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From Dirt Poor to Self-Made Millionaire: Lebo Gunguluza

Dirt poor as a child, Lebo Gunguluza, entrepreneur, motivational speaker and all-round mover and shaker, became one of South Africa’s youngest self-made black millionaires at 27.

Monique Verduyn

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Lebo Gunguluza

R60 and a whole lot of nerve. That’s what Lebo Gunguluza had on him when he arrived in Durban in 1990, determined to enrol for a BCom at the University of Natal. His father died when he was a child and his mother worked as a nurse. There was not much money to go round and what she had managed to save for his tertiary education went on getting him, his brother and his sister through high school in the turbulent late 80s.

“There were so many boycotts at the time that I missed two years of school, so my mother took her savings and sent me to Woodridge College, just outside Port Elizabeth, which was a multiracial school,” he says. “It was a great move on her part as I managed to get a really good education there, but it meant there was nothing left over for varsity.”

Driven from an early age

Gunguluza says his dream to study business was enabled by his appetite for risk. He had no money and no place to stay, but he also had nothing to lose. “Whatever you do, the higher the risk, the higher the reward. I had been accepted at the university, but I could not pay the fees so I was not allowed to register. But it didn’t matter – all I knew was that I had to get in so that I could do a business degree and become an entrepreneur.”

That level of resolve so early on in life, coupled with his understanding of how important a solid education can be, were to stand him in good stead later on at pivotal moments in his work life. It also highlighted how determined he was to lay a solid foundation for the development of his career.

By chance, and probably thanks to his colourful personality, he met a guy on campus who let him sleep over a few nights while he tried to arrange finance. On the last day of registration his tenacity paid off and he secured a bursary to pay for his studies at the Pietermaritzburg campus. It was to be the beginning of a turbulent but inspiring career. But, by mid-year, his funder decided to pull out of the country, leaving him high and dry. With no resources, he had to find another way to stay on and complete his degree.

“I’ve always been a creative thinker. At school I won a national essay competition on how to launch DSTV. I have applied that skill where possible throughout my life. I knew I had to earn some cash so I went to Edgars and offered to become an agent for the retailer on campus. I would sign up new accounts and they would pay me commission. They agreed, and I did so well that I ended up working in-store. I was making enough money to survive by working during the day and catching up on my studies at night. But it was a struggle to pay fees, so I got a loan to help me get by.”

Learning on the job

That meant that when he graduated in 1994, he had a debt to pay back. But, armed with a degree, some work experience and a formidable ability to sell, he took his pick from several job offers and went to work at the SABC as a sales executive.

“I wanted to be in an environment that was creative. I can’t stress enough how important it is to find out where your talents lie when you are young so that you can make choices that hone your skills.”

It was also at this time that he set his financial goals. “I had grown up so deprived that I was determined to make a lot of money and never experience poverty again. I set three goals: to become a millionaire by age 25, a multimillionaire by 35 and a billionaire by 45.”

Gunguluza did well at the SABC. His drive to succeed was unremitting; he was promoted four times in the space of two years and became marketing manager for Metro FM by age 24. But his impoverished family back in Port Elizabeth was still dependent on him and he was simply not earning enough to take care of everyone, even though they believed he was coining it in Joburg.

That was when he decided to save enough money to go to the US for a few weeks and do a specialised broadcasting course which would boost his earning potential. But his gameplan changed when he got back and was recruited by advertising mavericks, Herdbuoys.

Read Next: Tim Tebeila on the Importance of Recognising a Gap

Making a million

“My salary doubled, but the ad industry is a tough business to be in. I was working really hard but still not making much headway. There was no way I was going to make that first million. Then something struck me. I was really good at throwing big parties at home. Why was I getting all these people to eat my food and drink my alcohol for free, when I could be making money from them?”

That was 14 years ago and he was then 26. He took the plunge once again, leaving Herdbuoys and the comfort of a monthly pay cheque behind. Fuelled by the desire to build a business that would earn him enough to take care of his family and achieve his first big goal, he started Gunguluza Entertainment.

He had no money for cash flow in the business, but he put his considerable ability to leverage situations to great use. In addition to being a skilled salesman, Gunguluza is a networker of note. It’s a talent that comes easy to a person who’s passionate about entertainment and media.

“There was a night club called Insomnia in Sandton that was not doing too well. I approached the owners and told them I would bring the crowds if they let me take the door. That way they could make their money by selling drinks.”

It was a great idea that took off immediately. Why? “Because there were no clubs for young and trendy black people in the north at the time. Most of them were in Hillbrow or in the townships. On the first night I made R7 000 and I knew I was on to a good thing.”

But like many young entrepreneurs, Gunguluza treated the money as his own and not the business’s. After a few weeks, however, he realised that he had to start saving the cash he made in a business bank account if he wanted to hire some help. For about four months he did really well, earning more than R5 000 per event. But then a copycat came along – a celebrity who had kept an eye on Gunguluza’s parties and started to throw his own. The clubbers descended in droves, leaving Gunguluza with an empty dance floor.

