Thor Johnson is the owner of Boondoggle Sports and the Senior Director of Business and Commercial Services for Comcast, Northern California. He is also an NCAA All-American diver, which will be the subject of a future interview. In this conversation, Thor shares what he’s learned about dealing with ups and downs, being passionate about what you do, being a leader, being bold, striving for greatness, and taking ownership.
You really have two full-time careers?
I have a day and a night job. My day job is with Comcast. I’m the Senior Director of Business and Commercial Services for Northern California. My night job is running a company which I started, called Boondoggle Sports. We do in-restaurant fantasy sports, where customers can go into a restaurant, watch football, and play fantasy football for free. We started with football and will expand into other sports. The restaurants or their sponsors give prizes to their daily and season-long winners. With one chain of restaurants, the winner on one day won a $50 gift card to that restaurant. But the players are also competing against everyone in that restaurant chain. So, the winner of all the chains won a $500 gift card. Then, there’s a season-long contest, where the winner received a $1000 gift card. The season-long winner of all the chains won tickets to the Super Bowl. Other restaurants give game tickets, jerseys, etc.
How did you come up with the idea of Boondoggle Sports?
I’ve been playing fantasy football for about 15 years. I had the most fun when I could track the statistics in real time. I would go back and forth between my computer Yahoo!™ fantasy sports game and my TV. I thought that I could marry the two environments and that the best place to do so would be a restaurant that shows all the games. Boondoggle Sports provides a leader-board on one of the restaurant’s screens. A computer connected to the screen converts the game statistics into points and displays rankings, which update every 90 seconds. So, if I have a quarterback on my team, and I want to know what he’s doing and how I’m doing against my opponent, I can just check the leader-board. Each computer is tied into our website and personalized for each restaurant.
What challenges or successes have you had with running your own business?
Anyone who runs a small business wears a lot of hats. The highs are when you make a sale; the lows are when you are counting on something, and it doesn’t come through. We set up a test in the pre-season with our restaurants and told them to use only their employees, but they didn’t. They used real customers who were all excited. Unfortunately, the game began, and the leader-board didn’t show the stats for two hours. We had very disgruntled customers. But two weeks later when we launched the program as the season started, all the stats were working, and we had phenomenal numbers. Tons of people signed up, and the numbers doubled and then doubled again, with all the stats working perfectly.
How do you deal with all the ups and downs?
When I think about highs and lows, I go back to my favorite Bible story -- about Joseph. The roller coaster he rode was amazing. But he kept his cool and trust. He had a level head and he expressed strength, fortitude, and tenacity throughout the whole thing. He had a passion and conviction in his beliefs. Early on, he went to his brothers and said, “By the way, I had a dream, and you all are going to bow down to me.” That’s pretty audacious, and he did it more than once. So they threw him in a pit, and Joseph went on to the next adventure. He became part of Potiphar’s household, a very trusted individual. He was living a good life until Potiphar’s wife came along, and Potiphar freaked out and sent him to jail. Again, Joseph stayed cool. But his attitude wasn’t a sit-back-and-wait attitude. Just because he went to jail, he didn’t give up. Nor did he plan everything out and “will” his way through his problems. He didn’t say, “I know! Here’s how I can get out of jail: I’ll interpret dreams, tell my interpretations to these guys, who will then tell the Pharaoh, and then the Pharaoh will get me out.” He did what was in front of him to do, and he didn’t stop dreaming. His core competence was in listening to God and having confidence in what he heard.
How do you balance two full-time jobs?
My wife and I value our kids and family time. So, I schedule my work around them. I work at night after everyone goes to bed, so I don’t sacrifice family life. After I get home from work, I’m there for dinner, and the night belongs to the family. So what gets sacrificed is sleep. I’ve thought a lot about active rest.
What do you mean by “active rest,” and how do you find rest?
There’s a right amount of rest. You don’t want to be slothful; you want to be active. What really gives me rest, though, is passion. Passion blows tiredness right out of the water. When you’re passionate about something, you’re oblivious to being tired. When you look at Moses, Joseph, the other Bible leaders, you see them having a passion for what they believed in. Moses had a passion for his people. Jesus had a passion for doing what was right in all situations. When it was time for Jesus to rest, he rested; when it was time to pray, he prayed; when it was time to work, he worked; and if there was work to be done, he was able to do it, regardless of the amount of rest he had had. It can be 3:00 in the morning, but if I’m caught up in putting together a presentation that I’m excited about, 3:00 a.m. becomes irrelevant. If you care about something, the rest is just noise. As a small business owner, you have to have a passion and devotion to your business that goes beyond logic. You really have to believe in something.
What are your responsibilities at Comcast?
I’m in charge of everything that’s not a single-family home. I sell and service video accounts to apartments, hotels, companies, prisons, schools, universities. I also provide high-speed data and broad-band access for all of those constituents.
