Eugene De Villiers recalls that one of the earliest, and most important, lessons he learnt as an immigrant entrepreneur came out of a pitch he didn’t win.
The South African-born managing director of customer loyalty solutions firm the Extra Mile Company gave what he thought was a knockout presentation to TelstraClear, and walked out the door feeling like they’d won their first big account in New Zealand.
But they didn’t win the business. So De Villiers asked to meet one of the corporate’s senior execs over coffee for some feedback.
“He was wonderful, and very graciously explained that in New Zealand you shouldn’t sing your own praises. Don’t tell the client how good you are, what awards you’ve won, what great events you’ve run – instead, be humble and only present facts and allow others to sing your praises,” recalls De Villiers.
“This was a really important lesson to learn, so I adjusted my presentation – dramatically – and won my very next presentation, which was to Digital Computers.
Even today I’m still grateful for his candid advice.”
De Villiers is one of a handful of immigrant entrepreneurs interviewed this week for Your Business about their experiences of setting up shop in a country where they weren’t born.
His story highlights some of the challenges faced by immigrant entrepreneurs, but also illustrates how many turn challenge into opportunity.
Berlinda Chin, director of the Office of Ethnic Affairs, says a lack of understanding of ‘the way we do things here’ is one of the difficulties migrant entrepreneurs can face. Not having networks of folks who can vouch for your reputation or credibility in business, and learning how to negotiate the financial landscape are another couple of challenges she points to.
For some, overcoming these challenges is a process of going through the school of hard knocks, she says.
“Because they’re migrants they’ve made a conscious decision to build a new life in a foreign land, so they want to push forward and survive,” she says. “So they’ll do whatever they need to overcome these challenges. That also relates to having a mindset of resilience, which helps many face these kinds of challenges.”
Tapping into networks is another strategy that she says can help, although research shows those with good English language skills fare better with this approach.
Nats Subramanian came from India to settle in Palmerston North a decade ago. An IT manager by trade, early last year he decided to set off on a new path and start a travel company, TakeMe2India, with his wife Uma.
The company naturally capitalises on the couple’s knowledge of, and networks in India, but Subramanian says their biggest challenge was gaining an understanding of how Kiwis holiday offshore.
It was here that those all-important networks kicked in.
“Fortunately Uma and I have integrated ourselves well with the local community and we have many close Kiwi friends,” explains Subramanian. “When we asked for help, they rose magnificently to the occasion. We set up focus groups over Indian dinners at our place and probed them with plenty of questions. This really complemented the other forms of data we’d obtained through market research, giving us a clear idea of what we should be doing.”
Like Subramanian’s, the stories shared by the immigrant entrepreneurs interviewed this week have an overwhelmingly positive tenor. Many talk about the ease of setting up a business here, the transparency of the commercial environment and the good access to resources and support systems.
To capitalise on this environment, Subramanian advises other immigrants to work hard to integrate themselves into the community.
“Stop moving only in your own closed groups, and make new friends and be part of the wider community. Network, network and network,” he says.
“Above all I think cutting all secure ties and setting up a business takes huge courage. But having immigrated to a new country, you have already taken the risk. So what is stopping you?”
Immigrant entrepreneurs – Eugene De Villiers, the Extra Mile Company
Eugene De Villiers is managing director of Auckland-based customer loyalty solutions firm the Extra Mile Company.
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
I was born in Pretoria, South Africa. My parents were transferred to Paris, France, when I was 10 years old so that’s where I did most of my schooling and picked up French as my third language. As a young man I made the choice to go back to South Africa, which is where I started my first business.
In 1994 I was invited to be a keynote speaker at a major industry conference, which was held in Auckland. I so enjoyed the country, and the people, who all seemed to share similar values and work ethic to those we held dear, that I decided this was the place for us.
Shortly after making this decision, my eldest daughter was killed in a car accident, and all the emotions and events that came as a result of such a catastrophe made us decide to move the scheduled departure forward. In November 1996, I settled in Auckland along with my wife and two daughters to start a new chapter in our lives.
What prompted you to set up your own business in New Zealand? What were your motivations?
Over the years of running the Extra Mile Company in South Africa, we often brought incentive groups to visit Australia and New Zealand, usually to take in a Tri-Nations game. It was one of my Kiwi business contacts who had become a friend, who then became my business partner when we moved to New Zealand and established the Extra Mile Company here.
What have been the major challenges you’ve encountered being an immigrant entrepreneur?
The first lesson, and possibly the most important one, I learnt from a senior executive at TelstraClear. I went to meet with them in the hope of being appointed to design and manage their staff and reseller incentive programme. I presented the Extra Mile Company, based on the format I had for many years successfully used in South Africa.
At the end of the meeting he told me it was the best presentation he had ever seen. Needless to say I left his office buoyant, pumping my fists that we’d secured our first significant incentive account. However, we didn’t get the business, so I asked if we could meet over a coffee for some feedback. He was wonderful, and very graciously explained that in New Zealand you shouldn’t sing your own praises. Don’t tell the client how good you are, what awards you’ve won, what great events you’ve run – instead, be humble and only present facts and allow others to sing your praises.
This was a really important lesson to learn, so I adjusted my presentation – dramatically – and won my very next presentation, which was to Digital Computers. Even today I’m still grateful for his candid advice.
On the other hand what are some of the advantages you feel you have being an immigrant in business here?
There are lots of advantages in starting anew, even if there are also lots of challenges.
Believe it or not, I think it’s an advantage to have a different accent. And as an immigrant, I am happy to employ other immigrants and give them the opportunities that I was given. As a result our office has a real cultural mix – with even a few Kiwis!
Even though as South Africans we’re pigeonholed to an extent in New Zealand, these perspectives are positive, and we seem to be well accepted by New Zealanders. They love barbecues as we do, they love rugby as we do and both nations have been known to enjoy a cold beverage together, so how can it be bad! I can buy boerewors at my local Countdown and my friends are teaching me new recipes adapted from South African classics, so I feel our two nations seem to integrate well.
What advice would you have for other immigrants looking to set up shop in New Zealand?
Stop and listen. God gave you two ears and only one mouth, which I think is a clear indication that you should listen twice as much as you speak. Listen, watch and respect the way Kiwis do things first, before challenging anything with that despised saying ‘when we did it back in …’ That’s enough to drive anyone nuts, so respect the nation that has given you a wonderful new opportunity.
Coming up in Your Business: I’ve been hearing about a few interesting local jewellery brands lately and it’s got me thinking, what does it take to build a small business in this area, particularly if you’re taking your brand offshore? If you’ve got a story to tell, drop me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Your Business: Immigrant entrepreneurs – Eugene De Villiers, Extra Mile Company
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