Allon Raiz on the Interior World and Tools of a High-Growth Entrepreneur
Join me and Allon Raiz, the Founder and CEO of Raizcorp, as we deepen the conversation on the internal world of high-growth entrepreneurship and the mentalities that get startups to this level in the long run.
Allon Raiz, a globally renowned thought leader on entrepreneurship and business prosperation, is the founder and CEO of Raizcorp, the world’s first Prosperator™. Raizcorp is one of the few profitable private business prosperators in the world and has been hailed by the U.S. and other governments as a model for Africa. The World Economic Forum (WEF), numerous governments, and Oxford University have sought Allon Raiz’s thoughts and advice on entrepreneurship and strategy. The WEF recognizes him as one of only 15 experts worldwide on the topic of fostering entrepreneurship and he was invited in 2011 to sit on the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Fostering Entrepreneurship. In 2008 the WEF also recognized him as a Young Global Leader. Due to his expertise and extraordinary successes, Allon has been invited to address numerous organisations and government bodies around the world on incubator and entrepreneurship strategy including the World Economic Forum, the African Development Bank EMRC Annual Conference, South Africa’s Human Resource Development Council Entrepreneurship and Education Technical Task Team, and the President-led Competitive Investment Climate Strategy (CICS II) in Kampala, Uganda. He has also advised the Mauritian government on effective incubation and entrepreneurship strategy and Raizcorp has a significant footprint on the African continent to date. Allon Raiz has received numerous awards for his entrepreneurial pioneering and landmark accomplishments. He is the author of two bestselling entrepreneurial books: Lose the Business Plan and What to Do When You Want to Give Up. He hosted the first national radio show on entrepreneurship in South Africa in 2004; wrote and hosted the first South African prime-time, entrepreneurship, reality TV show; and also created and published an ongoing entrepreneurial cartoon strip, Carlson Dudtz (Avoiding the 96%). Allon Raiz is the host of his eighth season of the popular The Big Small Business Show on Business Day TV. Furthermore, Allon Raiz is the co-founder of the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation South Africa and Rural Roots and sits on the advisory and judging boards of numerous local and international NGOs and entrepreneurial awards. Between 2014 and 2016, Allon Raiz guest lectured every year at Oxford University, where he was recognised as the Oxford University Saïd Business School’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence. In 2015, Allon received an invitation from the White House, on behalf of President Barack Obama, to speak at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit held in Kenya. Raizcorp was recognised by Fast Company magazine as one of the 25 most innovative companies in South Africa and has been featured prominently in, inter alia, Entrepreneur Magazine, BBC World News, Oprah Magazine, Business Report, Destiny Magazine, The Economist, The Star Workplace. Allon Raiz is also a regular guest contributor on 702 Talk Radio, Classic FM, Kaya FM and Power FM and a few other news outlets.
The holder of a BCom Honours (Marketing) at the University of Natal and other post-graduate degrees, Allon Raiz was chosen to attend Harvard University’s programme on Global Leadership and Public Policy in the 21st Century in 2010. Allon Raiz’s passion for transformation and entrepreneurship has resulted in his appointment to the board of the National Empowerment Fund (NEF) by the South African Cabinet. Raizcorp has in recent years purchased Radley Private School with a view to introducing entrepreneurship to children from Grade R through to Grade 12.
Bio source: www.raizcorp.com
“Too often, the entrepreneurial ideas are me-too products or services. Does South Africa really need another security company or beauty salon? What we need are innovative ideas that can appropriately scale and become sustainably profitable.”
Allon Raiz (Destiny Magazine, 2013)
High-growth or high-impact entrepreneurship studies globally have tended to focus on employment creation data, turnover, profit margins and the technical capacities of the individuals or collectives helming these enterprises. For Africa to firmly secure a seat at the table of nations producing high-growth entrepreneurs, we require a broader conversation that foregrounds issues around the interior world of such entrepreneurs. We need to produce a well-rounded cohort of entrepreneurs who are going to sustainably take Africa to dizzying entrepreneurial and economic heights propelled, not only by innovation and the testing of technological boundaries, but also, deep wells of knowledge and insight into business leadership capabilities. Allon Raiz and Raizcorp, the company he founded 18 years ago, are the forefront of business prosperation that is producing just such this type of entrepreneur with a firm and strategic emphasis on personal development and healthy internal dialogues that prime entrepreneurs for authentic success and impact. The Villa Moji at the Fairlawns Boutique Hotel and Spa was the venue for an impactful and deeply philosophical and yet practical conversation.
