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Billy Selekane

Author, speaker, organisational effectiveness specialist and business man Billy Selekane is driven by one goal: motivating people to be their best. Born poor in Tembisa in 1967, Selekane changed his destiny by reading and giving expression to his indomitable spirit – one that refused to admit defeat even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Monique Verduyn

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Billy Selekane motivational speaker

Even as a child, I was an entrepreneur of some sort. I was always brokering a sale. One year, our teachers organised a school trip to Durban. To subsidise the costs, they gave us apples to sell. I sold eight boxes to everybody else’s one. When you grow up poor, you learn how to “maak ‘n plan”. That’s what got me through a series of failures later on as I tried everything I could to get my own business going.

When I was in my teens, in the late 80s, South Africa was burning. Twice I wanted to write my matric exams, and on both occasions we were not able to because the political situation made it too dangerous.

I left high school in Tembisa and went to a technical school. That was frustrating because I am hopeless at maths, so I left there too and went into the music industry. I started a band and recorded an LP, but I soon realised that there was no money to be made, despite the fact that we had a lot of fun.

My frustration grew and I became a quasi political activist. In 1989, I was accepted as a student at a school for troubled youth. In 1990, I decided to study fine art at Unisa. It was a tough time. I had no money and no-one wanted to give me any. I made banners and signs part-time to get me through, but I had to give it up eventually. My interest in graphic design remained strong, even though the opportunities for a young, black man were few.

My first real business venture was Entertainment Extravaganza Promotions (EEP) in 1991 which promoted trade shows in the townships. There were five of us in the business, but as the only one who was unemployed I became the MD.

It was then that I saw a motivational speaker in action for the first time and I remember thinking, “Wow, that is something I must do one day.”

EEP began working on a massive trade show and I succeeded

in bringing in some big sponsors for the event which was to be held in Tembisa on a Saturday. The Friday before, gunmen opened fire on a minibus taxi killing 13 people. The show opened the next day, but that act of political violence destroyed it.

We had expected over 50 000 people to attend; instead it was a total failure. I remember I had promised my wife that we were going to make millions. Because I was the face of the company, I was the one who had to tell people that we had no money to pay them. My first experience of running a business had exploded in my face due to an event that could not have been foreseen.

I went back to the drawing board and started a one-man graphic design business. I printed T-shirts and even began a clothing label called Jozi Boys and made just enough money to survive. Then I made the move to Ad Art, a big graphic design company that was run by two brilliant brothers who taught me a huge amount about the importance of vision, determination and resilience in business.

They wanted a salesperson, but I wanted to work for myself, so I negotiated with them to give me an office in return for which I would pass on all the big jobs that I brought in. When I won a contract for NNTV, now SABC3, it was a massive achievement and I decided then that I wanted to buy Ad Art.

But as a result of my ambition, I lost focus on my own business and it soon went under. That was a hard lesson for me to learn – you have to have clear objectives and a carefully mapped out plan of action to succeed.

Because there were few resources available to young entrepreneurs at that time, I had to take all the hard knocks and find a way to carry on. All the while, in the back of my mind, was my ambition to own my own business.

But I had to find a job again to pay the bills so I joined a wholesale warehouse that sold everything from frying pans to children’s books. The company had been started by a black man who came to South Africa from the UK and became a millionaire in 18 months. I thought, “If this guy with a funny accent can do it, so can I.”

By then I had learnt a lot about skills, flexibility, and enthusiasm. I made another attempt at launching a graphic design business and when it did not get off the ground either, I decided to join Gilbey’s as a merchandiser. That was in 1995, and I went in right at the bottom.

Because I had so many failed ventures behind me, I had become a seasoned student of business and life in general. I was surrounded by sales reps who were quite lax, so I decided to work hard and soon I became a sales manager. It was great – I got a better salary, better clothes and a better car. But I was still hung up on being independent.

I knew that if I could do what I was doing for myself, rather than for someone else, I would be making lots of money. By the end of 1997 I had taken my education into my own hands and done a huge amount of reading. As a result, I started coaching the people I worked with.

