Faith Fight: Building Businesses, Brands and the Billion-Dollar Goal
There’s a story about a young boy so motivated to be a professional basketball player that he focused solely on that dream. That is until his father challenged him to have two dreams for succeeding in life. Acting on that advice, the boy dreamed about becoming incredibly successful in business. He grew to be determined and purposeful with an entrepreneurial spirit that eventually gave him a multi-million viewer audience. While this may sound like a story of an aged, old man, it is anything but. At the age of 36, Chris Johnson has reached and continues to soar to goals that few have experienced in a long lifetime, including a pitch on the hit TV show Shark Tank, and securing a deal with business mogul, Mark Cuban.
Johnson’s products are in over fifty thousand retail stores, in four countries and he holds more than 25 patents. As the creator of the Rapid Ramen Cooker which is the cornerstone to his company Rapid Brands, Johnson is the founder of several organizations including a business to help young entrepreneurs. He has also coached and inspired thousands of kids through his basketball academy. Johnson recently sat down with Risen to talk about his newest licensing agreements with Disney and Nickelodeon, mentoring, family, his faith, and a big announcement about his next venture.
Interview exclusively for Risen in Sacramento, California
Risen Magazine: Before we hit on your most recent accomplishments, let’s go back a bit to your childhood. What was that like? Did you always have an inquisitive attitude or was there something or someone that triggered your aspirations?
Chris Johnson: My parents. My dad is an awesome guy and I love my mom dearly. They divorced when I was around five years old and that was really difficult or me. I was one of those kids that just had a ton of energy and I didn’t always apply it in all the right ways, but I was really a family kid, I just loved my family together. There’s a story about my persistence. My parents had both remarried and I didn’t like the idea of step parents so I made it my job that I could get my parents back together. I would pray everyday that my parents would get back together and I never gave up hope. Every day I would pray they would get back together.
Years passed, I believe I was about 12 years old, and during that timeframe both my parents had divorced [spouses] and I remember my dad was dropping me off at my mom’s; it was her weekend with me, it was a Saturday. I went inside and saw her cooking, told her I had forgotten to say something to dad, and raced back out to the car and told my dad, “Hey Dad, mom is cooking breakfast and she said you are more than welcome to stay for breakfast,” and he said, “She said that?” And I said, “Yeah.” So he turned the car off to come in while I raced back into the house and said to my mom, “Dad says he’s really really hungry and he’d like to stay for breakfast,” and she said, “He said that?” and I said, “Yeah” so she said, “Okay.”
So my dad came in and it was the first time that we [with his brothers and sister] sat at the table together since I was like 5-6 years old and they could see how happy we were. And wouldn’t you know it, they got back together and they’ve been married 25 years [since that time].
I’ve always had determination as a kid, but I really credit my dad because both my parents graduated from college, both being the first in their families, and were successful. Even though we didn’t have a lot, I didn’t know that because we had so much love. But when I wasn’t [behaving] the right way, my dad just redirected me, he didn’t break my will.
In my early schooling, I was a “C” level student. I remember being in the fifth grade and all of my friends were in the sixth grade and they were going to be leaving and moving on to middle school and I wanted to be with them. On the top of all of my papers I would write I W T S – I want to skip – I wanted to skip the sixth grade to go on with my friends. I got all of my grades up to straight A+’s, I was the president of the elementary school as a fifth grader and I wanted to prove that I was smart enough to not be left behind.
Well, at that time I was really heavily into sports and my dad said, “Son you are smart enough and you can do it, but for sports you’ve got to trust me that this is not a good decision to skip you up,” and he was right. But he rewarded and nurtured that type of will. And man…I’ve applied it in the right way ever since.
You know sometimes you are doing the praying and talking to God, but sometimes you need to be silent and just hear from Him.
RM: When you were younger you wanted to be a professional basketball player. When did you transition from wanting a career in sports to a career in business?
CJ: As a kid I was a really, really good basketball player and I would work every single day in front of my house. I was going to the NBA, there were no “ifs” in my mind. There was no doubt and my dad never told me to have a back up plan. What he said was, “Chris, have two choices, you’re going to the NBA, but after the NBA you’re only going to be around 38-39; you still have the rest of your life, so you need to have two dreams.”
