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How Paul Simon Built YDE With No Cash

You can’t buy success: The founder of YDE and Über Flavour on how lean business models force real innovation and problem solving and build R100 million+ businesses.

Nadine Todd

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Paul-Simon

Vital Stats

  • Player: Paul Simon
  • Companies: YDE (1995 – 2007), Über Flavour (2014 – present)
  • Turnover: YDE had a turnover of R160 million at the time of its sale to the Truworths Group. Über Flavour is still in start-up phase.
  • Visit: www.uberflavour.com

Some of the biggest names in today’s business landscape were launched out of desperation, or simply because the founder wanted the service for themselves.

Über is the product of its founders wanting to be able to get from here to there simply and cheaply, at the push of a button.

Closer to home, the founders of South Africa’s largest agency group, The Creative Counsel, were looking for anything to do that meant running their own business and not working for a boss.

And then there are those who are dragged, kicking and screaming, into business ownership. That’s the story of Paul Simon, who at the age of 21 launched Young Designers Emporium because he was scared his father was finally about to kick him out of the house once and for all.

Related: How Lizwe Nkala Found GroupThinQ To Take On Large Corporates

The leanest of lean start-ups, Simon sold YDE to the Truworths Group, ten years later in 2005. The purchasing price is undisclosed, but at the time turnover was a tidy R160 million, and the business was on a nice growth curve. Not bad for a kid voted ‘least likely to succeed’ in high school.

The Right Idea

Entrepreneurship is like that. In many ways it’s the great equaliser. You don’t have to have the best education, connections or even money to become a knock-out success.

Sometimes it really is about the right idea, at the right time, with a healthy dose of hard work and determination. It took Simon a while to find these things, but once he did, he hit them right out of the park.

It all started at a typical Jewish Friday night family gathering. Simon had been given a deadline five days earlier: Figure out what you’re doing with your life, or pack your bags.

He’d promised his dad he was working on a business plan to buy time, but he knew if the topic came up at dinner that night it would be clear that he had no plan, and that he hadn’t made any attempt in the last week to find one.

“I met everyone at the door and asked them to please not ask me what I was currently doing. I didn’t want anything triggering my dad’s memory,” recalls Simon.

“Unfortunately, I missed my uncle, and so of course, half way through the evening, he asked me what I was up to. My dad immediately joined in, ‘Yes, what are you doing, and how is your business plan coming along?’

“I was frozen with terror. My mind had never worked so fast in its life. If I admitted I wasn’t working on anything, I was out on my ear. My dad’s question was simple: ‘You’ve done two fashion courses, and you’ve created a range that no one wants. What’s your plan?’ I had no idea.”

Turns out, it was the first thing that came to mind, which ended up being the foundation for YDE: “I’m going to open my own store to sell my merchandise,” blurted Simon to a room full of guests.

An Unexpected Business

Paul-Simon-YDE

Where had that come from? Questions were fired Simon’s way in quick succession: Where was he going to get the money to do that? How was he going to manufacture his range? How could he possibly afford the retail space?

By now, his mouth was functioning completely independently of his brain. “I’ve been chatting to the guys I studied with, and we’re all in the same boat,” he wildly invented.

“We’re going to create a kibbutz type environment where we all share the costs. Alone, none of us can afford to do it, but together we can.”

Simon’s spur-of-the-moment idea wasn’t so far-fetched after all. “I found nine other young designers who were interested in operating in a retail environment with fitting rooms, credit card facilities and a proper retail store atmosphere, but couldn’t afford it.”

Related: How Dial A Nerd Managed To Dial Up Profits

A Search for Premises

“For a long time, I thought coming up with a good idea was the hard part. Turns out, it’s the actually building a business part that’s tough, and for me it started with finding premises.

“I had no contacts, no business acumen, and no track record. I didn’t even have a PowerPoint presentation, let alone 3D imaging of what the store would look like, which was just as well anyway, since I had no idea what the store would look like. I felt like Oliver, begging with open hands: ‘Excuse me sir, may I please have some premises.’

“Everyone said no until someone said yes. Here’s the thing – you only need one person to say yes. And sometimes, it’s just a numbers game. Ask enough people, look long enough, and eventually you’ll find what you’re looking for. We certainly did.

“Cavendish Square wouldn’t even give me an application form. Green Market Square said no. And then I found an empty store off a dingy thoroughfare leading away from Green Market Square. It was a white elephant that had stood vacant for too long, and wasn’t in a prime spot.

“By this stage, I’d come up with an idea of how the store would look – I’d seen something similar in London, with metal sheets for décor mimicking a warehouse look. I described it, but no landlords understood the vision.

“The landlords who eventually gave me the lease still didn’t understand my vision – but they didn’t care either. Any tenant was better than no tenant.”

