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Serial entrepreneurs are exceptionally gifted in bringing new business ideas to the market. Today’s special guest, is a member of the serial entrepreneurs club, and he has built a continuous string of success that we’re going learn about to see how you too can develop business ideas into a successful venture.
What You’ll Discover About Serial Entrepreneurs (highlights & transcript):
* The key to serial entrepreneurs success [02:21]
* The nature of serial entrepreneurs [3:26]
* How this serial entrepreneur picks the winners from the losers [05:20]
* The biggest business challenge facing serial entrepreneurs [08:17]
* Where business culture is most vulnerable to sabotage [10:32]
* How to be ruthless in maintaining your business culture [12:14]
* The two things that drive serial entrepreneurs [15:09]
* Sources of business guidance for serial entrepreneurs [18:30]
* And MUCH more.
Hanna Hasl-Kelchner:[00:00:00] Serial entrepreneurs are exceptionally gifted in bringing new business ideas to the market, and when we come back, today’s special guest is a member of the Serial Entrepreneurs Club and he has built a continuous string of successes that we’re going to learn about to see how you too can develop your business ideas into a successful venture.
Announcer: [00:00:19] [Music] This is Business Confidential Now with Hanna Hasl-Kelchner helping you see business issues hiding in plain view that matters to your bottom line.
Hanna: [00:00:31] Welcome to Business Confidential Now. I’m your host, Hanna Hasl-Kelchner, and today’s guest is Mr. Norman Crowley, a serial entrepreneur who founded and sold three businesses for over three quarters of a billion dollars before age 40. Now while turning business ideas into moneymaking ventures appears to be no problem for Norman, he more recently focused his attention on business ventures that aim to solve social problems.
In 2010, he founded the energy efficiency company, Crowley Carbon, which helps address the global climate change issue. In 2018, he set up the Cool Planet Experience, a not-for-profit foundation launched by Sir Richard Branson. In 2019, he launched two businesses, Crowley Solar that focuses on renewable energy and Electrify, which creates world-class hyper cars by converting classic cars such as Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Aston Martins into electric cars using Tesla components.
But before you think making these high-performance cars electric is the equivalent of castrating them, think again because Norman says the performance of these hyper cars is on par with Formula One racing cars and can hit speeds of zero to 60 in under two seconds, and have a range of 370 miles. And if that wasn’t enough, more recently Norman has founded yet another car company that’s developing hyper classics and new family of electric cars with really high performance, And you know, he can do that but styling that’s inspired by some of the greats of the motoring past.
So clearly, coming up with new business ideas is no problem for this serial entrepreneur, so let’s have him join us now. Welcome to Business Confidential Now, Norman.
Norman Crowley: [00:02:18] Thank you. Good to be here.
THE KEY TO SERIAL ENTREPRENEURS SUCCESS
Hanna: [00:02:21] Norman, you’ve got an amazingly impressive track record among serial entrepreneurs. You appear to move seamlessly from one successful venture to the next. What do you attribute to your phenomenal success?
Norman: [00:02:35] [Laughter] I love the way you say I appear to move. Some – some days are better to others, actually.
Hanna: [00:02:41] We could talk about that. [Laughter]
Norman: [00:02:43] Yes, there are definitely few bad days as well as days. Yes, look, I guess I’ve been doing this since I was 15 and I’m 50 now, so practice is probably one reason why we seem to be getting better at this. But I guess over the years you – you learn a lot and you – you learn obviously as much from your failures as your successes and it’s managed to get us where we are now.
Hanna: [00:03:12] Well, it sounds like any failures have not stopped you at all and – and just hearing you and the way you’re talking about your business is it sounds, if anything, it’s made you more determined.
THE NATURE OF SERIAL ENTREPRENEURS
Norman: [00:03:26] Yeah, I – I definitely – you know I often wonder the nature of entrepreneurship, especially serial entrepreneurs, because you know, I encounter a lot of entrepreneurs obviously and – and when they exit businesses, you have two types, right?
One type is they sell their business and they head to the golf course, and the others – and they never kind of come back into it again. And then the other type already have their next business on the go before they finish the last one. My wife says that I’m a chain smoker when it comes to business that even – you know, I’ve got two in my fingers and one in the ashtray and – and I’m looking at the next one, and – and sometimes that’s not entirely positive, right, and – but I guess in the last 10 years on the climate change mission, I meant to something at least that’s doing good for the planet, which is you know, solving these climate related problems.
And what that’s led us to believe is that business and entrepreneurs in particular have a major responsibility and a major opportunity in the area of climate change because governments seem to struggle quite a lot with getting anything done in the area.
