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The Unlimited Group: Iain Buchan

A new take on an old approach has paid off for this annuity company.

Monique Verduyn



Iain Buchan of The Unlimited Group

Offthe cliff, no skid marks – that was the fate of Iain Buchan’s first threebusiness ventures. But in 1994, all that changed when he launched The UnlimitedGroup, a high-volume distributor of over 30 annuity-based products andfinancial services that was voted one of South Africa’s Top 300 companies in2008.“1994was a watershed year,” Buchan says. “Having had three businesses thatcollapsed, I had to ask some serious questions. Somehow I was building goodbusinesses and then sabotaging them indirectly.”

Learning frompast mistakes

Hismistakes taught Buchan some hard lessons. Today, even with the huge growth ofthe business, he runs a cash forecast in excruciating detail. He also claims toknow what tax the company will pay to within 5% in February 2010. Added tothat, the business does not owe money to anybody; instead, it uses cash to negotiatebetter settlements. Buchanbelieves in getting the sales first and worrying about offices, cars andadvertising only once those are in the bag. Experience has shown him howoverheads can cripple a new business that is trying to sell.Buchanhas learnt about winning and losing, a lesson that forms the basis of hisbusiness model. “I went on a course in the same year that Unlimited waslaunched,” he recalls. “We played a game in which the only brief was to win. Mymindset had always been a win/lose one – for me to win, I had to beat myopponent. In this game, however, you could only win if the opposition won too.This resulted in a massive mind shift for me. I realised that a business has tofocus on doing the right things instead of just chasing the money. Sure,you need to manage cash flow and forecast accurately, but if you focus only onmaking millions today, it will not be sustainable in the long-term.” Asa result, the business focuses on providing customers with real cash benefitsand has built a loyal team through a generous profit share scheme. 


Toget The Unlimited Group off the ground, Buchan took what he had learnt fromrunning an outbound telesales business for some time and began a door-to-dooroperation. “I was good at selling, but I saw that money could be made fromannuity-based products. You sell once, and if the service is good, the customeris yours, the debit order runs and the money comes in.”TheUnlimited Group has taken an old-fashioned approach to selling, tweaked it abit and clearly made it work. In the old days, a salesperson would knock onyour door and spend three hours trying to convince you to buy. Buchan’s teamtake no more than 30 seconds of the customer’s time once they’ve opened theirdoor. On offer is a range of products at reduced prices, ranging from holidaysto funeral policies to cash-back programmes, all targeted at specific LSMgroups.Theproducts sell for R100 or less and offer great value for customers. Ifyou’re wondering how Unlimited’s salespeople make it past suburban crimebarriers, Buchan says it’s simple. “All our people wear big placards on theirchests, including their name, a colour photo, their ID number, and the companycontact details. Customers are prepared to talk to them because they are nothiding anything.”

Buying power

Thesingle biggest challenge facing the business in the early days was cash flow.Unlimited broke even after six months; to finance the shortfall, Buchan had anight job seven days a week.  Thecompany has developed significant buying power over the years, thanks to itsbig customer base. But in the beginning it was tough, says Buchan.  “Who’s going to give you a discount when youhave only a few customers? We were honest about that; we showed our partnersour business plan and asked them to give us a small discount on their products.Over time, as the number of customers grew, we were able to negotiate betterand better deals.”ForUnlimited’s partners, the benefits are great as the company actively drivescustomers to them. It’s far more profitable for an airline that’s flying a jetfrom Johannesburg to Cape Town, for example, to fill it up withpassengers paying half price than to have empty seats. The same applies tohotel beds. Lookingahead, Buchan and his two sons Zach and Barney are seeking to expand thebusiness into Africa and other regions of the world, and have been testing themarket in Indiaextensively. “Wekeep the entrepreneurial spirit of the company alive by always asking ‘why’ and‘can it be done better’,” he concludes. +27 31 716 9602

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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25 Of The Most Successful Business Ideas In South Africa

Find out who’s making waves in numerous industries and how they managed to differentiate themselves in local and international industries.

Nicole Crampton



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“Disruption is all about risk-taking, trusting your intuition, and rejecting the way things are supposed to be. Disruption goes way beyond advertising, it forces you to think about where you want your brand to go and how to get there,” says Richard Branson.

