4 unlikely entrepreneurs we can all learn from Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
unlikely entrepreneurs
Seek mentors for startup wisdom, but inspiration lurks everywhere. Unlikely sources offer valuable lessons too.

It is often said that as start-ups or new businesses, we should seek out mentors that have walked our paths and learn from their journey, and I am a huge proponent of that – but where else can we find lessons or inspiration? They are all around us. Here are a few examples of the most unlikely places you can find entrepreneurial advice.

Your doctor

I recently visited my doctor and as I walked in, he said, “I haven’t seen you in a while, I think it’s been 6 years”. He inquired about my wife, and our kids, and even knew their names and what age they might be now.

I don’t for a second imagine that I am so important to him that he remembered that by himself, he obviously has a folder with all my medical history and then also has some personal information. He has taken a few seconds before I came in to familiarise himself with my details, but it does make a difference. It is nice to sit across from someone who even on the surface, knows me.

This can be used in client service and business development. Knowing your client and being interested in them can set them at ease and can open them up to the possibility of doing further business with you.

Knowing your client and being interested in them can set them at ease and can open them up to the possibility of doing further business with you.

People buy people. As good as your product or service is, decisions are still made by humans who often must choose between more than one supplier. All things being equal, they will choose the person they connect with better.

Practical tip: Have a database of client details and add small details after every meeting. If in the initial banter they talk of their hunting trip they just had, or the stress they are feeling with their kid in Matric, then note that. Bring it up subtly in your next encounter.

Your hairdresser

Successful hairdressers are good at small talk, making you feel better than when you walked in. Some even suggest new hairstyles that they believe would work for you, but the really good ones also up-sell very well.

You walk in thinking that you are there for a short period to get your usual “reset” back to factory settings. Sometimes it feels like that, you feel brand new when you walk out, and then it is all downhill from there because you can never make it look as good, until you visit again. The really good hairdresser up-sells all the time. Adding highlight, tints, shampoos, gels. Before you know it, you are leaving there having spent twice as much as you had budgeted for.

The really good hairdresser up-sells all the time. Adding highlight, tints, shampoos, gels. Before you know it, you are leaving there having spent twice as much as you had budgeted for.

Practical tip: You should always be aware of what else you may be able to offer your customer. In a B2B situation, spend 30% of your meeting time selling your company or the product you were asked to pitch on, and then listen. Ask good questions and see where else you can offer value. They have already shown their trust in you, so you may as well offer them more.

The car guard

In South Africa, we have a particular occupation that is fairly unique. We have people who stand around in car parks at shopping centres or on the streets, and who effectively offer the service of looking after your car, in exchange for a tip. It is taking begging and adding a little bit of value-add to the offering.

So what can a car guard teach us about business? Here is what I think they do very well.

As you get out of your car after parking, the car guard will greet you in order for you to acknowledge and recognise that they were there when you parked. On your return, they once again greet you as you approach your car. They try and navigate your exit, and then they position themselves to accept the tip. They hardly ever stand on the wrong side of the car, and they make sure that they are in your eye line and accessible to pay.

They hardly ever stand on the wrong side of the car, and they make sure that they are in your eye line and accessible to pay.

Practical tip: Ensure you are in your client’s eye line. We often imagine that our clients know about us, we spoke to them a few months ago, they will contact us if they need us, but they are busy with a lot of other things. Drop them the occasional mail or phone call to remind them that you are around. Additional business is often picked up after a routine courtesy touch-point.

Make sure that you are easy to pay. It sounds simple, but some start-ups don’t make that process smooth and easy. By the time the client is ready to pay, don’t have them ask for banking details, invoices or statements. Send them the details so that you take away every excuse for not paying.

Your child

There are multiple lessons we can learn from kids, but for now, let us focus on their insatiable hunger for knowledge. At about 3 years old, kids start asking “Why?” for everything. And once they receive an answer from their tired parent, they ask “Why?” repeatedly. Unfortunately, probably due to parents eventually just saying, “Because I said so”, kids lose that sense of wonder. They tend to accept the first answer.

In business, the most dangerous 5-letter sentence is, “Because we’ve always done so”. We HAVE to challenge the status quo. We have to keep asking why. In the book, The Innovator’s Method by Nathan Furr and Jeff Dyer, they encourage those looking for deep insights, to ask “Why” 5 times in a row. Only then do you get your deep underlying reason for a particular problem. If we accept the first answer, we may be solving a non-problem.

Practical tips: Be like your 3-year-old and keep asking why. Don’t wait for things to break before questioning the status quo. Always be looking for ways to improve your service, your product or the efficiency with which you produce them. Ask why repeatedly.

Be like your 3-year-old and keep asking why.

Education is a constant pursuit of knowledge

At the University of Stellenbosch Business School, one of the final modules of the MBA is an International Study Module, where students travel to a foreign country and attend classes at a sister university, visit successful companies and speak with their leaders. A lot of the learnings however come from the trip itself; being in a foreign land and seeing how things are done differently. The really good students come back with far more than what they learn from the organised activities. They learn from the camaraderie with their fellow students, interactions with locals, and the awareness that you form part of a far bigger business eco system.

Furr and Dyer encourages those looking for new ways of doing things to look beyond their industry or current region. If we only look within our current sphere, then the improvements will be iterative. But if you bring back to the table ideas from other industries and other countries, then the innovations are often leaps or major step changes. As an entrepreneur, you never stop learning.

If you’re looking to formally continue your entrepreneurial education and gain access into the MBA’s Integrated Study Module experience, you should consider applying for the University of Stellenbosch Business School’s Postgraduate Diploma in Business Management and Administration. It will also ensure that you keep learning and growing towards your business and academic goals.


Seraj Toefy

Seraj Toefy
Custodian of Entrepreneurship at USB and Director of Strategy at Centuro Global

A marketing and communication specialist, and an unashamed entrepreneurship evangelist, Seraj Toefy is a graduate of University of Stellenbosch Business School, where he received his MBA, and has a certificate for International Publishing from Stanford University.

Founder of Ukondla Holdings, which includes Bespoke MediaUkondla Consulting, CLIC Technologies, and Centuro Global Africa, he loves sharing knowledge and inspiring students and young start-ups through lecturing, guest speaking and mentoring, both locally and internationally.

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