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Beyond Stardom

From signing autographs to writing cheques. There are celebrities who manage to make a successful transition to life-after-stardom

Juliet Pitman




Entrepreneurship offers excitement, challenge and the high of success that so often leaves a gaping hole in the lives of once-famous, highly driven, top-of-their game people. It’s also an easy fit for the perfectionism, single-minded focus and work ethic so characteristic of people who excel in other spheres of life.

And, importantly, it offers an often-welcome opportunity to escape the limelight and get down to the business of living a ‘normal’ life, while still deriving satisfaction from a job well done.

But it doesn’t always come easy. As one of our interviewees points out in this feature, having a public profile might get you through the door, “but once you’re in the room you’d better make sure you have something valuable to offer.”

Many celebs haven’t had time to invest in education and they lack essential work experience. So by the time they enter the world of business, they are often ten years or more behind their better-educated, more experienced peers. It can make their fall to earth that much more humbling.

The smart ones recognise early on that stardom is fleeting and start making plans for the future while still in the limelight. They’re the successful ones, and we interview six of them in the pages that follow.

So if you’ve ever wondered what there can possibly be to match the high of playing for Manchester United, winning Olympic gold, being crowned as Miss South Africa or enjoying a successful modelling, music and film career, read on – the interviews that follow hold some of the answers.

Beyond face value

Former Miss SA Amy Kleinhans-Curd shows she’s more than a pretty face as she proves her entrepreneurial mettle.

When Amy Kleinhans-Curd was the reigning Miss South Africa, she’d seek out marketing and financial directors at events and arrange to sit next to them.

“Business has always fascinated me. I would find talking to those people absolutely intriguing. I knew all the way back then that I wanted to be in business,” she says.

Kleinhans-Curd is a qualified teacher and she combined her passion for education with her interest in business to launch Dial-A-Teacher in 2000 as part of her husband’s newly-formed group, Private Label Promotions (PLP).

“We had identified a gap in the market for 24/7 personal assistant services and had launched My PA in response to this need. Dial-A-Teacher was a similar call-centre based solution that allowed learners to call a teacher for help with their homework,” she explains.

Anticipating customer needs

Since those early days in 1992, PLP has grown to include one of the widest ranges of call-centre based solutions, loyalty, acquisition and retention programmes, value-added benefits, and direct marketing solutions.

PLP’s Loyalty Solutions provides customer engagement and marketing services aimed at customer acquisition and retention; PLP WorkLife Balance Solutions delivers employee wellness and assistance programmes to large corporates; and PLP Business Growth Solutions targets the SME and enterprise development market, providing a wide range of services to help business owners become more efficient in running their day-to-day operations and tackling challenges such as access to market finance and business support. Kleinhans-Curd explains: “All of these services are white-labeled and we tailor them to meet our clients’ needs.”

One of the business’s key success factors has been its ability to identify and respond to market needs with appropriate solutions. “Right from our first PA and education solutions, we have always tried to not only identify what our clients need now, but anticipate what they might need in future.

This has been the growth driver of the business – as we identify a new need, we implement an in-depth research and development programme to build a solution that will fill that need,” says Kleinhans-Curd.

Serving the SME sector

The latest Business Growth Solutions product is a prime example. “South Africa’s entrepreneurs face an uphill battle especially in the first start-up phase. I know this from first-hand experience of trying to get this business off the ground.

Coupled with that is the fact that large corporates struggle to implement successful enterprise development programmes as part of their B-BBEE requirements. There was a clear need for services in this sector. Our solution provides SMEs with everything they need, from legal, financial and tax advisors, to discounted office equipment and workshop tools.

We go as far as providing them with business leads, tender oppportunities, and assistance with obtaining finance or grants,” she says.

Kleinhans-Curd believes each business unit has enormous growth potential, and the company is currently focused on a strong push into mobile apps and social media space across all its divisions. “Business has proved to be every bit as exciting as I first thought it would be. I’m challenged and stimulated every day.”


Still rocking

David Gresham’s name epitomises rock music in South Africa. He shares some insight into how he’s got it right.

Ask David Gresham a question about business and he’ll reply with an answer about music. “The music IS the business,” he says. The seamless integration of the two is what has kept this legend of the South African music industry so successful for so long.

Gresham started what is now South Africa’s longest running independent record company in 1972. He has evolved the David Gresham Record Company into the David Gresham Entertainment Group with recording studios, full promotional, marketing and sales functions, a separate publishing division, a DVD movie division and a separate import division.

The publishing division is the largest independent publisher in South Africa and represents 700 000 titles for artists such as Black Eyed Peas, John Legend, James Blunt, Gwen Stefani and Quincy Jones. The company also represents record labels from all over the world in the South African territory.

No magic formula

Gresham enjoyed an illustrious radio and television broadcasting career, and was the only South African to interview John Lennon, a moment he describes as the highlight of his career. Talking about starting the company he says, “There are always people waiting in the wings to take over your radio or television show. I wanted to create something of my own, and music, being in my blood and my soul, was the obvious route to go.”

