Fresh Perspective: Entrepreneurship and Self-Development: A Conversation with Brian Johnson of PhilosophersNotes

Fresh Perspective / March 2009

brian johnsonruss volckmannRuss: Brian Johnson, I welcome you to the Integral Leadership Review. I’m really excited about our talk today.

Brian: Likewise. I appreciate the invitation.

Russ: I discovered in hunting you down that you’re no longer on the mainland US; you’re on Bali. What are you doing there?

Brian: I like to say I left my iPhone and my personal history in Los Angeles. I came out here for what I intended to be a sabbatical for a few months, and I’ve already been here for six months. I’ve been reading, writing and spending some time thinking and developing my meditation practice. And I’ve been rewiring my consciousness as I create my new business, PhilosophersNotes.

Russ: PhilosophersNotes? That sounds interesting, and we’ll get to that. You’re in the village—at least it was a village when I was there in 1968—of Ubud. I stayed at the Palace of Djakorta Agung. It’s the palace of the religious leader—of the Hindus—on Bali. A wonderful story: During the volcanic eruption on Bali of Gunung Agung in 1963, he went and stood in front of a small Hindu temple at the foot of the volcano and prayed. While about 1500 people were killed in this eruption. The lava came down the mountain and parted right around him and the temple. The man had some power!


Brian: Wow, that’s amazing. Explain that one!

Russ: You are taking a sabbatical from what?

Brian: I sold my last business, Zaadz, which was a social networking site focused on people interested in Integral Leadership and integral theory, yoga, and basically people wanting to expand their consciousness and make a positive difference in the world. I sold it about 18 months ago; I traveled for a bit and decided to give myself a Ph.D. in How to Live/Optimal Living, and went back to L.A. I was there for six months reading and writing—primarily writing—and decided to check out of that energy for a while. So here I am continuing to create the business and integrating spirituality and capitalism and getting paid to do what I love to do in service to the world. In the process, I’m reshaping my own consciousness and taking the next step in my own evolution.

Russ: Is this a second entrepreneurial effort on your part?

Brian: This is actually the third business that I’ve started. I dropped out of Boalt Hall, the U.C. Berkeley law school, when I was 24 and created a business focused on families and sports. The only thing I knew I wanted to do when I left law school was coach a little league baseball team. I moved in with my Mom, to her great chagrin. I coached these kids and, long story short, in 1999 I created a business that focused on bringing these teams and leagues online, before they had any social networking sites online. There are now 3 million teams that use it; Little League Baseball uses it. We raised $5m for that and I had a great experience as an entrepreneur.

Russ: So Zaadz was the second, and PhilosophersNotes is your third endeavor. Zaadz must have been somewhat successful, since you sold it…

Brian: Yes, it was. Gaiam bought it—a NASDAQ business. We had a great conscious billionaire, Sam Wyly, and his family invest in us (funny story as I actually met his daughter, Christiana, who loved the idea, at an Integral (iWet) event in Los Angeles!). Plus, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, invested in us and provided mentorship as well. It was an incredible opportunity and a really fun business. We now have a ¼ million people using the social networking site within the Gaiam structure. It’s now changed its name from Zaadz to Gaia.

Russ: As an entrepreneur, did you think of yourself as a leader?

Brian: Yes. When I was 24 or 25 and we started hiring people at my first business, eteamz, we went from two people in pajamas in our living room to winning a business plan competition, raising $5m and going from two employees to 45 in the span of maybe 10 months. I’ve always been passionate about leadership. When I was at UCLA, I went to a leadership retreat with part of Arthur Andersen’s recruiting efforts, and I remember just falling in love with Stephen Covey and Warren Bennis and the idea that we have this latent potential to lead and inspire others. I’ve been a student of leadership for a while, and at that age I was rock-climbing up a learning curve that was pretty steep for me.

Russ: Were you conscious of shifting roles from entrepreneur to manager to leader or did it just all get scrambled?

