Confessions of an entrepreneur

2017-05-28 05:58

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Michelle Bao and Jacquie Guillen 

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. And 50-year-old Alpesh Patel has come to realise that the world of entrepreneurship isn’t as glamorous as some may think.

In his new book, Tested: The Dream is Free but the Hu$tle Comes at a Cost, Patel unpacks the tumultuous journey that has been his entrepreneurial career. He is often lauded as one of the first successful tech innovators from an emerging market.

“My [book] is not a manual, it’s a story. It’s an adventure in highs and lows, but in that roller coaster adventure, you get to learn how to put my examples into some aspects of your own life,” says the author, sitting opposite us in a Sandton coffee shop, nattily dressed in a navy blazer.

“I don’t tell anyone how to do things, I tell everyone how not to do things.”

Rely on yourself

One piece of advice Patel has for aspiring entrepreneurs? Don’t rely on others.

This spirit of self-sufficiency was thrust upon him at a young age when his family was forced to leave Uganda during Idi Amin’s presidency. Starting over in the UK – a space where he didn’t feel welcome – taught him the hustle and resilience needed for entrepreneurship.

His first true foray into self-starting came during his time at university. He says the government grant he received was not enough to pay for his studies, and in his book he explains how he sold fake Louis Vuitton bags from Moroccan markets to other students to help make up the difference.

He’d caught the entrepreneurial bug. In the early 1990s, he became one of the first people to sell cellphones in China – and he did it with high profit margins.

By the age of 24, Patel was a millionaire. But that’s also when he made some of his earliest mistakes.

Watch your partying

“When you have all this money at a young age and you don’t have the mentorship around you, you can get drifted into that lifestyle [of] ‘I’m making money’,” Patel says.

“It’s ego, it’s arrogance – combined with ignorance. It’s a lethal combination and that’s what I had at the time.”

While he got caught up in a lavish lifestyle of parties and first-class trips, other competitors were entering the market. But Patel had got comfortable, stopped innovating and, ultimately, he lost everything.

For the next several years, Patel was in limbo. He taught English in Tokyo before coming to Johannesburg on the advice of a friend.

It’s not going to be easy

His book details attempt after failed attempt to break into the South African market, from running clubs to managing an R&B group.

“It was a case of trying a lot things and throwing things at the wall, hoping something sticks and nothing stuck,” Patel says.

Eventually, he had accrued so much debt that he had to accept a job with a corporate company in order to get back on his feet.

“Entrepreneurship sounds glamorous, but it’s not,” Patel says.

“I always say to anyone wishing to get into entrepreneurship: there’s nothing wrong with having a job, having a nice paycheque and working a nine-to-five. There’s nothing wrong with having the time to hug your kids.”

Yet, Patel says that his “real education” began when he left his corporate job to launch Mi-Fone – the first African device brand – in 2008.

But, at that time, there was no “ecosystem” in Africa that nurtured entrepreneurs, Patel explains. He struggled to raise capital and funding.

“The guys who are in Silicon Valley, who get funding, to me they are in a nursery school because in Silicon Valley, you have the ecosystem that embraces entrepreneurs.

“As an entrepreneur in Africa, you’re on your own.”

Right product, right place, right time

There are three things, he reckons, that are needed for entrepreneurial success: the right product, place and time. His problem was place and timing. Soon after Mi-Fone launched, other competitors entered the market with more money and made better products.

“Even if you come out with it first, it doesn’t make a difference. It’s who can scale the business, that’s what counts.”

He was eventually able to sell Mi-Fone for a profit – but bought it back when he was dissatisfied with the new managerial system.

“Don’t just sell cause you’re desperate to sell. I was desperate because I needed the cash. Be selective on who is going to help you take your vision to the next level,” Patel says.

But even as his book reflects on his entrepreneurial career filled with mistakes that he hopes readers can learn from, Patel is once again venturing into uncharted territory for him: publishing.

Publish it yourself

The Kindle edition of Patel’s self-published book will be available from June 1. He plans to launch it first in the US and UK, and in South Africa by July, then in China and India by September.

He hopes his book and his failures will help entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs learn “about the dark side of running a business” and make better decisions than he did.

At one point everyone wanted to be doctors or lawyers, says Patel, but now everyone wants to be a Mark Zuckerberg.

“But 99.9% of people will end up being a Mark ‘Suckerberg’ because they get suckered into this lifestyle that if he can do it, I can do it. It doesn’t work like that. I’m living proof that it doesn’t work like that.”

While Patel is realistic about the challenges of entrepreneurship and warns aspiring entrepreneurs to be cautious, for him, those very uncertainties are a thrilling part of his “roller-coaster adventure”.

“But I think you’ve got to try everything once, otherwise you haven’t really lived. It’s nice to have a lot of money, but if you haven’t lived, what’s the point?”

You can buy Tested at Amazon or iTunes. The e-book will cost you about R120 and the paperback R240

City Press readers can win themselves a free copy. Just SMS the keyword TESTED, your name, surname, email address and delivery address to 34217. SMSes cost R1.50, Free SMSes do not apply

Read more on:    book review

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