Behind the JetBlue founder’s new startup

Jul 13, 2010

by Patricia Sellers

"Azul is JetBlue in Brazil," says David Neeleman, who may be the most ambitious entrepreneur the skies have seen since the Wright Brothers.

You know Neeleman as the guy who created JetBlue , altered the airline industry (in a customer-centric good way), and eventually got booted by his board for lax management during an epic ice storm.

Now Neeleman is in Brazil, working Latin America's largest, hottest growth market to achieve there what he once did here in America.

And so far, it's working. As I detail in "Azul: The Next JetBlue," which appears in the new issue of Fortune, Azul started flying in December 2008 and registered 2.2 million passengers in its first 12 months, shattering the previous record for a startup airline -- held by JetBlue. Neeleman has raised $235 million for the privately-held venture. He already employs more than 2,000 people and expects 2010 revenues to surpass $300 million.

One thing that has helped Neeleman get his fast start is a personal condition that many people would view as a handicap -- but he doesn't. Neeleman has attention deficit disorder, which he self-diagnosed at age 34.

His mom, he says, sent him a book called Driven to Distraction by Ed Hallowell. Then, in his early 40s, when he was running JetBlue and starting to talk about his ADD, Dr. Hallowell called him and offered to officially diagnose him.

Even though Neeleman's ADD once caused him to struggle in school and "feel stupid," as he told me, he now embraces his condition. In fact, two key executives who worked with Neeleman at JetBlue and now work with him at Azul also have ADD. One is chief marketing officer Trey Urbahn. The other is business development head Gerald Lee.

When I spent time with Neeleman and his execs in Sao Paulo, he told me he knew about Urbahn’s condition, but not about Lee’s. “Trey definitely has ADD,” Neeleman said. “It helps him. He’s a very creative guy." Neeleman added, "But I don’t believe Gerald has ADD. You can’t be a lawyer and have ADD.”

In fact, ADD is a common trait in restless entrepreneurs and never-say-die visionaries -- as this startup guy well knows. Rolling his eyes, Neeleman said, “It’s in vogue to say you have ADD.”

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