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20 Crazy Things We’ve Learned About Alibaba Billionaire Jack Ma

From getting kidnapped to dressing up as Michael Jackson, the Alibaba founder has a lot of wacky stories to tell.

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As someone who rose from being rejected from Harvard 10 times to becoming the second-richest man in China, Jack Ma’s rags to riches story is inspiring

Jack Ma

Through persistence and experimentation, Ma built one of the most successful, record-breaking companies to date, the ecommerce giant Alibaba.

Of course, his success didn’t happen overnight, and his story is full of lessons in failure. Growing up, Ma struggled in school, constantly failing tests. When he finally got accepted to college, after he failed the college entrance exam twice and was rejected from Harvard 10 times, Ma eventually became an English teacher. However, once he was introduced to the internet during a work assignment in 1995, the rest was history.

Motivated to help the internet catch on in China, Ma launched Alibaba, an ecommerce site for small- to medium-sized businesses, in 1999. From there, it took years to build the site into the massive online wholesaler it is today, powered by Ma’s motivation and passion. Today, Ma is worth a whopping $39 billion, and since he stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO in 2013, he’s devoted much of his time and money to social causes.

There’s much to learn about the Chinese billionaire. Here are 20 interesting facts about Ma you probably didn’t know.

He wasn’t a great student

jack-ma-student

One might assume Ma was a straight-A student

While one might assume Ma was a straight-A student, quite the opposite was true. Ma admits that he actually failed multiple times in school: “I failed a key primary school test two times, I failed the middle school test three times, I failed the college entrance exam two times.”

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

He began learning English when he was 12

jack-ma-speaking-english

He would volunteer as a tourist guide for visitors just to practice the language

At 12 years old, Ma was committed to learning English. Every morning for eight years, he would ride his bike 40 minutes to a hotel in Hangzhou, where he would volunteer as a tourist guide for visitors just to practice the language.

He was rejected from Harvard University 10 times

Harvard University

Harvard University

It usually takes only one rejection for someone to give up on getting into an Ivy League, but this wasn’t the case for Ma. During an interview at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in 2015, Ma admitted to being rejected from Harvard 10 times.

He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life after college

jack-ma-rejection

You don’t always have to have the answers

After graduating from Hangzhou Normal University, Ma applied for 30 different jobs, and he got rejected from each one. During the process of applying for these jobs, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, so he submitted his resume for a variety of unique positions, one even being a police officer.

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

He was rejected from KFC

KFC

KFC hired 23 – and the one person who didn’t get a job was Ma

One of the 30 jobs Ma applied for after he graduated from college was a position at the fast food chain KFC. Out of a pool of 24 applicants, KFC hired 23 – and the one person who didn’t get a job was Ma.

He loves “Forrest Gump”

Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump

Jack Ma’s fictional idol is Forrest Gump. Like Gump, Ma also struggled in school, then went on to achieve success. “I’ve been watching that movie about 10 times. Every time when I’m frustrated I watch the movie,” he shared with CNBC in an interview. “I watched the movie before I came to New York.”

He became a teacher and made $12 to $15 a month

jack-ma-as-a-teacher

The chosen one

After graduating from Hangzhou Teachers University, Ma’s luck – and career – turned around. Ma was the only student of 500 to be chosen to teach at a university. Teaching English, Ma said he made what was then the equivalent of $12 to $15.

Related: 6 Lessons The Founders Of iKhokha Used To Launch An African Fintech Start-up

He was first introduced to the internet in 1995

jack-ma-first-internet-search

What a search

In 1995, while on assignment as an interpreter in Seattle, a friend showed Ma the internet for the first time. His first search was on Yahoo for “beer.” However, it was through this search that Ma discovered there was no data about China, so he decided to launch a website called China Pages.

He was kidnapped and threatened with a handgun

jack-ma-vegas

kidnapped and threatened

During that same trip, which was his first time in the U.S., Ma also was assigned to go to Malibu, Calif., to collect debt from an American businessman on behalf of a friend. The businessman ended up locking Ma in his home and threatening him with a handgun. After a few days, the man brought Ma to Las Vegas with him when he was due to meet with a group of Chinese businessmen. Still without the money at this point, Ma won $600 on the slot machines in Vegas, bought a plane ticket to Seattle and left the scene.

