Home Interviews Jon Tilley of ZonGuru: How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur

Jon Tilley of ZonGuru: How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur

by Christina Gvaliant
Jon Tilley of ZonGuru: How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur

Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur  we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Tilley.

Jon Tilley is a successful entrepreneur & Amazon thought leader. After 15 years working as an account director & strategist for some of the top global digital agencies, Jon started his Amazon journey in 2014, launching multiple successful private label brands. Soon after, he launched ZonGuru, an all-in-one software toolset for Amazon Private Label Sellers. The company continues to develop tools ahead of the market and uses data-driven techniques to help its customers create and run successful Private Label businesses on Amazon.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Jon Tilley: Thanks! I currently live in Los Angeles, CA (coming at you straight out of my Garage, old school start-up mode style during the pandemic!). I am originally from Johannesburg, South Africa. I spent the first 22 years in Joburg before moving to London, where I lived a while. I’ve been living in LA for the last 14 years.

My main 9–5 career was as an Account Director for some of the top Ad Agencies in South Africa, London, and Los Angeles. A successful career on the outside, but a frustrated “non-starter entrepreneur” on the inside!

After numerous years of dreaming about making the leap to entrepreneurship, it took a by-chance run-in with an Amazon conference in Vegas for the spark of an idea to ignite.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Jon Tilley: I think the best Aha moment for me was the start of the idea around my Amazon business. I stumbled into a Las Vegas conference in 2013 and the penny dropped. I had a clear vision on how I could create my very own product brand that could be sold through the Amazon e-commerce platform. It was clear to me that this was my chance where I could create a business selling products (not time) and that I could create it in parallel to me keeping my current 9–5 job.

A year later, I fired myself from the agency as I was comfortable with the revenue I was generating from my Amazon business. Once I was fully focused on Amazon, the lack of data and software sparked this idea of creating data solutions for Amazon sellers. My business partner and I understood that the “Amazon wave” was not going to disappear and if we could get a business going to service this explosive industry, we would be in for a dynamic and interesting few years, growing a successful SaaS business.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

Jon Tilley: I am not sure if it is natural or not, but my leadership skills started at a young age through team sports. There is no doubt in my mind that leadership is a practiced skill and participation in a team sport at a young age will have a massive impact on your leadership style and skill level later on in your business career life.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Jon Tilley: Yes, my good friend and business partner Adam Hudson. Adam is a person I would call “a serial entrepreneur”. It is what he has done all his life, he has honed his skill and he is incredible at seeing the opportunity, and most importantly executing on the idea. This is a critical skill in entrepreneurship — Taking action on your idea in a timely manner. This is what Adam helped me with immensely as I moved into both my Amazon product business and our software business. Without action, you may as well not have had the idea at all! I remember how fast Adam moved on the action aspect. One week we would have an idea, the next week I would still be thinking about it, and we would meet up to share thoughts, and he would already have an MVP built. This was a key skill I had to improve, and I have.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Jon Tilley: I believe so much in the idea that everyone deserves financial freedom and building an Amazon business is one of the best ways to do that. It is far more impactful on achieving true financial wealth than most other businesses because its scalability is awesome. You are selling products vs. your time.

From the outset of starting ZonGuru, I have encouraged and incentivized our team to sell products on Amazon. Whether you are in CS, Product, marketing, or engineering, I’ll give anyone who starts a business a cash loan towards their first inventory stock purchase. Over time, this has helped us truly stand out as being a software toolset created by Amazon Sellers for Amazon Sellers. We stand behind it, and you can see this uniqueness in the type of data we showcase and how we visualize it to be relevant for Amazon Seller Decision making.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Jon Tilley: 

Number 1 is curiosity. We have a saying “Curiosity creates….” That’s it. Short, simple, and sweet. Without having a genuine curiosity to want to answer all the “why’s”, you’ll create a mediocre product at best. Or for that matter a mediocre lifestyle.

Number 2: I can best describe it as a “hunger for fear”. I see fear as the universe telling me that I need to do that. On the other side are learning and joy. This wasn’t innate but is something I have learned and am still learning.