Welcome to YDE

YDE-logo“I hung the sign first. I was incredibly proud of it, all edgy and metallic to suit the metalwork inside. I was so excited about the décor, I spent all the money I had and forgot about essentials, like a till. For months we had to use a fishing tackle box and an old PC at home to do the accounting.”

Simon had made sure that he had a sound system though. This seemed like a crucial element to the ambience he wanted to create: An edgy, vibey, party atmosphere.

“We weren’t trying to be a traditional store; we were a collaboration of young artists, and I felt that the space needed to reflect that attitude.”

Like everything else in that first year, opening night was as lean as it could be.

“We had one box of wine, and sandwiches that my gran made and my sister handed out. But it didn’t matter that it was low budget – it was fun and the press loved it. We were a group of young fashionistas, all 20-somethings who were doing it for ourselves. The story was golden. We generated millions of rands worth of buzz, all for the cost of a few sandwiches. What we had was a story and atmosphere. It was an early lesson to give people a story that they care about, and they’ll tell it for you.”

Open for Business

In his first month, Simon paid his dad back a loan of R10 000 and made the decision to never borrow money again. All growth would be organic, with each store generating sufficient cash to pay for the next one. He also never ended up creating his own range, but became the brand’s business mind.

“We divided the retail equally between designers. By splitting the costs, the rent was affordable. I stocked on a consignment basis, which meant my margins were low, but I carried no risk. Instead, I made a small commission on each garment sold. We also never put the YDE brand on the merchandise. YDE was the store only.”

Simon needed to share costs because he had no money, and today reflects on how innovative you can be when you have no cash.

“The solutions you find because you can’t simply throw money at a problem are the most enduring.” Unfortunately, it would take him years to learn this lesson, as subsequent start-up failures post YDE would prove.

Related: How Zelda Arnott Turned Fans Into Customers With Zellyco

Managing People

The problem with a growing, mature organisation is that at some point it stops being a fast-paced start-up, and starts becoming a vehicle for managing people.

Investors and equity partners will put boards in place as an addendum to growth funding, and in many cases appoint an MD and advise the founder to step down.

The reason is simple: Entrepreneurs love building new things and finding innovative solutions to tough challenges. Few of them want to actually be managers.

“Ten years later, we had 12 stores nationwide and a turnover of R160 million,” says Simon, “and I was a glorified HR manager. I’d loved giving designers an introduction into the market, managing them, helping them grow their businesses because that grew our business too. We provided a full turnkey operation for our designers. All they had to do was do what they were good at – design and manufacture clothes. We did the accounts, marketing, shop fitting and so on. But as we progressed, put systems in place and perfected our back-end and supply chain, we also hired employees, and that takes a whole new set of management skills. I was in my early 30s and I realised that I was managing people and it wasn’t fun anymore. The brand had grown into a chain store, and also needed a new set of skills that I didn’t have.”

There were quite a few suitors. Truworths ended up buying 75% in a two year management buy-out, at which point they bought the remaining 25% in 2007. Simon was 30 and retired. He took a year off. It was the most miserable year of his life.

Shifting Gears

Simon’s next foray into business was a chance to prove that YDE wasn’t a fluke, and ended up being a complete failure.

“There had always been the nagging question, was YDE’s success a fluke? I didn’t think it was. The launch and first two years could have been. We had something fresh and new, and that got a lot of attention. But that’s no guarantee of long-term success. Ten years of consecutive year-on-year growth isn’t chance.”

Simon isn’t alone in following a great success with a failure. Many entrepreneurs struggle to replicate their success.

“Much of the problem is money,” he says.

“There’s a necessity of invention that comes with having no capital. When we launched YDE the concept of the Lean Start-Up didn’t exist yet, but that’s exactly what we were doing. It gave us a chance to test the market as we grew, and adjust our offering. We couldn’t overspend, and so we were careful about what was best for the business. When you have money, these things fall away. You can do anything, and you forget to pay close attention to your market.”

Searching for Customers

“Businesses need customers all of the time. It seems so crazy that I forgot this simple fact,” says Simon.

“I was a father now, so I was looking at the world very differently to a 21-year-old who wanted to create a party atmosphere while people bought fashion. Now it was all about the kids, and I spotted a gap in the market: A safe, beautiful place for kids to play while their parents enjoyed coffee and lunch. I thought I had a real winner.”

The most interesting factor of Simon’s subsequent failure is that it should have worked. Any parent will attest to the fact that in recent years restaurants and coffee shops have become more geared towards children. It’s a big market. If anything, Simon was ahead of the curve. So what went wrong?

For Simon, there were two red flags. “First, I overspent. Shooting from the hip with no plan had worked for me before, and so that’s what I did. The difference is that this time I had money, so I bought the most expensive of everything: Imported jungle gyms from the US and furniture from Italy, a huge 2000m2 space, an alarmed, fenced off space and every child was tagged. What this meant was that I didn’t test my idea before ploughing money into it, and the margins were literally impossible to meet.”

