John Hall is a speaker, author, influencer, and leader. He wrote the best-selling book Top of Mind and has received numerous accolades including the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Best Emerging Company and one of the Business Journals’ Top 100 Visionaries.
Some of John’s speaking topics include content marketing, media and content trends, thought leadership, PR, personal branding, leadership development, time management, productivity, and more. He writes weekly columns for Forbes and Inc. and has contributed to more than 50 online publications, including Inc., Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Fast Company, and Mashable. John’s also invested in innovative companies like Calendar and Relevance.
BRYAN WISH: Tell us about your One Away moment.
JOHN HALL: The one that got to me was when I was 19 when I had a friend pass. It was a really tough time for me. I was in college. I actually had come to the University of Missouri because I was into a girl here, and she knew that I was not even coming here.
That was beautiful—good planning as a young kid. I was here and didn’t have any friends. I was used to being super social and had a friend that was across the hall from me in the dorm rooms, and he tried to break up a fight. He ended up at a party just trying to do good and break up things, and it was kind of a crazy situation for me because I went into a depression after that. That’s a tough thing to go through as a young kid. I was 19. What I kind of learned from those situations is at a very early age, I realized life was short and to make the most of it, but also it put me in gear too – I worked and put a plan together and motivated myself to get out of the depression through staying busy.
That’s where my first company started, which was in real estate. I think a lot of people, when they’re down and have bad crap happen to them, stay down. I think, for me, that moment was a reminder that when things aren’t going well, you can recover, but you just have to give a spark to yourself and set some things in place. That was a key thing for me and a lesson in perseverance that I had learned at a young age. Since then, when you combine the message that life is short and make the most of it and, at the same time, persevering through when you’re at your low points, I think how you do that also dictates how high your high points go.
BRYAN WISH: My mom always said growing up that in every crisis, there’s an opportunity. Take us to that moment when your friend was shot; it sounds like a terrible tragedy.
JOHN HALL: Your freshman year of college, you’re kind of nervous anyway. I was used to knowing people and being very social. I think it was a very tough thing for me to go through and the feelings that were going on. I’m not a naturally depressed person. I think we all go through anxiety situations, and we all go through some – like I have some people on my team that actually deal with anxiety.
I think when you’re in those moments, like for me, I hit it dead on. When you try and avoid them, work past them – but I went to the funeral, went with the family. He was actually from Chicago. I went up there and went through that together, and I think the closure of it helps to address when you go through something like that and hit it head-on and getting your grief out of the way. Then at the same time, I looked at it, and I think any time you have anything meaningful in your life happen, there needs to be a reflection period.
You need to sit there. I remember going off and actually sitting, and it’s like, “What do I want out of this thing because my buddy didn’t get this? What do I want to make the most out of this?” I think I’ve learned from that in times nowadays. Even when shit goes wrong, I take a step back, reflect, and say, “How do we get through this?” Those are the key lessons I learned.
BRYAN WISH: I always believe that reflection and progression go hand in hand. You really need to look back on what happened to understand how to improve and get better in the future. You said you learned how to make a plan and how to move forward and go after the time that your friend didn’t have. Take us back to that moment and how that led you to start your first business.
JOHN HALL: The biggest thing that helped is I joined a business fraternity called Alpha Kappa Psi, and it’s at the University of Missouri. My first business partner was there. I’m still friends with him to this day. When you look back to that, I think the key was that I surrounded myself with good people as well. I think that’s another lesson at that young age is that to get out of there, I was also surrounded. As crazy as it was, from that business fraternity, I think 2 or 3 of the women in my wife’s wedding were from there, and 3 or 4 of the guys were from there. We’re still friends to this day.
Relationships are one of the most important things that are going to drive success and business. Once I started surrounding myself with people that all had motivations, all in different ways – there was another entrepreneur as well, my first business partner and roommate there. The other ones are not, but they’re successful. One is a leader at Boeing. Another one is a leader of a large mortgage company. I can’t think of anybody in that group that isn’t doing really well. From my standpoint, what motivated me was the people around me, and I was the most entrepreneurial. It put gas on a fire that just started.
BRYAN WISH: What pushed you into joining Alpha Kapp Psi?
