How to grow a business and life
Words and photos by Helena La Petite
Start the story five years ago, when a guy who got lost on a stag do ended up at a random bar by himself. That’s where he met another guy, about 20 years older, a lecturer from Melbourne who was visiting the city. They start talking, feel like they’re made of the same stuff, stay in touch. They don’t see each other for the next five years.
Fast-forward to August 2015 when they meet again, this time in Sydney. The lecturer knows another friend he hasn’t seen for a while who lives in Sydney. That guy (let’s call him guy number three) invites the lecturer to come see him.
I’m with the first guy of the story and at this point have met the lecturer too. All three of us hop in a cab to get to the address the lecturer has been given by guy number three. The cab drops us off in the industrial part of Sydney. Amelia Street. This name will become engraved in my head over the process of the story. Amelia Street is a dimly lit street, looking lonely, lost, and to be honest a bit dodgy at night, especially when none of the people you’re with knows Sydney very well and you’ve just spent the entire car trip immersed in a conversation about a murder, having absolutely no idea how you got from point A to point B, much less where abouts in the city you are. We just know that guy number three is somewhere around. Expecting him to be at a bar. Or maybe a pub. Something like that. Maybe the cab driver was a bit lost too and dropped us off at the wrong place. We walk down the street, apartment buildings all around. Only a red neon sign at the end of the street.
Anyone else would have probably called another cab by now to get back to the city. I’m thinking, ‘who knows what this night might bring...’. The lecturer calls his friend, he’s at that place with the neon sign, comes out and takes us in. We enter a huge warehouse, three big, old, impressive looking motorbikes right in the centre of it. And then some more behind glass. Guy number three tells us that this is his friend’s place who collects rare vintage motorbikes and runs a couple of companies, both worth millions of dollars. We go up the stairs, meet a group of three people. One of them is Chilli, that friend’s friend. The one who lives here. The one who owns the motorbikes. He seems cool. We’re offered to grab whatever drink we want from the fridge outside.
So now I’m at a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend’s place. Yep, that’s right. In a huge warehouse filled with old motorbikes in Sydney’s industrial district, at the end of a dark street, surrounded by apartment buildings.
This is the story of how I first met Chilli.
Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes is playing in the background. Chilli starts getting into it, telling us his story. The story of how he collects motorbikes, started a business 20 years ago, lives and works in his warehouse, is a founding dreamer rather than a CEO. A few minutes into the conversation I know that I have to record this, I have to interview him. I ask him right there and then. He’s in.
Chilli gives people energy, he creates this vibe, the one that makes you feel crazy and excited and alive, which makes you do random things, not care, and live life. Feel it. The kind of energy which later makes you question if all that just happened. When afterwards everything feels kind of unreal. You know it happened, but you can’t recall the energy. It’s there when you’re around each other, inspiring and crazy. When crazy doesn’t feel like crazy. It just feels real. Raw. That’s when things feel right – the way they should feel all the time.
And so I go back to his place a few days later, we have a chat. Maybe play Seven Nation Army in the background, it sets the mood. And don’t get too hung up on whether the answer perfectly fits the question. It’s all about the story.
Give us a bit of background information - summing up your last 20-30 years or so. What were the highs and lows?
I’m 40 years old, started out growing up in the western suburbs, limited education as society would deem you to have. But what I did have, looking back now, is the ability to keep going, that entrepreneurial drive, and I think that’s something that a classroom can’t teach you. The ability to really push and try and succeed. I failed maths at school. I grew up with an older brother, a very smart, intelligent guy. The discrepancies between both of us were abundantly clear, he ticked all those boxes, whereas I didn’t. So I was always driven internally, knowing that I didn’t need to be sitting behind someone’s shadow. I got out there and just got on with it. I started a trade when I left school, I was 16, and did that for the next four years. When I was 20 I was a bit restless, didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I just decided to start my own business, which led to a finance business. When I started it back then it was just one single idea, no idea how I was gonna do it, but I was driven and motivated to try and continue to challenge myself.
I remember being eight years old, throwing two dollar notes on the bed. Why? No idea. But I remember it, I remember smelling them, I remember lying on the bed throwing them in the air. It’s weird. What the fuck? But looking back now, I know that was a defining moment for me. I was interested in money and how things worked. And then I got a job at McDonalds later and flipped burgers for three dollars an hour. I was always willing to work, I was the only kid at school who got a job early on at McDonalds. The other boys were laughing and making fun of me, but within six months they were all there working at McDonalds with me, because I was the only one running around with a few bucks in my pocket. Those are pivotal moments when you look back and there are two or three things that changed your life.
