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We all enjoy a good adrenalin rush, but we don’t all make a multi-million dollar business out of it – Rebecca Spicer talks to the founders of Adrenalin, an adventure company started 15 years ago for a bit of fun. Though Phil James, Brett Kennedy and Brett Sheridan wear shorts and sometimes no shoes in the office, their success has gone way beyond casual.

Active ImageEver wondered what the coolest job in the world would be? Phil James and Brett Kennedy did, and went about creating it. The pair, along with co-director Brett Sheridan, spend their days introducing corporate and private groups to the world of Adrenalin—hot laps in a race car, bungy jumping, white water rafting, jet-boat riding, abseiling, to name a few—and of course running the back end of the business and managing its 25 staff at their office in Sydney’s Balmain. But it’s the adventure they love, and it allows them to do what they enjoy most and share it with others. As James says, "It’s a win–win–win."

Active ImageWhen I turn up for the interview at what appears to be an old warehouse on the water, I instantly feel the culture of a business that has a fun and relaxing atmosphere. Who wouldn’t enjoy working in an office that is so close to the water you feel like you’re floating on it? The business started in a boat shed, and James says it’s this cool, casual atmosphere they want to maintain. Consequently I feel overdressed in my corporate suit as I shake hands with James and Kennedy, both dressed in shorts and t-shirt. James says it’s even unusual for them to have shoes on. I laugh, but quickly realise he isn’t joking!

But life at Adrenalin, in and out of the office, isn’t for the faint-hearted. Upon induction, "crew" members are taken to do an intense adventure activity such as skydiving. "Once they’ve finished it, we say to them ‘forget that you’ve just done a skydive—the feeling you’ve got inside you now, that is what we sell’," explains James.

Kennedy looks tired and immediately apologises for responses that may seem garbled. He’s just returned from an intensive six-day adventure trip to New Zealand’s Queenstown. But our conversation is far from jumbled because if there’s one thing these guys are more passionate about than skydiving (James’ specialty) and rally car driving (Kennedy’s specialty), it’s their business.

The idea for Adrenalin was born several years before its actual inception. James and Kennedy were "shooting the shit" at the pub one night, chatting about what the ultimate job would be. "We knew if we were to have that job, we’d have to love what we were doing," recalls James.

After going their separate ways for a few years—Kennedy to run a ski shop, and James to dabble in everything from computing and foreign exchange to working on a fishing trawler and running a doughnut shop—the old friends met up again at the pub. It took about five minutes for the old conversation to start up, but this time they were serious.

"We both knew that if we were going to be able to earn the money to play with the toys that we wanted, we’d have no time for the toys," explains Kennedy. "So what we needed was a business that was built around the toys that we could then introduce to other people. That’s when we came up with the idea for Adrenalin." Not surprisingly, it only took about 30 seconds to come up with the name.

With a can-do attitude and a "why not?" philosophy, the boys thought they’d try their luck at launching the business. When I asked how they’d planned to go about doing that, they both laugh. There was no plan, or a very limited one. It was a one-page piece of scrap paper with a list of possible adventure activities on it. And surprisingly, despite the company’s success to date, it’s only been in the last year that they’ve considered a more strategic approach.

"We decided we’d try and target people who were looking for a holiday to be created for them, but wanted something that was more than laying on the beach," explains Kennedy.

Adrenalin launched with three adventure packages in Cairns, Sydney, and the Gold Coast. "We’d printed a lovely colour brochure, and mailed it out to people we knew, foreign exchange brokers, searched through the Yellow Pages, rang people up, got names," says James, admitting they had no real marketing plan either. It showed. They didn’t sell one adventure.

A stroke of luck saved the haphazard approach from being a waste. A major advertising agency had picked up one of the brochures and was putting together a promotion for Pepsi. They wanted to use a customised version of an Adrenalin adventure package as one of the prizes. "Not only did they pay us for the prizes but they put our branding on 25 million bottles, cans and packs, and on all the sales material, for nothing," says Kennedy, still shocked by the outcome.

That first job also gave the business some direction. "We immediately realised customisation was going to be an important part of what we did," says James. A couple of other companies asked them to arrange a day out for their clients, and other markets started opening up: client hospitality, promotional prizes, and staff training incentives and rewards. "Again, we had no plan, we knew we had a good idea, were absolutely determined to make it work, and we just pottered around until we found our way with it."

