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Webmail: Jeff Ellis

Success in business is often about arrogance – but there are some exceptions

Juliet Pitman



Jeff Ellis of Webmail

“I” is a word very seldom used by JeffEllis, MD of Webmail, one of South Africa’s largest free e-mail providers with728 000 active users. To questions like “What is your leadership style”, and“Tell us a bit about your career path”, “we” is always his pronoun of choice.Viewed against the backdrop of what he has personally achieved to be in theposition he is in today, this humility is nothing short of intriguing.

Ellis started his career as a bank tellerfor First National Bank, filling various roles there before dabbling in smallpublishing ventures, and for a time doing a stint running a fruit juice barbranded with Barney the Dinosaur. He made some mistakes, got into debt and,with a wife and two small children, needed to find a way out of it quickly. Hejoined Webmail as a salesman when it was in its infancy and within a year wasappointed Sales Director.

But for all this, he’s still not willing totake much personal credit, preferring to talk about his team. Perhaps this isthe secret to his enormous success at running such a dynamic sales force.“There’s no ‘I’ in team,” he says simply.

Ironically, he places a high degree ofimportance on individuality. “I don’t believe that people all have the samepersonalities; you need to deal with them differently. We manage people asindividuals,” he says.

Investing this amount of time in people canbe time-consuming in a business with a notoriously high staff turnover (Ellispoints out that they can have a turnover of 60 salespeople in six months). Butin the end, Ellis believes it’s what makes the team great. “The trick is thatno one leaves here on bad terms – we encourage and support people as much as wecan, but if they leave, it’s because they decided it wasn’t for them, and we’refine with that.

“I know that finding my niche took a whileand we don’t want to stand in their way of doing the same thing. And I think atestament is that although we go through a lot of staff, we have never firedanybody. But what we do find is that people who stay, stay forever.”

Asked what motivates him personally, Ellisis quick to answer. “Family. Everything I do is for them. I want to retire tothe coast at 40,” says the 33-year-old. Perhaps it’s because family is such animportant personal motivator that it comes naturally to Ellis to treat hisstaff as part of a big family. “We have a very diplomatic leadership style,” hesays.

He understands that getting the best out ofpeople is about the little things, like constant feedback and keeping them inthe loop about new deals that have been signed. “We celebrate success; it’s agreat motivator because people want to be part of something successful.”

At the same time, he understands that hisstaff want to make money. For this reason, their commission structures are veryhigh. There are also motivational meetings and incentives like weekend getawaysto help keep motivation levels high.

In terms of dealing with non-delivery, theapproach is once again supportive. Staff who haven’t met their targets undergoMonday training sessions and although these are not a punishment, no one reallywants to be part of them, so people work harder to meet criteria laid down.“They don’t want to be seen to be failing,” Ellis explains.

“We try to get people to the point thatthey believe they can achieve anything,” he says. “The fact is, they can. Everyday I see ordinary people achieving extraordinary things.”

This ‘can do’ attitude informs thedirection of Ellis’s personal goals as well. “If it’s going to be, it’s up tome” is his personal motto, and his career and success attest to the fact thatan individual is in control of his own destiny. That, and being hardworking.“If the lift to the top is full, you have to take the stairs,” he saysphilosophically.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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Lessons Learnt

#Wealthiest List: 8 Self-Made Millionaires On How They Built Their Wealth

These inspirational self-made millionaires built businesses with nothing less than hard work and sheer determination.

Catherine Bristow



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1. Nick D’Aloisio Wrote a Million Dollar App At Age 15


At the age of 15, Nick D’Aloisio wrote an app while sitting in his parent’s bedroom in the UK. At the age of 17, D’Aloisio sold his app Summly – a mobile news summarisation app to Yahoo for a staggering USD 30 million.

As one of the youngest millionaires, D’Aloisio is also the world’s youngest entrepreneur to be backed by venture capitalists – having secured seed funding from Sir Li Ka-Shing, Hong Kong’s billionaire, as well as raising USD 1.23 million from celebrity investors, including Yoko Ono and Ashton Kutcher.

“The number one thing I did that I think was wise was to get, through some of my advisers, was a Chairman; basically someone who was a very experienced business person, an industry veteran — Bart Swanson, who had been at Amazon and then Badoo. Then, myself and Bart really started finding people and growing the team.”

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Lessons Learnt

7 Cannabis Industry Millionaires Making It Big In The Marijuana Business

These entrepreneurs have capitalised on a new market set to continue to grow rapidly as more countries legalise marijuana across the world.

