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How Blue Label Telecoms Manages Stratospheric Growth Without Losing The Entrepreneurial Edge

The founders of multi-billion rand business, Blue Label Telecoms discuss the realities of taking your business public.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Brett and Mark Levy
  • Company: Blue Label Telecoms
  • Established: 2001
  • Listed: 2007
  • Turnover: R22 billion
  • Market Cap: R11 billion
  • VISIT: bluelabeltelecoms.co.za

The growth of Blue Label Telecoms has been phenomenal. Since conceptualising and launching in 2001, founders Mark and Brett Levy have managed to turn the business into a massive global operation that boasts revenue of R22 billion and gross profits in excess of R1,64 billion for 2015.

These are staggering figures that are difficult to even comprehend. And considering this stratospheric growth, an obvious question presents itself: How do you grow so quickly and so successfully without losing your edge — without losing that entrepreneurial mindset that made you successful in the first place?

A hint can perhaps be found in one of the company’s committee rooms, which boasts rows of Blue Label bottles.

“These bottles represent the whole history of the company,” says Mark. “Each one represents a story of a deal that was signed.”

Early on, it was decided that a bottle would be shared amongst the parties every time a deal was signed, and the details of the deal written on the label.

Related: Starbucks Coffee Is All About Culture… For A Reason

The Blue Label way

Blue-label-Johnnie-Walker-bottles

Celebrating a new deal with a toast to Blue Label is a tradition that survives to this day. Indeed, the two founders believe that a big reason for the company’s continued success is the fact that it has managed to maintain its culture despite the fact that it has grown massively and even has operations in other countries.

“We like to think that nothing much has changed in the way we manage, even though the company is much bigger now,” says Brett. “We’ve realised that we have to empower people to run with projects. You can’t micromanage.”

“The secret lies in hiring people who are smarter than you are,” adds Mark. “You also need to grow them fast within the company, and then let them go — allow them the freedom to do what they’re good at.”

The company looks for employees who are proactive and efficient — and doesn’t mind paying to get hold of the best talent.

“We don’t fire people for making decisions,” says Mark. “We encourage people to take ownership. It’s the only way to make sure that things happen. And we don’t believe in salary caps. If you want the best people, you need to be willing to pay them what they’re worth.”

Going corporate

So how did Blue Label maintain this culture once it became a large listed corporate?

“We were never worried about whether our culture was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. What mattered was that it was our culture and we wanted to maintain it,” says Brett. “So, if something works for you, stick to your guns. Don’t allow your organisation to become that stereotypical ‘corporate’. Don’t let people hide behind that corporate veil. Why send an email when you can get up and talk to somebody? It’s important to fight tendencies to change the way you operate. As a company grows, new processes become a necessity, but the basic ethos on doing business should not change.”

Related: Vinny Lingham’s Views On Focus, Changing The World And Why You Should Give Some Of Your Business Away

Building a multi-billion rand business

In May 2001, The Prepaid Company was granted a national licence to distribute Telkom fixed line prepaid cards. Today, if you use any form of prepaid technology, from mobile airtime to prepaid electricity, chances are you’re using a Blue Label Telecoms product.

In just 15 years, Blue Label Telecoms has evolved into a super distributor of virtual and physical prepaid airtime and telephony products for South Africa’s mobile and fixed line telecoms operators.

Getting listed

It would be naïve, however, to think that listing a company will not impact it in a very meaningful way. Make no mistake, taking a company public is a game-changer.

“A listed company is a whole new world,” says Mark. “You’re not just responsible for your own money any longer, you’re dealing with other people’s money as well.”

Because of this, governance is a huge issue. Understandably, a different level of reporting is needed when a company is listed, and many entrepreneurs underestimate the amount of time and money that goes into getting a company ready to go public.

“It requires quite a mind-shift,” says Brett. “We were lucky, as we already had third-party shareholders, our reporting was already diligent.”

