Deriving as much joy from a career after twenty years as when you first began is a rare blessing. For John Willding, it sums up the last two decades of his life. After serving in the military, he obtained his Bachelor’s Degree from SMU, his Law Degree from Rutgers, and his Master’s Degree in Government from Harvard and returned to his hometown of Dallas, Texas. An attorney specializing in mergers and acquisitions, he has created an extensive network of professional relationships by being his authentic self.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
It actually came organically for me. I was introduced to it as a young attorney. It is a very different lifestyle than that of a trial attorney. I observed early on how big cases would seldom go to trial—most of the job consisted of document review and maybe some hearings. I was exposed to transactional law within the firm I was working for at the time, and I was drawn to it because it involved a lot of networking and negotiating, which I love to do.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I am up and moving early every morning. From a productivity standpoint, you need to have great discipline to get up and make the phone calls or take meetings. Especially during an active case of a merger or acquisition, there are a lot of timeframes you need to be mindful of. There are issues that may arise regarding the transaction or applicable regulations. Throughout the workday, I am networking. I will have meetings or lunches with clients or with other attorneys as we discuss the transaction.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I have a big network, courtesy of my career, education, and the military. I’m good at reading personalities and can connect people in a way that will be mutually beneficial. I love getting to know new people and listening to their ideas. If we discuss something that I feel could help them, whether right then or in the future, I will research it and develop a plan to put it into motion. I want to be the person they call when something comes up, even if they just need a referral to someone else.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I like the growth of private equity. When I first started in my career, it was all what we call strategic buyers; bigger companies buying smaller companies. Over the course of my career, private equity has grown exponentially. Now, if you are a small business owner and you are ready to sell, you have a lot more potential buyers. A private equity firm may buy a portion of the company and the owner is paid out of that equity, but also still also owns some of the business. This creates loyalty with current employees and encourages continued success for the small business.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I try to be very disciplined in my networking. When there is not an active transaction happening, I have to balance the productivity. It’s easy to lose discipline during the slower times, when you don’t have an active deal in the works. Since I enjoy networking, it is easier for me, I think, to maintain that productivity even during those slow times. I make sure that I maintain the relationships I have developed so that I know I can reach out to any of my contacts when I need to.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I was very fortunate to have good mentors when I was first starting out. Because of that, I feel like I avoided a lot of the usual mistakes that young attorneys make. However, one thing I would like to tell myself back then would be to focus on a specific aspect of mergers and acquisition law and become an expert in that. My practice is industry agnostic, but I think it may have been helpful to specialize in a specific industry.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
The American Dream is still alive. I have traveled to many countries over my career and I have seen the destructive nature endemic to some other places. I still fully believe that America is a great melting pot of diversity and equality. We do have our issues, of course, but overall, I feel that we have made great strides and continue to do so. Things have been very polarized recently and that has had an impact on how our country is viewed. If more people had a real understanding of how other countries are run and how that affects their people, they would realize how great we have it here.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I recommend everyone set goals for themselves. No matter what you want to do with your life, you have to get up and do the work. Be humble and be kind, but be willing to work toward your short-term and long-term goals. Find your mentors and follow your passion. It can be such an empowering experience when you accomplish your goals.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I love bringing people together, whether it helps me specifically or not. It could be helping someone get a job or connecting them with someone who can help them navigate through something sensitive. Building those relationships helps me in the end because the people I connect with will remember that I helped them.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I have run a business networking event for the last twenty years. It is a social event meant to bring a large group of people together so they can network within the community. There are no speeches, sponsors, or name tags. It creates a comfortable atmosphere for people to meet others engaged in the business community. It was a monthly event until the pandemic hit. To overcome the new COVID protocols, I had to learn how to engage with people in a very different way than I had been used to; in a virtual setting. We’ve all learned a whole new skillset over the last couple of years, for sure, but it is getting better.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
If everyone would be more open to really listening to other people’s opinions, we would learn so much from each other. Things can always be improved on, of course, but the practice of business should be based on not only merit, but diversity and embracing people from varying backgrounds.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I recently traveled to Columbia. I haven’t been able to travel out of the country for two years, and for obvious reasons, it was invigorating to explore and see other parts of the world again.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I use LinkedIn a lot. I don’t use it as a static platform like a lot of businesses do. I use it to promote things I am passionate about and show my personality. I have 19,000 connections globally on my LinkedIn, so I use it to engage with others as often as possible. It is a great tool to connect and also build my personal brand.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. The premise of the book deals with a man who appears to have a perfect life but is, in actuality, absolutely miserable. When he realizes how little of his life actually requires his full attention, he rethinks everything and discovers new and exciting ways to excel at business.
What is your favorite quote?
“Any society that will give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” — Benjamin Franklin
- Make connections.
- Be authentic and transparent.
- Set goals and work to accomplish them.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.