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Saving Lives and Sharing Knowledge (Marco Johnson) Transcript

Making It – Episode #145

Saving Lives and Sharing Knowledge (Marco Johnson)

Marco Johnson: Aloha, I am Marco Johnson and you’re listening to Making It. My wife, Sandra, and I run an organization called AAG, Accreditation Advisors Group. And we assist institutions and individuals with developing higher ed programs and strategies.

I wanted to be a firefighter paramedic when I grew up, specifically for the city of Los Angeles. I come from a line of firefighters and military personnel as well as nurses and doctors. So, growing up in an area that was two fire stations near our house, I would often spend time at those fire stations as a six-year-old, seven-year-old kid. I would literally let the air out of my tires on my bicycle because I knew that I could go to the fire station for help, just to hang out.

After high school, I attended the University of Hawaii and I did the same thing. I came over with excuses to visit the local fire stations. And after graduating, I was fortunate enough to be drafted into the National Football League. And ironically enough, I was drafted by the Houston Oilers and then I ended up being traded to the Los Angeles Rams. And so that put me closer to the fire department that I wanted to become part of.

So while in training camp with the Los Angeles Rams, I literally would, after practice, head to the fire department and take like a written exam and then go back to camp. And then like two or three weeks later, I head back to the fire department and take an oral exam and eventually ended up getting on with the fire department, became a firefighter paramedic. And while on the department, that’s when my entrepreneurial bug, so to speak, kind of infested my thinking.

I would come home from the fire station and I would tell my bride that, Hey, I really am getting a little upset when I’m on these calls and individuals would not be assisting with CPR and/or first aid on people who needed help. So being the supportive wife that she is, she said, stop complaining and do something. And what we realized is that it wasn’t those individuals who just didn’t want to perform CPR or first aid to help others, they just didn’t know what to do. So we decided that we were going to start holding CPR and first aid classes for our community.

One thing led to another, started teaching CPR to our local hospitals, to our local school districts, to a number of professions that needed CPR training in order to keep their jobs – nurses, doctors, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs. From that, it grew into emergency medical technician program. So now this is 1998-ish, ‘99-ish or so.

So I would drive to the fire station. I’d do my shifts there 24 to 48 hours. I’d come home and then my bride would say, Hey, you’re going to teach classes at this place. And then I’d go do that. Yeah, one thing led to another. We added medical assisting program, then a paramedic program, then a nursing program. And before we knew it, we had developed this basically a vocational or training school with about 50 employees and my wife and I handling operations.

The big why was saving lives because we were literally seeing lives being saved with the courses we were teaching – the CPR, the EMT, the paramedic, the nursing. There is that big why. The second big why was we live in a community that we did not have our own university. We had to commute outside of our community in order to attend university. So after my wife and I were grinding away, we realized and we kind of took a step back and said, Hey, this is an opportunity for us to establish our community’s own traditional, reasonably accredited university.

So fast forward to 2010, we had grown to a traditional university with about 250 employees, about 30 different programs, all the way from certificate programs and master’s programs. And then you fast forward to 2022 and that’s when we sold the institution to an international group. And from there, the entrepreneurial bug’s still in us, there are a number of institutions and individuals that need assistance with adding a new program to their already existing program or founding a new school. So my wife and I formed AAG, Accreditation Advisors Group.

So having a partner in business, you have to learn how to tap dance, so to speak. And while you’re tap dancing to the same song, but then you throw in that extra element that it’s your spouse, right? Or your partner in life that can make things even more complicated. And that’s why it’s important that you have a game plan in terms of who’s responsible for what. That eliminates a lot of the stress. That eliminates a lot of the problems and headaches. At one point, the company had gotten up to 200 plus employees. There were days where we’d go to work together, but we wouldn’t see each other the entire day until we got home that evening.

So being comfortable with that and also being comfortable with not bringing work home. We were able to discuss business at home, but then cut it and go back to being a husband and wife and mom and dad. The secret to us making it work was communication and still is that. Again, if any type of business partners, if they’re working toward different final goals and not on the same page and not communicating, failure is probably right around the corner, right?

