STORIES are great to learn from – and more so if they are told by inspirational entrepreneurs who are making a real difference to the lives of the people they reach through their companies. South Africa’s Greatest Entrepreneur offers 22 such insightful stories.
In the introduction, Moky Makura, who compiled the book, explains how a shoe-shine entrepreneur operating from the airport departure lounge recognised her after reading the predecessor to this book. He had read Africa’s Greatest Entrepreneurs and was so inspired by it that he launched his shoe-shine business.
Moved by the shoe-shine entrepreneur and many others who gave her similar feedback, Makura (you may also know her as the actress in the role of business woman Folake Abayomi in the TV series Jacob’s Ladder, and an author of soft-cover love stories), decided to publish a sequence focussing on South Africa’s best- known entrepreneurs. She teamed up with the Gordon Institute of Business Science to collect the stories of successful South African entrepreneurs whom she hoped would have the same effect on upcoming business people that her first book had on the shoe-shiner!
While each of the 22 entrepreneurs covered in the book tells a unique story, you can quickly identify themes common to most. For instance, they all speak about their passion, be it in a different industry or context for each. Take for example the advive of banker GT Ferreira: “Do something that you enjoy, do something that you want to do and try your best to excel at that. It may not be the best monitory-wise, but if you are the best at something, do what you enjoy and excel at, hopefully the money will come.”
Another theme that runs through the book is that persistence and the ability to tackle obstacles head-on are attributes successful entrepreneurs have in common. Take for example what well-known filmaker Anant Singh tells about how he started off in business, having to overcome huge odds in apartheid-era South Africa.
Singh wanted to buy a video store in Durban, but faced massive hurdles. He did not have the money and was prevented from owning a business in an area classified as white. But he eventually bought the store by paying in instalments from the turnover and he managed to enter an agreement with a white friend to circumvent Group Area laws.
While most of his contemporaries saw the hostile environment of the time as restrictions preventing them from following their entrepreneurial ideas, Singh saw these as stepping stones to success.
The upbringing of the entrepreneurs included in the book varies significantly, from those who battled through school, to those who completed post-graduate degrees. It is however clear, as specifically noted by Gary Morolo, that formal education is not a requirement to succeed as entrepreneur. As he said: “At the time, I thought the MBA was the most useless degree.” However, it is the ability to learn from your environment and the mistakes you make that allows you to overcome difficulties and to make use of the opportunities that come your way.
It is unsurprising that, in almost every story in the book, the need to be able to work in a team is accentuated. Even those who are seen as larger-than-life personalities, who went out to “single-handedly” transform an industry, recognise the need to work in a well-function team with talented people. Take, for example what Sol Kerzner says about the need to work as a team: “I don’t create the resorts, it’s not one man’s idea. When we do things, we put our heads down and work as a team… I’m working with great talent, an incredible team of people… I do great things with great people.”
It may be easy to discard the relevance of the advice these hugely successful entrepreneurs can give to the “ordinary” business people. They are, after all, running big businesses, or have retired from running these businesses. But this book is not about the approach the great entrepreneurs are following now; it is about what happened when they started out and how they created something that grew into large businesses over time.
This book tells the stories of their early days in business; the setbacks and challenges they had to overcome; the lucky breaks that allowed them to take huge steps forward at key moments; their passion, persistence and belief in what they were doing; their drive to create something exceptional for their customers; their understanding of what it takes to work as leader of a team of talented people… all the elements that needed to come together for them to build successful businesses over time.
The value of South Africa’s Greatest Entrepreneurs lies in the ease with which very important business lessons are told through the anecdotes of those who have achieved good results. It’s an easy read but is filled with difficult lessons.
To help those who would like to apply those lessons, each story concludes with key lessons from that entrepreneur, summarised neatly on one page.
Of course, the approach taken by the featured entrepreneurs differ and will not apply to every-one setting out with a small business, but since the stories are told within a digestible chunk of pages, you can easily find the lessons that apply to you.