What made entrepreneur John Ilhan so successful? Over the past 10 years I have watched his business expand from a fledgling start up to a national brand. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why he is successful, here are the top 10 character traits I can see in John Ilhan that helped him build Crazy John’s.
1. He knew the value of making mistakes
Ilhan truly believe that the more mistakes he made the better at business he became. He came close to oblivion several times in his business career. This not only developed his risk management skills but gave him the confidence that he could turn a solution around. It also meant he created a culture where mistakes were seen as a positive learning experience.
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2. Hard knocks leads to democratic culture
Ilhan knew first hand what it is to be overlooked. He never had a university degree and was not intellectually gifted. But he was very street smart. Growing up in the poorer western suburbs of Melbourne, he learnt the unfairness of being overlooked for jobs in favour of university graduates.
As he rose through the ranks, he would have battled prejudice that thrives in Melbourne’s elite business circles. Ilhan never allowed himself to become arrogant with his success and to ensure that his staff and customers felt respected and part of a partnership, not a hierarchy. He put a great deal of emphasis on developing a democratic culture, which was very popular with Gen-Y employees. A few months earlier he had gone on an Australia tour, personally seeing all the staff and going tenpin bowling with them all. He also had a huge staff conference in Queensland with the intention of making staff feel they are the most important asset.
3. Made staff accountable
Ilhan felt that with an emphasis on making staff happy and equal, he had a right to confront poor performers and expect accountability. He was quick to tackle people and offer them options.
4. Simple business practices led to success
Ilhan was not a complicated man. In fact his simplicity led some people to doubt his business smarts. Even as his company grew, he kept a very simple approach to sales and marketing. It was this: keep giving customers what they want and keep innovating. That way, word-of-mouth will grow your business.
5. Understood how to use his name as branding
Crazy John’s conjures up a loud, brash, insensitive character. But that’s all it was: a character. Ilhan knew the value of associating a persona with his brand, especially when he was taking on aggressive gorillas. His model was Richard Branson and Virgin. Of course the flipside is his sudden death takes the “character” away from the business.
He also used his story – the boy from Broadmeadows makes good – with his small and medium business clients, that he knew respected people who worked hard to be a success.
6. Closely followed trends and changes in society
Ilhan knew that changes in society and consumer behaviour provides great new opportunities for entrepreneurs. He made sure he travelled and was in touch with the latest technological changes to the mobile phone industry.
7. He had very clear personal views
Many studies have shown the most grounded and happiest people have a great sense of community. Ilhan certainly had that, contributing generously to sports teams, supporting underprivileged groups and people and medical causes. One of the reasons he was so grounded was the support of his parents, who were factory workers and taught him discipline. He believed they would support him if he was rich, poor or bankrupt. He in turn developed a very strong relationship with his own family and circle of friends.
8. Showed great resilience
A weaker person might well have given up in the face of the hard times that Ilhan faced. Yet he says while there were many nights staring at the ceiling, he countered this with working harder and with the firm conviction that he was offering something that customers wanted, and that eventually things would turn his way.
9. Had learnt to let go… a little
Ilhan had learnt to study his weaknesses and bring in good people around him. He could see his key strengths were sales and marketing and that he was poor at processes, research and development (although he had a passion for innovation) and financial management. He could see that he was driven, intense and competitive, and comments in a number of recent interviews show that he was determined to curb this part of his personality, bring in the right people and delegate more. Yet he also acknowledged that it was the passion, intensity and competitiveness that has driven his success.
10. Never felt guilty for being rich
He was worth about $300 million. But he never suffered the tall poppy syndrome. Instead he felt proud of belonging to an enterprising culture where an individual can work hard and achieve such rewards. He also felt he had worked hard for what he had and enjoyed encouraging others to work hard for similar gains.