The success he’s built up over the years hasn’t always come easily though. “Know this – the music industry has never been easy. If 20% of your releases turn out to be hits, you’re really winning,” he says. There is no magic formula for identifying the next big artist or song or musical trend.

“I think that’s the hardest thing about what we do – identifying an artist or song that the consumer will go out and buy. Music is trend and fashion based and there really is no telling what the next thing will be.

Keeping abreast of music trends

There are still instances when he gets it wrong, he says. “Even today, things that I think will really fly turn out to be a flop and vice versa. For this reason, when we speak to new artists I never guarantee them a hit. It would be an empty promise. But what I can guarantee them is hard work, absolute commitment from me and my team, and outstanding  production,” he adds.

He attributes much of the company’s success to consistency, hard work and a think tank system for generating new ideas for where to take the business. “We’re also not a genre-based company and I think that has kept us broad and open to all types of artists and music.”

He’s also kept abreast of the ever-changing music scene: “Today’s iTunes generation has a very different connection to music, and you have to take that into consideration. The only thing that’s constant is the existence of the music, in all its different forms, and its enduring power to resonate deeply with people of all ages and walks of life.”


Off the pitch

Former Man United goal keeper Gary Bailey knows what it takes to be successful – in football and in business.

Within four months of signing for Manchester United Football Club as one of the youngest goal keepers ever to play in English League football, Gary Bailey’s team lost the FA Cup Final because he failed to save a goal in the final minute of play. It gave him an early taste of the immense pressure and intense scrutiny under which professional sportsmen operate.

“Professional football is one of the most pressured businesses in the world. Every year, a third of all managers are fired or resign. And being a goal keeper is perhaps one of the most pressured positions on the pitch. If you fail to save a goal people blame you for losing the match,” he says.

Game plan for business

Since retiring from professional football Bailey has run numerous businesses, enjoyed a successful career in the highly pressured world of sports broadcasting and is one of the country’s top motivational speakers. His latest book, Succeed Under Pressure, converts football lessons into business success and takes many of those lessons from his former manager and one of the most successful ever, Sir Alex Ferguson.

The advice he offers is equally relevant to CEOs and small entrepreneurial enterprises who are passionate about football and those who know nothing about it. “There are five things I believe you need to do or have in order to succeed under pressure,” he says. These include:

  • Gratitude. Be grateful for the opportunities and blessings you have. It will give you positive energy to deal with the challenges you face. When we lost that FA Cup Final, my dad told me to be grateful I had played in a cup final at all. It was an opportunity countless people would never have.
  • Reframe. Take situations that made you feel negative: In my early career I became very scared of making a mistake, until someone pointed out that this would keep me from fulfilling my potential. So the next time I was in the box, I reframed the situation. I thought, “Please shoot for goal. Give me a chance to show you what I can do.” It made a tremendous difference to my entire game.
  • Empathy. Emotional intelligence allows you to understand people, see their strengths and know their weaknesses. You need to learn to observe people. This is how Sir Alex chooses his top players for every match, looking for those who show great energy and desire.
  • Adaptable. Remain open to new possibilities and always make sure you are learning new things. David Beckham’s first few interviews were a disaster until he got some advice on answering questions. Today he’s the biggest sports marketer of all time. It’s often the small learnings that make a big difference.
  • Teamwork. One of the things that makes Manchester United so successful is that everyone works for the other. They never use the words “I” and “Me” – it’s always “We” and “Us”. Reflect glory back to your team, and set them inspiring targets that have emotional resonance, as Sir Alex did when he arrived at Man Utd and set Liverpool as the team to beat.


Fine tuned

Musical prodigy Zwai Bala has learnt some tough lessons, but they’ve all made for a better businessman.

Zwai Bala first exploded to musical stardom with the kwaito group, TKZee, but his career in music stretches back to childhood. Schooled at the Drakensberg Boys Choir, alongside his brothers, his prodigious musical talent was evident from an early age.

“My life has been immersed in the business of music,” he says, adding that it seemed a natural step to form Bala Brothers Productions when the TKZee trio parted ways and Zwai joined brothers Loyiso and Phelo to form the Bala Brothers. The multi-award winning trio have made their mark on the music scene by infusing classical opera with popular African music.

The full package

Bala Brothers Productions manages and produces the group and other artists, but it also offers a broad range of entertainment solutions to the corporate market.

“I’ve drawn on everything I’ve learnt and been exposed to in the music industry and poured it into the business. This means we can offer full package solutions for events – from delivering a live performance and managing all the sound and entertainment, to writing and professionally producing a unique track for the event, which is recorded and delivered to the client before the function is over.”

Formalising the business

These are things Bala had always done, but the formation of Bala Brothers Productions marked an important step towards formalisation and the establishment of a business. Bala walked a hard road to get here.

“When I was with TKZee, I never paid any tax. It never occurred to me that it was something you needed to do. So I ended up getting into trouble with SARS and it’s taken years to sort the whole mess out. But it taught me an important lesson about formalising business and getting the admin side of things in order. When you have someone taking care of the admin, you can focus on the creative stuff, but ignore the admin and it will eventually catch up with you and destroy what you are trying to do creatively,” he explains.