But I didn’t know what that second dream was. Then I saw the movie Boomerang with Eddie Murphy and he had a corner [view] office, and he had suits, there’s some crazy stuff in the movie, but he had Halle Berry and I was like, wow, that was my second dream; I want to be in business. I want suits and have a corner office and be in business, and I want to have my own company.
So my dad never once discouraged my playing basketball, he never put any word of doubt in my dream. It was always…have two dreams…have a second dream. And at the age of sixteen, I became an entrepreneur.
RM: How did that happen?
CJ: I had a birthday party, a house party for my 16th birthday. I was a popular kid in high school and I invited people, but it turned out that the whole school came to my house and it was incredible. The garage was filled and as I looked around outside I had the idea that, okay, I’m going to start charging, so I yelled to everybody in the crowd, “Hey it’s $10 to get in now and if you’ve got $10, raise [up] your money and you get to come to the front.”
They started filing in and I remember to this day taking the cash and it wasn’t ending. I was taking the cash, giving change, taking the cash and this entrepreneurship [feeling] just came over me. I remember having all that cash in my pockets and I said you know what? I want to do this again. For high school kids there wasn’t much except the [dances] to go out. All we had was junior prom and senior ball unlike older kids who could go to clubs. So I created the first teen dance club in Sacramento.
I rented a hall and I made flyers and passed them out to all the neighborhood schools. I’d pass them out to the coolest guys in those schools and they got to get in free; all they had to do was pass out the flyer and they were on the VIP list. For others it was $10 per person. I remember my costs were like $800 for security and $1200 for the hall. The night of the event it was jam packed and we had over 400 people come and I had $4000 in cash by the end of the night. I remember showing the cash to Shawna, who was then my girlfriend and is now my wife, and just being so excited. From that I expanded to another location in Elk Grove and one in Stockton and then I had multiple locations and it was great. I did it for a couple of years.
But to go back to your question on how did I transition from playing basketball to business, it was difficult. I played basketball into college but it was so difficult to do both school and play ball. I was at U.C. Davis, Shawna and I had Chris [eldest son] when I was 20 and I wanted to make money for my young family, so I was also working at Safeway. I was one of the best workers and good with the customers and I told the manager I wanted to be a checker. The manager pulled me aside and said, “I appreciate your persistence and there’s no one better than you, but there is a seniority process and so many are ahead of you. The only way we can make you a checker is if you do night crew.” I said you know what, I’ll take it and I went from [making] like $7 to $14 [an hour].
So my days would be school from 8am-12pm, practice from 2pm-4pm and work from 11pm to like 6am, and I was doing this everyday and taking 21 units a quarter. It was insane and something had to give so I decided to give up basketball. It was one of the most difficult things that I have ever done.
I was going to work and going to school, so my identity was really difficult at that time. I was basically just a student. I had some side companies so at that point I said I’m going to pursue my second dream and made that transition to be a businessman, graduating from Davis in 2002.
Mentorship and proximity has been huge in my success. It is so important to have people in your life that have already been where you are headed.
RM: In 2006 you founded a company to handle technical staffing and consulting services for clients in the fields of architecture, engineering, environment and construction for both public and private companies. Named the Johnson Group, why did you choose this business avenue and what was your goal in doing so?
CJ: I wanted to get some experience. Coming out of school I worked for an engineering company, but they had a national layoff and referred me to a recruiting company. I actually went to the recruiting company as a candidate to get placed and they liked me so much during the interview that they told me they wanted me to work for their company. I worked for them for three or four years and decided I wanted to start my own recruiting and staffing company.
I was the number one recruiter in the company and here I was 24, 25 years old and I was making almost $200 thousand. The company gave a trip to the Bahamas for all the top sales people and I was able to bring my wife, but I remember talking to my wife about it and telling her that I just wasn’t happy, there was a lot of unrest. I remember looking at my paystub, my commission and was fairly happy about that, thinking what an accomplishment for a 25-year-old. But I was also thinking about how much money I had made the company. I had started a new division for them, an architectural engineering division which had never been done before; they knew nothing about the company and I saw that I had made a million-dollar company within a company. I realized that I wanted my own company.
