Eight South African entrepreneurs share their secrets to success

As part of its Do Great Things initiative, financial services firm Old Mutual asked South African entrepreneurs about how they managed to build successful businesses. Here are the highlights.

Rob Stokes

Question: How have you positioned your business to stand out from the crowd? By Rob Stokes, founder of Quirk

I think the key thing with positioning is that you cannot be everything to all people and it’s really difficult for an entrepreneur to accept that. After 12 years I still have not accepted it, gratefully, I think. I have a non-exec chairman who’s far older and wiser than I am. And every time I come up with an idea that’s completely out of focus he slaps me back into shape and he’s absolutely right even though it frustrates me immensely.

In terms of how to determine your positioning in the market, I think it has to be relative to your competitors. It must fit into a market need and I think most importantly it has to be born internally. What we did with Quirk when deciding what position we wanted to hold in the market was to go through a set of workshops with our staff where we asked them to articulate through a set of standard processes: what makes Quirk different, what makes us better, what makes them get up and want to come to work in the morning with a smile on their face and excitement in their brains. One must bear in mind that it is something a business needs to re-evaluate every couple of years because things change. We took that and we aggregated it. Very interestingly, I think, it was a very easy aggregation process, that the different groups of people were saying the same things. And from this we drew out a set of core values that essentially said “this is what makes us different”. These core values were then matched against the needs of the market and fortunately for us, it was a great match. That which makes us different doesn’t really exist in the market and therefore we’ve got a good market position.

If what makes you different already exists blatantly in the market or your business hasn’t got the most competitive starting point, you will need to adjust your positioning. The key thing is however to own a niche, and own it thoroughly and don’t try and be everything to everyone.

Yossi Hasson

Question: What recruitment process do you follow? By Yossi Hasson, MD of Synaq

At Synaq, it is important that we hire the right personality type for the job and for the company. To pick up on a person’s personality in an one-hour interview is a difficult task, so we ask open-ended questions and try to get the interviewees to tell us a story about themselves. Some of the questions are:

  • Who were you as a kid?
  • Who was your favourite parent?
  • Who was your best boss and why?
  • Who was your most irritating colleague and why?

We ask the interviewee what gets them ticking and how they structure their day. All these questions have no right or wrong answer but they give us a very clear picture of the type of personality of that individual and the type of environment where they are going to succeed. If these two things are aligned with the job, then we know we have a candidate. We would then test for aptitude and skills and give them the relevant aptitude tests and a technical test they would need to pass. If it’s a sales position, they will have to do a sales pitch or we’ll test whatever the functions of the job are. We need to make sure the candidate has the right personality for the job function and that they will thrive within the environment of the company. This person could be a genius and be brilliant but if they are not the right fit for the job and the environment, then he/she won’t be happy and won’t shine within the organisation.

Matthew Buckland

Question: How did you set up your business while still being employed by a corporate? By Matthew Buckland, founder of Creative Spark

I don’t fit into the mould of a risky, throw caution to the wind type of entrepreneur. I’m actually a cautious business owner. So what might seem like an outwardly risky move is carefully thought out. And it’s managed risk effectively.

I’ve been plotting and planning for the past seven years. I started the company seven years ago and ran it in a very low level state for a while, while I was still employed at a corporate company. On that front, my advice is to be very transparent and open with your employer. If they know you’re an entrepreneurial person within the organisation, they’ll grant you that freedom as long as you’re transparent and open with them. They should be absolutely fine with you if you decide to start another company. And of course you have to be a good performer within that organisation to get that leeway and concession. You obviously have to manage and watch conflicts of interests as well as be transparent about that.

The business grew too big for me to run it on the side and to be employed at the same time. Eventually I had to take the leap. When I say leap, it wasn’t a very high leap because I was leaping into something that was generating revenue and was showing success. I think that’s how my startup story may differ from others. I didn’t throw caution to the wind. It was a managed process.

Shana Kay

Question: How do you develop business relationships? By Shana Kay, founder of Infointeg

I think most people have a very negative perception about networking or they think that you go to an event, you swap a business card and that’s how you form relationships. I have a very different take on that. I don’t believe in talking about your business when you meet someone, because at the end of the day people only do business with people they like and trust. It really all starts with the social aspect. You get to know someone at a networking event and then you meet them again and then you start a little courtship. You do one project, you do another one and if you see that it is working out, eventually you can look at the contracts that you have put in place. At the end of the day you need to test the waters before you jump in and sign a contract. It’s like a marriage.