A bite of chilli can produce a burning sensation to the digestive system. It’s like the passion that was burning within Andy Galbally, Chilli Promotions Director, that led him to his present journey. Fired up by his fascination for art and design in the advertising world, Andy trodded the path he wanted to take that paved the way towards his exciting roller-coaster entrepreneurial ride.
As young as 15 years old, Andy already had his eyes fixed on advertising, to the point that he had to persuade his parents to move him from a private school to a technical school, where he could do art and design. His uncle also worked in the industry, which further motivated him to pursue his dream.
He was so gung-ho about it that he spent his school holidays working in an advertising agency. “Throughout the last three years of school, I was told by the agency where I worked that when I finish school, I could get a job. Except when I finished school, it was the 1989 stock market crash,” divulged Andy.
What seemed to be within reach suddenly collapsed, along with the stock market. With no available position in the advertising industry, Andy did other odd jobs, such as gardening, lawn mowing, house painting, and window cleaning. “I just kept my ear out for any opportunities that could potentially get me into advertising. And in late 1989, I was given the opportunity to work at an ad agency for six months for no pay,” he narrated. Starting from the bottom of the organisation, he did everything he was asked to do, including operating a bromide camera.
Within the next four-and-a-half years, he worked his way up to become a Production Manager for that company. At that time, Andy would purchase promotional products, take them apart, then assess their construction. “A lot of clients that we worked for in these agencies, fortunately, gave me the opportunity to produce a lot of this merchandise,” Andy quipped. That was probably the seed that planted him in the industry where his business currently belongs.
Things were looking up at him as he was offered a position in one of the biggest agencies in Australia, which doubled his wage. It also gave him the opportunity to work with big clients and produce a lot of merchandise for the advertising and marketing campaigns. However, a few years after, he was made redundant with 70 other people. “I ended up getting three redundancies in three years. And two of those redundancies were in two months. It was a big shock,” revealed Andy.
It was a discouraging time for him. His figurative entrepreneurial roller-coaster cart was on a descent, so he ended up taking time off from work. He renovated his house and sold it to go backpacking around Europe for six months. As he returned, he got a job at another agency. But he wasn’t enjoying it, plus he got another redundancy after a year, a few months after the 9/11 tragedy. Without any work, and with $50,000 debt, he was hitting a blank wall in his career.
Little did he know that it was going to be a turning point in his life. “I was having a coffee with an old friend and told him how I thought the world was coming to an end after 9/11. Then, I also had all this debt. I truly loved the promotional industry, but I couldn't get a job, and couldn't go back into advertising. He said, ‘go and start your own business.' And so, with a bit of blind optimism, I ended up starting Chili Promotions,” he shared.
That wasn’t supposed to be the name of his venture. As he was mulling over it, a eureka moment came. Here’s the backstory, according to Andy, “I was trying to think of a business name. At that time, Harry Potter was really big. I was almost going to call it Wizard Promotions, except I was sweating over this bowl of chicken pho with heaps of chilli. Then the lightbulb moment came to me. I realised that when we eat chilli, it heightens our senses and promotes awareness. Promotional products are supposed to heighten your senses and promote awareness.”
For the first year and a half of the business, which he started from a lounge room, Andy did almost everything by himself. It was a very low-cost based business model, as he described it. “It was a challenge from day one, particularly back when the 9/11 incident happened. But when you're that far in debt, you only have one way forward, which is to keep on going. I've always been a persistent person. Also, fortunate enough for me, I had contacts in advertising that gave me work. With that, I was able to start a profitable business very quickly.”
From a lounge room, he then moved his agency to an office and then to another office showroom area within one year. Even though the economic environment wasn’t very positive, he still grew his business at 45% year-on-year on average for the first seven years.
They were growing so fast that all Andy was worried about was sales. But the money was going somewhere, so he raised the issue with his accountants, who said they’d looked into it but couldn’t find anything. “I knew it was, though.” He went through his books and uncovered that his bookkeeper was embezzling money from the company. “It nearly killed the business probably six or seven times over a year or two after that happened because we had no money to pay suppliers. A lot of them lost faith. It was a real struggle. So, that's probably one of the biggest challenges that I was hit with, which was my bookkeeper stealing money,” Andy conveyed.
A few years after, the business was able to turn around. Economic conditions were good. Andy was optimistic. Suddenly, the global financial crisis happened. Still, he was able to recover and thrive.
Persistence, courage and discipline were qualities that helped Andy go through those ups and downs. He also got some help from being part of EO Melbourne when he participated in an entrepreneurial master’s program in Boston. He spent a week a year on campus for three years and gained big learnings and key take-outs that helped him advance his business. “I took home and implemented some cool tools for the business. One of those was implementing core values and culture. Another important one of many was performance management and measurement systems. So, there was a lot of learnings or lessons and key take-outs through that program as well as through EO’s experience-sharing within the forum.”
It surely provided a boost to his enterprise. In 2014, they opened an office in Sydney. But the journey through peaks and troughs didn’t end there. During recent years, they experienced another downturn that sent Andy hours away from losing everything. “I had to ring my wife and tell her that we were facing that, and that hurt the most,” he sombrely said.
Despite the lows, Andy is still on this exciting ride because he’s passionate about what he does. “I still love the industry, as challenging and tough as it has been. I love working with the clients. I love developing new opportunities with new clients,” he quickly iterated. That passion led him to open two new businesses. One is Chilli Go Green, which offers sustainable bag solutions for retailers. Another venture, which is still in its startup phase, is My Promo, an online-only promotional product company that services small to medium-sized businesses. The latter provides him with a platform to apply what he learned from his experiences with his older businesses.
“Because we're starting this online business, called My Promo, we have the opportunity not to make the same mistake twice. In Chilli Promotions, we have way too many systems and too many people handling one job lifecycle. We're in the process of having a seamless technology platform that will provide us with the measurability, visibility and accountability systems. That’s my overarching goal for this new business,” Andy shared.
Andy has a goal in mind for the future. But he wants to be as flexible as he can to be able to adapt to the changes in the business environment. “The journey in the most recent years and the challenges that we faced, we didn't see them coming. They came very quick within six to twelve months. I always like to have a vision of where I want to go, but I know that the road or the movie plot is forever changing. As humans, we're on this earth to grow and develop our skills. We do that by adapting to those challenges. When we fall over, we pick ourselves up again and move on,” he explained.
From the time he started his entrepreneurial journey, Andy has gone a long way. “When I first started, I was so naïve that I didn't know where I was going. I was on this journey that was very exciting. It was so unknown but felt so right. Things just seemed to fall into place,” he said in retrospect. As he matured as a business owner, Andy also had a lot of wins, such as winning international awards in their industry.
He still loves adding chilli to his food. The passion he has for the industry continues to fire him up to keep going through the peaks and valleys of his entrepreneurial ride. He is even more eager now, especially that he has a new business in the works. “Do you know the Goldilocks story? So, Chilli Promotions has been around for 16 years, which is almost like the papa bear. Chilli Go Green has been operating since 2009, and almost like the mama bear. And My Promo is only in start-up mode, or we call it the baby bear. Hopefully, with those three, we can have a Goldilocks scenario,” he enthusiastically declared.