James Eling believes that having a vision, adhering to it, and working relentlessly towards it are the important parts of his entrepreneurial journey. He has established and now owns three businesses: Extreme Networks, 4x4earth.com, and Marketing4Restaurants. James works closely with his wife, Tina, in Extreme Networks while he devotes more time in Marketing4Restaurants.
“I couldn’t imagine not working with Tina. We’re exact opposites, but we have a very strong working relationship,” James declared. They met in nursing school, where James thought he would build his career. Interestingly, he started as a critical care nurse, before he made a big leap to IT, where most of his businesses currently belong.
The nursing field was a tiring profession, James admitted. He recalled the time when he was contemplating on changing careers and taking the entrepreneurial route, which was then an unknown territory to him. “I realised that a lot of people burn out from that job. I started looking around for something to do. I had a few friends who were working in IT, and it didn't sound that difficult. Based on all my naivety, I thought of starting an IT company, which I did in 1999.”
Having little idea of what he was doing, James felt that it shielded him from all of the pain and horror of running a business. Another factor that helped him as he began his first steps along the entrepreneurial path was his part-time job. “I was able to work on the weekends as an intensive care nurse. The money back then was quite good for that. So, I was able to earn a good salary, just working on Friday and Saturday nights. It meant that cash flow wasn't a huge issue in the early years of the business. Then we built it up from there,” he explained.
Back in the days, James would do everything that is needed do in the business. As he puts it, “I was the junior, mid-senior and only engineer in the company. So, I had to do everything, whether it was easy or hard. Most of the things back then were hard because I didn't know what I was doing. It was a very steep learning curve. But I made sure that I studied a lot so that I could build up the body of knowledge I needed to do the work required.”
The huge skills deficit that he had was one of the biggest challenges James faced when he was a newbie entrepreneur. But he thrived on continuous learning, and he placed it as one of the four key values that he applies in his businesses. The other three are communication, ownership, and fun.
Emphasising the first key value, which is learning, James spent a lot of time doing professional development. The first thing he did was to take an MBA course at the Mt. Eliza Business School. “They have a big focus on culture, organisational behaviour, and leadership. They always hold up the military as a good example of leadership training. Based on that, I joined the Army Reserve after, and I've been in the Army Reserve for 12 years,” James disclosed.
Being in the technology industry, one of the phone apps that he finds significant to his journey is the Podcast Player, which is a big part of his professional development. On his way to his office, he listens to podcasts during the morning on topics that interest him and can help him do his job better.
In his thirst for knowledge, he recently joined EO Melbourne, which he came across while reading books. The passionate entrepreneur proudly showed a copy of Verne Harnish’s book, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits, which EO has introduced to him. “It's very hard to find peers that you can openly share information and issues you encounter. That's what I'm looking forward with EO. All of my initial interactions show me that this is going to be a good solution for that,” he enthusiastically shared.
He recognises that there are various difficulties and hardships in running a business. He cited technology issues, profitability issues, product development issues, and people problems as among the many things he had to face. Although they grew Extreme Networks quickly in the initial stages of the business, they got stuck at the million-dollar mark revenue. “It was very hard to get past that. We spent a lot of time there. We had issues with culture and with my leadership. We spent a lot of time and effort in fixing the culture and for me becoming a better leader. That has created a much better company with more ability to execute. We've taken the gains from that, and we've used that to build the restaurant marketing business,” said James. But it was not also an easy start for Marketing4Restaurants because they were a small company, and they had to get people to accept their product.
Good people and good processes are factors James pointed out as vital to the success of his businesses. In his opinion, “If you've got these, then they will allow you to focus on the important parts of growing the business. So, we spend a lot of time making sure that we've got good people and good processes. It's always an ongoing battle, but we're getting there.” What they do is they take the processes and skills they learned in building a company and serve their customers in 17 countries where they currently have a presence.
They have achieved this feat because James is keen when it comes to goal-setting and writing them down. He finds it effective to see the progress of his works. That is why they have a monitor on their office wall to check their growth and headway on a daily basis. On the other hand, if he fails to do any of them, he could always come back and redouble his efforts to achieve his goals.
As he revisits his entrepreneurial journey, his biggest learning is around hiring people. They haven’t been good at it in the past, but they have strengthened their hiring procedures, enforcing high work standards, particularly in the first 12 months of their new employees. With that, James considers the team he has today as among his biggest wins. “We've got a good team that's passionate about a wide range of skills. It has enabled us to get to where we are today. Not only that, you can see the road is clear for the continually increasing rate of growth of the company, and I think that all of that comes down to the team. Probably, the biggest thing that I've done is work towards putting together the team that we need to help us achieve our goals over the next five years,” he remarked.
For James, an entrepreneur needs to be a good leader, an excellent communicator and a learner, with a vision for the business and passion for his work. He finds them fundamental, especially in his experience of managing three businesses all at the same time.
How does he remain remarkable amidst all the demands of running a business? “What I do is I switch between businesses or challenges, and that enables me to keep fresh. I never get tired of doing them because I’m always moving on to the next thing. I think variety is the spice of life,” the fervent entrepreneur revealed. And that is how James balances the various aspects of his life, keeps his businesses on top of the game, and makes himself and his journey outstanding.