Entrepreneurship is often misconceived as someone making a splash in a new industry on the back of a business idea, but it is important to remember that differing definitions exist. Entrepreneurship is also evident in someone taking their skills and experience within an industry and using it to bring an existing business to life, and that is exactly what Ashley Howden has done. As the CEO for software and technology quality providers KJR Australia, he has taken 20 years worth of experience in digital and media businesses and used it to redefine the company’s vision and capabilities for the future.
Ashley has co-founded a number of companies through which he was able to develop his knowledge of the industry, yet he came in to take over KJR when the company was already established, albeit still in its infancy. He took that opportunity to test himself and found that he had a unique opportunity to set the tone of the business for the future, as well as making the most of the new innovations available to him.
“For KJR, as a more mature company, it was really about re-setting a vision for our next event horizon and challenging the norms of the existing business to embrace some start-up methodologies and culture,” he said.
“The company has been trading for nearly 20 years, so it’s been around for pretty much the entire tenure of the consumer internet and enterprise web. It’s a fantastic platform to continue to grow the company’s presence and market share.”
Nothing worth having ever comes easy, however, and Ashley admits that the presentation of this fantastic opportunity to lead the company in a new direction was also the greatest challenge he faced after he was appointed as CEO. Struggling to impose a new vision on a company reminded him of how valuable it is to surround oneself with people on the same wavelength.
“The greatest challenge for us was to reinvigorate the culture – this takes time and you need to be able to communicate the vision you have in multiple ways for multiple audiences. You need to balance retaining your faith in the vision you have even when it seems difficult or even impossible and having the humility to admit you’ve gone a little off-piste and need to course-correct,” he says.
“It’s essential to surround yourself with a great team and continually strive to keep them aligned to each other and to the vision.”
From moving to England at the age of 25 to pursue business opportunities to his current work, Ashley has always been a self-starter in terms of his approach to business and his motivations. He believes that CEOs should take as active a role in their companies as possible and uses his inner drive to practice what he preaches. This approach means he gets even more satisfaction from the success he has enjoyed, but also relishes seeing his associates being rewarded.
“I’ve always been pretty much self-motivated. I don’t know a senior executive or business owner who isn’t. Drawing on other people for wisdom and, at times, support is priceless, but no one can do it for you. It’s up to you to motivate yourself, lead, and nurture your team, and focus on getting your company to that next milestone on the way to achieving the vision you have in mind,” he says.
“We’re seeing our company grow as we meet our clients’ needs, but ultimately it’s just so satisfying seeing our consultants able to be recognised for their talents and dedication and seeing their prowess celebrated in the market.”
Despite a wealth of experience, Ashley is still aware that mistakes and setbacks are part and parcel of how all businesses work, and is more accepting of that fact today than maybe he was before. He likes to push the boundaries and does not settle for good when he can have great, but now finds himself balancing that instinct with a reminder that he cannot do everything at once.
“I wish I’d learned to be more forgiving of myself earlier. I, probably like a lot of entrepreneurs or senior executives, have the perennial problem of never being satisfied with the status quo; it’s always ‘What’s next?’ or ‘How can we do better at this?’. Over the years, I’ve used that constructively as ‘ambition’ and motivation to drive change but there are also times when I’ve been too self-critical,” he says.
“Learning, over time, to balance the agitation for change against the successes to date has helped me, personally, to be more level. I wish I’d learnt that earlier.”
However, it is important that it is that relentless pursuit of success that has allowed Ashley Howden to be where he is today. After fronting several businesses of his own, it would be understandable for him to settle for following that path for the rest of his career. Instead, he took on the challenge of revolutionising KJR, and has found himself more than equal to the challenge. Having just been named among Australian Anthill’s Top 100 Coolest Companies in Australia, KJR has flourished under Ashley’s leadership and, with further growth and future international expansion already under discussion, there is no sign of a deviation from their current upward trajectory.
Favourite quote: “If they’re shooting at you, you know you’re doing something right.” (From TV show The West Wing)
Recommended book: “It sounds perverse considering its title, but a recent read of mine that I found inspiring in terms of insights into prioritizing what you should actually care about is Mark Manson’s ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*CK’.”
Recommended TED talks: “Simon Sinek is hard to go past. Also Dan Pink.”