Changing direction slightly, he started to book artists he had come to know over the years and quickly became a popular talent manager. By this stage he was making about R100 000 per event, and also taking the opportunity to build his brand. “I made sure I was on radio all the time and I positioned myself as a local entertainment expert,” he says. Then, in 1997, he heard that a new youth radio station was about to be launched and his skill in sales came to the fore once again.

“I was far from reaching my R1 million goal, but I knew radio and I knew parties so I called YFM and convinced them to give me half a million rand’s worth of airtime to organise the launch event on their behalf. Kwaito was big at the time, and I knew all the stars. I met with sound, stage and lighting guys and used the media space I got from YFM to barter with them so that we ended up with R4 million production. I also made sure I partnered with a team who were used to hosting huge events in the white market because they had the experience. 15 000 young people came to that party, and they each paid R100 to attend. I made R1,5 million cash, with all costs covered, and YFM got a fantastic launch party.

“That experience reinforced what I found out early on in business. You don’t always need money to acquire things – it’s often possible to use your resources and barter when you don’t have cash. Without funding, tenders or loans, I had made my first million at the age of 27. It’s a principle I still live by today. I never borrow money from the banks. It can cripple you forever. The other problem is that many young people who secure a loan treat it as a lotto win and live the high life on it. That’s why so many projects are abandoned half way.”

Living the high life

Gunguluza knows what he’s talking about when it comes to squandering. He spent that first million in one year. Instead of using that money as seed capital, he bought a GTI and partied like there was no tomorrow. By the end of 1999, he was flat broke. His car was repossessed and he was blacklisted.

“I hit rock bottom for a few reasons. Aside from the flashy lifestyle, I realised then that you have to choose your market sector carefully. Entertainment is a fickle industry and promoters can be unscrupulous. Often we would not get paid on time. I made up my mind that whatever I went into next, it would be in a space that pays well and has structure.

“At that time I was sharing a townhouse with my cousin, and I was so down and out that I would walk to the CNA and stand in a corner reading business books that I could not afford to buy. Often the staff would come and chase me away so I’d go home, change my clothes and come back. I read about Aristotle Onassis, Richard Branson and Donald Trump and realised that if I wanted to succeed, I would have to change my mindset. These people had huge personalities which impacted their business lives.”

Three key points stood out for him:  Whatever business you go into, you had better know it inside out, down to the last bolt; you must always have a strong sales ability in the business; and cash is king, so whatever money you make, try to retain as much of it as possible and use it to advance the company.

Applying the lessons

Although he did not have much experience in communications, Gunguluza was a media maven. He approached Penta Publications and started to sell media space for them. It was a steep learning curve and Gunguluza took full advantage of it, getting to know the tough world of magazine publishing and corporate events. Satisfied that he had picked up enough, he left nine months later and started working on his communications business, Corporate Fusion, a name that indicated a new direction for him – the rigour of the world of big business. Within 18 months it was generating more than R2 million. He ran it from his townhouse with a single telephone line.

With his appetite for risk growing stronger, Gunguluza knew it was time for him to go to the next phase if he really wanted to grow the business into something substantial. He contracted with several big clients and, through his knowledge of radio and print media events, he launched several awards shows – lavish evenings that became the talk of the town.

He also began to build an extensive public sector network that saw him consulting on communication strategies with several municipalities. By 2003, at 33, his business was turning over R14 million, a result of several big ticket contracts he had secured with blue chip companies. He’d reached his next milestone before the age of 35 and had become a corporate communications specialist by applying his now considerable media and publishing experience.

Read Next: Paul Veltman on Why Bigger is Always Better

Living large, falling hard

But then he dropped the ball once more. Blinded by his success, he bought a Porsche and started travelling the world. Although he did not repeat the same mistake he’d made before with cash flow, this time round he left the business in the hands of others.

He soon lost touch with what was going on in the company and came home one day to the biggest crisis he had yet confronted. An event for one of the country’s largest financial services companies had turned into a shambles. It was so bad that Sunday Times columnist Gwen Gill went on about it for several weeks in her social pages, ripping the event to shreds. Gunguluza lost the client, as well as R7 million worth of other business in three weeks. Four months later he was in debt to the tune of R4 million. He could no longer pay salaries and had to retrench staff, a period he recalls as the most painful time of his life.

To quote Japanese-American academic Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa, “Notice the difference between what happens when a man says to himself, I have failed three times, and what happens when he says, I am a failure.”

Gunguluza refused to see himself as a failure. He sold the office building he had bought back to its original owners for R1 million, and bought a Primi Piatti franchise in Rosebank. With his background in entertainment, he and his wife were determined to build the restaurant and use the cash they made to pay back all their debtors. As a result of his flair for fun, it soon became one of the most popular Primi sites in the country, and turnover growth was high. It was the place to seen in Rosebank and was frequented by Joburg’s who’s who. But Gunguluza’s relationship with his wife soured and they separated in 2008.

