‘Corporate life is the best business school for entrepreneurs’

After a career in marketing for large international brands such as Panasonic, Parmalat and Tiger Brands, South African David Green decided to enter the world of entrepreneurship. In 2006, he started TheGreenCompany which creates handcrafted designer eyewear and timepieces under the David Green brand name.

David Green

David Green

What makes the brand unique is that each product incorporates an actual leaf into the design, so no two glasses or watches are the same.

Today his products are exported to 20 countries worldwide, the majority being sold through optometrists. In light of being named a finalist in the 2014 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year award, How we made it in Africa chats to Green about his entrepreneurial journey.

Why leave corporate life for the unpredictable world of entrepreneurship?

Although entrepreneurship is unpredictable, the difference is that I can walk into my office and paint the wall green, even pink. You just can’t do that in corporate life. The freedom to do what you like, when you like, comes at a high price, but it is a rare commodity.

Corporate life is still the best business school for entrepreneurs in my opinion. I would strongly recommend any business person who has entrepreneurial ambitions to clock up several years of experience in the corporate world before taking the plunge into entrepreneurship. I had over 20 years of it and still use every ounce of knowledge that I gained to ensure survival in the “wild”. Entrepreneurs will especially benefit from a background involved in finance, which I lacked and had to struggle to learn. I think entrepreneurs generally underestimate the financial aspect of running a business, and it helps to have a good understanding in that area.

You export to 20 countries worldwide. Which markets turned out to be strong for your business, and why do you think that is? Any surprises?

USA is a territory we are focusing on at present; we launched in New York in March. The American buying machine is absolutely huge and extremely competitive. There is no tolerance for fake or shallow products… and the consumer is truly king.

Nigeria is a strong market for us, and was also a bit of a surprise. There are a lot of cheap knockoffs of brands available on the street from vendors and Lagos has three ‘China towns’. I think our success is that we offer our optometrist clients products that cannot be copied and sold as counterfeits.

South Africa is still our home market and core business. However one cannot define a territory in broad brush strokes. Our sales and marketing strategy is tailored per city and we have a 10-city priority global strategy, which keeps us focused. These include Johannesburg, Cape Town, Lagos and Kansas City.

What has been the best decision made to grow your company so far?

Buy out our partner and initial investor, who owned around 50% of the business. This required great courage and self confidence. We borrowed money to buy out the partnership, re-capitalise the business and activate our ambitious marketing plans like launching in New York. Already we are seeing the fruits of our boldness. I have debt though, but debt is a wonderful thing to focus the mind.

Tell us about one mistake you have made, and what lesson you learnt from it.

I once charged into the store of a very conservative potential customer in Pretoria, wearing my green outfit and jumping up-and-down like a new entrepreneur, and later found out that after I left the store, they tore up my business card.

Anyway, to cut a long story short they taught me a lesson about approaching clients and actually, ironically, they have now become one of our best customers. So as they say, if you don’t succeed at first, try, try and try again. And modify your approach.

What is the strangest thing you’ve ever done as an entrepreneur?

Around three years ago I got dressed up, put on my David Green eyewear and walked up and down a fashion ramp in downtown Lagos.

Do you think entrepreneurship is often romanticised? What do you think aspiring business people should understand before entering the field?

I agree. Entrepreneurship is a pendulum swinging between harsh and exhilarated. Building a new brand requires going at it hammer and tongs. I had totally underestimated how submerged I’d have to be in the business.

When compared to corporate life, for me the lows of being an entrepreneur are not as low as some of the lows I recall while in corporate theatrical management meetings. And the highs are so much higher when you are in your own boat. According to mathematics – that’s a net gain.