Imagine you’re sitting in an airport terminal with some colleagues when you hear that magic word: “upgrade.” Your first reaction may be to grab your new boarding pass from the ticket counter and make a beeline for that comfortable seat. That’s perfectly understandable – you work hard and you deserve the perk. But what if you gave the upgrade to a junior colleague instead? What an effective way to acknowledge his or her good work and show your appreciation. Even more important, what an effective way to build loyalty and motivate that employee to keeping working hard. It’s an example of what Misfit co-founder Sonny Vu calls “servant leadership” – an approach that helped him build his startup Misfit into a global leader in the connected wearables space, and attract a $260 million offer from Fossil Group.

Fossil acquired Misfit in November 2015 – almost exactly four years after my agency helped Misfit launch its first product, the Shine, on the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo (here’s the link to that Indiegogo page if you’re curious).

Today Sonny is the CTO for Fossil Group, Connected Devices, and he oversees a team of over 200 people. The Misfit brand continues to flourish, and now he also gets to collaborate with 18 of the world’s most recognizable brands on hundreds of different wearable products.

The one thing all those products have in common is an adherence to the design philosophy Misfit introduced on Indiegogo.

“I looked at the fitness tracker landscape, read over 5,000 user reviews on Amazon, and discovered one recurring theme: they all looked like they were made by Silicon Valley geeks, like myself, for Silicon Valley geeks,” he said. “We were inspired by Apple’s “Think Different” commercial to make Misfit more than just a new product category. The name Misfit reflects a different frame of mind. We made it our mission to design wearable technology that offered the features and functionality people wanted, but also looked like something more people, including my wife, would want to wear.”

(Note: You’ll learn that Sonny’s connection to Apple and the legendary Steve Jobs goes even deeper that being inspired by that commercial…)

Sonny splits his time between New York City, San Francisco and Vietnam, so pinning him down for an “Unconventional Genius”[1]  interview before Misfit was acquired by Fossil Group wasn’t easy. He spoke passionately about how one of his heroes, Chairman Li Ka-Shing, the richest man in Asia, inspired him to adopt the servant leadership approach.

“He said, ‘In business and in life, give first and get later. Always leave money on the table for the other side.’ I found that so powerful, and it’s how I try to live my life.”

Backed by former Apple and Pepsi CEO John Sculley, Sonny and his long-time business partner launched Misfit on October 5, 2011 – the same day Apple’s Steve Jobs passed away.

Sonny says he adopted the servant leadership approach on that first day, and directed his executive team to do the same.

“We expected that as you rose into a more senior role, the more you should serve your team members, not the other way around. the more you’re expected to serve,” he adds. “You serve the teams, you’re first in line to do things for other people, instead of the other way around which is more common among traditional hierarchical organizations. We did have a hierarchy with ranks and standard titles. But the implication around seniority was quite different.”

His advice to any entrepreneur is to consider adopting this approach because it forces you and your team leaders to lead by example.

“You’re still taking charge, you’re a senior team member who needs to set direction, and inspire the team to meet goals,” he says. “But you’re also the first one to jump in to fill the gaps as necessary.”

If I’m presenting Sonny as someone who has always been successful and always had a clear vision for what’s next in business, he will assure you that just the opposite is true.

““Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned mostly from failure,” he laughs. “Misfit has been a success because I applied the lessons learned from my failures in the other companies I’ve started. In life, we learn a lot more from our failures than our successes.”

In fact, at first Sonny wasn’t even going to pursue a career in business. His family moved from Vietnam to the U.S. when he was a child, and he went to college at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. After graduating, he began pursuing a career in education, and started working to earn a PhD in linguistics at MIT under Noam Chomsky.

But he dropped out to start his first company, a developer of language software technology to help computers understand natural language. He sold that company in 2001… and then went back to school.

The call of the business world sounded again, so he dropped out of school. Again. He started a second company, this time producing blood glucose monitoring meters and strips for diabetics.

“It was a great time, and I really grew up as an entrepreneur,” he says. In other words, he learned a lot through trial and error.

Of course, he’s not the only successful businessperson who’s experienced failures. In his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs said all of his past experiences connected like dots. That’s exactly how Sonny feels looking back on his career, particularly when trying to identify the best people to ask to join his companies.

“At my first company, we tried to hire very smart people, and we did find some folks with very high IQs,” he says. “But their personalities just didn’t mesh with mine, and that caused problems. So for my second company, we tried to focus on hiring people with lots of experience. We did – only to discover they would too often fall back on that experience to justify decisions as opposed to participating in rational debate.

“The overall lesson when hiring people: make your decision based on a candidate’s skills, wisdom, and judgement, not just years of experience on the resume. At Misfit, we learned that developing a great culture is necessary for making a company successful and helps sustain that success.”

Of course, the trick is identify wisdom and judgement in an interview. Sonny admits that’s not easy, but there is a formula he tries to follow.

“The best way is just to work with people – can you simulate the work environment with someone, and gauge how they work through problems with you? Worry less about whether a candidate solves a problem, and look more at how they went about it and worked with other people.”

I’ve really just scratched the surface of the lessons Sonny has for any entrepreneur. To hear our entire conversation, subscribe to the “Unconventional Genius” podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud.

Also, don’t hesitate to submit your comments or questions for Sonny below, I’ll do my best to address them and solicit Sonny’s feedback as he’s available.