Manuel Koser is co-founder and managing director of Silvertree Holdings, a South African-based investment company that focuses on growing early and mid-stage companies.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
Peter, Paul and I founded Silvertree with our personal funds for the first two years and decided not to take salaries during that time. We quickly got to a point where the business needed an unforeseen amount of capital. This was, of course, disconcerting. We weren’t in a position to continue bootstrapping, as the amount was outside of our projections to cover operational costs.
It was during this period that we decided to raise external capital – a process known to be everything but swift, regardless of any startup’s urgency. An initial stumbling block for us was proving Silvertree’s model. Our plans to run a business that wasn’t a fund or a single brand/business was difficult.
However, as arduous as the process was, clearly defining our path proved to be an important skill to sharpen. After a series of late nights, meetings, and negotiations, we developed relationships with great shareholders who supported us and provided the much-needed guidance that helped propel our mission.
All of this to say that shutting down or starting from scratch was not a far-fetched reality for us. It took a lot of time, grit and execution to overcome this challenge, as it does for many founders.
2. What entrepreneurial achievement are you most proud of?
I would definitely say that growing a team from 0 to 450 employees, over six years is a massive achievement. My co-founders and I started with an ambitious idea to build disruptive consumer brands and support entrepreneurs during their own journeys.
To see our owner-operator model come into fruition, and jointly create value by the hundreds is a proud moment for us all. A key element of this achievement is directly related to the relationship my team has managed to establish and nurture. Between the co-founders and our chairman, Freddy Caspers, we share an understanding that is grounded in trust and an open policy to respectfully agree to disagree.
We’ve been able to grow together by recognising and leveraging the complementary strengths within the team. It would be untrue to say that it has always been smooth sailing. Nurturing our relationships took a lot of time and commitment, but as the saying goes “Don’t get married on the first date”. Give your relationships time to grow. This has been an invaluable learning curve for us. So much so, that we are known to impart this lesson to the CEOs across our portfolio.
3. Tell us about your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
I am neither technically strong nor the right manager for a steady-state growth company with 100 people. I’ve realised this over time and fortunately, Paul and Peter’s skill sets complement mine in this regard.
4. What popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
I disagree with the focus on hyper-scaling and raising as much money as possible at the highest valuation. First-time entrepreneurs (including myself) are becoming obsessed with fundraising and determining valuations. This is unhealthy and does not help the business.
For context, Africa is a much smaller market compared to the US – customer behaviours, infrastructure, culture, spending power and many other factors, differ. There is no golden rule, but my lessons have helped me ensure that my valuation is attached to potential and current trading vs international comparables.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you started?
Ignorance is bliss. I’m not sure if I would have jumped into the cold water of entrepreneurship and tried to swim, had I known what I know now. I guess you could say that I am both grateful and hyper-aware of my naivety during the early days.
To the question – I wish I knew how tough the entrepreneurial journey was really going to be. We hear it all the time, but you need to enjoy what you do, with the people you decide to journey with. The hours are long and can easily become unbearable if the opposite is your reality.