31 August 2012

Princess Diana: Follow your heart

Found on Pinterest, originally attributed to Jenny Burrows

On 31 August 1997, Princess Diana passed away in a car accident in Paris and, to me, the world really hasn't been the same since.

Those were the days before blogging and Facebook and Twitter, and not everyone had owned their first cellphone yet  sure, the handset was bigger than your whole face, but damn, you were cool!

We were still all connected, just at a slightly slower pace. People were famous for proper things like good work, great achievements or because they were royal  not because they'd had a sex tape leaked on the Internet, they'd slandered someone on Twitter, or because they were good at being a slutty, air-headed socialite with deep pockets.

On this day in 1997, I had a massive dream come true  the night before, I'd done what my heart had told me to and it was one of the happiest moments of my life.

In 2012, I'm still only doing what my heart tells me to, so today I'll light a candle for Princess Diana and reflect on how far we've all come in 15 years. And, as an entrepreneur, I feel following your heart is sound business advice as well.

Have a great weekend  tomorrow is the "official" start of spring in the southern hemisphere; my favourite time of year! Enjoy your downtime :)

30 August 2012

Michael Holenstein: Success may mean re-invention

Michael Holenstein,
De Hoek Country House
With years of experience in the food and hospitality industry, it was hardly a surprise when, in 1994, Michael Holenstein was invited to join De Hoek Country House in Magaliesburg with seven staff and seven rooms. Today, thanks to loads of hard work, tenacity and a great reputation, De Hoek has grown to be named one of the best country houses in the world.

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
I always wanted to have my own business and work for myself

What were you doing before starting your business?
Prior to starting at De Hoek, I owned my own Italian restaurant and before that, I owned a catering company with two partners.

What kind of planning went into starting the venture?
In the beginning it was really hit and miss, as my very supportive business partner, Johann Redelinghuys, and I had no real experience in the hotel industry, although I had trained as a chef in Switzerland and cut my teeth in the kitchen. My wife and I had the responsibility of running the business; our goal was to become the best country house hotel in South Africa. We had a very informal plan and just worked very hard and long hours to build up a reputation for excellent service, comfortable accommodation and, obviously, very good food.

What was your start up capital and where did you work from?
As you can well imagine, starting a hotel – albeit a small one – is a huge capital investment. I was fortunate to have a partner who is very supportive of our ideas. We started with seven bedrooms – that was it. We’re now up to 20 bedrooms, four conference rooms, a restaurant and beautiful extensive gardens.

What was your big dream for this venture?
Our big dream was to turn De Hoek Country House into the best country hotel in South Africa. We were awarded the accolade for Best Country House in the World, in both 2007 and 2008, from the World Luxury Hotel Awards.

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
Be sure of what you have to sell to the customer, stay true to your offerings and rather under-sell and over-deliver than over-sell and under-deliver.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference?
A start would be to do a SWOT analysis: identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and then focus on key issues.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product?
By researching the marketplace. What do my competitors charge? Can I charge more if I provide a better product/service?

What was your most epic fail in the early days?
We had a coal AGA stove in the kitchen – try doing a function for 60 or 70 with one oven and one hot plate; very challenging! We upgraded the kitchen with good industrial equipment.

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make?
I think you must stay focused and keep working towards your goals; and watch your cashflow carefully.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
Being in the hospitality industry, I have become accustomed to working hard, missing out on weekends with friends and family, and staying focused on the goal and dream.

Did you have a mentor?
My mentor was my father. He encouraged me to work hard and to keep going even if the going gets tough. My business partner is also someone I look up to for guidance and advice.

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
It probably takes a good five years to reach a certain stability. We’ve been going for 18 years. Business is never without its challenges. We continuously have to think how we can “sweat the assets”, re-focus, re-strategise and keep going

In your opinion, is it ever alright to give up on a dream?
Don’t give up the dream; you might have to start another business or re-focus, but never give up. Richard Nixon said: “Defeat does not finish a man – quitting does. A man is not finished when is defeated. He is finished when he quits.”

Do you believe in internships for your business?
I definitely do. I think it is a very good way of addressing our unemployment problems in South Africa. The Swiss have a very good apprenticeship programme, a Private Public partnership that has stood them in good stead for about a century. A similar programme should be instituted in South Africa, companies should be accredited to train people for a certain number of years and, once the “apprentice” has completed their time under the watchful eye of accredited mentors, they will be qualified in their chosen field and employable.

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms?
* Work smarter.
* Take some time off to re-energise
* Keep staff motivated.
* Be prepared to re-invent yourself.
* Stay in touch with technology.

To get in touch with Michael Holenstein from De Hoek Country House, email: mholenstein@dehoek.com, visit: www.dehoek.com or find him on LinkedIn.

