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Bankrupt And Dreams In Tatters: How Sheree O’ Brien’s Self-Belief Drove Her To Success

In her teens, Sheree o’Brien worked two jobs to fund her start-up dreams. But then one bad decision left her in massive debt and her dreams in tatters.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Sheree O’Brien
  • Company: Splakavellis Management
  • What she does: Music management
  • Launched: 2000
  • Visit: splakavellis.co.za

When Sheree O’Brien launched Splakavellis Management at the age of 19, she couldn’t find anyone willing to give her start-up capital. Instead, she used the money she was earning as an events manager at clubs by night, and from her ‘real’ job by day, to bankroll her dream. It was a time of little to no sleep; of cashing up at the club at 5am before going home for a shower and heading off to her day job.

The hard work and dedication was paying off though, and soon O’Brien was the only artist management and booking agency based in East London. In a scene dominated by ‘big Jozi cats’, she was managing a handful of legendary artists like DJ Mbuso, Soul Candi and Phezulu Records’ stable of DJs.

Related: Naadiya Moosajee’s Overriding Purpose Is Driven By Her Passion

Once she was reasonably established, O’Brien made the first big mistake of her career. One that would almost cost her everything.

Hard lessons

“I invested in a national tour for a then-popular girl group, with two other partners,” she recalls. The tour did not go well. Because all of the venue deals and the contract with the artists’ management company were in O’Brien’s name alone, she knew that pulling out halfway through the tour would just lead to legal action.

“To avoid being sued and possibly ruining my company’s reputation, I decided to go broke instead. I made sure the artists, security providers, drivers, accommodation and meals were settled from the income of the events, but sacrificed my needs to make ends meet. I was sleeping in our combi and not eating. By the time we reached the final city in the tour, I didn’t have R1 to my name. I couldn’t even get home. My friend Lira (who was also still a struggling artist back then) bought me a train ticket back to East London. It was an 18-hour journey, and I couldn’t afford anything to eat. I would smell the food wafting up from the food car and try to sleep to ignore my hunger — but sleep also doesn’t come easily when you’ve just bankrupted yourself.”

Her partners had cut and run, leaving O’Brien to carry the debt alone, but instead of throwing in the towel, she redoubled her entrepreneurial efforts, this time armed with some valuable business lessons and insights under her belt.

“I learnt how fickle our industry is and that I will never know everything. On a practical level, I learnt how important it is to always put a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in place when embarking on a joint venture. Your MOU should outline who is contributing, how much, and what the return expectancy is. It can also highlight potential scenarios of loss. If I’d had an MOU in place, I wouldn’t have borne the losses of the tour alone.

“From then on, I stopped investing my own finances into events, at first out of necessity, but later as a general rule. I also started working more closely with my accountant. Today I won’t even buy a new laptop without asking her permission. She helps me to keep things lean. When my six-year-old laptop died on me and I asked her if I could invest in a MacBook, her reply was that I should get some ‘MacCommonSense’ instead.

Related: What The Concept Phase Really Means To Alex Van Tonder

Picking up and carrying on

Taking such a hard knock shook O’Brien’s confidence. Almost everyone she knew was telling her to declare bankruptcy and move on. She refused.

“I’d been working on this dream since I was 14 years old. I’d had a major setback, but that just made me even more determined to succeed. I had to move back in with my parents and start all over again, getting a day job and freelancing after hours, but slowly I paid off my debt and got back on my feet. All it took was patience and determination.”

O’Brien’s decision to bite the bullet and save her reputation paid off. “My brand name stayed strong, and so I didn’t actually lose any clients during that time. If anything I was even more in demand than before. For seven years I sacrificed buying new clothes, eating take-aways, sleep, family time and my sanity in order to pay off all of my debt and start on a clean slate.”

Once again, it was seven years of hard-won lessons though, particularly because O’Brien refused to cut corners or compromise on her morals.

“I learnt three big lessons while I was rebuilding my business from the ground up,” she says.

“First, the only way to learn about risks is to take them. As an entrepreneur, safety should not be your go-to place. You have to be all-in, regardless of how many times you fall.

“Second, there will always be people who want to make a quick buck off you. I can’t tell you how many offers I received from friends of friends of government officials to enter into tender partnerships with them in return for kickbacks. They thought I was absolutely mad to turn away ‘big money’, particularly because I was in debt, but that wasn’t how I wanted to build my business. I’m a firm believer that the best tool in your marketing arsenal is your reputation, so I made sure that throughout my journey, mine stayed intact. Whenever I was offered a deal that I was uncertain about, I asked myself if my parents would be proud of this decision. If the answer was no, I walked away.