It was something that I loved doing and had a natural flair for. Word got around and I was soon quite sought after. Then Gilbey’s was taken over by a UK company and I became the acting sales manager for the East Rand division.

A team building exercise changed my life. There was a physical obstacle that few people could overcome and I decided that if I could do it, bearing in mind all the books I had read about overcoming your fears, I would go it alone once and for all; if not, I’d stay with the company until I was pensioned off.

Fortunately, I succeeded, even winning the “hot shot” trophy. To everyone’s dismay, I resigned, handed in the keys to my car and went back to catching taxis. People could not understand my reasoning, but my goal was to get my own business going and it was a case of now or never.

After Japan was devastated in World War II, the country put in place a 50-year plan to restore the nation. A process improvement programme was put in place which became the basis of the kaizen revolution in Japan.

The philosophy focuses on small, continuous improvements in all business activities to enable the fulfilment of big objectives. It’s about always remaining dynamic and not static. It’s a principle that I applied to my life then and continue to now.

To raise some cash, I joined a panel beating shop and made them an offer: I would double their turnover in return for equity in the business. Within five months, I was a partner and I was driving a C-Class Merc. But I knew this was a transitional phase – there was no way I was going to stay in panel beating.

I took the money I had made and started a full-time teambuilding and motivational speaking company. With experience only and no qualifications, I had to find a partner. I drove to the Win Win Group and told the receptionist I wanted to see the boss. Stephen Carver came out of his office at that moment and I said to him, “I want to start a business and this is what I can do.

What I need from you is a desk.” Amazingly, he said yes. When I started there, I could not even use a computer. A lot of DIY education ensued. I immersed myself in the company’s book collection and soon I started pitching for business. My first deal was a training programme for leaders in government, involving policy formulation, implementation and review. I had no idea what I was going to do, but my reading paid off and I designed a course.

Over time I had material evidence of success and I started to travel overseas. By this stage Win Win had taken a 40% share of the business, but our values had started to become incongruent. At the same time, South Africa was witnessing the advent of black economic empowerment.

I had done some great work with Sentry Security, which was acquired in 2001 by ADT for R600 million. The security and guarding industry was hit hard by BEE legislation. ADT approached me and asked me to become a partner.

I joined forces with Salala Lesela. We created Kusela Security Solutions which we started with R80 000 and I became the MD. In less than four years we were making a profit of R4 million. We took no dividends and built the business’s capital to ensure it remained debt free.

Given my experiences, I am not a fan of borrowing money. At the moment, Kusela is about to sign a deal with ADT which will turn it into a R300 million business. In 2004 I ended the relationship with Win Win and became the sole owner of my business.

It was a painful decision, but I had to do it for the sake of my freedom and my vision. By 2005 I leveraged my reputation and launched my first book From Barefoot to Snakeskin Shoes which I self-published and sold over 8 000 copies. From 2006 to 2007 I was president of the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa, a position which, along with the book, helped to grow my status internationally.

Building a powerful personal brand. This has been the secret of my success and it’s what has enabled me to branch out into other ventures. The security business has done extremely well, giving me confidence to look into other sectors like aviation and property. Some are empowerment deals, but I always make it clear that I want to be hands-on in any business with which I am involved.

BEE is the worst thing that could have happened to entrepreneurship in this country. Besides the fact that I cannot imagine ever having to give away a percentage of my business to anyone else, the fact is that BEE has benefited only politicians and millionaires.

People ask me how it is possible to play an active part in every business in which I have an interest. The fact is that my role is always focused on motivation and people development. When we partnered with ADT I said to them, “You focus on operations. I will inspire our people to become the top sales team in the industry.” I met with each of the 180 staff members personally and that’s what I did.

My business has grown by over 5 000% in ten years and is debt free. We pay our suppliers immediately. I employ a core staff of eight and I have 30 associates around the country and the world who we bring in on bigger projects. In a connection economy such as ours, we have been able to set up a presence in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Nigeria and Botswana, with Kenya and Rwanda in the pipeline.