Public expectations

blue label telecoms boardmembers

When the company went public, did this change impact it? “There are a lot of good reasons to list,” says Mark. “One of the most obvious advantages is the fact that it allows you to raise capital and even reduce debt, but it also allows you to incentivise staff through stock options and gain a certain visibility and credibility. Because your performance is public, companies trust you more and are more willing to do business with you.

“That said, there are certain sacrifices that come with being listed. As mentioned, you are working with other people’s money, so you need to think every decision over very carefully. Entrepreneurs are typically more open to risk, but being listed demands that you are sometimes more constrained. You are ultimately beholden to your shareholders.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should allow public pressure to prevent you from running the company that you created.

“You need a careful strategy, and you need to be strong enough to stick to that strategy when people are pressuring you to do something else,” says Brett.

“For example, we received quite a bit of flack when we moved into Mexico. We lost money there for a while, but our strategy is now starting to pay off, so we’re glad we stuck to our guns. You need to deliver for your shareholders, but you also need to have long-term strategies in place and be willing to follow them through.”

Related: Business Growth For SweepSouth Means Metric Measurement

Ignoring the share price

Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that running a listed company will eat into your time. “I’d say that about 30% of our time is spent on things related to being a public company — doing presentations, speaking to shareholders, going on roadshows and governance matters,” says Mark.

The biggest issue related to running a listed company, though, is the fact that it becomes all too easy to view the share price as a ‘performance score’. And focusing too much on the share price is a great way to lose focus and stop doing what you do best.

“You can’t ‘manage’ the share price,” says Brett. “So there is no point in even trying. Both the CEO and the employees need to try to ignore the share price to an extent.”

This can be difficult, especially when the share price is the metric that the company is most often judged by.

“Directly after listing, it is almost impossible to ignore the share price. You will find yourself looking at it all the time,” says Mark.

“But in time you learn to ignore it and refocus on the important things. Fundamentally, our approach to business hasn’t changed. We want to offer our shareholders value accretion. We want to make an impact in the world. We operate in countries where there are a lot of poor people, and we want to make a real difference in their lives.”

Key Learnings

  • Listing a company allows you to raise money and eradicate debt, but it is a long and expensive process. Taking your company public doesn’t happen overnight.
  • Entrepreneurs can struggle to adjust to the reality of being beholden to shareholders. Taking on shareholders brings with it a lot of responsibility.
  • While it is important to provide value to shareholders, it is equally important to stick to long-term strategies, even if the value is not immediately evident to all. Leaders can’t be swayed too easily by the opinions of shareholders.
  • Ignore the share price, regardless of how hard that is to do. Focus on the long-term trajectory of the company.

Lessons Learnt

3 Lessons I’ve Learned In Krav Maga That Have Changed My Approach To Business

This fighting style packs a big punch on and off the mat.

Kristina Libby

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I started taking Krav Maga lessons this year at the recommendation of both my personal trainer and my therapist. I was physically assaulted years before in a nice neighbourhood in Washington, D.C. at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday.

Not a time or place one would expect to be attacked, and it has had long-lasting impacts on my mental and physical health. My trainer and my therapist, for different reasons, thought that learning a fighting skill would help me address the assault and move forward. It turned out to do much more than that.

Krav Maga is a military fighting system developed for the Israel Defense Forces. It is derived from a number of other fighting systems like boxing, wrestling, judo, etc. Those fighting forms were combined together to create a system for effective self-defense that is not based on bulk, height or gender. It is based on winning.

My first day at Krav Maga was scary. I did not feel like I was winning. I pushed back tears as my instructor Mike took me through different fighting stances and beginner moves. As I was learning to balance on my feet, he looked over at me. I was scared.

The terror and fear of the attack I had experienced years ago came flooding back. I kept flinching away and cowering as he came closer toward me. He looked me in the face and very slowly spoke to me: “The moment you get attacked, you are not the victim. You become the attacker.”

The moment you get attacked, you are not the victim. You become the attacker

This is a fundamental phrase in Krav Maga. It’s the idea that you don’t allow yourself to become the victim. If you are attacked, you attack back – stronger and more aggressively – because your job is to protect yourself.