Number 3: To be humble but shine when it’s your turn. When your peers want and need you to shine, you need to accept it and embrace it and not deflect it. This is an important leadership characteristic.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Jon Tilley: Every good idea needs a good business plan. That’s frankly bullshit. Having a vision is important and an understanding of steps you need to take. But creating a fully fleshed-out business plan can be just one more obstacle that creates procrastination.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

Jon Tilley: Have a vision, set standards, and recruit a team that can align with these.

Set quarterly and monthly slingshot goals that the team constantly reviews and aligns on. Keep these simple and focused on the most impactful projects that can move the needle.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

Jon Tilley: Focus on delivering value and focus less on trying to maximize your revenue and profits. If you deliver on your value propositions with an awesome product and a caring team, you will grow.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

Jon Tilley: Marketing is hard. There is a lot to cut through in today’s world. If you can truly deliver with your product, the brand evangelist will help to spread the word.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Jon Tilley: Not tracking the right data within your business to help you make decisions. Marketing channels, customer behavior, trigger and engagement points, revenue, and profit metrics. We have all the software and systems today to have these readily available and transparently displayed to you and you team. Set this up from the beginning so you can have confidence in the decisions you make.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

Jon Tilley: I think we experience some amazing highs and definitely some massive lows. Perhaps one fault in our characteristics as entrepreneurs is sometimes we don’t take the time to celebrate the wins, and we are quick to move on and focus on the next achievement and the next goal. I fall into this category, although I’m getting better at taking the time to celebrate the wins with the team. Internally though, my highs are slow-burning and they come from reflecting back on how far we have come, and how much we have grown, and how different things are now than they were a year or two ago. It’s an amazing feeling of achievement and self-worth.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Jon Tilley: Nothing makes you feel more vulnerable when your product does not stand up to what you say it should do.

This happened to us in the first year when we just didn’t have the right engineering team to build a quality, scalable product. All our time was spent fixing bugs after bugs that seemed to grow as our customer base grew. It simply wasn’t scalable, and we didn’t have a team that truly understood our target audience.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

Jon Tilley: I found our CTO and current partner Stefan Ratchev. We built a new team of engineers and our world changed. We can now truly stand behind our product, challenges, and marketing problems rather than product problems. A good place to be! We hardly ever have bugs, and we have the highest NPS rating in the industry.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Jon Tilley: 
  1. Be an optimist. The saying goes: Life is meaningless until you give it meaning. I stand behind this and with every impactful occurrence in your life, you can choose a positive or a negative meaning. I recognize the negative but I always choose the positive.
  2. Have a vision. Have a plan. This helps to ground my reactions when things go wrong. It’s a glitch in the path on the road to the vision!
  3. Be grateful. Be humble. Be supportive. And always praise your team for the wins. It has a massive impact on how you feel and live your life.
  4. Make decisions and keep momentum. As the saying goes, what’s worse than the wrong decisions is no decision at all. Momentum is a true gift that helps you to navigate any challenge or project.
  5. Find your partner. Your business partner, your mentors, your life partner, your friends. All of these “partners” are the emotional support system that keeps you together and holds you true and pushes you to new heights. It’s critical to your success and your emotional well-being.
  6. Bonus: It’s not all work. Find play. Your hobbies and sports and fun times are so important outside of work.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Jon Tilley: Resilience is finding meaning within yourself and beyond yourself. If you feel good within yourself, and you have many people around you who depend on you, you will get through anything and everything!

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

Jon Tilley: Sports. I grew up playing Rugby. It’s a game of grit, determination, fearlessness, and competitive strategy. The goal is to push through the battle with your team, fight the good fight, and come out on top. True resilience!

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

Jon Tilley: I mentioned it earlier. I stand behind the phrase: Life is meaningless until you give it meaning. In any major life event, I always ask this question, and I choose the positive meaning. Always!

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

Jon Tilley: Positive energy is of course a great motivator. But I think it is important to always recognize any negative aspects in a given situation. After recognition, explain the way forward to a positive outcome and let the team take action. The more I do this as a leader, the more this is instilled in our team members. It is great to see. Examples of this happen every day in our standups as we reflect on the day before and take action to further impact a positive outcome.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

Jon Tilley: Another I love: “Whatever you do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

As you can see it’s about being curious, dreaming big, and taking action! I love it.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Jon Tilley: They can follow me on Linkedin: @jtilley. ZonGuru’s Instaram : @zonguru is also great if they want to get a better insight into how to sell on Amazon.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with
this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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