you advise a person to objectively evaluate how to improve an idea? If I read a detective novel and think I could do a better job, what kind of questions do I need to ask myself in order to improve it?
Johnson: What didn’t you like? Writing and writing copyrights are a bit different than a business concept or idea but the same principle applies. Being objective might be the biggest challenge and that’s one reason I always look to others for feedback.
Slushpile: In You Call the Shots, you advise people to find great mentors. “People open doors,” you write. “That’s what connections are all about. Over the years, I have collected a powerful network of contacts. Some of them have opened major doors for me, and I’ve done the same for them.” Aspiring authors often bemoan their lack of big-time New York publishing contacts. How can someone overcome the fact that they might live in a small town in the Midwest and might not know anyone in publishing in order to build an effective network of contacts?
Johnson: I think people are sometimes overwhelmed by the need for networking. Living in a small town in the Midwest can’t be your excuse. I was from a small city in Southwest Virginia. Perhaps look to a co-author, perhaps reach out to some of your favorite writers and ask for their feedback or advice. It sounds like a cliché’ and I guess it is, but there’s always a way.
Slushpile: You have some very strong opinions on customer service. One of the things that you find most shocking is that “nine out of ten companies never contact their customers after they’ve made a purchase.” Now, authors selling books might be a bit of a different relationship than a car dealer selling SUVs. But what kind of advice would you offer to writers who want to build—and retain—their audience?
Johnson: I think this is just as important for authors. Perhaps not “customer service” but developing a relationship with your reader can prove crucial. In You Call the Shots for instance, we give the readers a special website at the back of the book where they can get even more tips and online resources. There we invite the reader to join our newsletter and we give them the free tips promised. This same strategy can be adapted to just about any book, and can prove to be a valuable marketing tool. Also can be a valuable way to get direct feedback from your audience.
Slushpile: Many writers struggle because they may love to write a type of book that isn’t popular. They want to stay true to their art, but also build a career. In your case, all the ventures you’ve launched are a result of something you love and find interesting. Yet, you also objectively evaluate their viability as a business. How do you balance the love of a pursuit with the harsh realities of business investment?
Johnson: That’s a tough question. The marketing ability, or potential, for an idea is something I research as one of the very first steps to getting started. So I’m not sure I’ve let myself develop a huge passion for something that doesn’t have broad market appeal. One strategy I use when creating businesses is to first find my niche and then ask myself – what can this audience use? So I actually look for the market, before I create a product or service. It’s reverse but it actually makes logical sense rather than trying to invent something no one wants.
Slushpile: In the past, you were into soccer and scouts. How are you spending your free time these days?
Johnson: Free time is very important – I love to travel, hang out with friends, concerts, sporting events – the same things an average 23-year old would like to do.
Slushpile: What books are you reading?
Johnson: Right now I’m working on my next book so I’m not reading very much other than plenty of research.
Slushpile: What are your plans for future books?
Johnson: When I wrote my first book, I didn’t necessarily anticipate on writing another. Now that I’ve received some great feedback from the first one, I’m passionate about writing more for my generation. There are very few books out there that are written by twenty-somethings and I think my books have a unique appeal and the unique ability to speak to my generation. Stay tuned for some exciting projects to come.
Slushpile: You juggled a social life, high school, and creating several highly successful businesses. What advice do you have for writers who struggle to work on their novel while also meeting the demands of a day-job, family, etc?
Johnson: My best work was done very late at night. I’m sure many writers would agree with this and I also never let my businesses run my life. I think that’s the best lesson is to not let your writing run, or ruin, your life. My businesses were a hobby and I never let them control my life.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Johnson: We live in a world where the average book sells less than 5,000 copies. With that being said, the best tip is to use your talents to be incredible creative, but also keep in mind it needs somewhat of a broad appeal to succeed in the marketplace.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
Johnson: To not take No for an answer and to put yourself out there and make it happen.
For more information about Cameron Johnson, be sure to check out his website.