AJ Leon, Founder, Misfit Inc
AJ Leon walks backs to his corner office on the 28th floor. He closes the door behind him and walks past his $8,200 mahogany desk to his window. He surveys the stark Manhattan skyline in the winter morning sunshine. The Chrysler building, the Empire State. Without warning, tears begin to drip down his cheeks. In his boss’s office, right next to his own, he’d just been offered a promotion. His six-figure salary would track up to seven-figures. All before his twenty-sixth birthday. It dawns on him that he has to do something radical: walk away.
Have you ever had the sensation of living someone else’s life, or that you didn’t choose the path you’re on? Most people experience this, including AJ Leon.
AJ Leon is no stranger to striding halls of financial power. “One thing led to another until I became a financial executive in New York,” AJ says. When he graduated college with a degree in finance and accounting, he took “the biggest offer at the largest firm that I could find. I really didn’t care what I would be doing for them or where I’d be.” In his mid-twenties, he’d ascended the corporate ladder until he boasted a corner office in Manhattan. AJ was making “an absurd amount of money, with big bonuses. I didn’t even work a ton of hours. I was kind of at the top.” Yet he was crestfallen. The problem, he confesses, was: “I hated my life. I was completely and utterly passionless about what I was doing and always had been.”
When he was presented with the dream promotion, he was working on Wall Street. It was December 31, 2007, the month that saw the beginning of the global financial crisis and US recession. AJ Leon was offered a job that promised a salary double his previous one. Imagine while the world begins to crumble, you are selected to be groomed to make partner in one of the most successful firms in New York city. “ said basically you’re going to make twice as much money as you do. You’re effectively going to be number three in the company.” AJ realized he was just offered something that he would never be able to walk away from. “I got truly depressed to the point where I was crying, alone, in my office.”
- AJ’s inspiring story on what it means to give up societys perfect life that is mapped out for you
- The secret to creating a movement that people can really get behind
- What it truly means to do work that matters and change the world one step a time
- How to live a life of adventure and fun!
- How to obtain Freedom
Full Transcript of Podcast with AJ Leon
Nathan: Hello and welcome to the Foundr Podcast. My name is Nathan Chan and I am your host from Melbourne, Australia. So I hope you’re all having a great week, guys. I’m super, super pumped for 2015. I’m actually just writing down my goals now. Let’s make 2015 the best year yet. My friend Meryn Baricket said I should share something interesting with you today before I jump into today’s show. Just so you can get to know me a little better and the person that is giving you this podcast. So something that you wouldn’t know about me is I actually have never tasted chocolate. I have a ton of food allergies I’ve had them ever since I was a little kid. So I’m allergic to dairy, egg, sesame, peanut, coconut and a ton of other random things. And I’ve had it my whole life. I’m pretty much a modern-day Bubble Boy except I can walk around and go outside and explore. But that’s a little bit about me that you wouldn’t know. Look, I wouldn’t know any different. I don’t know any different and that’s me.
So about today’s guest, his name is AJ Leon. This interview I did with AJ a while back, long story short, AJ is an extremely inspiring person and he runs a company called Misfit Inc. And They have a whole ton of things going on under their Misfit brand. And he’s a truly remarkable, interesting very, very interesting guy. Him and his wife Melissa traveling around the world and they plan to visit every single country in 1,880 days. AJ Leon used to be a financial executive and he was earning a ridiculous amount of money. Off the top my head I can’t even remember but it was at least a six-figure, a high six-figure salary. And just before he was about to get married he threw it all in and started from scratch and he wanted to do something that truly matters. He wanted to do work that truly matters and he’s on a quest to change the world. In this interview he shares what clicked for him and what sparked that change and really goes in-depth on how you can start your idea, your hustle and how to start a movement and what it means to really do work that truly matters.
I’d also like to share with you, AJ shared some real gold with me after we turned off the recording but I think it’s just so important that you hear this and I don’t wanna ramble on too much. When I said to AJ I’m trying to grow Foundr, what’s the best piece of advice that you would give me, and he said to me that, “If you wanna compete with big magazines like Forbes, fast company entrepreneur, they have great information but they don’t really have something that you can get behind.” And he said things really, really start to click for him when he realized one simple thing: people are much more concerned about why you do something as opposed to what you do for them.
He said once he worked that out, communicating that why, he said it can be very, very powerful and that’s how he creates his movement Misfit Inc. and people go crazy for anything misfit that they release. And that’s because there’s a message behind the brand, something that’s so much deeper than here’s what we can give you. But here’s what we can give you and this is something you can get behind. Can you see the difference? So that actually sparked me to go off and create the Foundr manifesto and, you know, if you go to our About Us page you can see what we’re all about. We are a magazine and now a podcast and our media brand all about showing you exactly what it takes to build a successful business. And why? Because life is too short to do anything else and you deserve to learn from proven entrepreneurs before you.
