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How to have a self-made career as a serial entrepreneur – Dr. John Teeling

How to have a self-made career as a serial entrepreneur – Dr. John Teeling

Dr. John Teeling – Serial Entrepreneur – Explorer – Distiller

Dr. John Teeling - Serial Entrepreneur

Career Profile

John Teeling has half a century’s experience in building, growing and investing in businesses. Apparently, those who can do, those who can’t, teach. John has done both at an exceptionally high standard as he was a lecturer in Business Administration at University College Dublin prior to his entrepreneurial career.

Since then, he has established a number of exploration and resource companies in addition to renowned distilleries including Cooley and Great Northern Distillery. He sold Cooley Distillery to Jim Beam for more than €70m in 2011. John is considered by many to be the ‘Father of the Irish whiskey renaissance’.

John is very down to earth despite his lifetime of achievements including a tremendously successful business sale. His passion and energy are inspirational. His habit of extensive reading and research unearths opportunities he is well poised to pursue.

Self Makers was lucky enough to chat to John about his journey to self-made success. Here he shares his top tips that have helped him along the way.

Prepare for uncertainty

“My ability is that I can handle uncertainty well. You know, there’s a difference between uncertainty and risk. So if you don’t want strange things to happen to you, then you don’t go into business. Now I’m good at handling that, and I’m also blessed which I think is very important. I’m blessed with good energy. When you set up a venture, you have to be able to adapt when things go wrong and change. You must have energy to change when it goes wrong.

Very few plans survive. I think that some famous general said the best laid battle strategy does not survive the first engagement, and that’s very true. There is no doubt that serendipity plays a part, good things happen sometimes. They really do.”

Be resilient

“I think the job of a business creator is quite a lonely job. Lonely is a horrible word but it’s a unitary job. It’s yours and you have to be happy with it. You might wake up at four o’clock in the morning and say ‘why in God’s name did I do that?’. Every single person is going to say that. But you have to be able to handle that.”

There will be both good and bad times

“It’s a very good lifestyle, though it can be stressful. Having your own venture and controlling it yourself is satisfying – even the very bad times are good. Four o’clock in the morning becomes half eight or nine o’clock. To my sons, I said “fellas you should enjoy these bad days. It’s a hell of a lot better than sitting in the office talking about figures.

I think you have to go to war when things have gone wrong, when you’re called to the barricades. Now you might prefer a little less of it, but I actually think for Jack and Stephen, these two years will be the making of them. They sink or swim, and they won’t sink, they’ll swim.”

Make the most of resources

“To me, setting up a business is your idea that you believe in and you have to persuade others. The ability to get the resources, it’s not just the money. Can you get the technical skills you want? Can you beg, borrow or steal the ten dollars if you have to get it? I know nothing about whisky because I don’t drink it, but I was able to get somebody who was a chemical engineer from the states. As for the mining ventures, I’m not an engineer, I’m a money man. I’m not a geologist, so I was able to get unemployed geologists who were really world class.”

It’s never too late

“You get the odd very strange person who’s 18 and who can do all the things – we all hear about them. But in fact Jeff Bezos, who’s the best of them all now, was probably in his thirties. Elon Musk was probably in his thirties too before he set up Tesla. So experience is not a bad thing to get because you get a bit more self confidence. Before the big ventures, I was probably in my late thirties.”


“I always loved to read thank God. You have to be open to ideas. I’m a voracious acquirer of knowledge. I read three newspapers in the morning from 6-8am and read a lot of business magazines like The Economist and Business Week. I wouldn’t really read a lot of business books, I’m not into that but in terms of the ideas I would just gather as much information as I can.”

Get to know your numbers

“I’m a numbers man. I still like the numbers. We were doing something this morning – literally talking about a joint venture, and three of us were all numbers men. We were just looking at what we would get, what would be there at the end. You do it with a pen and paper and a single page. The numbers can be simple. Don’t make it too complex.

You need to be able to read a balance sheet. I really think you do need that. You don’t need to have advanced training like an accountant. You don’t need to be able to do sensitivity analysis and all but I think it’s no harm to know the difference between various items on a balance sheet. No harm to understand cash flow – simple things like working capital. Whether you’re looking at 18 months, 2 years, 2 and a half years, you have to understand how you can manage your cash.”

Be curious about the future and get out there

“I read a lot of reports on different industries. I’m a great believer in trying to see what’s out there and in 10, 15, 20 years time. I like futurology and I like looking at when megatrends are going to happen.

I’m a very strong believer that business academics need to be practitioners – like lawyers and doctors. You can learn everything you like, but you’ve got to learn out of the trenches. I’m afraid maybe now they don’t do that.

John did what needed to be done, even if it did not come naturally to him. “I don’t socialise much or join things as I tend to be a bit of a loner. However, I was a founding member of the Irish Whiskey Association and the MBA Association of Ireland.”

What about you?

John’s scale and variety of successes are inspiring to say the least. See his latest work on GND Ireland.

Are you feeling motivated to make big changes in your career? Get in touch with Self Makers today!

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