His first entrepreneurial venture ended in failure

china-pages-jack-ma

Not everything is meant to work out

After borrowing $2,000 from friends to launch China Pages in an attempt to popularise the internet in China, Ma’s venture didn’t quite go as planned. It ran on a server with a dial-up connection in his small apartment, which made pages take more than three hours to load. At the time, his direct competitor was China Telecom, from whom Ma accepted an investment of $185,000 for a joint venture. In the end, however, Ma found he did not have much say in the business. Eventually, he left and took a job with China’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation.

Related: 5 Key Tactics That Helped Gill Bowen And Tim Hartzenberg Revitalise The Shooshoos Brand

He announced Alibaba in a videotaped meeting from his small apartment

Alibaba

Alibaba

By 1999, Ma was on to his next business idea for bringing the internet to China, and he had raised $60,000 from 18 friends to launch his ecommerce platform for small- and medium-sized businesses. Through a videotaped meeting that took place in his small apartment in Hangzhou, Ma introduced Alibaba.

The name “Alibaba” came from a children’s story

One Thousand and One Nights

One Thousand and One Nights

Ma got the name Alibaba from the folktale series One Thousand and One Nights. He was inspired by the story of the poor carpenter Ali Baba, who came across an abundant treasure.

While growing Alibaba, Ma and his team made mistakes along the way

Alibaba headquarters

Alibaba headquarters

Ma’s journey wouldn’t make for a true entrepreneurial story if mistakes and hardship weren’t involved. He attributes three somewhat counterintuitive factors to the success of Alibaba: having no money, no technology and no plan. He’s said that having limited resources made his team more diligent – especially when it came to money, because they had to use their limited funds carefully.

Even as Alibaba grew, Ma admits the company tried to expand too fast, was stretched too thin and had to lay off a lot of people. By the end of 2002, Ma said the company had made just $1 in profits.

Related: 6 Great Tips For A Successful Shark Tank Pitch

Alibaba holds the record for most money raised in an IPO

alibaba-office

Alibaba Office

When Alibaba went public in 2014, its $25 billion IPO broke records for the largest IPO in history – beating both Facebook and Visa.

But Ma wishes Alibaba never went public

Alibaba

Alibaba

In 2015, Ma admitted that if he could do it again, he would keep Alibaba private. “Now, after the IPO, it’s much worse,” he said in a speech to the Economic Club of New York. “If I had another life, I would keep my company private.” After Alibaba went public, it entered the spotlight and faced some scrutiny from investors, regulators and the media. Ma was playing on a bigger stage. “It’s not only our people that watch us,” he said, “the globe watches us.”

He says he doesn’t know much about technology

Jack Ma and Charlie Rose

Jack Ma and Charlie Rose

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Ma admitted that he actually doesn’t know much about technology, despite owning one of the most successful tech companies in the world. “I know nothing about technology,” he said. “The only thing I can use my computer [for] is [to] send [and] receive email and browse.”

Related: 3 Secrets To Franchising Success By Edible Arrangements CEO Tariq Farid

He loves to perform

jack-ma-michael-jackson

Show us you dance moves

Ma loves to put on a show. In 2009, during Alibaba’s 10th anniversary party, Ma threw on a blonde wig and performed The Lion King onstage. At the 2017 anniversary party, Ma went all out and dressed up as Michael Jackson from the Dangerous World Tour. With a group of hired backup dancers, he performed “Billie Jean” and Beyoncé’s “Formation.”

He’s the second-richest person in China

jack-ma-forbes

Jack Ma is the second-richest man in China

As of September 14, 2017, Ma is the second-richest man in China, according to Forbes. He has a net worth of $39 billion.

He stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO because he felt he was too old

jack-ma-interview

When I was 35, I was so energetic and fresh-thinking

In 2013, Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO, saying, “I’m 48. I’m no longer young enough to run such a fast-growing business. When I was 35, I was so energetic and fresh-thinking.”

After stepping down as CEO, Ma refocused his efforts on social issues

JackMaFoundation

JackMaFoundation

In an interview with the Financial Times, Ma shared what he planned to do after leaving his executive position. “In China, because of problems in water, air and food safety, in 10 or 20 years, we will face a lot of health problems, like increased cancer. So that is one area where I will invest my money and time.”

Alibaba bought a stake in Citic 21CN in 2014, changing its name to Alibaba Health Information Technology Ltd. Since then, Ma has spent much of his time and money attempting to bring hospitals and pharmacies online.

That same year, Ma launched the JackMaFoundation, which focuses on education, the environment and public health. In 2015, Ma was recognised as China’s biggest philanthropist, having donated a total of $2.4 billion (after share options) to his foundation.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Lessons Learnt

How To Think Like A Billionaire

If you want to be a billionaire, you have to be passionate, enthusiastic and dedicated. That’s it.