What’s one skill or trade that you believe has helped you grow immensely and got you to where you are today?
My ability to trust, motivate and inspire. That’s what drives the rest of my life. That’s all I do. I lead from the front, and I ask questions like ‘guys, how are we gonna get there?’. I drive the bus while these guys help me to stoke the coal at the back. That’s it. Out of 100 percent my job is only ten percent. I know a lot of the rest of it too, but my job is to lead and inspire people.
Every person that works in my business is a lot smarter in certain areas, but they don’t have that ability to look forward. I can look down the road. I can’t fill the gaps, but can pluck the people who fill the gaps. I know where I fit in this business, or whatever I do, whether it’s fashion or design or anything else. It’s just knowing your skill sets, being comfortable that you actually don’t know everything.
You’re continually learning. You have to learn all those aspects of your business, because no one is gonna do it for you. And the best time is when you’re young. The backend is very important - you have to learn all aspects of your business in the moment when you can’t afford someone else to do it. The backend keeps the frontend going, and the other way round.
Knowing that you don’t know everything is a skill. You will never know everything. Having the skill to go ‘you know what, I don’t actually know a lot about that, but I’m happy not to know a lot about it.’ I’ve got an overview of it, but I don’t know the finer details. So pluck that gap, pluck that gap, … And then bang.
And how do you plug all these gaps?
You’ve got to be reasonable, you need a reasonably intelligent business model and all of those things, but at the end of the day a staff member could earn $100k at a corporate bank, or he could earn $100k here. Depending on who that person is, would you rather work here in this office, knowing you make a difference, or at that bank with a swipe card and a suit and a serial number tattooed on your arm, so they can track everything that you do?
Today my team bought me lunch, just because I’m going to New York tomorrow. That’s fucking cool, I’m humbled, absolutely humbled. It’s such a simple thing, but for me it means that they respect me. And it’s not monetary based, it’s a gesture that comes from the heart. And it makes you feel good when people think about you. It’s like human goodness.
It all seems to come back to people, connecting and growing a network. What’s your secret to building long-lasting and meaningful relationships, both in business and personal life?
Life is a sifter. It’s like a flour sifter. You put all the flour in, and that’s everybody. Some of the shit falls through the sifter, people who take advantage. But you have to sift the shit to get the nugget. And if you don’t try you’ll never find goodness.
Whenever you talk to someone it’s about what you’ve got, not who you are. It doesn’t matter what I’ve got, it’s irrelevant. What I’ve done is more important. The journey is and will continue to be more important. That’s it. Like the artwork that’s in my office. I collect McLean Edwards, I buy his art for the back story. He doesn’t paint for anyone other than himself. He won’t do a commission for anyone. He’ll only paint when he’s good and ready. He’s bipolar, he’s crazy as hell, he’s a great guy. He’s just one of these guys who inspires you - he inspires me every time I look at his paintings when I’m making a coffee in the morning in the office. I can almost go into his mind and I’m asking myself what he was thinking when he painted. I think that journey is really important.
It’s not about work. People always ask the question ‘what do you do for a job?’. But how many people come up to you and ask who you are, what motivates you, what drives you, what gets you out of bed in the morning. Who cares what your job is.
People go like ‘You don’t feed that stereotypical mould as a financier’. And I don’t, because I’m more than that. It’s an element of my life, but I’m motorbikes, design, fashion, architecture, art, a father with three kids. They’re sections of my life. I’m not just a pigeonholed financier.
I like to hear other people’s stories. You’ll never grow if you’re talking about yourself, because you’re trapped. You’re richer by closing your mouth and opening your ears. They might tell you a few things that might change your life. You never stop learning.
It’s like my friend Stefan, he runs one of the biggest hedge funds in the country. He looks homeless, a little socially awkward, people think he’s weird, his shoes are undone... But the guy is intelligent beyond belief, he lives right behind the opera house in an absolutely massive apartment. You can eat the Harbour Bridge. But no one’s prepared to find out who he is in most instances because of what he looks like. You can learn a lot by putting your perceptions aside for the moment and asking questions. You never know what you might find. A lot of information is useless, but if you can go away with five or ten percent that has a relevance to your life, then you grow as a person. And if you can meet all of those people throughout your life, and put all of that stuff together, it’ll help you become a better person, help you succeed.
I’ve recently heard the founder of Evernote talk about building a business for yourself and doing what you love vs what the market wants. What do you think - make something for the market, or just go ahead and create something for yourself, something that you want?