He handed Primi over to his ex-wife and started focusing on the other business interests he had been growing quietly in the background. “I hardly ever slept at that time. When I was not at the restaurant I was developing a new media business and creating new partnerships. I had managed to settle all my debt and build a company that had already turned R2 million by the time I was out of Primi.”

The birth of an empire

Media, hospitality, technology, property and investment – those were the five sectors Gunguluza wanted to be in. “I wanted to use the media business to develop other companies within the GEM (Gunguluza Enterprises & Media) Group of Companies. I was now chasing my R1 billion goal, but I knew that if I started from scratch it would take far too long. My strategy was to acquire an interest in existing companies and triple their turnover by boosting their sales and marketing. Really, it was the same strategy I had applied years back to quadrupling the airtime I got from YFM, just on a bigger scale.”

Next, he partnered with Uhuru Communications, the publishers of SAA’s Sawubona magazine, that same year and several other youth and campus publications. He also leveraged his public sector experience by launching Municipal Focus, also in partnership with Uhuru, which covers the business of local government with a nationwide distribution to municipalities and government departments. He continues to grow his publishing footprint through a series of 12 publications.

The next phase

Indeed, there’s no rest for Gunguluza. He has acquired an interest in several hotels and also launched a car hire company that does not require credit cards and that will soon be providing flight services too.

Is there a logic to all these acquisitions? He says it’s part of his strategy to own every link in a chain – eat, stay, drive, fly.

He is also growing his capital interest through projects he invests in and which make him easy returns. That’s what’s enabled him to grow GEM into a multimillion rand business in just two-and-a-half years. The big news is that he plans to launch the first African television channel early next year – a concept along the lines of MTV Base – which he says is a R400 million deal that will turn GEM into a media powerhouse.

These days, he leaves nothing to chance. Each of the dozen companies in the GEM group has its own MD, with Gunguluza playing an operational role in running the group which now employs about 150 people.

“In the past, my HR was a mess. I would hire people just because I liked them. Today, we have strict hiring policies and procedures and we are particular about the people we employ.”

Gunguluza says that because he was born to sell and market, his focus as chairman is on building the brands of each of the companies in the group so that they can attract more business and seek out new opportunities.

Gunguluza has not forgotten his roots or his family. His mother, sister and brother all have senior positions within the group. His success is testimony to the impact that one person can have on a family and a community. Naturally, he is a far more cautious man now than he was in his 20s and 30s, but that goal of becoming a billionaire by 45 is firmly within his sights.

Read Next: Top Business Tips From a Few Millionaires

Support for black business owners

Having seen his own star rise and fall many times, Lebo Gunguluza is determined to help young black entrepreneurs to understand the value of having a business plan and holding onto cash. That’s why he founded the South African Black Entrepreneurs Forum (SABEF) in 2008.

Its membership has grown to 30 000 and he himself has become a sought-after spokesperson for black entrepreneurs, as well as a popular motivational speaker whose journey inspires others.

There were several reasons for founding SABEF, he says. Following his divorce, he was alone and realised that he and others could benefit from some sort of support system. Many people were being retrenched at the time and he was also keen to help them see that it was possible to become self-employed if you did not have a job. There is no need, he stresses, to sit at home and wait for help from government. Beyond that no one realises more than he the value of structures and plans, which is something SABEF seeks to provide for young business owners.

“SABEF is not only a great network for entrepreneurs, it helped me to grow my own relationships with both the public and private sectors. I have a huge base of people to tap into, which has also enabled me to become a successful consultant to government.”

He is also the co-founder and chairman of the Local Government Business Network (LGBN), a voluntary organisation set up to promote the relationship between local government and the private sector. Find out more about SABEF at www.sabef.co.za

Lebo’s Lessons

  1. Cash runs out very quickly and it does not come back. Cash gives you flexibility and mobility so use it carefully.
  2. The customer is everything. How you treat your customers has serious implications for the business. Treat your clients badly and they will not only take their business elsewhere, but they’ll also tell as many people as they can what a terrible company you have. Don’t fob off customers. Always get back to them and maintain the personal touch.
  3. Respect compliance. If you do not comply with rules and regulations and have the necessary certificates,  you will never be paid.
  4. Chase your invoices. Make sure you are invoicing on an ongoing basis or you won’t get the cash.

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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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. richard swarts

    Feb 19, 2015 at 16:10

    I just heard the final bits of the SAFM interview, of Lebo Gunguluza on SAFM. He sound like a very brave & interesting, entrepreneur, that are involved in diverse enterprises. Intercellcash a south African innovation, is the kind of enterprise that Lebo Gunguluza, should partner with. richard@intercellcash.com or ralswarts@gmail.com or 0761230260

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Entrepreneur Profiles

John Holdsworth Founder Of Tautona AI Shares 4 Disruptive Strategies That Are Changing The Insurance Industry

What can we do now that we couldn’t do before, thanks to changes in technology?

