With a goal in mind, the time frame to do it, and the accountability to make it happen, Jason Ellenport swims into rough waters and towards success.
Coming from a cold-water swim in the ocean, Jason Ellenport, one of the principals in the mergers and acquisitions advisory firm, Edison Partners, enthusiastically shared the story of his entrepreneurial journey. He looked relaxed, yet full of fervour, and right off the bat, he makes other people feel at ease conversing with him for the first time.
Jason spoke, “For me, entrepreneurship is about having a healthy mind as much as it is having a healthy business. I’ve benefitted enormously from doing things like meditation.” And a swim in the ocean early in the morning, which seems to be an arduous activity to start a day. It is because while being an entrepreneur can often look attractive and exciting, it is not really an easy path. According to Jason, it takes a lot of hard work and a long time at the wheel. You might find it daunting, but looking at the stark parallelism of the cold water and the ordeals of everyday living, you can pick a grain of wisdom behind his morning ritual.
“Doing these things that are a challenge outside of your business help you. If I can swim in the darkness in rough water, then I feel like I can handle anything that the day throws at me. So, it’s really about preparing yourself for the day. Whether it’s meditation, or yoga, or swimming, or going for a walk, I think getting up early and seizing the day is absolutely critical to success, and having a clear mind to be able to achieve success,” the business strategist added.
Waking up early is a habit he imbibed even at an early age. When he was eight years old, he already had small jobs and tiny business ventures. He used to get up at 4:30 a.m. to deliver papers, and then repeat this for the evening paper rounds. On Saturdays, he would be up at 6:00 a.m. and then jump the fence to the golf course to find golf balls, which he would wash and sell later to golfers who lost them. He laughed as he remembered the folly of it all but that was quite ingenious for an eight-year-old.
Growing up, Jason always had a job. “As a kid, I was always wanting to earn my own money and to be in control of my own fund, I guess, rather than being reliant upon pocket money or someone else’s generosity. I think I understood the link between hard work and freedom quite early in my life.”
However, he wanted more of that freedom where he is able to make his own choices, “rather than be obligated to work to somebody else’s clock,” as he puts it. After five years of being employed, he felt he didn’t want to work for anyone else ever again, so he set out to build his very first business while studying MBA at the Melbourne Business School, with his father as his partner. Still aiming for bigger things, the young, dynamic Jason went on towards going on his own, so it comes as no surprise that right after MBA, he raised some money from local investors to build a technology business with a colleague from MBA.
It was not an easy start, as he described themselves as “wet behind the ears and inexperienced”, making mistakes along the way. They were going around in circles rather than having a clear understanding of exactly what it was that they were trying to achieve. Being a little green was in itself already a hurdle that they had to overcome, and it didn’t help that Jason was struggling with the fear of failing. For him, this is what he considers as the scariest part while he was starting his own business. Never really failing on anything, it scared him that he might not actually succeed. In hindsight, he recognised he was reaching for really impossible stuff that was not quite achievable. Then, he also started doubting his abilities. If he would do it all over again, he would spend a lot less time worrying about things and a lot more time just getting stuff done.
They were hard lessons learned, but those strengthened him as a person and as an entrepreneur. The learning continued as he went on his business-building path, dipping his fingers across a range of different industries. For example, when he was starting out, he viewed things as black and white, until experience showed him that there are several shades of grey in various situations. “The more I learned, the more I realized what I didn’t know. But I think the simple things are probably the most important, such as creating the time to think, rather than just spending all the time doing.”
He found that the simplest things were the most effective, even in dealing with customers, such as engaging them rather than keeping them at arm’s length. “I’ve always learned the most by building very strong relationships with the customer and building a trusted advisor relationship with the customer,” said Jason. And then he learned to listen more.