One of Raizcorp’s 5 core focus areas in business prosperation™ is personal development, what insights informed this approach?
My journey as an entrepreneur started in childhood but my big break was in my twenties where I had a mentor and a financier who backed me. He had a PhD in Mathematics and was a billionaire in dollar terms, so he was a very, very successful man and he used to say to me that entrepreneurship is 99% psychology and 1% good luck. When I asked him what he meant by that he would say, Allon, over the coming years you are going to deal with so many situations and the way you manage your own psychology is going to determine whether you are going to succeed or fail. Nothing could’ve been truer for me in terms of my journey where, like so many entrepreneurs, I’ve wanted to give up many times. Some mornings you wake up and you just lost a big client the day before, or you lost a key employee, or you’ve missed a deadline for reasons you shouldn’t have. You are constantly dealing with this relentless pace and relentless rejection or objection to your success the whole time and you have to keep pushing and pushing.
So, it’s the conversation you have with yourself in those moments that determines what ultimately happens. Many entrepreneurs, as we know from the statistics, have an internal dialogue one day and they say, I just can’t do it anymore, there must be something easier and others have different internal dialogues. So, when you know that your push-through is around your psychology, around how you are framing your context, how you are seeing the future and how you actually interpret your current challenge, you understand that it’s all psychology and personal development.
The other element, particularly in the South African context, is entrepreneurs’ relationship with money and success and their personal paradigms in terms of their belief in themselves. When you come from a context of a family, community or an environment where success is not endorsed, where rich people are seen as evil, where if you are successful you must’ve done it in an unscrupulous way, then your relationship with money is tarnished. So, there is an embarrassment around money and success. The other side of the coin is when one comes from a place of lack. Psychologically, if you come from a context where you’ve been deprived of anything, be it money or food or education or dignity and so on, the way that we re-parent ourselves is by doing the opposite. It becomes about bragging, bling, fancy car, fancy house, fancy watch and fancy labels because it’s trying to remedy the lack.
So, if you understand that even more deeply, you’ll understand that it’s the same thing; it’s different content but the same process because you are hiding something.
When you look at truly successful people, by far the majority and especially if you want to go into the context of generational money, by the third generation, if the money has lasted that long and if it’s a healthy family environment, people are driving average cars, there’s no fancy anything, there’s no need, internally, to show off how much money one has or how successful one is. So, if intellectually you know that, you can start to deal with success and money healthily a lot earlier in your life, you can say, okay, I come from a place of lack, I come from a poor family where I couldn’t access certain opportunities and instead of reacting in a way that is so cliched, let me humble myself in this context, let me manage my response to that, let me have a healthy relationship with money and success. This approach puts you at the center, and not at either edge, of that.
So personal development is critical because an entrepreneur’s success is fundamentally governed by their own psychology, it is fundamentally governed by their own self-belief, it is fundamentally governed by their relationship with money, it is fundamentally governed by their relationship with success and themselves and the conversations that they have in their head. If they are able to curate those conversations and support those conversations in a healthy way, they have a higher likelihood of success. In all our programs at Raizcorp therefore, personal development is a critical part of unlocking success and wealth. It’s not a tender, it’s not a contract, it’s not a product that you’ve got exclusivity on, it’s you the entrepreneur that makes the difference.
That’s a deep understanding of these internal processes, is that informed by your own personal experiences or also exposure to certain theories as well?