Lewis Howes

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I used to think that being a billionaire meant you had to be super smart, super cool and even superhuman. None of these things are true.

If you want to be a billionaire, you have to be passionate, enthusiastic and dedicated. That’s it.

When you persevere past the point where most people give up, you’ll find that there’s not much competition at the top. Sometimes what holds you back, and has even held me back in the past, are your thoughts. Your insecurities and negativity are just that: thoughts.

To dive more into this, I am bringing out a previous episode with Dean Graziosi. Dean is a New York Times bestselling author, a top real estate trainer and an incredible speaker. He knows what it takes to reach your full potential. And it’s something anyone can do.

Related: 20 Crazy Things We’ve Learned About Alibaba Billionaire Jack Ma

Learn how you can reach the top in Episode 585.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Lessons Learnt

Joe Public United Shareholders On The Art Of Zigging When Others Zag

Pepe Marais and Gareth Leck’s paths first crossed when Gareth saved Pepe’s life. A few years later they were introduced by a friend who thought they’d make excellent business partners. Today they’re South Africa’s largest independent agency, with a turnover of R700 million, and gross profits in excess of R200 million.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Gareth Leck and Pepe Marais
  • Main shareholders: Pepe Marais, Gareth Leck, Laurent Marty and Xolisa Dyeshana
  • Company: Joe Public United, an integrated brand and communications agency
  • Launched: 1998
  • Turnover: R700 million
  • Gross Profit: R218 million
  • Visit: joepublic.co.za 

It was a July morning like any other. Little did Pepe Marais and Gareth Leck know they were about to get a call that would shake the company to its foundations, and result in 35 people being retrenched overnight.

In 2006, eight years after launching their business, and five years after selling it, Pepe and Gareth’s biggest client fired them. The account brought in 40% of their revenue, and the company needed to retrench 50% of its employees as a result.

It was the single worst day of Pepe and Gareth’s careers. They no longer owned Joe Public, but it was theirs in name and brand.

Three years later, the business almost went bankrupt — but it was theirs again. How were these two drastic events related, and why did losing their biggest client allow Gareth and Pepe to not only buy back their business, but find their purpose and change the course of the company as well?

The art of zigging when others zag

To understand how losing their biggest client could actually be the best thing that happened to Joe Public, we need to rewind to 2001, when three business partners at the cusp of their thirties decided to sell their start-up to a multinational.

Joe Public was launched in 1998 as a rebellious, young agency that wanted to do things differently from the rest of the advertising world. Pepe and Noel Cottrell were creatives, and Gareth was a young hotshot account manager. Together, they believed they covered all the angles to run a new, disruptive business.

Related: 10 Books Tim Ferriss Thinks Every Entrepreneur Should Read

“I’d had this idea for a business, which I wanted to call Fresh Advertising, after a night of red wine and brainstorming,” recalls Pepe. “My dad had a café, and I liked the idea of doing ‘fresh’ ideas and an office with a fridge door as the front door. Our third partner at the time, Noel, took the idea further, and we developed the concept into a café-style menu. We were the creatives, and we needed a business guy to make it work. Noel knew Gareth, and so we approached him to join us.”

Gareth loved the idea — he was in his mid-20s, and didn’t have anything to lose. There was another power at play as well. During their initial meeting, Gareth learnt Pepe was a boat man, and recounted a story of how he’d rescued a drowning paddleskier and placed him on a raft of piping until the NSRI could pick him up. A chill came over Pepe as he realised Gareth was talking about him. He’d been knocked unconscious paddleskiing during the first storm of the season in April 1995, and to that day hadn’t known how he’d come to be lying on the piping. They saw the business and the partnership as fate and dived in, head first.

The sleepless nights of starting a business

It was nothing like they’d imagined — particularly for Gareth. “It’s a massive jump from account management to running a business,” he says. “VAT, PAYE, salaries, traffic control, production. Suddenly these were all my problem. I was getting up at 3am so that I could get to the office and do cost estimates before going to see clients. I didn’t sleep for a year. When I did manage to get into bed, I woke up in the middle of the night wanting to throw up because we didn’t have cash in the bank and I had no idea how we were going to pay salaries.”

The partners had hit on something special though: They were selling Rare, Medium and Well-Done ideas, not time, and because they were delivering quality work ‘done well’, they were turning a decent profit. The first few months were extremely tight while they built up a client base, but by their second year they’d netted R1,5 million in profit.