Bala’s kept the business as lean as possible. “One of the most important things I’ve learnt is that when you see an opportunity to make money, you have to think of it as a business from the word go. The money you make is the business’s money and much of it needs to go back into the business so you can build for the future.”

That future holds great promise. Bala recently completed his Masters Certificate in Orchestration for Film and Television at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and went to Hollywood to work on the score for the animated feature film, Zambezia, to be released towards the end of 2012. “Film score is definitely an area I want to move into,” he concludes.


Against the stream

In the time since he won Olympic gold, Ryk Neethling’s been busy. Here’s how he evolved into a businessman and entrepreneur.

Ryk Neethling knew early on that he didn’t want to join the ranks of sports stars whose post-professional life trajectory follows a depressingly downward curve. “I always knew there’d be life after swimming, and I was determined to be successful at it.

I also knew that I wanted to own my own business. Even when I was swimming professionally, the business side of sport interested me. I wanted to have a say in my contracts, I understood that sponsorships were a business transaction and I learnt   an enormous amount about marketing,” says the Olympian-turned-entrepreneur.

Among the things that have kept him busy since he retired from professional swimming are the establishment of six Ryk Neethling Swimming Schools and two Players Swimming Academy facilities. The first of these offers swimming lessons to people of all ages, while the second provides professional training for more serious swimmers.

With one swimming school already successfully franchised, Neethling plans to expand the businesses along these lines.

Maximising the platform

He also manages professional swimmers, including Cameron van den Burgh and Chad Le Clos, through Ryk Neethling Marketing, and is the African representative for Italian pool company Myrtha. Van den Burgh has also participated in Players for the past four years.

There’s an obvious alignment between these businesses and Neethling’s previous life in swimming, but his real passion lies in property. He’s a shareholder and marketing director for Val de Vie Wine and Polo Estate, Guardian Development Projects and Brick Art Construction. “Val de Vie keeps me really busy, and it’s been exciting to be part of the creation of such a unique development,” he says.

Neethling’s obvious talent for marketing has its roots in the world of sport. “I recognised the importance of maximising the platform I’d been given to market myself and build a profile.

As a professional sportsperson, you only have that platform for a short period of time, but if you work hard at it, you can create the foundations for a life and a business after sport,” he explains. In addition to his other pursuits, Neethling is highly sought-after on the speakers’ circuit.

Tangible business value

There’s no doubt that his public profile opens doors, but as Neethling points out, “Getting through the door is just the first step. Once you’re in the room, you’d better make sure you have something of value to offer. Whether I’m selling wine, property development, delivering a talk or representing a professional sportsperson, I focus on delivering real, tangible business value.”

He’s bemused by the perception that he’s ‘made it and can lie by the pool all day living it up.’ “Make no mistake, I have to work,” he says. The fact that hard work comes naturally makes entrepreneurship an easy fit: “I always knew that I could outwork anyone in the pool, and I’ve just carried that over to business. I work seven days a week and I love it. It’s stimulating, exciting, challenging and exhausting. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”


Star billing

Kimberleigh Stark’s extensive experience as an actress and casting director gives her invaluable insight into what artists need from the industry, and what the industry needs from artists. She brings the two together in Stark Raving Management.

When actress and former model Kimberleigh Stark opened the doors to Stark Raving Management in 2003 her vision was to create an agency for artists that protected their interests while promoting absolute professionalism.

“I run my business very much with my heart. I care about the people on my books. I want them to be working. It’s like a family here,” she says.

The entertainment industry is notoriously tough and Stark knows first-hand that it can be extremely exploitative of artists who are desperate to get work and make a name for themselves. “You get a lot of fly-by-night companies and unscrupulous practices such as charging artists to keep them on the books or charging them for every audition secured.

I realised from my own experience in the industry that there was a need for above-board, professional management,” she says. The company is accredited with the Personal Management Association (PMA).

Leveraging experience

But while protecting the rights of artists is undoubtedly important, so too is getting them work, and in this Stark is well positioned to deliver. In addition to many years’ experience in acting, Stark draws on her role as casting director for shows such as Egoli, Generations and Muvhango, and international films.

“I believe that having been a casting director makes me a better agent. I’ve been on the other side. When I get a casting brief I have a good sense of what the casting director is looking for. I am therefore able to brief my artists properly so that they are thoroughly prepared, and I only send those who I think have a good chance of landing the part,” she says.

Attracting high profile artists

She also has her own reputation to protect. “At the end of the day, I’m sending artists to my colleagues in the industry, so my name is very much on the line,” she explains.

The combination of integrity, professionalism and transparency has landed her a string of high profile artists, including Patrick Shai, Darlington Michaels, Rose Motene and Palesa Mocuminyane. “This business is based on trust and relationships.

My artists know I will fight for them. But I only take those who are absolutely committed to working and in whom I can detect an abiding passion for acting and the work. I don’t head-hunt. I don’t go looking to sign artists,” she says.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.