We find like-minded organisations and create communities of practice. By playing on mutual strengths, we have been able to set up infrastructures in many different places. I’m a great believer in using other people’s skills. I don’t invest in massive clients because when they fall, the impact on your business can be devastating.

Our overheads are minimal, and each person is a cost centre so there is no negative cash flow. We are a learning business; we invest in education. Alongside the conferences and seminars, I aim to build an institute of knowledge to house a body of learning that includes DVDs and audio that can be used into the future by other South Africans.

Compassionate capitalism is something I believe in. I am a capitalist through and through, but I engage in society too through mentoring and working with organisations that help others. I always look at what it is that I can teach or offer of myself, so that when I conclude a business transaction, the benefits don’t end with me.

I want to profoundly impact and inspire boys and girls who are poor so that I can place a seed in their hearts and help them to believe that it is possible to transform your life and find fulfilment regardless of where you are born.

Business is a simple thing. You need to find your voice, the one thing you are truly eloquent at, and take action to create possibilities. Be humble enough to learn and know that you will fail many times.

Billy Selekane’s best reads:

Awaken the Giant Within, by Anthony Robbins. It covers a wide range of topics, from goal setting to neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), personal finance, and relationships.

Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill. Published in 1937, during the Great Depression at billionaire Andrew Carnegie’s bidding, the book outlines 15 “laws” intended to be applied by anybody to achieve success.

The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran. The book looks at issues of life and the human condition.

Billy Selekane’s seven principles to better your life:

  1. Purpose: This is what defines you as a person. It is a concept that almost always refers to actions that benefit you as an individual as well as those around you. Purpose is essentially a compass for your life.
  2. Vision: This is what spurs you on your journey and the manifestation of your purpose. It’s about transcending through time to a desired destination. Vision gives you a place to go to and should describe what you want to achieve based on your purpose.
  3. Goal setting: The realisation of greatness has to be meticulously planned and can only happen if you set goals. These are the objects of your efforts. Goals should be strategic and instrumental in the manifestation of your vision and fulfilment of your purpose.
  4. The dream team: This is the group of people you assemble to help you achieve your purpose, vision and goals. Individual achievements are usually the result of team effort, which is why you need to bring together people who possess a range of skills and knowledge and who buy into your vision and goals.
  5. The action plan: To achieve you goals requires a detailed and rigorous action plan. Bear in mind that actions may have to change according to the environment, so your plan should not be absolutely rigid. What you need to focus on is getting things done.
  6. Sowing a seed: Give something of value to others so that they may be better off. This enables connectivity between you and your environment. We all have within us the power to give love, encouragement, hope, motivation and inspiration.
  7. Building resilience: It’s easy to give up when you fail or when you believe life has been unfair. Giving up has a lot to do with what negative people say. Listen to other people’s experiences, not the unconstructive ones that will bring you down, but the positive ones that will inspire and uplift you. By creating an inability to give up, you will achieve success.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

6 Lesson Gems From Appanna Ganapathy That Helped Him Launch A High-Growth Start-Up

Twenty years after first wanting to own a business, Appanna Ganapathy launched ART Technologies, a business he aims to grow throughout Africa, starting with Kenya thanks to a recently signed deal with Seacom. As a high-growth entrepreneur with big plans, Appanna spent two decades laying the foundations of success — and now he’s starting to collect.

Nadine Todd

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Like many entrepreneurs before him, Appanna Ganapathy hadn’t even finished school and he was already thinking about his first business venture. A friend could secure the licensing rights to open Nando’s franchises in Mozambique, and they were very keen on the idea — which Appanna’s mom quickly dampened. “You can do whatever you want,” she said. “As long as you finish your degree first.”

Unlike many other entrepreneurs however, Appanna not only finished his degree, but realised that he had a lot of skills he needed to develop and lessons to learn before he’d be ready to launch the business he wanted.

“We launched ART Technologies just over two years ago. If I had started any earlier, I don’t think I would have been as successful as I am now,” he says.