29 August 2012

Wednesday 101s: Running a kick-ass meeting

Wednesday 101s
I'm trying out something new this week  called a Wednesday 101  where I hope to give you the info you need to do business-related things (think: meetings, invoices, writing proposals, taking minutes, preparing a tender, business plans, etc) in 10 steps or less. You know, all that stuff that people assume you'll already know how to do, but don't. I've been there... you shouldn't have to! So if there's anything specific you'd like to see, pop me an email or leave a comment. Thanks.

For me, this is a week filled with meetings. And while incredibly exciting and full of promise, I can’t help but get a little crispy: meetings are one of my pet peeves. They’re necessary, I realise, but in a former life, my boss firmly believed in death by meetings. And, for a solid week every month, we’d sit in life-sapping, ego-bashing, ball-busting meetings allegedly designed to keep us “all on the same page”. And every month, I’d pray to whichever deity was listening that I’d be sick, away or have some sort of crisis that would get me as far out of that boardroom as I could be without needing a passport and injections! They were a waste of time, energy, and had a direct negative impact on productivity and morale.

Some really smart entrepreneur – think it was Steve Jobs – once said that if a meeting lasts more than 30 minutes, leave. And I’m inclined to side with him on that one. There are ways to run successful , yet efficient meetings as an entrepreneur that don’t mean being trapped – an hour or two at a time – with potential clients who love the sound of their own voice, yet have no power to make the final decisions. And when time is money, you know what I mean.

Here’s how to get the most from your time in a meeting:
1. Deal only with the decision-makers: Meeting with “minions” rather than the person with the power to cement decisions will only result in more meetings to seal the deal, so you’ll essentially be stuck on repeat. Expect some “corporate gate-keeping” but avoid it if you can.

2. Schedule a date, time and place: In writing, via email calendar or in person. Also make a list of how many will be in attendance and who they are in the business.

3. Confirm two days before: Via email, issue an agenda of key points you want to discuss in writing (make note of the time spent per agenda item) and confirm attendees in order to prepare presentations, visual aids, printouts, etc.

4. Prepare! Don’t ever come to a meeting unprepared – you’re wasting your own time and theirs. Know your stuff, anticipate potential questions and your responses, and ensure your equipment is working. Many a lucrative business deal has fallen flat at the first meeting due to lack of preparation.

5. Don’t cancel at short notice. Securing time with certain decision-makers is a rarity, so if you’ve managed to get a slot in the diary, this is your one chance. Don’t blow it! Short-notice cancellations for flimsy reasons may make you appear unprofessional.

6. Arrive early: You never know how long the signing in procedure will be, nor how long it may take you to set-up in an unfamiliar environment. Anticipate this.

7. Stick to the agenda and be respectful of people’s time: Once you’ve made the introductions and shared business cards if this is a first meeting, run through the agenda points and stick to time you’ve allocated to each point. If it looks like you’re veering off-course or if attendees are having offline conversations with each other at the table, put a halt to it and divert attention back to the matter at hand. Remember, your business is not the only work that attendees have to do today – be respectful of that.

8. End the meeting with clear next steps: Decide what the next steps are per agenda item, delegate who does what and agree to a deadline to resume discussions. Exit gracefully and with thanks.

9. Same-day email of thanks and summary: Ideally you should send a mail of thanks to all attendees post-meeting (on the same day) with a quick summary of what was discussed as well as next steps, just to confirm that you’ve not misunderstood anything that you spoke about and to give the opportunity to correct issues if they arise.

10. Follow up: If you need to follow up by email post-meeting, allow between five and seven working days to pass before hitting send. Too soon after the meeting may seem naggy and desperate; too long and you may come across as uninterested and wishy-washy. Neither are good for business.

What irritates you most about meetings and how have you worked around it?

27 August 2012

Mitch Marescia: Is your service significantly sexy?

Mitch Marescia, Camargue
Underwriting Managers
Mitch Marescia is CEO and co-founder of Camargue Underwriting Managers, one of South Africa’s most successful niche insurance underwriting agencies, which he started from an idea hatched in a gym steam room in 2001. From two staff and big dreams, Marescia now employs 35 people and runs a sustainable business that's transformed the insurance industry.

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
Can you grow an entrepreneur or are they born? I’d like to think that people can acquire many of the entrepreneurial skills needed to run a business as they mature, and as they become more confident in themselves and find their place in the world. I definitely think there are certain characteristics of being an entrepreneur that you can identify in people from a young age though. Take a look the kid at school who makes sweets at home to sell to his peers, or offering to carry an elderly woman’s shopping bags for money… and often that kid grows up to be an entrepreneur. I was certainly one of those kids; I always saw a buck around every corner. I’d work in our neighbours’ gardens and do almost anything to earn a few bucks.

What were you doing before starting your business?
Blessings and direction often come in many disguises. Some of my best motivators have often stemmed from very negative experiences. Whether it was an employer that I disagreed with, or a business partner who let me down, these situations became good spurs for me to do something different. So prior to starting my first business, MGM Corporate Solutions, I was the Vice President of operations for AIG Africa. Although I learned a tremendous amount while with AIG, I quickly reached a point where I couldn’t stomach the internal politics that come with being part of an international corporation, and so started my own consulting business which was reasonably successful… and it was a big risk. Camargue’s birth came about when I tried to help a friend who needed work.