“We were a small, dynamic team. We could take a concept to market within two weeks, so we were fast, and we were also very good. In 2000 we won five Loeries with a staff of five people,” says Pepe.

“We offered quality,” agrees Gareth. “We were quick and slick, and well-priced by the time you reached the end product. The menu concept also offered clients real transparency in an industry known for smoke and mirrors.”

The idea was based on the fact that as youngsters who hadn’t yet made a name for themselves, they needed to be disruptive and innovative out the gate, with a solid business model that would make great returns. “We wanted to zig while others zagged,” says Pepe.

When a buyer comes knocking

All that zigging and zagging had the desired effect, and business soon picked up, but it also had another, unintended consequence — a potential buyer came knocking. “We’d already realised there was a scalability issue with our business model,” says Gareth. “How could we replicate it without people as creative and driven as ourselves? You hit a ceiling when growth requires people of the same calibre as yourself. Anyone in our business will tell you that you can’t have a company full of creative directors. It doesn’t work.”

But there was a second option. A multi-national was offering to buy the business, and part of the deal was that they would roll out the menu option to their subsidiaries and offices around the world.

“Noel was spearheading the deal — he really wanted to move to the US, and the deal gave him the opportunity to join the international network’s New York office,” says Gareth. “From our side, the idea of spreading our model, having an international office, and of course making money from the business all sounded great.”

Why selling was the worst decision they ever made

In a nutshell, they were young, the offer was appealing — and it was the worst decision they ever made.

“We sold completely prematurely and got shafted,” says Pepe. “But more than that, we ended up in a corporate environment that was the exact opposite of everything we’d built our business on.”

The local multinational sold to a larger US-based holding company, and before they knew it, they were just another subsidiary of an international giant. Everything became about the bottom line, and Pepe and Gareth soon found they were compromising great work in the pursuit of greater margins.

And then the worst — and as it turned out, best — thing happened. Their single biggest client fired them.

pepe-marais-and-gareth-leck-joe-public

A blessing in disguise

Pepe had made the decision to fire a senior executive. “We couldn’t work with him. He was toxic to our business. We fired him on good intention, with a full view of how his attitude was harming our business and staff morale,” he explains.

The problem was that the executive in question was very close to the company’s biggest client. So close in fact that once he was fired he was offered the position of marketing director at their company. His first order of business? To fire Joe Public.

“We were devastated. We hadn’t fully comprehended the danger that such a big client posed — and how drastically our business would be affected if we lost them,” says Gareth.

But there was another unexpected consequence of the loss — the value of the business depreciated. “We realised that for the first time in five years, we had an opportunity to buy our business back. We immediately started negotiating with the holding company. The problem was that they wanted an astronominical amount for the business, which was nowhere near what we’d been paid for it. We didn’t have that kind of money. We fought for three years, and eventually resigned. We just said to them, ‘Take it all. We don’t want this.’ That’s when they came back with a reasonable number that we could manage.”

Buying the business back

On the 26th of January 2009, the business partners bought their company back. The day is memorialised in their offices by a plaque that reads ‘Never, ever sell your soul, Joe Public Independence’.

Related: To Be Successful Stay Far Away From These 7 Types of Toxic People

On their way back to the office, they received a call: A media mistake had been made that would cost the company R800 000. Gareth and Pepe had put all of their eggs in one basket. They’d leveraged themselves to the hilt to be able to buy back their business. They’d also kept profits and cash flow low since 2006.

“We didn’t have R1 million in our bank account. We’d basically been breaking even for the last three years,” says Gareth. “Our revenue was R13 million, but that left very little positive cash flow after salaries and expenses were paid each month, and we had no cash reserves. It had been part of our strategy to keep our PE ratio low so that we would be able to buy back the business. We were doing well, winning Loeries and keeping momentum behind the brand, but we weren’t chasing profits. We’d never envisioned such a disaster was possible.”

Failure is not an option, even in the face of bankruptcy

By March, the business was on the brink of bankruptcy. To add to Joe Public’s precarious position, a client who had been spending R380 000 per month put a halt on all marketing spend — also overnight.

“I remember thinking to myself, if this all went pear-shaped, my family and I wouldn’t even have a roof over our heads,” says Gareth. Although more careful than Pepe by nature, the business partners realised they needed to find a solution. Failure was not an option. “We went out and got business,” says Pepe.

