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Derek Thomas from Letsema Holdings on Learning from your Mistakes

How applying actionable strategies learnt the hard way from one business to the next can accelerate your successful growth.

Catherine Bristow

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Vital Stats:

  • Player: Derek Thomas
  • Company: Letsema Holdings
  • What they do: Business starters, transformation consultancy and private equity.
  • Est: 1995
  • Visit: letsema.co.za

Running multiple businesses under an investment holding company hasn’t always been an easy ride for privately-owned Letsema Holdings, and CEO Derek Thomas is the first to admit that growing Letsema’s private equity portfolio has been a challenge at the best of times.

Despite these trials Thomas and his partner, chairman Isaac Shongwe, have grown and developed several successful businesses from the manufacturing of wax microspheres for the global cosmetics industry to base chemicals trading and industrial welding.

We-recommend-tickWe recommend: Anatomy of… Derek Thomas

What’s the secret to multiple business growth?

An unconventional but effective strategy that involves conquering devils and hunting rock rabbits while avoiding the Frankensteins on the road to business success.

Face your devils

While growing and investing in multiple businesses it is inevitable that some will fail while others flourish along the way, and business failure is followed by consequences that business owners are often not prepared to face.

Ten years back Letsema Holdings invested in a greenfield investment when the market suddenly turned, leaving the business in a precarious financial state that could have led to bankruptcy. Instead of avoiding the inevitable, Thomas proactively set up a meeting with his company’s bank to discuss the situation.

“I had to say to the financial institution, ‘here I am, we owe you this money, and we can’t repay it.’” They were impressed, as tracing bad debt often took them up to three years to recover, and they would rack up expensive costs along the way. Some debtors would duck and dive instead of coming clean. Thomas and the bank discussed what they would be able to pay and the company was eventually able to make a settlement.

“You have to stare the devil in the face. Business is a collection of these inflection points and if you run away once from a difficult situation, you will always run away.”

Over-invest in your back office

When he joined his business partner, Isaac Shongwe in 1996, Thomas was given the task of managing the business’s administration. He registered it, ordered the accounting package and handed out the first laptop, but as the business grew he had to hand the function over, with dire consequences.

“A year or two later we owed tax when we thought we were doing well simply because we did not take the time to sort out the back office. This took many years to rectify and gave us invaluable insight – these days we over-invest in our back office and it’s now so effective that we use it as a shared service centre across all our businesses.”

Tiki Taka to build your team

One business under the umbrella of Letsema Holdings has successfully cracked the code for retaining staff without having to pay salary market premiums. The magic formula? Build confidence while developing competence.

“We developed a system that is similar to a soccer technique called ‘tiki taka’. Basically it’s a strategy of receiving the ball, and passing the ball so you can make yourself available to receive it again. Translated into business terms this is a process of receiving responsibility for a role in the business for one year, taking another year to master the role and a third year to hand it over to the next person.”

In a business that hires more graduates than professionals this has allowed for faster upskilling of employees. “It’s a system that allows us to build the confidence of our younger staff while increasing their competence. The output that we generate is incredible given the general inexperience within this team.

Respect the rock rabbit hunter

Your business growth is based on bringing in larger contracts and bigger client accounts, and businesses often celebrate the established staff that bring in the bigger deals. But Thomas has witnessed that this company culture can lead to an alienation of younger employees in the business who might not yet have established their networks or mastered the art of bringing in bigger clients.

Thomas recognises that it is important to respect the younger staff who he refers to as the ‘rock rabbit hunters.’ “If your culture is one of only celebrating the mammoth hunters in your tribe then you will have an unbalanced company. Your business will never succeed because the youngsters will feel alienated,” Thomas cautions.

“Today’s rock rabbit hunter is tomorrow’s woolly mammoth hunter. No employee starts out as a woolly mammoth hunter; rather you begin by bringing in the smaller accounts – hunting rock rabbits – slowly building up to the bigger prey.”

Don’t outsource your salvation

As Letsema Holdings continued to grow, a decision was made to bring in executive leaders with expertise to help take the business to the next level. It was a decision that they eventually regretted.

“We brought in a succession of people who were going to grow us into a much bigger company. One executive turned out to be a crook who defrauded us; another was all talk and no action.