And we wanna be leading that movement of entrepreneurs starting their businesses from scratch from their bedroom. We wanna be leading that and we wanna really show people what it takes. We wanna drive this growing force of entrepreneurs and that’s what we’re all about. We’re all about helping you. So that’s a little bit about me. I know I tend to ramble on a lot, but bear with me. Let’s just jump into the show. If you are loving these interviews, please leave us a review. Go to foundrmag.com/cast or foundrmag. com/stitcher and you can leave us a review there. Hope you all have a great week. Now let’s jump in.
Hey everyone, before we get started today, I just wanna give a quick shout-out to our sponsor of today’s show, Zirtual. Zirtual provides U.S.-based college educated virtual assistants who tackle both personal and administrative tasks. When you sign up, your profile will match with a dedicated assistant or ZA that you work with one-on-one. Everything from research to reservations, inbox, and calendar management, they’re committed to helping you live a more stress-free and productive life. Starting as low as $3.99 a month for 16 hours, do yourself a favor this holiday season by getting yourself your very own ZA. Type Foundr into how you’d hear about us in the box, the check out, on zirtual.com to receive $199 off your first month of any plan. Remember, when you support our sponsors, you support the show.
Today I am joined by AJ Leon and we’re going to be talking about how to do work that truly matters, turning entrepreneurial ideas into reality. AJ used to live a unremarkably average life as a financial executive in Manhattan as he would say. And in a stunning moment of clarity he decided to stop once and for all living some other dude’s life and in partnership with his wife Melissa, AJ reinvented a multi-faceted nomadic life as a writer, designer, entrepreneur and humanitarian and is on the quest to change the world. He is currently traveling around the world in 1,880 days, is that right?
AJ: That’s right, on five years.
Nathan: Awesome. All right, well, look, I just want to say thank you for joining us, AJ. It’s an absolute pleasure.
AJ: Thank you. I’m glad to be here, Nathan, and thanks for the intro because it makes me…hearing it back I’m like, whoa, it almost makes me sound important.
Nathan: Oh, look, you’re somebody That I stumbled across a while ago and I was following your Twitter feed and speaks very, very highly of you and you’ve taught him a lot.
AJ: He’s a good dude. He spoke at our conference actually in Fargo just a couple months ago and he just…he killed it and he’s such a fabulous writer, a great human and…
Nathan: No, very, very, very interesting, you know, philosophical, amazingly inspiring dude. So let’s just talk about more about you then. Can you give us a quick little rundown of where everything clicked? You were working in New York and you were living what society would say would be a very successful life, and something happened. Can you take us back to that day where something happened? You were making really good money, right? Just suddenly and this is just before you were about to get married, yeah?
AJ: Four days before I was gonna get married. I mean I had lived a life that was the exact archetype of the life that one should live, like post-teenage years. When I was a teenager I was a bit of a punk, just a ballplayer and then I had a high school guidance counselor basically telling me a guy like me could go to university and I was just gonna be a, you know, mechanic. No offense to mechanics but she vented in a derogatory way and that I shouldn’t even bother. And that kind of, you know…I didn’t like that very much so when I went to university I took it incredibly seriously and I started kind of thinking…like I re-engineered my entire paradigm and I started seeking out what would be considered success.
So when I…I mean even when I went to go pick up my majors I remember sitting at a Barnes & Noble’s. I mean when those things still existed. And I remember choosing my degree, what I would study, my degrees from a book that talked about what type of degree you could get and the lifetime value of that degree in terms of salaries. In essence, like all my learning…I ended up graduating from university with incredibly high marks and I took the biggest offer at the largest firm that I could find. I really didn’t care what I’d be doing for them or where I’d be. All I cared about was the fact that I was getting paid money. I got a signing bonus and I was, you know, successful. And after that I jumped from one firm to the next right at the precise time to leverage, you know…like when you’re doing that corporate career thing.
It’s basically a game and if you learn how to play the game then you exploit kind of one company that you’re working out right at the moment when you’re about to hit that bubble and then you vertical leap to the next one. So I got really good at that game and I found myself in my mid-20s with a corner office in Manhattan overlooking the skyline making an absurd amount of money, big bonus, you know. I didn’t even work a ton of hours, you know. I was just like…I was kinda at the top managing about $2 billion in that. I mean the problem with all that was is that I hated my life and I was completely and utterly passionless about what I was doing. I always had been. I just was good at getting to what that sort of…that parameter and that paradigm deemed a success.
So to answer your question, on December 31st, 2007 which is four days before Melissa and I are gonna get married, my boss calls me in his office and his office was right next to mine. So I just walked over. I walk in his office and he looks at me and says, “You’re getting a promotion and you’re gonna make basically twice as much money as you do and you’re gonna effectively be number three in the company, number two, three in the company, groomed to be the franchise, groomed to be a partner.” You know, so you can see that. That’s a seven-figure track. That’s like, you know… I walked out of the office. I walked back into my own office. I closed the door and I just look over…I go right to the window as I had done many times. I just looked over across Manhattan. I just started to cry because I realized that I was just offered something that I would never be able to walk away from and that like my script was written, you know.