Entrepreneur Profiles

4 Lessons From The Pivotal Group Founders On Growing And Disrupting All At Once

Here’s how they’ve built what they believe to be the foundations of a successful group of businesses in five years.

Nadine Todd




Vital stats

  • Company: Pivotal Group
  • Players: Paul Hutton, Joel Stransky and Bruce Arnold
  • What they do:  Pivotal pioneered voice biometrics in the financial and telecommunications market. Over time, the company has grown to include nine divisions across multiple sectors.
  • Launched: 2012
  • Visit:

How do you build a disruptive business while also focusing on growth? Disruptive ideas are by definition new and unknown to the market. They defy traditional and established solutions and ways of doing business, and they require the market to be educated before you can really onboard clients or even sell your product or service.

The answer is to build parallel solutions: Business units that bring in revenue while the more disruptive ideas are being developed and introduced to the market. Here are the four top lessons the founders of the Pivotal Group have learnt while building their business and pursuing disruptive opportunities simultaneously.

1. Know who your competitors (and potential competitors) are

Great ideas that are economically viable and solve a need that consumers are willing to pay for are few and far between. Great ideas alone are a dime a dozen, but if you’ve spotted a need, chances are someone else has as well. You then need to step back and critically evaluate why someone else hasn’t done this before; if they have done it and they’ve failed; or if you’re entering shark-infested waters riddled with competitors.

Once you’ve determined there is a gap in the market, you need to evaluate who your potential competitors are, and the impact if they suddenly started offering a similar solution to the market.

For Paul Hutton, Bruce Arnold and Joel Stransky, the founders of OneVault, competition was always a factor, particularly as a start-up, and given that potential competitors included Bytes and Dimension Data, this was a very real factor to consider. After careful analysis, however, the founders decided to go for it. Their differentiator was their business model. They wouldn’t be selling OneVault as a software solution, but as a service.

Related: Which Of These 7 Personality Traits Do You Share With The World’s Richest People?

The idea had taken root while Paul was still CEO of TransUnion Credit Bureau. “I came across voice biometrics in Canada. There’s been a surge in identity fraud around the world, and I really understood the value of voice recognition as a verification tool,” he explains. “It can’t be faked, and it’s the only remote biometrics solution available, because you don’t physically need to be there to verify yourself.”

Paul had presented the idea to Transunion’s global board, and while they were intrigued, nothing came of it. “TransUnion’s model is to buy companies that are experts in their specific fields, not launch a new disruptive division from scratch.”

But this meant there was an opportunity for Paul to pursue the idea independently. Joel (former MD of Altech Netstar and CEO of Hertz SA) and Bruce (formerly Group CFO of TransUnion Africa and CFO at Unitrans Freight) were immediately interested in partnering with Paul. Both wanted to pursue entrepreneurship, although neither could do so immediately. The commitment was enough for Paul to get directly involved and start working on the business while he waited for his partners to join him.

In January 2011, Paul and Joel travelled to the UK and started investigating voice biometric solutions. “Voice biometrics was fairly new, but good technology was available, and there were global leaders in the sector,” says Joel.

It was important to choose the right product for the South African market, as this would form the basis of their offering. A contact at Dimension Data (one of whom became an investor in the business) offered this simple and straightforward advice:

When you’re choosing a technology partner, go with the company whose tech you’re confident in, and whose leadership is stable. You’re basing so much on this company and their longevity, so don’t disregard this criteria.

For Paul, Joel and Bruce, a US-based company, Nuance, ticked those boxes. But, from a competitive perspective, OneVault wasn’t the only potential player in the market. “Neither Bytes nor Dimension Data had gone into voice, but they had the potential to do so,” says Bruce. “The products were available to them through their partners.”

To mitigate this very clear risk, the founders made two critical decisions. “Our intention was to sell voice biometrics as a service, instead of a software solution that customers bought and owned, with the necessary infrastructure to go with it. The idea for OneVault was that there would be one place where your voice print lived, and different businesses could plug into our solution.”

The business model of large technology players in South Africa is to sell integrated software solutions, so OneVault’s business model was a differentiator. The next differentiator Paul, Bruce and Joel focused on was becoming specialists in their field.

“This is Paul’s baby,” says Bruce. “We’ve needed to build up a niche, expert team that specialises in voice biometrics. Because we aren’t generalists, 100% of our focus goes into this, instead of 5% or 10%.”

To attract the best in their fields, the founders needed a very appealing culture and a strong recruitment strategy. “We focused on what we wanted from our work environment, and then applied the same rules across the business,” says Joel. “Our goals were to drink good coffee, have no leave forms — ever; be able to take the time to ride our bikes and watch our kids play sports. If someone can’t make it work, or takes advantage without putting in the work, they come and go, but on the whole, we’ve had extremely low churn, and we’ve attracted — and kept — incredible talent.”

This differentiator would prove to be important for two reasons. First, two and a half years into the business, with investors on board and having pumped a significant amount of their own capital into the business, the team hit a major stumbling block. For a few weeks, they didn’t even know if they had a business.