“If you are going to outsource your salvation, and hire the great saviour while compromising on your values and ethics in pursuit of growth, you may end up creating a Frankenstein-type environment.”

We-recommend-tickWe recommend: Before You Decide to Jump Into Entrepreneurship, Do These 4 Steps

The company found that its culture had substantially shifted, creating a divide between the non-performing executives and employees on the ground who were adding actual value to the business.

“We made decisions that we weren’t ready to make. Instead we should have continued to grow our company while building quality relationships instead of chasing after what we thought would be our business saviours.”

Catherine Bristow is the online editor and content marketing manager for Entrepreneur Magazine. She brings to the mix a BJourn from Rhodes University, Honours in Psychology as well as a certificate in Accounting and Commercial Law.

Franchisors

Meet Jan Grobler: Serial entrepreneur, Advocate, And Job Creator

It is the authors’ sincere hope that young South-African entrepreneurs will learn from wiser business men such as Jan Grobler and co-create a vibrant and legacy driven entrepreneurial environment in our country.

Dirk Coetsee

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Jan Grobler has either directly or indirectly created 10 000 jobs and he is not done with forming a lasting legacy. The author can call on various titles in an attempt to describe this serial entrepreneur: Advocate, Founder, Franchisor and Project manager, yet no label can fully embody his unique skill set, experience, and entrepreneurial spirit.

As a highly enthusiastic observer of business leadership traits in others, I noticed Jan’s’ strong willed and passionate intent to create more businesses, ignite exponential growth within them, and ultimately deliver numerous job opportunities to South-Africans, from the onset of the interview.

As an advocate and MBA graduate Jan had a solid academic foundation that served him well on his entrepreneurial journey. “Working back” the bursary he had from Sanlam he values the learning he received from older and wiser entrepreneurs that he had established trusts for. He learnt to be a good listener and increase his emotional intelligence by making mental notes when the older entrepreneurs imparted some of their wisdom and experience and then taking action on the accumulated learnings.

Related: The Anatomy Of Peak Performance

The value of being a “Global Citizen”

coffee2go

Jan is a global citizen and has “back packed in 46 countries” accumulating cultural and business learnings as he travelled. He shared an example of waitresses in a South-American country “doubling up” as secretaries offering additional services such as fax and the recording of minutes of meetings thereby adding more dimensions, services, and income streams to a coffee shop operation.

The words rolled of his tongue with enthusiasm as he described how modern times has provided multi-dimensional opportunities for an entrepreneur such as being in your office in Centurion, South-Africa, purchasing products online from China , and then selling online to purchasers in Italy. Jan sees the future of franchising in South Africa as moving more and more towards “mobile outlets”. He has extensively researched the international “mobile franchising market” and is very excited about the possibilities for growth in South-Africa with regards to this market segment.

He is one of the founders of Fit chef and is currently developing the franchise system “Cafe2go”(Mainly a mobile concept) of which there are currently twenty five outlets. On his entrepreneurial journey Jan has developed eighteen brands of which he was a cofounder and as a contracted project manager he has assisted in facilitating the exponential growth of hundreds more companies.

Channels and revenue streams

coffee-to-go-pictures

As the aroma and taste of another Cafe2go Cappuccino held my attention Jan elaborated on four more revolutionary franchising concepts that he is co-developing. He said that success in business is highly dependant upon doing things better than others and offering a unique service and product.

Related: Business Leadership: Leading A Culturally Diverse Business Team

Jan pointed out that he sees himself as a “channel creator” and it was clear to the author that through his vast experience and entrepreneurial acumen he has a high vantage point from which to see opportunities for the creation various funding models, sales channels and revenue streams, that combined causes exponential business growth.

This entrepreneur is very proud of his first start-up company of which he is still the CEO called Curator. Curator was started to, and still does assist entrepreneurs to grow their businesses, whether it be through growth interventions or for example raising capital or franchising the business.

Jan has never stopped learning whether it be from learnings accumulated from engaging other entrepreneurs or knowledge obtained from books. More importantly he continues to apply this learning in helping businesses to grow and create more and more jobs. Jan is building a legacy that any entrepreneur can be proud of. It is the authors’ sincere hope that young South-African entrepreneurs will learn from wiser business men such as Jan and co-create a vibrant and legacy driven entrepreneurial environment in our country.

