How long should a startup be a startup?

How long should a startup be a startup?

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By Sibulele Siko-Shosha

ENTREPRENEURSHIP is firmly settled in its role of being the lifeline of South Africa’s economy. It is important to try and understand what this means for the entrepreneurs themselves.

The venture capital “revolution” has also brought with its hundreds of billions of foreign direct investment to further fuel the success prospects of South African businesses. By the end of 2017, FDI funds invested into South Africa was to the tune of over R500 billion with the United Kingdom being responsible for 29.4 percent of those investments and The Netherlands being a close second with 19.5 percent. Interest in South African commerce has evolved beyond resources. The recent trajectory of the tech economy and ecosystems such as Silicone Cape has brought with it a fresh relook at what is identified as being an investable entity in South Africa.

With new “crazes” comes new or redefined terminologies. When talking anything entrepreneurship based these days, the term “startup” comes to mind. For me, when one says the term the first thing that pops up is a tech company in a garage somewhere in the United States.

In order for us to understand the meaning of the term, we need to understand its definition. Previously, a startup was defined as a new company or business that has been recently created. However, over the last few years, the definition has evolved to be aligned with its presumed true function. The most embraced definition is that of serial entrepreneur and professor at business schools such as Stanford and Berkley, Steve Blanks. He defined a startup as “a temporary organization designed to look for a business model that is repeatable and scalable”. By this definition alone, the journey of a startup has moved from being focused on short term success to a journey of trial and error targeted at sustainability.

With the definition out of the way, the question that now remains is how long can an entity be identified as being a startup? According to startups.com this process should take between seven to 10 years for a business to move from startup status to “success”.

Having owned my creative agency for close to 13 years, I beg to differ. No two years have ever been the same and also, no two years have ever shown a consistent upward trajectory. Having experienced numerous “interventions” such as being a part of enterprise development programmes to multiple business book readings and online masterclasses geared at entrepreneurial success, I can firmly confirm I am still stuck in the abyss of uncertainty as I am still unable to pinpoint what guarantees success in entrepreneurship.

My journey has been filled with a series of “almosts”. Almost scaling, almost reaching the R10 million turnover mark, and almost being sustainable. With that reality, what does that make my business, a startup or an inbetweener or an almost success?

My reality has also taught me that the type of investments that a business has influences its trajectory. If you have investors who want their returns, you will have the pressure of performance with some doors being opened for you to honour that pressure. If like myself you chose to dive into business because you believed in your capabilities and had R50 000 worth of savings, where does that put you?

My recent learnings though have showed me there are multiple elements, some of which are not purely financial, that gives entrepreneurship a chance at success. Social capital being one of them. I think we sometimes forget the fundamental of entrepreneurship is developing and maintaining relationships. There is however a thin line between whether how you present yourself as a business and entrepreneur could influence the potential closing of a deal negatively or positively.

The common understanding though is one can never become a successful entrepreneur in isolation. What needs to be mastered is who you choose to join you on that journey and what value will that journey be for both of you.

* Sibulele Siko-Shosha is the founder, creative director and TV executive producer of the Dumile Group.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.

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