South Africa has its fair share of innovative and disruptive businesses taking both local and international industries by storm. From cutting edge space technology to reimagined logistics, and innovative business models, here are 25 of the most successful business ideas in South Africa:

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Colin Timmis Says ‘Position Yourself For Success By Starting With The Numbers’

People pay first who they feel pressure from, so people will pay you when they feel pressure from you.






Entrepreneur Colin Timmis founded South Africa’s first cloud accounting practice in 2011, Real Time Accounting. Then, a few years after being appointed as South Africa’s first Xero partner Colin became Xero Country Manager South Africa. Xero is the emerging global leader of online accounting software that connects small businesses to their advisors and other services.

Related: Pat Pillai On How He’s Helped Over 5000 Entrepreneurs Using 3 Key Steps

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Two 20 Year Olds Reshape Entrepreneur Landscape With New Social Investment Platform

The Merge vision is to become the ‘go to’, digital meeting place for entrepreneurs and investors, and to truly make a difference in the world.

Merge Connect




Vital Stats

It’s no secret that finding the right investor for your venture is a challenge that most entrepreneurs face. The current process of finding investment is one that is outdated, and limits entrepreneurs due to a lack of time, and network that is needed to find the right investor. But, this doesn’t have to be the case in today’s digital society, says Zander Matthee and Brandon Bate, co-founders of Merge.

“By making the Internet the middleman, we are able to connect with each other much simpler and faster than before” was Zander’s response. “We have taken advantage of this, and have created a digital meeting place for entrepreneurs and investors” added Brandon.

Merge is a social platform that connects entrepreneurs and investors. It aims to simplify, refine and accelerate the process of finding investment for entrepreneurs, and the process of finding investment opportunities for investors. From idea to developed, the platform allows entrepreneurs to present a brief outline of their venture to a network of all investor types. While doing this, entrepreneurs are able to browse through, and connect with investor profiles that suit their requirements.

Related: 8 Codes Of Success That Helped Priven Reddy of Kagiso Interactive Media Achieve A Networth Of Over R4 Billion

From Private Investors to Venture Capital, and everything in between, Merge allows all investor types to join. Investors have the opportunity to personalise their feed to suit their investment preferences, and will be able to connect with innovative businesses – that are looking for investment – at their fingertips. Only once there is a mutual interest in each other, are users able to enter a secure private chat where they can discuss further and share documents under the protection of a digital NDA.

The two boys became good friends during their time in high school at St Stithians Boys College. However, it was only in their last year, 2016, that they decided to pursue their dreams and create the platform. They didn’t know how to code, so rather ironically, they needed some form of investment to get the platform off the ground.


“We knew we had a mountain to climb, but we believed in our vision and that we were really trying to make a difference, and if we could get others to see that, they would be onboard.” said Zander.

Related: Lessons From The Rich And Famous: Manage Your Money Like Oprah To Avoid Going Into Debt Like Nicholas Cage

Chris Peters is one of these individuals that bought into their vision, and became Merge’s first investor. As a successful entrepreneur and part time investor , Chris saw how much value the platform could bring to all entrepreneurs and investors alike. His marketing and strategic background gave him insight into how Merge could play a vital role in a lucrative space, Brand involvement.

“Entrepreneurship and SME development are two key factors that drive economic growth in developing countries like South Africa. That is why brands are currently getting involved, and looking to support entrepreneurs through various means. We have built a platform that allows these brands to successfully market, and execute on the programmes they have created to assist entrepreneurs.” said Chris

Merge was created to assist all entrepreneurs and investors in finding exactly what they are looking for, regardless of age, race, sex, financial position or social status. That is why anybody can sign-up as an entrepreneur. As long as you are determined and willing to work for your dreams. For too long has the investor space been seen as an “elite club for the select few”, and Merge is here to change that. Whether you’ve gotten your bonus at the end of the year and looking for new investment opportunities, or are an active investor, you can sign-up. Whether you’re currently working, or a retired industry leader, you can join as a mentor.

Their vision is to become the ‘go to’, digital meeting place for entrepreneurs and investors, and to truly make a difference in the world.

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