I talked to my wife about this and asked what she thought about it. She said, “Chris, in all the years we’ve been together you said your goal was to be a millionaire not a $200,000-aire.” So here’s my wife with a young family, and she is challenging me to go out on my own and with her support I did it.
It was a really rough road though and that company was very unhappy. Even though I agreed [to their terms] they still sued me, and that was a very dark period of time for me. I was under litigation for a long time, almost five years. It was very stressful and it tapped our wealth and savings.
They [the company] was trying to put me out of business, but I was so determined to keep going that I financed an extensive law suit just by sheer business development. I said I’m going after it. I know that most companies never make it to trial and I remember having the bankruptcy papers and long and short of it was, and this rarely happens, but I was able to get to trial and I won. There was another trial and I won that trial and then the judge found they had specious activity and ordered them to pay me a million dollars in damages.
Most of that went to the lawyers, but I survived it and the Johnson Group survived, however I now devote most of my time to the Rapid Brands Company business.
RM: Let’s move to a momentous experience in your career which happened due to your being on the TV show Shark Tank in 2012. Just getting selected to be on the show is a major accomplishment and you were accepted to pitch your product called the Rapid Ramen Cooker. While there are probably several key points of that experience, what stands out to you as the most significant?
CJ: The biggest significance of the Shark Tank experience is how it [connected] everything, especially in the business of Rapid Ramen. I put all my faith in God in this one. I mean that wholeheartedly. Surviving that previous company lawsuit and then surviving the downturn in the economy, in a staffing business where we thrive when everybody hires…in all of that I had this little idea of a rapid ramen cooker and I knew nothing about how to invent anything, I knew nothing about retail, I knew nothing about international production; I didn’t even know how to put a bar code on something.
I remember I prayed about what I should do because my dream was not ending up to where I wanted it. And I remember, I got the vision of, the word like, “Pursue this and put faith in me.”
You know sometimes you are doing the praying and talking to God, but sometimes you need to be silent and just hear from Him. And so I said, “Okay, I’m going after this.” So to answer your question, the most significant thing that happened from the little idea of a square plastic bowl is mind blowing. You know, I was raised in church, but until I developed a relationship with God, I would just say [what I thought were] the right things, but what He has done with Rapid Brands, there is absolutely no doubt about the favor that is on my life. That’s why in every speaking engagement I give God the glory because it is unfathomable, there is no question that He is in all of this and everything I’m doing.
RM: So the show introduces your product, and as you have said, put your company on a rocket ship in sales. In addition, you have gone on to create cookers for other products and most recently announced a licensing deal with Disney! Congratulations and please tell us about that.
CJ: Shark Tank is awesome! After the first night of that show we had buyers who loved to hear about it. Setting up buyer’s appointments was a lot easier, but I’ve got to tell you that other people have been on Shark Tank and their rocket ship goes up and it comes down. The biggest difference for us is that I put so much work ethic into what I do every single day. What I realize about success is that success is deliberate, it is on purpose, so I matched my faith with the work. We went from one store to over 50,000 stores nationwide, Wal-Mart, Target, Safeway, Walgreens. We opened in Canada, and we are the number one selling microwave accessory on Amazon.com and with our [second] product, the Mac Cooker at number 2.
The licensing agreement with Disney/Marvel is to put branded Marvel cookers with any of our products such as a Spiderman cooker, or a Captain America cooker. Marvel has such a huge fan base from kids to adults. So it’s a big license deal. In addition, we have signed a deal with Nickelodeon, so we have a license agreement to brand our cookers with characters like Sponge Bob, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dora the Explora, and more. We also now have a license deal with the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC). (CLC represents 200 colleges and universities.)
RM: It seems that your success continues at such a fast pace. Do you have competition?
CJ: The reason we are the number one growing microwave cookware company in the world is because we took the microwave oven, that was designed to re-heat, to a place where you can actually cook things. We use our test kitchen to find ways to actually make veggies that taste delicious, actually cook oatmeal to taste delicious, and [invented] our newest cooker, the Rapid Brownie baker which makes delicious brownies, just like you would cook for 30 minutes in a traditional oven, but can now cook in just 3 minutes and 30 seconds in a microwave oven in the Rapid Brownie microwave baker.
