Funny and insightful view on challenges facing entrepreneurs
Perhaps a formal publishing process would have honed its rough edges, removed some repetition and minimised the cussing
Operating a business in Africa is ridden with difficulties. The landscape is littered with disasters as ventures trip up over red tape, corruption, a lack of funding and the notion that anything foreign trounces anything made locally.
Is there space for another book documenting those difficulties and exhorting entrepreneurs to do their homework, be prepared to battle, or maybe just tackle an easier territory? That essentially is what Tested is — a rollicking memoir by serial entrepreneur and serial failure Alpesh Patel.
Serial failure is a bit harsh, but he did leave a trail of "didn’t quite make it" ventures in his wake before hitting the big time with Mi-Fone, the first cellphone brand designed in Africa for Africans. But Mi-Fone never achieved its potential. Patel is essentially a one-man band who wants to do everything himself, delegates reluctantly and badly, and hires people from gut instinct rather than an assessment of their talents.
As his businesses grow, the wrong people are in place to take them further.
Tested is an easy and enjoyable read, self-published by Patel because that’s how he rolls, cutting out the middleman and going directly to market.
Perhaps a formal publishing process would have honed its rough edges, removed some repetition and minimised the cussing. But Patel doesn’t take kindly to people telling him how his ideas can best be packaged.
That’s partly why he’s had so many clashes and frustrations and perhaps not been able to see other ways of getting things done. He’s a "my way or the highway" kind of guy and you get knocked over like that. Arrogant, yes, stubborn, yes — ingenious, absolutely.
I have interviewed Patel a few times and like him enormously because he’s funny, charming, articulate and sharp. Would I want to work for him? Not so much.
But entrepreneurs can certainly learn from him, even if it’s only to take his advice and decide that a monthly income, steady future and time to hug your kids aren’t worth sacrificing to chase a dream.
Patel’s children certainly couldn’t have been hugged much as he flew around the world piecing together business deals or juggling cash flows to keep them functioning.
He was born in Uganda to Indian parents who fled to London during Idi Amin’s purges. After an English education, he worked in Hong Kong, Japan, Johannesburg, Nairobi and Mauritius. At one stage, he was a director with Motorola in Dubai, earning a tax-free salary and doubling his income through some property deals.
He now runs Peshmode, a business consultancy based in London. He loves Africa, but no longer loves doing business here and he casts a harsh yet sadly true judgment on the way things have become.
"I have always said that if the South African government had their heads screwed on right, Johannesburg would be the ‘Silicon Valley of Africa’," he writes.
"How can the government and large corporates fail its people and yet continue to make money from them?
"I have always felt this pain for the people of SA, but they have simply never stood up and fought for their rights.
"All the big corporates — parastatals, insurance companies, mobile network operators, banks — just continue to rip off the consumers and no one does anything about it."
Some of his exploits made me laugh out loud, turning Tested into entertaining fun as well as a trove of useful, gritty insights. In his early days, he was either fearless or reckless, agreeing to deliver goods when he had no idea how to source them, leaving people hanging on until he somehow pulled the rabbit out of the hat. Or the cellphones out of a suitcase.
His ventures have been permanently dogged by cash flow problems, often of his own making. He’d give long credit terms to his customers, but was not able to raise the capital to order more stock until the customers paid. He failed to learn from his mistakes, repeating a cycle of overexpanding his businesses and personal spending, getting bored and always wanting to move on to the next thing.
The Mi-Phone gained decent penetration in many African countries through sheer hard slog and the firm also developed Oji, the first black emoticon.
Yet cash-flow problems almost felled the whole operation until he sold 51% to a listed South African corporation.
The relationship with his supposed white knight turned sour, he writes, with entrepreneurial nimbleness stifled by corporate procedures. He lost control of decision-making and things had to be done more formally and slowly, which seems to have taken him by surprise.
The chapter about this take-over goes into an inordinate amount of detail, giving the sense that writing this book has been a cathartic process. It’s certainly been a fabulous way to vent, littering the text with expletives and pithy observations.
Without always naming names, he records his arguments with a SIM-card manufacturer, slates some exhibition organisers for lying about its popularity and denounces staff that let him down through laziness or lack of interest. Yes, but it’s your fault for choosing them, you yell at the pages, but Patel already knows that.
He has harsh words for consultants too, saying: "I tell every entrepreneur that they need to be careful when dealing with so-called ‘advisers’ or ‘consultants’, because all they want is your money.
"The first questions to ask any of them are ‘have you built anything yourself?’ and ‘do you know what it takes to build a business?’ Most of them will answer no."
At the end of each section are some obligatory messages such as: "When opportunity knocks — shove a door stopper under the door and keep it ajar!"
He also writes about ignoring opportunities that could have lifted him to the next level, purely because he couldn’t be bothered. "Quite simply, I was too caught up in the glory of it all, what with the late nights, fancy weekend trips to Thailand, Bali, the Philippines and numerous other places, not to mention
the copious spending on luxuries and the huge number of girls — everywhere!
"Why would anyone want to stop that kind of lifestyle? I was caught up in my own bulls**t. I never questioned where I
wanted to be 12 months down the line; for me, it was all about today. Looking back, it was a case of ego."
He paid the price for his stupidity, he says, but he’s wearing it as a badge of honour.