Eleven years ago, I began my company with just two employees and R500 in our bank account. Since then, Innovative Solutions Group (ISG) has grown into a leading investment holding company and the home of some of the country’s most successful start-ups, with almost 38,000 full time employees across our various subsidiaries.
Based on this experience, here’s seven tips for launching your own successful businesses:
1. Laser-like focus
The secret to our success is our single-minded dedication to improve employees’ and our clients’ lives. If you address the problem, and have a genuine solution that can make people’s lives easier, you never have to hard-sell your product.
2. Steady does it
When launching a start-up, it can be extremely tempting to quickly add new services, products and functionalities to appeal to a wider consumer-base, and enhance your value proposition. Many young entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to have floated the idea of adding new offerings to businesses that have barely gotten off the ground. Their belief is generally, “It feels like we’re not doing enough. We’d attract more customers if we could give them more.”
The problem? None of those businesses were ready for ‘more’. Attempting to be everything to everyone is a sure-fire way to overextend your business, while consistently falling short of competitors who are specialising in their respective fields.
3. Know what you’re in for
A new business or product requires research and development, appropriate facilities and equipment, and new staff, which all costs money. Additionally, can you afford to split your time and focus between your core business and new additions? Or can you afford to let your employees divide their attention?
For example, during the initial hard lockdowns in 2020, I noticed a gap in the market for professionally trained and accredited truck drivers, and within the space of just a few months, we launched Innovative Learning Solutions (ILS), Africa’s largest truck driver training and testing centre. Two years later, ILS employs more than 80 people and has trained over 12,000 drivers, revolutionising South Africa’s logistics industry.
4. Identity your niche and dominate it
One of the main reasons that ILS has been so successful is that it found its niche and stuck to it. ILS focusses specifically on truck driver training and has built a strong reputation within this space rather than diluting its offering by introducing courses for other types of drivers.
5. Create complementary offerings or businesses
After you have mastered your core function, it’s then time to consider expanding into other related categories or new business segments that complement your business. It also creates the opportunity to diversify your income and spread your risk. But taking on more than you can handle too soon will only put unnecessary strain on a business if it is still in its infancy.
6. Start small but think big
The odds are already against new entrepreneurs. Between 70% and 80% of South African businesses fail within their first five years, which is one of the highest failure rates in the world. And while lack of funding is often cited as the main reason, I believe that a lack of focus is just as damaging. Start small, think big, take it slow, make calculated growth decisions, and don’t make costly additions before you can truly afford it.
By way of another example, ISG’s first subsidiary, Innovative Staffing Solutions (ISS), began with a focus on servicing the operational outsourcing and management needs of the transportation and logistics industry.
Only once we had built a strong foundation and track record in this industry were we gradually able to take the leap and hire the expertise needed to embrace other sectors such as mining, construction, engineering, agriculture, retail, hospitality and manufacturing.
7. Success is the sum of the details
Turning down opportunities and choosing to focus can often seem counterintuitive. But as the saying goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” To give your company the best chance of success, it is far better to excel at mastering one service that matters to your target audience, service them well, build a solid reputation, and then consider expansion.
To this day, global giant Amazon still sells books, and Meta still hosts social media platform Facebook.
Focus first, then evolve.