I’m often asked if entrepreneurs are born or made, and it’s a question I often need to remind myself of: How do those of us who weren’t born into affluence shake off the shackles of our middle or working class roots and build something that will be around long after we are gone?
This question is at the heart of capitalism; one that drives innovation, economic growth, job creation and all great businesses. Over the years I have built, bought (and lost) several businesses, taken on a giant multinational company in court and tried to buy a state-owned company from one of South Africa’s neighbouring governments.
During this journey, I have been lucky to spend time with and be mentored by, some of South Africa’s top entrepreneurs: men and women who have built up truly spectacular businesses. Some taught me things I wanted to emulate, while others showed me paths I am not willing to walk. But what I learned from all of them is the value of resilience in the face of failure, the importance of knowing when to walk away from lost causes and the value of making mistakes and learning from them.
As a child, I grew up in very modest circumstances, raised by parents who weren’t wealthy, but who gave me something far more valuable than money – a desire to succeed and the belief that I would. I was encouraged to climb the highest trees and given the responsibility for the consequences of my actions. And believe me, falling out of trees is a good way to learn all about risk!
By definition, business has to be comfortable with the idea that not all risks pay off. The main difference between my mentors and the people who served more as a warning than an inspiration, is the former take the time to properly run the numbers and strip out as much of the uncertainty as they can. And they know when to walk away from a deal that is going south.
Knowing how to manage risk and when to walk away is the key to longevity as an entrepreneur. Risk may actually even define entrepreneurs. Stupid risk is the hallmark of the gambler in the midst of a losing streak.
Getting too attached to a deal that no longer makes sense is also fatal. Nothing is personal. Stay objective, take out the emotion, but keep the passion. Always.
And while getting things wrong may be inevitable, it’s what you do with those mistakes that matters. Successful entrepreneurs break patterns and do things differently the next time. They also have the humility to listen to who I dub the “grey haired warriors” and surround themselves by experts. They learn from the mistakes of others, as much as from their own.
But most importantly – and this transcends any ability to manage and assess risk or learn from mistakes – entrepreneurs, or at least the best ones, get up when they get knocked down. These are the ones that don’t get up on the two-count, they recover and rise on the nine; but they always get up.
Resilience in the face of sometimes overwhelming adversity is what separates entrepreneurs from mere managers. And it should be our guiding principle.
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