The next problem was market research. “We pumped on weekends but had no customers during the week.”

After incurring massive financial losses, Simon closed the business within the year. “My ego took a real beating and my confidence plummeted.”

Related: Bisila Bokoko On Shifting Your Perspective

Back in the Game

To boost his confidence again, Simon needed a personal win, and he found it in 2010 during the FIFA World Cup.

“I decided to focus on a six-month project, and it turned out to be my greatest success so far in terms of turnover and profit. The Makaraba mining helmets are very South African, and real artworks, which of course means they weren’t geared for the kind of mass production that an event like the World Cup needs. We created a mass production version. We manufactured a plastic projection moulding kit and customised them according to countries and teams. Fans bought the kit in pieces with stickers, and could ‘create’ their own Makaraba helmet.

“Chain stores and corporates loved them – we had contracts with PRASA, Coca-Cola, BP – they ordered thousands for their hospitality boxes.”

“I knew I was looking for a product that I could develop locally, create employment, and use the weaker rand to my advantage.”

The return of the lean start-up: Getting über Flavour off the ground

Lean Start-up

YDE-founder

“I bought a South African product made in Stuttgart and it drove me nuts.” This time, Simon wasn’t in a rush to start his next venture. It needed to be the right idea, at the right time, and although he was always paying attention, looking for a gap, he wasn’t forcing the issue. And then inspiration struck.

“I knew I was looking for a product that I could develop locally, create employment, and use the weaker rand to my advantage by manufacturing here but exporting to an overseas market. I’d learnt that you can’t force these things though, and so for the time being I was just on the lookout for the right product.

“I found it in the EU of all places. My little girl is sensitive to sugar. We were at an airport, and she needed a juice, and I was looking for something with the least amount of sugar. I found a rooibos ice tea that was made in Stuttgart. What? This is a South African product! I was filled with righteous indignation. What the hell are we doing that Stuttgart is producing a rooibos ice tea?”

Simon had found his product, but he realised he wanted to create a craft version. “There’s a growing market for natural, craft products that don’t have any added sugars, flavourants and preservatives. It makes the product more expensive, but I wanted to target the international market, so that was okay.”

Simon got started. This time he would mimic his success with YDE. No intensive capital outlays, lean by design, and starting small, proving the product every step of the way.

Using real brewed rooibos tea as a base, Simon developed three flavours from a kitchen, using trial and error until he found the perfect blends, as well as a solution to the shelf-life dilemma.

Testing the market

“This time I tested the waters. And then he hit the streets, testing the market. I made the decision to launch locally so that we could pay our school fees, test the market and get a reaction to the product and flavours. In November 2014 we produced 10 000 bottles. I was really nervous. I thought the price point was too high for the local market, and I was worried I wouldn’t sell all the stock within the year before the shelf-life expired.”

Simon packed cases into his boot and started canvassing restaurants. “I needed people to try the product to know what consumers thought of the flavours and packaging. That was my goal, but it was a humbling experience. I was cold calling eating establishments, something I’d never done.”

Within six weeks he was out of stock. Turns out, it’s not just the international market that like craft goods, and are willing to pay more for a healthier alternative.

“Initially I was incredibly surprised by the sales. I wasn’t expecting local uptake of this rate at our price point. But it goes to show that people are paying attention to labels. They want to know what’s in the food and beverages they’re consuming, and they’ve learnt that if there are more than three ingredients and many of them you can’t pronounce, then it’s not good for you.”

Within eight months Über Flavour was in 150 locations in Cape Town and Joburg, from restaurants to grocery chains. “To catch up on production I needed to hire a planner, distributor and find a larger production plant so that we didn’t keep running out of stock.”

Simon’s secured six distributors in six countries, including Germany and Switzerland, he’s exported his first orders to Dubai and Australia, and is currently negotiating with Marks & Spencer.

Passion is Crucial

“This is the first time I’ve felt the same passion and buzz I did with YDE,” he says.

“I’ve realised that passion is a vital component of success. Your blood needs to tingle with excitement. But I’m also coming from a much wiser place. We’re staying lean, we’re not throwing money at problems, and I’ll only consider partners who add strategic value to the business.”

Simon has already received a few offers to purchase. His answer is a straight-forward no. This is his baby, and he’s planning to take it all the way.

