Entrepreneurs look to themselves – and invest in themselves
TO OFFER PROSPECTIVE entrepreneurs a whiff of what it is to be an entrepreneur, the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) hosted an eclectic panel composed of some of South Africa’s most articulate and successful entrepreneurs sharing their experiences.
They were: Ivan Epstein, CEO of leading software company Softline; Kevin Vermaak, founder of one of the world’s premier mountain bike races, the Cape Epic; Brent Townes, currently developing a new property auction platform; Dolly Mokgatle, co-founder of Peotona Group Holdings and an ex-businesswoman of the year; and Gideon Novick, joint CEO of low cost airline Kulula.
As they shared their experiences on the road to success, one thing became increasingly evident: there is no single model or formula for success, other than personal drive and leadership.
Softline was begun in the 1980s by Epstein with little more than the basic idea that companies had to computerise, but that there was a dearth of accounting packages, so they developed the first such locally developed package.
Vermaak’s Cape Epic is regularly sold out online within seconds when entries become available, with a huge proportion of foreign contestants. While his motivation was to have fun, the inspiration came from seeing the opportunity to deliver a world-class adventure experience better than he’d experienced anywhere else in the world.
“I’m still a small entrepreneur and love the fact of reporting to no one. It was my idea, I own the business 100% and I’m in charge of my own destiny – that’s the beauty of being an entrepreneur,” he said.
Mokgatle had a 21-year corporate career before venturing on her own, and said her motivation came out of hardship. She said that while many people claimed to start business with lofty ideals of changing the world, her belief was that people succeeded when they simply had to do so in order to survive.
Townes described himself as a serial entrepreneur. Having personally started a number of household-name property businesses, he was no longer a novice and described his motivation as being the desire to continually start something new.
“I have four business ventures on the boil at this moment, three being in the embryonic phase. These ideas emerge from a spirit of awareness and a readiness to seize the opportunities when I see them. Sometimes there are business opportunities that look so obvious you wonder why they were never done before,” he says.
Novick’s Kulula airline is now eight years old and well established. His advice to novice entrepreneurs is to always be inquisitive: the key to success at Kulula was to scour the world for the best ideas and knowledge and to borrow them unscrupulously.
Is starting a new business hard work? Within such a diverse group, views naturally differ. Townes sets a target for each day and does not go home until he meets the target, even if it means an 18-hour day. Epstein says work should never be hard: “I don’t need leisure time because my work is fun. I don’t do anything else.”
In the case of Vermaak, his business is a direct result of his search for adventure and he says attempts to ‘corporatise’ the business proved counterproductive. Efforts to convert the business into a major events management company resulted in more stress and effort than profit, and he found he could make more profit by focusing on innovations to the original idea.
However, it does require initiative and a desire to make things happen. Mokgatle said this was particularly vital within the black community where there was a danger of people settling into an entitlement culture in which they simply wait to receive what they perceive as their due.