What kind of planning went into starting the venture? Big business plan or none?
That’s a good question. People often make the mistake of thinking that a business plan is going to be the magic answer to running a successful business. But the plan is only one element. Whether it’s a plan written down on one page or it’s a 21-page document, a plan is essential. But more important than having an idea is having vision and passion. Often the passion around the idea is more important than the plan. If you have both, you’ll definitely survive a lot of initial start-up trauma. A plan is important, but you need to work your plan with passion.

What was your start up capital and where did you set up office?
We started up in a little office at home… on my couch to be more accurate. In fact, truth be told, the entire idea of Camargue was conceived in a steam room at the Virgin Active in Bruma! So space, and place and geography aren’t always important to starting up a successful business. From the couch, we migrated to a “broom cupboard at Hollard”… Hollard, who were our very first big supporters, gave us a little office that we squeezed into. We literally had zero start-up capital, but did have a loan account that peaked at about R2.3 million, and that was paid off after three years.

What was your big dream for this venture?
We wanted Camargue to be an idea – not a place, not a physical space, not a product. We started with the idea of living differently, engaging with your society differently, operating in the economic space differently and aimed at bringing something of value to the market. This ultimately became our sustainability approach. When we looked at insurance, we realised that we wanted to turn it on its head. I came from a business empowering consulting background, and although I was very familiar with insurance, my business partner was the underwriter. I suggested putting the business empowering element ahead of the insurance – with insurance being the final part of the jigsaw – and that approach lead to our success. Our approach was later known as the “blue ocean strategy” by some industry gurus, but we were using it way back then.

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
Door-to-door. You’ve got to just keep knocking on those doors! You actually have to pound the pavement and then resole your broken shoes and continue knocking door-to-door. Whether it’s meeting people in a coffee shop, or knocking on a client’s business door, you have to do whatever it takes to meet as many people as possible and one lead will eventually lead to another.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference?
It’s such a personal journey. We were very fortunate to have started our business within a niche market of the insurance industry. So it’s a case of identifying what you want to be; do you want to offer a service or product to the mass market or do you want to be in a niche – offering a value-added service and product, where these are less price sensitivity? This decision will often dictate how unique you are and how unique you can afford to be. You know what you want to bring to market, so the question is – how do you make it unique?

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product?     
Be serious about what it’s going to cost you to produce your product or develop your service, and don’t forget to include your time! A lot of people forget to add their own time to the cost of developing their product or service. Once you’ve established those basic costs, add on what you feel is a comfortable mark up, and this will be based on your projected volumes to make a living out of. Then you have a reality check and you find out what your competitors are charging for the same thing. If your product or service is significantly different and sexy – you can then afford to be less tolerant of price. So, you have to look at all your costs and add 100% mark-up – maybe more – and then look at what the rest of the market is doing.

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top wisdoms?
If you asked somebody 10 years after starting a business: “If you’d known what you were going to go through, would you have commenced on the journey?” their answer might be “no”. I believe that blissful ignorance and raw passion upfront is often what gets you to start something and it creates a momentum. If you knew the pain you were going to go through in year two and even in year three – you might not choose to embark on your journey. That’s also how you discover – through pain, friction, conflict and trauma – your tenacity and that’s how you grow. So, I’d want to stay blissfully ignorant. The most important wisdom for any entrepreneur is to choose your principles and your ethics… choose how you want to operate your business. There are all sorts of challenges and temptations out there, just like the classic “tenderpreneur”. Today people are so desperate to get work and business… you have to decide if you’re going to make that first bribe or not. You have to decide where your value system lies and whether you’re willing to compromise and lastly, do not confuse motion with progress!

What was your most epic fail in the early days? How did you work through/solve it?
The person I backed to start the business with was not the correct partner for me and vice versa. That was my biggest fail. That being said, if that person hadn’t presented, I wouldn’t have taken up the business and turned it into the success it currently is. Today 35 people have permanent jobs, we’ve just started up an internship programme that will no doubt change many more lives, we’re contributing to the development of skills within the industry through our academy programme for brokers, and then there’s our people development drive where we’re actively involved in various charity works. Our network of people and partners across the globe is just so encouraging and none of this would’ve happened if it wasn’t because of that epic fail.

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make?
Many entrepreneurs confuse cashflow with profit, and they battle to separate their personal finances from business finances.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
When I first started the business somebody said to me: “When you put yourself out there, when you take a risk and take a chance and you’re feeling purely motivated – you put something in motion – and the universe has a way of rewarding you”. That little piece of wisdom kept me going during the lonely moments. But I also noticed that when I walked down the aisles in a supermarket, and while I was sitting around the airport, I’d find far more people like me on this planet, who had taken a chance… and that’s ultimately how you start forming natural networks of people who are going through similar challenges. Often, this newly acquired network of entrepreneurs keeps you motivated and then there’s your personal “stuff” – and I say stuff loosely, because it includes everything that constitutes you.