Brian: Well, I think I went from entrepreneur to leader and, thankfully, with eteamz we had a COO who took care of the management issues. That’s certainly not my primary skill set. We went through a profound and very quick shift. The process had a lot of challenges for me to navigate. It was going so fast that it challenged me to learn as I went. In reflection, after that first business I saw what I was good at and where I needed to grow. I approached my next business with more clarity and realized I made some of the same mistakes again. Now, I’m reflecting on that and wondering, “What are my real gifts and how can I give them to the world most authentically?” That’s where I am at this stage.

Russ: What have you learned about your own gifts as far as leadership is concerned?

Brian: One of the primary things I learned with Zaadz is that I am pretty good at coming up with an idea and having the inspired vision to attract the original team and investors and the community—that phase is my strong suit. I’m not anywhere near as skilled at scaling the operation, worrying about the nuts and bolts of finances and operational procedures. We got into a little bit of trouble with that at both of my businesses; and I realized that not taking care of that very early on was a problem. I learned that, and I’m taking things more slowly with PhilosophersNotes. Actually, I’m at that juncture now where I’m contemplating raising some money, hiring a team, taking the next step in that evolution, and putting some of the things I’ve learned into practice again.

Russ: I know that you’ve got a couple of items on Integral Naked in conversation with Ken Wilber. How would you characterize the influence that Wilber’s work has had on your view of leadership?

Brian: Incredibly significant. I have a huge amount of gratitude and debt to Ken and to the Integral Institute. I think one of the biggest things I’ve gotten from Ken and the folks at the Integral Institute is a framework and language to better understand the challenges of evolutionary development—particularly as it relates to an orange and green meme perspective on how we relate to free markets/economics/capitalism vis-à-vis our spirituality. Plus, the whole idea of seeing partial truths and saying “Yes, and…” has been one of the most simple yet significant shifts in my perception.

Tangentially related to Ken and the Institute, I met John Mackey and his organization at Flow, which you can find at John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, is a huge fan of Ken Wilber and Integral Theory and he’s applied that in practice in his business at Whole Foods. He did a debate with Milton Friedman and another CEO in Reason Magazine and articulated a second-tier integral consciousness around integrating the free market ideals with having a heart and bringing love and service into economic structures and free markets in a powerful and compelling way through Whole Foods. That was incredibly inspiring for me to read. And I highly recommend it as a source of inspiration for people interested in seeing how all this can be applied in a large scale, meaningful way.

Russ: One of the characteristics of Wilber’s approach is the notion of the individual and the collective co-evolving, co-occurring if you will. When you think about your role as a leader, what are the individual and collective aspects of leadership that emerge?

Brian: I’m really passionate about that upper left quadrant and creating an organizational structure that recognizes and honors the individuality of each person on my team. That’s been a big theme of mine—how do we create a business that’s all about helping individuals discover how they fit into that collective as they fully express their own individual genius?

Russ: I heard two things. One is building a culture in which people can bring their genius and thrive, and valuing that. The other is some structures, and I’m assuming you mean systems and processes and a variety of things like that. Can you give me an example of what you mean by creating structures that support that?

Brian: It’s funny—what comes to my mind is one of the weakest structures that we had—the enduring sustainable economic viability of our business. I hired the CEO of Adidas to be our CEO at my first business and I vividly remember him telling me, “If you had hired a CFO who was as good at being a CFO as you are at doing what you did with the product vision and community inspiration, etc., you’d be buying these businesses that we’re now looking to buy us.”

Then, I made the same mistake with Zaadz. (laughs) I didn’t bring in the deep financial and operational expertise—we had a really young team. So when you talk about the structures, I immediately think about the structures we didn’t put in place. The undercapitalized nature of our business definitely hampered my and our ability to effectively create that culture, so we never really got to a point where we had sustainable structures that would do that. There were a total of three years that I was running it with a lot of optimism, but without the deep structures that would ultimately support that type of organization.

Russ: At the same time, did you think in terms of structures, things like teams and decision-making processes or did you see yourself pretty much as a charismatic leader leading the charge?

Brian: I’d say the latter. We had a team of 14-15 people; we were in several different countries and we didn’t have an office, so we were virtual and dynamic and young. It was very decentralized. I was involved in a lot of different things, but also concerned with empowering the team to do what needed to get done from the technology side, to the customer service side, to the marketing and business development side, etc.