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Bob Skinstad On Making An Impact With The 80/20 Principle

The 8020 principle is one of the most powerful success secrets in the world — provided you implement it. Most people have heard of it, few put it into action. Bob Skinstad is re-energising an age-old principle by sharing a collection of real-life examples from highly successful people of 8020 in action. Here’s how you can start embracing an 8020 mindset today — and see phenomenal results in return.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Bob Skinstad
  • What he does: Bob is an ex-Springbok rugby captain, businessman, entrepreneur, a director at venture capital firm Knife Capital and has recently developed an online course for millennials, 8020 Mindset.
  • Visit: www.knifecapital.co.za and 8020Mindset.com

When Gary Kirsten arrived in India in 2008 as the new coach of the Indian cricket team, he recognised he had a key problem. Many of the players on the team were not only more famous than he was, but more skilled as well. How do you coach Sachin Tendulkar, one of the greatest batsmen of all time, on his stroke? You tell him to keep doing what he’s doing, and get out of his way.

But Gary did need to find a way to build trust between himself and his new team. There were many superstars in Indian cricket, and yet the national team’s results weren’t good, mainly because they didn’t operate as a cohesive unit.

Implementing the 80/20 principle

To really make an impact, he turned to the 8020 principle. What small but significant area could he turn all of his attention towards, to achieve 80% of the results he was looking for?

Related: 8 Lessons Rugby Can Teach Us On Achieving Peak Performance In Business And Life

He realised that the one thing he had that most of the other players on his team did not, was time. Cricket is extremely popular in India, and the members of the national cricket team had a lot of endorsement deals, which meant they were very busy. Whatever happened, Gary knew he could outwork them. For the first 200 days of his contract, he spent every day at the batting nets, from 6am to 6pm. Each time a player came to the nets, he was there, ready to assist them, or simply to show he wasn’t going anywhere. He also spent those 200 days really studying his team members and listening to them.

By leveraging this one key area, Gary built the trust he was looking for, and learnt an enormous amount of information about his players. He found the one place that would make the biggest impact. Three years later, that team went on to win the World Cup.

Game-changing principles

“What’s incredible about the 8020 principle is that it’s relevant in every single facet of life,” says Bob Skinstad, an ex-Springbok rugby captain, businessman and now venture capitalist.

“Gary is just one successful person in his industry who has shared his 8020 experiences with me; there are so many real-world examples. I first discovered it while I was playing rugby in my early 20s, and I read Richard Koch’s book, The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More With Less, but I use it in my business development capacity at Knife Capital today, and have applied it in various ways throughout my life and career. It’s an absolute game changer if you understand how to apply the principles, and the success that putting pressure on the right levers can achieve in your life.”

To say Bob is passionate about fostering an 8020 mindset is an understatement. In fact, he believes so strongly in the principle that he approached Richard Koch himself to discuss how he could help millennials to embrace 8020 to lay the right foundations for their own futures and careers.

Sharing and teaching lessons learnt

“Richard has a house in Cape Town. I managed to get his contact details and sent him a long email explaining how we had used his principles in the Springbok rugby team. We were a young team, and we used 8020 to figure out who needed to get their hands on the ball at which times of the game to make the biggest impact. Our game improved markedly once we started applying Richard’s principles, and that led me to implement it in everything I did. Richard loved the fact that we had applied it in such different ways to how he’d laid the principles out in his business management books.

“I really wanted to share all the lessons I’d learnt, and also the experiences of so many other sportsmen, business leaders and entrepreneurs whom I know have used 8020 to achieve success. I didn’t want to write a book though — I thought a course would be more immediate and practical, particularly for millennials, who I believe can really benefit from fostering an 8020 mindset early in their careers. Richard and I collaborated on the course. I wrote the content, recruited a number of my contacts to share their own success stories, and Richard reviewed all the material before it went live. It’s been a great experience, and one I hope will spread the word of how significant a shift to the 8020 mindset can be. Once you understand the principles in action, it becomes the lens you use to make all of your decisions, which has an exponential impact on your life, business and career.”

80/20 in Action

8020-mindset

In all business and personal development theories, there is a vast gap between understanding the theory and actually putting it into practice. Using the 8020 principle on itself, only 20% of the people who are exposed to 8020 will actually implement it, but they will reap 80% of the rewards as a result.