In business, you are always at some point or another going to be the victim of an attack. This could be small, such as someone who leaves a negative product review, or big, such as a company slandering you or trying to take over your accounts.

The question is: How do you respond? Prior to Krav Maga, I would have been a little bit more “nice.” I would have shrugged my shoulders, known I would rebound in the end, or receded into a position of victimhood.

Not anymore.

My job is to protect myself and my company. It’s to protect my employees and my customers. And, Krav Maga has taught me to do that not from a position of victimhood but from a position of preparation. The only way to ensure you can attack an attacker is to have the skills to fight. In business this means:

  • Aligning your A-team: Ensuring you have a lawyer, an accountant and a good PR firm at the ready.
  • Preparing yourself: Ensuring you understand where threats can arise, what those threats may be and developing a plan to respond to them.
  • Preparing your team: Ensuring your team knows that you don’t play the role of the victim and that when attacked you address the situation head-on from a position of educated authority. This is about mindset for both leaders and employees.

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

You will get punched in the face. Understand what that feels like

krav-maga-fighting

In my Krav Maga training, Mike will punch me in the stomach for a few minutes at varying levels of force. The intent is that I will get used to getting punched in the stomach.

He has me stand with my arms to my side, stomach muscles tightened and solar plexus alert. I can’t punch back. I can only wait and anticipate the blows, tighten my muscles and understand that practice punches in the stomach are the only way to prepare me for punches to my stomach (or anywhere) in a fight.

The first time he did this, I was terrified.

Now, I understand that the momentary pain makes me stronger, less afraid of the intentional punch or kick someone years down the road might throw at me. In business, this lesson is incredibly useful and has changed the way I think about planning and development.

Sometimes you need someone to punch you in the stomach.

The role of an advisor or a consultant for your business is the same role as Mike is playing when he punches me in the stomach. He knows what it’s like to get hit and he wants to ensure that if I do get hit, the shock of being hit won’t be debilitating.

Hopefully, those advising you are also seeing the future ways your business can get punched in the stomach. Their role is to help you avoid those punches by preparing you for the little bumps and bruises you’ll see along the way.

As a business owner, then, it is your role to:

  • Find advisors who have been punched in the stomach (metaphorically) and allow them to watch you along the way. They will know when you are careening too far in the direction of something dangerous and hopefully prepare you for the inevitable danger.
  • Allow the little punches to your stomach to be seen as training bumps. These small upsets should be dealt with as upsets, not massive failures. They are preparing you for bigger and more aggressive assaults down the road.

Related: Here’s What Jeff Bezos Prefers To Work-Life Balance And Why You Should Live By It

Even blindfolded, we can win

There is an exercise that Mike has me do, where I close my eyes and he attacks me. The intent is that I use the skills we have learned to ward off the attack. When I was attacked years ago, it was nighttime, and the attacker snuck up and surprised me. As such, Mike’s simulation is the hardest emotional thing I have to do all week. That is, until I actually do it.

Normally, I don’t do the counterattack move perfectly. I use an open-palm heel strike instead of a punch. Or, I use a knee rather than a kick because I know my knees to the groin are stronger. It doesn’t matter. I’m still able to disarm him (when he uses a knife), knock him away and clear enough space to get away. I still win.

I win not because I have perfect form, or a super-human strength but because I don’t give up. I don’t stop fighting until I win because I don’t have the luxury of losing. Losing means victimisation. I don’t want to be the victim.

When I was assaulted years ago, I didn’t give up either. I fought on the ground and then standing until the assailant ran away. I screamed and kicked and refused to let him win. I didn’t have any training then; I won only because I had grit and a desire to live through the attack.

Now, I have more training but at the end of the day, I won’t be an expert. Few of us ever will be. The thing that all of us can do though is refuse to give up. We can refuse to let the attack keep us down. We can refuse to let the attacker win.