Do what you want. It’s that one percent. 99 percent of people will always look for inspiration up the tree. That’s that sheep herd mindset. For them ‘this does not make sense’. They don’t understand why I wouldn’t knock down this warehouse to build apartment blocks. Would make so much more money. But not everything has to be monetary based. I’ve never done anything for money, I’ve always done it for the joy of what I do. There has to be an element of financial success to continue, I get all that, but the primary function for me is to just do it for myself. If you did everything for money you’d be living in a shoebox, putting every penny in the drawer and not having a life, not experiencing things. Afford to risk something, try some things, and dare to fail.
People are scared to take a chance. They’re scared of the perception of failure. Whereas I go ‘you know what, everything I’ve tried, not all of it’s worked. But I tried’. Aren’t you better off giving it a go, taking the risk, daring to dream and fail than to never do it? I just learn as I go. And I make mistakes, and I’ll keep making mistakes till the day I die. But that’s the journey. And I think that’s what allows you to create things, like this place.
How do your values show when you make decisions, and how do you implement them in everyday business life?
I’m very conscious - if you have money still be cool, still be humble, still be respectful. You’re no better than anyone else, you just have other opportunities or options. But you’re no better. And I think because I came from the western suburbs and worked hard and my parents instilled values in me, that that will carry me no matter how rich or how poor I am. I’m still the same person.
My parents taught me to always give, be kind, be loving, say please and thank you. And have respect. That’s number one. Have respect for people. Just be a good person. Put your head down on your pillow every night, knowing that you haven’t ripped anyone off, you’ve done the best you can. You might not have always succeeded, but you’ve done the best you can. And if you can live with that, just let the rest take care of itself. That was the lesson my dad taught me.
How do you innovate and stay in line with your values?
I always ask myself, in either the fashion or finance business, what my customer’s expectation is gonna be. We whiteboard an opportunity in the finance business, and as soon as that is written down I transition out of the business and into my customers’ shoes. And I ask the customers, what do you want? Then I’ll go away and try to make it happen. It’s not ‘here is my product, I’m selling you my product, you take it as it is’. What do you want? Everyone has to win in a transaction. And whether it’s business, partners, love, friendships - everyone has to win, otherwise it doesn’t work. If you don’t feel like you’re getting something out of it and it’s all going my way, why would you keep giving to me? Why would you keep giving me your heart if it’s not working? And it’s the same in business. What do you need out of it in a business transaction? So let’s make it work.
We keep talking, the conversation goes off in untraceable directions. I edited this interview to give it some structure, but really, talking to Chilli isn’t quite as structured. It’s lots of thoughts and advice packed into a story with a mixed up timeline. So somewhere in that story the following part came up. Almost as if I asked what advice he’d give his 20 year old self. I didn’t ask that question, but here’s the answer. And it’s one of the best parts - because the answer really lies within each one of us, it’s already there.
Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything, because you can achieve whatever you want. It’s as simple as that. I’ve been doing this for 18 years and no one has ever asked me where my finance degree is. I failed maths. No one has ever asked me, because I know what I’m doing. I only want to know something that will help me become a better person. I don’t need to know everything. I love art, so I throw myself into art. I love fashion, so I create a fashion label. Whatever is relevant.
After 20 years of being self-employed and looking after staff my mum still worries about me. If I had listened to my mum I would be nowhere, I would be back in Liverpool working at Woolworths. I tell her that I do know what I’m doing. You have to take all advice on board, but at the end of the day it comes down to your gut. No one can tell you what to do, you have to follow that gut. That’s it. I still make those gut decision every single day, my gut is my best friend. And I actually talk to it. I know it’s a bit weird, but I’m not crazy. It helps me decipher a good and a bad decision.
And keep it simple. Don’t ever over-complicate anything. Because complication distorts your view. I know it’s such a dodgy sounding cliche, but it’s true, keep it simple.
I look back now and I ask myself, how did I actually do that? I don’t even know. But I must have done it, because I’m here today. Life’s too short - you spend so many hours doing something. Do it because you love it. Because people will see through it if you’re not actually emotionally involved in it. You gotta love it. You’ve got to own it. Whatever you do, own it. Give it 100 percent. Don’t be scared to fail.
For issue one we’re looking for more people and businesses who give 100 percent, care and create positive change. People who do good. Good that goes beyond just business, but has a real, lasting impact on the world, drives global change, and encourages sustainability, social and environmental growth. Know someone? Let us know.