Here are six key lessons that Appanna has learnt along his journey, which have allowed him to launch a high-growth start-up that is positioned to make an impact across Africa.

1. You don’t just need a product – you need clients as well

Business success is the ability to design and execute a great product and solution, and then be able to sell it. Without sales, there is no business. This is a lesson Appanna learnt while he was still at university.

“I was drawn to computers. I loved figuring out how they worked, playing computer games — everything about them,” he says. “My parents lived in Mozambique, and during my holidays I’d visit them and a friend who had a computer business. I helped him assemble them and thought I could do this too while I was studying. I convinced my dad to buy me a car so that I could set up my business — and never sold or assembled a single computer. I delivered pizzas instead.”

So, what went wrong? The simple truth was that at the time Appanna had the technical skills to build computers, but he lacked the ability to sell his product.

“If someone had said, ‘I’ve got an order for 30 computers’, I would have filled it — but to go out and get that order — I didn’t really even know where to start.”

2. Price and solution go hand-in-hand

As much as you need the ability to sell your solution, you also need a market that wants and needs what you’re offering, at a price point that works for everyone.

In 2007, Appanna was approached by a former supplier whom he had worked with while he was based in Mozambique. The supplier had an IT firm and he wanted to expand into South Africa. He was looking for a local partner who would purchase equity shares in the company and run the South African business.

“I loved the opportunity. This was something I could build from the ground up, in an area I understood well,” says Appanna. The firm set up and managed IT infrastructure for SMEs. The value proposition was simple: “We could offer SMEs a service that they could use for a relatively low cost, but that gave them everything an enterprise would have.”

The problem was that although Appanna and his team knew they had a great product, they were competing on price with inferior products. “If we couldn’t adequately unpack the value of our solution, an SME would choose the cheaper option. It was a big lesson for me to learn. It doesn’t matter how good the solution is that you’re offering — if it’s not at a price point that your target market accepts, they won’t choose you.”

It was this understanding that helped Appanna and his team develop the Desktop-as-a-Service solution that ART Technologies now offers the SME market.

“While I was developing the idea and the solution, I needed to take three key things into account: What do SMEs need from an IT infrastructure perspective, what is the most cost-effective way to offer them that solution, and what will the market pay (and is it enough to cover our costs and give us a small profit margin)?”

Appanna’s experience in the market had already taught him how cost-conscious SMEs are, and so he started developing a solution that could deliver value at a price point SMEs could accept. His solution? A unique Desktop-as-a-Service product that combines all the processing power and Microsoft products a business needs, without any capex outlay for servers or software.

“It’s a Cloud workstation that turns any device into a full Windows computer,” Appanna explains. “We hold the licences, and our clients just access our service. A set-up that would cost between R180 000 and R200 000 for 15 users is now available for R479 per user per month.”

It took Appanna and his partners time to build the solution, but they started with the price point in mind, which meant a solution could be designed that met their needs as well as the needs of the market.

“Too many businesses set everything up, invest in the solution, and then discover they can’t sell their product at the price point they need. My time in the market selling IT and infrastructure solutions gave me invaluable insights into what we needed to deliver on, and what we could realistically charge for our service.”

3. Get as much on-the-ground experience as you can

appanna-ganapathy-art-technologies

The time that Appanna spent building the IT firm he was a part-owner of was invaluable. “I started as a technical director before being promoted to GM and running the company for three and a half years. Those years were very, very important for me. They’re where I learnt everything about running a business.

“When I started, I was responsible for sales, but I didn’t have to actually go out and find clients, I just had to meet them, compile quotes and handle the installations. Everything I did was under the guidance of the company’s CEO, who was based in Mozambique. Being the guy who did everything was the best learning ground for me. It set me up for everything I’m doing today. In particular, I learnt how to approach and deal with people. Without people and clients your business is nothing.”

Appanna didn’t just learn by default — he actively worked to expand his understanding of all facets of the business. “At the time I wasn’t planning on leaving to launch my own business,” he says. “I was a shareholder and I wanted to grow that business. That meant understanding as much as possible about how everything worked. If there was something I wasn’t sure of — a process, the numbers, how something worked — I asked. I took personal responsibility for any errors and got involved in every aspect of the business, including areas that weren’t officially ‘my job’. I wanted to really grow and support the business.”

