Emma celebrated her lockdown birthday not with champagne and chocolates, but by chatting with Tony Crawley of VReptile International. If you’re looking for an exotic pet but don’t know your asps from your zebra-tailed lizards, then Tony’s your man. He’s behind the world’s first online expo for reptile owners, which runs from 27-28th of June.

24 fingers: Morning Tony, let’s kick off with what’s your favourite word?

Tony: It’s probably ironic that we’re in this Covid thing but holiday is my favourite word. I do love a holiday. 

24 fingers: Where’s your dream destination? What’s the first place you’ll be going after lockdown?

Tony: I’d like to go back to Costa Rica. I fell in love with Costa Rica. I could see myself retire somewhere like that. 

24 fingers: Next year, Rodney, next year. What gets you up in the morning?

Tony: Coffee. I can’t function without a cup of coffee. That and the drive to achieve the goals I’ve set in my life. Some have happened and some haven’t. But keep going, especially in this current climate. Focus on the positives and not the negatives. That gets you out of bed in a morning. 

24 fingers: What do you truly honestly think of social media?

Tony: I think like most people it’s got good and bad sides. I think the bad side is you can become addicted and with this current virtual expo that I’m doing, I’m forever checking. Even after I’ve gone to bed after half an hour trying to go to sleep, I’m picking it up, wondering if anyone else has looked at it. But equally, I think we’re seeing again in this current lockdown the benefits of social media are tremendous, even for – dare I say it – the older generation. My dad is using it more than ever now, before he wouldn’t even have a mobile phone but now he’s Facetiming and you can’t get him off it. 

24 fingers: My dad is using Facebook as well. Kindles or books?

Tony: Definitely a book. I spend too much time on a laptop or even a phone to be able to contemplate reading something in my leisure on a Kindle. 

24 fingers: What do you think is the biggest challenge to your industry is? I know you’ve got a lot of experience in a lot of different sectors. 

Tony: This is probably going to answer a lot of questions for a lot of people out there. The moment where we’re all at in business is the uncertainty. That’s what’s not frightening people but it’s that “what do we do next” in terms of our business. The biggest challenge around this Covid is how we’re going to come out of it. I guess we’re banking on our leaders around the world to try to get us back to some normality and try to give us the confidence, not just as business people but the general public. I was after a new three-piece suite before this happened. Do I still go and spend the money on buying that? Have I got a job next week? I think confidence and uncertainty are the biggest challenges at the moment. 

24 fingers: Rishi for next PM we say, and Brentwood Council, they way they’ve supported us as businesses has been tremendous. Who did you want to be when you were growing up?

Tony: I wanted to be working in conservation in forestry. I’ve always, from a very small age, like most young kids, went running across the field trying to find a mouse – I guess that’s where the reptiles came from. Conservation was always something I was passionate about, but let’s just say I wasn’t very good and in those days university wasn’t on the agenda. So I ended up going into – thanks to my father – I ended up getting a trade, so I became an electrician. But it wasn’t really something I enjoyed, I guess it was something you had to do in those days, at least I had a job and a career and a trade. 

24 fingers: It was different back then, you went into a job, you stayed there and if you didn’t like that job you’d go really quickly into another one. It’s very different these days. So, what led you to your current career?

Tony: As you probably know I’ve run companies and had my own companies, one of them being in the electrical industry, for many years. What I’ve enjoyed in the past five to six years is being my own boss. Not having to employ lots of people gives me the freedom to do multiple things, equally challenging things that I’m not relying potentially on others to fulfil.

What got me into VReptile, it was always on my agenda to do. People are more and more keeping exotic pets rather than your standard budgerigar. They’re keeping lizards and snakes  because they’re a lot easier to keep, but they weren’t getting necessarily the right advice. There were a few shows around that were long distances for people to travel. My idea behind the online event was to show people what sort of animals and equipment but also the expertise in looking after them and how easy they are to look after. The Covid thing has accelerated this business in that now’s the time, especially with social media, is for people to come along to the event in June. 

24 fingers: So out of a crisis has come an opportunity as well that you thought actually,now’s the time when you’ve been able to change and adapt quickly than if Covid hadn’t happened as it were?

Tony: Yes and I think that’s the same for everyone really, not just in business but in life. I think it’s changed a lot of people’s views, attitudes and we’ve all got to move on and it’s about grabbing those opportunities as they come up. 

24 fingers: Your favourite word was holiday. Can you use it in a sentence?

Tony: I look forward to international holidays and visiting new places. 

24 fingers: Can you make it rhyme?

Tony: Now that I really struggle with. 

24 fingers: Every day’s a holiday in Brentwood?

Tony: Yeah, there you go. 

24 fingers: What advice would you give your younger self?

Tony: I look back and I had opportunities to possibly buy my own house earlier and own more property. Going back I wish I’d invested more in property than I did. 

24 fingers: Bricks and mortar. What’s the best thing anyone’s ever done for you?

Tony: She’s sitting in the background. The best thing that ever happened to me was my wife Natasha agreeing to marry me. 

24 fingers: She’s wonderful. Can you tell us your career-defining moment?

Tony: I left school and became an apprentice and stayed with the business right through to become senior management. When I became chairman of that company and took it forward and made it into a nationwide company, that was my biggest career-defining achievement. I was very proud of what I did there. 

24 fingers: You should be. If you won a big award of some kind, who would you thank? 

Tony: Definitely my parents and Natasha, my wife for supporting me all through these times that I say “I’ve got another business idea”. 

24 fingers: Love it. You need someone like that. What’s the time saver of the day?

Tony: I really struggled with that one. 

24 fingers: Where do you see yourself in 24 months?

Tony: I’d like to think very successful with VReptile, which is going to be an event we run twice a year. I’m also out the back of that hopefully going to open up an online TV channel specialising in reptiles around the world. I’d like to think that in 24 months I’d be running my business from a beach anywhere in the world. 

24 fingers: Costa Rica. Where were you 24 months ago?

Tony: I was running a business that I started. It was an invention to put out fires. Needless to say I’ve started something else that’s an established business but it’s on hold because of Covid. I’m involved in two businesses: this one, VReptile but also a very clever product, basically it’s a paint that you can paint on surfaces and it won’t catch fire. Anything you paint it on won’t catch fire. Maybe we’ll have another podcast about it and we’ll show you some videos?

24 fingers: Definitely. Tell us, what’s an interesting fact about you that we won’t know? Any claims to fame?

Tony: I used to have hair. I was on TV once for a reptile show in the 1990s. I’ve kept under the radar since then. 

24 fingers: You’ve gone stealth. If you had a 24-minute Skype chat with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

Tony: Definitely Sir David Attenborough. For me he’s one of the biggest icons in conservation. 

24 fingers: What’s one word you’d like people to describe you with?

Tony: I hope honesty is the word. 

24 fingers: What’s your favourite social media campaign?

Tony: There’s various on Instagram and Facebook. I obviously follow you now. There are quite a few around the reptile industry that I follow because that’s my hobby/passion. 

24 fingers: What’s one quote that defines your work ethic?

Tony: 24/7. 

24 fingers: It’s all about the 24. What’s been the best part of your day?

Tony: Today? Looking forward to this. 

24 fingers: It never gets boring when people say that, we love it. Anything to plug?

Tony: VReptile. I’d love everyone to experience what we’re doing there. Please reach out if there’s any information you want other than that’s on the site, send me an email or Instagram on Facebook message. I’d love to hear people’s feedback and hopefully we do it right. 

24 fingers: We’re really looking forward to it – thanks again Tony for your time.