Mayhem, Microsoft and Milestones for Entrepreneurs
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Mayhem, Microsoft and Milestones for Entrepreneurs

Allow me to paint a little scenario that I believe characterizes the kind of the world we live in today.

It is a time of great political and socio-economic uncertainty. There is an onslaught on civil liberties. People of colour are marginalized and discriminated against, socially and economically. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is less a gap and more a gaping, bottomless chasm. Unemployment is skyrocketing, along with inflation. Economic growth is non-existent. Urban decay, crime and drug abuse are rampant, with the entire fabric of society seemingly on the verge of collapse.

The country has been led by an administration mired in massive corruption scandals. The same administration also initiated some disastrous economic policies, worsening an already bad situation. This resulted in the premature termination of the former president’s tenure. Globally, politics is increasingly polarized. Oil prices are volatile and on the verge of increasing steeply. World powers are fighting proxy wars in third world countries, causing untold destruction and mayhem as well as negative knock-on effects for emerging markets.

There is a sense of chaos, a sense of impending doom. In these circumstances one would be forgiven for being less than optimistic about the prospects of simply surviving from one day to the next, let alone starting a business from scratch. The supposed drivers of employment and growth – that is, big business and government – appear to be struggling to come to terms with the situation and are not responding to the pleas of the people.

What if I told you that out of the seemingly impossible situation I’ve just described, it is conceivable that the most successful company in history could be established? What if I told you that what I’ve just described is not South Africa in 2019 but rather, the United States of America in 1975, and that the company alluded to above, is Microsoft.

The legacy and impact of Microsoft – and one of its co-founders, Bill Gates – on the world at large does not need a great deal of explanation. It is likely that every single person reading this has clicked on that familiar Windows START button.

More broadly, the quantum leap into the Information Age was brought about largely by the developments made by Microsoft. In the same year, a little company today known as Apple also took its first steps into the world. The version of Apple we know today began its meteoric rise in 2001 immediately after the “dot com” bubble burst, which left investors fleeing for their lives at the mere mention of a technology business.

Started in a daunting economic environment by a couple of nerds in a garage, selling products that were far from mainstream, and now almost half a century old, these two businesses have built institutions that are integrated into every aspect of our daily lives.

Moved by this same spirit and determination, we see entrepreneurs across Africa – entrepreneurs who have come from even more challenging backgrounds and socio-economic conditions than the founders of Microsoft and Apple – making huge strides in a variety of sectors.

I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on what I believe are the key ingredients to becoming a successful entrepreneur.

Sustainability front and centre

In the age of social media, we are flooded with all sorts of information. This is true also of business advice. Self-help gurus, motivational speakers, influencers, or just the ordinary person’s YouTube clip, or perhaps even one of the thousands of memes popping up on a WhatsApp group you may be on – all of these seek to provide you with some motivation, direction or advice on how to succeed or become a successful entrepreneur.

Common buzzwords like innovation, disruption, EQ and many others are thrown about quite carelessly and without real regard for what they mean. More importantly, for the budding entrepreneur, how is any of it relevant to starting a business, making a business successful and keeping it successful? In actual fact, very little.

In my experience, qualities like determination, passion, adaptability and an appreciation for relationships are the hallmarks of a successful entrepreneur. What has meant the most to me, but perhaps may not be something commonly associated with entrepreneurship, is what I believe to be the key component for a successful entrepreneur. That is sustainability.

Granted, sustainability will never win the award for the most appropriate word to describe entrepreneurship. However, if we were to take a careful look at every successful business out there, we would see that, at the root of its success, was the amount of thought given to the sustainability of the business, the sustainability of the market and the sustainability of the community – the environment in which the business exists. In the frantic, stressful world of running a business, it is this long-term thinking that allows the entrepreneur the space to breathe, to take a step back and look at the bigger picture – the larger goal to be achieved.

Restart and power up

At this point I’d like to digress a little to speak about the concept of success. Nobody sets out to fail. However, defining what success means to us as individuals is a problem that many people find tremendously difficult to solve. In business-terms and generally in life, success is often defined simply as making loads of money. This view is often reinforced by various “rich lists”. The next step is to spend the money on the material things of the world. How else to show the world that you are successful without something tangible to show for it? I am talking about the indiscriminate display of personal wealth through consumption of luxury goods and services.

