Dare Jennings still doesn’t quite know how a self described radical, left-wing, university-drop-out, dole-bludging, comic-reading, pot-smoking, surfing, rock ‘n’ roll ratbag with a short attention span managed to turn a few ideas into globally successful businesses.
Jennings has built two hugely successful businesses during his career, Mambo and Deus Ex Machina.
Both emerged from challenging conventional wisdoms to create modern-day brands with dedicated followers.
Speaking in Sydney this month, his dedicated followers were piled into a room at the Museum of Contemporary Art on a freezing cold Tuesday night, hanging on Jennings’ every word.
Here are some of the lessons Jennings shared with the audience.
1. Don’t Listen To Everyone
Corporate culture can whittle away at a fantastically creative idea.
“The central tenet of this Mambo story, it would be to say, is it’s the story of the conflict between creativity, intuition and passion on one hand, and the massive weight of conventional wisdom and the compromise of corporate thinking on the other,” he said.
Jennings said the best businesses are ones where people have followed their passions and their intuition, where “money is almost an embarrassing by-product”.
2. Success Is Often A Matter Of Timing And Luck
The idea for Mambo came to Jennings when hitching a lift in an interstate semi truck down the Pacific Highway on Australia’s east coast.
It all started with a truckie wearing a “cool” Mac Truck t-shirt.
“I thought to myself if I made Mac Truck t-shirts I could sell them to this guy and others like him, and so from that humble thought my business career launched,” he said.
“Fast-forward 10 years and that thought had turned into a factory employing more than 100 people. It turns out I had got in at the beginning of the great t-shirt boom.”
Jennings had inadvertently become a cog within the Australian rag trade which in the 1980s was protected by huge tariffs.
“Overheads went through the roof, and I started to take on contract work to cover the volumes that I needed to stop from going broke,” he said. “Three shifts a day, scans of employees, banks, unions, the full disaster.”
3. You Can’t Always Choose What Defines You, But You Can Choose To Walk Away From It
Influenced by Hawaiian shirts and the way they represented the culture of the island, Jennings wanted to do the same in Australia, and Mambo’s crazy barbecue shirts were born.
“These shirts became very popular, extremely popular, and we were happy for the business but after a while they came to define who we were and you sort of need the courage to walk away from something like that,” he said. “Your hit products tend to define you.”
And while Mambo made a lot of money from its flamboyant shirts, the company silently shifted into the mainstream after they designed the athlete’s uniform for the Sydney 2000 Olympic games.
“I sold the company, I didn’t know what to do, I was 50, I was sort of retired I suppose but I still had too many ideas floating around in my head,” he said, explaining how Deus Ex Machina, which he describes as a “hobby business” that rules his life, was born.
4. There’s A Big Problem With Nostalgia
Combining the romantic era of old school motorcycling and surfing with a bit of new age cool is the backbone Deus Ex Machina, which translates from Latin roughly as “God from the machine”.
But despite the ancient origins Jennings attempts to keep his brand in the here and now with everything it dives into.
“You’ve got to be very careful of nostalgia because nostalgia is a dead idea,” he said. “We have to be very careful because sadly the business is associated with me and I’m old.”
Jennings said clearly defining the brand and what the company is about was very important from the beginning.
“There is a clear story there that always comes through,” he said.
5. If You’re Going To Do It All, Do It All Well
Deus Ex Machina makes bicycles, motorbikes, surfboards, clothes, hats, movies, food, art and books.
Everything the company churns out has an old-school vibe, and you get the feeling a lot of thought has gone into the creative process.
But Jennings said he subscribes to the hope and a wish mantra: “If you build it, they will come – won’t they?”
“It’s a philosophy and the philosophy manifests itself in many different ways,” Jennings said.
“That’s what attracts people to what we’re doing.”
His stores in Venice Beach, Milan, Sydney and Bali are all different, each absorbing a little bit of the local culture and energy.
The bikes in Milan Deus Ex Machina creates today are pared back and minimal.
“It was wonderful because everyone said ‘no, you can’t do that’, motorcycles and bicycles are two separate things, you can’t have them together,” Jennings said.
The surfboards in Bali are old school shapes created by young masters and the food in its inner west Sydney factory isn’t meat pies and soft drink – it’s good coffee and roasted duck breast.
“I find it really satisfying that people would come in expecting one thing and find another,” Jennings said.
“The worst thing you can do is go to another country and do what they’re doing already, because they’ll laugh at you.”
6. You Have To Take The Risk
If you don’t stand for something you won’t stand out at all, you’ve got to have a distinctive brand, philosophy or product.
“If you don’t take that risk then you’ll just end up with something that’s the same,” Jennings said. “Take the risk, you have to take the risk, and back yourself.”
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