Hanna: [00:04:47] Well, that’s – that’s true. As an entrepreneur, you – you don’t have quite as many constituencies that you have to deal with or placate, or worry about getting re-elected, quite frankly. So I’m – it makes – it makes it a little bit easier. You know, one thing in reading your background that caught my eye is that the different business ideas that you’ve launched over the years cut across different industries and technologies. I mean more recently; you’re focusing on the – the social benefits.
HOW THIS SERIAL ENTREPRENEUR PICKS THE WINNERS FROM THE LOSERS
But I’m curious what inspired these different businesses over the years and how do you decide which ones to pursue? Because you have amazing creativity, and I would imagine that you actually generate a whole lot more business ideas that you actually build into viable entities. So how do you pick the winners from the losers?
Norman: [00:05:36] Yes, I guess in the early days, it was just opportunistic, right? So you know, an opportunity would come up and it seems like a good idea probably at the time to do with technology disruption. So you would encounter a business – like when we were in the gaming business and like all of the gaming technologies were just kind of 40, 50 years old and nobody was doing anything around the internet, broadband and that kind of stuff, and so it was obvious that it was ripe for disruption.
When we saw the internet first in 1995, the consumer applications didn’t really interest us but it blew us away, the idea that people could access things like government databases without queuing for hours on end, you know? So the disruption was always obvious. And now when we do businesses, it’s become more sophisticated. So there’s a simple question now which is, if we get into this business, will it positively impact a billion people?
And if the answer to that is yes, the next question then is do we have something to offer in this area? Those are teams, engineering skills really impact this or can they do it better than somebody else? And then if the answer to those questions is yes, then we tend to go for it.
And again back to the chain-smoking analogy, you know a lot of the time we’re just too busy but we still get stuck in. And – and, you know, it’s not a question of do you already have too much on, it’s more a question of can we create an impact with this business? And that would seem to be common among other entrepreneurs as well, you know, not putting myself in the same bracket as Elon Musk, but you know, it doesn’t seem to stop in the fact that he’s got too much to do already, you know?
Hanna: [00:07:33] Well, I think he’s got some help, so…
Norman: [00:07:35] Yes. And the help is incredibly important, right?
Hanna: [00:07:41] It – it definitely is. So in all of these businesses that you’ve been chain smoking about, and the other matches that you’re still lighting, what – what are the biggest challenges that you face? I mean, you talked about these two questions, which would you try to answer it before you green light a project now, which is – is admirable, I appreciate that.
But still, it’s more than just saying, “Yeah, let’s go do this,” you still have a lot of other things that need to be put in place. What types of things have you found to be challenges in the past or even now?
THE BIGGEST BUSINESS CHALLENGE FACING SERIAL ENTREPRENEURS
Norman: [00:08:17] Yeah, if you boil it down to one challenge, it’s building the team, you know, and so there’s the success rates in hiring, regardless like a lot of people listen to or Google have an amazing hiring policy or, you know, you hear about all these things. But actually, as far as we can see, everybody from Google to any company you care to name, it’s complete potluck, right? And what we find is that for the absolute high performers, and it’s – you know, it’s probably only 20% of the people that you would interview or even hire that are kind of super players. And – and so the success really of any business is down to how fast you can bring that team together and how – how that team performs, and that’s found in our book to two things.
One is culture and that’s the overused buzzword, right? But culture is critical and for us, we’re very like – we have a chief culture officer who is a key part of the executive team, and her role is protecting the culture in all the ways that are required, and they are critical to the business. And so that number one – is number one for us.
And then the other one is what you don’t read books about is we fire fast. So if somebody comes in and it’s just – it’s clear that the team isn’t gelling with that person and they don’t have our values, then you know, that becomes the critical – you know, they don’t last basically. And what we find is that most companies don’t do that. They tolerate the person; they try to fix the person. But you can fix somebody’s skillset if they are missing a particular skill set, but you can’t fix their cultural fit. We find are not in any kind of time, horizon that we would find interesting.
WHERE BUSINESS CULTURE IS MOST VULNERABLE TO SABOTAGE
Hanna: [00:10:32] That’s an interesting observation because while you’re trying to fix the cultural fit, it’s having an impact on the rest of your team and throwing it off – off balance somewhat, so that’s – that’s very interesting. It’s also interesting that you have someone devoted to protecting your culture as a – a full-time endeavor. When it comes to culture, what advice do you have for other entrepreneurs about where culture is the most vulnerable?
Norman: [00:11:02] It really is a leadership thing, regardless of where it is, right? So if the – if the culture of the leadership team is kind of closed and political and not forward looking, then – then that just continues to cause a problem. And that’s not just the executive team, it’s the senior managers – but it all comes from the executive team.