The problem is that reading about a theory is easy. Putting it into practice is hard. It takes discipline, and a real understanding of how the principles work.

If you’ve been exposed to 8020 (also known as the Pareto Principle) before, you know that 20% of a sales team is responsible for 80% of a company’s revenue, 20% of clients bring in 80% of business, and 20% of your actions each day impact 80% of your life. Imagine if you knew which 20%, and could put all of your attention into those key areas. Imagine how you would supercharge your own growth and success, opening hours each day to concentrate on high priority tasks instead of getting sucked into the quagmire of ‘busyness’ we all fall victim to without even realising.

80/20 principle in action

“A few years ago, I was involved in a restaurant in Cape Town. We realised that 80% of the food customers ordered came from 20% of the menu. Through this simple insight, we were able to take a 36-page menu down to two pages. We saved costs on wastage, streamlined kitchen processes, and increased our efficiencies and customer service levels through this one simple change.

“The hardest part is getting started. Once you see success in one area though, you naturally start looking for the 8020 in other areas of your life, and before you know it that’s how you look at everything,” explains Bob.

Related: 5 Things Businesses Can Learn From Rugby

“I see examples of 8020 everywhere, but I also see a lot of what I call ‘2080’ thinking. Take the ‘latte factor’ as an example. A few years ago, the idea took hold in the US (and South Africa) that if you just stopped drinking a latte once a day, you’d save $250 in 100 days. I disagree completely. If you really want to impact your savings, renegotiate your bond with your bank once a year. That will give you a far greater saving than cutting out lattes, and you haven’t deprived yourself of something that makes life pleasant. One key negotiation at the right time will have a much bigger impact on your life — speak to your bank, negotiate a raise — but look at the key area that will have an 80% impact, instead of an almost insignificant impact. That’s where you should be putting your willpower, energy and self-discipline.

“Gym is another great example. We’re told to spend 20 minutes a day at gym. That’s great for your health, and you should do it, but in terms of weight loss and body shaping, it’s negligible if you compare it to changing your eating habits. Gym is 20% of your body. Eating is 80%. Where should you be putting your focus? Instead, we see people gyming and then eating two packets of chips, and wondering why they aren’t losing weight. It’s all about what levers you pull, and where you put your focus.”

Small changes, big results

In 2017, Bob brokered local VC firm Knife Capital’s expansion into the UK. Based in the UK, Bob’s role as a director at Knife Capital is business development — how can Knife Capital assist its investments to build high-impact businesses from a small base?

“Once again, 8020 hits the target every time,” he says. “We’ve recently invested in a Swedish-based business called MOST, which develops environmental monitoring solutions for the transport and shipping industry. An early investor in MOST is King Digital Entertainment, the creator of Candy Crush. We love MOST. It’s tracking really nice numbers, the management team is excellent, the product is next level, the business model allows for recurring revenues — but our aim as an investor is to grow the business. We needed to analyse which areas to concentrate on that will have the biggest impact on growth. Through applying 8020 we realised that 12% of MOST’s current customers are responsible for 82% of the business’s revenues.

“How much energy, time and resources are put into the other 88% of clients who are only responsible for 18% of the company’s revenue? And what can be done to bring more customers on board who are like the 12%, and not the 88% of MOST’s customer base? Focus on the right areas, and you’ll exponentially grow your revenues without increasing overheads or expending more energy — in fact, you could actually do more in less time, with fewer people, if you know where to concentrate your efforts.”

How to apply the 80/20 principle

Bob believes that at its core, 8020 is common sense — you just need to apply your mind to the principles, and ask the right questions: What’s your 8020? Who are your biggest customers, where are you spending most of your time, which actions have the biggest impact, and where are your waste areas? And in each case, can you 8020 the results you’re looking for? What’s the 20% that will generate 80% of your returns, or impact 80% of your success? What’s the 20% that will affect the world and your customers’ lives and businesses?

Local entrepreneur Keith Rose-Innes shares how he increased Seychelles’ fly-fishing tourism industry by 600%:

Keith Rose-Innes built his profile and expertise to become the go-to-guy for building fly-fishing trips around the world. Based on this expertise, Seychelles tourism hired him to increase visitor numbers to their islands.