Opening his ears to other people, bits of wisdom also trickled in. “I think the best advice that I had was simply that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Definitely, it is the best advice I’ve had, which is to be clear about what your objectives are, plan carefully, and it’s okay if the plan changes or if you don’t achieve the plan, but be deliberate in the way you plan for success.”
And it was truly towards success where he eventually turned out. Jason still vividly remembers that special day back in 2000 when they were the first to run an online reverse auction in the southern hemisphere. He and his business partner were the only ones in their tiny office, watching the auction happen on the internet. It was a tense moment, but when it was finished, they were doing lots of high fives, emphatic with their achievement. More successes came along, and after 10 years, they had the biggest cause for celebration and relief – being able to pay back their investors handsomely.
With all those frustrations, learnings and accomplishments accumulated in his memory vault, he now finds gratification in guiding those who are just in the starting line. “The reason why I’ve chosen to do this mergers and acquisitions (M&A) business now is that… all our customers these days are entrepreneurs. I think that’s something that I’m particularly enjoying, which is to be helping entrepreneurial businesses with the biggest events of their career: selling businesses; raising capital. It’s nice to be able to do that from a position of knowledge, rather than just be a transaction adviser who has never actually run an entrepreneurial business before.”
Helping others also extends to his other endeavours, such as EO Melbourne. Positioned in what he considers as the front door of the organisation, he finds it rewarding to see new members make it through the process, especially those who complete the EO Accelerator Program. He also found a good support group in EO, which he described “as a sounding board that I never really had before.”
It’s not just his entrepreneurial experience that puts a twinkle in his eyes though. He lights up whenever he talks about his family — his wife, Vicky, and his 10-year-old daughter, Cleo, who is the love of his life. But as quickly as the smile appeared on his face, a sombre look immediately replaced it when he mentioned about losing a person dear to him: Ben Cowen, founder of Edison Partners; who was his business partner and a great friend.
Cowen’s passing early this year reminded Jason of how things can quickly change. It also brought home the importance of spending more time with family and of enjoying each day in my life. His life purpose also shifted, wanting to experience more of what life can offer. Looking at the future, he sees himself spending a lot more time living through various encounters, a few years down the road. “I’d like to have a bit of mini-break and mini-retirement. I want to see a lot of different countries. I want to meet a lot of different people. I want to experience a lot of different things,” he quipped.
With Cowen’s death, Jason and his remaining partner in Edisons Partners, Shaf Dewani, realized they couldn’t do it all on their own. At present, they are building a team of fantastic, bright, young people with whom they have the pleasure of working with and learning from. He realised that businesses, in general, do a poor job in empowering these young minds that are often pigeon-holed and given limited control. Imagine a young Jason during his employed years, seating in his tiny cubicle, wanting to spread his wings, and you get the drift of where he’s coming from.
For Jason, “We probably are the opposite of the spectrum.” He recognises the need to support these emerging and soon-to-be business leaders. “A lot of what we are able to learn are from these young people. I guess the key lesson for me is to surround myself with great capability and get out of the way, basically, and let them do their magic. That’s a really important value within our business: to trust people to achieve excellent outcomes and support them wherever they need this for. We want to throw people into the deep.”
With such trust and confidence, you can picture thousands of young businessmen and entrepreneurs getting into the deep, braving the proverbial rough waters, and swimming in the ocean at the break of dawn, just as Jason does.
His bits of advice for startup entrepreneurs: “One, tap into experience because there’s a lot of people who have done similar things before, and most of those who have been very successful are very happy to share their experience. One of the curious things about entrepreneurship is that it seems you need to make the mistakes yourself in order to learn, and I think that’s a little bit silly. A lot of those mistakes should be avoidable by leveraging on the experience of others who’ve already trodden that path. The second thing I would say is: create the time to think, not just do. And then the third thing is: create specific goals over time frames and manage yourself to be accountable to those time frames, even if you don’t achieve what it is you’re planning to do.”
And going back to his daily habit, it is good to start the day early with a clear mind and make your way towards achieving success.