Wajdi Abrahams, director of Siyakhula Business Consulting, has a long history in mentoring people in the small to medium business sector. He started off contracting for a Cape Town-based NGO that was one of the first local business service centres to be accredited when government had just started placing focus on small business development. After that, he managed the enterprise development programme for another NGO and then moved to the International Labour Organisation.
For the last five years, Abrahams has been contracting for SAB’s KickStart Programme. His involvement in the regional and national legs is extensive and spans development of programme material; recruiting and selecting candidates; training; assisting in business plan development; participating in interviews with external adjudicators; allocation of grants; and mentoring candidates once they have received a grant. Mentoring makes up a crucial part of the programme and can run up to eight or nine months.
“KickStart is a tough business focused competition, but there is a strong corporate social investment element to the programme, in that it deals with people who would not have the opportunity, under normal circumstances, to start their own business,” Abrahams points out. This means that candidates, while they may have the ideas and the drive, don’t necessarily have the skills needed to set up and run a successful business.
Their needs reflect those of all start-up entrepreneurs and include what he calls “the usual suspects” – lack of numeracy and financial knowledge, lack of marketing skills and being too product driven. “People focus too much on their product instead of running a cost-effective business,” he says. “The reason is that they have been trained to know the product but not how to run a business.
When dealing with these challenges, Abrahams points to how invaluable learning is. “I like to focus on the learning cycle: knowledge, attitude, behaviour, skills. If I am able to improve someone’s knowledge and attitude that will in turn impact their behaviour and their skills.” One thing he is passionate about is lifelong learning. “My advice to entrepreneurs and people starting businesses is to make sure that you are always learning,” he says. “Probably the most powerful tool you have is your mind,” he continues, elaborating on the power of positive thinking.
“Entrepreneurs often go through periods of self-doubt – thinking that you are going to fail can lead to actual failure. It’s difficult to be successful if you don’t believe you can do it,” he says. Although mentoring plays a crucial role in helping people with business start-up, Abrahams is adamant that “mentoring” should never be “doing”. “It’s like cycling in a race,” he says. “It’s your bicycle – you ride it. I will be there every ten kilometres to tell you to check your brakes, drink some water, stay focused, but I can’t ride the race for you. I can’t run your business for you either.
But I can help you along the way with some direction or motivation.” It’s an important point. Entrepreneurs can come to rely too heavily on a mentor, and never build up confidence in their ability to make their own decisions.
“A good mentor understands the difference between his strengths and weaknesses and those of the person he is mentoring,” Abrahams explains. “When you know what a person is capable of, you know where to push him to dig just a little bit deeper.” He also highlights the importance of playing devil’s advocate, to emphasise to the entrepreneur that they need to be prepared if things don’t go the way they had hoped. Mentoring can be of benefit to any entrepreneur, so where does one find a good one? Business coaches fill this role, but as Abrahams points out, a mentor doesn’t need to be someone who is formally in the mentoring business.
It can be a family member or friend, or another business person, but most especially other entrepreneurs who have experienced similar growing pains. He makes a simple but important observation: “It all comes back to a willingness to learn. When you want to learn, you start talking to other people, and when you do that, people talk back to you. You’d be surprised how willing they are to share their experiences.”
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