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Start-up Advice

Starting A Business? Get Out Of The Building

What is the most important aspect of starting a business? What should you focus on? Here’s why prospective customers should be your absolute focus.

GG van Rooyen



Steve Blank

“The embarrassing fact is that in companies large and small, established corporate giants as well as new start-ups, more than nine of ten new products fail. It’s true in every product category — high-tech or low, online or off, consumer or business — well-funded or not,” says the godfather of the lean start-up methodology, Steve Blank, in his seminal work The Startup Owner’s Manual.

You’re going to fail… and that’s okay

The key to long-term success is to fail early. Before spending any money on your business idea, you need to get out there and find out if there’s a market for your offering.

“The primary objective of a start-up is to validate its business model hypothesis,” says Blank.

“Searching for a business model requires a different organisation than the one used to execute a plan. Searching requires the company to be organised around a customer development team led by the founders.”

This is a rather academic way of saying: You need to talk to people and find out if they would have any interest in buying what you’re selling — and don’t just talk to your friends; they’ll be far too worried about hurting your feelings.

It really is as basic as that. The foundation of any start-up should be customer development. Find out who your potential customers are, and find out how desperate they would be to get hold of your offering.

The recipe for success is remarkably simple: You need a large number of people with a desperate itch that only you can scratch (called product/market fit).

If the fit isn’t there — which is very likely, if not inevitable — you can pivot and change your offering before you’ve spent loads of time and money
on development.

Hitting the streets

Sitting in a darkened room, fondling your ‘precious’ idea like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings won’t get you anywhere. You need to expose your idea to daylight; ask normal everyday people if they would pay money for your solution.

Admittedly, this can be an intimidating process, which is why so many entrepreneurs probably prefer to develop their ideas in isolation. Putting yourself out there can be difficult.

Entrepreneur had an opportunity to witness this process first-hand during a recent start-up boot camp. The event was hosted by Ignitor, a business accelerator that assists start-ups in finding their feet through training and coaching, and was held at Standard Bank’s Incubator in Rosebank.

It started on a Friday evening and lasted for a whole weekend. The majority of the time was spent outside Standard Bank’s Incubator, however, as the entrepreneurs approached people on the street and pitched their ideas.

Very quickly, many of the entrepreneurs found that their assumptions had been wrong. The product/market fit wasn’t there.


Ignitor: Paul Smith and Justin Coetsee

“A lack of product/market fit isn’t a reason to panic,” says Ignitor’s Paul Smith. “Ideas need to evolve. We find that about 90% of business ideas change drastically before launch. It’s part of the start-up process. However, you need to embrace this change before you spend too much time and money on development.”

“There is a misconception that great innovators like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson locked themselves away and eventually emerged with these fully-formed ideas,” adds Ignitor’s Justin Coetsee. “It’s not true. They were incredibly sensitive to market demands.

“Lean start-up principles have now been shaped into a cohesive methodology, but the basic tenets have been around for ages. Innovators like Branson and Jobs were instinctively applying them, but now we have a roadmap that anyone can follow.” 

A sense of urgency

One of the most important principles that Ignitor employs during its boot camps is the concept of ‘time boxing’.

“Perfection is the enemy of getting things done,” says Smith. “Any idea without execution is just a dream, so if you spend too much time perfecting your idea, you run the risk of never actually moving on to the execution phase. This is why we teach entrepreneurs that ‘done’ is better than ‘perfect’. Your idea is going to change and evolve as you speak to potential customers, so tweaking it too much beforehand is a waste of time.”

This is where the idea of time-boxing comes into play.

It’s a strategy that you can employ right now. Whatever aspect of your business you are working on, put a deadline on it.

Give yourself a specific amount of time to work on it, and then move on once time is up. Even if you’re unhappy with what you’ve accomplished, move on. You can revisit the task at a later stage, but don’t get stuck on it.

You need to maintain momentum and get things done. 

GG van Rooyen is the deputy editor for Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa. Follow him on Twitter.

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Start-up Advice

Put On Your Wellies: It’s Time To Wade Into Risk

Entrepreneurs aren’t all leaping into the unknown like lemmings off a cliff, but they do need to consider it…

Chris Ogden




You’ve had a great idea. You’ve looked into its development. You’ve recognised that it has potential beyond just what Auntie Mabel and Mike From The Grocer think. And you’ve clearly nailed a pain point that can make money. Now it is time to take the risk of running with it.

Every big idea comes with risk. You can’t step out into the world of entrepreneurial thinking and business development without it. Your idea may fail. It will also be time consuming, demanding, hungry for money, and hard work. It is unrealistic to expect that your project will leap out into the world and be an unmitigated success.

It is also unrealistic to assume that it isn’t worth taking this risk.

There are steps that you can follow to ensure that your risk is managed so you aren’t blindly leaping off that cliff…

Step 01: Do your research

No, canvassing your neighbours, friends and family is not doing research. You need to know that your idea will appeal to a broad market and that it will have significant legs. This may sound like daft advice, but you would be surprised how many people think an idea will take off just because Susan in Accounting said so.

Step 02: Understand the costs

Projects are hungry for money and investment. Realistically work out your budgets and how much it will cost to take your project off the ground and then stick to it.

A calculated risk is a far better bet than one that shoots from the hip and hopes for the best. You can also use this as an opportunity to draw a clear line under where you will stop investing and end the project. If it keeps eating money and isn’t getting anywhere with results you need to be able to walk away.

Step 03: Know when to walk away

As mentioned before, this can be defined by a line you’ve drawn in the proverbial sand (and budget) but no matter where you draw this line, you have to stick to it. Often, when time, money and energy have been poured into a project it can be incredibly hard to walk away.