It was a very profound moment of loss for me because any inkling of a dream that I once had that I was gonna break away from this and I was gonna be an adventurer and I was gonna be a person that was brave and do things that mattered was gone now because I would never, ever be able to have the courage to walk away. And that’s the trick with money. You know, it has money and we created it but now it owns us, you know. And the more you make, the harder it is to walk away. So, you know, at that moment I kind of saw myself. I remember it was like clear as day, like I saw myself. I saw this vision of a 60-year-old version of myself and looking back at me now just mourning the glory of this life that could have been.
And then it occurred to me. I just kind of like I got really truly, truly depressed to the point that I was crying alone in my office. And then it just struck me that there was another choice. I can leave. I can leave right then and right there and then I realized that if I didn’t leave that I was gonna be that guy for the rest of my life. And the prospect of that profound loss of my one and only life, I mean that’s when it really struck me that this is it. This is my life and it is my one and only. It was more terrifying than the prospect of how I was gonna pay rent next month because in that world you spend as much as you earn, you know, sometimes more than you earn and just in one brief moment of audacity I walked into my boss’s office and basically told…I mean he became the personification of every cage that I had ever put in my life, you know.
And I just went off on like the Shakespearean soliloquy on this dude, poor guy, and basically told him to go fuck himself and then I grab my stuff, walked out the door. I mean I torched that bridge to the ground, you know. I hit the street and that was…and that’s it. And I raised my hands in victory, not metaphorically. I actually did because for the first time in my life I felt like I was free.
Nathan: And most people would think you were insane for doing that, you know?
AJ: I mean I think there is an element of insanity in grave moments in life, right? I think we all like…when you see somebody do…and you’re not always brave you. You’re not always courageous. None of us are. But like when those moments happen and you take that, well, we all know those moments like where we chose the brave thing, the crazy thing, so there is an element of insanity.
Nathan: And how did you cope just knowing that you didn’t know what you were going to do? You didn’t have the security of the amount of money that you were used to guaranteed coming in. Well, not guaranteed but just that feeling of sense of security. How did you code when you…
AJ: There’s kind of a duality. On the one hand, you have to recognize like I just escaped this dungeon, you know, this castle that I’ve been locked in for my entire adult life. So on that hand I was free and there was this jubilation. And then it sets in right after the moment that it’s done. Now it sets in that, whoa, that was the end. That was a very, very beginning and then I just…you know, I mean at that point you just…you need to figure out. I had no plan B. I never…like my life and what has happened in my life, that is not a life plan and I never give that as advice to young folks because it’s ludicrous. And surely a wiser person would have been trying to build something on the side or like gain skills on this…like for two years and developed a little thing.
And, you know…but I was at a point of no return. I was at a point where that wasn’t…it’s just I had gone too far and it was to this promotion, it was too far. It wouldn’t have mattered what I put on the side. I would have never left and I knew it. So that was me. But at that moment then obviously you start trying to put things together, you know. I did something very stupid early on which a lot of entrepreneurs do and I started looking at my kind of history to dictate my future. So I thought, accounting, finance degrees. So I set up my own little management consulting practice just thinking if I…you know, that I just wanted to be free. I just wanted to be out of an office and I would be happy.
A lot of people make that mistake early on and then I ended up getting clients and getting clients very quickly and then I realized I was building a prison from the inside except this time I was holding the key, you know. And then I looked at that and then I just razed that to the ground. I kept one little client just to pay rent and Melissa now have basically, you know, hunting to stay alive. And then…and we sat down and we wrote our list. The turning point for my wife and I was the moment that we just thought what if we could start from scratch? What if history and context and everything that had governed my life didn’t matter anymore? What if I could choose the guy in the novel that I wanted to be and just embody…just start acting like him? And then we wrote down all these things that we wanted our life to look like in two years. I felt like two years as a palatable, you know…five, you’re a little bit too far. Six months is like okay.
So two years would be this perfect and we wrote that we wanted to be adventurous. We were very specific. We wanted to travel 50% of the time. We wanted to work together. We wanted to do work on the web. For me that was web design. I was always an artist. I was always into aesthetic and beauty but I was told when I was a kid you can’t make money doing that. And we wanted to do social work. We wanted to do, you know…we’d give at least 20% of our time to humanitarian projects. And there was a few other things on our list but that list acted as if…you can imagine like the filter through which the grinds of every decision in our life would flow through. I mean that list was if it did not fit into that filter, we were not gonna do it and we would leave any type of money on the table and we would be in any type of discomfort.
And that was, you know…it’s an excruciating thing to do that obviously because that sometimes that lands you in fucked up places. I mean it’s not like, you know…Melissa and I have slept in five-star hotels. We’ve also slept under bus benches. We’ve slept in mud huts in Africa. We’ve been…you see, we’ve gone wire to wire, all…
Nathan: It’s all about the story, right? All about the experience.
AJ: That’s brilliant that you say that because that is precisely it. Like once I started to view the choices in my life differently and I started to view my life as a novel and I started to view myself as the protagonist in a grand adventure, everything changed for me because it was about a narrative. And now you’re living a narrative and things are different when you’re living in narrative as opposed to having, you know…building a career or building a traditional life or whatever it may be so…
Nathan: And this is more exciting I think, right?
