Joe Johnson: Record Setting Real Estate Startup

Joe Johnson, PhD | Founder & Shareholder | Welfont
Joe Johnson, PhD | Founder & Shareholder | Welfont

Welfont, a real estate brokerage and services business specializing in the non-profit sector, has become the fastest growing real-estate brokerage and services company in recent history. Last year, Inc. Magazine ranked Welfont #1 in the real estate brokerage category in America, and #16 overall with an impressive 11,350% 3-year growth rate. This makes Welfont the fastest growing real estate brokerage company in the history of the Inc. 5000.

Further, a few months later, Entrepreneur Magazine ranked Welfont as the #1 most entrepreneurial real estate brokerage business, and the #20 most entrepreneurial business overall in their annual The Entrepreneur 360 List, which ranks the best entrepreneurial businesses in the country.

Only one other business in the country made the Top 50 in both of these prestigious entrepreneurial rankings. Welfont has gone from approximately $100,000 in revenue to over $20 million in revenue in 4 short years, in an industry that is traditionally difficult to grow at a fast pace.

The entrepreneurial founder and business architect of this fast-growing business—Joe Johnson, PhD—is CIO Look Magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year.

His Story 

Dr. Joe Johnson is a serious serial entrepreneur. He takes his entrepreneurial career so serious that he spent 7 years earning a PhD in Entrepreneurial Leadership. Prior to his PhD, he earned an MBA in Executive Leadership, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Ashland University, and also studied business at the Ohio State University. As a serial entrepreneur, he has launched or funded over a dozen startups. As an investor, he has acquired over 10 million square feet of real estate in dozens of states. And, as a philanthropist, he has given back by helping fund over 15,000 microloans to underprivileged entrepreneurs in over 80 countries.

Dr. Johnson has achieved major success in his entrepreneurial life, but he has also experienced a few failures along the way. Although he started his first business when he was 14 years old and has been an entrepreneur for now over 30 years, his entrepreneurial life has been filled with ups and downs.

Embrace and Learn from Failure

A lot of his success has come from lessons learned in failure. According to Johnson “as an entrepreneur you have to be able to embrace and learn from failure. The lessons from failure become part of our fabric vs. the lessons from the classrooms are easier to forget.” And in the failure, he examines his mistakes and how he would do it differently if he could do it again. And doing it again, is what he often does.

Although he has experienced business failures, he has never failed twice in the same business concept or industry. “If you do not succeed the first time, and don’t give up, but try again and make major adjustments, the business tends to work a lot better the second time,” says Joe. He is a big believer in the quote: “if at first you don’t succeed, try again.”

Take for example, SUCCESS Magazine. In the early 2000s, Johnson had a struggling magazine publishing business that he never planned to get into. It just sort of happened because someone owed him money and getting into publishing was the only way he could see how he could recoup what he was owed.

He learned a lot in his struggles to succeed in the magazine publishing business. Eventually, SUCCESS Magazine, a magazine that had been published since the 1800s and owned by a different outfit went bankrupt. From what he learned about his own struggles in the publishing business, he was able to see an opportunity using a better publishing model. He partnered with a colleague to bring SUCCESS out of bankruptcy. He relaunched it using a unique business model, won “Best Design Launch of the Year” award, and sold it a year later for millions of dollars.

Humility and Wisdom

But with embracing and learning from failure comes humility. Johnson says “effective serial entrepreneurs need to have a lot of humility. In this line of work, your next venture doesn’t care about your prior successes, experience, education, resources, or network. You have to be able to do it all over again by creating a whole new type of value innovation in a different business and often different industry. If you don’t, you will likely fail regardless of what you have done in the past.”

And pride is often what stops successful entrepreneurs from trying again. In an ever-changing marketplace, what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. There are no guarantees and you always have to be innovating. According to Johnson, “pride can often blind you from making the best decisions. So, entrepreneurs who have a strong dose of humility are less likely to be blinded by their own ego, and therefore able to look at the issues more objectively and make wiser decisions. Humility and wisdom go hand-in-hand.”

Next Chapter 

Although Welfont is doing incredibly well and still breaking records, Johnson has recently stepped down from running the operations as CEO of Welfont. He is still a major shareholder and is involved with strategic input. Johnson believes he is best suited for the innovative entrepreneurial function of a startup, and not the day-today leadership and execution on an established business. So, for him it’s an issue of opportunity cost.

This last year, he has taken some time off as he gears up to launch his next high-growth startup while still overseeing his real estate and business investments. Although he will not reveal his next startup, he says it’s a huge undertaking and something he has been itching to do for years. And yes, it’s in an area he has previously struggled with in the past.

In the meantime, Welfont continues to grow and break records as the company is now led by Shawn Marcell, the CEO who has replaced Johnson last year. Johnson says: “Shawn and the whole team are doing an incredible job. In fact, Shawn is running it better than I would be. It’s wonderful to be able to launch something, and see it succeed even more without you.” Perhaps, that’s the ultimate measure of entrepreneurial success and one reason he is CIO Look’s Entrepreneur of the Year.