Did you have a mentor?
We definitely all need mentors and they come in different forms. A mentor doesn’t have to be a business associate or somebody that you met in business; they could also be your church minister or a teacher. The big thing about being an entrepreneur is that it’s a lonely space and a lot of focus is put on personal management. You can either choose to be a person who sits on the couch and watches DStv all day long, or you could be the other extreme and be up at 3am doing reports. So it’s very important to learn how to properly manage yourself – so that you’re performing at your best. A phrase that was put to me early on by somebody was as follows: “At any point in time, do the most productive thing possible”. When you’re in the waiting room at the doctor, or in the car, wherever… use that time to do something productive. This is definitely the best time and personal management advice you’ll get. This of course includes rest. Every driven entrepreneur needs rest. If you’ve chosen to rest – go and rest! To rest is often the most difficult thing for entrepreneurs to do.

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
I think three years is a good time to get a business off the ground. Within two to three years you’d know whether you’ve got relevance in the market or not. You might not be making money, but if your offering is valid, you should be approaching break-even by year three. By year five you should start enjoying the cream of all your hard work. If things aren’t going to plan by year three – you should consider tweaking your business strategy, and start questioning if you’re in the right business at all. In some cases, it’s obvious after six months that your venture isn’t going to work… like selling ice to Eskimos.

Is it ever alright to give up on a dream?
No! Dreams are what keep us inspired beyond the everyday, and it’s often when the biggest dreams are pursued that they produce the most amazing results for you and for society. If anyone told the Wright Brothers that they shouldn’t be flying – it was their dream to fly like birds – then today we wouldn’t be able jet-set around the world! And there are many more examples like that. If it wasn’t for Steve Jobs we wouldn’t have touch-screen technology.

Do you believe in internships for your business?
We certainly believe in internships. There’s nothing better than learning a craft by sitting next to a professional who’s done it before. You can’t replace that experience. In fact we’ve just started an internship programme here at Camargue! Interested candidates are welcome to approach the Camargue Academy, which is headed up by John Stebbing who will conduct an interview.

Get in touch with Mitch Marescia from Camargue Underwriting Managers, email: mitch@camargueum.co.za, visit: www.camargueum.co.za, find him on Facebook: and on LinkedIn.

23 August 2012

Kate Emmerson: Support to live large!

Kate Emmerson, The Quick Shift Deva 
Photographer:
Piet Filmalter
Kate Emmerson is known as The Quick Shift Deva and has been running her life coaching business for 10 years. 

Have you always been entrepreneurial? 
Yes, since I left varsity. I was in my first family business at 25 – I’d even bought jewellery in Bali in order to come home and have money to live off of until I could afford to go on my next travels. My dad was an entrepreneur, so it may be in my blood. I have only ever worked for three months in what I would call a “job” in the recruitment industry before I left to start my aromatherapy/reflexology business.

What were you doing before starting your business?
Before I started my life coaching business, I’d been involved in an outside catering company with my partner at the time. But there was an ever-increasing sense of inevitability pushing me to get back into personal development

What kind of planning went into starting the venture? 
I had to do a simple business plan as part of my coaching training in the UK, but I was not stressed about starting this business as I was planning to pick up all my existing clientele from my aromatherapy/reflexology days in Durban. Little did I know I’d land up in Johannesburg, knowing only four people and having to start from scratch again. 

What was your start up capital? 
I went to France – Provence, specifically – to executive chef for two months and earned the most money I’d ever earned up to that point. That money paid for my course in the UK, as well as my seed capital – if you can call it that. Ten years ago I came back to SA as one of the first professional coaches, armed with R35 000. I bought a VW Beetle and used the rest to set up and live. 

What was your big dream for this venture? 
At the time my coaching aimed to “support women on the threshold of making courageous leaps” but I grew out of it – I still love the catchphrase. 

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them? 
For me, it was making real connection with people – going to places where I knew I would find the kind of clients I wanted. While I was getting my business started, I also had a “Goddess Gathering” in Joburg and just networked my butt off to bring like-minded people together. Business for me is about people and connecting, nothing more. Then you back it up with your product or service, not the other way around. 

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference? 
By being authentic, honest and knowing what makes you smile. I believe in being who you are, following your passion and the words: “build it and they will come” especially as a small entrepreneur offering a service. 

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product? 
This is the hardest one as it is related to the market, but also very related to your self-worth. I laugh now when I remember how little I charged when I started. And as my confidence/expertise and experience grew, so too did my prices. I also believe it is better to price myself in the top third of the going rate, never below, as there is perceived value from buyers. When I hear of coaches/organisers charging little, I think they are obviously no good if that is how little they value themselves. 