Monique Verduyn

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john

“Disruption isn’t just doing things in a different way which doesn’t resonate or go any further — it’s about changing the game. Being disruptive means taking a look at an industry and finding a way to do it differently, giving you an advantage over the incumbents.”

Vital Stats

  • Player: John Holdsworth
  • Company: Tautona AI
  • Est: 2016
  • Visit: www.tautona.ai

Disruptive innovation is the catchphrase that defines the last 20 years. New technologies, business models and media have disrupted the way we do just about everything. Conventional wisdom has it that the new kids on the block are the ones who are going to own the market at the expense of industry stalwarts, but this innovative South African disruptor is showing them how it’s done.

1. It’s the experience economy, stupid

Regardless of how the world changes, organisations that consider their customers’ emotions and experience first, win. That’s exactly what Tautona did. They put themselves in the customers’ shoes and asked one key question: ‘What’s wrong?’ Few industries are as ripe for disruption as insurance. When John Holdsworth co-founded cognitive automation business Tautona AI in 2016, he knew that there had to be a better way for insurers to handle client claims.

Tautona AI emerged out of a consulting engagement John had with a large insurance company. With a background in IT, he is a highly experienced technology executive and entrepreneur who has started a number of successful companies. He says he loves the energy and adrenalin associated with start-ups. He pioneered the use of digital signatures in South Africa, founded mobile payments company PAYM8, and converged voice and data provider ECN, which he sold to Reunert for R172 million in 2011. The experience acquired over this time meant he was ready to take on a massive challenge.

Related: 5 Key Areas Pratley Are Using For Current And Future Growth

“When a policyholder submits an insurance claim, that action should trigger an instant decision, with the outcome immediately communicated back to the policyholder,” John says.

“Customers want swift claims handling, communication, and compensation. They want the same instant gratification that they get from online banking. So that’s what we set out do — to revolutionise the entire claims process. We have made traditional claims processing a thing of the past by pioneering a cognitive solution that is making the claims process faster, smarter and more efficient.”

2. Automating judgment tasks once reserved for humans

Tautona’s claims automation solution uses artificial intelligence to instantly approve or refer claims for further investigation. By using machine learning algorithms to identify patterns in the data, Tautona’s solution identifies fraudulent claims, enabling insurers to halve fraudulent claim losses.

Tautona also uses Robotic Process Automation to integrate to legacy systems, removing the need for traditional programming techniques. This means that Tautona’s claims automation solution can be implemented with minimal disruption to a business. By automating decision-making, communication, and compensation, Tautona enables insurance companies to take a major step towards becoming true digital insurers.

3. Ditch the legacy systems, start from scratch

Disruptive innovators invest in digital strategies so that they can find new ways of responding to their customers’ evolving needs. The founders of Tautona AI agree on several principles, but one that stands out specifically because it goes entirely against traditional thinking, is the importance of starting from scratch.

“You cannot take a non-digital business model and expect it to work online,” says John. “Instead of using old methods, you need to start from the beginning. Ditch the legacy systems, take a leader mentality and imagine the art of the possible.”

This iterative, modular approach typically begins with defining the strategy and programme plan upfront, delivering a core capability fast so it can provide benefits immediately, and then continuously improving with regular, incremental capability improvements to achieve the objectives of the strategy. It’s an approach that fosters closer collaboration between stakeholders, improved transparency, earlier delivery, greater allowance for change and more focus on the business outcomes.

Related: 8 Codes Of Success That Helped Priven Reddy of Kagiso Interactive Media Achieve A Networth Of Over R4 Billion

4. Shaking up an industry

How do you launch new solutions and educate customers who are used to doing things the way they have always been done? John says resistance to change is inevitable. That’s why you need more than good technology.

“When you introduce something ground-breaking to the market, you encounter many different types of personalities asking diverse questions. That demands an approach that is client-centric and entirely customer focused. It also means you have to spend time developing a sound business case to present to decision makers.”

A solid business case documents the justification for the undertaking of a project. It’s the way you prove to your client and other stakeholders that the product you’re pitching is a sound investment. You need to justify the project expenditure by identifying the business benefits the innovation will deliver and that your stakeholders will be most interested in reaping from the technology.

“Essentially, it’s about proving you can deliver,” says John. “When you have an entirely new proposition, the only way you can hope to get your foot in the door is with a value proposition so profound that clients are forced to take a look at it.”

Tautona has convinced a number of South Africa’s top insurers to implement their AI-powered claims automation solution. The results to date have been ground-breaking, with insurers dramatically reducing turnaround times and processing fees. As a result, Tautona’s sales pipeline is full to the end of the first quarter of 2019.

“But there’s no rest for disruptors. Nokia and BlackBerry crumbled because they were slow to react to market changes, and they underestimated the challenge from Apple and Samsung. The only way to retain leadership is with relentless innovation, that is, a constant flow of new versions and features. That applies in any industry today.”

