Even as a child, I was an entrepreneur of some sort. I was always brokering a sale. One year, our teachers organised a school trip to Durban. To subsidise the costs, they gave us apples to sell. I sold eight boxes to everybody else’s one. When you grow up poor, you learn how to “maak ‘n plan”. That’s what got me through a series of failures later on as I tried everything I could to get my own business going.
When I was in my teens, in the late 80s, South Africa was burning. Twice I wanted to write my matric exams, and on both occasions we were not able to because the political situation made it too dangerous.
I left high school in Tembisa and went to a technical school. That was frustrating because I am hopeless at maths, so I left there too and went into the music industry. I started a band and recorded an LP, but I soon realised that there was no money to be made, despite the fact that we had a lot of fun.
My frustration grew and I became a quasi political activist. In 1989, I was accepted as a student at a school for troubled youth. In 1990, I decided to study fine art at Unisa. It was a tough time. I had no money and no-one wanted to give me any. I made banners and signs part-time to get me through, but I had to give it up eventually. My interest in graphic design remained strong, even though the opportunities for a young, black man were few.
My first real business venture was Entertainment Extravaganza Promotions (EEP) in 1991 which promoted trade shows in the townships. There were five of us in the business, but as the only one who was unemployed I became the MD.
It was then that I saw a motivational speaker in action for the first time and I remember thinking, “Wow, that is something I must do one day.”
EEP began working on a massive trade show and I succeeded
in bringing in some big sponsors for the event which was to be held in Tembisa on a Saturday. The Friday before, gunmen opened fire on a minibus taxi killing 13 people. The show opened the next day, but that act of political violence destroyed it.
We had expected over 50 000 people to attend; instead it was a total failure. I remember I had promised my wife that we were going to make millions. Because I was the face of the company, I was the one who had to tell people that we had no money to pay them. My first experience of running a business had exploded in my face due to an event that could not have been foreseen.
I went back to the drawing board and started a one-man graphic design business. I printed T-shirts and even began a clothing label called Jozi Boys and made just enough money to survive. Then I made the move to Ad Art, a big graphic design company that was run by two brilliant brothers who taught me a huge amount about the importance of vision, determination and resilience in business.
They wanted a salesperson, but I wanted to work for myself, so I negotiated with them to give me an office in return for which I would pass on all the big jobs that I brought in. When I won a contract for NNTV, now SABC3, it was a massive achievement and I decided then that I wanted to buy Ad Art.
But as a result of my ambition, I lost focus on my own business and it soon went under. That was a hard lesson for me to learn – you have to have clear objectives and a carefully mapped out plan of action to succeed.
Because there were few resources available to young entrepreneurs at that time, I had to take all the hard knocks and find a way to carry on. All the while, in the back of my mind, was my ambition to own my own business.
But I had to find a job again to pay the bills so I joined a wholesale warehouse that sold everything from frying pans to children’s books. The company had been started by a black man who came to South Africa from the UK and became a millionaire in 18 months. I thought, “If this guy with a funny accent can do it, so can I.”
By then I had learnt a lot about skills, flexibility, and enthusiasm. I made another attempt at launching a graphic design business and when it did not get off the ground either, I decided to join Gilbey’s as a merchandiser. That was in 1995, and I went in right at the bottom.
Because I had so many failed ventures behind me, I had become a seasoned student of business and life in general. I was surrounded by sales reps who were quite lax, so I decided to work hard and soon I became a sales manager. It was great – I got a better salary, better clothes and a better car. But I was still hung up on being independent.
I knew that if I could do what I was doing for myself, rather than for someone else, I would be making lots of money. By the end of 1997 I had taken my education into my own hands and done a huge amount of reading. As a result, I started coaching the people I worked with.
It was something that I loved doing and had a natural flair for. Word got around and I was soon quite sought after. Then Gilbey’s was taken over by a UK company and I became the acting sales manager for the East Rand division.
A team building exercise changed my life. There was a physical obstacle that few people could overcome and I decided that if I could do it, bearing in mind all the books I had read about overcoming your fears, I would go it alone once and for all; if not, I’d stay with the company until I was pensioned off.
Fortunately, I succeeded, even winning the “hot shot” trophy. To everyone’s dismay, I resigned, handed in the keys to my car and went back to catching taxis. People could not understand my reasoning, but my goal was to get my own business going and it was a case of now or never.
After Japan was devastated in World War II, the country put in place a 50-year plan to restore the nation. A process improvement programme was put in place which became the basis of the kaizen revolution in Japan.
The philosophy focuses on small, continuous improvements in all business activities to enable the fulfilment of big objectives. It’s about always remaining dynamic and not static. It’s a principle that I applied to my life then and continue to now.
To raise some cash, I joined a panel beating shop and made them an offer: I would double their turnover in return for equity in the business. Within five months, I was a partner and I was driving a C-Class Merc. But I knew this was a transitional phase – there was no way I was going to stay in panel beating.
I took the money I had made and started a full-time teambuilding and motivational speaking company. With experience only and no qualifications, I had to find a partner. I drove to the Win Win Group and told the receptionist I wanted to see the boss. Stephen Carver came out of his office at that moment and I said to him, “I want to start a business and this is what I can do.
