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Fake It ‘Til You Make It: How These 10 Entrepreneurs Did Just That

Let’s face it, starting out is hard and getting clients to take you seriously is a tough ask. But these mega entrepreneurs didn’t let this stop them from getting off the ground





Look bigger than you are


Justin Stanford

“Without mentioning that I was alone in a garage, I told them I was an Internet security firm in South Africa.”

Vital Stats:

Justin Stanford was in his early 20s, working alone out of his garage and hacking into client websites to find their security flaws, when he came across ESET, at the time a small Slovak Internet security software developer.

“I knew there was huge potential, and so I contacted them. Without mentioning that I was alone in a garage, I told them I was an Internet security firm in South Africa, and that I was really impressed with their tech. With some tweaks, I thought it could be a great fit for our market.

“They agreed to give Stanford sole distributor rights in southern Africa, but he still needed to look bigger and more serious to clients. He had one employee, an intern, Carey van Vlaanderen, and they shared a desk and a phone line.

“Because we did most things online, no one knew how young I was. When we got a call, we would put the person on hold, and put them through to the ‘department’ they wanted, which was really just me handing the phone to Carey.”

Read more: Justin Stanford: 4Di Group’s Risk-taking, Convention-bucking Lunatic

Tenacity creates opportunity



“If our sales rep called and was denied an appointment, he’d call back later with a different accent, which meant he could take a few shots at the same companies.”

Vital Stats:

  • Peter Bauer and Neil Murray launched Mimecast in 2003.
  • It is now an international business with R1 billion of annual turnover.

One of Peter Bauer and Neil Murray’s first hires when they were building Mimecast in the UK was a sales rep.

“He had massive self-confidence and an almost inexhaustible ability for cold calling. For the first four months he cold-called for nine hours a day, week after week. His rejection rate was 98%, but because of the volumes of his calls, that 2% built our business from 50 clients to several hundred. He also had a neat little trick with accents. If he called and was denied an appointment, he’d call back later with a different accent, which meant he could take a few shots at the same companies.

“We also used the fact that he was Canadian and had an American accent. It made us appear bigger than we were. A lot of companies assumed we were a US firm launching in the UK. Once they met us they realised the mistake, but by then we had our foot in the door and could show them what we could do.”

Read more: These Are the World’s Top 10 Young Billionaires

Never take no for an answer


Ran Neu-Ner and Gil Oved

“‘No’ is not the end of a negotiation. It’s the beginning of one.”

Vital Stats:

When Ran Neu-Ner and Gil Oved launched The Creative Counsel, they did so from a 15 m2 office decorated with garden furniture. All they had for leads was the Yellow Pages, and so they started cold calling.

“I hate cold calling. I don’t know if anyone enjoys it. It’s a terrible, awful thing to have to do,” says Oved.

“I kept a spreadsheet to record each call and interaction with the person. Most of the time I spoke to PAs. I learnt very quickly how to be warm and likeable over the phone in 20 seconds, and I’d try to find out anything I could about the person I was talking to, so when I next called them the call would be more personal. In the end, they’d feel sorry for me and schedule a meeting.

Neu-Ner adds: “Never, ever, ever give up. If someone tells you that they don’t meet with suppliers, call back. And call back again. And again after that. Break down their resistance until they’re dying for an opportunity to see you just so they can tell you to go away. Often, what separates people who succeed from those who fail is the willingness and ability to overcome whatever hurdle is placed in their way.”

Read more: It’s Brilliance or Nothing for The Creative Counsel Co-Founders

Learn to be lean


Mike Silver

“My solution was to find affordable talent. We found an international company that places volunteer interns in your business for a few months.”

Vital Stats:

When you’re starting out, you need to be as lean as possible. “Even though I had some money saved up, I quickly learnt that launching a business takes longer than you expect it will, so I had to find a few other tricks. We worked out of a cheap and tiny room with no windows… and we relied on interns. I found an international company that places volunteer interns in your business for a few months.

“They were here to discover South Africa and get some work experience, but because they were on holiday visas, they couldn’t be paid. So our only expense was to the agency they were sourced through. Although it was a mixed bag of talent, and a complete hit-and-miss exercise, we had about 30 students working with us over a five year period – some being incredible, others barely speaking English. Ultimately, though, it meant we had employees that could run the front end, while also keeping our expenses incredibly low.”

Read more: How Mike Silver Became The Next Best Brand And Marketing Guy

Everything you’ll ever need to achieve your wildest dreams, you’ve already got


Vusi Thembekwayo

“Entrepreneurs are crazy. Certifiable. If you’re not crazy enough to think wild things, and have the courage and will to pursue them, you’re not going to make it, because start-ups are tough.”