“We brought in six new accounts that year. One of those accounts was Anglo American. It was a small job that no one wanted because of its size. We went all out to get it. We understood the value that having a blue-chip client on our books would bring to the business. We also continued doing work for free for the client who had halted all spending. They were in the process of listing, and we believed they’d come back to us once they had, and we were right. We just needed to show them value and loyalty.”

Step by step, Pepe and Gareth brought their business back from the brink. From 2009 to 2010 the company’s revenue grew from R13 million to R20 million, and the partners started building a solid cash reserve. Today, their reserves can carry the business for six months.

Finding a purpose

In 2007, Pepe began a journey of self-discovery. His focus was not only on the business and its needs, but on himself as an entrepreneur and leader. Gareth began his own personal journey two years later.

“We haven’t only worked on the business but ourselves,” says Gareth. “All business owners need coaching, mentorship and counselling,” agrees Pepe. “We’ve both done a lot of personal work and we still do. We hit blocks and work through them. Personal development and self-reflection are incredibly important to the business’s overall success.”

Through this journey of self-reflection and development, Pepe and Gareth found their purpose, both for themselves and the business. By the time they were able to buy the company back in 2009, they had a clear vision of where they wanted the company to go, and how they wanted to change course, and it all started with not putting the bottom line first.

Creating a good formula

“When we started, our whole focus was on the quality of the product,” says Gareth. “We had a good business model and we were creative and driven. A good product led to a good brand, which resulted in revenue. It was a good formula.”

“The year we made our first million, we weren’t focused on the bottom line,” adds Pepe. “We were focused on delivering the best product and service possible, and the natural result was a big, fat bottom line.”

After they sold, the partners soon found themselves in a very different situation. “When you become too focused on the bottom line, you reach a point where you start compromising your product in order to save on costs,” explains Pepe.

“The problem is that you can’t put bottom line at the top. Revenue is a lag factor. If you become too focused on it, you lose sight of the rest of the business. You can’t measure the health of a business on the bottom line.”

Pepe and Gareth are the first to admit that they’d completely lost their way. Losing their biggest client, gaining the opportunity to buy their business back — only to almost lose it again — and finding a way to power through the setbacks gave them a chance to do things differently. They grabbed that chance with both hands.

Making mistakes to create a better business

“You need to make mistakes to get the lesson,” says Pepe. “We needed to re-forge the business based on the right culture.

“We needed to bring the power of purpose into the business. We feel it on a deep level, and it’s now the framework of everything we do. We exist to exponentially grow our clients, our people, and our country — in that order. If we focus on clients, we will grow our people, and we will have a good organisation that can positively impact and help the people of South Africa. We call it growth to the power of ‘n.’”

Revenue growth has naturally followed, but the deeper sense of purpose is helping Pepe and Gareth make a much more meaningful impact. Joe Public registered One School at a Time, a non-profit organisation in 2008. Through the organisation, they have taken their chosen school in Soweto from one of the poorest performing township schools in Gauteng to in the top three. They raise R1,2 million a year for the project, of which R250 000 comes directly from Joe Public.

Related: What You Put In Is What You Get Out – Create Your Own Success

This same drive and dedication is given to clients. “Purpose is just strategy. We do strategy for businesses,” says Pepe. In 2005, Laurent Marty and Xolisa Dyeshana joined the business as shareholders. Today, Xolisa is Joe Public’s chief creative officer and Laurent its chief strategist.

Pepe, who is technically a creative, now also does purpose workshops with the executive teams of their clients. “We bring a creative edge to board-level strategies. Our purpose is to help our clients grow, and that starts at the top. McKinsey has released a report stating that high calibre work in the marketing space will give you a seven times higher return than other work. In other words, high calibre creative counts, and should be part of your strategy. And nothing inspires better work than purpose. It’s our role to help our clients achieve just that.”

Over time, Joe Public has found its mission, which aligns with the business’s purpose. “We now need to develop the metrics that prove the purpose. Every business should be able to quantify the ROI it gives to its clients.”

The ability to course-correct

From 2009, Joe Public refocused on product over the bottom line. Meteoric growth followed. The problem with growth is that you need people to manage teams and business units — and those people were coming from traditional corporate environments, and they were bringing pre-conditioned ‘bottom line’ focus with them.

“Within three years we were back where we’d been, struggling with the wrong culture,” says Pepe. The trouble is that you don’t always spot a problem until it’s too late — particularly when your numbers are good. “The business results were excellent,” says Gareth. “We had found a way to win pitches, the company was growing, revenues and profits were great — but the culture was getting lost. We learnt that you can lose your way culturally and not financially.”

