Silicon Valley is known as a place where entrepreneurship thrives. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with Jason Johnson, who embodies the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial spirit. He has successfully led four major start-up companies. He co-founded Founders Den to help budding entrepreneurs. His newest start-up is August, which he expects will become a leading provider of intelligent devices to manage the home. Johnson is also a follower of Christ. In my interview with him, we discussed entrepreneurship and faith.
Johnson grew up poor in Portland, Oregon. ”My mother had me at 16. We were in poverty – welfare, food stamps, and those things,” remarks Johnson. Circumstances changed as a teenager when his mother married and they moved to the suburbs. “I was exposed to friends who had much more and were ambitious. I wanted to be like them,” says Johnson.
After going through a short period of rebellion, Johnson got serious about school and became a straight-A student and won several awards. He comments, “I wanted to break the family mold, go to college, and be successful. What that meant to me was making money.”
Johnson was recruited to Pepperdine, a Christian university, to participate on the debate team. He comments,
I loved Pepperdine and although I had no faith background, my attraction to Pepperdine felt spiritual. I sensed that something special was going to happen to me at Pepperdine, and that is what happened.
At Pepperdine, Johnson lived with “some amazing guys, who were smart, popular, and in our first semester they became Christians.” Johnson traveled with them on mission trips to Mexico to build a camp for children. Although he was cynical about Christianity, he remarks, “The more I hung around with these Christian people I realized they were good people with good values.”
Becomes a Follower of Christ
Two and a half years from his arrival at Pepperdine, Johnson became a baptized believer. He remarks,
I became very passionate about my faith – so passionate that I no longer wanted to pursue making money as my as my main purpose in life. Pepperdine offered me a full scholarship to do a Masters in ministry, and I took it.
Drawn to Business
While in college, Johnson worked part time as an Apple representative to pay for personal expenses. He found that he enjoyed computers and technology. And he found that he was good at business. He received a promotion from a giant computer distributor, Merisel, to oversee Merisel’s Apple’s distribution channel.
Johnson’s career took off. He had to choose between pursuing vocational ministry and business. He chose business, but continued to attend graduate courses to develop his faith.
Founded First Company
After three years at Merisel, Johnson joined a start-up company, Tut Systems. After a year at Tut, he founded his first company, InterQuest in late 1997. InterQuest was an Internet service provider (ISP). InterQuest became Tut’s largest customer. Within three years, he had his first successful exit, by selling InterQuest to Darwin Networks.
Johnson took a year off to travel the world. During that year of travel, he notes he “developed both emotionally and spiritually.” Upon his return to the Bay Area, he joined Global IP Solutions as an early employee as the VP of Marketing and Business Development. Global Solutions was sold to Google several years later. On the advice that he should get big company experience, Johnson joined Dolby as an “entrepreneur executive” to build a new business for them. Johnson remarks,
It was a neat opportunity because I could be part of a big company where I could learn and grow, but had the freedom to build something new.
Founded Second and Third Companies
Johnson stayed at Dolby for six years after which he co-founded Rethink Books (later called “BookShout”), an eBook company. Since the other founder and team were located in Dallas, Johnson needed a physical space and wanted to be around other great entrepreneurs. So he co-founded Founders Den.
It was at Founders Den that I visited with Johnson. The company is located south of Market, close to AT&T Park. Founders Den is a co-working space which houses a community of entrepreneurs. Johnson calls the Den a “curated community.” Many of the entrepreneurs had either founded previous companies or came out of big companies. Since its inception, more than 100 companies have taken advantage of Founders Den.
Newest Start-up – August
At Founders Den, Johnson founded two other companies – BlueSprig, which provides mobile security for iPhones and Android devices, and his current company, August, a provider of intelligent devices for securing and managing the home.
Johnson raised over $10 million in venture funding for August. The company’s initial product is the August Smart Lock, which it expects to deliver later in 2014. The device provides a way to manage your home’s lock. A user controls who is allowed to enter the home, and does so without the need for physical keys or codes. The Smart Lock can be controlled from a user’s smartphone or computer.
August was mentioned in the January 6, 2014 Wall Street Journal article “Internet of Things in Reach” in which Internet-based technology for the home was mentioned as a long-awaited trend that is “causing a surge of optimism for the tech sector.” Nest, a provider of intelligent home thermostats, is a “hot” company in this space which Google recently acquired for $3.2 billion.
Faith, Work, and Purpose
By nature, entrepreneurs are passionate about their work and often put in long hours on their enterprise. Johnson says a mentor helped him think through this challenge. He developed a goal to stay balanced, by taking care of his body, his mind, and his relationship with his wife and son. He remarks, saying,
My purpose is to do the best I can in all areas of my life I’ve been blessed with, but do it in a balanced way and finish well. My life motto comes from Pepperdine’s motto which is from Matthew 10:8: “Freely ye receive and freely give.”
Advice for Entrepreneurs
I asked Johnson what advice he would give to a budding Christian entrepreneur. He responded that the advice would be no different from what he would give anyone who was thinking about starting a business. He says, “You have to figure out if you want to be an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur.” An entrepreneur, he defines as someone who is determined to build their own business and make it profitable. On the other hand, he says,
If you don’t care about making money for your investors, do a soul search and ask yourself: “Is this in my DNA?” Just know what you really care about and what you want and what you’re signing up for.
He contrasts an entrepreneur with an intrapreneur — someone who has a great product idea, but is not interested in the responsibility it takes to build a business. Johnson comments that such a person “should consider joining a company where you can leverage the assets of that company to achieve your product vision.”
Johnson clearly comes down on the side of being an entrepreneur. He loves building companies. His current company, August, appears poised for success in a hot market.