Watch and read Justin Clarke’s inspiring talk at SUCCESSness FEST Cape Town
Justin’s inspiration highlight: “Obstacles are completely relative. When you think you’ve got a big obstacle just remember to put it in perspective in terms of the world. There’s many bigger problems in the world than the obstacle that you face at that particular time. And if you can see beyond it, and if you want to get beyond it, then you will get beyond it, it’s just a matter of finding a way.”
Good morning everybody.
I’m a lot more comfortable speaking to PowerPoint and speaking to spreadsheets and the like. Steve asked me to speak about my personal experience and my personal journey, and I must say that’s a little out of my comfort zone. So please if you don’t mind, bear with me. I’m going to tell you four stories and I’m going to rely on the theatre of the mind to help you join the dots.
Let’s start off with 1987. The world was a very different place, if any of you were around in those days, ja, ja one of two of you, ja you were around. It was a very different place. The scene is the mountain pass that runs between, Mbabane and Manzini in Swaziland, it’s a tre – treacherous piece of road that runs through and many of you will know from the casinos, that it is ezulwini, it runs down through ezulwini and down through the industrial area of Matsapha.
There’s a fog on the mountain and the rain is falling and the traffic runs, even though it’s the end of the day. The traffic is backed up down the Malagwane down to Matsapha because there’s a truck that’s blocking the road. At that time in the 80s it was a single lane and I’m underneath the truck, I’m not a mechanic but I’ve got an oxy acetylene torch and I’m trying to cut off the bolts of an ox box, which is the gearbox at the bottom of a 26/24 Mercedes-Benz from the 1960’s which was the prize of our fleet at the time. The molten steel from the burning bolts were falling on my face as was the rain punctuating with little bits of diesel and hydraulic fluid that was falling off the truck. Not to mention the fact that passing vehicles were pushing waves of water over me as I lay there trying to cut this box off.
With the help of the mechanic I dragged all of these components, threw them on the back of the bakkie and headed off to the border. Remember that in early evening in Swaziland the border closes and I had to get through to Johannesburg by first light to get spares. So by the end of the next evening that truck was back on the road. There was no money for a tow truck, there was no money for a call out mechanic service. That’s just the sort of thing that you have to do I guess, as a start-up entrepreneur.
But there’s even a back story to the story, and the back story is that 6 months prior to this we were operating a block yard that we’d started on the side of the Usushwana River. We received a letter from the great King Mswati the Third of Swaziland, to say that they are reneging on our lease on the property and that we are to take our goods and leave the premises because they had given the property to an associate who had grazed the late Kings cattle.
These are the challenges that you face as a start-up, especially in Africa.
But let’s fast forward a little bit from that and let’s go 10 years further down the road. I’ll take you to 1997, that’s a little bit more familiar to many of you, it’s a day of cell phones and things like that. Once again I’m lying on my back, this time the scene is the Eastern Cape, somewhere between Cala and Elliot. If you’ve ever been there, miles from nowhere, I’m hunkered down in an Eskom camp, the rain and the storm have crushed the tent that I was sleeping in, so that it’s completely flat and I’m trying to solve a problem. What I was doing there is that I had won a tender to install stays to hold up the electricity poles. It was a revolutionary product, that we thought we had invented, that was obviously much better than everything else on the market, more efficient, quicker, but bear in mind, it was completely out of the existing supply chain and significantly outside the vested interests that there were there at the time in the Eskom and -and Telkom hierarchy. So what I was trying to decide, whether to get in the gutter and pay to help to promote the product and as I am lying in the storm, I decided that I would take advantage of this technology and check in with my wife. So I made the call, she was sitting at the V&A Waterfront, launching a great product with – with a corporate job, a pharmaceutical company, squashing caviar into her mouth and drinking champagne. It’s interesting when you think about the start-up environment, the entrepreneurial environment, and the corporate environment. But anyway that’s only 1997.
