Every July for the past three years we have been entrusted with the task of touring South Africa to video interview and shoot photographic stills of the finalists of the Sanlam / Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year competition.
The nuts and bolts of the project are to shoot photographs of the entrepreneurs at their places of work and to produce a 30-minute mini-documentary about the finalists, their businesses and the respective roads they have walked in the process of developing their enterprises.
The annual project has taken us around the country every year of the competition – mostly to business centres such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Bloemfontein, but also to smaller towns such as Paarl, Tzaneen and George.
On a more personal level, it’s turned out to be the most interesting, humbling and inspiring project we have ever worked on. Rubbing shoulders with other entrepreneurs, picking their brains and asking both workaday and deep questions has turned out to be a motivation, a major learning experience and a privilege.
But what is this person, the entrepreneur? This renegade upstart that just about every economist says is vital for growth and employment creation?
After three years of meeting, interviewing and photographing business owners, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to entrepreneurs.
They often share traits, but perhaps the most important thing about entrepreneurs is that they are all individuals. They may share ideas, viewpoints and methods – but they are very much their own people with their own ways of seeing the world or doing things.
That said, they often, but not always, share these traits:
Square peg, round hole – the Business Partners brand of a box in a sea of round holes is apt. Entrepreneurs tend to “think different”. They don’t follow the crowd. They do their own thing. They are mavericks. They defy the status quo. They look for opportunities in what others see as chaos. They did not “fit in” at school. They may have been a bit nerdy until they found their “mojo”. They were no “teacher’s pet”, but more likely spent a lot of time getting “lashed” or in detention.
Entrepreneurs defy authority and authoritarians – or anyone or anything that is designed to restrict freedom of thought or action. They are on something of a “holy” mission to make the world a better place and defy anything that gets in the way of what they see as progress.
They are people of “faith” – entrepreneurs believe strongly in the unseen. They have a vision and they make it happen. They have faith that what is unseen, is in fact quite real. So it’s not surprising then that regardless of religion or denomination, many entrepreneurs are active in some form of faith or live by some kind of philosophy or code of conduct that respects that which is greater than themselves.
They love people – Entrepreneurs soon learn in their business walk that “it’s not all about them” and that it’s also, perhaps more so, about the people around them. Entrepreneurs literally love their people and will do just about anything to grow, nurture and maintain good employees.
They build creches for their farm workers. They pay for therapists to help their people grow. They are quite likely to pay above the industry average.
It’s not all altruistic though – entrepreneurs learn quickly that happy people are productive people and if they are to achieve their respective visions they need the right people with the right attitudes to succeed.
Most entrepreneurs are outgoing “people” people – They seem to trade off the sheer power of their friendly outgoing personalities and not “learnt” assets like education. They have many friends and even more acquaintances. They are “naughty” and full of fun. People gravitate to them and they are a blast to be around. At some point in their lives they have likely been the “life and soul” of the party and have held up more than one bar.
Or they are strategic, more introverted and highly educated – About one or two in ten are the opposite of their extroverted brethren. They are quieter, often more bookish and have used education, study, theory and precision as the bedrock of their success. Then again, some are a mixture of these two personality traits in that they are both highly educated and outgoing extraverts.
The outgoing extraverts have success hangups – Many entrepreneurs seem quite surprised by their own success.
To less extroverted highly educated entrepreneur, their success is merely the last step in a long line of academic successes.
By contrast, more extraverted entrepreneurs are often masters at “winging it”. As one entrepreneur recently said in an interview: “An entrepreneur jumps off a bridge and figures out how to build the plane on the way down.”
The entrepreneur who “wings it” and finds themselves “suddenly” successful may have a distorted view of themselves and see themselves at least at some level as “frauds” who are “undeserving” of their own success.
Instead of everything about them being “wrong” it’s now, miraculously “right”. Having been the “class clown” and spent much time in the headmaster’s office or detention room, success later in life may throw them into something of an identity crisis.
They seem to have ADD or ADHD tendencies – and cannot sit still. They move their chairs around in an interview. They talk with their hands and bump things around them. They run three projects simultaneously. They have more than one business to keep them busy. And they don’t ever seem to run out of energy.
They get ideas in the shower, on the toilet and in the dead of night. And then insist on immediately bouncing these ideas off someone else at the most inappropriate times. They are almost always forgiven for their idiosyncrasies by the recipient of the call, less so their spouses.
They have sacrificed – and often deeply – for their success. When times were tough and all the entrepreneur had was a faith their business would work, not everyone believed in them. The girlfriend left them for someone with a stable income. The boyfriend was a loser who was holding the entrepreneur back. The wife got fed up with the school fees not being paid on time and left with the kids. “Oh dear” her parents commended disdainfully as she set up her third business after the last two failed. “What is she doing this time”.
They pick their people well – But only after burning their fingers first. Since entrepreneurs love people and tend to empathise with others they have tried at least once, likely twice, to give good work to undeserving people. When that fails they realise that good work goes to good people and they hone their skills at selecting and keeping talent.
Entrepreneurs give and receive help – They take advice from others and give of their own. Entrepreneurs don’t pretend to know everything and frequently ask others for advice and help. In return they freely give their advice to others when asked.
They have challenged their ideas around money – Entrepreneurs have wrestled with their attitudes towards the making and spending of money. They have almost universally rejected the idea that money is “bad” but recognise that the “preoccupation” with money gets nobody anywhere. They respect that money is the “lifeblood” of their business but they don’t see money as their business. Money for an entrepreneur is an “enabler” for what they want to achieve – not the achievement itself.
Entrepreneurs “fail forwards” – They get knocked down and get up again. Many entrepreneurs have failed more than once. The business that brings them success in the end is likely just one out of a multitude of failed business attempts. So while it’s often quoted and quite real that most startups fail, to the entrepreneur this is no tragedy. Failure is seen as a learning experience and quite likely, a stepping stone to success.
The video we are producing for this year’s event is currently in production and will be first shown at the Sanlam / Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year awards ceremony on 1 September. Thereafter it will be broadcast by Business Partners through their social media and other channels. The photographs will form part of their internal and external marketing campaign surrounding the awards.