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Conversations on entrepreneurship

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It is the last day of 2010 and I am sitting on the lawn at a beachfront lodge sipping something soothing and contemplating my fate in 2011 and beyond.

I am flipping through the latest issue of Destiny magazine which is not a good holiday read, for the simple reason that the highly inspirational pages make you want to immediately switch on your computer and write a business plan!

In the mood for business talk, I am surrounded by four fine entrepreneurs, all of them male.

They range in age from early forties to late fifties, and in riches from moderately successful to minting big bucks.

One is a Zimbabwean, two are Malawian, one is an Afrikaaner.

I am starting to think I may have before me a panel of experts on “doing business in southern Africa” and decide not to pass up this opportunity to peek into business brains in this part of the world.

Lately I have been worrying quite a lot about old age (don’t laugh, you too will grow old one day) and how I will fund the glamorous retirement I envisage for myself; so I point out a question in the magazine from a reader who wants to know the best way to save for both retirement and her children’s university education.

I ask the gentlemen what they think.

“Well for starters, that person is asking the wrong question,” is the first response I get. “What she should be asking is: ‘How can I invest for my retirement?’

NOT ‘How can I save . . .” They explain the difference and I understand. This leads me to the main question I want answered: “What makes a good entrepreneur?”

After the guffaws have died down and more drinks have been ordered, they break it down to me:

It’s all about asking the right questions apparently, and this starts with a particular mindset.

There is consensus from all four parties that an entrepreneurial mindset cannot be bought, sold, trained or created.

Other skills required for running a business can be learnt, but the mindset seems to be the most important. That’s what sees opportunities rather than challenges.

Take for instance someone who is interested in buying a property which costs a million dollars.

The logical question would seem to be, “Where can I get a million dollars?” but the entrepreneur will ask, “How much will I make from investing a million dollars in this property?”

Once he is convinced there is money to be made, he can then start worrying about where to get it.

The ability to take risks is another important factor in the making of a successful entrepreneur.

“If you can afford the investment, then it’s below you,” says the most successful of the group.

I mention the need for prudence, and they chuckle, “Too much prudence is equal to stupidity, because if you depend on prudence, your business will never grow.”

At this point I am alarmed, and become a silent student learning from the masters.

I think the concerned expression on my face is communicating plenty, because they then go on to explain that one should take all the time one needs to do a thorough cost-benefit analysis.

The one thing a good entrepreneur should never do is to rush.

If there is pressure to sign up quickly then chances are, there are some hidden problems, and you are better off losing out on the opportunity.

“There’ll be other opportunities,” I am assured.
Good entrepreneurs are always thinking, planning and researching.

“When I am lying in bed, awake, I am actually planning,” says one.

And here I was thinking that was just idle time. “The so-called idle time actually generates a number of ideas which can lead to great opportunities.”

Speaking of generating ideas, I often get frustrated when an idea I’ve thought about is implemented by someone else. I then feel I can’t pursue the idea because it is no longer original.

“That’s the difference between artists and business people,” the entrepreneurs explain.

“Artists are interested in preserving the idea, whereas entrepreneurs don’t care about the actual idea, just about the money you can make from it!”

I am having an “Aha” moment here, quite apart from the sad realisation that there is more artist than entrepreneur in me.

As the sun sets over the water, the input from my companions becomes more and more interesting, and the voices and contributions grow louder.

The alcohol content in the drinks may have something to do with it.

Someone suggests that good businesspeople don’t worry about social issues surrounding their businesses, just about money.

“You must be very clear that you want to make maximum returns with minimum input,” they tell me.

“You don’t go into business because you want to create employment. If you want to do that, start a charity!”

OK, I am beginning to get the picture.

I try to summarise the conversation:

So to be a good entrepreneur you need to:

Have the right mindset, which allows you to ask the right questions;

Not be afraid to take risks;

Use your idle time to generate good ideas and;

Focus on the bottom line

They generally agree, but apparently one essential ingredient has been left out:

To be a good entrepreneur, you have to have a good wife! Well, clearly I am not about to acquire one of those, so I guess I’ll have to stick to being an artist.

Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to localdrummer@newsday.co.zw

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