The problem with this approach is that you get yourself caught in a vicious cycle where the control of your life is placed in the hands of those you are trying to impress. Ironically, these same people couldn’t care less if you succeed or fail at anything. More importantly, from a business perspective, instead of looking for business opportunities that are solid, with long-term growth potential, your focus will be distracted by chances to make a quick buck. Sometimes you may have a good business but instead of re-investing in your business, you cash out to sustain a lifestyle that showcases your wealth. If you were to keep sustainability front and centre in your consciousness, you probably wouldn’t fall into this trap.

I am not for a moment suggesting that you shouldn’t enjoy your wealth, but it is critical, as an entrepreneur, to view the continued expansion, development and growth of your business as success, rather than the accumulation of money and the trappings that come with it. That way, you can enjoy your wealth while growing it even more. Success is also more about the contribution you and your business can make to society than the money you make for yourself.

Quest for wealth

There is a sickness developing in our business culture which promotes the pursuit of accumulation of wealth at all costs. Not only in South Africa but in many African countries, the economy is underdeveloped. Multinationals rarely consume local goods and services unless we are talking cheap labour. Their primary purpose is quick and clean value extraction at the lowest possible cost. This does nothing, or very little, for local job creation or stimulation of the local economy. Due to the economy being underdeveloped it is also sometimes unlikely that the local economy can even provide the more specialized goods and services that multinationals need.

Furthermore, consumer demand is weak unless it is for primary goods. In these circumstances local businesses often look to the state as a customer. This is where the problem originates. Despite the prevailing circumstances, we must aggressively work towards addressing the needs of the real market and those of the nation at large. Focusing primarily on the state as a customer, with its limited resources and opportunities, leads naturally to intense competition for business. And while this may appear to be the only road to business success in the current climate, it is a destructive exercise and short sighted in the extreme. Sadly, this will inevitably lead, as it has done, to rampant corruption.

Leaving the morality of the argument aside, this approach is not sustainable from a business perspective. With the economy sliding into recession, the state is facing the double whammy of reduced tax revenues and cost-cutting measures. The upshot of this for a supplier to the state, is reduced business and even more intense competition. Couple this with the corruption aspect, and the result is the crippling of the buying capacity of the state, thus cannibalizing your own business

If we are to build successful businesses for ourselves, and for generations to come, we must look to do what all great entrepreneurs have done – find a solution to a problem, and then identify and meet a need in the market. We must work towards servicing the needs of our consumers, our people. In this way we will develop quality products and services which can then possibly be exported to markets far beyond our shores.

It is in this way we will build our economy. Instead of being left with nothing for anybody, we will be left with something for everybody. This all begins with thinking about our business, our community and our nation with sustainability front and centre.

Consciousness of your environment

Another key aspect of entrepreneurship that is often not explored in depth is consciousness of your environment. Your business operates or will operate within a complex ecosystem that includes government, financiers, suppliers, customers, employees, other stakeholders, and the natural habitat. All of these, to varying degrees, depending on the nature of your business, will have an impact on your business. It is therefore important for you to be constantly conscious of your environment so that you make informed decisions for your business.

Another element which is especially important in these times of breakneck technological advancement – and especially across the developing world in a younger and therefore more dynamic and volatile market – is adaptability. As the adage goes: adapt or die. There are multiple examples of once great and seemingly infallible businesses that have failed to adapt and have found themselves on the scrapheap of failed companies. One example that some readers might relate to is Blackberry, with the recently discontinued BBM service being the last flickering ember of a dying giant. Not even 10 years ago, it would have been inconceivable to think that Blackberry might suffer such a calamitous fall, when in reality it had been on life support for well over 5 years.

Adaptability does not mean change for change’s sake. It means being able to recognise and understand your environment and then tweaking or even overhauling your business model to survive in said environment. This once again speaks to your consciousness of your environment. If you are aware of the factors affecting your business, you will be quicker and more agile in the steps you take to adapt to changing circumstances. This is especially important in difficult economic times such as those we are currently experiencing.

Sustainability consciousness, coupled with adaptability, allows your business to thrive in the long run.

When Warren Buffet was asked by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, why more people did not follow his investment strategy, despite the fact that it has proven to be arguably the most successful in modern times, he responded with this gem:  

Cos, nobody wants to get rich slowly.