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Tim Hogins Started Out As A Security Guard, Today His Has A Turnover Of R150 Million And Has Self-Funded Three Huge Lifestyle Parks

As a poor township kid, Tim Hogins watched kids pile into buses heading to Sun City every weekend, knowing he couldn’t afford to join them. He was a youngster, but he made a promise to himself. One day he would build parks that anyone could visit — especially underprivileged kids like himself.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Tim Hogins
  • Company: GOG, formerly Green Outdoor Gyms
  • Est: 2012
  • Turnover: R110 million
  • Projected Turnover: R150 million (2018)
  • Visit: gog.co.za

“I’m a visionary, and I’m not scared to invest in my vision. I’ve lost millions, but I’ve made more because of that. Business is about making money, but I’ve grown beyond that – I want to employ people, develop them, push boundaries and see where we can take this.”

“Poverty can be a good thing, because growing up poor makes you creative, and that’s an incredible power if you know how to use it.”

Seven years ago, Tim Hogins drove out of an office park and pulled onto the side of the road because he was having a panic attack. His car was closing in on him, he couldn’t see and he couldn’t breathe. After months of hard work, it was all over. His dreams were shattered.

Tim isn’t the first entrepreneur to find himself here, and he won’t be the last. What separates him from countless other aspiring business owners is that despite a massive setback, he didn’t back down. He sat in his car, phoned his wife, and told her what had happened. Instead of telling him it was time to move on and find a job, she asked him how they were going to cobble together the money he needed to start again.

And that was the beginning of Green Outdoor Gyms, a vision Tim had been nurturing for almost two years. A business idea that had led to his retrenchment and was almost ripped away from him by his business partners and investors.

But he didn’t quit. He pushed on. And today his business has a projected turnover of R150 million and has self-funded three huge lifestyle parks that Tim hopes will impact the lives of thousands of underprivileged children while providing jobs for hundreds more.

Related: 8 Codes Of Success That Helped Priven Reddy of Kagiso Interactive Media Achieve A Networth Of Over R4 Billion

The in-built art of tenacity

green-outdoor-gyms

To understand Tim, you need to understand where he came from. As a township kid growing up in Randfontein on the West Rand of Johannesburg, Tim always helped his parents to sell stuff. They were traders. His dad had a small café selling burgers and chips, and his mom baked. While other kids in the area piled into buses for Sun City on the weekends, or visited a local bird park, Tim had to work or the family didn’t eat.

“I matriculated in 1996, and even though I had an exemption, tertiary education wasn’t on the cards for me,” he says. “We just couldn’t afford it.” But Tim had a plan. His cousin told him about a free four-week course to become a security guard, and Tim aced it, securing a position at one of the firm’s top industrial sites.

Here’s the first secret to Tim’s success. Instead of seeing a dead-end job, Tim saw an opportunity. If he did his job well, he would progress to a driver, and then a cash-in-transit guard. From there the plan was management. Becoming a security guard wasn’t his fate because he couldn’t get a degree — it was step one to the rest of his life.

“I was raised to be the best version of myself. Everything is what you make of it. In primary school I was head boy, and in high school the head of the SRC. There’s always a way to grow and improve yourself.”

Two years into his career as a security guard, Tim heard about another opportunity  — a free programming course teaching COBOL, a back-end system used by the financial services industry.

“I grew up 500 metres from Stafford Masie, who would go on to become the first head of Google South Africa and is one of our country’s greatest tech entrepreneurs,” says Tim. “I had zero programming experience — I’d never touched a computer — but I knew how valuable these skills were, and here was an opportunity being handed to me.”

It wasn’t quite as easy as Tim imagined. He failed the aptitude test and had to take it again. Once he was on the course, he failed that too — it was a programming course after all, and Tim needed a far more basic introduction to IT. He didn’t give up though. He’d quit his job and needed to make this work while he was still living with his father and didn’t have financial responsibilities, so he begged the course administrator to let him retake the programme. This time he passed, and found a job at a small IT firm.

Once there, Tim built up his IT acumen. Over the course of his IT career Tim worked for Dimension Data, EOH and SITA. In his final three years he applied for an account management position and moved into sales. His goal was to become a business owner, and so he diversified and learnt what he could about business.

He also paid attention to the world around him, looking for a business opportunity or problem he could solve. He dabbled with some ideas, but the one he kept coming back to was outdoor gyms.

“I saw kids in parks doing sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups on trees, and kept thinking there must be a better way than this for them. I knew that a proper solution would be good for the whole community — giving kids and parents a safe and free environment to play in and focus on their health. I focused on poorer communities, where gym fees weren’t an option, and kids needed safe places to play and keep out of trouble.”

The more Tim unpacked the idea, the more he began to believe in it. And then his employers found out, and made it clear that they did not like Tim’s attention divided between his job and his business idea. Despite this, Tim continued to focus on his entrepreneurial play, and within a few months he’d been retrenched, ostensibly due to a restructuring of the business, yet Tim was the only person let go.