AJ: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Nathan: So let’s go back a little bit. So, you talked about the list that you wrote after you quit your job. How long ago was that?
AJ: I mean that was five years ago.
Nathan: That was five years ago. So let’s fast forward five years now and tell us about the kind of things that you and Melissa and Misfit Inc. and all these amazing things you’re doing, can you give us a run through in the kind of things you’re doing and the kind of thing you’ve achieved since leaving that job. One thing I wanted to touch was I think when entrepreneurs start out, they just see the dollar signs. They just look for the profit. And I was guilty of this too. My first business venture I just did it because i wasn’t really concerned with creating value or giving something back or helping others. It was all about the money, man. And I think that’s something that you do so…and encapsulate so well is you do work that truly matters and whether it’s, you know, for clients or philanthropic work, you really embody that. So I just like to hear your take.
AJ: Sure. I mean there’s different types of entrepreneurs, you know. There’s entrepreneurs that build things to last. There’s entrepreneurs that build things to sell, and then there’s entrepreneurs that for them they’re just a 21st-century artist and you wanna live an interesting adventurous life and there’s gonna be expressions of that life that some of which if, you know, how to connect dots will generate a profit for you. Some will not, just like many artists, right? Many artists, even in the past, I’m not talking about now. Like this is true of artists of the days of old, you know, and those…so like entrepreneurs’ almost too much of a general term from what I’ve seen and the conversations that I’ve had.
Now this type of entrepreneur, you know, that we’re seeing more and more or at least more and more communicate online where it’s not just about business and it’s not necessarily about, “Oh, I gotta be seen and then I wanna sell and then I’m gonna do my next one and like making that deal.” And it’s not about building the next McDonald’s. It’s about people who look at their one and only life and say, “I want this life to count. I’m not really concerned about building something that like, you know, that like people are drinking my Coca-Cola four generations from now. I don’t really care. I care about right now. ” And if that’s the type of entrepreneur, if you’re more artists, you know…if you’re more artist than you are businessperson, right, it’s not black and white. It’s gradients. Then you’re gonna make different choices, you know. And like for me at Misfit, you know, we made different choices.
Not everything that we do is profitable but there are a variety of different expressions of Misfit Incorporated which is our are kind of, you know, which is our blanket company. Inside of that is design agency so we do handcrafted…you know, very kind of pixel perfect web design for…usually I mean a handful of clients, tech companies, you know, just people we really truly jive with but those are higher dollar amount. You know, it’s not a small business site or somebody for an individual. It’s kind of like a higher-end type thing. We grew to that but we were always very kind of serious about putting together really well-placed design and in that way we’re known for that. We also have a print magazine. It’s a Misfit tri-annual. We’re doing it three times a year instead of four now.
And that’s now. Like we have, you know, subscribers and print subscribers in 10 or 12 different countries and we got, you know, digital subscribers all over the world. We’re printing our first book and this is all…that printing stuff is under Misfit Press and we’re printing that. In 16 days the book will be launched. It’s called “The Life and Times of a Remarkable Misfit” which we funded with a Kickstarter, which is fantastic. In February we got…raised $40,000 on Kickstarter for the launch.
We also do a lot of humanitarian projects, one of which we just launched in June called “Goodness Fit” where we ask 30 people in our community from around the world to get involved to raise $500 each to raise $15,000 to build a windmill in this village in an area in Kenya. And the reason why we did that is because we wanted to solve one tangible problem because a lot of times with humanitarian stuff when you give donations you don’t really feel connected to the thing that you gave to because it’s very amorphous. And it’s not a bad thing but that’s just to make sure of that…but how great would it be if it’s like I got involved in this project. I got my community activated and then it’s just one windmill in this one village and that it’s gonna be there, shoot video back the way I can see it and I can, you know.
So we kind of wanna do that. It was cool. We raised all the money for that and then we just launched Trendy Misfit which is the design apparel company, launched our first product few days ago. And it’s gone on extremely well which we’re happy about.
Nathan: Well, that’s so cool. So you’ve got a lot of exciting things going on. So let’s talk about Misfit Inc. and what is your definition of a Misfit because Misfit Inc. is essentially you and Melissa’s branding. Where did that concept come from and when did you decide, well, you know, you were doing the consulting company and it wasn’t really you, as you said. And you didn’t really escape like, you know, as you discussed, but you just popped in your head like boom, I wanna do Misfit Inc. or how did that start?
