Mark Allewell is the founder of South African audio tour guide company Tourism Radio. He is currently preparing for a year’s travel sabbatical with his wife Ronelle and three-year-old twins Kai and Kerala. In this exclusive guest post for HumanIPO, Allewell shares some entrepreneurial tips and explains why he is taking a year away from his successful business.
I’m an entrepreneur and have been my whole life. Yes, I’ve had jobs along the way, but I’ve always been one to take an idea and build on it.
I first came up with the idea of Tourism Radio during lunch with a friend; as a qualified tour guide, I wanted to create a device that could talk to self-drive tourists – the ones who didn’t necessarily want a tour guide.
Nine years along the way, it seems like a lifetime ago that I started a process in my life that would take me to places all over the world, help me meet the most incredible people from all walks of life, and be able to provide for my family.
I won’t go into great details, but I started the business with a lick and prayer in a shared office in Cape Town’s Foreshore area. Along with my team, we now operate from offices in Auckland and Barcelona as well, and also have licensees in Namibia, Angola and soon Canada. We’ve also recently had our European technology patent approved, which gives us a solid foundation for at least the next 10 years. Looking back at what we’ve achieved so far, I guess that’s why I feel comfortable enough to take a year off.
I’ve spent the better part of 2013 agonising about what my future is in the company. When our investors came on board on 2006, they asked me one question that really stuck with me, “Will you know when it’s time to step down?” I guess, as an entrepreneur, you do know. You realise that it’s time to let other people carry on your vision. At this point, I honestly feel that my replacement will be a better CEO than I am.
It’s been a great journey over the last nine years and these are some of the lessons I’ve learnt along the way that don’t specifically focus on building technology:
Start with a good team: Entrepreneurs who are able to sell themselves to people will always be successful. This is especially important when building a team for your own company. I managed to convince two highly intelligent people that Tourism Radio would expand around the world, and that they would make a lot of money in the process. When our second set of investors came on board, they did.
These days, building a technical team is harder. In fact, building a business in the tech space is harder, as there is a massive need for great talent and these people don’t come cheap. Convincing a 50K person to work for free because you have a vision that will change the world is hard, but not impossible.
Don’t sell yourself short: I was lucky. I did sell myself short and my potential investor pulled out, even at an investment opportunity that has since proven itself tenfold. When our European investors bought the company, he was the very first person to call me, saying that he had made a huge mistake that cost him a lot of cash.
I was lucky because I just wanted to get my company off the ground regardless of percentages, profits, losses and revenue. I had a vision and nothing was going to stop me. I ended getting four, great Series A investors on board, who helped mould the company at a fraction of the shares. We also learnt a few tricks of the trade in the process. Start off by believing that you have the best business idea and that it will be worth millions in the future.
Believe in yourself: It goes without saying that people buy into other people. I built great relationships with clients before I had the Tourism Radio in-car devices in the market. Sometimes in life, you meet people and you think, “Jeez, that person has got it!” Confidence and a real belief are what you need as well. If you don’t have 100 per cent belief in yourself, then why should other people have it in you?
Don’t burn your bridges: We’ve all done it. Especially since sales are always six months ahead of development. Be careful not to get too excited and over promise. It can quickly be the undoing of your business.
Stick to your guns: An entrepreneur’s life is never dull! Technology breaks, clients scream and shout, investors scream and shout harder, but that’s all part of the experience. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. Entrepreneurs often fail; be it with different business, or with the same business. Hell, we built a social network for travellers that failed miserably. We tried something and it didn’t work out. Our business didn’t end. Sure, we wasted some time and resources, but we learnt from our mistakes. Your business will never work and evolve as you expected; that’s part of the fun of starting a business in the first place.
Don’t be scared: Starting a business can be a harrowing experience. I’m 40 and very grey, but that was my choice. Nobody forces us to do what we do. We do it to challenge ourselves because we have an idea or vision of what we want to achieve. We live our dreams on a daily basis. Give me that any day over having a boss and a 9-5, but that’s just me. People fear things that entrepreneurs take in their stride on a daily basis, that’s what makes us special. Never let anybody tell you otherwise.
Stick around; it’s your business: The hardest part of business is actually running a business. Tourism Radio started nine years ago as an idea, and today we have employees, rent, costs, revenue projections and, last but not least, locking up the office at the end of the day.
Starting a business is exciting; new ideas, new people, finding offices, setting up websites and building your vision. When that vision becomes your employment, it becomes harder, because its 65 per cent slog and 35 per cent shiny new stuff. Make sure to focus on the 65 per cent and don’t get distracted by the shiny stuff, as you need to make sure that 65 per cent works perfectly.
Success comes in many forms. Be it your peers loving you, having bucket-loads of cash, or in my case, time – I’ve bought a year away with my family, travelling the world and recharging. I’m giving my family a gift that hopefully they’ll cherish: a year waking up next to me every day, with no distractions.
I wouldn’t be able to be in this position without taking a few risks along the way, even if I am grey already.