It was October 2010 and Tim had no job, two-months’ salary and he was about to get married. But it was the best thing that could have happened to him. “That retrenchment catapulted me into business. From then on, my full focus became outdoor gyms.”

Winning and losing

gog-water-park

Tim had approached Joburg City Parks who where interested in the idea. He had also met with an engineer and they had begun to design the equipment. There was just one small problem: Money.

“I knocked on doors, approaching anyone who would listen. One investor laughed at me. He said I’d gone from IT to playing with steel — what was wrong with me? A contact at SITA said flat out that she wouldn’t help me. Looking for funding can be incredibly demoralising. I had an idea and a letter of intent from Joburg City Parks, and it still wasn’t enough.”

And then Tim was introduced to a group of investors who wanted to instal kids play areas in municipal parks. Tim had the City Parks connection; they had the funding. They entered into a business partnership and built a prototype together. This was when Tim’s wheels fell off.

“I was invited to a meeting by my three business partners, and when I arrived there were five people in the room — my partners and their two lawyers. We’d entered into the agreement as 50/50 partners, and they wanted us to all be 25% shareholders. I couldn’t agree to that. This was my idea, my connection, my baby.”

By the time Tim left the meeting, he had no funding, no partners and no prototype and he knew City Parks was getting impatient. All he’d done was create competitors — and they had a demo model.

Tim had spent most of 2011 looking for funding and then building the prototype once he found his partners. He wasn’t just back to square one, he was behind where he’d started months ago. Hence the panic attack.

It was a pivotal moment. Give up or push on? Tim chose to push on. That night, Tim and his wife, Rona Hogins, sat down and came up with a plan. They would sell one car and Rona would apply for a bank loan. Together, they managed to come up with R200 000. Tim approached a friend who was interested in a side business and they launched LXI, an importer of screens for media companies. LXI brought in enough to pay the bills while Tim concentrated on getting Green Outdoor Gyms off the ground.

Then luck stepped in. “I drove past a warehouse and saw some play equipment. Instead of driving on, I pulled in and pitched my business idea to the owner.” The owner, Neta Indig, agreed to build Tim’s prototype at cost, in exchange for a long-term partnership. Tim agreed. His R200 000 would be enough to get the business back off the ground. Green Outdoor Gyms was officially launched in February 2012.

Here’s the thing about luck though. Unless you’re open to opportunities, paying attention and willing to step out of your comfort zone, luck alone will get you nowhere. By the time Tim drove into Neta’s parking lot, he’d spoken to countless investors, had doors shut in his face, lost a partnership and his prototype, and was still willing to look for any opportunity that might present itself. Through sheer will and tenacity, he found it.

Related: The 5-Hour Rule Used By Bill Gates, Jack Ma And Elon Musk

Seizing opportunities

gog-exercise

After the first outdoor gym was installed, two things happened. The competition Tim had feared from his old partners didn’t materialise. It was Tim’s first real lesson in the power of passion. He’d doggedly pursued his idea for over two years. His partners, who didn’t share that passion, did nothing with the prototype they’d acquired. Tim was still — at that stage — in blue ocean territory.

The second was how quickly an idea can take off once the foundations are in place. GOG’s turnover was R3 million in its first year, and orders were flooding in from municipalities throughout South Africa.

Tim was invited to present his solution in parliament, and it was included in the National Development Plan. “Everything escalated faster than I could have imagined,” he says.

“The reality is that we’re an obese nation. It’s a real problem. On top of that, 90% of the country can’t afford commercial gym fees. Under the National Development Plan, every community was earmarked for an outdoor gym. Government saw my vision and they bought into it.”

Tim had to tender for each new site, but he had a first-mover advantage. By the time other players entered his space he’d already built up a track record. His team’s turnover times are impressive and the business doesn’t only design and instal the equipment, but can also overhaul a derelict park. The quality of his products ensures that equipment lasts at least eight years with no maintenance, although once an outdoor park is installed, the community takes ownership of it, cleaning it regularly and maintaining the area.

In six short years, GOG has installed over 1 000 outdoor gyms for local municipalities around the country, and there’s still room for growth. There are currently between 5 000 and 10 000 sites available, and while Tim doesn’t believe they will get all of them, the business will continue to expand. “I believe we still have a ten-year run with government-funded outdoor gyms, but this is no longer our core business.”

In fact, GOG has grown and changed considerably since that first outdoor gym was installed in February 2012.

“I’m an opportunist. I pay attention to developments around me and am always on the lookout for where we can add value,” says Tim. As a result, GOG is now developing its own sites and supplying equipment to the industry — across private and public sectors.

“You need to know that competitors are coming,” says Tim. “When we started out we had a niche with outdoor gyms and government, but someone will always want to eat your lunch. If you know that someone’s paying attention to what you’re doing and that everyone needs to diversify, you can stay ahead of your competitors.

“Our business is centred around health, fitness and family, and  this understanding has allowed us to grow into lifestyle spaces that support our core focus.”

