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Inspiring Entrepreneur Siyanda Dlamini Believes You Need To Back Yourself To Build Your Dreams

Siyanda Dlamini knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life from the time he turned 15. Hotel management (and eventually ownership) wasn’t the obvious choice for a young black boy from KwaZulu Natal, but he knew he had enough passion and determination to see his dreams come true.

Nadine Todd

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Siyanda Dlamini is the proud owner of the recently launched hotel management company that owns the Regency Apartment Hotel in Menlyn. Thanks to focus, hard work and commitment, he’s built a career from the ground up that has culminated in his first move into entrepreneurship.

I’ve always taken everything I do seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously. I think there’s an important distinction. You need to give everything your all, but if it doesn’t work, laugh at yourself, learn from your mistakes, and move on.

Ever since the catering club in Alexandra High School in Pietermaritzburg, I’ve taken things seriously. I treated it like a real job, and that degree of dedication shaped my life. By the time I was 15 I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. My mom was a teacher and didn’t love the idea that I was choosing hotel school over maths and science, but I knew if I followed my passion I’d achieve great things, so that’s what I did.

Related: Bed and Breakfast Inn Business Plan

I look at everything as a picture made up of a multitude of dots and colours

For me, that’s how life and business works. I’ve always been inquisitive — I need to understand everything. It’s why I’ve wanted to work in all the different positions within my chosen field, and why I’ll always ask questions. The more you know, the bigger the picture, and the more you can connect the dots. It’s the same with people and networks. Be open to as many possibilities and networking opportunities as possible, and then connect anyone who you believe will benefit from it. Give of yourself freely.

In this way I’ve helped others, but great opportunities have also come my way. A few years ago, when I was offered the opportunity to buy into a hotel franchise, I secured funding because I was introduced to the right people by a female butcher who I had introduced to my industry contacts. It wasn’t a quid pro quo, but the result of networking and relationship building, and then connecting each other with great people.

The deal didn’t go through, but I’d learnt two valuable things: First, with the right connections and business plan, the funding you need is obtainable, and second, when an opportunity doesn’t go as planned, it’s often because something bigger and better is around the corner.

If you believe in yourself, that’s all that really matters. I was teased a lot at school. I was a black boy who spent all his time building up the catering club, and following one of my teachers, Mrs Meyer around. She headed up the catering club and had taken me under her wing, teaching me about buying in bulk, spotting specials and the basics of accounting. She believed in me, and really gave me good insights. It made me different, but I didn’t care. I didn’t need anyone else’s validation. I had the most amazing support system in my mother, and the self-belief and confidence to carry me through.

No one can build your dreams for you — only you can do that. You have to back yourself. You can’t expect people to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself.

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Black Entrepreneurs To Watch

I look at where I am today — 1 000 builders on site, contractors, staff on board, a new hotel brand — and I know that all this was only possible because of my confidence, my plan, my passion.

Do what feels right; don’t conform to what everyone else is doing. Once I found out about Protea Hotel’s training programme, I wrote a letter to the training director — I wanted her to know who I was and what I wanted to do. I needed to get into that programme, and so I thought about what would get me noticed. It worked — but it also landed me in their toughest hotel; the biggest and busiest. That was okay — I’d told her I was tough. Now I had the chance to prove it. Through their programme Protea gets four years of service from its trainees, but we get the experience we need. You’re in control of where that takes you. The more you put in, the more you get out.

Always be aware of the risks involved, but don’t let them determine your way forward

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It’s important to recognise risks because that’s how you mitigate them — that’s how you plan your next moves and ensure you’re covering all your bases. I like risks — they make me cautious, which makes me think everything through. I don’t do anything without a carefully plotted-out plan of action. The great thing about planning everything is that you can then tackle whatever you’re doing head on, full of confidence.

It took me a long time to get here, and I’ve loved every step of the journey. I’ve had to get through the Protea Hotels training programme, various hotels, various management styles — this was a long road of hard work and long hours. It didn’t just happen or come easily. It’s taken real dedication. I’ve loved every second of it though — even the tougher positions and managers. I believe you need to go through everything and experience every position and step in your chosen industry to really understand it, and appreciate what you have. Everything is a learning opportunity, you just need to grab it with both hands.

Sometimes you have to go backwards to move forwards

After four years in a management position in a great hotel, I made the decision to move to a bigger hotel into a slightly more junior position. I knew I needed a new challenge; to keep learning — and I had the confidence in myself that I would be able to rise through the ranks quickly once I’d made the move.

Related: Seed Capital Funding For South African Start-Up Businesses

My goal was always to own something of my own, but not this big. I’ve always thought I’d eventually open a small boutique hotel with 100 rooms and themed floors. And while I plan to still do that one day, it’s also clear that if you’re open to opportunities, they come your way. You just need to lay the foundations — build your reputation, work hard and network. People need to know you and trust you, and great things will happen. This is one of them. The developer, Key Spirit Developments, was looking for a hotel management company owner and someone from my network introduced us. Our values and visions aligned — and the rest is history.

The road ahead is daunting, so make sure you’re passionate about what you’re doing. This is particularly true of my industry, but all entrepreneurs face a tough, uphill battle. If it’s only about the money, you won’t make it. You’ll need passion, grit and determination to get through all the challenges that will come your way, and the mistakes you’ll make and lessons you’ll need to learn. I started my career with R850 and a willingness to work day and night to make my dreams come true.

I want to change lives and mindsets

I grew up in a world of professionals — teachers, lawyers and doctors. Hotel management was almost a taboo for a young black boy. But I did it anyway, and I can look at everything I’ve achieved — and that’s ahead of me — with pride, because I know I’ve followed my path, and I’m working with a developer who really believes in me. Together, with my hotel management company and his property development business, we’re going to open at least five more luxury apartment hotels, and through each one we can change lives.

When you’re writing your own story, you can look at your purpose. For me, everyone who’s in my employment should have access to basic medical care. I also employ one raw recruit for every talented employee we’ve brought on board to continue paying it forward and to give people the opportunities I received.

Always live your brand to the fullest. I’ve spent years building my reputation and brand within this industry, and now that I’m branching out on my own it’s really shaping what we do. The most incredible and talented people have left their jobs to join us, even though we’re a start-up. They’ve worked with me, they know me, and they want to be a part of what we’re doing. They want to share my purpose.

No one can build your dreams for you — only you can do that. You have to back yourself. You can’t expect people to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself.

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. 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

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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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Entrepreneur Profiles

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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