Vital Stats:

  • Vusi Thembekwayo is the founder of Motiv8 and the Watermark Afrika Fund.
  • He was also a ‘Dragon’ on Dragon’s Den SA.
  • At 24, Vusi Thembekwayo left the corporate world with a nice sum of money that he could use as seed capital.

“I’d taken my savings and signed the lease for an expensive office in Centurion, furnished it and hired an assistant, because I thought that’s what you do. I’d also heard somewhere that you should never answer your own phone. Turns out, none of those things actually helped me to land clients. I used all my savings on the business’s rent and salaries, which meant I couldn’t afford personal rent, pay my car off, or even buy food half of the time. The bank kept trying to repossess my car and I kept fending them off. I needed that car to drive around and drum up business. Plus, I was sleeping in it in my office park’s basement. It was the dead of winter, so I had to start the engine every few hours to warm myself up, but it was a place to put my head down. Then one day, I got back to the office after 6pm and my PA was still there. ‘You won’t believe it,’ she said. ‘Somebody just called. They’re going to book you.’”

Read more: Vusi Thembekwayo On Being Better Than Your Competition

To look bigger than you are, you’ve got to dress the part


Ephraim Mashisani

“I’ve always dressed in the best suits I could afford, and, as it was financially possible, I bought a Range Rover. Sometimes, landing big business is about impressing big decision-makers and giving the impression you’re bigger and more successful than you actually are.”

Vital Stats:

  • Ephraim Mashisani is the founder and CEO of Nyalu Communications.
  • Started as a part-time business in 2009, it’s grown to a R50 million company.

What Mashisani is alluding to, is that looking successful plays its own part in being successful.

Wearing a good suit brings an air of confidence and success, and when trying to land big corporate clients, they’ve got to perceive you as being established and successful before they bring you their business. But, before you go buying that Porsche or Range Rover, know Mashisani runs a very tight ship and knows his numbers.

The key point is that he did business with small businesses while he was small, and only bought a flashy car to impress the bigger businesses when he could afford it.

Read more: How Nyalu Communications Began as a Side Business but Grew to Success

Lessons from the boot of a car


Reg Lascaris

Reg Lascaris

“When John Hunt and I started the business, we didn’t have flashy offices to invite clients to, which is what most agencies had. So we turned the ‘impress your clients with your offices’ thing around and told clients we’d come to them, like we were doing them a big customer-service favour. Then we’d pack all our material into the boot of my car and head off to do our presentation.”

Vital stats:

  • Reg Lascaris is the co-founder of award-winning advertising agency Hunt Lascaris that teamed up with international giant TBWA.
  • He’s also the author of Lessons from the Boot of a Car.

In your early stages, while gaining traction, keeping overheads to an absolute minimum is essential for business success. Always look for ways to spin negatives into positives. Don’t have flashy offices? Visit your client or arrange to meet in a hotel lobby.

There are many established entrepreneurs out there who can appreciate the start-up stage you’re in and will cut you some slack for the lack of flash. If not, get creative in the smoke-and-mirrors department.

Read more: Reg Lascaris On Horse Sense and Winning Hearts

Think outside the phone box


Richard Branson

“I quickly discovered a useful trick: By calling the operator and claiming the machine had eaten my change but my call had been cut off, I was often able to get free calls. Plus, the operator was able to put me straight through without the tell-tale phone box ‘pip-pip’ sound. As an added advantage, the operator sounded like my secretary! ‘I have Mr Branson waiting for you.’”

Vital stats:

  • Richard Branson is the creator of the Virgin Group empire, a conglomerate of companies spanning a dozen industries and generator of ₤15 billion in revenue in 2013.
  • He’s also the author of several books, and record setter of daring stunts.

Let’s face it, start-up is hard and what little money you have is going to be spent on getting the business going. Richard Branson is the true embodiment of an entrepreneur: When faced with a problem, don’t just find a workable solution, leverage it for all its worth.

In this case, he learnt how to get calls reversed for free, and make himself sound more important than he was, thanks to the assumption that the call receiver would make in thinking he had a secretary.

Read more: Successful SA Entreps Share Their Most Valuable Business Advice Ever Received

Reduce, reuse, recycle


Anita Roddick

“In our first store we’d re-use bottles because we couldn’t afford to buy new ones, but it also happened to be a time that Europe was starting to go ‘green’ and people were drawn to this.”

Vital stats:

  • Anita Roddick was the founder of The Body Shop.
  • Starting in a tiny shop sandwiched between two mortuaries and a product range of 25 items, today it has over 2 500 stores in 61 countries.
  • The brand also pioneered cruelty-free cosmetics and ethical business practices.