So you – you have to have a situation where your executive team who are at the top of the business are all 100% aligned with where you’re going, and they’ve then communicating that clearly to the people that work for them. And that sounds incredibly simple but if you’ve got a situation where your finance team are pulling in a different direction or your engineering team are pulling in a different direction, then you’re immediately at a loss and your performance is in jeopardy immediately.
HOW TO BE RUTHLESS IN MAINTAINING YOUR BUSINESS CULTURE
So the chief culture officer, apart from the obvious hiring and firing, their job is to be the keeper of that culture. So yes, you know, the chief executive has a responsibility but day to day, somebody has to just keep that culture and be ruthless about keeping that culture.
Hanna: [00:12:19] When you talk about being ruthless about keeping the culture, certainly new hires, they have a – a short window of time to either fit or not fit, so I applaud to your fire fast. Some HR folks I’ve talked to said hire slow, fire fast, so that part is – is definitely commendable. But how else do you promote accountability for culture?
Norman: [00:12:45] Well if your culture is to play back – back to you. If your culture is one of accountability in communication in particular, then that pervades the whole organization.
An example, you know, in this kind of times we’re in now where we’re doing a lot more Zoom calls than we were is. If – if somebody new starts in the organization, and their first Zoom call isn’t your typical days meeting but it’s a punchy meeting where people are – you know they’re kind of making jokes about each other. So there’s this clear communication style that people – people see immediately that they can joke, that they can – that they can, you know, slack off or take the piss at the chief executive on a call that he or she can do the same back, and then that the meeting is punchy, that there is a style of “this needs to get done now” and urgency.
Then you – all of that comes through in that meeting. And then that pervades the organization because everyone knows that that is now the way things operate in this situation, and whereas if – if you have is – is posters all over the office about what your mission statement is and your values, right, but then the first meeting you go into is just kind of quasi political, overly polite meeting environment, then you’ve lost. And all the – you know, all the books in the world, all the mantras in the world are wasted.
I was watching a documentary recently on WeWork, right? And they have this scene – this beautiful culture. But in the end, you know, the CEO left with all the money, right? And so that’s just wrecked the culture immediately, right?
And so – it – it’s so many aspects, like it’s how you’re communicating, it’s how you’re acting. Are you saying one thing but doing something else? Are your managers saying one thing and doing something else, that – you cannot build a culture based on that. It’s if you boil it down, it has to be about truth, right? What is your truth? Are you living that truth? Are the people that work with you living that truth? And then if all of those things are true, then you have a culture.
THE TWO THINGS THAT DRIVE SERIAL ENTREPRENEURS
Hanna: [00:15:09] Very good, very good. Now, it’s interesting this serial entrepreneurship that you’re engaged in and very passionate about, what got you started on this road? Who was a role model for you? When did you come up with the idea of I’m just going to start a whole bunch of businesses, one after another?
Norman: [00:15:30] Well, I guess it was kind of carrot and stick, right? And I – the carrot was that my dad was a farmer and he was – he was a great entrepreneur, right? Not only, you know, farming – I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Ireland. It was like – at the time it was like a practically a third world country, and so there was no money, very little opportunity. And – and so he was, within that he was able to create opportunities and there was always a solution to every problem, and I admire that quite a lot and he was probably the first inspiration.
And then the stick was that there was no money, right and therefore at the age of kind of 13, I just – you know, I used to watch a lot of American TV shows and realized that there were people out there who were rich and successful and I wanted to be like them. I didn’t want to poor. And so that was really the inspiration in the beginning.
And then at the time, there were very few successful entrepreneurs that you could model yourself on, really. You know, there was a lot of flawed characters and – and probably – and Richard Branson or somebody like that was the first real inspiration, you know, somebody you could have fun, have a whole load of businesses, but be successful. And not just be successful in the sense of making money, but be successful in the sense of having fun doing it.
And in later life, I ended up becoming friendly with Richard. That was a great honor, you know, and – but along the way, you meet a lot more of these people. But I think for all entrepreneurs, it starts off as a pressure point. Either you need to make money or you’re trying to prove something to somebody.
Hanna: [00:17:23] That’s an interesting categorization, the need to make money or want to prove something to someone, maybe even to yourself.
Norman: [00:17:30] That’s right. If you look at a lot of them, the entrepreneurs, they – they don’t fall – all fall into the category of “I must make money.” But the ones that don’t fall into the category of a parent who told them they’d never amount to anything or a successful parent that had a business, and – and they want to prove to their parents that they can do better you know?
