I studied a business degree for a good chunk of my adolescence, and in that time I’ve been exposed to some interesting and accomplished entrepreneurs. Armed with a 40-minute guest lecture slot and a PowerPoint clicker, these business leaders would share their career paths, lessons learned and how-to-succeed lists. For any aspirant business student, these guest lectures by self-made successes are gold — if for nothing else than to get the chance to corner said self-made success after the lecture to verbally deliver a resumé worthy of an instant internship. (This tactic declined after third-year Professional Communication.)
It was around 2009, under the influence of a heady blend of Outliers, Freakonomics and Sir Ken Robinson, that I began losing interest in these talks. I was hungrier for the un-sexy stories behind the success of these entrepreneurs: of the insomniac nights of self-doubt; the serendipitous introduction to key enablers; the marathon viewings of Shark Tank and so on.
But this is not the stuff typically presented by entrepreneurial leaders — or leaders in any field for that matter.
With the benefit of hindsight, I realise now that I might also have been bored. The entrepreneurs addressing us were never very different from one another. Whilst their businesses and individual career paths were diverse, they were culturally homogenous. Not totally, but mostly. It all led underwhelmingly (and probably unwittingly) to US- and Euro-centric lectures on entrepreneurship and success.
Ah, formal education. Another topic for another time (with wine).
I finally got the guest lecture I’d been waiting for a few days after my university graduation. Irony notwithstanding, this lecture was also completely unanticipated.
I was walking through central Cape Town on an unbearably hot summer’s day, wracking my brain for the kind of clothing that would be cooling and protective enough to cycle in (#commuterproblems). That’s when I saw it: a stall brimming with cotton shirts.
I approached the man who seemed to be doing the wooing of the German tourists.
His name is Lucas, and he runs a clothing and textile business, selling his wares at stalls throughout the city. As I soon learned, he also runs two other businesses in the city, owns a few properties and is supporting all three of his children through Masters degrees in Cape Town. His plain cotton t-shirt, linen slacks and ever-so-slight slouch suggested none of this material success.
In my newfound joy of talking to strangers, Lucas and I got to chatting — about shirts and cottons. And before long, we had occupied a bench and he began to dispense his thoughts about success, the meaning of work, and thriving as a foreigner in the Mother City.
Here’s what I learned from this Cameroonian tradesman. (Paraphrased from scribbled notes penned straight after this serendipitous conversation – his words appearing in italics below)
Seven Habits for Entrepreneurial Success
1. Get out of your comfort zone. Better still, get kicked out.
Years ago, I moved from Cameroon to South Africa for better business opportunities…for a better life. But I couldn’t get professional work here. I am an engineer, but I am not South African. But there are opportunities here, so I had to make it work.
Being out of his home country and out of luck in his profession — Lucas was quite far outside his comfort zone. With a family to provide for, he had to learn about the city very quickly — from how business permits are administered to where to buy groceries. But in this displacement, he believes he gained agility.
Talk about an entrepreneurial spirit.
If there’s one thing your remember from what I say, remember this…
2. Do not get involved with the bank.
The last thing you want is the first thing in the morning to be a call from the bank telling you that owe them. Rather work for your own financing, and save up. Then reach out to friends and family if needed.
With an understanding smile he acknowledged my counter-point of all the small-business support now being offered by banks. To my appeal for the functional value of debt as leverage for higher growth he nodded politely.
You need to pay for your own mistakes. Because this is what the start of your business will be: one mistake after the next. You’re better off knowing that you can fail without falling into serious debt…You need every shred of confidence you can get, and debt does not help you build dignity.
Debt has a psychological effect too. Yoda-moment. Dad-moment came next:
3. Forget about how awesome you are.
If you’re changing your professional direction, be prepared to be the new, inexperienced or dumb one — until you can become your own captain. Put away your medals and start from the bottom: start meeting the people you need to meet; learning the skills you need to learn and putting yourself to the test until you are great in your new chosen field. It will not be easy, but you must be prepared to do what is necessary (and righteous) to raise your capital.
Lucas first worked as a security guard for a hotel in Cape Town. The hotel belonged to a South African hospitality magnate —who took a liking to Lucas (#serendipity)— and it wasn’t too long before he became a manager at the hotel. At the chance to join the hotel group at a more senior level, Lucas exited the hotel industry. He had saved up, made many connections (a lot of them international ) and had learnt a tremendous amount about people, networks, services and the luxury market.
