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Top entrepreneur shares advice on finding investment and retaining employees

South African Hans van Aardt admits that when he started his software company Microworks in 1995, he did not have a product vision for his company, only a passion for technology.

Hans van Aardt

Hans van Aardt

However when his father, a medical doctor, asked him to help with a software solution for debt collection and credit management, a major pain point for his father’s practice, Van Aardt developed the first version of VoyagerNetz.

Armed with a product, he still needed investment to get his product off the ground and was able to arrange a meeting with then Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed technology company, Brainware. After a successful pitch, Microworks was incorporated into the Brainware group, and 23-year-old Van Aardt became the youngest CEO in its group of companies.

Today Microworks is going strong, with the latest version of VoyagerNetz being its main offering. Van Aardt is also a finalist in the 2014 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year award. How we made it in Africa asks him to share his advice on finding investment and growing a business.

You managed to partner with a major company early on. Do you think their decision was based more on your business’s offering, or on you, the entrepreneur behind the business?

The investment firm was very excited about the potential of our VoyagerNetz product vision, but they entrusted me to build this vision without insisting on taking control of the management of my company. This demonstrated lots of trust in me personally, especially considering I was 23 at the time. If I had to invest in a company, firstly I will consider the character of the entrepreneur and then the power and potential of the vision – both are very important.

Finding investment is a massive struggle for startups. Based on your success, what advice do you have for other entrepreneurs trying to convince investors to take them on?

Looking back at my experience with my first major investor, two things stand out. Firstly, it was not easy to get the opportunity to speak to the right people. My advice on this point is to keep on trying and avoid being discouraged – often doors open at the most unexpected times.

Secondly, I remember how hard I worked on preparing for the actual meeting with the investor. I kept my presentation very simple and focused on conveying the essence of the vision. My advice on this point is to be very well prepared, and to keep things very simple.

Some 30% of Microworks’ current employees have been with the company for over 10 years. Besides salaries, what strategies have you found work best to retain and motivate employees?

I work with a lot of creative people and have learnt to make space for individuals to be themselves and to live out their potential. If you create an environment where people have freedom combined with responsibility you may lose some control but gain great involvement and commitment from your staff. This is my approach.

Do you have a favourite entrepreneurship quote?

I love the quote “stay hungry, stay foolish,” from Steve Jobs’ Stanford University address. This translates to “keep on working hard and keep on learning”. Without these two elements there cannot be long-term success.

What’s your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur, and what strategy did you implement to keep this from negatively impacting your company?

I struggle to be organised. My strategy is to allow others to help me with this weakness and to personally focus on my strengths. You can spend all your time trying to overcome a weak point and never get to delivering on your strong point – this will leave you frustrated and unproductive.

Is there any popular entrepreneurial advice or conventional wisdom that you disagree with?

Often entrepreneurs think that business studies are a waste of time and that they are not based on the real world – for my first six years in business this was my outlook as well. But six years after starting my company a friend encouraged me to enrol in a post-graduate business programme through Unisa’s School of Business Leadership. This experience exceeded my wildest expectations and I immediately enrolled in follow-up courses focused on senior managers. The training and insight I received during these courses has had a very positive effect on my success as an entrepreneur. Currently I am planning to do an executive MBA through Kellogg School of Business in Chicago. There is great value in continuous education, especially for an entrepreneur.

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