Except that culture feeds the bottom line. Lose it, and the business will eventually start to plummet. “We needed to radically adjust what we were doing,” says Pepe. “We hadn’t hit a problem yet, and our numbers were great, but we realised we were heading towards the top of our bell curve.

Changes for success, starting with culture

“We had already determined that the business must succeed if we want to do more — for our clients, our staff, and in education. Success is fundamental to achieving our purpose. If we didn’t want to go the way of so many companies that reach great heights, only to miss all the warning signs and plummet, we needed to make some serious changes, starting with culture.”

For Pepe and Gareth, a beautiful creative space filled with happy people is the foundation of a company that can do great things. “It’s all about triple profits,” explains Pepe. “Serve your clients and keep them happy, keep your staff happy, and your profits will be happy. A healthy business lets you do all these things. It’s the oxygen to deliver on all the rest. With strong revenue streams you can achieve so much more.”

There are industry jokes that Joe Public is like a cult. Pepe and Gareth are happy to agree. “We’ve built the ‘cult’ into culture,” says Pepe. To achieve a strong, client-focused culture, the partners needed to make some tough choices, and even exit some people who were not aligned to their purpose of serving clients through great work.

Remove toxic employees as fast as you can

“It’s never a nice part of business,” says Gareth. “We’re nice people, and in some cases we took far too long to act. We moved in on people in the organisation who weren’t a good cultural fit. It was damaging to our team and to them to remain here. A happy, healthy workplace is a team effort. You’re not doing anyone favours by keeping toxic individuals in your workspace. It’s been a tough lesson to learn, but we’re much faster to act when we realise we have the wrong people in the business now than we were before.”

Today, Pepe and Gareth follow a simple formula. “One of our clients once told us that all they wanted to do was serve the best possible product to customers, with the best service, at the right price to give value,” says Gareth. “It really resonated with us, reaffirming everything we believe as well. We all have a tendency to complicate business, when what we should be doing is serving our clients — and the best way to do that, is to do great work.”

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Lessons Learnt

Founder of Five-Star Wes Boshoff Weighs In On Becoming An Entrepreneur

Here are Wes Boshoff’s seven lessons in building a brand that matters, offering your clients something of worth, and always following your passions.

Nadine Todd

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A lot of starting a business is just winging it. Call it the hustle, faking it ‘till you make it or biting off more than you can chew (and then chewing like hell), the reality is the same: Doing what you can, when you can to get yourself and your business out there so that you can build a brand with longevity.

As a start-up, does your vision push the boundaries? Are you putting everything you have into achieving something great? Here are seven lessons to help you (and your business) reach full potential.

1. Seize the day

Wes began his career in the people development industry. He was involved in high-impact training and developmental coaching, and entrepreneurship couldn’t have been further from his mind. “I had no appetite for going solo,” he recalls.

Related: Failure Is Not An Option – Or Is It? Your How To On How To

“I was employed but doing some part-time coaching on the side, and while this may have seemed like a springboard into entrepreneurship, I’ve always viewed start-ups as requiring three key things: Timing, opportunity and experience. Experience in particular was a stumbling block for me. I was young. I didn’t feel like I’d earned real credibility or had enough life experience to offer real value to others. Who would listen to me? I was just Wes.”

And then an opportunity presented itself and Wes decided to take the plunge anyway. “After becoming an expert in behaviour and personality profiling, I was asked to join a project management company. About a year into joining them they shut down.”

Facing unemployment, Wes decided to take the plunge and never work for a boss again. Instead, he seized the opportunity to launch his own business and brand.

And so, Five-Star was born, a brand that sought to help businesses improve their customer service by first focusing on their employees. Wes decided to cut his teeth in the hospitality arena, where customer service is the life-blood of the industry.

The lesson: There is no perfect time to start a business. There will always be excuses to put it off. You will never be 100% ready. And yet, until you’ve taken that first step, you can’t start testing your model in the market, tweaking and adjusting your offering to suit your audience. If your dream is to become an entrepreneur, don’t look for all the reasons why you shouldn’t take the plunge, but focus on the one reason why you should.

2. Don’t wait for business to find you

When Wes launched Five-Star, he had no savings to invest in the business and no assets. He had himself and his experiences. “I didn’t spend time on a business plan or money on getting a website up and running — that would all come later. I spent what I could afford on business cards, and hit the streets. I believed I could tell my story better than a website could, and so I focused on getting myself in front of the people I needed to sell my services to.”