AJ: It was an evolution. Just like anything else. You know, I mean there was a moment where, you know, outside of that, once I left there was a moment where I got back to sketching and drawing which I do a lot of now, you know, a lot of design work now. And I was thinking about how I felt…how I had always felt and I’d always felt this place, you know. I always felt like I was out of…like even when I was successful I should have been happy but I wasn’t. So I always felt like I didn’t fit, always, you know. And I think that that in essence is individuality. Like when you don’t fall in line with people, when everybody’s wearing black and you’re the dude rocking a neon yellow shirt, it’s, you know, it’s jarring in a way because you’re like…
But you feel it, you know, you feel it. And you’re a misfit so there’s a condescending…like we use the moniker in like that negative kind of misfit but the reality what it means is defiance. Defiance in the view of a system that wants us to comply and people that want us…and well-intentioned family, friends, colleagues, brothers, sisters that want us to be the same, you know. So to me it doesn’t, you know…misfit, it doesn’t represent like victory or even success. It represents defiance. It represents digging your heels. The posture is different. It’s not full…like, you know, it’s digging your heels in and saying that I’m going to live my life deliberately. I’m going to make decisions with intention. I’m not gonna take a script from everyone else. And that seems like a very commonplace but we all know that it’s not.
We all know that most of us have lived portions of our lives taking direct cues from other people’s lives whether it’s our parents or whoever that we thought that we should be. So that’s what Misfit represents and then in practice, you know, Misfit, we’ve kind of centered everything around that. For entrepreneurs, Misfit Incorporated is a company. Under that company we run a variety of basically divisions, for lack of a better term, the design apparel company, our publishing arm, even pursuit of everything which is a blog. We don’t do any advertising or anything like that but that’s our community hub. That’s…we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t even, you know…we wouldn’t be on this interview right now, you know.
Nathan: So how did you get that started? So we talked about starting small and evolution and I just wanted to know you’ve had many ideas. How are you getting them off the ground?
AJ: Well, I mean at first it’s like, you know…people… It’s funny because people look at it now and people think it’s logic. Like it just started…because I heard about it yesterday, must have just started yesterday and they don’t see the… I mean I’ve been at this, at the game for five years, you know. So it’s like they don’t see all the fuck ups because the fuck ups are buried under dirt. I mean that’s a beautiful thing about the web, right? No matter how bad you flame out today, in two weeks’ time even the people that follow you, they will not even remember it. Everybody’s got a short attention span.
First of all, when Melissa and I decided to start living our life more deliberately and through the filter of that list, we sold all our stuff. We packed everything in little backpacker bags which we still have. They’re sitting right over there, and we put our stuff on our back and we just bought one-way tickets and started to travel around the world and started to basically while we were doing it learned how to design and develop websites. And at the time nobody would pay us for websites. We had…we were awful. We bartered. I mean the first deal we ever made was like we made a website for a coffee shop for, you know, their old bagels and stale coffee at the end of the night just so we could eat.
We did the same around England and Europe for places to stay, you know, when it deals with B&Bs. So it was a lot of that but there was a lot of little projects and you learn by doing. Nobody’s gonna come out and gave me the greatest designer, the greatest this or write or anything else. So we learned through that process and in that barter economy, you know, you can fuck up and it’s not completely, you know, totalitarian. It’s not going to destroy your career because you don’t have a career yet. People can’t get that angry if it’s not the most beautiful thing in the world. But you can count your teeth and you can start to do and it is by doing that you learn. So we did that for a while.
Nathan: I see and then you just kind of kept beating on your craft.
AJ: I mean over time like anything else, over time, we launched so many projects for so many different people that over time we just got better and better and better and then all of a sudden, you know, we decided to launch a project called “Rise of the Cubicle Farm” where we would travel around the country for 90 days. This time our design had gotten okay. We travel around the country for 90 days and interviewed entrepreneurs that have left corporate and put them up on the site, you know. And it was like video blog, video interview style but like in person.
So, I designed this site and then all this…we acted like we’re doing it like…you need that swagger on the way, even if you are not capable of doing what you’re doing. Nobody’s ever capable of doing what they’re doing usually. Usually, there’s that swagger where you’re acting the part right now, you know. You don’t actually…
Nathan: I did it too well.
AJ: You know what I’m saying. Every entrepreneur has those stories where you’re sitting there, you know, promising something that you cannot…in the back of your mind you’re like, “I have no idea how the fuck I’m gonna do this.” And then you either pull it off or you don’t. So this project we launched it and we were going forward with and then all of a sudden, you know, we reached out to a sponsor and it looked good. It looked hot and we had like a few pretty big-name interviews. So they were like, “Oh, yeah, cool. We’ll sponsor.” And it was kind of one lead and then we got another. All of a sudden we had 13 sponsors and it became a thing. I mean we generated revenue off of that.
It afforded us to travel all over the world and for more people to see our work because the site itself was its own design. And look at it now and I don’t think it’s that great but back in the day people seem to dig it. So on that trip I had…it was the first time I had somebody say, “Hey, you know, I really dig you guys design. Could you design something for me?” And I looked across out of them… This is the…I mean, “Oh my god,” and I was just like, “Well, what’s your budget?” And it’s not…I’m just like…and he’s like “Well, around $5,000.” And I just…I mean I had to hold it together because to me somebody paying $5,000, now that’s a…you know, it’s not a big…that’s not a big job for a whole website obviously. anybody, you know…
But like at the time that was like, “Oh my god, this guy is gonna pay us $5,000.” We just walked out of that meeting and we bought the biggest like sushi dinner and it was unbelievable. But then, you know, from that because we always work through that filter, even client projects in the beginning design…but we would only take clients that we aligned with 100%. And that’s hard to do because you end up losing, leaving a lot of money on the table but you can more quickly gain a name for yourself for the things that you identified, the things that you truly personify. So then, you know, that led to a bit more and then once, you know, the ball gets rolling and you can launch more of your own projects and here we are today.