JOHN HALL: I think things are triggered when we’re kids. The sparks were when we were kids at a very young age. My mother first got me started by selling door-to-door. I did a lot of those sorts of things, but I naturally was interested in entrepreneurship. In third grade, I’d trade lunches and sell other people’s lunches. Find out what I could get for Gushers, find out what I could for Fruit Roll-Ups, figure out how I could barter to get the most valuable assets as candy, and then sell those off.
I was making money when I was in 3rd and 4th grade. Now I have a 2nd-grade daughter, and I look at her, and I’m like, “What the heck? That’s ridiculous.” I also think my mom provided me with some entrepreneurial books really early. I’d recommend if listeners have a young kid. The Toren brothers are very good friends of mine. They wrote the book Kidpreneurs. It’s a really great book taught in schools. I think getting people started. I bring my daughter around to all my deals. You’d crack up at the stuff I bring her to. We’re doing a big 3-acre development here for a business campus. I brought her into most of my architectural meetings.
She sat there. She likes art. She listened and drew things out. From my standpoint, I got that spark there. I think I knew at a young age that I was interested in things like that. I’m not saying when someone is 18 or 20 or even 30. These things can happen later in life. I know some of the best entrepreneurs. I mean, I think Sam Walton started in his late 30s, maybe even 40s. Once you have an idea of what you enjoy and what you like to do, and where there’s some passion – I learned that at a very young age. Not everybody has the blessing of learning that.
I really focus on people in the long-term of saying, “Hey, where are you going? It doesn’t have to happen this year. It doesn’t have to happen next year. Where do you want to go?” I was on a podcast earlier this morning where I said I told someone that I’m truly content now. I’m doing what I want. I have a great teammate. I choose who I deal with. I’m involved in 15-20 different companies right now. I certainly have a variety of fun stuff to look at and challenges. I’m very content. You could say there’s a $10 million deal or $20 billion deal here, and you’re super excited. For me, it’s like, “Yeah, that’s cool, and that’s fun, but I’m also content with my life, and I’ve been very lucky.” I’m 36 years old, and I’ve gotten there. I encourage people to get there.
I started putting these plans together when I was 17, 18. Littles ones, the ones after that event, came more in my 20s where I was actually serious about it. I said in the next ten years, here’s what I want to do. It’s similar to a company vision. You get your vision. I also have different goals. One of my visions of life is my personal mission, not just my company mission. My personal mission is to enhance the lives of others that will appreciate it. I’ve also enhanced a lot of lives that the people haven’t appreciated, and I know that doesn’t drive me to do more. What drives me to help more is when I can make a difference, and it’s appreciated.
From my standpoint, I decided what my personal goal was a long time ago. I look at my company goals, and some of them are 5, 10 years. Some of them are 3-month goals. Ultimately, if you have those setups, then you start making decisions based on the long-term rather than just short-term, and you might get less salary in the short-term, but you’ll be on the path to get there. I could have started being a full-time entrepreneur very early, but I actually did spend time working for a company called JES which had one of the more successful entrepreneurs in town that I could learn from him and his leadership crew. I’m glad I did that because it made me who I was today. But I could have got started earlier, but I think that was an important step for me to go through.
BRYAN WISH: You were so intentional about where you wanted to go from a young age. You realized not to sacrifice the long-term just for a short-term gain. You realized the stepping stones it took to get there. I also loved how you said it’s not just business, but it encapsulates other areas of your lives, and you drew it back to enhancing the lives of others. You can do that in your family, in your work, and in so many different aspects of your life. Your friend passed away, and you got clear in your intentions. It kind of pushed you to eventually starting your own business. Walk us through that journey.
JOHN HALL: Transitioning from working in a bigger company to going on my own fully, that’s scary. I had some training wheels going from there, too, just because we had – I transitioned from there to a more entrepreneurial environment, but there was still some support given. It was kind of like I started being an entrepreneur. Then I worked for JES, where it was their own thing, and I was just an employee learning from some really smart fast-growing companies. It didn’t have the culture I desired for the long-term, but I still took the best intelligence that I could from there.