Let’s move forward another 10 years. This was probably one of the obstacles that nearly took me out completely. I again found myself lying on my back but this time I didn’t know what solar system I was in, I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know where I was. There were strange people speaking with strange dialects, all poking pipes into me, and I really thought I had been captured by aliens. the crazy thing is that uh, when you’re infused with many, many drugs, there is a thing called ICU syndrome, that you take the reality and the mixed facts and data that you have in your mind, plus a whole bunch of information that’s completely incorrect and you mix it all together and you try and understand where you’re at. In fact I was in the Krankenhaus, having been off the mountain in Austria and, I discovered that I had obviously I had come out of a coma after about 2 weeks and I had a head injury, a c3 fracture vertebra, I had 16 broken ribs, I had two punctured lungs and probably the worst injury of the lot was that my T6, 7 and 8 vertebra were completely crushed. My wife Sue was obviously there at the time and was told on a daily basis that that I probably wasn’t going to make the day, so the fact that I’m here is an obstacle that was great to win, I promise you that.
That’s not the end of the story here, you know, I think what I want to touch on here guys is that you end up in this crazy, crazy drug infused reality, but what added to that paranoia was that our company of 8 years, Private Property, was in big, big trouble. The skiing trip that I had committed to, was probably one I shouldn’t have done, I shouldn’t have been looking for snow that December but you know what happens, you book long in advance, and you want a break, and you do it. So the reality is there I sit in all this paranoia of knowing that back home there’s a whole bunch of people depending on me to turn this thing around, and there I am lying in a complete state of confusion.
I’m gonna jump forward a little bit now. Eventually after some rehab I came back to South Africa. In fact I spent 6 months in rehabilitation in South Africa. I remember one of the first documents I signed was in order to try and restructure some other assets. We sold all our paid off vehicles. I remember I couldn’t make the signature for the bank, they wouldn’t accept my signature because I couldn’t see what I was actually signing off. But the fact is that we managed to turn Private Property around from a hospital bed and a lot of help obviously from the people on the ground, the team.
What made matters worse is that in 2007 when we were really, really winning at Private Property, and maybe I should just stop and ask if anybody remembers the days when Private Property was actually there looking after the private sellers interests. Pre ’97. Fantastic, I’ve got a few hands, that’s awesome. So what our business was at that stage, was that we were there to facilitate private sales and, we wanted to disrupt the existing industry as it is, and we felt that this technology of the Internet could do it.In fact by that time we were doing a lot more, we were helping people to actually enter into a contract, we were facilitating the sale, and this was powered by home loans. We did an enormous amount of home loans, in fact we used to register over a hundred million Rands a month of home loans and that’s a hell of a lot of private sales. So think about what happens, in 1998, 97/98, first ’97 with the new Credit Act and ’98 with the financial crisis. Our revenue completely went off a cliff, the taps for home loans just turned off, and so our entire business model was on its head. So ultimately what we had to do was, we had to do a complete pivot and open up this private sale portal, where our biggest enemy at that time was the estate agent, and that’s ultimately what saved that business.
But again, I’m going to tell you the fourth story, because it doesn’t end there. I had managed to convince our venture capital partners, a bunch of guys called Tiger Global management, who came in in 2007. And many of you all know them because they have also invested in companies like Takealot, Bid or Buy and Yuppiechef. They also obviously have significant interest in the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn and others. But what I’d managed to convince them to do was that we were the guys here sitting in South Africa, we understand the African environment, we’ve sat under trucks in the middle of Swaziland, we’ve worked in Cala putting up power lines, we understand the environment, and so what we’d like to do, is we’d like to take our knowledge of marketplaces, of digital marketplaces and take them and move out through Africa. So they of course endorsed us.
At the time in 1997 we were winning and here we are post the 2009 accident and, and we still basically have the mandate to do that but I realised that me travelling around Africa was totally not gonna work. So I scoured the planet looking for somebody suitable, I found this fantastic guy who was the CIO of Seek, the biggest group of job boards in the world, guy by the name of Carey Eaton. I met him in Kenya, he was a passionate Kenyan, loved Africa, and I managed to convince him that in Australia he was a small cog in a very, very big machine, whereas if he came back to Africa, maybe, just maybe, we could make a dent in the world. So he packed up his wife, and his four young kids and moved back to Nairobi in Kenya.
So I think, you know the point I want to make here is that there are always obstacles. The more you stretch the envelope, the bigger the obstacles become. The more chances you take and the more audacious goal that you have, the bigger the challenges that you are gonna have. In 2013 Carey was brutally murdered, shot at point blank range in his house in Nairobi. At that stage we were going at 1000 miles an hour, we were operating about 10 companies in 8 different countries and there was no one to take up the slack. First of all the understanding of these businesses, the people, the stage of the various deals. The only option was for me to get on an aeroplane. And that’s what I did, so for the next 24 months I sat on an aeroplane, flying around Africa, going to some of these really, really crazy places.