You think ‘but I have put so much into this, just one more’ and then it gets to a point where the ‘just one more’ has taken you so far down the line that walking away feels impossible. Leave. Learn the lessons. Apply them to your next project.

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Start-up Advice

Mind The Gap

The entrepreneur’s guide to finding the gaps and building the right solutions.

Chris Ogden




Innovation may very well be the key to business success but finding the gap into which your innovative thinking can fit is often a lot harder than people realise. Some may be struck by inspiration in the shower, others by that moment of blinding insight in a meeting, however, for most people finding that big idea isn’t that simple. They want to be an entrepreneur and start their own high-growth business, but they need some ideas on how to find that big idea.

Here are five…

1. Network

It sounds trite but networking is actually an excellent way of picking up on patterns and trends in conversation and business problems. The trick is to note them down and pay attention. Soon, you will find patterns emerging and ideas forming.

2. Look for pain

Just as networking can reveal trends in the market, so can spending time reading. The latter will also help you find common business pain points. These are the touchpoints that frustrate people, annoy business owners, affect productivity, or impact employee engagement.

Be the Panado that fixes these pains.

3. Luck


This is probably the most annoying of the ideas, but it is unfortunately (or fortunately) very true. Luck does play a role in helping you capture that big idea. However, luck isn’t just standing around and random people offering you opportunities. Luck is found at networking events, it is found in research and it is found in conversations with other entrepreneurs.

4. Luck needs courage

You may have found the big idea through your network, a pain point or pure blind luck, but if you don’t have the courage to take it and run with it, you will lose it to someone else.

Being bold in business is highly underrated because most people assume that everyone is bold and prepared to take big leaps into the unknown. However, not all brilliant entrepreneurs were ready to throw their family funds to the wind and leap into an idea – they were courageous enough to figure out a way of harnessing their ideas realistically.

5. Pay attention

This is probably one of the most vital ways of finding a gap in the market. Often, people are so busy that they don’t really pay attention to that niggling issue that always bothers them on a commute, or in a mall, or at a meeting. This niggling issue could very well be the next big business opportunity. Pay attention to it and find out if that issue can be solved with your innovative thinking.

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Start-up Advice

5 Things To Know About Your “Toddler” Business

As you navigate this new toddler phase of your business, here are five things to bear in mind.

Catherine Black




Ah, toddlers. Those irresistible bundles of joy bring a huge amount of energy, curiosity and fun to any family – but there’s also frustration and worry that comes with their unpredictability, as they grow and start to become more independent. If you own a business and it’s successfully past its “infancy” of the first year or so, it’s likely it will also go through a toddler stage of its lifecycle.

Pete Hammond, founder of luxury safari company SafariScapes, agrees with this. “Our business is now three and a half years old, and we’ve found that we’re not yet big enough to justify employing a large team of people to handle the day-to-day admin tasks, yet we still need to grow the business as well,” he says. “As a result, our main challenge is finding the time to step back and see the bigger picture. Kind of like when you are raising a busy toddler and you spend most of your time running after them!”

As you navigate this new toddler phase of your business, here are five things to bear in mind:

1. This too shall pass

Everything in life is temporary – and that goes for both the good and the bad. It’s as helpful to remember this when you’re facing the might of a toddler temper tantrum, as it is when you’re facing throws of uncertainty in your business. If your new(ish) venture is going through a rough patch in its first few years, it can be easy to think about giving up – but don’t. As long as you have an overall big idea that you believe can add value to your customers, keep pushing through the rough parts until you come out the other side.

2. Appreciate what this phase brings

The toddler years mean that the initial newborn joy is officially behind you. But these small humans also bring their own kinds of joy, as you watch them learn new skills, say funny things, and give affection back to you. While your two-year-old business may not hold the same exhilaration for you as it did during those first few months, there are now different things to appreciate about it: Maybe you’re expanding your product range, or employing new people who can take the workload off you.

3. Establish boundaries

Toddlers thrive on boundary and routine – and your toddler business will too. As it grows into a new phase, try and establish limits in terms of the type of clients you want to work with and the type of work you’ll do. It’s also a good idea to make a decision about the hours you’ll work and when you’ll switch off, which will help you establish a good work-life balance.

4. Take a break

Every parent with a toddler needs a break every now and then, even if that means a walk around the block (on your own!), a dinner out with friends, or even a few days away. The same is true for a demanding small business: every so often, remember to take time out to rest properly, where you switch off your laptop and completely unplug. You’ll return much more inspired and resilient to deal with the everyday uncertainty that it brings.

5. Give it space to make mistakes

While the unpredictability of a young business can be stressful and tiring, it’s also a time for trying new things without the risk of huge consequences if they don’t quite work. After all, it’s much simpler to change your USP if you’re a small business employing a few people, rather than a big company where 50 people are relying on you for their salary, or where you’ve received a huge amount of investment capital. While you may fail in some of the things you try with your business (in fact, this is almost guaranteed), see it as a toddler that’s resilient enough to pick itself up, dust its knees and keep moving forward.

During this phase of business growth it’s also essential to have the right type of medical aid cover. There are medical schemes such as Fedhealth which has a number of medical aid options and value-added benefits to ensure that your health and wellness is taken care of too. After all, the healthier you and your staff are, the more productive your business will be – during the toddler (business) stage and beyond.

While this phase can be frustrating, it’s a sign that your business is growing and adapting, rather than remaining in its infancy, and that can only be a good thing! So embrace the difficulties, learn from them, and watch as your business strides forward confidently into the next exciting phase.

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