Then the next step was more entrepreneurial, and that’s where it transitioned to I was starting companies, but I still had some support. I’m not just being thrown out on the street. That was a nice transition. After that, it was natural. I think I was a little lucky to have – I almost had a cliff to a step to a step to a step. Some people just jump off the damn cliff. I can act like I’m cool like that, but I’m not. I’m not a person that feels comfortable with completely risking everything. That’s where some people are surprised. They’re like, “You’re involved in so much. You have to take a lot of risks.” I don’t. If you talk to my business partner now, he will laugh at that because I’m the one that’s like, “Nope, we’re not risking it.” I’m like the risk manager in our company.
As much as I’d like to say I was this really confident, ballsy entrepreneur that just took a jump, I didn’t. Some people do, and that’s very scary. I’m a big fan of transition and waiting a little longer to be more comfortable and setting yourself up for success. That’s what I did, which is a little different than a lot of entrepreneurs I know who just take the jump. The problem is it’s misleading because you hear a lot of entrepreneurs have success, and you’re like, “Well, I can do that too.” What you don’t hear is all the people that failed so much taking that same jump. There are not many people I know that did the transition that I did that hadn’t seen success when they did it in a healthy, transitional way.
BRYAN WISH: You had the long-term in mind, but you were patient in getting there. What were some of those critical lessons or pieces along that journey that were instrumental?
JOHN HALL: To be honest, as crazy as it, just always learn every skill you possibly can. I know that sounds stupid, but somebody asked me years ago how I got the Forbes relationship. Tom Post was my managing editor there at the time. He’s left. An awesome human being, but it was very hard to get to the guy. It’s like he was the managing editor there, and everybody wanted to talk to people like that who were in media. I found out he was into rock climbing. It was somebody who was a friend of his that mentioned it when I was at an event. I started rock climbing, honestly, just because this guy’s in it.
When Tom and I got on the phone, it was like six months after that. I was rock climbing the week before. It was funny. He said, “What have you been up to?” I said, “Just rock climbing.” He’s like, “Oh, my god. I rock climb too.” I’m like, “That’s awesome.” We ended up hitting it off. At the end of the conversation, he was like, “We should work together.” That’s how I started. He said, “Let me see a test article.” That skill was super valuable. It was one of my bigger opportunities, and I’ve had a great experience writing for Forbes over eight years now. The more skills you get to relate to people and to connect with people.
Today, I just got done playing tennis. It’s with a person is a neighbor and good connection. The idea is that I can jump on a tennis court and hit with them and be equal, if not better, or at least play a game with him. He beat me and has been recent. From the standpoint of being able to do that, it allows you to connect with people. I have a very versatile skillset from the standpoint that I’m not amazing at one thing, but I’m really okay with everything. I know how to play Chess well.
Like decent well. If someone’s an actual Chess player, they’re going to tear me up. What I did in my 20s is every month, I’d set a goal of the 2 or 3 skills I wanted. I know how to play the piano. It’s very misleading because I know how to play four songs really well, but they’re really cool songs. I can’t play anything but those songs. When we’re at an event, and there’s a piano there, somebody will be like, “Oh, you know how to play?” And I can sit down. Nobody ever asks me to play more than four songs.
What I’d tell you is that if I was going back to my young self, I’d say learn as much as you possibly can so that when you’re talking to people, you can connect with them on so many different levels. That’s what drives the world is relationships and how people connect with each other. If you can just get a glimpse and understand where they’re coming from and their experience, they’re going to want to do business and work with you. Those things are extremely valuable. Just set goals on new skills you want to learn to connect. I’m learning quilting right now. Don’t make fun of me: knitting. Now my daughter is into it.
That’s why I’m trying. Just imagine, there’s going to be somebody in the future. That’s crazy. Missouri Quilt Company, the CEO, Alan Doan, is a friend of mine, and we actually can connect and joke around about that stuff. Keep learning stuff. Don’t ever think that something’s not valuable. Just learn it. Get through it, so you understand it. Then move onto something else if you don’t have an interest.
BRYAN WISH: I find that really interesting and that pursuit of continuous learning. It sounds like building skillsets is a big part of helping you build a foundation for what you did in the future. I read an article in Forbes about books you recommended for leaders. There was a book on there on learning anything and unlocking your brain to go back to what you said. Are there any reading materials or books you felt were very foundational to the early part of your career?
