Some Career (And Life) Thoughts From SDC Marketing and Events Director AJ Johnson
Guess what? A great gig at a great dropzone doesn’t always require tightening leg straps twenty times a day.
Take AJ Johnson’s, for instance. His position–Events and Marketing Director at Skydive Chicago–presents the perfect example of a dropzone profession with all the fixins: fulfilling, satisfying, constantly novel and precisely the right kind of exhausting. It’s a dream job that he had an active hand in creating and continues to shape from day to day, and he reckons that any other keen skydiver could do the same in their own unique way.
“This guy called me ‘the purveyor of stoke,’” AJ laughs. “That would be the best job title ever. I want to get it on my business cards.”
“Somebody asked me what my job title was this year,” he adds, “and I was, like, y’know what? I grease the wheels. Whatever work needs to be done to create an amazing environment for skydivers, that’s what I do.”
Fun, right? I thought so.
To get some background, AJ’s career history before skydiving was in the therapeutic wound care field.
“I never sold pharmaceuticals,” AJ explains, “but I have as much OR time as Jason Russell has tunnel time, because I used to spend my days standing around in the operating room waiting for the right time to say, ‘that’s where you put my product.’ I did that for years.”
While the work weeks were full of hospital visits, his weekends were spent at the dropzone. AJ was a Skydive Chicago regular.
“[Skydive Chicago DZO] Rook [Nelson] always talked me to when I was here,” AJ remembers. “I can’t even count the number of times we had a conversation about me working for him, doing sales and marketing.”
As it turns out, the pieces of the puzzle fit together just right. When AJ was ready to make a change, Rook and AJ’s past conversations turned into reality.
“True enough,” AJ laughs, “I didn’t want to keep ignoring the opportunity. I knew I’d enjoy it and had some ideas, so I convinced Rook to give the keys to that car, and he gave me a shot.”
Since then, AJ’s position has grown in all kinds of ways. He insists that every day at the dropzone is different from the others, and that’s just the way he likes it–just what he was missing in his day-to-day in medical sales. Why? The way AJ tells it, it’s because people never gave him that look when he was selling wound care. Can you relate?
“Every single day at SDC–I promise you,” he enthuses, “I’ll be sitting in the lobby and notice someone watch their own first tandem video or seeing people bummed out when they have to leave Summerfest, or freaking out with joy when they land from some fun jump that obviously went incredibly well. It’s that look on their face. I think I’m addicted to it. That’s why I push so hard.”
“Purveyor of Stoke,” indeed. Want to purvey stoke? Here’s what AJ has to say about the ‘how.’
1. Find the right place for you.
The way AJ tells it, crafting a professional place for yourself requires the same tools as kicking ass once you do.
“In my old sales life,” he confides, “there was this thing called ‘the need behind the need.’ If I want to sell you something, I’ll come in and find out what your needs are, and then I have to ask a very specific question. How is that important to you? How does it affect you? That’s how you make it personal. Finding the need is great, but then you find the need behind the need.”
“Take an example from my medical sales work,” he explains. “I’d be trying to sell product to a doctor, and he’d tell me he wanted to heal wounds faster. That’s the need. But then I’d dig deeper. I’d ask: okay, how does it affect you if you can do that? So then it comes out that he has busy kids and they’re growing up really fast, and he needs more time with his family. Faster wound healing means more time with them. That’s the real need.”
“So if you want to create a place for yourself–or do the best job you can once you’re there,” he continues, the way to do that is to find the needs behind the needs and to show them how you’re going to deliver on those. Do a little investigating. It’ll pay off.”
2. Walk the talk.
If you want to carve out a path that looks something like AJ’s, the first thing you’re going to have to do is–well–not hate skydivers and/or skydiving. If that sounds a little obvious, then maybe you haven’t gotten into many deep conversations with a lot of the people who work in dropzone offices.
“I don’t think you can actually do a good job on a dropzone and not be a skydiver,” AJ muses. “Truth be told, I don’t jump as much as I used to but I’m still in the sky and love it. You at least have to really feel it and know what’s going on. Otherwise, you’re just some schmuck selling a fake dream.”
What does a “normal” day look like for a guy selling a real dream? Pretty goddamn busy, is what. AJ usually starts the day with a latte from the on-DZ Eatup Café (“Thank God we finally got a cappuccino machine,” he quips.) He gets into the Facebook and Insta and waits (never very long) for the day to hit full swing.
3. Actually, walk.
The way AJ describes his mornings, it sounds like he acts as a big ol’ catalyst and conductor, checking in with all the departments to see what he can do to help.
“If there is an event that’s happening, I’ll be up to my elbows prepping,” he explains, “meaning: talking to grounds crew and make sure they’ve got the details, interacting with manifest to see if there is anything I can do to help with what and who is coming in: a skills camp, a reunion, the Army, the Marines, 32 tandems on the books for a Tuesday morning…whatever. I try to find out how I can facilitate and help. I just walk around and make sure that an event is running as seamlessly as it can. If any department needs an extra hand, I try to give it to them. Truth be told, at Skydive Chicago, I feel we have the best team around. I’m proud to be able to work with people who know their jobs so well and have been doing it for so long. From Donovan tirelessly fixing planes into the late hours, Allen slaving away to make amazing food for us, Rachel seamlessly running a crazy busy Manifest schedule, Anthony managing tandems and AFP, to Dan (AKA: The Danimal) crushing it on the grounds crew. They’re all just amazing.”
“I look at it as a village,” he describes, “and the village is always bustling and hustling. You’ve got to walk around the village constantly; check the scene and see what’s going on; see what the village needs to get smiles on everybody’s face.”
4. Keep a roadmap where you can see it.
“I always have the schedule for the year on my wall,” AJ says. “With all the craziness broken down, with loads of notes. It’s great to have it there in such detail because it’s motivating. I look at it all the time, and I’m, like, holy crap, we have done all that so far this year.”
For AJ, that schedule is a constant reminder that every day counts–and it’s also a promise that there will always be something new and juicy to dig into, from the world records to the press events to the staff outing of axe throwing and gourmet burgers.
“That’s the fun and beauty of it,” he grins. “At the end of the day, I’ve always done something to push along either our agenda or our event schedule, and I see the evidence right there.”
5. Love the details.
For all the big-picture plates that AJ spins, he puts an equal–if not even more–emphasis on the details of dropzone life. For him, that’s where the stoke he purveys really comes from: the details.
“Some days it’s about hanging out there, talking to that tandem while they’re having a cigarette,” AJ smiles. “Helping them process what they just did. Because, chances are, if you help them with that, they’re going to come back, and-or tell somebody else. Some days it is literally handing out candy in the packing area while we’re on weather hold.”
Sometimes, AJ admits, the job is thankless. Interestingly, that’s just the way he likes it.
“They aren’t supposed to see me,” he chuckles. “My job is to create an environment at an event, and the event is the important part.” Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
“To work at a dropzone, it’s a good idea to think outside the bone structure of the dropzone itself,” AJ advises. “It is not just a building or some grass. It doesn’t matter if you have the best this or the worst that. That’s just a shell. It is the people that make it great. Cultivate the people. Cultivate the vibe. At SDC, we just happen to have one of the biggest, coolest places, but the people who fill it up make it so awesome, and I feel that my job is to support them in being great and feeling great.”
Offering that support? It takes some time. But, for AJ, it’s worth it.
“If you want to make something great, start small, have a plan and push,” he insists. “You always have to push. That’s it. The difference between a really awesome day and a normal day is how hard you push. Make it an awesome day, and you’ll make it an awesome job.”