Pieter G Interview with Dillon Jearey, founder and CEO of Kilowatt AV, which he founded in 2007. The company, based in Cape Town, provides high-end audio visual equipment and large scale event productions.
Dillon talks to us about taking risks, Shoshin, the value of horrible exes, tradeoffs, his rad mom and how rollercoasters are only fun on the way down…
Lets kick it off.
PG: Where did you grow up?
DJ: The amazing little town of Witbank. This is the kind of news you don’t share on a first date. In the early years, my dad travelled a lot to the US, which was tough on the family, and on my parents relationship. One day my mom gave him an ultimatum, and that’s when we moved to Port Elizabeth. So I had most of my schooling there, and in 1999 I moved to Cape Town.
PG: What was the no 1 business lesson you learned from your dad?
DJ: My father played a massive role in my life, and he has helped me learn many lessons. But if I look at his life, I wouldn’t want mine to play out in the same way.
PG: Ok… clarify?
DJ: In terms of the big stuff, my father modelled an absolute undying commitment to work. That’s what I really needed in the early stages of entrepreneurship – like him, just jump out of bed at 2am in the morning, go down to the office to sort out a problem or check if the alarm went off. Never switch off, always be fretting about customer problems. And all this being employed his whole life. He was never an entrepreneur. Very black and white, no grey areas with my dad.
So… in terms of right and wrong, morals, religion and many other traits, he helped me a lot. But as I’ve evolved as a human and as a businessman I’ve realized there’s more to life than just work. There’s more to understanding spirituality than just religion.
PG: I’m just smiling because it’s it resonates. I think not just for me but for a lot of people, you know.
DJ: Yep. And I suppose the biggest thing in life is that things are not black and white. There is no one wrong or right. There are only TRADEOFFS in life.
PG: Go deeper here?
DJ: Take the Chinese. To them, copying something well is a form of mastery. But in the West, that is often frowned upon and even seen as unethical. So which culture is right? I have done a lot of learning to understand that, for me, there is no special door to heaven or special prize at the end of life. Take work. If you have given everything for your job, if you have solved every customer complaint, if you habitually wake up on a Sunday night at 2 AM. Happy customers. But there is a trade-off. There is going to be a price to pay for that. Or choose to not solve that problem – there’s a trade-off. And as long as we know that that it’s grey, and it’s not black and white, and that at, either spectrum of that decision there is a trade-off. Then you know what you are getting yourself into.
PG: Ok, lets pivot a little bit. Was there a particular person somebody else that showed you a different way of being, other than your dad? Or was it organic, several people and things? Is there a person or event that you can pinpoint?
DJ: I think ego played a massive role in that. And how EO played a role in that, it has absolutely created this thirst for learning and personal development, something that I’ve never had before. I can’t pinpoint value sets to specific people, what I can say is that one of the best things that I’ve probably learned in my life is this concept of SHOSHIN.
Yes it’s Zen philosophy. It means to look at things through a beginner’s mind, or to have a beginner’s mind. So when you think about learning to play a new sport. When you go out and buy that mountain bike or golf clubs or race car… those first couple of days you’re just like a sponge. You are so excited to do it. You speak to everyone, your friend groups change, you are excited and speak about the hill, and how to stop better, etc.
And that is really the benefit of having a beginner’s mind – the more professional we become at things, whatever it may be, work, cycling, sport, family, being a husband being a wife, being a parent… you start to get to a point where you think you know everything.
SHOSHIN is this concept that you can learn from anyone: A parent that’s got an 18 year old child can learn from a parent that’s got a child that’s eight weeks old. As people, we discount where we can learn, and we close the funnel of learning opportunities so extensively because we think: What can I learn from an apprentice, or what can I learn from an intern? I’ve been in business for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, 50 years…
And so I suppose that, along the way, people impact me every single day, from people that are cleaners to baristas to professional people.
PG: Profound stuff this. What about your mom? Lessons from her?
DJ: Mom is an incredibly special human. I’ve never met anyone in my life that has as much love for people, or animals. And what made her even more special is that she’s unfazed and unmoved by everything that sits in the social space, so she never had to drive the right car or own the right handbag. None of that is ever important to her. She didn’t know who Graeme Smith was, she didn’t know who the captain of the Springbok rugby team was, she probably knew the president but I suppose that’s where it ended. She didn’t care what your title was. What she cared about was how you engaged in the community as a person? How did you treat other people? And so that is a massive value that I’ve learned from my mom. Material things don’t define you. And so she always had this saying: “It’s not having what you want, but wanting what you’ve got.”
PG: Wow that’s a great quote. Writing this down.
DJ: Ja, and if you can get to a place where, the things that you already have make you happy, then you will always be happy. But if your happiness is defined by the things that you want in life, you may never be happy. Because that will always change. Sheryl Crow wrote a song about this (Soak up the Sun)!
So that’s probably one of those things in my memory bank that has stuck with me. As I became more and more successful, and started to be able to buy the material things that I could never have as a child, I could quickly realized that there’s absolute truth in that, things did not make you happy. And so that’s allowed me to really minimize my life in so many areas. It’s such a core thing isn’t it.
PG: It is. How about this – any lessons you ignored for a long time, and only later in life embraced the learning?
DJ: I’m a complete outcast in my family. I mean I’m not an outcast. We’re very close, but I’m a risk taker and my family is not. I saw what I don’t want to have – I grew up in a household where my parents worked incredibly carefully with the money that they had.
So they never went into debt, never took any risks, never spent beyond their means. The trade-off with that was more limited experiences, when things broke the anger levels in the house were heightened, because you know how hard you had to work for stuff. And so in my mind the one lesson that I always get from my parents was: I don’t want to live a life that safe.
