Sean Act II


Act Two – Play it again Sam or

 dare I follow my heart this time?

IT entrepreneur Sean O’Connell and I have corresponded over the years. As Sean prepares for the future a year after selling his business to JSE hot stock EOH, I asked him to share his throughts as he reflects on lessons learnt and the way ahead. His response is inspirational, a masterclass for any would-be entrepreneur.

By Sean O’Connell*

I’m done with ‘retirement’ or my aptly named ‘forties gap year’ after selling my company to one of the largest IT groups on the JSE. I have come to feel the same sense of excitement, fear, anxiety and urgency to succeed as when I founded the business nine years ago. Albeit with a bit more wisdom and working capital this time!Our first office

The convenience of an efficient office infrastructure filled with energised and highly capable people churning out innovative ideas; the ringing of the bell signalling another successful sale; engaging with customers, sundowners with staffers – they’re all just fond memories. There to remind me of the reality of starting a new venture from scratch. Being an entrepreneur can be very lonely (Sean’s first office, his pool room at home, is on the right)

Reflecting on this earlier success, I have to attribute much of my decision-making and strategy formulation to insightful commentary and interviews with prominent business leaders (like Alec Hogg’s Boardroom Talk and Moneyweb’s Upper Echelon). Plus pearls of wisdom from mentors, staff and business associates. I’ve also made a point of reading autobiographies of successful people (Mandela, Trump, Mashaba, Knott-Craig, Branson, Jobs, Buffett, Welch, Obama etc.) and works by Malcolm Gladwell, amongst others, to seek inspiration and advice on effective leadership.

First million monthI found that we were able to avert the 2008 financial crisis and substantially expand our business by proactively following international trends and assessing the local impact and resultant opportunities. Using effective scenario planning advocated by Clem Sunter to navigate and succeed during these times. The adage that ‘if Europe, USA or China sneezes SA catches a cold’ is true. Having a six month heads-up to plan and react was very advantageous. I also learned that being over cautious in business can be a big mistake. And, with hindsight, realised that had we taken a more aggressive stance during the ”downturn period” we might have greatly increased our growth in the better years that followed. (The pic on the left shows Sean celebrating Airborne’s first million rand sales month)

Where to from here?

If Richard Branson’s candid views in his books ‘Screw Business as Usual’ and ‘Like a Virgin’ are anything to go by, then entrepreneurial opportunities abound in:

  • Renewable energy and associated industries – working in harmony with the earth and the poor to create successful and sustainable symbiotic relationships
  • The internet and all associated activities – customised mobile apps, social media, online transacting, games, virtual/digital currency, music and video entertainment, downloads etc.
  • Digital PR, sales and marketing – the great leveller for start ups
  • Outsourcing – taking advantage of broadband to use SA’s favourable exchange rates, location, climate and cheaper skills to compete globally
  • Space travel and deep ocean exploration for the deeper pockets (aka Mr Branson☺).

Airborne officesThese are some of the prospects from an exhaustive list of opportunities. I think I’ve narrowed my personal choices down to starting a business focused in the internet and associated activities ….finding the killer app perhaps, and/or creating a consulting company which will align business and social media marketing/PR strategies and outsourced services to leverage and exploit the immense power of social media. I suspect that the average age of employees will be around 20 … all ‘Generation Y’ people who operate within this arena without fear or loyalty to ‘yesterday’s flavour of the month’ and whose second or third language is social media 


I could start an IT Consultancy focussed on business and IT alignment in today’s increasingly evolving shared services and digital marketplace. So Play it again Sam! (pic on the right shows Sean and colleagues celebrating Airborne’s new offices)

Lessons for Act Two

Owning your own business can be very liberating and rewarding. But let’s dispel the myth that it is easy or that there’s a pot of gold at the end of any new business venture. It requires hard work, tenacity, self-belief, an intimate knowledge of your product and the marketplace, as well as a tangible network of people who can positively influence your business.

  1. The most important lessons I will carry into my next ventures are: Staff and colleagues are your greatest asset and legitimately vote with their feet. Provide honest and regular communication and ensure that they are challenged, proud of their brand and work environment and appropriately incentivised and remunerated. Put another way; get them on the bus irrespective of where the bus may be going.
  2. Focus on having FUN or making the workplace as enjoyable as possible.
  3. ‘Cash is King’ is the best advice to any entrepreneur. Most new businesses fail because they run out of cash in spite of servicing many clients. This is often as a result of not chasing debtors or agreeing better repayment terms with creditors.
  4. Implement a recognised sales and marketing process to ensure a healthy and sustainable pipeline to aid your business growth.
  5. Ensure proper and strict governance – even in a small business, as old habits die hard and often bite when your business expands.
  6. Focus on your clients and return their trust in you by delivering service excellence with integrity and pride….they will stay with you and recommend your services if or when you get this right. An old man once told me: ‘You have only one name …..’ so it is essential to remember that the actions you take can live with you and impact you for many years

ITWEB Finalist* Sean O’Connell started software development and consulting business Airborne Consulting in 2004. A year ago he sold it to JSE-listed EOH. At the time, ironically, he and EOH bossman Asher Bohbot were both finalists in the ITWeb IT Personality of the Year Award (pic right)

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