By his own admission, Simon Crowe is “glass half empty” character. A fear of failure evidently propels the founder and managing director of Grill’d.
During our interview at a Grill’d restaurant in Degraves Street in Melbourne’s CDB, Crowe finds it hard to relax. He leaps from his seat several times to adjust unsatisfactory elements of the venue’s décor and mutters about the lack of music in the restaurant’s outdoor area. Our lunch is concluded with Crowe removing empty boxes and other debris from the restaurant entrance.
Such hands-on verve is admirable for someone in their sixth year of business ownership. But Crowe always knew that he wanted to be an entrepreneur (although it’s a term he openly questions).
His family ran a chemist for more than 30 years and Crowe fondly remembers going to the store after school for a lift home. Business ownership is in his blood.
“I knew from a very early age that I would own my own business and it would be in that consumer space,” he says. “I love the consumer front end and I love brands.”
Fear of failure
Crowe drew up around 20 business plans before coming up with Grill’d, with ideas spanning from pet insurance to Berrocca in a bottle, before the concept hit the market. The desire was there, but a terror at the prospect of failure was an obstacle then, as much as it’s a driving motivation now.
“In many ways that fear of failure has been a driver of success but on the flip side it’s actually quite paralysing sometimes,” he says. “You become scared to take risks and you’re afraid to act.
“If you take the risk and the answer’s no, the dream is over. Sometimes, intelligence can almost be negative. If you look at professors and people in academia, they generally theorise so much that they don’t act, there’s a counterbalance to any argument and therefore paralysis can sometimes set in.”
Instead of plunging straight into a start-up following his degree at Melbourne University, Crowe joined pharmaceutical giant Proctor and Gamble. He was mindful that he didn’t have the knowledge and skills to be a business owner, something that P&G, a “wonderful employer” according to Crowe, provided him.
“I think I benefited from being in a corporate world and getting learnings in a sophisticated environment where systems and processes played a part and learning and development was key,” he says.
A less successful period followed at Davenport followed, where Crowe hoped to gain mentorship under the founder Clyde Davenport. His next move was to Foster’s, but by now Crowe was determined to finally become his own boss. The only problem was that he didn’t have a fully-formed business idea.
“I’m really fortunate that the business experience I got gave me management and leadership skills, as well as confidence I probably wouldn’t have otherwise,” he says. “(But) I felt I was running out of time. I was 31 when I left Foster’s, not married, no mortgage and I suppose I felt if I let time slip by for too long I’d have responsibilities at risk, rather than just my own ego.”
Taking the plunge
A spell in the US with Foster’s followed, which provided Crowe with fresh inspiration. After an unsuccessful attempt to secure a master franchise contract for the Build-A-Bear Workshop retailer, Crowe returned to Australia and finally begun work on his start-up. Even then, he did so with trepidation.
“I wasn’t frustrated as much as comfortable – I call it the scourge of the middle class.,” he explains. “My parents made sacrifices to put me through a good school and in my mum’s eyes, working for a corporate with international travel was success.
“This country says if you try and it doesn’t work, you’ve failed. But we should be celebrating the fact that people are trying. Every failure and setback in the States is seen as a stepping stone for success.”
Drawing upon his experience in the US, Crowe realised there was a gap in the healthy burger market. After bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t find a decent burger anywhere, his friends helped convince him to finally take the plunge.
“In most countries, in the burger market there are the fast food players, the high end players and those in the middle,” he says. “Australia didn’t have any of that. It was very much a consumer proposition and I looked to explore the gap in the market.
“We were in the pub talking about how it’s hard to get a good burger and (my friends) said ‘can you just do it? You’re always full of ideas and never translate them into action.’”
The start-up process
Crowe called upon the help of the partners that he worked with in the US to land the Build-A-Bear Workshop franchise, childhood friend Simon McNamara and ex-Foster’s colleague Geoff Bainbridge, offering them 20% of the business each for their expertise, rather than money.
Realising that his skills were in brands rather than creating premium burgers, Crowe immediately hired two chefs and spent 12 consecutive Saturdays thrashing out the menu before launch.
The first restaurant, which opened in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn in March 2004, was funded through savings. An initial $200,000 was put into start-up costs before a further $70,000 was raised via a bank. After an initial jitter, business was booming.
“I remember prior to opening, after we signed the lease, I had a panic attack,” Crowe recalls. “I drove down there on a Monday night, it had been raining and the street was desolate. I thought ‘what are we doing? This is ridiculous’.
“The vision was always was to not grow a business that was one location only and that influenced how we went about the process. We spent a lot more money on point of sale system, branding and design than we would on one restaurant.
“It opened at $14,000 or $15,000 and that restaurant now does 30 grand. Because we moved the business on week on week, there wasn’t a sense of ‘oh my God, where is this going.’ It was improving all the time.”
Growing the brand
Grill’d had five outlets by December 2005 and now has 35 restaurants across Australia. The stunning success of the brand has delighted Crowe, but he insists that complacency is the last thing that will ever afflict the business.
“The worst thing we could do is become a top-down cookie cutter brand,” he says “We see that so often with food in this country – when they scale up, they dumb down.
“Our big challenge is to grow without selling out. That’s not in terms of me selling out, that’s not going to happen – I want to be part of this journey for the next 10 to 15 years. But the real challenge is to take the road less travelled, let’s invest more money into the business so that scale doesn’t run down the operation.”
Fear continues to be a major motivation for Crowe, who says: “I was pleased to read that Dick Pratt, even as a billionaire, had that same fear. More often than not, people who are successful and are driven are paranoid about failing. It’s not particularly healthy or balanced but I know that it drives me.
“I just have to make sure that the negative energy that drives me isn’t conveyed to my people. If I played football and the coach said ‘you’re doing a shit job’ that would spur me to prove him wrong. But if you do that to most people too often, they stop believing in themselves.”
One high-profile glitch to hit Grill’d was in March this year when a two-for-one voucher was printed in a student magazine, only for enterprising students to scan and email the voucher, leading to a deluge of copied coupons. Grill’d refused the vouchers, leading to a rare reversal in Grill’d’s PR fortunes.
“We don’t own our brand,” Crowe says. “We want our customers to own our brand. That means we’ve set quite a high bar as their perception of us very much determines our success or otherwise.
“(Customers) clearly said that they expect Grill’d to be honest and to live by its principles and promises and they felt very strongly that we weren’t.
“We needed to make sure that we understood the power of the internet, secondly, the unbelievable passion for Grill’d out there. If I said that a bank or insurance broker promised something and delivered something else, you’d almost expect it of them because it’s not an industry that we respect or trust. We are different. But we are learning all the time.”
What are Simon Crowe’s start-up tips?
Look for advice – “At the end of the day you have to back yourself, but there’s nothing wrong with seeking advice.
“If your skill set isn’t broad enough, to manage that burden exclusively is debilitating, having something else involved can be beneficial.
“As the leader of a business, irrespective of its size, you don’t have peers anymore. You have colleagues and friends, but you can’t share all of those frustrations. Having an outlet, people to speak to such as mentors, becomes important.”
Plan properly, but act – “If you don’t plan properly, you won’t succeed. But if you don’t act, there’s no chance of success. The thing I’m most proud of, other than our baby, is Grill’d. The fact that I left a good job and had the balls to do it, no-one can take that away from me. I hope we’re financially successful, but we’ve given it a crack. I encourage people to do it, you just need support along the track.”