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Updated 20 Oct 2020

Vusi Thembekwayo's rise to entrepreneurial success

Vusi Thembekwayo is well-known as a successful entrepreneur and "Dragon" on Dragons' Den. But his journey to success was filled with many challenges along the way. 

Nicole Crampton, 15 March 2016  Share  0 comments  Print

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Vusi Thembekwayo is an entrepreneur, founder and managing director. He started out his career as a motivational speaker, ranked number 1 in Africa at the tender age of 17. He is one of the best motivational speakers and keynote speakers. Thembekwayo has spoken on 4 continents to over 250 000 people every year.

Motivational speaking is a platform that helps Thembekwayo access international leaders, capital and opportunities. In 2014 alone he spoke in 21 countries and was the only speaker to speak by invitation at the World Bank. A lesson he learned during his journey was people trade on reputation, not on skill.

Related: Vusi Thembekwayo on why what got you here, won’t get you there

Thembekwayo managed to build a R140 million business from the ground up by the age of 30 and believes that education is crucial in establishing where you are going in life. 

 "Education becomes more relevant once you know what you want to do with it."

The beginning

The FMCG, giant Metcash hired Thembekwayo to speak at a function and as part of his preparation for his talk, Thembekwayo researched and anaylsed the company that he was to present to. His research revealed  a company in need of a new direction, so he took a chance and offered the company advice on how to turn the business around, instead of his usual motivational talk.

Metcash CEO saw a young man with the potential to shake up the business world with his innovative outlook and he hired Thembekwayo.


Climbing the corporate ladder

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Realising that he had to prove his worth Thembekwayo tried to come up with an innovative idea to improve the company's business, but he was stuck. Finally inspiration struck. Through a situation that was occurring in his personal life he saw a gap in the market. The company could benefit and corner an untapped market.

Related: Vusi Thembekwayo's lessons learnt on practising the skill of management

“An ill family member received treatment at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. The government that ran the hospital was having major issues with its food suppliers.  There was insufficient food for patients. The realisation struck me. Metcash is a bulk food wholesaler.”

He developed a business plan detailing how Metcash could profit by servicing hospitals. The board loved the idea and made R2.6 million available to cover operating expenses. Thembekwayo hired sales and admin people and started selling. They made R16 million in the first year. After four years it had grown into a R463 million business with the highest EBITDA in the group.

Time for change

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The CEO left and and a new CEO took his place, taking the business in a new direction. Thembekwayo was allowed to ring-fence the business that he had brought into Metcash. He raised his own equity and bought the business himself.

The business looked good on paper, making a gross profit between 30% and 40%. Turn over kept growing, but customers would pay late. Additionally, the commercial model wasn't working in a start-up and Thembekwayo learnt a valuable lesson: Don’t hang onto an idea once it becomes unfeasible. A successful entrepreneur needs to know when it’s time to walk away. Thembekwayo decided to sell his business to a conglomerate.

The birth of the entrepreneur

Using the money from the sale as seed funding, Thembekwayo started his business from scratch at the age of 24. He began a combined speaking and strategic consulting business. The plan was to use the speaking business to network and meet people. The aim of the strategic consulting business was to grow his reputation in the boardroom.

Related: Vusi Thembekwayo’s lessons in disruption

It would take Thembekwayo eight months to attract his first customer. During those initial months Thembekwayo tapped into his savings to pay for his office rent and staff salaries. With nothing left over at the month to pay his own rent, Thembekwayo ended up living out of his car and eating dinner's at his girlfriend’s place.

Thembekwayo learned another lesson about business. “If you’re not crazy enough to think wild things, and have the courage and will to pursue them, you’re not going to make it, because start-ups are tough. Everything you’ll ever need to achieve your wildest dreams, you’ve already got.”

Building a business from scratch

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Thembekwayo knew he already had all the knowledge and experience he needed to achieve his goals. He had to persevere until customers realised the significance of his services and insights. Business finally started to come in for his speaking business. But the strategy consulting businesses wasn’t getting any traction.

The next lesson he would learn was that teams build business, not a single person.  He realised he would have to rebrand and bring in a partner who would complement his skills. 

His motivational speaking funded the business and kept the doors open. Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard calls Thembekwayo the “Rock Star of Public Speaking”. His speaking engagements allowed him access too many powerful and influential people. Who he hoped would hire his strategic consulting firm.

An entrepreneur’s work is never done

Thembekwayo is currently building up Watermark Afrika Fund, which is his private equity firm.  This platform helps him and his team to build a business and to scale. He uses the company’s access to transactions and extensive network to his advantage. These were both acquired while Thembekwayo was public speaking around the world.

Related: How Vusi Thembekwayo keeps his business growing

There have been additional challenges and lessons learnt in building his fund and Thembekwayo is first to admit that he and his team have made mistakes and have learnt from them. One thing is certain about Thembekwayo: He is always read to push the boundaries in business and take his vision to the next level. 

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Nicole Crampton

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