The Seychelles is isolated and expensive. Keith did his research, and discovered that only 20% of fly-fishing agents were responsible for most of the fly-fishing trips booked around the world. Instead of spreading his efforts, he concentrated exclusively on those top agents, pitching the reasons why they should promote the Seychelles to their clients. Within six months he’s increased year-on-year sales on the islands by 100%. This grew to 600% over the course of four years — simply because Keith focused his efforts where he would have the greatest impact.

Related: Joel Stransky Shares His Insights On What Makes A Great Leader


Take the course

8020 Mindset is a five-hour online course endorsed by Richard Koch and presented by Bob Skinstad. It’s designed to help participants think like results-orientated super-performers.

Visit: 8020mindset.com or email info@mindset.com for more information on the course and corporate talks.

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Lesego Maphanga of Standard Bank

Lesego Maphanga is young (he only graduated in 2014 with an Industrial & Systems Engineering degree), yet he has already made a name for himself in multiple industries. His secret to success? Always doing more than is asked of him.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital stats

  • Player: Lesego Maphanga
  • Company: Standard Bank
  • Position: Manager: Card & Emerging Payments; Africa Regions
  • About: At only 27, the maths & science whizz works at Standard Bank as an Emerging Payments manager responsible for implementing remittances products across multiple African Regions. He also has his own radio show on CliffCentral called the Urban Culture Drive, and is founder of social entrepreneurship movement called Unplugged and in Charge.

I studied engineering knowing right from the start that I would never work as an engineer. I just couldn’t see myself working at a mine, or something like that, but I knew that engineering would give me a solid foundation and allow me to keep my options open. A STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) degree is a great base, as it shows that you have a mind for numbers and the analytic mindset needed to get things done. I don’t think you can go wrong with a degree in one of these fields, even if entrepreneurship is your ultimate aim.

Related: 20 Quotes On Coping With Change From Successful Entrepreneurs And Leaders

How can I set myself apart?

You have to ask yourself this question. There’s a lot of competition out there. You might have a great academic history or work experience, but so do a lot of people, so you need to have a differentiator — something that makes you stand out. I entered Mr South Africa, for example, because I knew that it would increase my profile and add something interesting to my CV. I didn’t win, but I was a top-five finalist, which was good enough for me.

Find interesting things to add to your CV as well, since it’ll make it stand out in a massive pile of similar submissions.

Always go the extra mile

I had a lecturer who always said: “There are two kinds of bad engineers. There are those who don’t do what they’re told to do, and there are those who only do exactly what they’re told to do.” You need to add value and show that you are a crucial part of a team, so don’t just do what you’re told. Instead, look for ways in which you can go beyond the brief. Work hard and spend time coming up with your own ideas and projects. At the end of my studies, I interned at Standard Bank. I knew that I only had five weeks to make an impression, so I gave it my all. When you’re young, you don’t have many responsibilities apart from work, so that’s the time to put everything into your work.

Be audacious and make things happen

Seizing an opportunity that comes to you is great, but creating your own opportunities is even better. Don’t take no for an answer, and don’t wait for someone to give you a chance. A friend and I had an idea for a radio show and decided to put a proposal together. We had no experience and no contacts in the field, but we emailed our proposal to everyone we could think of. We spammed them, sending it out every single day. Eventually, CliffCentral got in contact 
with us.

Related: Design The Life Of Your Dreams Using These Simple Tips

I don’t want a ‘normal’ life

I want an extraordinary life, so I demand a lot of myself. I think Elon Musk is a great example of this. He’s doing things no one thought possible. Of course, it requires extreme levels of dedication and hard work. If you’re aiming for the top, I don’t think work/life balance is possible. You need work/life integration. You need to be pursuing your passion all the time. If you’re on a path you’re truly interested in, work doesn’t feel like sacrifice.

Exercise is important to me

I go to gym twice a day. It’s significant to me, as it allows me to relax and clear my mind. It also provides structure to my life. When I get up early and go to gym, I find that the rest of my day falls into place. It sets the tone. As long as I maintain focus in this part of my life, I find that things overall stay under control. Sometimes, though, I need to take a day off and just sit in front of the TV. Generally speaking, however, I find that routine helps maintain focus and momentum.

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