In retail, shelf space is scarce so that is the number one thing you are competing for. There was a competitor that tried to knock us off. They were a huge $90 million company. When I heard about that, well it was a point that [definitely made me stop and think.] I remember praying and hearing the word of [God]. “Be at peace, do not be moved.” And from that moment I was [determined] that I’m just going to control what I can control and I’m not going to focus on anything that is outside of my control. God loves me and He will control it; I’m not going to try and micromanage Him.
So I just continued and we now own this market, we dominate it. They [competitor] tried to design around our patent, but rather than fight them on that, they couldn’t get theirs placed because we were already selling and had the space.
RM: You have talked about the value of mentors and have taken on young individuals to help them reach their dreams. Who, aside from your dad, has been a help and mentor to you?
CJ: Mentorship and proximity has been huge in my success. It is so important to have people in your life that have already been where you are headed. It is profound. [For example] If someone says I have an idea to market and produce, do you think I could teach them something? Absolutely! I have already been where they are trying to go. I have incredible people that are just a wealth of knowledge, and when I leave their presence I’m just silenced in humility. People in my life are like Hayes Barnard (founder/CEO Paramount Equity and other companies) and Ben Van De Bunt, (CEO of Guthy-Renker). Every time I leave these guys’ presence it puts a new lens on what I think is possible. So now your projections and your forecasts don’t scare you. There’s so many times where there is this self unworthiness of the things you are about to embark on, or doubt tries to creep in, but where does doubt find room in a man that is consumed by faith, and these type of mentors help with that process.
No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined what God has in store for those who love Him, and it’s happening to me right now.
RM: You have said that you are a man of faith. I noticed in a photo of you that there was a post-it on your computer that said, “I will focus on God’s Word, nothing has any bearing to what God has promised me.” Tell me how your faith impacts your daily life?
CJ: I put different types of Post-its around [my work area] to remind me and make sure that I stay focused. Now here’s what is important. Running a business is HARD, it’s a faith fight. If you have the emotion of stress, anger, sadness, depression, feeling down; most people think those are okay emotions to have. The truth is they are not okay because when you are feeling those emotions you can’t be enthusiastic, you can’t be grateful, you can’t be filled with expectancy, you can’t be filled with faith, you can’t be filled with humility at the same time. So those emotions are just alarms to let you know that you are out of sync.
For me, I’ll take a scripture or a word that God gave me and I’ll post it to keep my mind right. That’s key because circumstances will really be persistent to tell you your world is going in a different direction. So it is a faith fight and it’s like, Am I gong to believe the word that God has given me that I’m gong to be successful? Or am I going to believe what is happening right now?
Another way I do this is that I’ve dedicated a wall of pictures [in my office] and its my gratitude wall. So many times as an ambitious entrepreneur you are focused on the big win, the big success and the big mission, but there are a lot of blessings that are going on along the way and so many times we forget about those and really don’t understand the significance of our life because we are so ambitious and going after these big things. I’ve dedicated this wall and every single picture captures a time of something that really means something deeply to me. I will at times sit back and look at that wall and I realize that I’m blessed; if nothing else changes, I’m not forgetting and am reminded, [of the journey].
RM: Currently, you are also writing a book. How is that going?
CJ: It is really difficult writing a book and running this business. I hope to finish and have it available soon. It’s about my story and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. They are incredible lessons. If I could build an empire on a little rectangle bowl, what can other people do? It [the book] is about faith and execution. I love to inspire people, so I’m excited about it.
RM: You are indeed a busy guy, but you have more news to share?
CJ: There are two major things going on right now. Risen is getting some exclusive here! Steve Harvey’s executive team contacted me and initially wanted me to appear on his show. That escalated to them wanting me to be a re-occurring guest, as business expert. But now, they want me to have my own show.
RM: Wow, that is a big announcement.
CJ: Yeah it’s crazy! I got the TV contract, and all the details are being worked out.
RM: What will you be talking about? Business? Entrepreneurship?
CJ: We are working on the creative now. Have you seen the TV show The Profit? It’s going to be a bit like that, but dealing in the consumer product space.
RM: Is it something you will be investing in?