“Finally, if you’re passionate about something, and you know you’re making a difference in your industry and impacting the world positively, then it’s okay to take your time to build something great. Not everything has to be a rush. Rather build something well that will last than something quick that has no staying power.”

Splakavellis-Management

Finding a balance

Alongside her business hardships were personal ones, and O’Brien has worked as hard on finding a balance between her personal and professional life as she has on building a sustainable foundation for Splakavellis Management.

“Business isn’t only about planning and strategising,” she says. “As an entrepreneur you need to understand that success doesn’t only come from managing your business well, but from managing yourself well too.”

O’Brien knows what she’s talking about. While she was struggling to pay off her business debts and emerge from bankruptcy, she was also trying to put an abusive relationship behind her, leaving East London for Joburg, only to be stalked by her ex-boyfriend in her new city. Family deaths as well as the passing of one of her artists also took their emotional toll.

Related: 27four Investment Managers Aren’t Afraid Of The Big Boys

“In between all of this, I also became a parent. Being a single mother and a business owner really makes you understand how important it is to have a support base, but also that your business and personal lives can’t exist in isolation. They impact and influence each other.

“I’m incredibly blessed to have an amazing family. My business requires me to travel every other weekend, and sometimes for weeks at a time. Without their help this wouldn’t be possible.”

O’Brien is proof that you can have it all, as long as you understand that there are no clear lines between personal and business for an entrepreneur.

“My professionalism has been incredibly important in this regard. I’ve always been known as the hardest working woman in this industry. In 16 years I’ve never missed a deadline because I don’t take anything for granted. I always do more than what I’m hired and paid to do.

“This focus and dedication on going above and beyond has meant that when I’m facing challenges in my personal life, I need to accept them and move on, without wallowing in my own misery. It’s easy to get side-tracked by the personal, but then I would lose my competitive edge professionally. Instead, I’ve found that personal challenges can actually be a strength, because I throw myself into my work.

“There are so many reasons not to be successful if you look for them, but I’ve found that there are just as many reasons to fight for your dreams. It’s all about how you look at a situation, and your attitude. If you want something badly enough, you can always make it happen.”

Remember this

The only way to learn about risks is to take them. As an entrepreneur, safety should not be your go-to place. You have to be all-in, regardless of how many times you fall.

Lessons Learnt

(Podcast) ‘Bizarre Foods’ Andrew Zimmern: ‘I’m Addicted To The Hustle’

How this week’s ‘How Success Happens’ guest overcame personal struggles and built an empire.

Dan Bova

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I didn’t know what to expect when we scheduled an interview over breakfast with today’s guest Andrew Zimmern. As you may know, the chef, writer, restaurateur and TV personality made a name for himself traveling the world and eating some, well, bizarre foods on his hit travel/food show, Bizarre Foods.

Turns out our breakfast was pretty normal – we didn’t dig into a fresh plate of scrambled brains or anything – but the conversation was anything but typical.

Over the past couple of years, Zimmern has built a true empire around his name with books, TV shows, restaurants (including his new Twin Cities joint Lucky Cricket), and a production company, but as he very candidly told me, the road to success has not been easy. He has gone through a lot of personal pain on his journey, and he says it is a daily endeavour to keep himself moving on the right track.

As Zimmern explained, over the course of his life, he’s had problems with substance abuse, depression – even homelessness – and he was very open about sharing the lessons he’s learned along the way about coping and finding redemption. We also spoke about his dear friend, Anthony Bourdain, and about the struggles of feeling overwhelmed that most of us face.

Related: Gareth Cliff Shares His Tips For Starting Your Very Own Podcast

But don’t get me wrong, he’s really funny, too! There’s nothing “normal” about Andrew Zimmern. Hope you’ll enjoy our conversation, thanks for listening.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Lessons Learnt

How BrightRock Is Disrupting The Insurance Industry With These 2 Pivotal Strategies

Developments in technology, and clear communication are positioning BrightRock to disrupt their industry and transform the consumer experience.

Monique Verduyn

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Sean Hanlon, Leopold Malan, Schalk Malan, Suzanne Stevens
  • Company: BrightRock
  • Est: 2011
  • Visit: www.brightrock.co.za

BrightRock was started around a dining room table in 2011 by four people with years of industry experience and — importantly — a diverse set of complementary skills.  They wanted to make changes to an industry with an age-old methodology by allowing customers to co-create a solution that precisely meets their individual needs, and adjusts as those needs change. Today, BrightRock is the fastest-growing insurer in the intermediated individual life risk market. It also provides underwriting management services to funeral parlour businesses and, more recently, has entered the group risk insurance market, offering its needs-matched approach to employees.

