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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




Vital Stats

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

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


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.

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Lessons Learnt

How Kevin Hart Went From Being A Comedian To The Guy Who Owns Comedy

He’s one of America’s most famous funnymen, but here’s what most people don’t see: Kevin Hart is often in his office, running a far more ambitious comedy machine.



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Considering how proud Kevin Hart is of the headquarters of his company, you’d think the place would be downright palatial. But it’s not. It’s simple, almost austere. It’s a series of small offices, a reception area and a conference room, and it takes up a floor of a non­descript building in downtown Encino, Calif., on Ventura Boulevard, across from a Korean BBQ joint.

The rooms are sparsely furnished. There are a lot of photos and posters of Hart, of course, but otherwise there is no expensive art, no designer tchotchkes on the credenzas, no tasteful floor coverings that could fund a motion picture production.

No, the thing about this office that fills Kevin Hart with such pride isn’t its appearance. It’s the fact that it’s still his.

Back in 2009, when he took out a two-year lease on just a small portion of the space to house his startup, HartBeat Productions, Hart was worried he wasn’t going to be able to afford it. This was before his comedy specials became some of the highest-grossing of all time. Before his social media profile grew to near record-­setting proportions. Before Kevin Hart Day was declared in Philadelphia. Before he became one of the biggest stars on Earth.

“When I first got here,” he says, “and this is before the money was where it is now, this was the dream. Every day I get to see this and I get to go, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to do it, man? Shit. I done took out the two-year goddamn lease on this place!’ ’

But he loved the “aspirational” view from what is still his personal office, and he had a plan, drawn from a hard-earned epiphany. Historically, comedians and actors, even very successful ones, are simply cogs in a very large machine.

For all the fame, and the money and the glamour, they are essentially powerless against the whims of that machine. They are the product. They do their best, work their hardest, earn what they can and at the end of the day, they’re left with fading fame and whatever money they were able to bank along the way.

Hart saw this state of affairs early in his stand-up comedy career and decided to try something different. Something risky. The idea was this: Create something lasting. Something that will go on when you’re done. Don’t just show up, do your best and then go away.

Related: 10 Quotes On Following Your Dreams, Having Passion And Showing Hard Work From Tech Guru Michael Dell

Don’t make money mostly for other people. Own what you do. Perfect your craft, of course, but in so doing, create a sustainable, revenue-­generating enterprise that can run profitably long after the world has had enough of seeing your face and hearing your jokes.

In short, the idea Kevin Hart had, as he stood nervously in that office in 2009, was this: Don’t be the cog. Be the machine.

And so he is.

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Lessons Learnt

Can Being Deceptive Help You Build Your Business? It Worked For These 5 Entrepreneurs

We’ve all told little white lies. But what about the big ones? What if telling them would bring your business success?

Jayson Demers



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We all commit little acts of deception, like saying we got stuck in traffic when we were really late to the meeting because we wanted to watch the last five minutes of a favourite TV show. Little white lies? I’ve told them. You’ve told them.

But what about big lies, the kind truly lacking in integrity – like misrepresenting your sales to a prospective investor?

Obviously, there are often severe consequences to lying. Depending on the context, you could lose the trust of a peer, break a professional relationship or even face legal action. Yet, despite these consequences, lying is more common in the entrepreneurial world than you might think.

Just take as an example these five entrepreneurs, who might not be as well known or successful as they are if it weren’t for some clever acts of deception:

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Lessons Learnt

Three Habits That Underpin Entrepreneurial Success

Here are three powerful habits that will help you stay focused, define your entrepreneurial attitude and take your business from zero to hero.

Nicholas Bell




Successful people and businesses don’t all share the same traits and commitments. Yes they all have managed to break barriers and achieve impressive goals. They’re the leaders, the movers, the shakers and the industry creators. However, not all entrepreneurs are created equal and their recipes for success can differ wildly.

Some swear by a three-hour run every morning followed by a nice salad and the bustle of busy work life. Others need an incredibly early start so they can spend time with their emails and focus on their business. Every entrepreneur has their  own secret tricks that keep them on the straight and successful narrow, but most share a few simple habits that are guaranteed to make a difference.

Here are three habits that will help you become better at business and at leading others towards long-term success:

1. Always be ready to change your assumptions

Many people are unable to change the assumptions they have about their business and its future as it evolves. No business model should be locked in cement and rigidly upheld, it will need to adapt and adjust as it grows and customer needs change. As an entrepreneur you need to understand this concept and be prepared to evolve and change in new directions and markets.

Related: Business Plan Format Guide

This also ties into failure. Do you understand why you failed at something? Are you aware that perhaps your business model is changing? Can you learn from these experiences? Can you adjust your business model, get better research, refine your ideas? If you are ready to take positive value out of these moments and experiences, then you are an agile and inspired entrepreneur.

2. There’s no off switch

Passion and commitment are absolutely key to the success of your business and your own personal growth. You can’t switch off or walk away or just take a sick day because you feel like it, not if you want to stand as an example to your employees or if you want to build a brilliant business.

It may sound trite and tired, but a work ethic is the single most important habit to have as an entrepreneur. You need to always hold yourself to the highest standards, commit to ethical practice and work harder than anyone else.

3. Take it personally

This doesn’t mean gentle sobs in your office when Susan from accounts ridicules your maths skills. If you take your business personally, then you are wrapping the skills learned in points 1 and 2 above into one cohesive whole – you are embedding your passion into every crevice of your company. Care about what you do, be passionate about what it stands for, and be prepared to fight for its life. The route from zero to billion-dollar business isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it.

Remember, the idea is only 1%. Sweat, work, commitment and focus are the other 99% of the success equation.

Related: 22 Defining Entrepreneur Characteristics

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