“We had been operating on one major, and as it turned out, faulty, assumption,” says Paul. “We thought South African companies had the right telephony structure to implement our solution. We’d been building our solution on top of Nuance’s software, and were ready to start piloting the entire system with a few key customers, and we found out that in order to meet global voice biometric standards, the telephone technology had to be G711 compliant. South Africa was operating on G729.”

This was OneVault’s make or break moment. The team had six weeks to come up with a solution that ensured it met the necessary levels of accuracy. Without a highly skilled team this would have been impossible.

Even as a start-up, the strategy had been to only bring the best of the best on board. “We didn’t interview,” says Bruce. “We approached people whom we knew. We approached the best in the industry, and convinced them to take a chance with us. There was risk, but there were also rewards.” One of those people was Bradley Scott, a brilliant engineer whom both Paul and Bruce had worked with at Transunion.

Today, OneVault is one of the most specialist companies in the world, and often asked to speak at events in the US.

Being the niche specialists paid off, and OneVault achieved the almost impossible. But this had its downside.

Once you’ve shown something can be done, the bar of what’s impossible moves. Competitors enter your space.

This was the second reason why being such focused, niche experts paid off. “We demo’d the solution for a large local corporate, they loved it, and then went to a ‘then’ competitor  to implement it,” says Paul.

“We always knew this was a real danger. Players like Bytes and Dimension Data have solid, existing client relationships with the same companies we’re targeting.”

18 months later the project still wasn’t working. “This is deep specialist knowledge,” says Paul. “Knowledge we built while we created our offering.” OneVault won the contract, and developed a partnership with Bytes at the same time. Today, OneVault works with all the major software integrators in the market. “We’re a specialist service they can offer their clients, without needing to put the same time and energy we needed to put in to become the specialists.”

Through a focused strategy, OneVault has become a partner, rather than a competitor, of some of the largest players in the industry.

2. Understand the nature of disruption so that you can prepare for it


In today’s ever-changing and fast-paced business world, most business experts are in agreement that as a company, you’re either the disruptor, or you’re being disrupted. The problem is that disruption comes with its own set of challenges.

“Our entire business model was built around a subscription service. Instead of a company buying a software solution, installing it and running it internally, we would do all of that. We would carry the infrastructure burden, and the high upfront cost,” says Joel.

In theory, this sounded like a clear win for businesses that would benefit from a voice biometrics solution. The reality is never so simple, particularly when you’re a disruptor.

“The software is expensive, and so we thought this would be seen as an excellent solution,” says Paul. “Instead, we faced a lot of reticence over the cloud. Businesses didn’t trust it yet.”

On top of that, first movers are often faced with a lag in corporate governance guidelines. As technology becomes more sophisticated, so governance guidelines change — but it’s a slow process, and the lag can impede disruptors.

“You also can’t give proper reference cases, because it’s all brand new to your market,” says Paul. “The best we had was a case study of how well it had worked in Turkey.”

To compound matters, proof of revenue is essential for businesses wanting to trade with large corporates, but non-existent in the start-up phase.

So, what’s the solution? According to Joel, Bruce and Paul, it’s all about being patient, never giving up, building gravitas and getting a few clients on board, even if it’s free of charge to build up your reputation and prove your concept. Finally, you need to bring in revenue from more traditional channels to support your disruptive products and solutions.

“Disruptive solutions are by their nature new and different, which means change management for your customers. This makes the sales cycle long and complex, and you have to be prepared for that,” says Bruce.

Don’t stop laying your groundwork. While disruptors are ahead of the curve, you need to be ready for the uptake when it arrives. “We’ve now concluded a partnership with South Africa Fraud Prevention Services,” says Paul. “When an imposter calls we won’t only  terminate the transaction but we will alert the identity being compromised in the attempt and we will actively prevent fraud by contacting Fraud Prevention. The ultimate vision is for every South African’s voice biometric signature to live in our vault, and we are already receiving imposter information.”

3. Cultivate additional revenue streams

So, what do you do while you are living through the extremely long sales turnaround time of your disruptive, game-changing solution? Bills still have to be paid and investment is needed to develop truly disruptive ideas.

First, the team realised that while an annuity subscription service was their ultimate goal and where the industry was heading, initially they needed to be able to sell and implement the software.

It’s worth noting that one of OneVault’s earliest customers who bought the software has since launched a new business, which is on OneVault’s annuity service model. The shift has just taken time. “The change is happening, but it’s been slower than we anticipated,” says Bruce. “We needed to accept that fact and sell the software to bring revenue into the business while we were waiting for the market to catch up.”

It’s an important lesson. You don’t want to get distracted from your vision, but you need to be bringing in revenue, even if that means your short-term strategy differs from your long-term goals.

“It took three years before we really started seeing a move towards hosted solutions,” he adds. “Outsourced and offsite solutions are opex environments, not capex. They are more cost-effective for customers, but they require a shift in thinking. It’s a move away from how things have always been done, and that takes time.”

But, while Paul, Bruce and Joel were learning the art of patience, they also needed to start bringing revenue into the business.

