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Young Minds Conversations with Entrepreneurs ft. Simon Ellis

As part of the Young Minds Programme, Joshua Fillmore is hosting a series of conversations with some of South Africa’s most successful young entrepreneurs.

The first of these features Simon Ellis, who is shaking up the entrepreneurship scene in South Africa. He is the CEO and Co-founder of SmartWage, as well as the founding member of Nutbrook Property (a residential property development company based in South West London) and 20:40 (a not-for-profit organisation focused on the development of the next generation of leaders). He was recently invited to join the Harambe Entrepreneurial Alliance, which is a network of some of the most skilled entrepreneurs in Africa.

Can you give us a short overview of what SmartWage does and how it came to be?

“We started out two years ago as an in-wage access business, giving employees access to a portion of their salary before the end of the month - inspired by what was happening in the US. We thought that we could arrive in South Africa and offer the same product. It worked in the hands of employees, as people really need access to their money before the end of the month. 

As it turned out, we are a B2B2C business because we sell to businesses and we get to their employees. The value proposition to employers wasn’t enough, so we pivoted into an HR communications business. We deliver pay slips, leave, and communications via WhatsApp to enterprises at scale. We are currently delivering it in South Africa at the moment and we're busy expanding internationally.”

How would you recommend aspiring on entrepreneurs go about either finding co-founders or building a team? Especially those who don't necessarily have access to large or wealthy networks?

“In South Africa, there are a really amazing bunch of networks everywhere. If you look hard enough, you will find Facebook groups, Slack groups, and WhatsApp groups. You may feel that you don't have anything to give, but you always do. I have a couple of things that I do when I network. 

If you meet someone, make sure you follow up within 24 hours. And when you do follow up, give first –  give something before asking for something to create some sort of reciprocity. You've also got to invest the time in doing it. It doesn't happen overnight. I've been actively working on networking literally for about seven years.”

Are there any major principles or values which you consciously practice in order to lead your team effectively? 

“We have principles as a business. The biggest one is no ego. We're all learning. We're all trying to figure it out. Anyone that tells you that they've figured it out is lying. Uh, no one has figured it out. Making sure that you approach leadership, entrepreneurship, and whatever you're doing with an open mind - the ability to learn is critical to your success. You need to openly learn to change your mind. 

You need to learn to be able to say, ‘I was wrong, there's new information. I can change my mind.’ Your team often knows better than you do, so to be an effective leader, you just need to combine the thoughts of everyone to help everyone drive in the right direction.”

What role do you believe entrepreneurship plays in shaping the future of our country?

“It is absolutely critical. Entrepreneurship drives innovation, innovation drives job creation, and job creation drives a better economy. And that is something that all of us win from. Obviously, that's a simplified context, but it is absolutely critical. If we compare South Africa to a place like London, there is so much support in terms of tax benefits, funding, and networks there – which shows how much entrepreneurship is valued. 

Entrepreneurship drives the start of the job creation cycle. In South Africa, that is our biggest, biggest problem. We can't rely on private or state owned enterprises solely to drive jobs. We have to create an environment for people to thrive – and to do so, we need to give entrepreneurs the tools and the resources to thrive.” 

What would you recommend for the aspiring entrepreneurs out there? What are the first few steps that they can take when starting a new company?

“Just start. Genuinely, just make a start. Everyone out there has a good idea, and that good idea may change, but you have to go and test it and listen to your customer – so start. Starting doesn't mean doing something crazy. It just means solving the problem you want to solve in the simplest way possible.

As an example, I was looking to start a salt and pepper grinder business because I couldn't find any salt and pepper grinders that were working. They all didn't work. I was adamant that, before we started, we just needed to interview 200 people to understand if this is a real problem. I remember having this argument with tons of my friends who were like, ‘No, let's just go and buy them from China.’ 

And this is a mistake that we can all so easily make - thinking that we know what the answer is. But the reality is that we don’t know. Our customer knows what the answer is. If you look at Amazon, they’re customer obsessed. ​​That's all they focused on for the entire building of that company and look what it’s created.”

How do you stay motivated in the bad times?

“I genuinely love what I do. One of my pet peeves is listening to someone who’s in a 9-to-5 corporate wheel dread going back to the office on a Sunday. I don't see work as this separate thing to living. For me, it's kind of the same thing. So when bad times happen, I see them as part of the process - I see them as something I'll learn from. 

Being an entrepreneur and being in a startup is a rollercoaster the best of times. One of the most important things is to not shun away the bad times. When you are going through challenges, actually acknowledge them and be conscious of them. Be aware of them and feel those uncomfortable feelings for the time that they last. You don't necessarily need to get too caught up in them. Instead, acknowledge it, learn from it, and then move on because there is going to be a great day just around the corner.

And, if you look at all the most successful entrepreneurs around the globe, they've all failed. We have to create a culture that recognises that it's completely okay to fail. It's okay. It's okay to have gone through the process to learn from it.”

​​To watch the full interview, click here.


The Young Minds Programme, certified by Stellenbosch University, is a 9-month career-focused gap year programme that helps school-leavers and young adults prepare for the next steps in their life and career. The programme focuses on, among other core themes, business management, entrepreneurial thinking and personal mastery – the key ingredients necessary to explore the real world of work and help participants discover who they are, as well as what they want to achieve in life. 

To find out more about the Young Minds Programme, click here.

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