Adrenalin has been purely self-funded, and while James jokes about scrounging around in the couch to find as much loose change as possible to make ends meet, the pair admit they didn’t get into the game to be millionaires. "In some respects it was a lot easier for us because we were doing it for lifestyle, so we didn’t need to pull huge salaries out of it. As long as we were able to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves, and we were having fun, we were happy."

"And had some beer money," Kennedy quickly adds.

"In saying that, though, we also had big plans for the business, because we knew there was a big market for it," says James.

Operating as the package provider, a middleman, Adrenalin relies on teaming up with good quality adventure operators. Although they had some contacts from their experiences in the past, it was a challenge for the duo to find the right ones in the beginning, as well as some of those lesser-known activities, such as jet-boating, which wasn’t readily available 15 years ago. "People kept telling us we couldn’t get that sort of thing, but we just knew it had to exist. So we realised we’d have to investigate, and never take no for an answer," says James.

"There were times when things were quite difficult and we had to evaluate if we should keep doing it, or do it differently," admits Kennedy. "But we stuck at it. We knew it was a great idea, we knew we’d get there because there was plenty of demand, and that was probably as important to our success as the original idea."

Their perseverance paid off because business development ended up coming through potential clients and suppliers ringing them. They rarely had to do the cold sell, and with the occasional mail-out of brochures as well as word-of-mouth and repeat business, the boys were kept busy.

While admitting having key clients like Pepsi from day one has certainly helped business growth (they’ve also been commissioned by CBS to help develop adventures for TV’s The Amazing Race), Kennedy doesn’t believe this is why they’re winning business. "We’re winning the business because people who have done the events talk about them, and word gets out. That’s how it’s all come about."

A few years into it, they started getting inquiries from corporate clients who wanted to do the adventure activities on a more
casual basis on weekends. "So we realised there was obviously a retail market for people who just wanted to buy a one-off adventure," explains Kennedy. They hired more staff and both sides of the business took off. However, they soon realised that by working with the two separate business units, they’d need to brand them, but had no idea how. Then fate stepped in.

Within the space of a week, both James and Kennedy met Brett Sheridan on separate occasions. "I think you ignore signs like that at your peril," says James, of the bizarre coincidence. Sheridan was working with a creative agency at the time and agreed to work with Adrenalin on establishing a brand strategy.

Live Adrenalin was launched as the retail arm of the business, which now sells gift vouchers, adventure gear, and they’ve created an official network of adventure enthusiasts, A.365.

Corporate Adrenalin became the official name for the corporate servicing arm. Through this branding process, Sheridan got hooked on Adrenalin. "Going through the process of all this brand development, Brett decided he wanted to be a part of it," explains Kennedy. "Being a skydiver, surfer, skier, he fulfilled all that criteria naturally and then brought with him a whole lot of skills we didn’t possess, and it was a perfect fit." The three are now equal partners in the business.

"So this was another realisation for us," concedes James. "If you don’t have the skill-set yourself, you have to find it somehow and bring it in." This is what also led the company to hire a general manager late last year. "We were growing strongly, we got to the point where we had about 20 people onboard and we realised we didn’t know how to manage this number of people," James says. Until recently, Adrenalin staff never even had work titles. The partners wanted an even playing field without any labels attached, but on the advice of the GM they’re now formalising things.

"We also understood we were very hands-on in the business and we very much needed to lift ourselves out of the hands-on rolls." James’ role is mostly office-bound, now concentrating on business strategy rather than the day-to-day. Corporate Adrenalin is Sheridan’s main focus, and Kennedy still works closely with the adventure groups, so he travels the most, despite being the one with a young family. But he says doing something you love certainly helps with the challenge of achieving a work–life balance. "One of the reasons we started this is, we love doing this stuff, I love travelling, so I’ve ticked off two of my greatest passions every day at work."

Falling just short of world domination, with both sides of the business experiencing 100 percent growth for the last five years, Adrenalin has some grand plans for the future. The company is now officially exporting, having set up a small office in the UK to launch Adrenalin there. The next move is to set up shop in South East Asia—between the two existing markets—within the year, and Kennedy says there’s still plenty of opportunity to grow in Australia, with a goal to at least triple in size.

Having achieved multi-million dollar status, the boys no longer need to sift through the couch for loose change, but there’s one thing that will never change, their unwavering desire to experience adrenalin and share it with others. "Originally we got into this game because we thought it would be the ultimate job for ourselves, which was a bit selfish in some respects, but it didn’t take long to find that the real pleasure that came out of the job was introducing other people to Adrenalin, and the fun and excitement it creates," says James.

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