Wes’ first call was to the GM of one of the fastest growing hotel groups in the country. “I introduced myself as Wes from Five-Star, told him I’d heard a lot about how good his hotel was, and that I’d love to take him out for coffee to discuss what would take them to a ten. I didn’t sell anything over the phone — I wanted a face-to-face meeting, and the opportunity to share real value. I wanted him to see why we should work together, rather than make a hard sell.”

Wes is an expert in hospitality, training and customer service. But he was also winging it. During the coffee meeting he was asked to do a mystery guest assessment, to uncover which areas could be improved upon. “I asked him if he’d like me to use their report or mine, and thank goodness he said theirs, since I didn’t have one.” Nine years later, that hotel group is Wes’ longest-standing client.

This is the tactic Wes has used to build his business and brand ever since: He focuses on face-to-face meetings, sharing his story, who he is and what he’s learnt, and really listening to his clients’ challenges so that he can offer advice and add value — even if they don’t end up doing business together.

The lesson: Entrepreneurs make things happen for themselves. Wes personally does not like cold calls, and so he’s found a sales strategy that works for him. How you sell isn’t as important as the fact that you are out there, selling yourself, your business and the solutions you can offer. If you aren’t out there selling, you’ll never build a sustainable start-up.

3. Make the most of tools

wes-boshoff-five-star

The report that the hotel gave Wes for his first mystery guest assessment became the template for a report he built for himself. Over the years he has developed numerous tools, building on his experience with Discus and other methodologies to create frameworks for his motivational talks, training and coaching programmes.

“In the early days I couldn’t afford to purchase tools, so I had to really listen to my clients and develop what they needed. There are so many resources available to us today. You just need to do your research, know your industry and be constantly tweaking your offering based on what works best.”

In Wes’ own words, he’s not a book smarts guy, but a street smarts guy. “It’s why a business plan didn’t work for me — I needed to be out there, testing my model and my theories, and tweaking and adjusting my offering. I paid my school fees, and used those learnings to develop the tools I needed to deliver results.

Related: The Journey Of Entrepreneurship: How The Tough Get Going

“I love developing models. Applied knowledge is power. But don’t overcomplicate things. There’s a simple process to learning and development: The stages of knowledge start with a revelation, new knowledge, followed by realisation — making it real — and finally a revolution, which leads to purpose and progress. That’s what I help people to do — create perspectives, interrogate the perspective, and then affect real change in their lives and businesses.”

The lesson: The more open you are to learning and adjusting your solutions, the more you’ll be able to offer to your clients. Any tools you can develop to add to the overall experience are value-adds that benefit yourself and your clients.

4. Add value before you add an invoice

Wes is a born networker. He loves meeting new people, sharing his story, and finding out more about the people he’s networking with. He’s also very good at uncovering the challenges they face and offering solutions, even if those solutions aren’t one of the products he offers.

“When you increase your network, you increase your net worth. I believe in being the go-to guy for my clients. I want them to feel comfortable picking up the phone and asking my advice on anything. I believe great businesses and brands are built when you add value before you add an invoice.”

This has been Wes’ motto throughout his career, long before he launched his own business. “I’ve always put my hand up when a new challenge or task has presented itself. I don’t believe in constantly looking for what’s wrong in what’s right. Face the reality, and determine the best way to get the opportunity out of the obstacle. You need to choose to be opportunistic. I’m a realist, but that doesn’t mean I want to live in a negative environment.

“I’ve brought this attitude to everything I do, including how I view my clients’ businesses. It’s not about what I can get from them, but what I can add to them. Some of this I can charge for, but valuable advice should be freely given. I believe in cultivating an opportunistic mindset; and I want to help my clients and their employees to do the same.”

The lesson: As an entrepreneur, you need to walk the talk. If you truly care about your customers, add real value without always expecting something in return. You’ll build long-term relationships built on trust and mutual respect.

5. Don’t lose Focus

It’s a common problem amongst start-up entrepreneurs. Early wins leave you feeling overly confident and eager for more. It’s at this stage that many business owners start looking for new challenges, and where else they can divest their energy for new and exciting wins.

For Wes, this diversion was cars. “I’d been accepted into the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship, but instead of focusing on Five-Star, I was looking for a way to combine my passion for cars with business.”