What was your most epic fail in the early days? 
It came about seven years after I started – I got into way, way, way too much debt with my partner, during a time of economic recession in SA. I was depressed and cried every day for at least a year until I acknowledged my shame, told my family and made a drastic move back to Joburg. I lived in a room in my brother’s home for seven months, with nothing more than my clothes and my car. I worked 90 hours a week for just R11 000 a month in the restaurant/night club industry while still coaching on the side. I had to put my flat into bank rehab, sell my Harley, lose my partner and four animals – but I got me and my life back. I still have the residue of this debt that I am paying off, but it is all manageable now, even if sometimes challenging as an entrepreneur.

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make? 
Take on too much debt, grow too fast, spend too much money on marketing rather than letting the business grow organically. Also not being able to say no can get new businesses into trouble – walking away from business feels like failure, but you have to say no to some in order to say yes to something even better! 

How do you keep yourself motivated? 
By constantly re-looking what I have written as my authentic goals, which I know I want more than anything, listening to my spirit, walking or doing yoga. And of course a glass of wine helps! 

Did you have a mentor? 
My mentors have been people I’ve not met – Jack Canfield, Sir Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey. All clichéd but they think big, live large and show courage – that’s what I need to play bigger and bigger all the time. I have an author friend who has written 10 books, who is my publishing mentor now, and I have committed to writing my first book. I’ve also just been given the green light by a local publisher. 

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience? 
It takes a minimum of six months, depending on your capital outlay. It is vital to keep tweaking. I personally get bored so always have to keep moving forward in my offering for me to stay inspired and to keep re-inventing how I offer services to clients. Sometimes it is about learning the lessons, or adding to your skill set, or learning to ask for the right help rather than giving up. 

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms? 
* Don’t get into any debt. 
* Do joint ventures from early on but be careful who you partner with. 
* Always trust your gut even if it means walking away from a deal (I do that all the time).
* Get a solid financial base before taking the next step.
* Ask the right people for help. 

Get in touch with Kate Emmerson, The Quick Shift Deva, via email: kate@kate-emmerson.com, visit: www.kate-emmerson.com, on Facebook, Twitter: @Kate_Emmerson and on LinkedIn.

22 August 2012

Jonty Fisher: Bringing strategy back

Jonty Fisher, Bletchley Park
Jonty Fisher started Cape-based Bletchley Park with a workforce of three and no fixed address. His initial vision was to provide a fully integrated marketing solution for smaller clients but his ultimate goal was to become best known for bringing strategy back into executional marketing communications.

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
I grew up needing to make my own pocket money, so whether it was coaching sport or running a stand at the Greenmarket Square, I had ways and means in my early years. Myself and a business partner started an agency in my Honours year at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and we didn’t look back, so I guess that would qualify me as always having an entrepreneurial side. To be honest, I’ve never talked about myself as being entrepreneurial, I just took decisions at certain times that were the right ones for me at that stage.

What were you doing before starting your business?
I was studying Business Science at UCT and was never interested in the beauty parade rolled out with all the big marketing or consulting firms. Mark Shuttleworth gave a guest lecture in our business strategy class (before he sold Thawte) where he made the statement that South Africa was in a small window period where conditions were excellent for entrepreneurs. He said that if we had any consideration of doing something by ourselves, that now was the time to do it. That was my final nudge.

What kind of planning went into starting the venture?
To be honest, you learn the most by doing, especially when you’re starting from a young age with your own capital. When you’re older and wiser and certainly if you’re looking for external funding, then something like a business plan is critical, but when you’re young and just starting out, I’d certainly advocate planning a bit less and just being immensely action-orientated. That bias towards action and trying loads of different approaches (when you can take those risks) is a lot more valuable than a business plan on a piece of paper. Be clear on what outcomes you want, and what type of business you want – from enviroment to colleagues etc – but give yourself the freedom to explore. I know a lot of people that hide behind business plans of what they’re “going to do”. I’m more interested in those that don’t talk about it; they just go towards it and get started.

What was your start up capital?
Initially we had no capital and worked between my business partner’s flat and the Golden Spur in Newlands, depending on the time of day!

What was your big dream for this venture?
The focus when we started was on providing a fully integrated marketing solution for smaller budget clients. It was more client-side thinking focused than purely executionally focused. Our aim was to start at objectives and solve marketing problems in a one-stop-shop – thinking of broader objectives first, and then taking a channel neutral approach, rather than executing purely in terms of what channel specialty we offered. Our tagline was “On time. On budget. As agreed.” (Cringe!). The bigger dream was to become famous for bringing strategic thinking back to executional marketing communications.