I too have had my own journey where I’ve got to this place and hopefully will get to the next place, but in my early 20s when I became successful rather quickly relatively speaking, there was a high sense of arrogance. So I can choose to look at that arrogant 20-something year old and be ashamed or I can choose to look at it as an experience that has given me this relativity of what happens when you are like that because when you are arrogant, the society, the environment and the universe respond to it and you can be conscious or unconscious to that response. Thank God I was conscious to that response because the lessons that came back after that were loud and clear and I was very lucky because prior to developing that sense of arrogance, I’d failed in a business venture quite early and my immediate response to that was to try and assign blame elsewhere because it certainly couldn’t be me. As I searched for places to blame, it became quite apparent that there was no one and nothing else to blame, it was all me. That was a very important lesson to learn and that made me quite conscious at that stage.
But now when the success came, I also attributed all of it to me and that’s how the arrogance came about. So that was another lesson that had to sink in, that my success wasn’t all me, it was bigger than me; there was a bit of luck involved and other people and my ecosystem were contributing factors, other than me, that made me successful. But because I was conscious, I gradually regulated myself down to, I own my success and I own my failure, but my failure is completely due to me, but my success is not completely due to me and so that gave me the navigational ability into the future. But still, even post all of that, because we all come with our stuff, for example, familial baggage, a toxic relationship with a parent or a tragedy and so on, and you can respond to that in different ways. One of my responses was anger. I went through a very angry phase in my youth and that gave me a lot of aggression in the form of drive and ambition because I had a deep need to prove myself. In my early 30s, I was a little bit humbler but still angry. I remember going to my mentor, who at the time was encouraging me to make peace with my past and saying to him I couldn’t because then I would lose my ambition. My mentor said no, your ambition is embedded in you, it’s not going to evaporate simply because you have let go of your anger. That set me off on yet another journey, which took a while, of remedying and forgiving my past at the risk of losing my drive and ambition. And yes, my mentor was quite correct, my drive and ambition never went away, in fact, I’m now in my early 50s and I’m more driven, more ambitious and more fired up than I’ve ever been. Deciding to embark on that journey was a conscious and gradual process, it was by no means overnight or because I wanted to please my mentor.
So, at Raizcorp, when you work with entrepreneurs, what have you observed in terms of the interior dynamics we’ve been talking about when they start their journey as they are still relatively new in the game?
Our entrepreneurs go through a grueling selection process which involves, amongst other things, psychological tests and panels but right at the beginning of the process, people do conduct themselves in predictable ways and by that, I mean, putting up a façade and trying to portray themselves in a certain favourable way. Our processes however soon take care of that and masks start to fall off so that the real work can begin. And we’re quite upfront about these masks and veneers and why entrepreneurs feel the need to put them on and the whole “fake it till you make it” mentality. We understand where people are coming from with that but if you are going to have a successful journey at Raizcorp, you have to be vulnerable and tell the truth because otherwise we’re going to do work with you based on the veneer you presented. If, however, you are authentic, we can work with the authentic situation without any shame whatsoever because we’ve seen your lumps and bumps and blemishes as an entrepreneur many times before so there’s no need to hide. The most popular program at Raizcorp is all to do with answering the question, Who Am I? And what that course does is it gets our entrepreneurs conscious, it switches their consciousness on and once you can work with someone who is vulnerable and conscious, you’re now working with dough that is malleable and you can build with that individual. We work in different contexts and with people from different backgrounds in different countries and men, in particular, are socialized different to women and some of the men don’t like it, but some men are brave enough to push through despite their discomfort. Essentially, it boils down to switching on two buttons, consciousness and vulnerability.
One of your books, What To Do When You Want To Give Up, specifically mentions the ego and learning how to ask for help as an entrepreneur. How does one ask for help in a way that inspires the person being asked to actually help, or if one is rejected, how does one navigate that in their interior?
