Quitting is a habit - Vusi Thembekwayo

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Vusi Thembekwayo 13 February 2020

Giving up is a habit. I got into this habit in the second half of my 20s. When shit got tough, I started looking for the exit. It started in the gym. When the weights started to burn, I dropped them. Then when friendships got tough, I dropped them. When business deals got bad, I dropped them.

But all that did was make me a “drop it & move on” guy.

Don’t misunderstand me: there are times when dropping it was the best option.

But my breakout successes came when I realized that my competitors were quitting at the same point I was.

I realized that if I wanted above average results and success, I would have above-average problems & have to deal with outlandish crap.

The air is really thin at the summit. That’s why nobody lives there.

So I stopped quitting & started crushing it.

Testimony: When I was 28, I was running a food service biz that I bought as part of my exit package at Metcash. The company couldn’t pay our exits as former Executives, so I negotiated the business unit as my exit. They were going to close it anyway. It just made sense.

Year one, the business made R180 million & as a sole director, I was smiling. But I was crushed when I realized that we were making 8% net. All that cash flow & we couldn’t hang on to it. I used to say that my bank account was lubricated with Vaseline.

Then, the market changed & my relationships with suppliers got diluted and the banks changed the terms of our short term liquidity facilities. Bastards!

It all happened SO FAST. So a saving grace happened. We won a contract that our biggest competitor was banking on.

The truth though is that we bid at 1% gross margin (4% annual escalation) to win the contract.
When we ran the financial model for the contract, it said by Year 3 we would be paying the client to have the business. And this was a 5 year contract with DCS. We had no exit or repudiation opportunities to renegotiate mid-term.

I was just thinking:
1. Keep the lights on.
2. Keep the bank account rolling with cash.
3. If we must choose between being efficient and being first, choose first.
4. Keep the discipline & contain costs.

This is what Reid Hoffman calls #BlitzScaling. We had contracts in different provinces, so I was spending my time in planes & cigar lounges. Traveling & building relationships. By Gods’ grace, that contract we bid for came through. Our competitor eventually made me an offer for the business.

I remember thinking: I sold the business for 1x EBITDA. For a 3% net margin across the business that was nothing. Honestly, I was just glad to be rid of the business. I was tired. Tired of the staff that stole, the suppliers that treated me like a criminal & the banks that I was fighting with every week. Every week! Fighting for them to hold payments, to honor cheques, or advance us credit lines. Lord knows I WAS TIRED.

So in truth, I didn’t sell. I quit. Realizing this was everything.

I had suffered a full-on exhaustion attack getting off a plane. I just collapsed whilst disembarking in Mpumalanga. Such was the stress. I remember that day so vividly. The Dr said to me I had a weight problem. Of course, I did. I was eating nonsense & drinking, religiously.

So I was glad to be out of that business. Took the few gains & just moved on. Did I mention that I had a staff member that I trusted like a brother, who stole R500k? The problem with a bootstrap business is that you only fix problems once you experience them & that’s expensive.

Lesson: Do like the Russians say, “Trust but check everything!”

So I focused my attention on my consulting business & the speaking engagements were feeding that fire like paraffin. Once I focused my attention on just that: IT EXPLODED.

Lesson: Go where God sent you, not where your ego sends you.

What changed my life was doing my EMBA in London. Those 3 years were magical. My classmates pushed me. Wouldn’t let me quit. There were over 42 nationalities in my class. Amazing! They wouldn’t accept mediocre or good enough. They knew my potential & pushed me to it. RUTHLESSLY.

I remember a fight with Ileana (a classmate from Russia) on one of those nights when we still working on an assignment at 2 am. Past midnight. MBA students or alumni know all about this. And we had a 7 am presentation on that assignment. Good times!

Ileana was BRUTAL with her feedback. Candid. Honest. Plain. No BS. I wanted to leave. To quit. But I couldn’t. I realized that quitting had become a habit. Done just once, even if for a good reason, the reward is peace & a comfortable quiet, so you will repeat it.

I had to dig deep. I learned to stay in the room no matter how tough it got, to believe that I deserved to be there, to argue my point of view and never to let fear silence my truth. Ever!

My point: Don’t quit. That shit is a habit. You will get really good at justifying it.

The truth is that the justifications are true & valid. They make complete sense. They are logical. But the fact remains, YOU QUIT.

If you’re reading and was about to quit, take it from me: you’re now in the winners’ zone. Don’t quit!

Vusi Thembekwayo
Speaker | Investor | Leader