What I need from you is a desk.” Amazingly, he said yes. When I started there, I could not even use a computer. A lot of DIY education ensued. I immersed myself in the company’s book collection and soon I started pitching for business. My first deal was a training programme for leaders in government, involving policy formulation, implementation and review. I had no idea what I was going to do, but my reading paid off and I designed a course.
Over time I had material evidence of success and I started to travel overseas. By this stage Win Win had taken a 40% share of the business, but our values had started to become incongruent. At the same time, South Africa was witnessing the advent of black economic empowerment.
I had done some great work with Sentry Security, which was acquired in 2001 by ADT for R600 million. The security and guarding industry was hit hard by BEE legislation. ADT approached me and asked me to become a partner.
I joined forces with Salala Lesela. We created Kusela Security Solutions which we started with R80 000 and I became the MD. In less than four years we were making a profit of R4 million. We took no dividends and built the business’s capital to ensure it remained debt free.
Given my experiences, I am not a fan of borrowing money. At the moment, Kusela is about to sign a deal with ADT which will turn it into a R300 million business. In 2004 I ended the relationship with Win Win and became the sole owner of my business.
It was a painful decision, but I had to do it for the sake of my freedom and my vision. By 2005 I leveraged my reputation and launched my first book From Barefoot to Snakeskin Shoes which I self-published and sold over 8 000 copies. From 2006 to 2007 I was president of the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa, a position which, along with the book, helped to grow my status internationally.
Building a powerful personal brand. This has been the secret of my success and it’s what has enabled me to branch out into other ventures. The security business has done extremely well, giving me confidence to look into other sectors like aviation and property. Some are empowerment deals, but I always make it clear that I want to be hands-on in any business with which I am involved.
BEE is the worst thing that could have happened to entrepreneurship in this country. Besides the fact that I cannot imagine ever having to give away a percentage of my business to anyone else, the fact is that BEE has benefited only politicians and millionaires.
People ask me how it is possible to play an active part in every business in which I have an interest. The fact is that my role is always focused on motivation and people development. When we partnered with ADT I said to them, “You focus on operations. I will inspire our people to become the top sales team in the industry.” I met with each of the 180 staff members personally and that’s what I did.
My business has grown by over 5 000% in ten years and is debt free. We pay our suppliers immediately. I employ a core staff of eight and I have 30 associates around the country and the world who we bring in on bigger projects. In a connection economy such as ours, we have been able to set up a presence in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Nigeria and Botswana, with Kenya and Rwanda in the pipeline.
We find like-minded organisations and create communities of practice. By playing on mutual strengths, we have been able to set up infrastructures in many different places. I’m a great believer in using other people’s skills. I don’t invest in massive clients because when they fall, the impact on your business can be devastating.
Our overheads are minimal, and each person is a cost centre so there is no negative cash flow. We are a learning business; we invest in education. Alongside the conferences and seminars, I aim to build an institute of knowledge to house a body of learning that includes DVDs and audio that can be used into the future by other South Africans.
Compassionate capitalism is something I believe in. I am a capitalist through and through, but I engage in society too through mentoring and working with organisations that help others. I always look at what it is that I can teach or offer of myself, so that when I conclude a business transaction, the benefits don’t end with me.
I want to profoundly impact and inspire boys and girls who are poor so that I can place a seed in their hearts and help them to believe that it is possible to transform your life and find fulfilment regardless of where you are born.
Business is a simple thing. You need to find your voice, the one thing you are truly eloquent at, and take action to create possibilities. Be humble enough to learn and know that you will fail many times.
Billy Selekane’s best reads:
Awaken the Giant Within, by Anthony Robbins. It covers a wide range of topics, from goal setting to neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), personal finance, and relationships.
Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill. Published in 1937, during the Great Depression at billionaire Andrew Carnegie’s bidding, the book outlines 15 “laws” intended to be applied by anybody to achieve success.
The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran. The book looks at issues of life and the human condition.
Billy Selekane’s seven principles to better your life:
- Purpose: This is what defines you as a person. It is a concept that almost always refers to actions that benefit you as an individual as well as those around you. Purpose is essentially a compass for your life.
- Vision: This is what spurs you on your journey and the manifestation of your purpose. It’s about transcending through time to a desired destination. Vision gives you a place to go to and should describe what you want to achieve based on your purpose.
- Goal setting: The realisation of greatness has to be meticulously planned and can only happen if you set goals. These are the objects of your efforts. Goals should be strategic and instrumental in the manifestation of your vision and fulfilment of your purpose.
- The dream team: This is the group of people you assemble to help you achieve your purpose, vision and goals. Individual achievements are usually the result of team effort, which is why you need to bring together people who possess a range of skills and knowledge and who buy into your vision and goals.
- The action plan: To achieve you goals requires a detailed and rigorous action plan. Bear in mind that actions may have to change according to the environment, so your plan should not be absolutely rigid. What you need to focus on is getting things done.
- Sowing a seed: Give something of value to others so that they may be better off. This enables connectivity between you and your environment. We all have within us the power to give love, encouragement, hope, motivation and inspiration.
- Building resilience: It’s easy to give up when you fail or when you believe life has been unfair. Giving up has a lot to do with what negative people say. Listen to other people’s experiences, not the unconstructive ones that will bring you down, but the positive ones that will inspire and uplift you. By creating an inability to give up, you will achieve success.