With absolutely no experience in business, having worked only for Non-Government Organisations, as did my husband, and having employee parents, I decided at the age of 40 to start my own business. Foolish rather than brave let me tell you! But I was recovering from two years of burnout and needed to change something drastically in the trajectory of my life.
Starting my own business also seemed to work for my independent spirit, my desire to be creative and learn something new and challenging, and my longing to do something that would help me take charge of my earning capacity — at that stage simply to take the worry out of money and be able help support our young family.
I learnt the hard way — through experience! Failing to sell with the hope that business would come to me; selling in the wrong way; charging too little; charging too much; not delivering to the customer’s expectations; having the client take advantage when I delivered well.
Through it all I kept afloat and in fact began building a successful training and development company. I had a respectable and significant client base with local South African and multi-national corporates. Several factors accounted for my success.
One was persevering despite an exponential learning curve and endless rounds of rejection. To also give credit to my amazing husband who supported me throughout these woes and tribulations.
The other was recognizing I couldn’t do it on my own, a previous belief that had helped spiral me into my burnout. I gratefully received mentorship from experienced and wily entrepreneurs who had built and sold many businesses over the years. Trevor Nel in particular, not only offered advice and shared his knowledge through his e-book Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur, but asking pointed questions that made me extremely uncomfortable but made me do the ‘homework’ — from identifying my target market and why they should buy from me to cold-calling.
And down I go
I also formed partnerships and these propelled me into new markets through joint networks and expanded IP. But then I made a near-fatal error. I put all my eggs into someone else’s basket. I became the distributor for another business, finding my own clients, but using their material and paying them a royalty fee.
But owners make decisions that favour them not their partners. So when the owner doubled the royalty fee with immediate effect my business earnings suddenly halved. At the same time I lost a long-standing customer because of a change in CEO.
At first I railed about how unfair it was and vented my anger and sense of betrayal, but then I realized — their business, their decision. I needed to take back control of ‘my’ business. For years I had been relying on someone else’s material and IP and I now needed to find a new direction, quickly, without the benefit of time to develop new IP.
So I returned to my previous mentor Trevor. He had something sitting on his shelf he had designed years before but because of his other business interests had not pursued. Learning from my mistakes, I formed a three way equity partnership with him and his business partner Ivan Andersen, and I went back to my previous clients with something new.
This ‘something new’ was in fact completely different to anything I had done before. I had in essence up to that point been a traditional trainer running one to three day workshops by giving input, providing exercises for people to practice new skills and then leaving. But WISDOMS was not about information. It was not about ‘getting people to understand’. It was not about providing a once off workshop and hoping for the best that the participants would change something about their way of working or implement anything differently to get better results.
A new client, a well-renowned mining house, decided this was exactly the kind of different they wanted. They asked me to facilitate on their Talent Development Programme which was to be delivered through a highly respected Business School in three separate weeks spread out over six months. I had one session in the first week, one session in the last week and was to send additional material at various times throughout the six months.
The first time I ran the session I had 50–60 highly intelligent, ambitious accountants, engineers, business analysts and so on eagerly waiting and a bank of lecturers, project managers and the client all sitting observing and evaluating at the back. No pressure!
We walked through a journey of story-telling, of stimulating discussion, of challenging assumptions, of pausing to think about what action/s they would want to take if they truly wanted to make a difference in their lives and those of others. This was not about training according to some prescribed requirement. It was facilitating a process that recognized the brainpower and life experience in the room and created the environment for them to think in fresh ways and plan how to be and act differently.
At the end of the session, the room was abuzz but the response I got from the observers was a lot more skeptical. “It seemed a bit simple”, “Perhaps you should have brought this (piece of content) in”, “Let’s see” was the response.
For those participating in the Talent Development Programme the task going forward was to come back in the final week having implemented one or more of the principles we’d discussed. They were sent prompts, videos, articles and additional ideas and questions over the next few months.
Then it came time for them to share their stories and presentations on what they had accomplished and it was mind-blowing! Some had started newsletters to build a community at work; some had requested mentorship and access to high level meetings; others listened to people’s feedback on their behaviour and took steps to change. There were those who started volunteering at a charity, or began mentoring others. Long-standing conflicts were resolved and long-delayed projects were started. The positive changes were unique, real and tangible. There was no denying the powerful impact of this ‘simple’ process.
The roller coaster ride
This experience revolutionized my understanding of how to create environments that stimulate and enable personal change that help people achieve their dreams and goals. It is less about what I know and more about engaging with individuals and groups in such a way that they have their own revelation, and are given resources to support them in achieving what they’ve always wanted, or now realise they want.
This process of people, team and leadership development has been repeated in my experience over and over again with corporate groups, entrepreneurial groups or simply individuals choosing to follow the WISDOMS path. Powerful images, ageless principles, stimulating questions and respectful engagement leads to incredible insights and life change. It is the most humbling, awe-inspiring work I do. And great for business!
My entrepreneurial journey has been one of ups and downs. My own ignorance and failures caused sharp declines. Great partnering led to some steep climbs in the right direction. Events out of my control caused the bottom to fall out from underneath me. Dogged persistence has kept me pulling forward. The learning curve is mostly perpendicular. Then every now and then everything falls into place. The force of momentum and the flow of events results in the most exhilarating ride of your life. What a ride!