Related: 8 Entrepreneurs Share Their Best Advice For When The Going Gets Tough

What Wes found was Plastic Dip, a US-based product used to wrap cars. “I stopped focusing on Five-Star and launched Plastispray,” he recalls. “I had this massive vision, with not much support. I forgot the cardinal rule that I’d learnt in Samuel Chand’s book, Who’s Holding Your Ladder, and that’s the importance of support. We might be the sole founders of our businesses, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need support systems. Who is holding your ladder? Who won’t get bored and walk away?

“I ended up in a situation where my focus was completely scattered, I wasn’t managing my personal life, and the business I was trying to build just didn’t have legs. I even landed this incredible project, building a Mini Cooper for the launch of Virgin Mobile. We turned it into a photo-booth and broke a world record for the most people squeezed into a Mini — which was 25.

“I thought, that’s it, after this project, the business will just take off. And nothing happened. It opened no doors.”

It was a hard lesson to learn, and one that took its toll on Wes emotionally. “2013 was the lowest year of my life,” he says. “I started seeing a psychologist, and spent 2014 rebuilding myself. I realised I needed to work on my attitude, my fears and my business. I also needed to learn how to focus again. We can’t achieve anything in life if we aren’t focused.

“I failed hard, but it also gave me perspective. When you learn you win — which means that failure isn’t actually losing. It’s important to understand that, and it’s what pushed me through the tough times. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.”

Once Wes regrouped and renewed his focus on Five-Star, the business started taking off. “People outside of the hospitality industry started asking me for help. I was invited to speak at international leadership conferences, and work with businesses on turnaround strategies. From there the business has just grown from strength to strength.”

The lesson: Focus is essential. It’s easy to get distracted and chase the next trend or hot idea, but real success takes time to build, and sticking to anything long-term takes focus. The more focused you are, the higher your chances of success.

6. Understand your brand

For nine years Wes has operated the business under the Five-Star name. The longer he’s been in the industry however, the clearer it’s become that his brand isn’t the business, it’s himself, and his ideas.

“I’m always, unapologetically, ‘just Wes’,” he says. “You’ll never be everything to everyone. The best thing you can be is authentic. Some people will love you, others won’t. That’s okay. Just be true to yourself. I’m not a suits guy. I arrive how I am, share my story, my lessons, and give the best advice I can. I share tools and tips to become the best version of you. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I wasn’t completely myself when I work with my clients.”

It’s for this reason that Wes has recently rebranded the business to ‘Wes’, with the tagline, Imagine Thinking. It’s an ideal closely linked with his talks, his philosophy, and his name in the market. “I’m becoming a thought leader, and that comes with risks,” he says. “When you put yourself out there, you need to have enough confidence for people to disagree with you, because that’s hard. Not everyone will like what you’re saying or agree with you on a particular issue. You put yourself out there in the public domain and if you aren’t sure of who you are and what you stand for, insecurities can come to haunt you.

“I tell everyone I speak to, ‘disagree with everything I say…’ I can’t change the way people think, or what they think — I just want to challenge them to think for a change. I want you to consider your opinions and question them. Imagine thinking. Thinking is a verb. You have to do something — you need to disagree to set your own thoughts in motion. Be brave; share your thoughts so that we all benefit together.

“I used to take myself seriously; I don’t anymore. I don’t want to offend, but I’m okay if you don’t agree with me.”

The lesson: Your personal and business brands tell a story. They let your customers know who you are, what you stand for, and what your values are. People do business with people, not companies, so don’t be afraid to authentically share your story.

Related: How To Start A Business With (Almost) No Money

7. Have a vision that scares you

For Wes, too many organisations have a vision that’s external and designed for clients. But he believes vision is an internal thing. “As an entrepreneur, your vision should be for you and your employees. It should be your guiding light. It’s your future, and it should consistently grow.

“If you don’t achieve your vision, it’s because you don’t have an appetite for the mission. If you’re only looking two to five years into the future, that’s a goal, not a vision. Your vision should scare you. It should wake you up and keep you up. It should drive you.”

“The mission is how you achieve the vision. You need to know what it will take to get there, and this usually includes a lot of hard work, stress, fear, and living on the edge. But that’s okay, because we’re designed to stretch ourselves. That’s when we discover our full potential.”

The lesson: Don’t ever be too scared to think big. Thinking small isn’t what entrepreneurs are built for. Big hairy audacious goals (or BHAGs) are the foundation of successful, game changing businesses — and successful, fulfilled entrepreneurs.

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