From stress to success

Three entrepreneurs share their insights on how they manage the challenges and setbacks of business ownership and why resilience is the entrepreneur’s secret weapon…

Morongwa Makakane

Find the positives in your failures
In 2008 Morongwa Makakane hit rock bottom. Her management consulting business, which had achieved great success, was heavily indebted in millions of Rands, and she’d reached the point where she had no other way to turn. Frivolous spending and some poor decision-making had left her worse off than when she’d started up… “I had failed myself, my employees, society; my family. I cried to the point of having no tears left to cry – and blamed everyone around me for what had happened. It was undoubtedly the worst period of my life and I couldn’t see a way out of the dark and gloom.”

“It was undoubtedly the worst period of my life and I couldn’t see a way out of the dark and gloom.”

Searching for inspiration, Makakane found herself at a global speaker’s conference and heard a phrase that stuck with her and subsequently changed her life. “International speaker Justin Cohen said: Every one of us has a story; and you can use your story of success or failure to educate and inspire others. The message really hit home. I realised that only I could get myself out of the mess I’d created; that it was time to take responsibility for my actions and begin a journey of personal transformation,” she says.

Makakane began reviewing her life and identifying what she could have done better – without focusing on what she’d done wrong. She realised she’d need the help of a professional to bring about lasting change, and so enlisted the services of a business coach. They worked together for 12 months and slowly Makakane began rebuilding her life.

Yaron Assabi

Turn setbacks into opportunities
Yaron Assabi
was flying high in the heyday of the dot com boom. His company Digitalmall.com had been sold to iTouch, which had gone public on the FTSE (The Financial Times Stock Exchange) in London UK in 2000, and he and his management team found themselves in a different country every week as they expanded the business across the globe. And then, suddenly, the dotcom market crash happened in 2001. As the share price dropped to below its initial public offering (IPO) price, the team had no option but to do a management buy-out, shut down their international offices and return home, with no financial gain and bearing the burden of having to retrench staff members.

“We had to concentrate on not getting stuck into what happened, but rather on how we could get out of the situation, and how we could grow from it.”

Today Assabi will celebrate 20 years in business with the Digital Solutions Group (DSG), his digital and on-demand integrated customer experience group that has won numerous industry awards and delivers services to a diverse client base. He is quick to point out that, without the challenges faced with his first business, DSG would not be as strong as it is today, and that overcoming those setbacks laid the foundations for learning many lessons and creating successful businesses thereafter.

“When we bought the business back, we had to let go of what happened, and re-focus on the skills and assets we had, as well as our customers,” he says. “We had to concentrate on not getting stuck into what happened, but rather on how we could get out of the situation, and how we could grow from it. We were too early with Digitalmall.com (omni-channel commerce is only really starting to take off now); so we became focused on what is relevant for our customers right now and provided digital solutions to their existing problems, rather than creating a business that we felt our customers would want.”

The dictionary defines resilience as the ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune; buoyancy. It is the property of a material that enables it to resume its original shape or position after being bent, stretched or compressed. “When we use the term resilience to refer to a person, it is an individual’s capacity to withstand stress or catastrophe, which may result in the individual ‘bouncing back’ to a previous state of normal functioning, or simply not showing negative effects. Other terms often used are resourcefulness, mental toughness and hardiness,” writes psychologist Claire Newton in her article Resilience: The Bounce Back Factor (www.clairenewton.co.za).

Lessons in resilience
Resilience is not something you’re born with, it’s a characteristic that develops as we grow and gain knowledge, better thinking and self-management skills, says Newton. It is found in a variety of behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed across the life span – it certainly doesn’t mean going through life without experiencing stress and pain, but rather working through the emotions and effects of difficult events, and not avoiding them.

Research shows that resilient individuals think differently to those who are less resilient. They have a set of skills that allows them to persevere, manage stress and triumph in the face of challenge. According to Newton, resilient people can adjust emotions, thoughts and behaviours to situations and conditions of change, and focus on positive aspects and opportunities. They pursue everything with energy and drive, build and maintain good relationships and networks, know when they need help and ask for it, and manage conflict and criticism effectively.

For Makakane and Assabi mastering a resilient mindset was fundamental to their recovery. For Makakane the process began with self-acceptance, recognising that things happen, in fact, life happens, whether we like it or not. “Understanding that in life you will encounter challenges, meet setbacks, face roadblocks and experience tragedy, and that, as a business owner, things will be tough, means that you will need to have a more practical approach. You know that you will fail at some point but that it is about standing up, brushing yourself off and then changing the things that got you to that point in the first place.” It is when you realise that your circumstances do not define you, but that you define your circumstances, irrespective of where you are and what is happening – that you’ve become resilient, she says.

Assabi agrees that resilience is about a mindset. “All great entrepreneurs have gone through some sort of failure before they succeed; it’s important to understand that you’re not a failure and to re-focus your mind on progress. Focus on small wins and victories to build confidence, surround yourself with positive people and mentors and see the setback as “school fees” – what lessons have you learnt that will make your next endeavour stronger?” Assabi lives by the Zig Ziglar motto: “Expect the best, prepare for the worst and capitalise on what happens.”

“Looking back on the past 20 years with all its ups and downs I’d say it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but it’s been amazing and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Nick Stodel

How to thrive in the face of change
Setbacks come in all shapes and sizes. Nick Stodel, MD of Stodels Nurseries, believes in the “adapt or die” approach. While the current drought in the Western Cape, the worst in over a century, is a huge challenge for any garden centre, he believes that success in business is all about being proactive, dynamic and having an adaptive business strategy, regardless of what comes your way.

“For me, resilience is understanding when change is necessary and when to resist the urge to change. My father started Stodels as a flower bulb mail order company, expanded into selling roses via mail order and eventually opened our first garden centre in Kenilworth. Later he sold the flower bulb business and focused only on garden centres. When I joined the business in 2000, four of the five centres had closed, but today we are back up to five. Each tough decision along the way has ensured the long-term survival of the brand. Had my father not been willing to make the organisation smaller when it was required, the Stodels story may have been a less positive one,” he says.

“For me, resilience is understanding when change is necessary and when to resist the urge to change.”

Stodel had anticipated water shortages and have been planning this eventuality. This has meant focussing on selling waterwise plants, as well as decorative products. They’ve also reduced expenses and stock holding to match reduced sales, which could well be the “new normal”.

“We’re fortunate in that people will always want to have beauty around them. We have to understand what this means in drought conditions. As we understand this concept we can adjust, plan and merchandise accordingly.” Positive, practical and well-planned – does that not sum up resilience exactly?


This article first appeared in Your Business magazine. Read the latest issue here!