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“It was clear that we needed to find other opportunities,” says Joel. The result is the Pivotal Group, a diversified holding company with different businesses that are interlinked and complementary.

The group’s first business outside of OneVault, Pivotal Data, was based on a large call centre contract Joel, Paul and Bruce secured. “You can’t be an expert in everything – when you specialise you will always be more successful. The trick is to partner with other experts,” says Joel. In this case, three entrepreneurs were opening a call centre — this was their area of expertise; they were absolute subject matter experts. What they weren’t experts in was technology or facilities management. Instead of doing it themselves, they were looking for partners.

“We manage everything aside from the people element,” explains Joel. “We found and leased a building, built the bespoke workspace, put in the technology, and managed the facility and IT on an opex basis back to them.”

The business immediately had a good anchor client, and Pivotal Data has built on that. The annuity income has supported further growth.

“This was a base for us, but we’ve acquired a few businesses on the back of this success, and created our own cloud contact centre solution — which also feeds into what we’re doing with OneVault,” says Bruce. “Our vision is to create a technology stack that’s world-class and provides a range of services that no other businesses provide as a single solution.”

Because of this pivot into call centre management, a new opportunity has presented itself, and Pivotal’s ambition has grown to include a solution that calls, authenticates, and then analyses all the data that is collected during those calls.

“Through partnerships, my team has developed a predictive analytics system that gives contact centres deep diagnostic tools. We can predict why agents are having the conversations they have, and what to tweak to improve them. We see the agent’s problem before they do. This isn’t just value add, it’s a revenue generating tool if it improves lead conversion rates and customer service. It’s also all geared to lowering call volumes.

“We know we need to keep looking forward. OneVault is starting to gain real traction, but we need to be working on the next disruptive solution and model. We can’t sit back and relax,” says Bruce.

“Three years ago we said that’s it; no more start-ups or investing in pre-adoption phase businesses. From now on, everything we do will be revenue generating,” says Paul. “We’d stretched three years of runway to five years in OneVault, and we didn’t want to keep doing that. We wanted instant revenue businesses. And the very next thing we did was invest in a start-up. It’s a crazy space, but it’s also very rewarding.”

To sustain it, the group continues to grow, focusing on investing in businesses and entrepreneurs who are subject matter experts and therefore already know and understand the market, and then positioning each new business or service to plug into the current offering.

“Data is our golden thread — technology and the disruptive space,” says Joel.

4. Be open to new ideas and opportunities


Integral to the Pivotal Group’s positioning is Paul, Bruce and Joel’s focus on supporting other business owners whose offerings align with the group’s own growth goals, and who would benefit from joining a group.

“If your goal is to be disruptive, you need to be open to all kinds of new ideas,” says Joel. Some will be better than others, and the co-founders have made the decision to focus on the ‘jockey’ rather than the business as a result. Business offerings and ideas need to pivot. If you have the right partners, finding a solution is all part of the challenge.

Pivotal’s move into the world of artificial intelligence is due to one such partnership. “One of our clients approached us with a concept. But he needed a partner to develop it into a proper AI solution,” says Joel.

It’s an augmented intelligence solution that focuses on recruitment, talent management and career guidance. The solution screens, ranks and matches candidates against a job profile, or a number of profiles. It’s a multidisciplinary platform that predicts the performance of the individual in a role.

“Our partner is a former Accenture consultant and a leader in this field. His focus is on the IP and science of the product, ours is on the business component.”

The challenge is how to commercialise and scale the business in as short a time frame as possible. Like many disruptive products, the adoption process is a stumbling block. “We invest at the pre-adoptive curve — not at the revenue generating stage, which means a big focus is always on how we can take an idea and build it into a revenue generating business,” says Bruce.

The business uses capital selectively. “We want to invest in and drive our own agenda,” says Paul. “We’re in charge of our own destiny, but it’s not comfortable or simple. We came from corporate. Big machines that you need to direct and keep on course. This is an entirely different challenge and we are still learning.”

Related: Listen And Learn: Why Podcasts Aren’t Just For Start-up Founders

Listen to the podcast

Matt BrownMatt Brown interviews Paul, Joel and Bruce and discusses what it’s like to invest in pre-adoptive start-ups and staying ahead of the curve.

To listen to the podcast, go to or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.

The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Afritorch Digital An Overnight Success That Was Years In The Making

By any standard, local start-up AfriTorch Digital has seen phenomenal growth and traction. But, while the company’s success might seem quick and effortless, there is a lot of hard work behind it.

GG van Rooyen




Vital stats

  • Players: Michel M. Katuta and Thabo Mphate
  • Company: Afritorch Digital
  • Established: 2017
  • Visit:
  • About: Afritorch Digital assists research agencies in conducting market research through its in-depth knowledge of the African continent and its use of the latest digital technologies.

There is a saying that goes: It takes years to become an overnight success. While a company or individual might seem to enjoy sudden (and seemingly effortless) success, there is often more to the story. The results are usually public and well-publicised, but the years of hard work that came before go unnoticed.

