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Designing the Life You Want

John Eliason, CLA alumnus and entrepreneur
January 14, 2015

John Eliason

John Eliason
John Eliason
The company:
First Financial Merchant

The mission:
To provide dependable
credit card processing for
businesses, banks,
affiliates, and non-profits

John Eliason remembers the day he began his career in sales: seven years old in small town Iowa, he sat on his neighborhood corner selling lemonade. Sales were slow, but when Eliason noticed a construction site down the block, “I wheeled my wagon up to the workers and asked if they’d like some lemonade.” Eliason’s lemonade stand sold out twice a day every day for the rest of the summer, and he left the experience with the seeds of entrepreneurship firmly planted.

Now the founder and CEO of First Financial Merchant Services (FFUSA), a credit card processing and merchant services firm with representatives across the country, Eliason credits his success, in part, to his ability to ask meaningful questions. “Most people don’t think about why they’re doing something, they usually do what they do because everyone else does. When you ask yourself good quality questions, good innovative answers come,” he explains. He calls this process of taking the time to stop, back up, and tilting his questions, “doing an Einstein.”

“You have to take your experiences
and make them work for you,”
explains Eliason. “Never give up.”

After the lemonade stand experience, Eliason “grew up in business,” selling just about everything — he had paper routes, sold insurance, dabbled in real estate, and was even an encyclopedia salesman for a summer. While a student of social psychology at the U, Eliason started and operated his own painting company after working as a summer employee at another business. “I decided that I could do this business better, have more flexibility and make more money doing it myself,” Eliason explains, “I opened up a phone book and started dialing up customers.” By the time he got to the D’s, he had all the business he could handle. When Eliason left school, the business was generating an income of as much as $1,500 per week, serious money for a college kid.

After school, Eliason sold his painting business and moved to San Diego where he got his first taste of the credit card processing. But just four years after landing in California, he retreated back to Minnesota and declared bankruptcy shortly thereafter. “I ended up in business with some unscrupulous characters and found myself in financial ruin,” Eliason remembers.

Standing with his wife and 18-month-old son before a bankruptcy judge was a horrible day for Eliason. “I felt like I wanted to throw up, but in the end it was one of the best days of my life: I reflected on all the good, all the lessons I’d learned and all I knew and all I wanted to achieve for myself and my family. I vowed that day that I’d never be back in that position again, never. I was lit up and went after my dreams with a vengeance.”

Eliason worked tirelessly to build himself back up doing what he does best, creating and selling – he sold long distance phone service, latex gloves, and credit card terminals to get the capital he needed to start FFUSA. Always finding himself at the top of his sales teams, he even developed his own selling method he calls “Sales Control.”

Today, in addition to his duties as CEO of FFUSA, he’s in the process of writing a series of inspirational how-to business guides and launching a software company. He enjoys exploring the world and divides his time between his homes in Minnesota and Florida. “You have to take your experiences and make them work for you,” explains Eliason. “Never give up.”

What she says:

“Your odds of success are very high. Only fear of the unknown keeps you away.”

“[At the U,] I was combining the practical knowledge of real-life successful sales with what I was learning about human psychology ... I learned how critical good experimental design and data tracking is in sales and marketing. You can multiply your income if you take a little extra time to test sales and advertising designs. I use these skills everyday, and they are worth their weight in gold.”