4. Stay focused

Interestingly, while the experience Appanna has accumulated throughout his career has allowed him to build a high-growth start-up, it also taught him the importance of not wearing too many hats as an entrepreneur.

“I’m glad I’ve had the experience of wearing multiple hats, because I’ve learnt so much, but I’ve also learnt that it’s important to pick a lane, not only in what you do as a business, but in the role you play within your business. I also race superbikes in the South African Kawasaki ZX-10 Cup; through this I have learnt how important it is to focus in the moment without distractions and this is a discipline I have brought into the business.”

“If you’re the leader of an organisation, you need to let things go. You can’t be everything to everyone. When I launched ART Technologies, I knew the key to growth would be the fact that although I’m technical, I wasn’t going to run the technical side of the business. I have strong technical partners whom I trust, and there is an escalation framework in place, from tech, to tech manager, to the CTO to me — I speak tech and I’m available, but my focus is on strategy and growth. I believe this is the biggest mistake that many start-ups make. If you’re wearing all the hats, who is looking at where you’re going? When you’re down in the trenches, doing everything, it’s impossible to see the bigger picture.”

Appanna chose his partners carefully with this goal in mind.

“All the partners play a very important role in the business. Ruaan Jacobs’s strength is in the technical expertise he brings to the business and Terry Naidoo’s strength is in the support services he provides to our clients. Terry is our technical manager. He has the most incredible relationship with our customers — everyone wants to work with Terry. But there’s a problem with that too — if we want to scale this business, Terry can’t be the technical point for all of our customers.

“As partners we have decided what our blueprint for service levels will be; this is based on the way Terry deals with clients and he is developing a technical manual that doesn’t only cover the tech side of the business, but how ART Technologies engages with its customers.

“Terry’s putting his essence down on paper — a step-by-step guide to how we do business. That’s how you build a service culture.”

5. Reputation, network and experience count

Many start-ups lack three crucial things when they launch: Their founders haven’t built up a large network, they don’t have a reputation in the market, and they lack experience. All three of these things can (and should) be addressed during start-up phase, but launching with all three can give the business a valuable boost.

Appanna learnt the value of networks at a young age. Born in India, he moved to Zambia with his family as a young child. From there he moved to Tanzania and then Mozambique, attending boarding school in Swaziland and KwaZulu Natal. At each new school, he was greeted by kids who had formed strong bonds.

“I made good friends in those years, but at each new school I recognised how important strong bonds are, particularly as the outsider.”

Appanna’s early career took him back to Mozambique, working with the UN and EY on various projects. When he moved to South Africa, as a non-citizen he connected with his old boss from the UN who offered him a position as information officer for the Regional Director’s team.

His next move would be to the tech company that he would run for just over three years — also the product of previous connections. “Who you know is important, but how you conduct yourself is even more so,” says Appanna. “If your reputation in the market place is good, people will want to do business with you.”

Appanna experienced this first hand when he left to launch his own business. “Some key clients wanted to move with me,” he says. “If I had brought them in it would have settled our business, but I said no to some key customers who hadn’t been mine. I wasn’t ethically comfortable taking them with me.”

One of those multinational clients approached Appanna again six months later, stating they were taking their business out to tender and that they were hoping ART Technologies would pitch for it. “Apart from the Desktop-as-a-Service product, we also provide managed IT services for clients, particularly larger enterprise clients. Due to the client going out on tender and requesting for us to participate, we pitched for the business and won. The relationship with this client has grown, allowing us to offer them some of our services that they are currently testing to implement throughout Africa.”

“I believe how we conduct ourselves is essential. You need your own personal code of ethics, and you need to live by it. Business — particularly in our environment — is built on trust. Our customers need to trust us with their data. Your reputation is key when it comes to trust.”

Interestingly, although Appanna and his team developed their product based on a specific price point, once that trust is built and a certain standard of service is delivered, customers will pay more.