Nathan: Wow, and I think if we’re to really break that down it would be just the art of hustling and just rolling with it and not knowing what’s gonna happen, just having the confidence in yourself. And that’s something that I’ve actually built over time too. Like, you know, I’m trying to get two issues out in one month. I don’t know how I’m gonna do it but I’m just gonna do it and, you know. It’s a little bit like that. So let’s just switch gears and I haven’t questioned that my actual graphic designer here is a big fan of yours. He said you have to ask AJ this question. So it’s a little bit formal but I just wanna put it out there and he says, “You’re extremely good at prioritizing. What do you do when you have to decide between a professional commitment to a commitment that you have to live every moment to the fullest?”
And, you know, you guys are traveling a lot and you have a lot of businesses at the moment, you know, under the umbrella. And I know we talked about before about experiences and the story. How do you choose between the two?
AJ: We’re absurdly protective over our time. And what I mean by that is I’m not gonna engage in something that I don’t believe in so even professional arrangements or things that I really wanna be there, you know, like I really…it’s something that I just really align with, whether it’s…we fit all of our projects into either business, so that’s revenue-generating, creative, or humanitarian project. There’s some hybrid ones like Misfit Conference which is an annual conference we just launched in North Dakota last year. It was great, which doesn’t, you know…first year conference, it doesn’t generate any revenue. We won’t even be thinking that it would, but it’s more of like a create. So it’s a bit of creative and business.
And the way that we prioritize those things, everything falls through that filter. So we will not, for the most part, we, over time, right? I mean this doesn’t happen in one night but over time we have only dedicated ourselves to projects that we truly align and believe in. And in that way our life, our professional life and our actual life are in congruence at all times. Now in addition to that like we choose to live our life like an adventure. So even though…even still today we do design projects from time to time for clients that we’ve worked with for years and we don’t do many anymore but we do. And even now all of our clients are completely aware of the fact that we are nomads so we might be doing a video call and they always have been. That was a deal breaker for us. I remember early on having a…so I emailed a client that wanted to pay us by cheque and that was like, no.
You know, and then we had to drop…we left money on the table, real money on the table because…and it seems myopic and you think like, well, why wouldn’t you just comply with it? Because if you give one inch, if you relent one inch then the next inch is easier to give and then it’s next and then it’s a yard and then all of a sudden you’re derailed from what your vision for your life was. So through a series of those kind of hard decisions, it’s made it very…you know, we don’t really have to make decision between like professional arrangements and then like creative because it’s all congruent, you know. It’s all aligned, you know. We live our life on an adventure so it’s…
Nathan: That’s right. And you’re doing stuff that truly matters to you.
AJ: Precisely, that’s the definition. I mean other people could look…surely there’s people that look at our lives and think that we’re fucking nuts. I’m sure…I mean for as many people that today, especially over the course of the last like 18 months I’d say, look at me and what we built and say, “Wow, that’s amazing. I really wanna do something like that.” There are that many people that look at it and say, “What the fuck? These fucking gypsy. None of this makes sense.” A design company, a conference, a print magazine, like, you know, you’re nomad, around the world. What the hell are you doing? And that’s okay because it’s, you know, it’s…I’m not…my life.
Nathan: It’s congruent with who you are.
Nathan: That’s awesome. So let’s look at that creativity, man, because it’s something that you…it’s definitely one of your strong points. And, you know, I looked at…some of the work you’ve done is really, really impressive. And how do you go about creating your best work?
AJ: For me the number one element of it is inputs, you know, because people think…particularly like whether it’s designing or writing or anything creative in nature which I think that’s what we’re talking about here, you know, we’re talking about creative kind of endeavors. People focus on the output like how do you do…you know, when do you write or when do you, you know, sketch and like what’s your timeline like on projects and those are the questions that you get but you can’t operate there if you don’t have an enormous amount of inputs and the more inputs you have, the more you’re gonna have the draw funnel.
What I mean by that is I spend 365 days a year of my life out on the road. And sometimes I return home. I have a home in New York City but even that is like, you know, I’m there for two weeks. I get a little bit of the city, you know, wash over me and then I go. And not that everybody has to live their life like that but in my kind of life, in my process, 365 days a year I’m tasting different foods. I’m listening to different music. I’m meeting different people. I’m seeing different street art, going to different museums, you know. In the last year I’ve been to like 48 states and 12 different countries. And when you have all those kind of inputs and all those…and you’re open to serendipity in the world and open to meeting new people and having those experiences then…and you have those experiences and all that to draw on, there is no way that that will not find its way into your work.