But he ultimately wanted to run his own thing.
…I was not getting any younger.
4. You’ll never raise enough capital by selling your time.
As a human there is only so much you can do, and still be a good, happy person at the end of every day. A professional job demands a lot of you if you want to do well and save money on the side. A business idea demands a lot more — emotionally and financially — if you want to make it happen. Now how much of you is left if you try to juggle both? You will be saving up, and juggling, for a long time.
Try to raise capital by starting small: build up a smaller business, get that running, and sell it. Then build up a bigger business and sell that, and carry on until you’ve raised enough capital to build your big thing. That way, may you also make mistakes early on, and your big idea stands a better chance of succeeding.
For Lucas, his first business after leaving the hotel industry was a printing business in partnership with his brother, which he left in the hands of his brother and moved onto his current clothing business. This, he told me, is merely his next stepping stone to the big business idea he’s been cultivating for a long time.
When I enquired about this big, mysterious plan, his eyes lit up but his lips pursed. And then he gave me my next lesson.
5. Keep your ideas to yourself.
…mainly whilst they’re in their infancy, and especially when they’ve got lucrative potential. Instead of telling everyone about it — tell yourself about it. Put the ideas in a journal, pray, flesh them out in your quiet hours, wrestle with them until you’ve answered every question about them that you would ask of someone else’s idea presented to you. Ask God for the courage, and then — execute — with the vision only you have crafted.
It occurred to me at this point that Lucas is a deeply religious man. He attributes much of his success to his relationship with God. Now I don’t subscribe to any single religion (sorry Gran) and there was certainly no theology in my business degree (other than the doctrine of Profits Optimusand Cost Minimus). But what I could relate to in Lucas’ mention of God’s guiding hand was the deeply personal significance of seeking a sense of higher purpose in one’s work. Something even Viktor Frankl (author of Man’s Search For Meaning) would appreciate.
But still, I pressed him on this idea of keeping ideas under lock-and-key, only to be reminded that…
6. Business is still competition.
In the African culture, when you succeed, you are The Man. Everyone respects you, everyone wants to follow you. But if you fail — oh boy. If you fail you’re worthless, silly, not a man.
Although I’ve had no experience as an African man, this cultural constraint struck a chord. As he explained further, and the cultural parallels grew stronger.
People can be cheerleaders, telling you to “follow your heart”, to “dream it and do it”. Or they can be very scared for you. They might try to talk you out of your idea, or push you into taking a more stable job. Either way, you build up a lot of pressure for yourself by involving others too soon. Their uncertainly can make it difficult to remain motivated, or their overwhelming support can make you too scared to fail. You will paralyse yourself for what — pride?
So rather don’t tell anyone your plans. Try-and-fail as many times as you need to until you can publicise your success.
I’m still a proponent of early-stage feedback (before too much time and energy is invested in an idea) but I strongly appreciate the call for modesty in one’s words and might in one’s actions.
“But can you do it totally on your own?” I asked.
Well yes…and no.
Most of the time, the wife is scared. She does not want me taking risks — at least not big risks. She wants to know that I will always be able to care for the family, because the family is her primary concern, and what I do as the provider can either put that in jeopardy or prosperity. I think she would prefer, most of the time, to have stability. She would probably be happier if I was still an engineer.(He cracks himself up at this thought.)
But luckily, I am the man. So if I want to do it, I can. And she must trust that I am doing it not just for my own success, but for my name — and everyone connected to that name.
Snoozing my feminist alarm bells, I was impressed with the conviction with which Lucas expressed his patriarchal power. I do not know of many male entrepreneurs who would readily discuss how their wives take the back seat, so it was quite refreshing to receive this matter-of-fact explanation of African family authority.
The 7th Habit: Don’t forget to say Thank You.
Your knowledge is the most important asset you have, but understand that you were not born with it. You must learn to share your success, to give thanks, to bow before the people who made it possible for you. Your parents raised you and educated you, I assume? Then they should be the first people to share your success.
With a new swarm of tourists hovering around his cotton shirts, I thanked him and took my leave. I promptly turned back and asked if I may visit him again — if he’d be willing to share more of his story. He gave me his contact details, and then a hug (much to my surprise).
Thank you for the education, Lucas. I look forward to your next lecture.