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
Initially, we tapped a lot of known networks – family, friends, school contacts etc, which carried us through the first few months, and then referral was our big driver for the first few years as we made our way up the client scale. The profit came from ensuring that we sat so close to the client on their challenges, really walked the walk with them, that we became indispensable. That’s where the profit was drawn from. We weren’t suppliers, we were true partners.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference?
I think there are two sides to it. Naturally you’re going to have a position or thought on what makes you different. You need to express that in various forms and then just get in front of clients and test it out. Don’t wait until it’s perfect, just go and try it. You’ll very quickly learn what is turning the lights on and what’s not. The other side is always try to get close to your customer so that you can learn what is relevant about what you think is valuable to them and what is not. There are always shortcuts. Ask people for advice. People right at the top of companies that you will look to pitch to. In our experience, people are incredibly willing to help young entrepreneurs trying to get started. We learned the most in areas we knew nothing about by just picking up the phone to marketing managers, sales directors and MDs and just asking them to help us out for 30 minutes. Almost all of them obliged.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product?
Various industries can offer broad benchmarks for billing, but ultimately you have to let the market advise you. Start at a median and keep increasing your pricing until your losing at least 15% of your proposals for price reasons. Then you know where you’re sitting. Underquoting is one of the biggest traps enterpreneurs fall into when starting a business and it can hold you back for years. You have to put a value to your belief, and have the confidence to stick to it.

What was your most epic fail in the early days?
In our first year we were running the closing event for the House & Leisure Young Designer’s Awards in Cape Town, which was probably our biggest client at the time. It was a very flashy affair with loads of celebrities and journalists there. We had this beaten up old IBM ThinkPad that we were running this Flash presentation off on a big screen, which carried the announcements and introductions to the winners. Halfway through, while all the guests were glued to it, the old ThinkPad gave up - “there is not enough disk space to run this application” - and it crashed, leaving the guests looking at the desktop with a hundred client files on it! Not much we could do but laugh it off!

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make?
Undervaluing what they do and trying to do grow too fast. Cashflow is king.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
Family naturally plays a big role, but I’m a big believer in building an entrepreneurial network too. There are challenges that you face as a young business owner that are so different to corporate environments and it really helps to share knowledge, learnings and commiserations with fellow entrepreneurs. Personally, you have to remind yourself why you started in the first place. If you’re being true to that, then it will get better and tough times will pass. If you’re not, change it.

Did you have a mentor?
I’ve been lucky to have various great mentors over my career, in various different spheres of business focus. They’re incredibly valuable and can fast-track your journey. The single most valuable piece of advice I have ever received is to give myself the freedom in my work to be absolutely true to myself. It sounds immensely simple, but it is something that very few people do, and especially given the pressures of running your own business, you often feel like you have to compromise. I’ve learned that each time you compromise, and try to chameleon your way to a piece of work, or a client relationship, or whatever, you subconsciously chip away at your own confidence and focus. Always be true to yourself and your own dreams; do what you need and want to do, not what you think people expect you to do, or how they expect you to act. That freedom can truly build category-breaking businesses.

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think it’s very diverese in different industries, at different ages, and naturally with different funding platforms, and I don’t think there’s a standard benchmark here. However, I’d say it’s time to shut up shop when you’re not feeling the love anymore, which goes without saying. Building a business is often a thankless, highly stressful and demanding journey, and you have to build an armour of love for the business to handle it. If you fall out of love, you’ll be burnt out quickly.

Which three character traits do all entrepreneurs possess?
Belief, tenacity and self-awareness.

Do you believe in internships for your business?
I do, for both talent scouting and more philosophical reasons too. I think we work in a business environment where “work experience” is seen as a non-negotiable, which can be a huge barrier to entry for young people. Internships can help them to bridge this divide. I also think internships are really important for young people to really find their meaning in their work – is this really what I want to do? We encourage interns to explore different areas and will give very honest feedback as to whether we think this is their game or not. If someone would like to intern at Bletchley Park, they just need to email: cv@bletchleypark.co.za

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms?
* Focus. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. The fastest growth comes from focus.
* Just try it. Don’t wait until you think something is perfect. Fail fast.
* Don’t be afraid of anyone, believe in yourself and back yourself. You’re good enough.
* Find mentors early
* Be true to yourself. Always.

Get in touch with Jonty Fisher from Bletchley Park via email:  jonty@bletchleypark.co.za, visit: www.bletchleypark.co.za, on Twitter: @jontyfisher and on LinkedIn.

21 August 2012

Frances Wright: Be an empowered entrepreneur

Frances Wright, Trinitas Consulting
Frances Wright, MD of Trinitas Consulting, knew her future was not as an oral hygienist, nor in PR. She launched the company in September 2006 with the dream of establishing a marketing/communications/operations company with a holistic view on clients’ businesses to positively affect business success.

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
It’s something that’s grown over time – I originally studied to be and practiced as an oral hygienist.

What were you doing before starting your business?
I was managing director for a PR company, but a disconnect existed between myself and the CEO’s vision resulting in an untenable work environment.

What kind of planning went into starting the venture? Huge, complicated documents or not?
Planning is important, but business plans should be succinct and to the point. I encourage clients to keep their business plans to no longer than four pages, and to remember that, although it is a good starting point, you need to be flexible within that plan to “roll with the punches” that entrepreneurship will throw at you. 