It will. You cannot help it, you know. As a human like we’re all…everything that…you are who you are, you know. We’re one cohesive unit so if I’m putting all that into my mind then it’s gonna make me more creative simply because I wanna draw from it. And that’s true with anybody. I think anyone would say that, you know…I’ve met lots of writers who say their best work they do when they go like style, out into the woods and, you know… And so, you know, it’s definitely not a typical but I think that is the most important part of the creative process.
Nathan: It’s certainly interesting because to be honest with you, I’m fairly constricted with how I go about creating the magazine. Each issue that I produce I see it as artwork and do it. I’m just like glue up all the pieces together and, you know, I’m kinda constricted. I can’t travel, you know. I’m still working…
AJ: But there’s always degrees though. There’s always degree because like…so I would be like the gypsy like extreme and to some degree maybe even that extreme because for instance there’s a lot of people that…a lot of my friends here in Fargo they have a hometown where it’s like, you know, they have that sort of community connection. They go to the same events every week and all and there are benefits. Everything’s mutually exclusive. However, I would say that anybody a lot of people get into a rut where say even if you have to stay in the same place. Do you go eat at the same restaurants or do you try new things? Do you listen to like new types of music and new styles of music?
Do you look to see what’s open at independent cinema as opposed to just watching whatever is available at traditional? You know what I’m saying? Do you like…you don’t have to go out there in the world. In anywhere in the world you’re gonna have those local inputs and that is what I mean. Do you take a different way home every day of the week as opposed to going the same way? You know what I mean?
Nathan: That’s spot on, man. I’m glad you explained it for me because I get it now. I get it because if you were to break down what kind of things I do and the people that I have the privilege of speaking with and the kind of people I hang out with and the places I go and all these kind of things, it is changing. And I’m always constantly inspired by others. And that’s how I’m going about, you know, trying to really create my best work which is essentially the magazine.
AJ: And through those conversations, I mean correct me if I’m wrong, through those like meaningful conversations and the times that you…and all that, it’s those inputs that then give you the inspiration for the next…right, and make you better and get you more creative and open. “Oh, I never thought about it that way.”
Nathan: Absolutely spot on. Absolutely spot on. And it kinda leads on to my next thing I want to talk to you about. And it’s something that… you mentioned to me and I just wanted to hear your take if you could delve a bit further and it was, “Don’t follow well-lit paths and living a traditional life.” What’s your take on that, following the well-lit pants?
AJ: That’s my quote. That’s from my book, “Don’t follow the well-lit path. Grab a machete and act on your own.” I mean all I did with my early adult life like the first few years of my adult life, and I define that by like leaving university. All I did was look for the street lamps and the safe ways, you know, and that’s where I’d go because that’s where I thought, you know. You wanna go where it’s brightest. So you see the party over there and you’re like, whoa, I wanna go that way. That’s all well-paved and that’s the cool part of the city as opposed to figuring out who you are and what you want to personify in this one and only life that you have. And if you choose to follow, I mean that’s up to everybody, you know.
Everybody’s got their own… You know I’m saying? So I’m not here to judge. I’m just saying for me and I know that there’re very many people like me and those are the Misfits. Those are the people that, you know, I can’t…I have to… And that is when you turn the other way. And you say, “Well, it’s dark and scary over there but at least it’ll be an adventure, you know, and hopefully one we’re pursuing but you never know until you go.” I mean that to me is like…that one statement could identify the last five years of my life.
Nathan: Wow, and I just wanted to know with the world what’s your take on freedom? What does it mean to you?
AJ: I mean it depends, you know, like a lot of people, it depends what context…you know, like people say financial freedom. Say, you don’t have financial freedom. I have to have X amount of dollars. I mean there’s also the other way, I have financial freedom, you could sell everything you own and live under a bus and you eat wild berries. And then you’re also financially free, you know, so I think there’s, you know, there’s varying degrees…well, I guess depending on what lenses you’re wearing when you’re looking at that term.
For me freedom is being able to…it’s a choice. It’s a daily choice, you know. It’s not a destination. It’s not like I’m free. Every day I struggle with freedom. Every day I am encountered with a decision that I can make…could be an easier decision, could get more money in my pocket but it takes me not, you know, not wildly but like just three degrees off my path. And that’s a choice. Do I give up that freedom for that bit of profit or that bit of fame or that bit of whatever it might be that beckons like the sirens, you know, like the sirens in “Jason and the Argonauts” and they’re beckoning you to…you know? Or do I hold? So I feel like freedom is more just a daily choice to live your life with intention, to make every choice your own instead of just putting it on autopilot. And that will never end.
Nathan: Wow, and what are your plans for the future, man?
AJ: For the future. I mean, you know, we have…
Nathan: Like actually doing some amazing things but we all wanna have dreams, right? Tell us about some of your dreams.
AJ: Well, you know, I mean pragmatically I’m doing, you know…we’re launching other projects. I’m always in creation mode, you know. I go into hibernation mode sometimes where that’s just me writing and thinking and really traveling hard and ingesting. And then, you know, I go into creation. Now in one of those modes, you know. So I mean, right, we just launched Trendy Misfit. That’s 12 products that I have to design and conceptualize every year. I got six months designed out. I hope that that’ll be something that people dig. You know, based on the first I mean everybody dug our first product which is called Bonafide Misfit, a t-shirt and that was cool, you know. So we’re launching a WordPress theme company called Mr. Dean’s.