It is a personal journey to get to a place where one can actually begin asking for help and if you don’t reach out, you are very unlikely to succeed. What do we mean by help? Most people classify help into two broad categories, one involves money and the other one involves knowledge. I think the worst kind of help is money and that’s where the most rejection happens. The one that’s the easiest to get is insight, advice and perspective. The inauthentic reaching out is where I’m really not interested in the knowledge or insight or advice or perspective, I just want to build a relationship with you so that you can give me money or give me access to a market. The people on the other side of this inauthentic reaching out are however quite sharp to that and wise to those ways so you won’t go far. I mentor 6 people a year, very randomly selected, from different walks of life and at different stages of their entrepreneurial journeys. My mentor was incredibly brutal from an integrity point of view by giving me direct, harsh feedback so I come from the school of brutal entrepreneurial mentorship and that means I’ll call you out on anything unproductive. Potential mentees have to give me permission to do that. Secondly, I make it clear upfront that mentees are going to have to do all the work. I’m going to do nothing for you, I’m going to say perhaps left, most likely right but think about this and you’re going to have to go on those journeys so I’m not going to help you in the sense of lifting a finger for you. I’ll ask you to read a lot and share your insights, put you in situations where you might feel uncomfortable or out of your comfort zone. If you are keen on this, I’m happy to sign up as your mentor and initially they all enthusiastically agree. But what sometimes happens is, on the first assignment there is no submission, and I don’t even get a call or text or e-mail explaining the non-submission. Why? Because they were coming to me for something else, they were not coming for the mentorship at all, they were coming for access to market, for me to pick up the phone and place a call to my networks and gain them that kind of access. And here’s where they get it wrong, I don’t know your credibility, I don’t know your character to endorse you and open my network which I’ve built over the last 30 years to you whose unproven. If you prove to be somebody of substance, somebody of integrity and somebody who is hardworking, I’ll open everything up to you.
There’s also the danger of asking inappropriate people for knowledge and the information that you get leads you into the wrong direction and that can set one back tremendously.
The concept of mentorship is broad, and I’ll explain some aspects of it by sharing the types of mentors I have. I have a strategic mentor in terms of thinking philosophically about a move I’m contemplating or a direction I’m thinking of going in and asking very big-picture questions. Then I’ve got a mentor who has built a massive business here in South Africa and scaled it, so anything around operations and structuring the business internally this mentor is my go-to for advice. Then I’ve got a spiritual mentor who gives me perspective about the questions of life. My other mentor is a friend who understands all my biases, blind spots and weak spots and can give it to me straight. Lastly, I have my fun mentor and he just always reminds me that if you’re not having fun in this then why are you doing it, and that gives me perspective. What’s common in all those 5 is, none of them have vested interest; none of them make or lose money by me, there’s no ego involved, and they’ve been selected over years as my confidants. There is a deep relationship and very often it’s reciprocal in that they will come to me for advice as well. Their perspectives address broad categories of needs curated over years so I’m also incredibly vulnerable to them and I’ve got no issues or ego around that.
So, if one is having an authentic journey, it doesn’t matter how much they’ve achieved in life or how senior they are, you are still also constantly evolving and mediating internal conversations with yourself?
The concept of seniority is not a healthy life paradigm because what it presupposes is that because you are on the front page of a magazine you are that individual with a glamorous, figured-out life meantime back at the ranch, there are serious challenges that you are having to deal with. So, I’ve learnt that, very often, perception is not reality and when you are of the mindset that there’s someone senior who’s got it, it takes away from you in a sense. Everyone has their insecurities and things going on with family and so on; the way we manifest sometimes is not true. I always ask myself this question, what happens tomorrow if you open the paper and there in bold headlines you see “Allon Raiz Loses It All”, does it mean that everything you’ve been listening to up until this point is wrong? Very often, what happens is, these so-called senior leaders what they are saying is not necessarily true or untrue, it is their truth at that time. I listen to podcasts, I learn from other people and synthesize what they say but I also realize that they have their own journeys. So, to look at a Zuckerberg and say I absolutely want to be like that is misguided because his set of circumstances are different from everybody else’s and he is on his own journey. We are all on different journeys, so the healthier approach is to say, I am just going to make the best of my journey and I’m going to become a billionaire my way and he’s going to become a billionaire his way. When you start to equate yourself to say, he’s no better or worse than I am, he’s simply on a different path to me, and I can learn from how he propels himself through the path, but I don’t desire his path. What you are after, essentially, is how he navigated obstacles in his path so that if faced with similar circumstances you can perhaps draw from how he handled himself. Very often what happens, particularly with young entrepreneurs is that they desire the other person’s path and try to emulate the other person’s path and it is impossible because you don’t come from the same parents or the same context. I just have to appreciate your path and you can also appreciate mine.