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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

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michel-m-katuta-and-thabo-mphate-of-afritorch-digital

Vital stats

  • Players: Michel M. Katuta and Thabo Mphate
  • Company: Afritorch Digital
  • Established: 2017
  • Visit: afritorchdigital.com
  • 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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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

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jason-english-of-prommac

Vital stats

  • Player: Jason English
  • Position: CEO
  • Company: Prommac
  • Associations: Young President’s Organisation (YPO)
  • Turnover: R300 million (R1 billion as a group)
  • Visit: prommac.com
  • 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.

prommac

“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.

key-insights-from-jason-english

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Who’s Leading Your Business Billy Selekane Asks – You Or The Monkey On Your Back?

You’re either a change-maker, or someone who is influenced by the shifting conditions around you. The truly successful know how to determine their own destinies. Here’s how they do it.

Nadine Todd

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billy-selekane

Vital stats

  • Player: Billy Selekane
  • Company: Billy Selekane and Associates
  • About: Billy Selekane is an author, internationally acclaimed inspirational keynote speaker, and a personal, team and organisational effectiveness specialist.
  • Visit: billyselekanespeaks.com

We live in a world of disruption. We live in a world where Airbnb’s valuation is $31 billion, but the Hilton’s market cap is $30 billion. Airbnb doesn’t own one square kilometre, and yet they’re worth more than the world’s biggest hotel chains with enormous assets. We live in a world where things have been turned upside down.

In this brave new world, you can either thrive, or fight to survive. As a leader in your organisation, the choices you make, the mental mind-space you occupy and how you engage with those around you, will determine your personal success, as well as that of your entire organisation.

“The business of business is people. You can’t just pay lip service to the idea that they are your most important asset. You need to live it. Leaders must be intelligent and honest. You can’t just push people to meet the numbers,” says Billy Selekane, personal and business mastery expert and international speaker.

The problem is that great leaders need to first find balance within, before they can successfully lead their organisations.

“Things can no longer be done the same way,” says Billy. “Success today is defined by people who are driven, are inspired by their own lives and goals, and have the power and capability to inspire others.” But before you can achieve any of this, you need to rid yourself of the monkey on your back.

Related: Billy Selekane

The monkey on your back

“If I continue doing what I’m doing, and thinking what I’m thinking, I’ll continue to have what I have,” says Billy. “That’s the definition of insanity. Are you doing things by default or design?”

Billy’s analogy is a simple one. It’s something we can all relate to, and it’s the single biggest thing stopping us from clearing our minds, focusing on the positive and achieving success. He calls it the monkey on our backs.

“Every one of us is born with an invisible monkey on their shoulder,” says Billy. “Your monkey is always with you. Sometimes they’re the one speaking, and you need to be careful of that.” What you need to be even more aware of than your own monkey though, is everyone else’s monkeys.

“Every interaction we have is an opportunity for what I call a monkey download. You have an argument with your spouse before work, and you end up getting into your car with not only your monkey, but theirs as well. Your irritation level has doubled thanks to the extra monkey. Now you get irritated with a pointsman, another driver or a taxi on your way to work. You’ve just added three monkeys.

“By the time you walk into the office, you’re bringing an entire village of monkeys with you. They’re clamouring, clattering, arguing with each other, and the noise is deafening. Not only does everyone get out of your way, but you can’t hear yourself think. And the more your mood drops, the more monkeys you download from the people around you. This is not the path to focus, achieving your goals or being happy. It’s certainly not the path to great leadership.

“Great leaders know how to keep all those monkeys out. They know how to control their moods, and regulate their own positivity. They understand that they are the architects of their own success.”

Getting out of the monkey business

To be a great leader — and personally successful and happy — you need to start by getting out of your own way, and as Billy calls it, ‘getting out of the monkey business.’ You need to not only shake your own monkey, but everyone else’s as well.

According to Billy, there are four simple areas you can begin focusing on today that will help you become the person (and leader) you want to be.

First, honesty is the foundation of everything else you should be doing. “Be clear and straight. Speak to people simply and honestly, but with respect. Connect with them, not through the head, but with the heart. Don’t play tricks.”

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Next, be authentic. All great leaders are authentic, and recognised as such. Aligned with this is integrity. “This is sadly out of stock, not only in South Africa, but the world,” says Billy.

“There is nothing as disturbing as a leader without integrity, and on a personal level, you won’t achieve emotional stability if you aren’t a person of integrity.”

Finally, you need to embrace love. “Wish your employees well. Wish your family, friends and connections well. When we are given love, and trusted to perform, we take that and pay it forward. In the case of business, this means your employees are giving the same love to customers, but if everyone showed a little more love, the world would be a better place. When people feel cared for, they show up with their hearts and wallets, and they pay it forward.

“Great leaders understand this. They don’t only focus on making themselves better, but adding to everyone around them. Remember this: In every business, there are no bad employees, just bad leaders. Employees are a reflection of that.”

If you want to build a better future, business or life, you need to start with yourself.


Do this

Stop letting negative thoughts and minor irritations derail you. You are the master of your moods and thoughts, so take personal responsibility for them.

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