JOHN HALL: You hit on something there, and I want to correct something I said. I have different skills, but you should try and work on something being the best at. That’s something I should clarify. You should try. If you try to be the best at everything, you’re going to fail. I think I try to be versatile, and now I speak a lot about content marketing, marketing, sales. I have the expertise that I dove into deep. From the standpoint of how I educate myself, I don’t read as many books as a lot of – I know the big-time leaders, the Warren Buffett’s of the world that read a book a day. I can’t do that. My business partner reads more than I do.
For me, I read probably a book every 2-3 weeks. I actually listen to it. It’s ones that really stand out to me. Essentialism was one that I really enjoyed. I know Greg. He’s a good guy. Never Split the Difference, I really loved that book. It really got me thinking about negotiation and calibrated questions. Now instead of telling someone what I want them to do, I ask calibrated questions of how would you do this? And incorporate them in that decision-making so you can negotiate better. I get the most value out of conversation and situations because the problem is I know enough authors where books are good. Like I wrote a book myself, and I hope it sparks thought, and I wanted it to be valuable, but I think you have to really understand that books aren’t talking directly to you. They’re talking to a mass amount of people, and you need to adjust those to what your world is. I think that situational advice is the best form.
I get the most knowledge from when I’m one-on-one with friends that I respect or people that I respect, and I’m asking them situational questions and learning from their failures, their successes, how it applies, asking them in my world what they think I should do from the standpoint of given this situation and these variables. What would you do here? I really like to have a lot of conversations that are situational with people that I trust and respect.
BRYAN WISH: It sounds like relationships have been at the forefront of everything you’ve done in building the skills and experiences around them. Maybe share the path with us after you left the company that you referenced. What was your first step out into entrepreneurship and doing it on your own?
JOHN HALL: My first step from being with people to straight out entrepreneurship – what’s nice about it is I had known my new business partner. I knew a lot of different things about him. I had known him for a while. I think the first step was kind of a struggle because when you jump from some structure to zero structure, you have to create the structure for yourself. Timeboxing helped me with that. I do timebox a lot. Every day, I have a notepad around me that has timeboxing of this to this time, do this. This to this time, do this. Even I schedule breaks. I’ll schedule like take your daddy/daughter day or lunch or just go for a walk. That’s extremely important to schedule things out. Obviously, I own Calandar.com.
I’m biased because I think that’s kind of why we got into this space is because we wanted to make the most of your time. That was key. Creating that structure because if you can do that when you’re on your own, and you’re a hard worker and smart, you’re going to figure stuff out. The problem is when people fail, they’re all over the place. They’re just doing what they want, and we’re all naturally attracted to things that we feel we like to do. We’re not attracted to the hardest things we need to get done. That’s why you have to be very deliberate to get those hard things done because those are typically the things that move the biggest needle. That’s where timeboxing comes in. Right out the gate, it was like these are the hard things to do. I always say it’s like what are the most important things that you have to get done in a day. I have a line where I put a line on those to-do’s, and if I get everything above that, I’m happy. If I don’t, I don’t go to sleep. I actually will not go to sleep. I’ll stay up till 3-4:00 in the morning, and that’s to teach myself not to put myself in that position and get my shit done during the day.
BRYAN WISH: What you’re saying is you’ve gone through the journey of life. You’ve realized time is your greatest asset with your businesses and learning how to prioritize and then set a structured schedule for yourself that’s optimal for you and your priority, and I’m sure your priorities and your personal life as well. You’re a very family-oriented guy outside your business life. What have you found the most meaningful aspect of what you do?
JOHN HALL: For me, probably the biggest – it goes back to the personal mission. The personal mission is to enhance the lives of others that will appreciate you doing that for them. When I look at the things I get involved in, it’s more around the people. I tried to start a nonprofit this last year, which I kind of failed at. I think that nonprofit will be a core work down the road. The nonprofit I wanted to start, it’s like I feel there’s a lot of people that are screwed over, but they have a great work ethic.
I wanted to find the people with the great work ethic that have had some bad things happen to them, get them on the right track, and not just them but the people around them. If you get them, their family there too, you can lift them all up together, and it just so happens; my first one at it was a woman that reached out that ended up – she was somewhat of a con artist. I got taken advantage of for that. That was my own fault. I should have known better. It’s crazy. She worked her ass off to con me. There’s a lot of falsifying documents, tax returns. As crazy as it was, it was her daughter that turned her in because I was kind to the family, and the daughter felt horrible about what I was doing to help. She was 18 and came clean.