In an Entrepreneur Magazine article, you are quoted as saying that success and failure happen all the way along the continuum. What, in your view, is the best way to be okay with that reality and anticipate it productively?
Philosophically, if you think about the world as these sand dunes that are constantly changing, for example, on a macro level, borders change, if you look at political borders today and compare them to what they were 100 years ago they’re different. What was acceptable, and the norm 100 years ago is not the norm now. If you come from a philosophical understanding of the law of impermanence, that is, nothing is permanent, that success is not permanent, that failure is not permanent, that you are not permanent and that there’s no such thing as reality, then your journey here is to navigate the best way you can by reading the context right now. You can position yourself to predict what could possibly happen in the future and what might possibly change in the future and prepare yourself for that, either to ride that wave or to avoid being drowned by that wave and to adapt yourself and your business structure and environment in order to keep agile and adapting to the world around you.
If you remain the same as an individual and as a business, you are bound to basically be covered by history, the dunes of sand that will come and cover you as they move along, so you must keep moving. If you start off with that context of the law of impermanence, that means you must keep hustling, you must keep moving. Every time you fail, conceptually and effectively, it’s like touching the sides, like getting an electric shock. So, you’ve got one of three responses to that, one, you can try again and sometimes that might be the right thing to do, to push through the pain to get to the other side because the answer is not away from the pain, it’s through the pain. Sometimes it’s away, sometimes it’s through, you’ve got to work out which one it is. Sometimes the response is to be like a deer caught in the headlights and become shocked, depressed and down. Basically, the sand covers you. And the third response is to learn from the failure and then move in a completely different direction. But all these failures are all information to you, so when you perceive them as the edge of the law of impermanence, then that’s information for you. For me, not doing anything is never an answer, so now my decision will be, do I go through this pain to the other side, or do I go in the opposite direction? In life, if you are conscious about the fact that whatever happens, this is the edge of impermanence, then you must know that you do have a choice in terms of deciding in which direction you want to move. And truly, there is never a right answer, there’s only the right answer for you in your context at that time. Rely on your internal wisdom that you have to seek, and you can only seek your internal wisdom if you are conscious to it and if you’re vulnerable to it.
To wrap up, I believe there’s a handwritten note stuck on the wall next to your desk which reads: “How are you standing in the way of Raizcorp’s growth?” In terms of the interior, what are some of the commonest ways in which entrepreneurs stand in the way of their growth?
I have to constantly ask myself if I am the right person to lead the business right now because it’s the not the same business it was yesterday or the day before and certainly not last year. It’s bigger than it was before, and I’ve never ever led a business this size before and tomorrow, as it continues to grow, it’ll be the biggest business I’ve ever led. So, I certainly have to be consistently conscious about my competence and my appropriateness as a leader for that organization at that size. One of the major blocks to growth relates to ego, too often I see entrepreneurs making ego decisions instead of business decisions and you can glean that from the language that is used. Ego very often, and counterintuitively, proves to be an impediment to your success. Ego is also seen where your view is always the right view, and you somehow having the perception that everyone perceives the world the way that you do.
As you get older and wiser you start to realize that, first of all, you’ve got limited insight into the world because you only see it through your lens. There are 7 billion other lenses out there and yours isn’t necessarily right and if it is right, it’s only right for now, it’s not necessarily right forever.
The other major growth block is the scenario where you were successful in the past because often what we do, when we were successful in the past, we live off the glory of the past and we then replicate the patterns that we used in the past. We replicate the decision-making patterns that got us to that success and disregard the fact that the world is different, the business context is different, and you cannot just cut and paste what you did to become successful in the past. Earlier I said that you cannot cut and paste someone else’s journey; well, you can’t even cut and paste your own journey and the most dangerous part of that is that somehow, our own success also carries the seeds of our downfall because some part of you goes, oh I’m successful, I know how to do this stuff, and I’m just going to do it again. So, unless you’re open to the fact that you don’t know, I call it ‘ignorantly experienced’, you will trip over your own previous success because it’s got no relevance to today.
Photography by Makgomo Mushwana – Sali Sali Photography