How long have you been in the telecommunications industry and what’s particular to it?
14 years plus. The industry is always changing. In the computer industry, they use Moore’s law, which basically says that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every 18 months. In other words, things get smaller and faster in very short periods of time. The same holds true in telecom. I worked for pager companies in the early ’90s, and that was considered cutting technology. Then cell phones came out, and now we take them for granted. But cell phones didn’t exist when I was growing up. The internet came into popular being in 1997. 15 years ago, we hadn’t even heard that word. I love the pace and rate at which things change. It’s a challenge, but mostly it’s fun because there are always new things going on. At Comcast, the same piece of coax cable put in the ground 10 years ago delivers your TV channels, and now your internet. A couple years ago, it was 1-2 megabits of data; now it’s 5-7 megabits of data going over the cable. At the same time, the number of video channels has doubled or tripled; we now have high definition TV, on-demand programming, and digital video recorders.
What’s your take on all these technological changes?
I think it’s good. It’s not without its dangers. You do need to be aware of some things, like porn. But if you think about the internet and the power to teach and provide access, it’s so powerful. Within seconds of downloading documents, a 10-year-old can hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or can watch a video of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, or can read the exact copy of the “Declaration of Independence.” From the perspective of a teacher, you have so much at your disposal to bring learning to students and help them gain a better appreciation of history, literature, drama, whatever the area may be. A couple years ago, I was trying to describe to my 8-year-old son the classic Abbot and Costello baseball skit, “Who’s on First.” Unless you actually hear it on the radio, it’s hard to appreciate fully. Within a few keystrokes, we had the whole print-out of the skit and an audio clip of the two comedians performing the routine.
What have you learned in your management positions?
As you move up in positions of responsibility, your work becomes more about the people. You gain an appreciation for the variety of people who can do amazing things. You learn to delegate and let go of the exact product. It’s fun to see what a team you’ve built can accomplish. It’s not necessarily what you would’ve done; it’s usually a lot more creative.
Are there any difficulties in managing people?
Sometimes people you hire don’t live up to the expectations you had for them. So in those situations, I try to learn from what I saw in the interview process. Did I not see something correctly? Was I too desperate to find someone? It’s okay to evaluate and say, “Yea, yea” and “Nay, nay” (Matt 5:37). Just because you don’t hire someone does not mean you’re saying that he or she is not a child of God. Noah had pretty good listening and perception skills. How did he know which specific animals to take, or how the leopards, snakes, elephants, giraffes would be able to deal with each other and ride out the storm on a floating boat without a rudder? Each hiring situation is different, is its own boat, so to speak, has its own culture and tone. So, I try to be like Noah and listen for the right fit. Noah just knew.
Are there any other Bible stories that have been helpful in working with people in business?
I am constantly amazed at the woman who washed Jesus’ feet. She had complete humbleness and contriteness of heart on the one hand, and courage on the other. As an outcast, she made a bold move to walk into the home of a respected Pharisee. Though she was probably of lower class, she claimed who she was and showed courage and strength ten times more than the Pharisee, who sat in his comfort zone. This woman broke barriers.
What do you mean that “she claimed who she was”?
All the outside signs were showing that she was of lower class, not worthy, someone who wouldn’t deserve attention or care. But she knew better. She wasn’t perfect on the human level. She still needed help learning and growing, but she had the guts to say, “I need help; I’m going to go get the help that I need; I see a man there who can help me.” She did not let the “rules” keep her from getting help. She knew she deserved to walk into the house; she knew she was a child of God. By walking in that house, she claimed her inheritance, and Jesus recognized it.
How does this Bible story relate to your work?
There are times when you’ve got to be bold, and humble. But when you have a passion, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. She had a passion for claiming who she really was and not being labeled.
Any words or wisdom to share?
It took me longer than I would’ve wished to act like the owner of a business, whether I was working for someone else or working for myself. Moses finally took ownership of what he was supposed to do. He started out with, “Why me?,” but was able to lead the people out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.
Why is it important to take ownership?
You’re just taking orders until then. People say, “Do this,” and you do it and then ask for the next job. But you can’t become an effective leader, exact some change, or do really significant work if you don’t care about it and feel like you own it. We want to be about greatness, we don’t just want to float through life doing what we’re supposed to or doing what everyone else is doing. Greatness is a quality of God, and therefore, a quality of us. God doesn’t do anything in a mediocre fashion, just to get the job done. God is about greatness. So, if you’re going to clean your room, be a student, or form a company -- do the best you can. Find something you’re passionate about. Act on it. Don’t stay in your comfort zone. Be bold when needed. Stay humble.
Thanks for the inspiration -- being passionate is the beginning of greatness.