From the pits to the pinnacle: A lesson in endurance for entrepreneurs

Lee den Hond

“If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

Hearing these words immediately conjures up images of many a dreamer, taking on the Big Apple in hopes of success. Most likely with a Frank Sinatra-mantra in their heads. But what if you could not make it there? Then what?

Lee den Hond, owner and founder of Blue Platinum Events, speaks like she lives: vigorously and with fervour. She states with humble conviction that the success that she has achieved with her company in the last 18 years had its birth in what was probably the darkest moment of her professional career.

At the age of 30, the South African entrepreneur did go to New York in the hope of making it big in the marketing department of Nike. She did not, however, succeed.

Take us back to the beginning

“I’m a Pretoria girl,” Den Hond says. She has fond memories of her life growing up. “I don’t feel like there were any negatives that impacted my life. My twin sister Kim is one of the key people in my life and I have a very, very supportive and strong mother.”

Her career started in the fitness apparel industry. Den Hond used the Yellow Pages to find the number of Adidas and telephonically convinced the marketing director that she needed 20 minutes of his time. Those 20 minutes were all it took. She got her first job.

She spent a couple of years working for companies such as Adidas and Nike in South Africa until she had the opportunity to travel to New York with her sister for their 30th birthday.

Den Hond then moved to New York. “But everything went wrong. The 20th of September of that year was the worst day of my life,” she says. That night, after walking home from her third job for the day, she was stabbed by a mugger and ended up in hospital. The 11th of January of the following year she came home.

“My ego was downtrodden. I had failed. But my ladder was against the wrong building; that was the scenario I found myself in,” she says.

How did she grow her business into what it is today?

With no career and no money, Den Hond had to start over. She found a job with a creative agency and went into “survival mode”. “At the start of my business journey it really was a case of ‘fake it ‘til you make it’. I became the go-to person for the small jobs no one else wanted to do.”

And thus, Johannesburg-based Blue Platinum Events was founded. Being the go-to person brought her the break she was hoping for when, in 2003, a client requested hosting an event on Robben Island and everyone said it could not be done. Den Hond and Blue Platinum Events made it happen, and the perception of her small company changed.

Over the course of the next 15 years she built up the company to what it is today. In 2015 she won the entrepreneur category in the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Awards (BWOYA). That year, Blue Platinum Events achieved revenue numbers of over R75m (US$6m).

The team remains small at only eight people. “By choice,” she says. “The team and the dynamics in it is everything to me. They are not just employees – they are the brand of Blue Platinum Events.”

Den Hond says the loss of a team member is her biggest fear. In the events game, the team and the professional relationships they form with clients are a competitive advantage that is lost when someone leaves.

She readily admits that there are sacrifices in achieving success. The industry of event management is hard. “There are very long hours, a lot of travel. You have to roll up your sleeves and put skin in the game. You are always only as good as your last event,” she says. “But you never quit.”

Is there anything we can learn from her?

This stamina, endurance and fighting spirit translates through into Den Hond’s personal life as well. She is an adventurer at heart, raising funds for charity in the process. She was only the third South African woman to summit Mount Everest. In 2017, Den Hond completed the Marathon des Sables – 250km on foot through the Sahara Desert – to raise funds for the Field of Dreams Foundation, which she founded. One week after this interview, Den Hond was on a flight to Nepal to train for her next endeavour – running the 160km Everest Trail Race in November this year.

On the horizon is branching more into motivational speaking and a New York book deal about achieving success despite hardships.

There is a link between endurance sport and the discipline to run a successful business over time, Den Hond believes. “Never give up. Quitting is not an option. When you think it is not going to get harder, think again. It is.”