So it’s handcrafted. I mean I feel like in many ways design, particularly at that level, has been commoditized. So like you go to the market and then you buy your milk or your tomatoes, right. You have no idea where the fuck you get your tomatoes from. They’re commodities. As long as they’re red and round I mean you’re buying it. And design has become that, you know. A lot of people if you look at just that…the WordPress theme world, no one knows who makes it. You know, they don’t care about the artist, the context, like what people were thinking about who it was made for.
So we’re launching a company that kind of, you know, really focus on like the hand craft and just the design, focusing on the author who made the design, why they made it, what did they think, who they were making it for, who were they dreaming would be using it. And it’ll be more of a limited edition thing although we’ll kill the design after 500 downloads so the web isn’t littered with the same design. So that…I haven’t even talked about that publicly so that…that’s one thing we’re doing and then Misfits are always up to something. Lots of things that…
Nathan: Awesome. So we’re having to look at wrapping things up, man, and it’s been awesome talking with you. We talked like a whole range of different things and I just wanted to want to ask you one question and that was, what’s the question that you wish that I’d ask you that you’d like to share in final with listeners?
AJ: Wow, that is an on-point question, my friend. What is the question that I wish you would have asked me. I don’t know.
Nathan: So before, you would have had something that you really wanted to share, right? Something that you wish that I’d ask you that something that you think it will give so much value. And we talked about value a lot.
AJ: That’s a tough one, man. This has been a really good interview and you’ve gone in depth. I think…I don’t know that there…I mean if I’m really thinking about it, I don’t know if there’s something that…
Nathan: What advice…let’s talk about what…I really want the theme about, you know, doing work that truly matters and getting so many ideas. Like you have a lot of ideas and you seem to get them off the ground. You seem to keep rolling and how are you managing all these things? What advice would you give to people that want to, you know, do what really matters and get their ideas off the ground? Because execution is definitely the most hardest part, certainly for aspiring entrepreneurs.
AJ: Sure, sure. I mean one thing that people don’t recognize if they don’t scratch beneath the surface is, you know, we have a team. So at Misfit, originally it was just me and Melissa, like no Maddie out of our backpacks eating, you know, bagels out of trash cans. And that evolved into this. We have a team, you know. We have Dino and Jerome and Jesse and these are full-time employees, and Matt and Miriam and, you know. We have a team. So the more you seek to do in life, you have to surround yourself with people that align with that vision.
So when you’re talking about all these ideas and getting them off the ground, there are not enough hours in the day. Literally, there are not enough hours in the day. So if you wanna be a solopreneur, some people are like dead set solopreneur, they never wanna like have employees or the overhead of that freaks them out. Totally get it. They’re gonna be limited on what they can produce on their own. That’s the one thing to keep in mind. If you’re a different type of entrepreneur where you wanna have a team and all that, then I think one bit of advice I could say is like you kind of have to act as a director, you know. My first job was I was a producer of Shakespearean theater and I got very good at typecasting. So I got very good at learning like, damn, and I gotta… You just got that thing, you know, and outside of that role…exactly. Outside of that role you probably wouldn’t operate very well but in that role you just…you wouldn’t have to know a dime of Shakespeare and he’d be able to…
And that’s…as kind of a leader if you have a vision that you wanna carry something a bit more and you wanna keep on launching ideas and you wanna have…you gotta find great people and treat them well. Treat them well. My friend David Bay is a brilliant guy who I’ve learned a lot from. David Bay is on Twitter. He always says treat your employees like your client and obviously that flips the model on a tag where it’s like the people you really care about are the people that do work for you, you know. And you shower them with love and pay them well. And all that comes back.
Nathan: Wow, so I think that’s…there’s a lot of power in having an extremely A-player team. And that’s what I’m all about personally too. I try and build my team with A-players because…I believe that you have to surround yourself with really really amazingly well talented players for sure.
AJ: Absolutely, and people dig what you’re trying to build. I mean that’s…it has to be people in alignment that whatever revolution, whatever stake you’re putting in the ground… Niccolò Machiavelli said the reason why the Italians would always lose wars in the different provinces is because they’d hire mercenaries from Ireland or from up…and a mercenary will never die for your flag. He’s there for the money. He’s not there for the love. And it’s very, very important I think is building teams to take that same people that are gathering around a date, in it for the flag or in it for the paycheck? Because every…all of us, we’re gonna hit hard time. We’re gonna hit days we’re like, “Oh shit, we need to pull, you know, 72-hour straight sprint to get this thing done.” And the people who will stick are the people who are there for the revolution.
Nathan: I know it for sure. Well, thank you, man. That was awesome. I love it. All right, we have look at wrapping things up. So thank you very much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure, AJ.
AJ: Oh, likewise. Seriously, thank you for having me on and I look forward to get on sometime in the future. Good luck with everything.
Nathan: Cheers, thank you.
Key Resources From Our Interview With AJ Leon