Dating your high school sweetheart & other bad business ideas. - Vusi Thembekwayo

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Vusi Thembekwayo 14 February 2020

We all have that one person we went to high school with, that everyone thought would be the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend. You enjoyed the same jokes. Came from similar homes. Read the same books. Played the same sports. All-round similar interests. You were perfectly suited.

Until you actually dated & realized that opinions & theorems really should be reserved for scientific experiments. The relationship was awkward. There was too much nervous anticipation leading up to dating. And what you once found intriguing turned out to be annoying.

That’s how my business failure was Speakers’ BootCamp.

My Finance Director Willie felt that we had a clear shot advantage. I was, without question, the most successful speaker in SA. I would often say, “all of AFRICA bafo”.

So why don’t you train professionals that want to better their public speaking & presentation skills? He worked on a financial model that just made sense. At the time, I was doing about 8 keynotes a month with large corporations across the continent.

My US and European profiles were nascent but growing. We felt we could exploit the opportunity & achieve an additive R12 million into our revenue. So we registered a separate Pty. Very important: You don’t want liability contamination risk.

Next came the packaging:

My sales team & agency worked tirelessly on the value proposition. We worked on the training method. I even had some of the national trainers I had worked with during my competing days on contract to deliver the training.

We then ran a test case: took on 5 professionals from different industries & trained them using our methodology. The results were decent. Improvements were possible but I was comfortable we could launch the business & take the product to market.

So for a week, we toiled on the next challenge: How we do launch?

Africa’s best speaker, only African speaker in the Global Top 12 ranking & previously World Champion launching a speaking training platform. I remember saying to my team, “How we launch is how we win”.

So we booked an expensive venue in Melrose Arch. We invited some of our friends from the media & industry. We partnered with an alcohol brand, Remy Martin to help us manage the costs & off we went.

Some of SA’s most known media personalities were marginal upstarts at the time.

How time flies!

Post the launch I was fielding calls from all sorts of people wanting to join the program. Patti, who was managing the program for me was of the view that we limit the intakes.

This created a problem between Patti & Willie. Efficacy of steady growth or blitzscale through test & trial. This is the hardest part of leading a team or business. Having to choose between two equally strong options.

I lay awake that night. My head was heavy. The YouTube videos couldn’t distract me that night. I went to the gym at 5:30 am that morning. A standard ritual since my Karate days. When I arrived at the office, Willie was already waiting for me. Blitzscale I told him.

Something odd happened though. Most of the inquiries for the training couldn’t pay for it. This is a classical fanfare problem. Media attention does not mean qualified leads. This is pre-influencers, pre-IG & pre-Twitter. It was a different time!

I remember a now-famous radio DJ calling my sales team to ask for the training & in-exchange promising an interview. We had a standard response to this: exposure doesn’t pay rentals. A few are still mad about this to this day.

In the first quarter, we did 18% of Willie’s projected revenues.

A new problem was developing: I HATED TRAINING OTHERS. I just don’t have the patience for it. And yet everyone that signed on the program wanted to be trained by me.

This is a simple system bottleneck that completely destroys the opportunity for scale. If every client want to be trained by you, you don’t really have a business. You have a job (without the benefit of a guaranteed salary).

This is the “self-employed” vs “entrepreneur” problem.

If you must be part of the business for the business to exist, you have a problem. At the end of the quarter, I had to make a call: Keep the business or dump it.

So I went to see Patti and we chatted through it. Patti simply said you haven’t tested the limits of your own talent. The world has not known what you’re capable of. Go back to your mission of being the best public speaker the world has ever seen. Then she said, “and you’re running out time”. The idea that my window of opportunity was everlasting had never occurred to me before. This is the thing with youth, you forget that one day you will lose it.

So we did the best exit. We pulled down the website. Completed the current cohort of trainees. We actively started referring new inquiries to Voice Clinic & Toastmasters. This is the story that I’ve never told.

All failures are hard. You question yourself & your capabilities.

I learned & have since used what I call the framework for start-up success:

  1. Skill to do the work
  2. Knowledge of the industry

3. Passion for the craft

4. An environment ready to accept & pay for your product

But the most important ingredient of all: TIMING.

Timing is like genetics for bodybuilders, everybody thinks it’s not important until it works for their competition.

This story is an interesting point of self-reflection for me because I learned through this experience that sometimes the thing that seems the most obvious thing to do and the easiest possible win, is the worst idea. It’s very important to listen to what can sometimes be the most subtle truth coming from your own inner voice.

Remember to be kind.

#17x

Vusi Thembekwayo
Global Speaker | Venture Investor | Leader