Local start-up AfriTorch Digital is a great example of this. Since launching in May 2017, the business has seen excellent growth. “To be honest, we were very surprised by the level of success. Things progressed a lot quicker than we anticipated,” says co-founder Thabo Mphate.

 “All the goals we had hoped to reach in four or sixth months, we managed to hit in the first month. It was just amazing.”

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

Preparing to launch

While AfriTorch Digital has certainly seen quick growth and success, it would be a mistake to assume that the same is true of the two founders. For them, the creation of AfriTorch was years in the making.

“The goal was always to start our own business,” says Thabo. “I think we’re both entrepreneurs at heart, and we saw an opportunity to create a unique kind of business that offered an innovative solution to clients, but we also realised the value of getting some experience first. Without the knowledge, experience, network and intimate understanding of the industry landscape, getting AfriTorch off the ground would have been incredibly difficult.”

Entrepreneurs tend to dislike working for other people. They want to forge their own path. However, as AfriTorch Digital’s case illustrates, spending time in the industry that you’d like to launch your business in is tremendously useful.

“Finding clients when we launched AfriTorch was relatively easy,” says company co-founder and CEO Michel Katuta. “One reason for this, I think, was that we were offering potential clients a great solution, but the other was that we had established a name for ourselves in the industry. People knew us. We had worked for respected companies, and we had done work for large clients. So, when we launched, we were able to provide a new start-up with credibility in the industry.”

The Lesson: Becoming an entrepreneur doesn’t always start with the launch of a company. Spending time in an established business, gaining experience and making contacts, can be invaluable. Very often, it’s the relationships you build during this time and the knowledge you accumulate that will help make your company a success.

Solving a problem

Everyone knows that launching a successful business means solving a burning problem, but what does that mean in practice? Aren’t all the burning problems already being addressed? And how do you attempt this without any money?

Thabo and Michel identified a small group of potential clients with a burning problem. Crucially, it was a problem that no one outside of the research field could have identified. Having spent years in the trenches, they saw a massive gap waiting to be filled.

Related: AutoTrader South Africa’s George Mienie Knows Disruptive Innovation Is More Than Shifting Gears

“A decade ago, researchers were still debating whether the future of the field was in the digital space. That debate is now over. Everyone agrees that online is the way to go. What once took months now takes days or hours, and the cost of research can be reduced by a factor of five,” says Michel.

“But researchers are not technology specialists. If made available, they are eager to adopt digital tools, but they aren’t eager to develop these tools themselves. That’s not their area of expertise.”

AfriTorch Digital stepped up to provide these tools. Katuta has a background in software engineering, so he could approach research problems with the eye of a tech specialist. Very soon, research agencies were lining up to make use of AfriTorch Digital’s services.

“We work with research agencies that conduct research on behalf of their clients. We provide the digital tools needed to conduct research online, and we provide the online communities. A big reason for our success is that we understand Africa. A lot of companies want to conduct research in Africa, but traditionally, this has been very hard. There was a lack of access and a lack of infrastructure that made research very hit-and-miss. Thanks to the continent’s adoption of mobile technology, it’s now much easier. If you have the technological know-how and an understanding of the environment, you can do amazing things,” says Michel.

The Lesson: Find a niche and own it. Research agencies might not have seemed like an obvious and lucrative market, but having spent time in the industry, the AfriTorch founders were able to identify clients who would be desperate for their offering. Spending time in an industry will help you see where the opportunities lie.

Take note

Before launching a business, get to know an industry from the inside out. This will give you an unparalleled view into gaps you can service.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Jason English On Growing Prommac’s Turnover Tenfold And Being Mindful Of The ‘Oros Effect’

Rapid growth and expansion can lead to a dilution of the foundational principles that defined your company in its early days. Jason English of Prommac discusses how you can retain your company’s culture and vision while growing quickly.

GG van Rooyen




Vital stats

  • Player: Jason English
  • Position: CEO
  • Company: Prommac
  • Associations: Young President’s Organisation (YPO)
  • Turnover: R300 million (R1 billion as a group)
  • Visit:
  • About: Prommac is a construction services business specialising in commissioning, plant maintenance, plant shutdowns and capital projects. Jason English purchased the majority of the company late in 2012, and currently acts as its CEO. Under his leadership, the company has grown from a small business to an international operation.

Since Jason English purchased Prommac in 2012, the company has experienced phenomenal growth. At the time he took over as owner and CEO, it was a small operation that boasted a turnover below R50 million.

Today, Prommac is part of a diversified group of companies under the CG Holdings umbrella and alone has grown it’s turnover nearly ten fold since Jason English took over. As a group, CG Holdings, of which Jason is a founder, is generating in excess of R1 billion. How has Prommac managed such phenomenal growth? According to Jason, it’s all about company culture… and about protecting your glass of Oros.

Jason English

Related: 5 Top Lessons From LAWTrust To Prepare For Super-Charged Growth

“As your business grows, it suffers from something that I call the Oros Effect. Think of your small start-up as an undiluted glass of Oros. When you’re leading a small company, it really is a product of you. You know everything about the business and you make every decision. The systems, the processes, the culture — these are all a product of your actions and beliefs. As you grow, though, things start to change. With every new person added to the mix, you dilute that glass of Oros.

