Sitting in his office in Stellenbosch I discovered that Alan Knott-Craig Jr does not have the typical advice for young entrepreneurs. The South African entrepreneur shared his thoughts candidly and without reserve, which was refreshing yet rare to see in media interviews.
And Knott-Craig is more than familiar with media attention. After qualifying as a chartered accountant in 2002, he founded and funded a number of companies, authored a handful of books and was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He is arguably most well-known for being CEO of the social network Mxit, which his investment company World of Avatar bought in 2011. His stepping down from this role barely a year later, due to disagreements with shareholders, was also widely reported on.
These days he is a social entrepreneur involved in a non-profit initiative, Project Isizwe, championing free Wi-Fi in underserviced areas.
It’s his history with the media that led me to think that I would hear some of the usual ‘safe’ business tips for entrepreneurs, such as “follow your passion” and “work hard”. But he spoke frankly about his own entrepreneurial experience, offering business advice that one doesn’t hear every day, even bordering on controversial.
His advice to young entrepreneurs: “marry young and marry up”.
As unconventional as this may seem, he has some good reasoning behind it. As Knott-Craig puts it, entrepreneurs face many risks, and marriage is the single biggest way to de-risk. Why? Well, for starters there is the security of a second income.
“Marry someone who can look after themselves and look after you, it’s as simple as that.”
Knott-Craig got married at 25 to a chartered accountant, which he admits is helpful in entrepreneurship. A second income, and a strong one, can be a great way of cushioning an entrepreneur from the financial blows of failure.
However, he is not suggesting that young people get married simply as a career move. Yes, there should be love, he added. It should be the right person. But he argues that marrying the right person at a young age does have advantages for entrepreneurs. “It’s a no-brainer, and it lowers your overheads.”
There are other perks to marrying young, according to Knott-Craig. Looking back, he believes it was one of the reasons he was able to focus on his entrepreneurial ventures at such an early age.
“I stopped going out on Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night – so I wasn’t hungover, I wasn’t tired and I wasn’t spending [unnecessary] money. During the week I was not constantly SMSing and chatting with girls… No distractions. I worked much harder,” he explained.
“And the compounded effect of all those extra hours I had for five years – while all my friends were playing the field and then got married at 30 – got me ahead of the pack.”
And then there is the emotional support that a marriage provides.
“There are ups and downs in an entrepreneur’s life – wins and losses,” continued Knott-Craig, adding that he has had his share of both during his career.
He admits there has been times when his ego has gotten ahead of him, and times when he has fallen. In both cases, his wife has been there to keep him grounded, put things in perspective, or help him get back into the game.