Talk about business books and everyone wants to tell you about the remarkable story of how Google was built (In The Plex) or Apple (The Return to the Little Kingdom), or Amazon (The Everything Store), or some other story of success against unbelievable odds. These books all have one thing in common: besides that warm-fuzzy inspirational you-can-do-it feeling, they’re almost entirely useless to any would-be entrepreneur. The circumstances under which these businesses were built cannot be replicated; there is in fact very little you can learn from them, and your experience of building a business will most likely be nothing like theirs - no handshake deals where you get a $100 000 cheque before you have even registered a company, and no meetings with world famous investors while you’re still a nobody. All there is to be said about these businesses is: Wow, good for them! 👍🙌💪👏

Enter Nic Haralambous: a serial entrepreneur since the age of 16, Nic has to date started 8 separate businesses, including a social network in the Mxit days, a campus newspaper, a retail fashion company and at one point, a rock band.

In a refreshingly honest, vulnerable yet direct and engaging style, Nic doesn’t sanitise the messy bits about the reality of business building, how easy it is to fail, how failures happen and how most of what you heard or believed about the journey of entrepreneurship has about as much truth as the Cinderella story. Nic is the guy to tell you that sometimes the ugly stepsisters win and Cinderella had to get a real job because she ran out of airtime, missed the ball and never met the prince. Most real business stories don’t have fairytale endings”.

Far from being a pessimist however, Nic challenges us to rethink our expectations and motivations. He makes the point that without failure, there is no learning. As he can attest, there is no easy route to success, and failure is part of the package. In order to make it worthwhile, the journey must itself be part of the reward - we must learn to engage with and find meaning in the process not just the outcome. I like to think of Nic’s book as being written not just about entrepreneurship, but about the journey of building things and creating change in any context.

He is clear that entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone (if we all wanted to build businesses, who would work in them?), but he’s also not an advocate of simply sticking it out in a safe, plushy job. Rather, he tries to steer us between two paths: one where we avoid the possibility of failure altogether, and another where failure comes as such an unexpected shock that we quit after the first try.

Nic’s book is a welcome burst of South African real talk into the echo chamber of American dream-inspired business sermons of success, where the evangelists preach that either everything is rosy sunshine or you must be a loser. One then wonders why sometimes business leaders would rather cook the books than come out and say, “Sorry guys, we failed, we screwed up, but we learnt something important.”

If you’re looking for a fresh, uncensored, brutally honest account of what it takes to start something, I’d say skip Jim Collins’ Good to Great, Jack Welch’s Winning, or AG Lafley’s Playing to Win and pick up Do. Fail. Learn. Repeat.

Africa badly needs entrepreneurs, changemakers, social innovators and institution builders. These people, as Nic rightly points out, are in for a whole world of hurt, but also for a world of learning, renewal, and meaningful work while trying to make a contribution to something bigger than themselves. It’s high time we set aside the cliched image of a swashbuckling hyper-capitalist who turns everything they touch into a disruptive what-what. What we need instead is a new generation of doers who fail better, who learn better and, most importantly of all, who repeat, and repeat and repeat.

How does starting a side business, a practice, or a new venture fit into your life? To find out, join Nic and the LifeCheq team at our talk, Bootstrapping your idea. Spaces are limited so be sure to RSVP below!

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