This is the Krav Maga lesson that I think is the most impactful for women business leaders. We are going to get attacked – every day. Often, we will not see the attack coming. We will be blindfolded in some way by lack of time, lack of awareness or lack of funding, and the attack will come.

The only thing we can do, the thing we must do, is know that even blindfolded we can continue to fight. We can refuse to be the victim. We can continue to raise and punch back. Because if there is something I know about female entrepreneurs, is that we all have a lot of grit and a lot of heart.

In the end of the day, heart and grit win fights.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Lessons Learnt

Taking It To The Malaysian Market – Karl van Zyl Of Antipodean Café

Karl van Zyl approach has always been logical and simplified and he highlights three principles that he believes to be critical in the food and beverage industry.

Dirk Coetsee

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Karl van Zyl has a 17 year history in the food and beverage industry in South-Africa and now applies his skills and knowledge in the extremely vibrant and competitive Malaysian market. I had a very interesting conversation with him to explore both similarities and differences of both markets and to share his accumulative learning of this industry to those entrepreneurs considering to open a restaurant or café.

He has a history working for the Mikes’ kitchen and Fishmonger groups in South-Africa fulfilling a range of roles from being a General Manager to Operational Manager. Currently he both manages an well-known Café called Antipodean and facilitates the opening of new cafes’ in Klang Valley, Malaysia.

Karl shared that his approach has always been logical and that applying sound basics has always served him well. Would you eat the food served at your restaurant and really enjoy it? Posing questions such as the aforementioned to yourself as a restaurant owner or manager helps you to be aware of the quality of your operation and to always keep the customer in mind when making decisions.

One of the key learnings that he shared was to get a very good and experienced team of waiters together that has previous restaurant or hospitality industry experience. He strongly advises quality over quantity when it comes to waiters and fondly remembers one of the waiters that he managed whom could take orders from a group of twenty people and remember each order from the top of his head.

It is not only about quality of service to the customer but also when there is a small but quality team of waiters operating then their earnings are much higher and they will feel valued and happy as opposed to a large group of waiters competing for relatively small rewards.

Related: What Comfort Zones? Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable Says Co-Founder Of Curlec: Zac Liew

Karls’ approach has always been logical and simplified and he highlights three principles that he believes to be critical in the food and beverage industry:

  1. Quality of food
  2. Quality of service
  3. Pricing.

He adds that in addition to the above principles your location should of course be in area with very good ‘foot traffic’.

When the entrepreneur venturing into the food and beverage market considers the right suppliers it is a critical factor to go and visit their facilities, thoroughly check their quality and enquire which other quality brands they are supplying in addition to buying at good prices.

In his view comparing the Malaysian food and beverage market to the South African market there are a lot more Malaysians eating at restaurants than in South Africa. One of the reasons for this is that there are a lot of ‘street café/restaurant’ options with quality food at a very low price due to the restaurant not being air-conditioned and making use of for example plastic chairs and tables.

Personally the author has found much more twenty four hour food options and countless varieties of food compared to the South African market. If you are awake and hungry at 3 am in the morning in Kuala Lumpur, no problem! You also will not be limited to only 24 hour fast food options, almost any type of food that you desire will be available that is if you know where to go off-course.

Related: Don’t Be ‘Outside Standing’ On Your Own Exponential Growth Says Serial Investor, Jimmy Phoon

As a matter of interest Karl regards the prices of restaurants in general in Kuala Lumpur to be better than in South Africa and holds the service levels in KL in higher esteem due to it being more ‘personal’ and customer orientated. He believes that South African food matches the quality of Malaysian food but that there is however much more variety of food available in Malaysia.

Karl pointed out that it is possible to have people from all five continents represented in one night at a restaurant as the food culture in Malaysia is very diverse and so is the cultural phenomenon in general in Kuala Lumpur.

