How we made it in Africa
Article published in 2012 and written by Kate Douglas
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Thirty year old South African, Mike Eilertsen, is the founding member of The Luxury Network in Africa, a brand building and luxury marketing agency. He is also CEO of LIVEOUTLOUD, an all-encompassing luxury lifestyle brand and a new company VaultLife due for international launch on 16 October 2014.
Mike Eilertsen is often referred to as a serial entrepreneur, as he has a history of entrepreneurial endeavours that span back to his primary school days. He is a finalist for the 2012 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year award and has also made the top five finalists in the Africa SMME Awards for the Most Innovative Company in 2012.
How we made it in Africa’s Kate Douglas asked Eilertsen what it takes to be a successful serial entrepreneur in South Africa.
What is the single most important reason for your success?
My enthusiasm for everything I do mixed with a never say die mentality. I also have a “less time planning, more time doing mentality”.
Do you think being an entrepreneur has changed you? If so, how?
Not at all, it was something that was always a part of me. I started my first business before I even knew what a business actually was. In fifth grade, my weekly R10 (US$1.23) lunch money went to paying the two best marble players a couple years ahead of me R5 ($0.62) each for all their marble winnings of the day. I then divided them into starter packs and sold them for R10 to the mothers in the parking lot after school. Business was shut down when my parents called the school after I asked them to take me shopping to spend my R930 ($115).
If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
I wouldn’t employ my clones, and often it is difficult to realise you have done it until someone else points it out. As human beings, we are comfortable around those who are similar to us. Gregarious people enjoy the company of other enthusiastic individuals, while accountants generally prefer the company of others with logical and analytical personalities.
No matter whom you may be, one tends to be impressed when hiring others with whose traits you relate too. In my case I am a hunter sales personality with weak administrative skills. Three months after opening we had a team of six others exactly like me, and not a contract, procedure or file in sight. Once the “clones” were pointed out, I diversified completely, targeting those who were as different from me as possible.
In your opinion, what is the major difference between entrepreneurs and those who work for someone else?
Almost every person I speak to has a big idea. The only difference is that months later, it is still nothing more than an idea. What differentiates entrepreneurs and people who work for others is that they had the courage to take that last step, and make it a reality.
Why do you think there are so few young, successful entrepreneurs in Africa today?
Firstly I believe Africa is the most entrepreneurial spirited continent in the world. However, as a continent, we haven’t yet fully grasped the concept of differentiation. The result is that the same products and services are offered by everyone, allowing no one to grow beyond a small time operator. Think of informal trading at Africa’s traffic intersections; there are amazing products being sold by spirited entrepreneurs. The problem is it’s the same products at each intersection. They also believe they need an elaborate business plan, which isn’t as necessary or important as a good idea and the courage to see it through. I believe people spend too much time planning and not enough time doing.
Describe an average work day for you?
It begins early so I can reply to emails in “dead” time, freeing up my nine to five to concentrate on growing the business. In the mornings I do all my sales calls and meetings to make best use of those high energy levels, and the afternoon is dedicated to conceptualising events, internal meetings and strategy sessions.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Employing Kuda who was begging on the side of the road, as he had no arms. He was so enthusiastic, passionate and fun loving; making jokes with commuters despite his situation. Today he manages the office, works on a computer and his phone of choice is a BlackBerry touch screen. He has taught me that anyone can achieve anything they want, as long as they set their mind to it.
Tell us about the strangest thing you have ever done as an entrepreneur?
My first business as the ‘Breakfast Boy’ is definitely the strangest thing I’ve ever done. It started on the corner of [Johannesburg’s] Jan Smuts Avenue and Conrad Drive
At 3am every morning I began baking muffins, so that by 6am I could be on the road at the intersection I had selected. My outfit included a chef’s hat for easy identification and my signature basket with 10 breakfasts, enough to service every robot change.
For R10, commuters driving to Sandton would get a breakfast bag containing a muffin, fruit, yogurt, Snickers bar, mint and a napkin. But having a great product wasn’t enough, as all good entrepreneurs will know; you need something that sets you apart and communicates directly with your target market.
So I made a fold over pamphlet, telling my story and giving weekly updates to the lessons I was learning while trying to run a business of my own. The standard opening line was: “I am a first year BCom Entrepreneur student at RAU [Rand Afrikaans University] and I believe only so much can be learnt in the classroom without firsthand practical experience. My mobile number ended the week’s learning, and allowed Sandton’s commuters to communicate directly with me for pointers, advice and new opportunities.
Within two months I was at maximum capacity selling 60 breakfasts a morning. The R300 per morning I was making made me a millionaire in student terms, but I found myself loving the interactions even more, as daily messages flooded in from both those who purchased and who had just received a pamphlet.
I will never forget the morning my former high school headmaster pulled up at the intersection. I greeted him with a cheery “Good morning, Sir” and what I got back was a look that seemed to read as: how can a private school education amount to selling food on the side of the road. But I was just beginning, and I never let those disapproving looks get to me. By the end of the fourth month, four other students were employed and The Breakfast Boy could be spotted at crowded intersections across the Northern Suburbs.