Being an entrepreneur, failure is always right around the corner to begin with, right? But if you add those extra stressors or those extra things that can deter you guys from reaching your goal, like not communicating with one another, that makes it very difficult. We had to realize the number one business is our marriage, right? So oftentimes communication levels have to be that much more strong and that much more prevalent when you’re living together and growing together outside of the company. Whereas traditional business partners, you go your way, I go my way at 5pm, right? But that isn’t our situation.

So my wife and I decided that we wanted to open a restaurant. While we’re running this university and we had our faculty staff, coworkers, my wife was a city council member, so she’s in politics. We’re raising two kids, we’ve got all these things going on, a couple hundred employees and 1,500 – 2,000 students and their parents that we’re answering to, and we decided we want to open a restaurant.

So, boy did it tank, right? Right out the gate, we’re like, man, it’s a whole different ballgame, right? And not only did we decide to open a restaurant, we decided to open a restaurant that was in another town. So, after a few months or so, we’re like, what are we doing. This isn’t what we know. What’s in our wheelhouse? And we sat down and tried to strategize. What do we do?

Finally, we said, what do we know? We know education. So we took all of that equipment, tons of money spent on this equipment to open this restaurant. And we created a culinary arch and restaurant management program and added that to our list of programs at our university. And it took off, right? Because that’s what we knew; we know education.

So that was a failure that we were able to turn into something that blossomed and it became a very popular program at the institution. So I guess sometimes failure can grow into opportunities. And that was one that definitely grew into an opportunity that helped our brand and became another revenue stream.

I think that a lot of entrepreneurs will set out and say, I’m going to conquer the world. I’m going to do everything. And then I’m going to drive the fancy cars and have the big, beautiful homes, but they leave out the part where there’s a grind, right? There is that having to make sacrifices and having to do things and find yourself stretching your time. Time management is extremely key.

If you are an individual, a sole provider, where it’s just you operating your business or your dream, you have to have time management and stick to it. Sometimes we can get distracted if we have too many things on our plate. So, not just time management, but having the ability to narrow down this is where I need to focus my efforts. What is the big picture and what will help me get there, not faster, but what helps me get there in a sustainable way of getting there. And if you have a partner, it’s very important that you guys kind of divide up your responsibilities and making sure that you’re not crossing paths because you’re kind of spinning your wheels if you’re both working on the same project when there’s something else that needs to get done.

The other thing that I would say is that you have to treat individuals, no matter what role they play in your company, with nothing but respect; whomever it is. If it’s your top dog, your CFO, or your campus director in our case, to that person that is painting lines in the parking lot. You greet them with respect, you talk to them with respect. And it goes a long way when you can talk to that person about what their interests are, right? It’s not always business, right? So, be respectful of everyone and they’ll be respectful to you.

For me, I think that making it basically comes down to setting a goal, whatever that goal may be, and developing a plan and then executing that plan and stepping back and saying, Hey, okay, we succeeded. We made that plan happen. We executed successfully. That and then also seeing other people flourish. It’s really cool for my wife and I to see a fire engine or an ambulance or go to a local hospital or ER and say, Hey, that young man and that young lady, their graduates of our institution, right, and seeing their success.

As an entrepreneur, it’s just, you’re driven, you’re driven to continue to build on the things that you’ve already built or start something new and grow it. It’s like catching that first wave, right? When you’re surfing or paddle boarding. It’s like, okay, I’m going to do everything I can, wake up at 6:00 am to go catch another wave, right? You’re going to do what it takes because once you’ve tasted that and once you’ve experienced that, you stick with it. So I would say, yes, we’ve made it, but we plan to continue making it.

If I could go back to my childhood self and give myself a piece of advice, dream bigger, right? Dream bigger. I would say that I have some pretty cool dreams, but I think that if I had the opportunity to do it all over again, I’d dream much bigger, bigger than where and what we’ve been able to accomplish because if I were to dream bigger and larger, we’d be further than where we are and touch that many more lives.

Aloha, I’m Marco Johnson and you’re listening to Making It. You can find out more about our company, AAG at

Cassandra Topperwien: Making it is part of the Mirasee FM podcast network, which also includes such shows as Just Between Coaches and Once Upon a Business. To catch the great episodes that are coming up on Making It, please follow us on YouTube or your favorite podcast player. And if you enjoyed the show, please leave us a comment or a starred review. It’s the best way to help us get these ideas to more people. Thank you and we’ll see you next time.