Love what you do and do what you love

With all this there must be a fire, a deep, burning desire within you for what you do. I can guarantee one thing – if what you are doing is just a job, you will run out of steam. You must love what you do for it to be a success.

Sometimes you may not love the actual job but rather what it allows you to do. All that’s important is that what you do must be something that motivates you. This will sustain you through the difficult times and keep you grounded during the good times. As the famous philosopher and polymath Albert Schweitzer said, “Success is not the key to happiness.  Happiness is the key to success”. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

Integrity – the key ingredient

What is often underestimated, and perhaps looked at as an old-fashioned and outdated concept, is the idea of integrity, and its corollary, reputation. This goes hand-in-hand with building relationships as a major factor in being a successful entrepreneur. You are your business – from your sales to customers to negotiation with a supplier for more lenient terms. From partnerships with related businesses, deals with financiers or dealing with your employees, you are the face, body and heart of your business.

Regarding customers, people very rarely remember the price of something they have bought. Instead they remember the way they felt when buying it. If their experience was one of delight, happiness and superb service, they will always come back. If their experience was of rudeness, indifference and poor service they will never come back. If your dealings with those around you are good, fair and honest, you will build lasting relationships that will help grow your business. On the flip side, if your dealings are dishonest and corrupt and lack integrity you are on the shortcut to failure! As Warren Buffet, one of the world’s wealthiest men and most respected investors said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”  It is this difference that I refer to when I talk about sustainability and integrity.

Instant gratification trap

In an age of instant gratification, we do not have the patience to achieve success. Henry Ford failed twice at building a car company before starting Ford; Steve Jobs was fired from Apple before resurrecting his career in the last 15 years before his death. We need to look to build sustainable businesses in the long term. This builds the legacy of wealth creation and institutional knowledge that we, particularly as Africans, sorely lack.

We cannot achieve this with get-rich-quick schemes. We can only achieve this by looking at everything – our relationships, our reputation, our determination, our passion – through the prism of sustainability. Every successful business has looked to empower and enrich the community from which it originated.

A short-sighted view is to look at such concepts as being a distraction from the goal of making a profit. This cannot be further from the truth. Developing and empowering your community means enriching and developing your market, which will ultimately lead to the growth of your business beyond the scope of your imagination.

Empowering the community does not mean dishing out charity to those less privileged than you are, while building the odd school or hospital. It entails real, effective movements for change, which can empower your community while simultaneously growing your business.

If we link sustainability to all aspects of what typically makes an entrepreneur

We will not just build businesses; we will build institutions.

We will not merely accumulate money; we will create wealth.

We will not simply earn degrees; we will create intellectual property.

We will not work for personal gain; we will strive to transform our country.

Closing words before powering off

South Africa is currently the most unequal country in the world, and the numbers are staggering:

1% of South Africans own 70.9% of the country’s wealth while the bottom 60% only controls 7% of the country’s assets.

55.5% or 30-million people live below the national poverty line of R992 per month.

Half of our population live on less than R33 a day.

In the face of these harsh realities and despite what I have said, you may yet ask, what of the future? How do we face it? With fear, trepidation and concern solely for career goals? I say no.

We should pursue what we feel passionate about. We must dream big and we may fail big, but we will learn. We will adapt, we will grow, and we will be stronger for it.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the limitations of box thinking. Brilliance is not measured in marks or grades, and success is not measured in money or things, but in real progress and the impact you make on those around you. This is our achievement; this is our legacy.

We should dream big but a dream without a goal is just a dream. We should have goals – life goals, annual goals, monthly goals, weekly goals and daily goals.

We can only achieve our goals, and thereby realise our dreams, if we work hard, have discipline and are consistent.

In our age of tweeting, texting and posting we must remember that just because we’re doing a lot of stuff, doesn’t mean we’re getting a lot done. We should never confuse activity with progress.

Our people are yearning for leaders. We cannot afford any longer to work towards selfish interests. We must be the inspiration towards the greater good. We must dare to dream and have the courage of our convictions. The change in this country is not going to come from the government or big business; it is going to come from each and every one of us.

Building something for yourself is building something for your family.

Building families is building communities.

Building communities is building a nation.

Break the shackles of economic deprivation. Liberate yourself from the need to conform. Allow yourself the psychological space to innovate.

As Entrepreneurs, we must not aspire simply to make a living, but to make a difference.