So there is – and a lot of business success doesn’t – you know the drive doesn’t come from a positive emotion. A lot of time it comes from a negative emotion. It’s like I’m going to prove that to them and or I’m not good enough and therefore, I’m going to prove to people that I’m good enough, you know?
Or if we take Elon Musk, it’s – the building is burning, we must put out this fire. And so – but in each case, it’s not entirely a positive emotion, right?
Hanna: [00:18:27] But it has a positive outcome.
Norman: [00:18:29] It is. Yes.
SOURCES OF BUSINESS GUIDANCE FOR SERIAL ENTREPENEURS
Hanna: [00:18:30] Did you have an advisor or a mentor coach? I mean, your – your father apparently is a great role model but was there anybody else that helped guide you along your business journey?
Norman: [00:18:41] All the way along, there have been people who you look up to, you know, be it people you work with. And a lot of what it is is that, you know, they may not have been perfect business people, but they would have maybe taught you how to sell and somebody else would have taught you how to understand finance. Somebody else, you know, would have taught you the benefit of hard work.
I guess in my dad’s case, it was the benefit of hard work, but each person along the way teaches you a different thing, you know, like – and then when you – like when we floated our first company, the chairman of the company teaches you about corporate governance. No lesson is perfect, right, because you’re learning from flawed characters. But each one is filling up your – your store basically of capability along the way.
And then – and even now at 50, I’m learning a huge amount. Now, it might be learning of amazing engineers about engineering, you know, but in every aspect it is and it is you’re learning all the time.
And like an example from Richard Branson is, you know – well, Richard is flawed as well, needless to say but what I learned from Richard is that nothing is impossible and that if you say to Richard that “I don’t think this can be done in this way” or “I don’t think this can be done at all,” then he just dismisses that statement immediately and wants to move to why it is completely possible that it could be done, you know? And so each person teaches you either a small lesson or a big lesson.
And then the other aspect of that is when you screw up. And that lesson is also completely valuable, or if you decide to do business with a partner and then it doesn’t work, that in itself is painful, it’s also a very valuable lesson.
And I’ll give you an example in our mobility business is there seems to be in the automotive sector a high percentage of messy business people who don’t stick to their words, who promise a lot and underdeliver. And so what you learned from that is to be much more cautious in the mobility sector about who you partner with, because that sector is so sexy, it tends to attract a lot of messy people, and so then the lesson there is very valuable. It’s like let’s be cautious about who we partner with here, let’s make sure that a lot of the capability is in-house, so – whereas you don’t tend to see that in other sectors as much. So there is always a lesson to be learned.
Hanna: [00:21:38] I love that continuous learning aspect of leadership. I sometimes get the sense with certain business leaders that they feel they’re supposed to know it all and therefore they don’t need to learn because of their position or who they are. And so anyhow, it’s refreshing to hear that and I’ve – of all the lessons that you’ve absorbed over the years, is there one piece of business advice that stands out over the rest?
THE BUSINESS LESSONS OF LEARNING TO WALK ON HOT COALS
Norman: [00:22:04] Well, it’s very tricky in business advice because if you’re in a startup, the advice is different to if you’re the chief executive of a public company. But there are – there are three big pieces of advice that I always used.
When I was about 20 and my brother introduced me to the concept of walking on hot coals – and so that’s where you – you burn loads of timber, you create a bed of about 30 feet of burning hot coals and then you walk on them. And I got so involved in that but I eventually ended up teaching people how to walk on hot coals. There are three lessons in walking on hot coals, and they seem to be the three lessons that work well for business.
Number one is try and fill your mind all the time with happy thoughts. What does that mean? It means try not to hang around with people who are overly negative. And also, like they did a study recently and they found that pessimistic people are not successful but are percentage wise, are deeply unsuccessful. So hanging around with people who are more optimistic would seem to be a good idea, and whether that’s listening to podcasts like this or whatever it might be – so that’s the first one. And when you’re walking on hot coals, there’s no point in going to the beginning of the bed of hot coals and saying, “I’m going to burn. This is going to be really painful. What am I doing this for?” It would seem that that is not a – a good outlook to have and.
And then in on hot coals, it would be important to start at the beginning and go straight to the end. And so people talk a lot about having goals in business, but – and goals are important. But what people never talk about is that you have to have the courage to communicate those goals. So when you start a new business, you have to say we’re going to create a business that’s going to dominate this particular sector.
Now when you say that, the reason people don’t say that is because when Gandhi, the famous Indian prime minister talked about change and talked about ambition, he said, “First they mock – mock you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” But the first one of those is “First they mock you.” And what you find when you’re going to do something new in business is if you say a grand statement or a vision, or a goal, people mock you. And they say, “Well, you don’t have the skills to do that,” or “It’s going to be really tough,” or “What makes you think you can do that.”