CJ: Absolutely. Either I will invest my own money in it or I will be building a venture capital fund from the ideas on the show. It’s pretty exciting stuff. The show is still conceptual, but the reason I’m so interested in it is that my goal was never to be famous; that was never a big thing for me. I wanted to be rich; not just for myself, but to be able to just bless people — that was a big goal to me. I [achieved] this goal and now I have a goal that I call zero to a billion. Understanding my skill sets, and I have become brilliant at taking an idea and making it a million-dollar product in major stores. Ramen [cooker] took me two years – I had known nothing. When we did the Mac [cooker] I had the idea, and it was on the store shelf in six months, and then the next six months it did a million dollars in sales.
So in my goal of zero to a billion, I want to be that guy that is known for making an impact on the community in a very special way so at the end of my days, and I’ll probably accomplish this way before that even comes up, but my goal is to help a thousand people take their product to a million dollars; and one thousand times a million is a billion. It has nothing to do with my products, but I want to impact at least a thousand people and have those people become millionaires. That’s one of my big goals, zero to a billion, and so that’s want I’m going to do.
It was kind of like an epiphany to me. I want to be that guy. I do it now with my speaking engagements; I love making that impact. Now with this TV show, imagine the platform; a thousand might not be enough. It will make a huge impact on people.
You know what I realized? My grandfather said to me, “Chris you know what the richest land in the world is?” I was like, “The United States?” He said, “No.” I said, “China?” And he said, “No.” I said, “Grandpa, I give up, what is the richest land in the world?” And he said, “The graveyard, because that’s where so many people die with great ideas in them that they never got out.” And I said that I want to impact that. There are so many people with great ideas. To really make an idea successful, it doesn’t have to meet that big of a filter, I know the filter, it’s the process and I know the process, so I want to impact people on that.
One more thing I have to tell you; it’s on my heart to share with you for Risen…this is huge. One of the biggest names, and I’m humbled by it; I just got back yesterday, and we’re doing a deal with Top Ramen — THE Ramen noodle people…it is a massive! We will now create a Top Ramen brand, new cooker. It’s going inside their distribution which is over half a billion in just the U.S. alone. We just met with the president, they are an amazing organization. Top Ramen owns all the [ramen noodle] brand equity.
Each Top Ramen noodle package is going to promote the new Top Ramen cooker. The back of each package will show microwave instructions for cooking the noodles with the Top Ramen cooker. It’s the biggest thing I’m working on now. It’s not a game changer, it’s a world changer for us [Rapid Brands] and we are ecstatic about it. It is a great partnership.
RM: Is that something you have you been trying to get into?
CJ: Yes, from the onset I had that in mind, but faith and patience [had to play out]. It’s what your mind cannot even imagine. No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined what God has in store for those who love Him, and it’s happening to me right now.
RM: You met your wife Shawna, when you were 15, remained high school sweethearts, married and have four children. You are quick to credit her love and support throughout the years as the mainstay for your success. But what has kept you grounded?
CJ: Number one that keeps me grounded is knowing that I could not do this on my own and that undoubtedly, it is God’s favor on my life. That goes through these businesses that I touch so it’s really easy to be humble when you know who is doing it, who provides it. It wasn’t until I fell on my face and lost everything through that [lawsuit and Johnson Group] where I didn’t really know what was me and what was God. But when everything is stripped from you and you’re building a [new] company with no information, no past experience and no success; and I had no money — just asking for help — and when that help comes, it is really easy to know who did it.
RM: What is the legacy you hope to leave?
CJ: I’m not working on legacy just yet, so I’ll say this, as far as my perceived hope legacy work. First, I totally agree with Daymond John [Shark Tank] – he said first you gotta make it, then you gotta master it, then you gotta matter. The make it is having that success, I’ve got that and now I’m in the stage of mastering it, then after that stage I want to focus all my attention on mattering. On impacting non-profits, impacting the community and building that legacy, but I know what stage of life I’m in right now; I’m mastering it and I’ve got to stay focused on that and then manage the legacy opportunities when they come.
I think at the end of the day, when my time has come to legacy I want it to be [known] as an unapologetic man of faith, he had an unmatched work ethic, he was an incredibly devoted husband and father, and he was relentless in getting the best out of everybody around him.