One year ago, Crazy John’s Australia finally shut down, with all remaining stores for the once-prominent phone provider rebranded as Vodafone outlets. To mark that anniversary, here are 10 lessons for entrepreneurs from its late founder, John Ilhan.
Before you say “Why seek out ideas from a business that has shut down?”, remember this: it’s exceptionally rare for a business to succeed over huge periods of time, especially if it moves from having an entrepreneurial boss to being part of a global conglomerate. After Ilhan’s unexpected death in 2007 at the age 42, his widow Patricia sold his 75 per cent stake in the business to Vodafone for $150 million. His personal wealth at the time of his death was estimated at $310 million.
Crazy John’s had a complex history. Originally Ilhan had partnered with Telstra to sell mobile phones and plans, but switched to Vodafone as his network supplier in 2006 after a dispute with Telstra that hit courtrooms before finally being settled. That ended a 16-year partnership between the two companies that had seen Ilhan top the list of richest Australians under 40 and build an empire of 120 stores.
10. Working for others can spur you on
Ilhan began his career at the Ford plant in Broadmeadows where his parents had worked, but quit when it became apparent he wouldn’t advance rapidly. “Leaving Ford was important because I never got a crack at a promotion,” he told the Herald-Sun in 2007. “Within a three-year period I never got a promotion. They kept giving them to the graduates and I was looked down upon because I wasn’t a graduate.
“I was the best-qualified person for the job, but I just never got a go. So I got fed up with that and went to Strathfield Car Radio when the phone industry began.”
9. You don’t always need a new idea
Ilhan eventually left Strathfield and founded his own store — directly over the road from his old employer. The idea there? To offer better service to both staff and customers.
“I worked at Strathfield’s in Brunswick and they treated me badly,” he told the Sunday Age in 2006. “So I opened my own store right across the road. And I treated people better.” That approach continued. In 2007, Ilhan shouted virtually all employees of Crazy John’s to an all-expenses-paid holiday in Queensland — an exercise that cost $500,000.
8. Being in debt can be a great motivator
“It’s not fear of losing, it’s ‘don’t take your foot off the pedal because you won’t be on top anymore’,” Ilhan told the Australian Financial Review in 2005. “[I look] back to when I never had a dollar in my pocket, when people didn’t help out, when I put a lot of pressure on my parents. I was living at home and starting a business, and almost lost their house because I had an overdraft on my dad’s mortgage.”
7. You don’t have to work on the weekends
Ilhan rarely saw his parents as a child, a pattern he was determined not to repeat. “They were working shifts, so I would see mum one day, and dad the next,” he said in 2006. “I love and respect them, but what’s my excuse not to see my kids? I want to spend time with them.” As a result, working on the weekends was banned.
6. Set aside a space to relax
The Ilhan family home (John and Patricia had four children) included a dozen-seat home theatre in the basement where Ilhan would take time to relax. “It is my stress release,” he told the Sunday Herald Sun in 2006. “Some people go for a run, but I go down there, put on a DVD of one of my favourite bands in concert and turn it up full blast. It does a lot for my mindset to get away from the business where I do not have five minutes to myself, to go where I can enjoy my time.”
5. It’s OK to want to be wealthy . . .
We’re often told that enjoying work is a better motivation than seeking wealth, but that doesn’t mean the two are mutually exclusive. As Crazy John’s managing director Brendan Fleiter explained at Ilhan’s funeral: “In 1991, John hatched a business plan. It wasn’t a complicated plan, it didn’t have reams of research behind it, it wasn’t even in writing. He told me about this plan — it was called ‘I want to own a Porsche’.”
4 . . . but that won’t be your whole motivation
Ilhan himself argued that wanting to overcome challenges was one of his key drivers. He explained to BRW in 2007:
I don’t call it work, the challenge turns me on. It’s just like artwork. You’re developing the big picture with different strokes by adding staff and products, and watching it evolve is motivation. When you come up against something you think, ‘That’s interesting, how do we overcome this?’ If you love success you will always be motivated.
3. Recognise that you can’t do everything
The skills that make a small business succeed won’t necessarily translate into the management nous needed for a larger organisation. As Ilhan told the Bulletin in 2007: “I’m not the chairman of my company because I couldn’t be at this stage. I accept that I’m not qualified for that. I know my weaknesses. I’ve employed people who are better than me in those areas”. Picture: Getty Images
2. Not all ideas will take off
Ilhan had ambitions to expand from mobile phones into other areas. “We are going to look at another company, copy them and do it better – be more innovative,” he told the Sunday Age in 2006. “Richard Branson does the same thing – he goes into cars, he goes into airlines. He says I’ll just do it a bit differently and a bit better than the competition. And if someone is like that – that focused on their customers – it’s very hard to beat this bloke. He can become a massive pain.” That never happened with Crazy John’s, but the motivation to create new ideas continued to drive Ilhan. More than 20 companies were registered in his name when he died.
1. Have self-belief and be persistent
The most consistent theme that emerges in interviews with Ilhan was his hunger for success and his belief in himself. He explained this idea at length to the Sun Herald in 2005:
I had an almost fanatical belief, and still do, in wanting to be successful. I didn’t wait for an opportunity to come my way; I created opportunities for myself. I have always found one should never look to others for motivation. Self-motivation must be the key to any successful business. One should also never look for others to blame when problems arise but instead possess the personal motivation to focus solely on a solution.
A simpler take. “”All I’ve done, in horsing terms, is I’ve just been a stayer,” he told the Bulletin in 2007.