There are many stories of brands being innovative and creative to try and cut costs or work with tiny budgets.

When starting out, look for ways you can develop inexpensive and eye-catching packaging, for example, that doesn’t compromise quality, value or brand-building efforts. And always keep scale in mind.

While re-using cosmetic bottles worked in the early days for The Body Shop, it wasn’t sustainable.

Read more: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

Sometimes it’s good to run out


Borjan and Lidija Ivanonic

“Waste is expensive, so we set ourselves goals of 100 servings, and work towards that. It inadvertently created exclusivity and demand because people who would arrive late at the market would be disappointed they’d missed their shot at a Balkan Burger.”

Vital stats:

  • Borjan and Lidija Ivanonic are the founders of Balkan Burger.
  • What started as an experiment at a farmer’s market has grown into a full-time, highly profitable and successful business.

Let’s face it, consumers are attracted to scarcity and exclusivity.

Balkan Burger cleverly leveraged their desire to reduce waste and spin it into FOMO – fear of missing out. Rather than market-goers passing by their stand to look around and then return for some food, the fear of missing out would see the sale happen immediately.

Late-comers were then told which market they’d be at the following day, and told to get there early!

Read more: 4 Ways Entrepreneurs Can Become Truly Great

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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




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




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 – 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


“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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Lessons Learnt

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

Serial investor Jimmy Phoon is proud of his and his team at Alps Global holdings in achieving a $300 million valuation.

Dirk Coetsee




It was a usually warm and humid afternoon in Malaysia as I walked into the foodbar at Fashion library in Kota Damansara, to meet a man who has a deep understanding of leveraging capital mechanisms in order to achieve exponential business growth.

Serial investor Jimmy Phoon is proud of his and his team at Alps Global holdings in achieving a $300 million valuation. He doesn’t speak to the ‘wrongs and rights’ of investments as he believes there are many ways in approaching an investment opportunity. He does however, firmly believe in the MOC (Miracles of Capital) organisations’ (of which he is a senior alumni member) approach to exponentially grow a company and having a clear exit strategy such as selling at a desired price or publically listing the company.

Jimmy enthusiastically highlighted the difference between them, as he names it a ‘feasible’ and a ‘bankable’ business investment. In offering a simple differentiation between the two terms he explained that ‘feasibility’ simply means that the business is making money, whilst ‘bankable’ means that the business is not only making money but that there is a clear succession plan and exit strategy in place.

As an experienced international entrepreneur and investor he recognises that a vast number of entrepreneurs are very well versed in the market mechanisms of their respective industries yet not equally adept at the capital mechanisms that underpins the exponential growth of companies. He points out that when a company has very good management in place, has a clear and attractive dividend policy to its shareholders, and in addition a well-defined and practical exit strategy it will increase the appetite of investors in general.

Related: Business Leadership – Learn How To Embrace Change

He describes the MOC to be an international platform to teach the mechanisms of Capital to entrepreneurs and investors. The MOC is the trifecta of business incubation, acceleration, and investment. One of the core principles of business investment that the MOC teaches and which Jimmy firmly believes in is collaboration between companies and entrepreneurs.

This means the willingness and openness to merge your unique skills as an entrepreneur, the unique offering of your company, profit and loss, with the skills, products and offerings of other companies with the end goal of exponential growth of a newly formed company. This approach can create a big win for all involved.

But what is ‘Outside Standing’?

The aforementioned discussion led to Jimmy sharing one of his favourite sayings:

“Be outstanding or outside standing” – a tongue in the cheek way of saying that by truly understanding and applying both the mechanisms of the market and capital you can experience the exponential growth of your company or alternatively by not fully applying both mechanisms it is then highly likely that you will be a witness from the ‘outside’ to the exponential growth of other companies and unfortunately not your own.

Jimmy’s’ accumulated learnings allows him to assist his team in building an ‘IPO’ compliant company that is formed with a collaborative approach towards a planned and well executed exit. That is part of his mind-set which is to do ‘big things’ and keep a distance from ‘small things’ for as an investor this man is always after exponential growth. He fosters a creation mind-set which is to create a bigger picture through leveraging and combining market and capital mechanisms.

One of the key ‘take always’ for me as an entrepreneur is to be much more open to collaboration in order to add value to others and in turn receive value such as exponential growth. Understanding the market mechanisms within your industry is not enough to multiply business performance, taking a keen interest in the capital mechanisms at play will take major strides towards actualising your bigger picture.

Read next: Entrepreneurship: How To Develop Your ‘Great Idea’

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