I want to take more risks. The trade-off is that at some point it could mean that I lose everything. And to answer your question as I’m getting older I’m starting to realize that that taking all those risks is not as fun as it used to be. Now that I’ve got children I’m starting to realize it’s getting harder and harder to take these risks. I’m still doing it. I still don’t want to live my parents life… but I’m starting to align with them. And I started to say hold on, I’m starting to understand why they did what they did. Saving hard and turning every penny is hard as well, but then you don’t have that risk of losing everything.
There are other ways that this game plays out. I’ve been thinking about this a lot at the moment: What if I could tell you that I could see into the future. You have a fork in the road, and two ways to go: The one road is you continue your business as it is at the moment, but you continually struggle to make ends meet. You live a good life. And you make a bit of profit but your business never really shoots the lights out.
But what a lot of entrepreneurs do so well is they keep their head above water, and one year you grow a little bit, in the next year you are down, in the next year you grow, in the next year you’re down… but you constantly keep trading. That’s one way it plays out.
What if I told you another way it plays out is that you lose everything now. And then what you learn from losing everything is a game changer. The next business you start means that you shoot the lights out. And the only thing that’s standing between you and the moon is having this business fail.
I’ve been thinking about a this a lot lately. We are in a business that we started many years ago as entrepreneurs, and we don’t have that egotistical maturity to deal with failure or stopping something and starting a new path. And that is potentially what’s keeps us from greatness.
PG: This resonates because I’m closing down the business that I built for 10 years… but its had its life and I am pivoting to a new business I have been building. There’s a lot of people in EO that are not in love with their business, but can’t get out. So it’s a common thing I think. Just kill this thing and move on to the next big thing, and take the ego out of it.
DJ: Now I must say, personally I’m not there yet. We have 60 full time staff and on average in South Africa there’s five dependents per staff member. Lots of people that are dependent on this business and that’s the question right? Its not just you, how does it affect your community. But… That same thing that’s standing between you and your greatness is true of people in the business. They are destined to greater things but they don’t have the power to break the cycle and to get out of their comfort zone. And so often I see businesses retrench people or businesses closing down, and that leads to people being forced out of their comfort zone and achieving greatness.
From an ego point of view I am not in a position where I can have that conversation yet, I’m not. You know, I am not in a position where I can go and say I’m ready to let this business fail. Some days I really want to, some days I feel like I can’t give anymore, and I can’t and I want to shut it down. But I can’t handle that from a maturity level yet, I can’t handle that failure. I am working on awareness, figuring out whether this business works or whether it doesn’t work but that it doesn’t define me.
You know, I have staff that work for me that are earning minimum wage and they’re happy. I have staff that work for me earning three times the average national salary and then… Happiness is a decision. Happiness is a practice. You practice being happy. And things or businesses that can contribute to that but they don’t define that.
PG: Last thing – three soundbites to end of? Lessons for your girls?
DJ: I have three philosophies, and one quote I will claim as my own. The first is that a conversation missed is an opportunity missed. And that ties in nicely with Shoshin. I should really be saying no to a lot more things, but I always said yes because that’s where opportunity comes from.
So it’s becoming harder and harder… the difference between spending time in a coffee shop meeting with someone or spending time with your kids. So you need to start becoming more aware with it and balancing it. I still live by this value as a motto, though.
The second is that every single person comes into your life for a reason whether it’s the worst ex girlfriend ever, whether it’s the worst business partner ever, whether it’s the worst friend ever. Whether it’s a client or whether it’s a staff member… if you have this chosen mindset, you will learn from every single person that comes into your life.
My last motto is that rollercoasters would be boring if they only went up. We stand in queues for hours to go on a roller coaster, but not for the going up. It’s for the going down when we think we’re going to die. This is where we really are having fun! And I think in business it’s like that as well, I’ve learnt this through forum presentations. You know… okay let’s look at your life how’s things going? How’s your relationship now? Great. How’s your business? My business is great. How’s cash flow? No. Cash flow is great. Is your business growing? Yes it’s great. But I just feel lost. I don’t feel connected. I don’t feel like I’m adding value now.
Then a couple of months later someone else will have a talk and they’ll be like I feel so alive. I feel so… you know I feel so motivated I’m so connected to my business I’m… you know really adding value! And you ask: how’s business? No shit. It’s shit. How are the cash flow issues. No it’s terrible. We’re probably going to have another two months like this we’re going to close down and that’s when the roller coaster is going down and when you look back now those are the times that you realize you were actually having the most fun.
And so you know, whenever I’m in that downtime I try and remind myself: This is where I’m learning, this is what’s shaping the other person as a person.
PG: Anything else to add? We’re almost done.
DJ: I love technology and I love the future, and I’m very much aware that what got us here will not get us where we want to go. You know what got us in terms of education, in terms of thinking, in terms of acting. Our children are going to live in a fundamentally different world. And so for me the pressure placed on my kids to perform academically… like I try not to do that, I try and see other things.
I want them to know that happiness is a decision that you make. I want to create an environment where they feel they can always speak to me no matter what it is, and to explore. Curiosity, self-awareness, happiness. That’s what I wish for them.
Dillon is a loving husband to Frances, a doting dad to his three young girls and a fitness enthusiast, with his last significant feat being completing the Ironman 70.3 in Mallorca.
He is also a petrolhead, techie, insomniac, book enthusiast, active in the Entrepreneurs Organization (EO) Global Network.
Pieter G is an aspiring writer, a great dancer and a highly proficient nappy changer.