“That’s not to say that your employees are doing anything wrong, or that they are actively trying to damage the business, but the culture — which was once so clear — becomes hazy. The company loses that singular vision. As the owner, you’re forced to share ‘your Oros’ with an increasing number of people, and by pouring more and more of it into other glasses, it loses the distinctive flavour it once had. By the time you’re at the head of a large international company, you can easily be left with a glass that contains more water than Oros.

“Protecting and nurturing a company’s culture isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. Prommac has enjoyed excellent growth, and I ascribe a lot of that success to our company culture. Whenever we’ve spent real time and money on replenishing the Oros, we’ve seen the benefits of it directly afterwards.

“There have been times when we have made the tough decision to slow growth and focus on getting the culture right. Growth is great, of course, but it’s hard to get the culture right when new people are joining the company all the time and you’re scaling aggressively. So, we’ve slowed down at times, but we’ve almost always seen immediate benefits in terms of growth afterwards. We focus heavily on training that deals with things like the systems, processes and culture of the company. We’ve also created a culture and environment that you won’t necessarily associate with engineering and heavy industries. In fact, it has more in common with a Silicon Valley company like Google than your traditional engineering firm.

“Acquisitions can be particularly tricky when it comes to culture and vision. As mentioned, CG Holdings has acquired several companies over the last few years, and when it comes to acquisition, managing the culture is far trickier than it is with normal hiring. When you hire a new employee, you can educate them in the ways and culture of the business. When you acquire an entire company, you import not only a large number of new people, but also an existing organisation with its own culture and vision. Because of this, we’ve created a centralised hub that manages all training and other company activities pertaining to culture. We don’t allow the various companies to do their own thing. That helps to manage the culture as the company grows and expands, since it ensures that everyone’s on the same page.

“Systems and processes need to make sense. One of the key reasons that drove us to create a central platform for training is the belief that systems and processes need to make sense to employees. Everyone should understand the benefits of using a system. If they don’t understand a system or process, they will revert to what they did in the past, especially when you’re talking about an acquired company. You should expect employees to make use of the proper systems and processes, but they need to be properly trained in them first. A lot of companies have great systems, but they aren’t very good at actually implementing them, and the primary reason for this is a lack of training.

“Operations — getting the work done — is seen as the priority, and training is only done if and when a bit of extra time is available. We fell into that trap a year ago. We had enjoyed a lot of growth and momentum, so we didn’t slow down. Eventually, we could see that this huge push, and the consequent lack of focus on the core values of the business, were affecting operations. So, we had to put the hammer down and refocus on systems, processes and culture. Today Prommac is back at the top of it’s game having been awarded the prestigious Service Provider of the year for 2017 by Sasol for both their Secunda and Sasolburg chemical complexes.

Related: Establishing The Wheels Of Change In Business

“If you want to know about the state of your company’s culture, go outside the business. We realised that we needed to ‘pour more Oros into the company’ by asking clients. We use customer surveys to track our own performance and to make sure that the company is in a healthy state. It’s a great way to monitor your organisation, and there are trigger questions that can be asked, which will give you immediate insight into the state of the culture.


“It’s important, of course, to ask your employees about the state of the business and its culture as well, but you should also ask your customers. Your clients will quickly pick up if something is wrong. The fact of the matter is, internal things like culture can have a dramatic effect on the level of service offered to customers. That’s why it’s so important to spend time on these internal things — they have a direct impact on every aspect of the business.

“Remember that clients understand the value of training. There is always a tension between training and operational requirements, but don’t assume that your clients will automatically be annoyed because you’re sending employees on training. Be open and honest, explain to a client that an employee who regularly services the company will be going on training. Ultimately, the client benefits if you spend time and money on an employee that they regularly deal with.

“For the most part, they will understand and respect your decision. At times, there will be push back, both from clients and from your own managers, but you need to be firm. In the long term, training is win-win for everyone involved. Also, you don’t want a client to become overly dependent on a single employee from your company. What if that employee quits? Training offers a good opportunity to swop out employees, and to ensure that you have a group of individuals who can be assigned to a specific client. We rotate our people to make sure that no single person becomes a knowledge expert on a client’s facility, so when we need to pull someone out of the system for training, it’s not the end of the world.

“Managers will often be your biggest challenge when it comes to training. Early on, we hired a lot of young people we could train from scratch. As we grew and needed more expertise, we started hiring senior employees with experience. When it came to things like systems, processes and culture, we actually had far more issues with some of the senior people.

“Someone with significant experience approaches things with preconceived notions and beliefs, so it can be more difficult to get buy-in from them. Don’t assume that training is only for entry-level employees. You need to focus on your senior people and make sure that they see the value of what you are doing. It doesn’t matter how much Oros you add to the mix if managers keep diluting it.”

Exponential growth

When Jason English purchased Prommac late in 2012, the company had a turnover of less than R50 million. This has grown nearly ten fold in just under five years. How? By focusing on people, culture and training.


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