You have to go back to what is the personal mission. I try to do that with employees. I try to do that with clients. I try to do that with partners. Now you’re not always going to be right. If the client is pissed off at you, you can’t be like, “I’ve got to enhance your life. I have to just fold everything.” I don’t want to mislead that. From the standpoint of what motivates me is the people around me. My team knows that the happier they are, the more that I’m going to do well. When I see them happy, when I see them enjoying work, then they know that affects me. Anything we get involved in, it’s got to be somewhat enjoyable.
If someone is like, “You can make a million dollars on this deal, and you have to work with people you don’t like for two years,” I’m going to say, “No, I don’t care.” I think life is short, and I measure success in a variety of ways. One of those is a success is not just money. I’m very lucky to meet a lot of the people I looked up to, and I’ve gotten to know whether it’s a billionaire or an extremely amazing entrepreneur. I believe in never meet your idol because when you meet them, you’re like, “These people aren’t even happy.” They’ve worked 90-100 hour weeks since they were 30. From my standpoint, I look back and say what drives me is the people that I surround myself with and building things together and looking back at the journey, and that’s what keeps me motivated.
BRYAN WISH: It sounds like you figured out the right mountain of success to climb up early. How are you balancing? You talk about enhancing lives and how your friend’s death pushed you to go out and excel and build businesses. How are you giving the same attention, meaning, and thoughtfulness towards the family you’re cultivating?
JOHN HALL: In reality, you can focus on work too much. That’s where that did happen years ago, where I realized how much time I spent on culture and company stuff that I didn’t spend on my own family. I take a lot of the exercises that we do as companies, and I take them home. What can I do better? You ask that as a boss and set goals together. As a family, you just don’t do that. If you see one of my keynotes, you’ll see there’s a really funny story with my wife. I talk about how she got me to cook. I always asked people how I could help her and be better for them, and I never asked my wife. When I asked my wife, she said, “Cooking.” I’m like, “You’re kidding me.” I ended up not doing anything. She sent me an article, and I ended up not doing anything. Then she sent another article. She was basically nurturing me from the content marketing side of things.
It was all about cooking. When the time came for our next date night, where we were talking about this, I realized I hadn’t cooked. Well, she actually said, “How’s cooking?” There was that gut feeling that I call that moment of vulnerability where I hadn’t done something. I went back to those articles, ended up signing up for Plated. She was happy. She was thrilled. I had to come clean. I’m all about trust with people. I came clean with her, and she’s like, “Oh, I knew. I just figured if I educated you with content, you’d either learn yourself, or it was from a site called Plated that does it for you and just sends it to your house. I was just content marketing you. Rather than getting pissed, I was going to win either way. You’re cooking. So, I’m happy.” That’s an example of applying some work things at home. It was very fun and friendly. I also try and apply it to friends. I try to enhance my friend’s lives. In the last couple of years, I got burnt really bad, and that’s why I used to be just to enhance the lives of others, but then I found out I’ve had some close friends actually use me for different reasons.
That hit me hard because one of my goals is to enhance their lives. When you find out you’re being used by people you care about at home, it’s a lot different than business. Business, you expect those things. You don’t expect it from family and friends as much. That’s why I added to that mission is people who appreciate it. Those are people who don’t use you for your resources. They appreciate the efforts in you enhancing their lives. It was a business coach that told me. I got demotivated. I was like, “This is against my personal mission.” He goes, “Why don’t you change it? Focus on the ones that you really feel appreciated and don’t go in blindly anymore.” That hurt, but I’ve learned to adjust similar to business. I try to be the same person I am in business at home, and I’m lucky and blessed I get to do that. Some people have to act a certain way at work. I’m the same person at home as I am here talking to you.
BRYAN WISH: Where can people find you?
JOHN HALL: It’s pretty easy to reach me. LinkedIn. I have a newsletter I send out weekly. You can engage there. I typically comment back. As long as you say you’re a listener from this podcast, I’ll accept it. I blog on Calendar.com. That’s the main focus now with launching that. If you pay attention to what they’re doing, that’s kind of what I’m involved in in the short term. I’m on Twitter and places like that.