Are entrepreneurs more alike than they are different?

What is the difference between an entrepreneur in Alexandra who just opened a driving school, and an entrepreneur with a well-established logistics company based in the Johannesburg CBD?

I’ve always thought they would be like night and day. As it turns out, that isn’t the case. Their desire to be successful and their ambition to overcome the hurdles placed in front of them are the same. They are unified in the pursuit of success.

How did I come to this conclusion? In 2017, Z.A.ZEN Consulting (Pty) Ltd, where I work as a Research Assistant, facilitated the 2017 City of Johannesburg Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Regional Summits and Symposium. This exciting job entailed hosting seven Regional Summits throughout the seven regions of Johannesburg. These culminated in an Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Symposium at Johannesburg Theatre in Braamfontein.

Over 2 000 entrepreneurs and ecosystem partners attended the events, as shown below.

Attendees ranged from subsistence to thriving businesses around Joburg. The entrepreneurs ranged from people with dreams, to those that have failed and those that have been succeeding for decades. Entrepreneurs were invited by the City’s regional representatives and some came from Z.A.ZEN’s own database of entrepreneurs (so you should get on our mailing list ASAP).

The aim of the Summits and Symposium was to listen to the pressing needs of entrepreneurs and integrate the information that was received into the City’s new SMME policy. The events brought together entrepreneurs, business people and enablers of all levels. Aside from hearing what these individuals had to say about entrepreneurship, of great importance was the creation of an entrepreneurial ecosystem for the City of Johannesburg. My primary role was as Research Assistant. However, I had an agenda. I am an entrepreneur myself and I wanted to use this opportunity to get as much information as possibe.

I had my own notions of what entrepreneurship was about, as well as the role that the City had to play in it. Going into the Summits I expected there to be a large difference in entrepreneurs’ needs, based on how developed their particular businesses were, and where they fitted into the structure of things, as per the below diagram.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered. What I found was this: irrespective of where on the spectrum the entrepreneurs were, their fears, ambitions and needs were very similar.

People don’t want handouts – they want the opportunity to pursue their ambitions. They have the basic needs that any person in business has, namely: access to markets, equipment, connection to suppliers and to upskill in terms of money management, which amounts to assistance in creating a product, a place to sell it and the ability to be able to use the profits wisely in order to keep the business going. From Orange Farm to Midrand the message was the same; “Give us a chance to grow our businesses, listen to us, work with us and you will be amazed at what we can do.”

We might not all articulate our needs in the same way, but ultimately all an entrepreneur wants is to be able to achieve their goals.

As a budding entrepreneur myself, I found it extremely comforting that even seasoned entrepreneurs feel the same pressure and anxiety as me: “Where is the next customer going to come from? Do I have the correct structures in place for when that Big piece of business comes? What can I do to take my business to the next level?”

The Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Regional Summits and Symposium marked a watershed moment for the City of Johannesburg. Yet, I think the events were just as important for the entrepreneurs in attendance. It was like a giant group therapy session where people could place their issues on the table and realise that they are not alone – we are all part of an ecosystem.

Once the dust had settled, I took time out to reflect on what I had learned. South Africa, and Johannesburg in particular, is a land filled with bright people who just want a chance to fulfil their potential. Our problems are different but our ambitions are the same. No matter what sector you are in or how successful you are, the spirit of entrepreneurship shines with the same intensity for us all and that is a lesson I will keep with me forever.

Written by:
Tshiamo Tshule
Research Assistant | Z.A.ZEN Consulting