What was your start up capital?
Trinitas started in Raizcorp, and the capital came from share buy-back from the previous company that I worked for.

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
Through excellence of delivery, resulting in word-of-mouth marketing and relationship-building.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference?
Entrepreneurs should identify a problem in a specific market and then develop a solution that is specific to that need.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product?
Work out cost of sale, forecast sales and spread overhead costs across clients, then add the required profit margin. Once the ideal sales price is determined, market research should be done to see if the price is in line with the market; if your price is too low clients may not take you seriously but if it is too high you will price yourself out of the market.

What was your most epic fail in the early days?
I sold shares to somebody that was not aligned with the business culture or ethos. After a few months I had to buy him out by paying back the money paid for the shares, plus interest.

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make?
Going after every opportunity that presents itself, without first evaluating the chances of success whether it be a business venture, or taking on a job within your business which is too much work for your company to be able to deliver on. More entrepreneurs fail from too much business than too little.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
By understanding your calling in life and keeping your eye on the next step only – take things day by day.

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
There should be money flow within three months. Profitability could take longer, but after a year or so, if there are no profits, the business model has to be looked at. Profitability does not mean that the entrepreneur can relax though, as more tough times will come. Keep an eye on the macro environment constantly to look for threats.

Which three character traits do all entrepreneurs possess?
Ability to take risks, the ability to handle stress and sound relationship-building skills.

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms?
* Contain growth.
* Focus on one business.
* Keep learning.
* Surround yourself with support.
* Follow your gut, especially with regards to recruitment.

Get in touch with Frances Wright from Trinitas Consulting via email: frances@trinitas.co.za, visit: www.trinitas.co.za, on Facebook, Twitter: @FrancesRay and on LinkedIn.

20 August 2012

Ian & Lise Manley: Reputation brings clients

Ian and Lise Manley, Manley Communications
Ian Hamilton Manley and his wife Lise both have an established background in the hospitality industry. In 2000, when an opportunity presented itself, they each took a month’s salary cheque as start-up capital and set up Cape-based Manley Communications from the alcove in their kitchen. Their aim: to be the leading boutique agency representing the best brands in the tourism and hospitality business.

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
I wasn’t brought up in an entrepreneurial home so it’s more a case of learning from experience in business over time.

What were you doing before starting your business?
I worked in management at a number of hotels in Cape Town. My wife Lise was also employed in the hotel industry but was approached in 1999 to head up a new hospitality division at a well-known PR agency. As a newly married couple, we decided that it was a good opportunity to leave the “industry” but still be involved in it and also the luxury of one of us enjoying more stable office hours was attractive. After a year, we realised that there was an opportunity for us to start our own agency and niche ourselves in hospitality representation. Lise took the step first by launching the agency and I followed five months later when we could see stability and growth in our portfolio of clients.

What kind of planning went into starting the venture?
We had no plan which was quite scary and naïve, but perhaps those factors worked in our favour as we launched with a fresh approach to the services that we could offer. We literally started our business in an alcove of our kitchen with a sign above our one computer stating, “THERE IS NO PLAN B”.

What was your start up capital?
Offering brand representation required little initial start up funding. We were fortunate to start the business with key hotel accounts from day one and a month’s salary check in both of our back pockets.

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
In our industry, your good name is everything. All our new business has been achieved via word of mouth and networking. We’ve never pitched for business. If you’re at the top of your game, the right people will get to hear about you.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference?
It often comes down to service delivery, which will set you apart from the rest. If you’re quick and offer a quality service, you’ll find yourself soon pipping your competitors at the post, especially if they’ve slackened over time.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product?
You’ll need to do your homework on what your competitors are charging and then offer a lesser price with more service delivery. As time goes by, you can then increase your charging structure to match your competitors. Your clients will stay with you if they see value in your offering.

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make?
Assuming that a new entrepreneur finds quick success, it’s key to stop your ego taking over and becoming too self-assured. Few clients enjoy a cock-sure dude in a Porsche. And don’t grow too fast. Keep on taking stock and re-grouping before taking the next big step in growing your empire.

How do you keep yourself motivated to continue?
There’s nothing like the wolves at the door to keep you motivated! There simply wasn’t – and still isn’t – a Plan B for us, which has kept us energised through thick and thin.

Did you have a mentor?
We didn’t have a mentor as such, but Stewart Banner who is based at the Vineyard Hotel & Spa was always there to give us sage advice and a psychological boost. A mentor is definitely the ideal scenario as there’s nothing more valuable than tapping into experience.

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
We were fortunate in that our business launched quickly. I would say that after three months from launch, one should take stock and see what messaging needs to be refined. By six months, you should be on a roll and, if not, drastic changes need to be made or move on to a new venture.

Is it ever alright to give up on a dream?
I’m a realist, so if the dream is not working out, go seek a new one.

