A simple plan
At the age of 21, he came up with a straightforward plan: start a successful business, become a billionaire by 30, and use that money to help others. “In my 21-year-old mind that made sense,” Johnson said.
He embarked on a string of ventures that included “one small success and two big failures” that left him heavily in debt. Desperate, he took a gig selling credit-card processing services door-to-door to small businesses. A year later, as he was breaking sales records, he saw software-based businesses struggling with online payments. A thought struck him: “I wondered: Is there a business here?”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Brigham Young University in 2003, Johnson found himself reading The Economics of Life, a collection of forward-looking essays by pioneering UChicago scholar Gary S. Becker.
“He framed the world quantitatively,” Johnson said of the Nobel laureate. “I had grown up in a religious community, where certainty was created by faith and scripture, not through numbers and models and mathematics. I became infatuated with the idea that you could quantitatively understand the world.”
Inspired by Becker, and with the idea for Braintree kicking around in his head, he moved to Chicago and enrolled in Booth’s Executive MBA Program—becoming one of the youngest students admitted, in his mid-20s.
One day, Deutsch visited their class to pitch Booth’s top-ranked business accelerator, the New Venture Challenge. Johnson signed up, and Deutsch coached his Braintree team. For the first time, this lone-wolf founder had a network of support.
“I’d never had the benefit of having seasoned people around me to help me mature as an entrepreneur,” Johnson said. “I found it to be immensely helpful to think out loud and work with them on how to build Braintree.”
When Braintree took first place in the 2007 NVC, Johnson had the chance to chase his grand vision.
Rolling up his sleeves
The timing couldn’t have been better: Though payments processing was a crowded industry, it wasn’t one that was known for innovative software or exemplary customer service. Around the same time, new tech startups such as Uber, Airbnb and Shopify—all future Braintree customers—were emerging, all needing new digital payment capabilities.
That was no small feat—to allow its customers to accept user payments 24/7, Braintree’s own systems could never be down for maintenance. Johnson even tagged along once on an overnight trip to a data center, pitching in alongside his engineers to check logs and calling a customer to troubleshoot.
By 2011 Braintree was growing rapidly. The company was processing $8 million in payments every day, and Inc. magazine ranked it among the fastest-growing private companies in the United States. Two years later, in 2013, PayPal acquired the company for $800 million.