1. What part of your job keeps you awake at night?
At Kalon Venture Partners we invest other people’s money in tech startup businesses. This is a risky asset class and making sure we have dealt with all the risks of our investments – e.g. team risk, product risk, market risk, deal terms risk, and to ensure we de-risk our investors capital – is what keeps me awake.
Secondly, I lie awake thinking about how we ensure that when our investee companies mature to the point where they have a killer product, a clear and sizable market, and a robust distribution channel, they have the opportunity to become a “scale-up”, which is a world-changing company that touches millions or even billions of lives.
2. Name three traits required to survive in this role.
- Relying on other people. I am convinced that nothing I do is more important than hiring and developing people. At the end of the day, I bet on people, not on strategies
- Accept that failure is a process and not an outcome while not endorsing it, but embracing it
- Perseverance, drive and loads of energy
3. What is the biggest misconception about your job?
That being a venture capitalist (VC) is glamorous. Being a VC is extremely hard and every day brings different unforeseen challenges. As a VC you are not building one startup, which is difficult in itself, you are helping build multiple startups. My days are unpredictable as I am putting out fires consistently and every day the fires are different and challenging.
4. Who has had the greatest impact on your career?
My three key mentors at Accenture. One being a great sales and commercial person, the second being a world-class leader and thirdly a phenomenal relationship person. They taught me the three most important pillars of being an entrepreneur, namely the importance of relationships – people buy from people; the importance of being commercially savvy and being able to sell – nothing happens until the cash register rings; and lastly the importance of leadership – everything in business rises and falls in leadership.
5. What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Let fires burn.
In every business I helped built there were always fires. Which fires do you have the ability to extinguish right now, and which will be easier to extinguish later (and vice versa)? If a fire is urgent, but you can’t effectively fight it right now, you might have to ignore it and hope that external circumstances put it out. Likewise, if it isn’t necessarily urgent right now, but will wreak a lot more havoc if allowed to spread, you might consider saving yourself the ordeal later by nipping it in the bud.
The art, of course, is knowing which fires to let burn. Prioritising your fires tends to be a function of a combination of different factors. The first is urgency: which fire is going to damage or kill your business the soonest? This doesn’t have to be limited to fires that endanger the existence of the business; for a startup, a fire that kills your ability to grow is nearly as deadly in the long run as one that threatens to put you out of business tomorrow.
6. The top reason for your professional success?
I have learnt in building many parts of Accenture’s business and many other startups that you can never be too focused: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
I learnt that individuals or organisations with too many priorities have no priorities and risk spinning their wheels and accomplishing nothing of significance. In turn, laser-focusing everyone on a single priority – today, this week, this quarter, this year, and the next decade – creates clarity and power throughout the organisation.
I learnt the hard way, that focus is not about too many products or services or customer segments. Some entrepreneurs seem to be easily distracted by the next big thing which is very seductive and they cast their net a mile wide and inch deep. If you go too wide too fast you can drown in opportunities, you need to be careful. Too many entrepreneurs try and hedge their bets when they initially start their companies – they try and be everything to everyone and become nothing to no one.
7. How do you relax?
I am a learner and my downtime is spending time with my family, watching sport and learning. Learning from reading non-fiction books about entrepreneurs, leadership, technology and other autobiographies of successful people. I believe that every person should be in permanent beta and a work in progress, as learning is a journey not a destination. I spend on average a few hours every day reading and on average read a book a week.
8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
I train every morning, seven days a week, for an hour to help release the endorphins and reduce my stress levels. Following this, I work from a coffee shop and ‘eat my frog’. I learnt about ‘eating your frog’ from one of my global mentors during my Accenture days. The metaphor, ‘eating your frog’, means before doing anything else in the morning – including responding to emails – you take your hardest, most unpleasant task and complete that before you do anything else in the day. The ‘frog’ is the ugliest most difficult task that normally will be relegated down the to do list and not completed.
To summarise, until my ‘frog is eaten’ I don’t sit at my desk.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
I always like to think about a person’s trajectory or a business trajectory, so I like to figure out if the person is a learner. Are they open-minded? Are they humble? Are they down to earth? Are they getting better every day? I’ll try and assess that in the interviews that I do, and I’ll ask questions like: “what did you learn from that?” or “tell me something that you learnt from that and how you applied that?” And I look for specific examples of both what they learnt and then what they did differently in the future. That will show me if they are a learner or not, that they have humility to realise that they aren’t always right on everything, and that they either can or can’t take fast action and really put that learning in place and start to use it. Really just asking around what they learnt and to share examples of how they applied that in the future.
10. The biggest perk of your job?
Meeting literally hundreds of entrepreneurs from across South Africa and the rest of the world. These people inspire me with their passion and perseverance in solving some of the worlds biggest problems and particularly on the African continent where we have some of the most significant challenges.
Secondly, when I mentor entrepreneurs and help them understand that success leaves clues and I enable them to compress years of knowledge and experience into months, weeks, days or even hours. This give-back is extremely rewarding and humbling as I also learn from every entrepreneur I engage with.
11. In addition to your own industry, name one untapped business opportunity in Africa.
As a venture capitalist we look for entrepreneurs that solve problems for large markets. The two biggest areas I believe will make the biggest impact on the continent is healthcare and education. By solving these two problems with affordable and assessable solutions will change the lives of the hundreds of millions of African’s who do not have access to either.
Former COO of Accenture South Africa Clive Butkow is CEO of Kalon Venture Partners, a digital disruptive technology venture capital company based in Johannesburg.