Russ: In terms of your ability to communicate a vision and to enlist support for the vision, was that done mostly virtually, as well, and what made that possible?

Brian: That started in the very beginning. It started with the recruiting process of finding people who just got it. That was a big characteristic for me—finding people who “got it.” One time I asked the team to express our purpose in one sentence so we can put it into an ad. The unique expression, but commonality, amongst our team was just phenomenal. We hired from within our community, so it was very clear to see who had been engaged from the beginning. I had read their blog posts and comments and I could feel who they were. There had been a relationship that had developed before I even hired them. I was really tapping into something with Zaadz. It was a very mission-driven, vision-driven business and I was just tapping into a universal impulse to make a difference in the world and to combine economics and spirituality in a manner that resonated with people. That’s how we inspired our team, our investors and the community that made our company.

Russ: You selected some of these people sight unseen then?

Brian: Yes, I did. It’s wonderful, but good and bad. In this next business, I’m going to make the commitment that I’m not hiring anyone. I’m hiring one person who will run the business. (laughs) I’m going to let them do all the hiring. That was one of the challenges—I loved to hire people, but things like that CFO issue I mentioned can catch up with us. It was great, and there’s a, “Yes, and…” to that that I’m looking forward to testing in my next venture.

Russ:In terms of upper left, since that’s an area where you’ve been really engaged for some time, what are the lines of development that are most important to you?

Brian: Currently, unquestionably, it’s my meditation practice.

Russ: So primarily the spiritual practice then?

Brian: Yes, It’s stillness for me. It’s connecting to something bigger than me. It’s having the patience, diligence, and persistence to really slow down and I’m appreciating the grounding I get with that.

These days, I wake up at 5 AM, meditate for an hour, then have a movement practice I do, then I journal and eat. So from 5 AM to 8 AM is my morning ritual that I’ve done 90%+ over the last six months. There’s a power to the consistency and that’s been a big thing for me to recognize. I have a lot of intensity and I need to marry that with the consistency of fundamentals. Having a consistent meditation practice has been very powerful. In the past, it’s always been very sporadic. I’ve always had a strong physical practice, although it’s fun to expand on that and play with it. Journaling has always been a big thing for me. I used to do it often and now I do it ritualistically. It’s incredibly powerful. I also do a couple other meditations throughout the day.

Russ: Do you have a particular approach to meditation?

Brian: Currently, I’m doing Holosync. I’ve just started the second series of it, and I love it.

Russ: I’ve been a Holosync user for about 5-6 years. I really like it.

Brian: Have you really? It’s been six months for me and I can’t wait for that six-year horizon.


Brian: Well, I’m enjoying where I am, but my goodness, that’s going to be fantastic.

Russ: You’re at the point where you have the subliminals, right?

Brian: Yes, I just started that two weeks ago. I’m also doing Paraliminal work as well. Learning Strategies is a great company that produces Paraliminals, which uses Holosync technology almost like a guided meditation with some NLP. It’s fascinating stuff. I’m a huge fan of their work as well. I’ve been doing 1-3 of those each day as well.

Russ: You must spend a couple of hours per day meditating then!

Brian: Yes, 2-3 hours is my commitment these days.

Russ:Well, I’m impressed. That’s quite a commitment. What is it that you’re finding about being in Bali that’s supporting this effort?

Brian:This is maybe the 15th conversation I’ve had in six months. Just isolating myself from my typical routines has been a huge boost for me. I’ve gotten into a rhythm of my own, independent of a lot of the positive pressures of being around friends and family, and this has been a very liberating thing for me. Being in a foreign country where English isn’t the primary language and it’s a totally different culture has an impact as well. I’m living in kind of a mix of rice fields and jungle and I’m getting up at 5 AM these days to honor nature’s rhythms. That’s helped by not having any streetlights or car alarms and other such things of advanced technology.

Russ: Tell me about PhilosophersNotes. What are you working on?

