What do successful entrepreneurs look like before their business is a commercial success? Wait, how can one even be considered successful when one’s business is in a pre-revenue state? The answer to the first question contains the answer to the second: a successful pre-revenue entrepreneur looks a lot like Benjamin Shaw, Allan Gray Fellow and founder of HouseME. The popular one-dimensional image of entrepreneurs as wealthy, powerful people who got lucky and were at the right place at the right time is not quite Ben’s idea of an entrepreneur. His is broader and multi-dimensional: “We forget that the car guard, the window washer, the street-side salesman are entrepreneurs as well.”
His understanding of entrepreneurship started with the simple possibility that one could create value with what is available and what you’re surrounded with. This truth inspired Ben to start myriad businesses – a few while still at high school. This truth also drew him to the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation’s Fellowship Opportunity. He recalls that the application form contained “all the questions that I’d been waiting for people to ask like, ‘Have you started a business?’” To that he could unequivocally answer “Yes.” Through his time at the Fellowship his definition of entrepreneurship has gained a few more dimensions or phases, as he puts it. Not only is coming up with an idea and then selling it entrepreneurial, you would also call building and operating a company entrepreneurial. They might be phases of entrepreneurship, but certainly not prerequisites for calling yourself an entrepreneur. Ben explains, “I think before I was on the Fellowship I always placed myself outside of those phases saying ‘I’m not there yet, I wish I was, I wish I was.’” With the imminent launch of HouseME Ben is certainly “there” now.
HouseME is the result of thinking about which industries were ripe for disruption. There may be nothing new about HouseME’s aim of connecting prospective tenants to landlords in residential accommodation. But its use of an auction methodology is set to disrupt the industry: allowing tenants to access a vetted market place and bid on the rent they’re able to pay while landlords are guaranteed to receive income from reputable and reliable tenants.
Through HouseME Ben is also trying to give a demographic access to housing it is otherwise unable to access. He explains, “Friends of mine who are not white can’t get a particular house in Observatory or in Camps Bay or wherever the case might be not because they’re not good tenants, not because they can’t afford it, but because of the subjectivity of a landlord … We actually need to go and find these social injustices, build businesses around them and sort them out; fix them.”
Another feature that sets Ben apart from the one-dimensional view of an entrepreneur is his willingness to fail or rather fail forward. Instead of looking at decisions made or actions taken and terming them failures, he chooses to learn from them and take those learnings forward.
The examples of failing forward he cites are rather non-traditional, but insightful nonetheless. He recalls how he failed to play competitive sport while at university and how he failed to travel as extensively as he’d hoped. These failings would remain so if he did nothing to rectify them in Ben 2.0 – what he terms ‘the next iteration of himself’. He’s learned to ask: “Are you currently building Ben 2.0?” Conversely he’s learned that failures are those situations where he’d have to say: “I’ve failed to move forward with this. I didn’t learn the lesson.” In the case of both travelling more and engaging in sports, he has made great progress – joining football and eSports clubs and travelling to India (with Startup Safari) and to Silicon Valley (with Investec Enovate).
Ben is also unique in assessing his commercial success rate. He confesses to having had only one successful business ever – Oracle Investments in which he was one of a few partners. “Every single other business I had was a commercial failure,” adding quickly that HouseME is still pre-revenue. “Nothing has worked and those are all traditional failures … And I think it keeps you really humble to know that no matter how big your plan is, there are some things you can do nothing about and it’s about how best you move forward that matters.” Such is the honesty of an entrepreneur who’s learned humility and persistence.
Finding a business partner
Kyle Bradley came on board as Ben’s business partner at an early stage of HouseME because he knew that if it was going to work, it would be bigger than a one-man project. Kyle, having worked in the Cape Town-based startup “Where’s My Transport”, complemented Ben’s corporate experience. He also brought his coding and programming expertise to his role as Chief Technology Officer. Ben shares some pointers below with entrepreneurs on the lookout for partners.
Four things to remember when choosing a business partner:
- be incredibly humble and true to yourself about your shortcomings and failings;
- get someone on board that you can trust to do things you don’t need to do anymore;
- consider a reference; and
- do your due diligence.
You have to be able to admit that you are not good at X, Y and Z. For a founder this would be a really difficult period of introspection. It could be difficult to let go, but you need to identify gaps and find people who can fill those gaps.
Point number two is also difficult to embrace when you’ve built a business up from scratch. You might have given everything to it before a partner comes on board, but you have to be willing to give up part of your company, to give up part of your idea, to give up part of the responsibility for running it to people you can trust and are competent in what they do.
Regarding points three and four Ben recalls: “One of the lessons that I’ve taken throughout my short career is that references are king. I was referred to Kyle by a friend that I trusted implicitly and it turned out to be a very good meeting. I would never have taken a meeting if my friend hadn’t referred him directly.” He nonetheless warns that a reference is not a golden standard. You should do your due diligence to ensure that prospective partners are competent and trustworthy.