But actually, having the courage to communicate your goal is about one in every 10 people will say, “Hey, I love that and I’m on your team,” right? Yes, maybe four or five people will mock you, but the one person who aligns with you is the most valuable. And so not only going from A to B, and they care about needing to go from A to B, but communicating that and having the courage to communicate that is critical. And then the final one is – am I allowed curse on your show?
Hanna: [00:25:18] [Laughter] If the spirit moves you, Norman.
Norman: [00:25:22] [Laughter] So the – the final one is keep fucking walking, right, because if you’re walking on hot coals, it would be a bad idea to stop halfway across and give up because you’ll just burn, right? And business is tough, right?
50 years old, even after selling businesses for three quarters of a $1 billion, we are up early, we are the last people working in the evening and we have very bad days, right? But we keep walking and that is what makes us different, and not just me, but the entire team, right? And if somebody wants to – we lose a lot of respect for somebody who gives up halfway through, right? It is – and people think it’s easy for me to say that because we’ve done well but actually, the reason we’ve done well is because we kept walking.
Hanna: [00:26:11] Never give up.
Norman: [00:26:12] Never give up.
Hanna: [00:26:13] Yep. One of the basketball coaches here, college basketball coach, that’s very famous but passed away some years ago, he would always say that, “Never give up, never give up.” So, marvelous, great advice, Norman.
I’ve really enjoyed this conversation with you. I really think that you’ve encapsulated a lot of what entrepreneurs want to achieve and I’m hoping that they get some lessons here from you that you’ve been able to share.
IT’S A WRAP
And if you’d like to contact Norman and learn more about his different businesses, you can find that information in the show notes for this episode on Business Confidential Now, and if you know any serial entrepreneurs or someone who would like to be one and could benefit from Norman’s advice, tell them about today’s episode, share the link to the show, leave a positive review on your podcast app or leave one over at lovethepodcast.com/businessconfidential so others can learn too and can bring their vision to the marketplace.
You’ve been listening to Business Confidential Now with Hanna Hasl-Kelchner, have a great day at an even better tomorrow.
Guest: Norman Crowley
He started his first business, a welding company, when he was just 16. The Cork, Ireland-based business had 8 employees within a year, with Norman selling it when he turned 20.
He then started a computer and internet business called Trinity Commerce, growing the company 170 employees by the time he was 28 and selling it for $21 million.
He then started Inspired Gaming Group (the world’s largest company in the server-based gaming domain), which was sold for $500 million; and Europe’s largest Wi-Fi hotspot provider, The Cloud, which was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB for $77 million in 2011.
In 2010, Norman founded energy efficiency company Crowley Carbon, feeling his next venture needed to be about more than making money. He wanted to set up a business that made a real difference in addressing the global climate change issue. The company is focused on reducing the energy that businesses consume by ensuring the heating and cooling in buildings operates efficiently. It employs 250 people across offices in 20 countries, and boasts an impressive client list which includes Owens Illinois, Glanbia, Johnson & Johnson and Intel. To date, the business has saved customers over $400 million in energy.
In 2019, he launched electric car company Electrifi, which creates world-class hypercars, by converting classic luxury cars (Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin) into high performance electric cars using Tesla components. Boasting a performance specification on par with a Formula 1 racing car, these electrified cars can hit speeds of 0 to 60mph in under 2 seconds and deliver a driving range of 600km. Not since DeLorean closed its doors in the 1980s has anyone attempted to bring back car manufacturing at scale to Ireland, but the entrepreneur who was born just a short distance from Henry Ford’s home place is not afraid of a challenge.
He also launched Crowley Solar in 2019, with the aim of increasing the amount of solar energy produced in Ireland by 50%. The firm has already completed a 6MW solar installation in the UK and is currently completing projects in Ghana, Mexico, Poland and Ireland.
Earlier this year he founded AVA. It is the first company to manufacture cars in Ireland of any scale in almost 40 years. The company is developing a “hyperclassic” – a new family of electric cars, with very high performance, but with styling inspired by some of the greats of motoring’s past.
Choosing to be part of the global climate solution instead of the problem, he is not afraid to call it as it is and identify those that are failing our planet or shirking their responsibility in making this required change.
It’s not all about business though for the entrepreneur. He set up The Cool Planet Experience which is a not for profit foundation launched in 2018 by Sir Richard Branson to create an exceptional educational experience that shows the fun side of environmental responsibility in a solution driven fun & interactive way.
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