9 things we learned from doing the City of Johannesburg’s entrepreneurship ecosystems events

Good things can come out of frustration.

Out of frustration, we created the 2016 Entrepreneurship Research Study: Voices of Entrepreneurs in Johannesburg, a self-funded multi-stakeholder research study of 50 entrepreneurs and partners in Johannesburg. I was unhappy with the status quo: many people who had never ever run their own businesses putting millions of rand into programmes to stimulate entrepreneurship. For what? The programmes were failures.

I thought, “Why don’t they ask those of us who have been running businesses?” But no one was asking, so I decided to take my own money and do my own study. It took two years to conceptualize the study, six months to execute it and another nine months before it was adopted by the City of Johannesburg and they rolled out our recommendations. (That part was down to luck).

We were privileged to be part of the 2017 City of Johannesburg Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Regional Summits from September – October 2017 in seven different regions, followed by a two-day symposium in Johannesburg.

I was humbled by the passion, enthusiasm and drive of the 2 000+ entrepreneurs who attended. I wasn’t the only one. People are hungry for opportunities, they want to be heard, they have much to offer.

But more important than my personal learnings is the fact that the City of Johannesburg created a series of events where they listened to their small businesses, they heard what entrepreneurs had to say. Not all of it was pretty. There are still some people out there with expectations that government must save their businesses, give them jobs. But there are more people who are ready for a new dialogue – one in which they are partners and not just recipients.

Looking back on these events (and there is a comprehensive report available – see below), there are 9 learnings that I’d like to share:

    1. Entrepreneurship ecosystems are the answer to creating environments in which entrepreneurs can thrive. This was one of the conclusions of our study, but after seeing it in action, I really believe it. A comprehensive, collaborative model for getting the right partners together can make a difference.
    1. Government plays an important role in creating entrepreneurship ecosystems. Well-known professor and ecosystems expert Daniel Isenberg recently posted an article by Masroor Lodi about India’s start-up economy. In it, Lodi says, ‘Start-ups won’t cut it for growth…They need the right ecosystems to grow into businesses that can positively impact the economy and society.’ Few organisations are better positioned than government for working towards strong entrepreneurship ecosystems.
    1. Entrepreneurs have the answers for how to grow their businesses – we need to listen to them. We were impressed with the depth of knowledge and insights from local entrepreneurs and small businesses who participated in the 2017 City of Johannesburg entrepreneurship ecosystems events. Many had answers for how to grow their businesses. Some needed help, and these needs were highlighted by the results of the registration and evaluation forms from the event.
    1. Collaboration, partners and networking are critical elements of an entrepreneurship ecosystem. One of the most critical needs is information – we found that many entrepreneurs didn’t know where to get information. At the regional summits, all participants received data storage devices containing the Entrepreneurship Research Study, which lists 81 resources for information. Even more importantly, participants learned to speak up, to network, to meet, to find ways to collaborate. This became the standard for build-up to the symposium.
    1. Entrepreneurs can be different, but their needs are similar. We all look so different, come from varied backgrounds and exposure and yet, the more we saw, the more clearly patterns emerged. The same needs were repeated, again and again. This makes life easier for those working with policy and programmes – identify the patterns and the solutions become more apparent.
    1. Developing active working groups is a critical element of successful activation. One of the more successful interventions was the creation of industry-specific working groups. We structured five groups: IT, Greentech/Cleantech/Urban Agriculture, Manufacturing/Automotive, Tourism (Retail, Hospitality, Entertainment), and Construction. Entrepreneurs ran their own groups with the help of a facilitator. The debates were fierce, and each group discussed their own issues and solutions, which they presented the following day at the symposium. Three of these groups exchanged information and asked to keep their dialogue going.
    1. Listening is an integral part of creating an ecosystem of partners. The most critical element of a working ecosystem is the entrepreneurs’ internal drive to keep things going. Only business can drive business. Government’s job is to facilitate, capture issues, assist, and most importantly, to listen. The solutions at times can be simpler than imagined, but require people who can work together, listen and collaborate.
    1. The people who are in the room are the ones who are meant to be there; the time the event starts is the time it is meant to start; and the things that are meant to be discussed are contained within the dialogue that is shared. Whenever events are being run, there are always these questions – are the right people here? Did we start on time? Did we discuss the right things? The events had an element of ‘unconferencing’ – meaning that we have to trust those in the room to help drive the agenda.
  1. The future of economic growth lies in how we strategically and actively create systems, processes and partnerships and institutionalise these into our strategies and action plans going forward. Developing entrepreneurship ecosystems requires taking a big picture approach. We can’t look at only one side – we have to consider the needs of all the partners in the ecosystems. We need to consider how to get them to work together, to create a common vision, to respect differences in opinion. We need to create systems to institutionalise the learnings and include those who might otherwise be left out.

Written by:
Tamiko Sher
Managing Director | Z.A.ZEN Consulting