Brian: I went traveling after I sold my last business and I got clear that I wanted to give myself a Ph.D. on How to Live. I was on a flight from Tokyo to L.A. and opened a SkyMall to an ad for a business that does summaries of business books. Their tagline was, “Concentrated knowledge for the busy executive.” I had one of those “a-ha” moments; an epiphany of, “This is what I’m going to do.” I had already thought that I’d give myself a Master’s en route to my Ph.D. when I had distilled 100 of my favorite books into cool notes that pulled out the “big ideas” that can really change your life. I wanted to make a profitable business out of that and then I’d get my Master’s. I saw this ad and realized that someone should be doing this exact same thing for self-help books instead of business books.

I immediately wrote down, “Concentrated wisdom for the busy self-actualizer.” I got home and the idea evolved and I’ve created 55 of the notes so far. The idea is very simple—I create six-page PDF’s with about 10 big ideas from my favorite books. Then,I record those as 20-minute MP3’s. I’m also leading “PhilosophersNotes Live Discussions” here in Bali three days per week. I’ve done 40 of those. So, I’m creating 100 of these PDF’s, MP3’s and live discussions and I’m offering the first 52 of them for $20. That’s the business in a nutshell.

Russ: Wow! You say you’re conducting these classes—who attends? I’m trying to imagine your audience.

Brian: It’s the most amazing group. I teach at a really cool yoga studio here in Ubud called “The Yoga Barn.” They have a full schedule of yoga classes. I’m there for 4.5 hours per week and it’s an amazing, eclectic group of all ages—travelers, ex-patriots, people who are living in Bali. We’ve had 25 people come to a class from 15 different countries. It’s a beautiful cross-section of cultures and of development—an incredible opportunity for me. I’ve taught 40+ classes and it’s a lot of fun to bounce amongst all these different teachers. I just did Ken on Friday and before that on Wednesday I did Tony Robbins. On Monday I did Paulo Coelho. Tomorrow I’m doing Bill Harris’ Thresholds of the Mind. Then I’ll do Rollo Mays’ Courage to Create and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. We’ve done Nietszche and Emerson, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, and a nice mix of classic and the modern guys as well. It’s a really fun cross-section of different titles that shows that these people are saying the same things in different contexts. The question I always ask is, “It’s not about getting it in our heads. It’s about living it in our lives. How do we embody these truths one step and one idea at a time?”

Russ: I guess a more recent epiphany for me has been being connected with unity and oneness in the universe and realizing that all the ways we have of languaging that and communicating that are the tools, not the reality. It sounds like in your case one of the things you’re doing is using the teaching as a tool for building PhilosophersNotes.

Brian: Absolutely. And for the individuals who are coming to the classes, it’s about consistency, rituals and using the truths that we resonate with consistently, integrating them into our lives and having integrity with our highest selves. We need to learn to truly live from that place of connection to our highest selves and doing the things that we know we need to do, whether it’s the meditation or the yoga or the authentic communication or the shadow work. Those things will guide us in the process of our own evolution to connecting to unity more often.

Russ: That sounds fascinating. It sounds like you’ve already created a kind of integrated stream of activity for yourself that you’re living.

Brian:Yes, and that’s exactly the intention—allowing the dynamic flow with it, having the flexibility of my practices, finding and experimenting with different practices and seeing what happens if I sidestep my consistency. What happens if I don’t do journaling? It’s interesting for me—if I don’t take that time and jump to the Internet there’s a different energy to my day than if I spend five minutes, set my intention, fulfill my commitments to being consistent and being connected to myself and have a great day. Just that practice completely changes the quality of my day. It’s the little things that I’m finding so fascinating. I’m not so interested in ideas that aren’t applied anymore. I’d rather take what I’ve understood and apply it and feel it. To feel that and to see how that works is a truism, but to actually see it applied to my life is fascinating.

Russ: PhilosophersNotes sounds like a Web site that you might continue to develop and evolve over time. I find it difficult to imagine that that will be what fully occupies you in the future and your own development. Do you have any other plans or aspirations?

Brian: I love it—you’re right on! I’m coming to that discovery myself. I figured it would keep me occupied thru 2009 and get me through the first 100 notes. Over the last several weeks, I’ve been inundated with requests to get new titles up and I simply can’t keep up.

