“I used to be afraid to look at this house when I walked past it. I was only the garden boy at a neighbouring house earning my school fees,” 57 year old multimillionaire James Mbongwe tells me as we sit in his office – the very house he is talking about. This humble, softly spoken Zulu man’s account of his construction start up in the agricultural and manufacturing town of Estcourt in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, takes on a dream like quality that epitomises the proverbial rags to riches story. After completing school, he trained at a technical college as a teacher and paid for it by selling shoes. When he started his teaching career he also began to build and sell houses.
James Mbongwe’s construction start up has expanded and today he employs 350 contracts managers and directors, engineers, scientists and quantity surveyors. He also owns several houses, farms, a steel company, a mechanical company, a quarry and is buying out smaller construction companies. Some of his work includes the construction of the Spring Grove Dam, which supplies the port city of Durban with water, and the construction of runways at King Shaka International Airport.
In a country where start ups are as ubiquitous as the blue skies, what sets the James Mbongwes of this world apart? I spoke to several South Africans with start ups and almost all identified the following guiding principles:
Vision – James’ simple dictum is ‘Don’t copy from anybody’. Be an entrepreneur. Set your sights high and never lose focus.
Values driven – Every entrepreneur I encountered claims that this is core to their success. For example, Ephraim Marobela, an international health and wellness coach, author and speaker, based in Johannesburg claims that the desire to “find my true set of values and not follow what others dictate to me” is the driving force behind his start up.
James adds to this and maintains that honesty, ethics, trust and building of good relationships should be the hallmark of all your work.
Self belief – The greatest challenge for a start up is finance and with almost all start ups failing within a year or two, the ability to continue working relentlessly and to believe that your goals and vision can be attained is crucial.
Develop and help others – Share your success with those around you and encourage them. James’ take on this is to an employer and investor and an exemplary employee. For example, his engineering company provides technical apprenticeships for 420 young people who are being trained to assume roles in local companies like Nestle.
Network – Closely allied to helping others is networking. The use of social media enables entrepreneurs to offer their services globally and enables them to learn from the successes of others. Perhaps the greatest medium for advice, sharing of problems encountered in your start up, building of partnerships, gaining insights on the challenges and how to meet them, is your network. In addition, never underestimate the power and connection of face to face networks, some of which lead to relationships that enrich your life for decades. Ephraim Marobela maintains: “….it is necessary to collaborate, partner, join forces, and compliment other entrepreneurs…”
Branding and marketing – There are thousands of entrepreneurs offering their services and products and for yours to stand out it must be clearly branded and strategically marketed. Remember that your company name, logo, vision statement, values, ethical practices, niche, product, speak for you before you utter a single word.
Turn a challenge into a solution – You are an entrepreneur. You pave the way. When James Mbongwe encountered a scarcity of qualified technical people, he did something about it. He opened up an engineering company that trains and provides apprenticeships for students, secured funding for them from the government and then assists them in finding jobs in local companies. He claims that his greatest satisfaction is gained from the fact that otherwise disenfranchised youth now turn their technical passion and skills into employment and further economic development, not just for their companies but their country as well.
Hire a coach – You already know that developing a start up is exhilarating and a minefield of challenges. Having a coach to talk to is essential. It enables you to find the answers within yourself; (you are an entrepreneur after all!), you find time for yourself and your development; it is a safe space to review your practices; it propels you to the attainment of your goals and Imbues you with the confidence and resilience to continue replenishing that sense of awe and purpose that fuelled your start up in the first place.
Do you have guiding principles that helped you in your start up? I would be interested in learning more about the challenges and successes you encounter in your start up.