6. Start smart and start lean

Appanna was able to launch ART Technologies with the savings he and his wife, Kate, had put aside. He reached a point where he had ideas he wanted to take to market, but he couldn’t get his current business partners to agree to them — and so setting up his own business became inevitable.

Although he was fortunate to have savings to bootstrap the business, it was essential for the business to be lean and start generating income as quickly as possible. This was achieved in a number of ways.

First, Appanna and Kate agreed on a start-up figure. They would not go beyond it. “We had a budget, and the business needed to make money before that budget was reached.” The runway Appanna gave himself was only six months — highly ambitious given the 18-month runway most start-ups need. “Other than my salary we broke even in month three, which actually extended our runway a bit,” says Appanna.

Appanna had a server that he used to start with, and purchased a second, bigger server four months later. He also launched another business one month before launching ART Technologies — ART Call Management, a virtual PA services business that needed a PABX system, some call centre technology and two employees.

“I’d been playing around with the idea for a while,” says Appanna. “We were focused on SMEs, and I started noticing other challenges they faced. A lot of entrepreneurs just have their cellphones, but they aren’t answering them as businesses — it’s not professional.

“In essence we sell minutes — for R295 you get 25 incoming calls and 50 minutes of transferred calls. We answer the phone as your receptionist, transfer calls and take messages. How you use your minutes is up to you. For example, if you supply the leads, we can cold call for you. ART Technologies uses the call management business as a reception service and to do all of our cold calling. It’s kept the business lean, but it’s also brought in an income that helped us with our runway.” In 2017 ART Call Management was selected as one of the top ten in the SAGE-702 Small Business Awards.

The only problem with almost simultaneously launching two businesses is focus. “It’s incredibly important to know where you’re putting your focus,” says Appanna. “The call management business has been essential to our overall strategy, but my focus has been pulled in different directions at times, and I need to be conscious of that. The most important thing for any start-up is to know exactly where your focus lies.”


Into Africa

Thanks to a distribution deal signed locally with First Distribution, ART Technologies was introduced to Seacom, which has available infrastructure in a data centre in Kenya.

“It’s a pay-per-client model that allows us to pay Seacom a percentage of every client we sign up,” says Appanna. “First Distribution will be our sales arm. They have a webstore and resellers, and we will be opening ART Kenya with a shareholder who knows the local market.”

From there, Appanna is looking to West Africa and Mauritius. “We have the product and the relationship with Seacom gives us the foothold we need to grow into East Africa.”

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Kid Entrepreneurs Who Have Already Built Successful Businesses (And How You Can Too)

All over the world kids are abandoning the traditional notion of choosing a career to pursue until retirement. Gen Z aren’t looking to become employable job-seekers, but creative innovators as emerging business owners.

Diana Albertyn

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Do kids have an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to starting and building a company? It depends on how you look it. Juggling school, friends, family and other aspects of childhood and adolescence comes with its own requirements, but perhaps this is the best age to start.

“Being an entrepreneur means having to learn, focus, and connect to people and these are all traits that are valuable throughout life. Learning this when you are young is especially crucial, and will set you up for success and to be more open to other opportunities,” says billionaire investor, Shark Tank personality and author Mark Cuban.

Here are some of the most successful kidpreneurs who have cashed in on their hobbies, interests and needs to start and grow million dollar businesses borne from passion and innovation:

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30 Top Influential SA Business Leaders

Learn from these South African titans of industry to guide you on your entrepreneurial journey to success.

Nicole Crampton

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Entrepreneurship is said to be the answer to South Africa’s unemployment challenges and slow growth, but to foster entrepreneurship we ideally need business leaders to impact grass root efforts. Business leadership is vital to improved confidence and growth. These three titans of global industry say:

  • “As we look ahead, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates
  • “Leaders are also expected to work harder than those who report to them and always make sure that their needs are taken care of before yours.” – Elon Musk
  • “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” – Steve Jobs

Here are 30 top influential SA business leaders forging the path towards a prosperous South African future.

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