As a result, GOG has expanded to the installation of play areas and outdoor gyms for hotels, private and public schools, beach parks and lifestyle estates, including Steyn City.

“We also have a registered landscape company,” says Tim. “We can take vacant land and transform it into a park with grass, trees, water and pathways. We have a Geotech division that does soil testing and environmental studies.”

None of this happened overnight. It takes time to build a reputation, but if you’re focused on four key things, you can build a sustainable business. “You need to diversify your product range, diversify your customer base, nurture relationships and push outbound sales,” says Tim.

Tim has geared the business for scale, which is critical in a production and manufacturing context. “We have always outsourced our manufacturing, first with Neta, and later to a Chinese manufacturer who has become integral to our success.”

Tim’s relationship with Neta was critical in the start-up phase, but after two years the manufacturer decided to focus on his core. “We were too big — it wasn’t a side project anymore, and Neta wanted to remain in construction,” says Tim. “I needed to either find another manufacturing partner, or move into that space myself.”

Tim visited manufacturing facilities in China and sourced samples until he found a plant that could handle GOG’s volumes and quality. “Chinese manufacturers value loyalty and they’ll do whatever you want at the price point you ask. If you want a cheap product, you’ll get it — and the quality to match. Good quality costs more. I have an excellent relationship with our supplier — so good that he flew out to South Africa to see our operations, because he was impressed with the volumes he produces for us.”

It’s this relationship and the capacity available to Tim that has allowed him to take the next step towards his ultimate vision for GOG: Lifestyle parks.

Living the dream

gog-exercise-park

GOG’s first lifestyle park stemmed from Tim’s need for a showroom and his life-long dream to give underprivileged children access to entertainment parks that he couldn’t afford when he was a child.

“We were manufacturing outdoor parks and I started thinking about other ideas in this space that aligned with our vision and niche. I needed a showroom that could showcase everything we can do, from ziplines to climbing walls, swimming pools to spray pools and outdoor gyms. A lifestyle park was the natural answer to everything I wanted to achieve.”

GOG Lifestyle was opened in November 2016 and is situated off the N14 near Lanseria Airport. It’s close to a number of townships, including Diepsloot and Cosmo City. “The revenue model is corporate team building events, family days and launches, which allows us to run specials for kids, the elderly, and CSI projects for schools and churches.”

The next lifestyle park, GOG Gardens, was opened in Soweto in December 2017. Bigger than the first lifestyle park, GOG Gardens caters for picnics, outdoor events and concerts. It’s a multi-purpose venue with seven venues in one, and also focuses on corporates, the general public and events, with CSI projects that support children.

“We have launched some smaller projects, such as GOG Kids at Chameleon Village in Hartbeespoort and a play area in Vilakazi Street, but our next big project is Happy Island, a 36 hectare water park off Beyers Naude Drive in Muldersdrift.”

Happy Island is GOG’s first joint venture with an investment partner, Tim’s Chinese supplier. Unlike the other lifestyle parks, which GOG self-funded from cash reserves, Happy Island is a multi-hundred million rand project with large capex needs. “The idea came to life when the chairman of our manufacturing supplier visited our operations in South Africa. There are no water parks in South Africa similar to those I visited in China. We are doing something completely new and exciting, and we broke ground in April 2017.”

All of GOG’s lifestyle parks have required high capex investments and have not yet reached break-even, unlike the smaller projects that will reach break-even within a few months. “Our projection for the lifestyle parks is three years, and five years for Happy Island,” says Tim.

“My long-term goal is to have ten lifestyle parks across South Africa, one in each region, and that’s what I’m investing in. We want to make a difference, give kids access to these parks and employ people.

“I’m here today because of my childhood experiences, but before I could invest in this dream, I needed to start small and build up my reputation and cash reserves. To achieve my ultimate dream will take a lot of investment, so that’s the focus.

“I’m a visionary, and I’m not scared to invest in my vision. I’ve lost millions, but I’ve made more because of that. Business is about making money, but I’ve grown beyond that — I want to employ people, develop them, push boundaries and see where we can take this. When someone says something is impossible, I want to know why, and then try anyway. That’s how you achieve great things. That’s how you realise your dreams.”

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

Next level

In 2016, GOG launched its first lifestyle park, GOG Lifestyle. Since then, two more lifestyle parks have been added, GOG Gardens in Soweto, and GOG  Kids in Chameleon Village in Hartbeespoort. The company’s biggest venture, Happy Island will soon be open to the public as well.

Healthy Living

GOG’s genesis was outdoor gyms, and the company continues to grow from these original roots: Catering to a growing focus on healthier lifestyles, from public parks to beaches, corporates and residential estates.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

How Fever-Tree Is Burning Up The Mixer Market With Their Unique Selling Point

When it comes to targeting the mixer market, Charles Rolls and Tim Warrillow of Fever-Tree, have hit the nail on the metaphorical head. Their unique selling point, drive for quality and passion for innovation has put the business into a prime position to grow their business – with a little help from well-sourced ingredients.