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms?
* Be selective of the clients/business that you want to align with. It takes a lot of time and energy to change the direction of your business if you haven’t got the formula right from the beginning.
* Don’t grow too fast!
* Keep your finger on the pulse at all times. Don’t employ staff to take over key strategic issues unless you’re certain of their ability.
* Over time, we’ve found that it’s better to outsource key work to freelance professionals than get bogged down with permanent staff who can land up being a liability and “dead wood” to the business.
*Always stay in tune with your clients needs and be at least one step ahead of the game.
* “He who controls the pace, controls the victory!”

To contact Ian and Lise Manley from Manley Communications, email: ian@publicity.co.za, visit: www.manley-communications.com, find him on Facebook, on Twitter: @manleycom and on LinkedIn.

16 August 2012

Johan Jansen van Vuuren: The effect of good experiences

Johan Jansen van Vuuren,
South of Africa
A long history of entrepreneurship has given Johan Jansen van Vuuren a solid foundation for his business South of Africa – a portfolio of eight fine properties – which launched in 1990. With hotels in Limpopo and the Western Cape, the South of Africa brand of hospitality is big on family values and memorable experiences.

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
I’ve been entrepreneurial since my childhood days. It started with me breeding budgies and rabbits, and then buying sweets wholesale and selling them at school. 

What were you doing before starting your business?
I was a flight attendant with South African Airways (SAA). This exposed me to a variety of opportunities, options and dreams. Living out of hotels and experiencing 5-star luxuries pushed me to pursue my dreams even further, as I knew that I wanted to offer guests the same experiences. My entrepreneurial spirit helped me to reach this goal. I built a small business while flying and eventually had to stop flying so that I could give my business more attention and to realise my dream of owning my first hotel.

What kind of planning went into starting the venture?
Planning is essential for any business’ success. The biggest part of planning happens in your head. You dream it. Having a vivid picture of what you want to achieve and a basic step-by-step plan is what I had, not a business plan on paper – it was always in my head – if you can see it, you can achieve it.

What was your start up capital?
I received a food allowance from the airline when we stayed over in cities around the world. Instead of spending all of this on gregarious meals and luxuries, I lived on cheap takeaways like Big Macs and cafe food. I used the remainder of my allowance to purchase items for clients and charged a small commission. Eventually, I ended up importing items from the East.

What was your big dream for this venture?
South of Africa is a dynamic portfolio of fine hospitality properties, with high ethics, delivering outstanding quality experiences and exceptional service in a unique, creative environment.

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
In my experience, attending trade shows and being a member of local business chambers and tourism associations was the best way to find leads. Selling your product as a service to your local community is where it all starts. Through word of mouth, referrals build relationships and result in profit in the long run.

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what makes them unique and leverage that difference?
You have to constantly measure yourself against your opposition, but be creative and individual. You must maintain the creative edge and do not reveal your trade secrets up-front but hint at the extraordinary service that awaits guests. 

How does a new entrepreneur figure out what to charge for their service/product?
It’s important to calculate your cost of service or product. Thereafter you need to do a comparative analysis in your immediate area. You also need to see what other services and products that you compare yourself with cost. Combining and averaging these out is what you base your prices on.

What was your most epic fail in the early days?
I was declared insolvent at the age of 24. My father had to sign surety, so he was liable for all my debts. This forced me to get up and start afresh. I had to earn an income, repay the debt and I had to get back on my feet. I focussed on the results I wanted to achieve and worked very hard to get there again.

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make?
Firstly, believing that you will get rich quickly and make lots of money. The biggest failures are due to the shortage of working capital – you need to have capital for at least six to 12 months. 

How do you keep yourself motivated?
Through prayer and positive affirmation, and believing in myself and my dreams, I stay focussed.  You are in charge of the end results, and you – and only you – can make the difference.

Did you have a mentor?
Yes, I had quite a few that played valuable roles in my life. One important piece of advice was that you can never go wrong with investing in property. My mother’s advice was to look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves; this is so true.

Which three character traits do all entrepreneurs possess?
I think that the most important trait that is clearly visible is tenacity. This goes hand-in-hand with patience and a strong desire to succeed in your dream. Through passionate and intensive hard work, your common sense and goal-setting will result in success.

Do you believe in internships for your business?
It is imperative to pass down knowledge and share your skills with others. Through this process of training, you not only enrich others’ lives, but the business also benefits from this. We take on trainees and they are tutored in all aspects of the business. We have also introduced an in house trainer. We’re currently busy with preparations to open our own training academy to invest not only in the future of the country, but also improve others’ lives.

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms?
* Introduce proper financial accounting from day one. 
* Have control and take control of all operations on all levels. 
* Despite temptations and endless possibilities, do not grow and expand too quickly. 
* Don’t lose focus. 
* Complete tasks and only once the dream is reached, do you continue to the next project. Do not forget about completed projects – keep them alive!

Get in touch with Johan Jansen van Vuuren via email: johan@southofafrica.co.za, visit: www.southofafrica.co.za, check out his Facebook page or on Twitter: @southofafrica01.