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Jimmy John talks entrepreneurship

Maddie Daly | Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Jimmy John brought a huge turnout to his lecture on entrepreneurship Tuesday evening – and not just because of the free sandwiches. He kept the crowd laughing during the entire hour-long presentation and told his impressive rags-to-riches story.

“In June 1982, I graduated second from last in my high school class. I guess maybe I turned in one more paper than the last guy,” John said.  

Raised in a military family, John had low expectations for himself, partly because of his father. 

“My father didn’t pay much attention about what I was going to do,” John said. “He thought I’d go to the army since that’s what my brothers did, but that was the last thing I wanted to do.”

Instead of going off to the army, John bargained with his father and got enough cash to start a business on the streets of Chicago.

“I really wanted to open a Chicago hotdog stand, and my dad said he’d lend me $25,000 if he can have 48% of the profit,” John said. “The deal was that if it fails, I would have to go to the army.”

After realizing how unrealistic his budget was, John switched from hotdogs to sandwiches.  He had visited a small sandwich shop in southern Illinois with only four pieces of equipment, and he found that he was able to make that happen with his dad’s start-up money.

He started his shop working alone from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. every day with very few customers.

“It was physically brutal; I didn’t know it was possible to work for that long,” John said. “The second week, though, I got into it. Give the fat people more mayo, scrape some off for the skinny guys and after 1:30 a.m. people don’t know what they’re eating anyway so I give them the end slices of meat.”

After his first year, John went from having $1,000 in his bank account to $21,000.

“I became in-tune to what made the bank balance go up and down. I found out I love making sandwiches for people – giving someone a product and having the people give me money and say thank you … it was just buzzing my soul,” John said. 

John said with his success came some difficulties due to his lack of a business background. Eventually he learned how to deal with money from his father.

“My father told me to pay for everything COD – check on delivery. Everything I had delivered at my sub shop I had a carbon copy of. I deposited money every day,” John said. “I became an accountant by default; that’s what paying COD does. I had to live in reality with my cash.”

In April 1985 Jimmy John bought out his father for the original $25,000 start-up money plus interest. By the time he turned 30 years old, he had made his first million. Last year, he reached over a billion.

“I mean I guess I’m successful now. I guess that’s kind of how it works,” John said. “I also give the managers at my restaurants 25% of the profit plus their minimum salary. It’s our profit-sharing program.”

After he instituted the profit-sharing program, John said his managers literally doubled their unit volume in their chain stores. 

“The attractiveness of the offer was just uncanny,” John said.

After telling of his success, John gave his audience advice on how to get where he is today.

“Right now, if you’re not working, get to work and begin learning. If you’re sitting waiting for the perfect job, somebody’s going pass you by. Just get some experience under your belt,” John said. “And if you’re in debt get out of it so you can get into reality. Every bill that comes into my office today gets paid today; I don’t owe anyone a penny.”

John repeatedly emphasized the idea of hard work and physical labor.

“If you’re going to get a job, arrive an hour late and stay an hour later, just to do it. Even if your boss doesn’t notice what you’re doing, the dude in that office notices,” he said. “Hard work and great execution are really what separate good from great.”

Another aspect of work John focused on is the relationships between employees.

“Work for a leader you admire; don’t work for a jerk,” he said. “And be careful who you hang out with because we become just like the people we spend time with. So choose wisely.”

John finished up his lecture by thanking the local workers who attended his talk. He also asked the students to do their part for America and take risks by starting businesses, creating jobs doing exactly what he did.

The program finished off with a question-and-answer session. The crowd’s favorite question appeared to be about his most embarrassing moment in business so far.

“Drunk Facebooking,” John said. “Same goes for tweeting.”

Amidst the roaring laughter, John concluded his talk with a last piece of advice.

“It’s not about a quick buck or a scam. It’s really about making a whole bunch of really good decisions,” he said. “This ain’t the dress rehearsal. It’s the big show.”