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Vital Stats

  • Company: Fever-Tree
  • Launched: 2005
  • Founders: Charles Rolls and Tim Warrillow
  • Visit: fever-tree.com

What is Fever-Tree’s Unique Selling Point (USP)?

For us, it’s always been about putting the quality back into the mixer category, from the packaging, imagery, even style of serve but nowhere more so than the ingredients themselves. When creating Fever-Tree, the mixer category was dominated by a couple of multinational conglomerates that had become driven by manufacturing efficiency, rather than quality or flavour.

Our meticulous focus on quality resulted in a very different approach to product development – we delved into the history books to find the most authentic and highest quality ingredients we could, then we went out into the field to track them down, spending time with specialist producers and experts to create our products.

There’s no other company going to the lengths we do to source these fantastic ingredients.

Watch the video below on how it all began …

 

Related: 20 South African Side-Hustles You Can Start This Weekend

Since it’s listing on the London Stock Exchange, Fever-Tree has seen an impressive 20x increase in the share price. Can you expand on the some of the challenges that were faced, as well as how you overcame them, when listing Fever-Tree?

The listing was a great opportunity to attract long term investors in the business as well as enabling the Company to reach a wider consumer audience as we discovered lots of our shareholders are also advocates of our products!

What do you wish you had known before starting the business 13 years ago, or what advice can you give to entrepreneurs?

charles-rolls-and-tim-warrillow-fevertree

My advice to any entrepreneur is to do your research, but also listen to your instinct. There were definitely some nay-sayers for us in the early days, and it’s fortunate we did our best not to listen to them.

When it comes to ingredient sourcing and packaging – where do you begin?

Within a couple of months of meeting my co-founder, Charles Rolls, we set off on a pursuit to find the very best ingredients, literally travelling to the ends of the earth.

Our initial research took us to the British library, where we learned that quinine, the core ingredient in tonic water, comes from the bark of the cinchona tree – colloquially referred to as the ‘fever’ tree. In search of the best quinine in the world, I discovered the last remaining plantation in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most dangerous parts of Africa. So I travelled there to meet with the growers and to this day, this is where our quinine is sourced.

The journey continues to this day, whether it’s our fresh green ginger from Ivory Coast, Cochin ginger from India or closer to home, our lemon from Provenance or hand-picked elderflowers from Gloucestershire.

Similarly for packaging, from the very beginning we would not compromise on quality, using single serve glass packaging to premiumise the mixer category in every way we could.

We see you’ve launched a new ‘Aromatic Tonic Water’ – what is your key to innovating and creating a product?

aromatic-tonic-water

With any product innovation, it is key to listen to your consumers, look at the trends, find out what people are talking about, what they are buying, what they want more of. This is how it all began when creating Fever-Tree. Charles and I had noted, from different ends of the sector, that premium spirits were driving the growth in spirits category. Consumers were increasingly seeking out craft ingredients and flavours in place of commoditised, mass produced products, but this movement towards premiumisation had passed the mixer category by. There was a clear opportunity to put quality, choice and excitement back into a long-forgotten, stagnant category.

The whole company is built on innovation and we are constantly developing new mixers, new flavours, new ideas and in doing so, creating an array of flavours to pair with the myriad of premium spirits out there.

Our unique Aromatic Tonic Water is a great example of this – it is perfect to mix with gin to create the ultimate pink G&T, a hugely popular drink amongst consumers. This tonic water is made using angostura bark from South America and pimento berries from Jamaica to create a sweet, spicy flavour with a wonderful pink hue.

Related: 10 Cheap Businesses You Can Start In South Africa That Offer Uniquely Local Relevance

Where do you see Fever-Tree in 5 years?

What’s so exciting, is that we’ve only scratched the surface! Whilst G&T consumption is still in strong long-term global growth, the spirits category is not just about gin; and the mixer category is not just about tonic. The trends that we identified at the outset are only accelerating. We’ve seen that quality has broad appeal – people are wanting to drink better quality spirits in greater numbers.

Here in South Africa, the same trends that drove the G&T revolution in the United Kingdom are beginning to emerge. There’s a real ‘gin explosion’ in South Africa, with the emergence of an abundance of craft and local gin brands, as well as more established premium brands becoming ever more present. We’re already seeing some great opportunities for co-promotional activity both in retail but also across hotel, bars and restaurants and we believe there is a significant opportunity to increase our footprint and visibility across South Africa, capitalising on this revival of simple, long mixed drinks such as the gin & tonic.

But Gin only accounts for 6% of global premium spirits, presenting a significant opportunity for us with other spirit categories. Dark spirits, for example, accounts for 10 times as much as gin, and we are the first company to develop a full range of mixers specifically designed to address this very notable opportunity.

What is Fever-Tree’s mantra?

Charles and I created Fever-Tree with one simple premise, which still holds true to this day, that if ¾ of your drink is the mixer, use the best.

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