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Lessons Learnt

What Comfort Zones? Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable Says Co-Founder Of Curlec: Zac Liew

Zac Liew was offered to be CEO and Co-founder of Curlec at the age of twenty six and took up the offer knowing that he would be engaged in a steep learning curve. Curlec is a FinTech company that is redefining the customer experience for Direct Debit.

Dirk Coetsee

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zac-liew

Botanica Deli, Bangsar South, Malaysia a vibrant environment where a number of entrepreneurs and office workers go to meet and have great food and coffee. I walked into the Deli to meet a man that might just possess the ‘entrepreneurial gene’ if indeed that gene exists.

Zac Liew always wanted to venture onto the exciting yet challenging playing field of entrepreneurial ventures having his dad and mother as examples. His father a lawyer, whom ventured into property development and his mother whom started the first chain of liquor stores in Malaysia.

His parents’ ventures interested him from a very young age and helped to ignite the entrepreneurial fire in this very young CEO and co-founder of Curlec. Zac is a qualified lawyer whom also did a stint in the banking industry but at all times he had a burning desire to do something entrepreneurial and always had an interest in tech.

To him tech was always logical and simply made sense within this ever changing business environment within which we as entrepreneurs launch our start-up ventures. He also enjoys the challenging demands that the tech environment places upon his problem solving skills.

Related: Brian Tan Of FutureLab.my – Bridging The Knowledge Gap Through Social Learning

The Creation of Curlec

curlec-malaysia-mobile-appZac Liew was offered to be CEO and Co-founder of Curlec at the age of twenty six and took up the offer knowing that he would be engaged in a steep learning curve. Curlec is a FinTech company that is redefining the customer experience for Direct Debit. They are the first Malaysian software company to enable online Direct Debit payments in Malaysia. One of the core principles that Curlec was founded upon is to Build great tech that solves a basic need.

Zac together with his co-founders Steve Kucia and Raj Lorenz found a simplified and effective solution to collecting money on a recurring basis. Normally recurring billing and collections is a big issue for SMEs’ and other options were exceptionally costly and timeous.

Zac pointed out that the size of the issue of recurring collections exceeded all expectations and that is one of the reasons that their start-up phase has been successful and gained very good traction in the market.

Curlec has a razor sharp focus on only two products which enables them to focus on giving a great service and customer experience. Curlec cuts through the normal levels of bureaucracy of big companies and has a laser focus on their customers.

How does this apply to start-up entrepreneurs?

Create a product or a system that is simplified, very user friendly, cost and time effective, and more importantly that solves a very challenging issue within the market place that adds great value to customers. Underpin this by being customer centric.

I asked Zac to enlighten me on the key learnings of his journey thus far and also share success principles that has served him well in business and in his life in general. He pointed out that he believes that every entrepreneur should get comfortable with being uncomfortable and venture outside the boundaries of their own comfort zones.

‘Be comfortable with making mistakes’ he says. Get feedback learn from it and integrate the useful feedback in your thinking and in practically applying solutions.’

As business and life has a natural and general ebb and flow to it persistence is a key factor to your success. Accept challenges as they occur and realise that the mind of the entrepreneur should always have a problem solving focus. As a fan of combat sports, Zac shared the following quotes that resonates with him:

“The more you seek the uncomfortable the more you will become comfortable” – Conor McGregor

And

“I have been training under the dark lights so that I can shine in the bright lights’ – Anthony Joshua

Related:  Zac Liew Channeling The Fire Of Authenticity: Asia’s’ Top ‘YouTuber’, Joanna Soh

As a writer I have always been fascinated by the wisdom imparted by philosophers and masters of their respective fields. I am even more excited and hopeful for our future when I hear wisdom ‘rolling of the tongue’ of a twenty six year old entrepreneur:

‘Be idealistic in your ideas but be pragmatic in actualising them. If things are not working out do not be stuck in that. Take what you can learn from your experiences and move on.’

Tech has the inherent power to reach the far ends of the world seamlessly and when we have more and more tech entrepreneurs solving big consumer issues and thereby making this world a better place we can be more and more hopeful of a better future.

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