Stefan Mayer reflects on tough lessons learnt as an entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship needs resilience

The word entrepreneur sounds grand, imbued with the illusion of being something special or even cool. However, the reality behind this illusion is one of hard work and struggle. For some, this is not a journey they embarked on out of choice, but because they had no other option.

Others dream of becoming entrepreneurs – they have an idea and they want to bring it to fruition. They possibly have a plan, assistance, and investors lined up. In my experience, this is seldom the case – becoming a successful entrepreneur is often a journey with many interesting stops and challenges.

I had an inkling from a young age that I wanted to work, earn money and succeed. I started my first job at age 15 (with parents’ consent) during my summer holidays. This was my first money truly earned and it felt amazing, At that moment I learnt that what I put in is what I got out.

My parents believed in making me work or save for what I wanted, and this has served me well over the years. After that summer job in 1986, I went on to deliver newspapers and work in the local bakery every Saturday morning from 5am to 10am (even after going out until 1am the night before).

For a while, I then worked at a local petrol station as a cashier three nights a week, which got me the nickname “Tankie” at school. Along with these and other jobs, I had to make sure that I was moving in the direction of my dreams. What this taught me was that if you want something, you need to work for it! I did this until I turned 25 and was ready for the next step.

Eyes opened by travel

Growing up, I was exposed to many different people, countries and schools. This ultimately shaped my adult life. Travel opened my eyes to different ways of thinking and doing. I grew up in South Africa, moved to Germany for 15 years and returned in 1998.

When I got back, I thought I was the king with a German education and could achieve anything. I thought I knew it all and people would just give me work because I was there offering a service. I had no formal education in business management, marketing, or strategy.

I was an auto electrician and started my own business thinking that people would queue outside my shop because I was there and they needed me. They didn’t come.  Realising that business was not streaming in, I decided to return to school to learn new skills that were in demand at the time.

Getting into technology

I decided to get into computers and did what so many others did at the time; signed up for an A+ technician course as well as a Microsoft certified systems engineer (MCSE) course. This opened my eyes to the opportunities of technology and introduced me to people through which I landed an amazing job.

I started working for an American telecoms startup doing least cost routing telephony via VSAT satellite systems in Africa and the Middle East. This was my first real paying job with bonuses. I learnt a lot and worked off the beaten track in places like Iraq, Iran, Sierra Leone, Congo and the Caribbean.

This taught me self-reliance. I needed to get the job done with the means at hand – in countries offering a range of challenges. A can-do attitude was key. I believe this is  one of the single biggest attributes an entrepreneur needs today, you can NEVER give up.

After traveling for about five years, it was time to  start my next venture. I have always loved movies, so I decided to buy a small video store. This was my second venture into entrepreneurship. I laid out money to buy the store, thought I had done my research and got into difficult times.

A hard lesson

There were days I worked for 12 hours and rented two movies. I eventually managed to cut some of my losses and sell the failed video store. I got 30% back of what I paid.

Lessons were learned and I had to move on to my next idea: a network cabling company.

I had knowledge in networks and cabling, so this seemed like a good fit. Again, I didn’t do enough research.  I had a small car, had some signs made with my new logo and I was ready for business. I imagined everyone would see my logo when I drove around and call me to do their networks…. Again, this didn’t happen.

By chance, a friend approached me with a short-term employment opportunity and I gladly accepted. Life was good, I had a stable income, and learned a lot about project management and large-scale audio-visual projects. This worked out so well that I was head hunted by a large South African audio-visual company to manage their operations, including all their installation teams.

This experience taught me management skills, the importance of marketing, public relations and the nuances of dealing with large scale clients. I also worked with the team who implemented a large part of the AV requirements for the 2010 FIFA world cup – my project management skills were put to the test and they stand me in good stead until today.

Good and bad news on one day

As part of my journey in the AV world, I attended a Management Advanced Program (MAP) with Henley School of Business. I completed my exams on the last day of November 2011 and was retrenched on the same day. This happened at a time I had just purchased a house, had two small boys and bought a new car. My world was shattered.

I contemplated what to do next; I had a small window of funds to cover us. The following week, I received a call from my old employer asking me to manage a large installation. Within a few days I had to quote, plan and get the job done. After this they continued to brief projects to me, making me think – I can do this, so….

Over the Christmas break that year, I started to work on my plan to start my own business.

The MAP program I did at Henley opened my eyes to business. Without it, I would not be where I am today. It taught me how to do business, how to strategise, how to market, how to negotiate, how to mark up and value my services and so much more. I cannot emphasise too much. It was the key to my success.

I made some important decisions when I started this business, and these were to only do what I do well and outsource everything I don’t.

 Creating a brand

The next step was to create a brand. This included doing a simple website, getting business cards printed, getting my vehicle wrapped, wearing branded clothing. It was important to me to create an illusion of a brand that was trustworthy, solid, dependable.

And after five months I managed to employ my first employee.

Things looked good. We were a team now, working from home attending to installations on behalf of others. This was a great way of starting out as I didn’t have too many overheads and work was flowing in from my previous employer. But it wasn’t enough for me.

I learnt keeping clients happy is the best thing you can do for repeat business. I knew I needed my own clients to grow this business. The installation work was the bread and butter paying the bills. Finding my own clients would be the icing on the cake. I kept my ears to the ground, contacted as many people I could think of who were not clients of my ex employer.

I started utilising existing relationships and canvasing for work and leads. It was not easy, but business started to come in. These were our own clients. We treasured them and looked after them since day one and we still do. Some lessons learnt were…

  • Clients don’t just show up; they need to be found and kept.
  • You need to be available to these clients.
  • People do business with people, not companies.
  • Business relationships are key.
  • Go the extra mile for your customers.
  • Have a can-do attitude, ALWAYS.
  • There is always a solution.
  • Continue to market yourself and your business, this never stops.
  • Find your niche, you cannot be everything to everyone.
  • Don’t worry too much about competition; be aware of them but stay true to your offering and your unique product or service.
  • People like consistency and reliability.
Stefan Mayer
Business Growth Developer – Corporate AV specialist – Barista and Coffee Enthusiast - Efficiency specialist. I am a proficient business professional that is detail oriented with over 20 years’ experience in the AV field. Technology is my passion and I have been actively involved in technology businesses throughout my career. In 2011 I founded, developed and managed a successful South African corporate audio-visual company; Corporate AV Integration; and have extended consulting services in the AV space to European markets, specifically Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. Tech Start-ups are a keen interest of mine and I am serious about professionalism and passionate about training and mentorship. In my free time I am an avid coffee fundi and home barista who loves practicing Latte art. At the center of all I do I keep optimising customer experience as it’s at the center of all I do – whether it be making a (near) perfect cappuccino with oat milk or assisting our clients with a boardroom solution. Let’s chat!