I’ve been talking to some friends of mine about going from 100 titles to 1,000 titles. I’m really excited about that. How do we go out and create amazing Notes on these different titles, partner with the publishers and the authors and inspire over a million people in the next several years? I’m really excited to bring everything I’ve been integrating into my life back into my entrepreneurial and creative expression. I’ll probably be raising some money for that and bringing on a team that can do that. I’m still in the early phase of making that happen.

I also have a lot of ideas to explore about what I can do around social networking. I think there are a lot of creative things that can be done to really integrate the ideas we’re talking about in community, specifically geared towards self-development and developing our practices. I’m also excited about playing with different ideas and different forms of media. Right now, though, I’m most giddy about waking up and having another great day. I’m excited about having a solid practice and trusting a lot more. I used to live very much in the future and I found that to be overwhelming and stressful. It led to some burnout. At this stage, I have so many ideas and I realize that my main task is to create the integrity within myself that allows me to fully express that most consistently. I’m 34 years old, so God willing, I’ve got decades ahead to do some exciting things. I’m simply striving to do my best moment to moment and day by day. It’s really inspiring to see how that’s coming together.

Russ: It sounds like we can anticipate really exciting things in the future as well as your current activities. One of the things I’m doing is putting streaming audios on the Integral Leadership Review Web site. I’m using interviews with people who have practical specialties and encouraging them to talk about those. I’m wondering how your work is relevant to people who are going through the process of experiencing our current global economic crisis (which I’m hoping will become a recovery shortly).

Brian:Ultimately, I think it comes down to how each of us chooses to respond to the challenges. In terms of the theory behind economics, free markets and how the spiritual kind of New Age-bent interacts with that is not a specialty area of mine, but rather an area of interest and excitement. I’m interested to see how we can create an integral worldview around the dynamics of that area. It’s something I intuit, that I’ve felt in my life as a struggle and that is—within the integral world and ascending green world—an important issue.

Russ: I very much agree. One of the things we’ve done is to start a publishing company, Integral Publishers. So far, we’ve published material from Integral Leadership Review and we’ve got three books on the verge of being published. One is by Peter Mary in the Netherlands, Evolutionary Leadership. Another is Robert Rabbin’s A Mystic in Corporate America. The third is titled New Currency by Jordan MacLeod in Canada. It’s all about a different way of handling currency in the face of complexities of 21st century economics. And that’s just one topic that could be explored along with all the upper left-hand quadrants.

Brian: As you describe those books, that’s an example of why I’m excited to partner with publishers and help them get their books to market. One of my intentions with my work is to introduce people to teachers and to ideas they otherwise may not have been exposed to. I’d love to chat further with you about that.

Russ: We’re at the beginning of the work with publishing and we’ve only just put together the templates for the contracts. Maybe I’m suffering from some of the same challenges as you when it comes to entrepreneurial behavior.

Russ:I can’t tell you how much it has touched me to be back in touch with Ubud via you. I only had a week there, but it was a wonderful week.

Brian: That’s awesome. I was imagining it 40 years ago, and it’s just beautiful.

Russ: It was extraordinary. It was very rural and the marketplace area was all thatched, open-air and if the palace is not there anymore, I’m disappointed. I’ve told friends for years that I’m not going back to Bali because I don’t think I could handle what it looks like now.

Brian: Yeah, I don’t think you could either. I love it, and I find it’s beauty, but you experienced it at an amazingly pristine place in time.

Russ:Great talking with you, and thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

Brian:Thanks for reaching out, Russ. Take care.

Russ: You, too.

^––––––– ^

Brian Johnson is the Founder & Chief Philosopher of PhilosophersNotes. In his past lives, he created two of the world’s leading social networking sites: eteamz (the leading site for amateur sports teams (like Little League Baseball, which uses the platform) that currently serves over 3 millions teams from around the world) and Zaadz (a site that connects over 250,000 people passionate about making a difference in their lives and in the world).

Brian also joins Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Peace prize winner who started the Grameen Bank (microlending in Bangladesh+)) and Hernando de Soto (legal reform expert) and others as a contributing author commenting on the role conscious capitalism can play in meeting our current challenges in Michael Stron’s new book, Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs & Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World’s Problems.
Learn more about Brian at