Catherine Bristow



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1. Brendan Kennedy


Brendan Kennedy worked on job sites as a carpenter to pay his way through university, with his eyes set firmly on becoming an architect, until the allure of Silicon Valley changed the course of his direction. While working at technology start-ups Kennedy began thinking about the possibilities that medical marijuana provided.

“I was really sceptical of medical cannabis,” he says. “It took a year of having conversations with patients and physicians and hearing the same story, repackaged but essentially the same, over and over and over again, where my scepticism eroded and I became a believer.”

In 2013, Kennedy and his partners applied for a licence from Health Canada and launched Lafitte Ventures, which was later renamed Tilray. Today, the company is a global leader in medical cannabis research, cultivation, processing and distribution.

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Lessons Learnt

Scaleup Learnings From Our Top Clients – What The Most Successful Entrepreneurs Do Right

So, how do our successful clients move through these constraints to scaling up? We see four key drivers of success, and they are: people, strategy, flawless execution and finance.

Louw Barnardt




You’re out of your start-up boots, staff is increasing, your client base is growing, revenue is up and you’ve proven your case to the market. Now it’s time to scale up. The challenges of this vital growth phase are different and it’s a time that demands different mindsets and different actions. In a world littered with small business failures, it helps to be well-prepared for scaling up using a proven methodology. At Outsourced CFO, we get an inside look at the success factors of our clients who are mastering the transition.

On the one hand, scaling up is a really exciting phase; this is what moves you into real job creation and making an impactful contribution to economic growth. On the other hand, it is really hard to scale up successfully. We see three major constraints that limit companies’ transition from start-up to scale-up:


The business has to have the leadership that can take it to the next level. When you start scaling up, especially rapidly, the founders can no longer do everything themselves. The team must grow and include new leadership talent that can take charge and execute so that the founders are working on the business instead of in the business.


The processes, procedures, networks, systems and workflows of the business all need to be scalable. This is imperative when it comes to your infrastructure for the financial management of your business. You’re only ready for growth when your infrastructure can seamlessly keep pace.

Market access

Scaling up demands more innovative marketing and storytelling so that you can more easily connect and engage with the new employees, clients, network partners, investors and mentors that need to come along with you on your scale-up journey.

Businesses that build a market conversation and a compelling brand narrative during their start-up phase are better positioned to have this kind of market access when they need to scale up.


It is critical to have the right people on your team. Our successful entrepreneurs have what it takes to attract, inspire and retain top talent. A strong team of smart, ambitious and purpose-driven people who love the company and want to see it succeed contribute greatly to a world class company culture. They are adept at communicating a compelling vision and establishing core values that people can take on. These entrepreneurs are tuned into the aspirations of their people and focus on developing leaders in their teams who can in turn develop more leaders.


It is planning that ensures that the right things are happening at the right times. At successful scale-ups strategies and action plans are devised to ensure that the most important thing always remains the most important thing.

Strategy includes input from all team members and setting of good priorities for the short, medium and long term. Goals are clear and everyone always knows what they are working towards. The needle is continuously moved because 90-day action plans are implemented each quarter to achieve targets and goals that are over and above people doing their daily jobs.

Flawless execution

Top entrepreneurs are not just focused on what operations need to achieve, but how the business operates. They have the right procedures, processes and tools in place so that everyone can deliver along the line on the company’s brand promise. Frequent, quick successive meetings ensure the rapid flow of effective communication. Problems are solved without drama. There is no chaos in the office environment. Everyone is empowered to execute flawlessly to an array of consistently happy clients.


Everyone knows that growth burns cash. A rapidly scaling business faces the challenge of needing a scalable financial infrastructure to keep the company healthy. Our successful entrepreneurs pay close attention to finance as the heartbeat of the business, ensuring that everything else functions. They look at the tech they are using for financial management and for the ways that their financial systems can be automated so that they can be brought rapidly to scale. The capital to grow is another vital finance issue.

The best way to finance a business is through paying clients on the shortest possible cash flow cycle. However, when you are scaling up and making heavier investments in the resources you need for growth, it is likely that you will need a workable plan for raising capital. Our scale-up clients know the value of accessing innovative financial management that provides high level services to drive their business growth.

Navigating the scale-up journey of a growing private company is one of the hardest but most rewarding of careers to pursue. Having people in your corner who have been through this journey before helps take a lot of pain out of the process. No growth journey looks the same, but there are tried and tested methods that will – if applied diligently – lead to definite success. Happy scaling!

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