And I have to share a little bit of my personal experience of that. So you need to go to Lagos Nigeria as a paraplegic. You can’t walk, you can’t get on and off the plane – someone’s obviously been to Lagos. So you can’t phone Stephan and ask him if Travelstart can get you off the plane on the other side. He won’t be able to tell you that. All you have to do is get on the plane, if SAA are going to load you on the plane, then surely someone’s going to get you off at the other side. I can tell you lots of great stories about getting off from the other side. But the fact is that it eventually happens, somebody picks you up, even if they carry you down the stairs, they do. So that’s it. Operating in Africa. Just to touch on Lagos a little bit more, I mean there’s an escalator going down from the arrivals hall. It’s the only escalator in the arrivals area. Of the many, many times that I’ve been there, I’ve seen it working once, and people were standing around celebrating the fact that this thing worked, and the lift that takes you to the SAA Lounge in the arrivals, out of many trips that I’ve been there, so that lift has worked exactly twice since more of my many trips. But things have improved a lot in – in Africa since the Chinese have been building new airports Etc.
So guys I’d like to just end off by perhaps sharing with you. As a child I had a poster, a beautiful poster on my wall, and it was a poster of a windsurfer. Bear in mind this is the 80s, he’s jumping off a wave and he’s doing a 360, which was a pretty rad trick in those days, not so much today. But the slogan on this thing was: “Find the edge and start from there” and I can’t help thinking that for so many of us, our edge is very close, our parameters of our life are very close. If you just take the corners of that envelope and you stretch them out, it’s amazing how much fuller and larger your life will become, It’s just so easy to do, you just gotta take that and you just gotta squeeze it a little bit every day.
As far as obstacles are concerned, as I said earlier, the bigger the hang, the bigger the challenge that you put in front of yourself, you’re gonna find many, many obstacles, and it’s how you get through those obstacles that really matters. Remember that a great book is really about a bunch of chapters, a great book has suspense and drama, a great book has a lot of ups and downs. In fact the greatest stories are stories that make you cry and laugh in the same chapter. So just think about it, if you want to write a great book, the content is the chapters that you write, at the end of the day, you get to decide what the outcome of that book is, the chapters are purely the content, the outcome is completely up to you. Thank you.
Audience question: I just wanted to know, since your accident, how’s that changed your mind-set and how you view obstacles and, and how’s it changed your life, I mean apart from the obvious, but just how you see obstacles.
No great, I think that you realised that the obstacles you used to think were big, like the stairs, are actually irrelevant. Obstacles are completely relative. When you think you’ve got a big obstacle just remember to put it in perspective in terms of the world. There’s many bigger problems in the world than the obstacle that you face at that particular time. And if you can see beyond it, and if you want to get beyond it, then you will get beyond it, it’s just a matter of finding a way.
Audience question: this is probably a double-edged sword question, but just in terms of obviously what you went through with your accident, there must have been a period of time where being a very able-bodied person and I gather a very active person as well that you couldn’t continue as you obviously were. What pushed you to actually continue, because I think it can be very easy…
I love that question, so you know the thing is when you grow up in an environment where you are an entrepreneur, where you have spent your life solving problems, because that’s it, you wake up in the morning, you’re 23 years old, your business has been shut down by the bloody stupid King um, you know you’ve gotta solve that problem, and your life becomes about solving problems on a daily basis. So zoom forward to rehabilitation in Entabeni Hospital Durban back in 2009. Part of the rehabilitation is obviously psychotherapy and the psychologist says: “You know I think that you are not dealing with this thing because you’re treating it as if it hasn’t happened.” I said: “Well you know the problem is that my whole life as an entrepreneur, I wake up and I solve the problem of the day, I don’t worry about the problem of yesterday, or the problem of tomorrow, I worry about the problem of today. So I don’t believe that that is the case, I think that all I’m doing is worrying about pushing the edge a little bit today and managing to do something I didn’t do yesterday. That’s today’s challenge.” So I think you can apply that to your life. You cannot fix what happened in the past, you cannot really influence what happens in the deep future, all you can do is you can push a little bit every single day. I hope that answers your question.