The founders of BrightRock, established in 2011, knew the life insurance industry all too well, and they found its methodology wanting. “Traditional life insurance lumps all the individual’s needs into one policy,” says CEO Schalk Malan.

“It’s a methodology that has been around for centuries. We started afresh and looked at how we could design life insurance based on individual requirements. Our cover is designed to exactly match each specific financial need. Because there is no waste, it’s more cost efficient and sustainable. And if circumstances change and our customer needs more cover, it’s easy to get it because needs-matched design enables the policy to change in line with changing needs.”

1. Embracing digital technology to provide needs-matched insurance

Suzanne Stevens, marketing executive director at BrightRock, points out that this type of innovation achieves efficiency (cost savings) and effectiveness (higher returns). “By harnessing digital technology, we have made our operations more efficient, and aggressively lowered costs by up to 30% for our customers. Every rand they spend with us works harder for them. That’s the benefit of a solution designed around the customer.”

BrightRock’s founders took a similar approach. ‘We ditched legacy thinking in favour of creating a product that is intuitive and easy to navigate. An enormous amount of time and effort went into writing and designing that system, and creating the optimal customer journey.”

Related: How BrightRock Is Rocking The (Industry) Boat In Only 5 Years Since Launch

Unlike clunky legacy systems, BrightRock’s platform is modularised, and was built according to the agile principle of rapid delivery cycles. The result is a technology stack with longevity, that is also flexible enough to be tweaked when needed.

“The advantage of the technology available today is that you can plug things in and pull them out as required,” says Suzanne. “That’s one of the enablers of a truly disruptive mindset. To step away from accepted norms and find new solutions requires curiosity and creativity, as well as a lot of courage to go up against large incumbents in the market. There is always resistance to new technology, although we are fortunate in this country to have one of the most innovative insurance sectors in the world.”

2. Effective communication is critical

These disruptors have set themselves above the rest through one surprisingly simple tactic —  effective communication. They agree that it simply doesn’t matter how world-changing your product or service is if you don’t communicate it to the right audience at the right time. New companies that fail to communicate their remarkable new development will quickly be pushed aside by other disruptors. Without a clear communication strategy that reaches the audience in the industry you’re trying to disrupt, you’ll set yourself up for failure. A key question to ask when you are developing your communication strategy is simply whether people understand what you do.

“Because the premise for our product was fundamentally different from anything on the market, communication and clear messaging were critical to convincing our clients to put their trust in us,” says Schalk.

“It was especially important to educate insurance advisors so they would understand what we were doing, why we were doing it, and how it was better than the other options available. That was key to disrupting the individual life market.”

Currently, BrightRock employs 380 staff, has experienced 40% year-on-year growth, and has an annualised premium income of more than R1,3 billion. The company has recently entered the group risk environment with a similar offering that addresses many of the same shortcomings of traditional group risk products. “The inefficiencies of the structuring of group products has meant that, to remain competitive, insurers have cut the benefits offered to employees, undermining their sense of financial security. Change is needed, and we believe our needs-matched philosophy positions us to change the group risk market too.”

‘We ditched legacy thinking in favour of creating a product that is intuitive and easy to navigate. An enormous amount of time and effort went into writing and designing that system, and creating the optimal customer journey.”

Unlike clunky legacy systems, the BrightRock’s platform is modularised, and was built according to the agile principle of rapid delivery cycles. The result is a technology stack with longevity, that is also flexible enough to be tweaked when needed.

Related: BrightRock’s 5 Entrepreneurial Tips For Start-ups

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.

“The advantage of the technology available today is that you can plug things in and pull them out as required,” says Suzanne. “That’s one of the enablers of a truly disruptive mindset. To step away from accepted norms and find new solutions requires curiosity and creativity, as well as a lot of courage to go up against large incumbents in the market. There is always resistance to new technology, although we are fortunate in this country to have one of the most innovative insurance sectors in the world.”

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Lessons Learnt

The 9 Obsessions You Need To Have To Become A Self-Made Millionaire

Here’s how to stay focused on your millionaire goals.

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The ones who succeed weren’t handed a golden ticket; it wasn’t chance that helped them cultivate their fortune. To reach millionaire status, you must be driven to reach your dreams. You must be obsessed in order to be successful.

These are the nine obsessions that give every self-made millionaire an edge in creating success and wealth.

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