The road to my own business – an entrepreneur shares his story

I get literally hundreds of emails every day. Mostly unsolicited. Many from people wanting free publicity for their product (or their clients – lobbying is big business). James Preston sent me one of those. He is part of a new business which secured the local rights for what he believes is a world-beating product. So wouldn’t I like to tell everyone about it? Not really. But if you tell us your own story, explain how you ended up where you are doing what you’re doing, there could be interest. Here’s the result. A contribution from James Preston, entrepreneur. Lovely work. – AH

By James Preston*

James-PrestonThe school of hardknocks is the hardest school from which to get an education. I didn’t go to business school or do an MBA. I got an average matric exemption, and studied Graphic Design at Natal Techikon. After 9 years serving the vision of others, my ideas and vision for the future became loud enough to plunge me into starting my own business. I have never had a more vigorous and in-depth learning experience.

Entrepreneurship is more than just doing something on your own or taking an idea to market. By definition, an entrepreneur is one who takes financial risk on their own abilities, and will resiliently do all they can to turn those abilities into profit. While it’s the buzzword for this millennial generation, a lot of millennials aren’t willing to take big enough risks, or work hard enough to push through to profit. It takes an immense amount of “hustle” to get a business profitable.

My first venture involved an idea in outdoor advertising, which took me to some of SA’s biggest corporate boardrooms. The idea was loved, but getting their commitment is where digging deep in search of inner resilience is necessary. My partner and I worked as hard as we could to eventually get the business off the ground. But after 4 years of building something substantial, my brother David came to me with another opportunity too good to turn down.

I didn’t expect to explore my next venture until at least 5 years of building the first, but you know what they say about opportunity knocking. My brother, who ran his own digital communications consultancy, had partnered with one of the most exciting new sunglasses brands I’d ever seen: Tens. Their crowdfunding campaign was what got my attention. Launching on crowdfunding giant Indiegogo, they set a target of £50,000 in a month. They hit it in 10 days and went on to raise £360,000 in that month.

There was good reason for their radical uptake. They were onto something totally unique: Bring Instagram to real life. Instagram has made people obsessed with filtering their photography. Tens aimed to take that concept to the “real world”, even when disconnected from technology. Developed by Scottish OCD photographers, with an Apple-like attention to detail, they had come up with the perfect launch product.

Thanks to his photography background, David had been in contact with one of the developers. A few emails later and the discussion of bringing Tens to South Africa was on the table. One of the keys to successful Entrepreneurship is looking for opportunities; finding the right ones and capitalising on them. The problem is: You just don’t know when opportunities are going to present themselves.

David and I were doing well by standards. Building our respected businesses and doing all we could to make our own visions a reality. But this remarkable opportunity, that fit our profiles perfectly, was just too good to turn down. Sure it would mean more work, earlier mornings, and more capital risk; but over a coffee one stunning Durban Winter’s afternoon; we both looked ten years down the road and said we couldn’t live with the regret of “what if”. It was then that we decided to agree on taking on the partnership. We scheduled a Skype with the Tens developers and a few contractual negotiations later and we had the SA rights to possibly the next biggest thing in eyewear since Google Glass. (OK, not quite on that level, but besides Google Glass, when last did you hear about a breakthrough in eyewear?)

We were now faced with the challenge of raising a significant amount of capital to ship out our first consignment, to design and build a world class website, and market an entirely new eyewear brand in SA. We immediately sat down and drew up a plan for finance. First stop: The banks.

Banks aren’t what they used to be. The new credit act makes it a whole lot harder to access startup finance. And if you don’t have enough assets to secure the capital against, the bank managers are powerless to do nothing else but smile at you from the other side of the table. Next up was accessing my bond. Again, the bureaucracy of application didn’t give us enough time to move. We had to strike while the Tens iron was hot internationally. We were running out of options.

Then… it all “just fell into place”. Over an afternoon coffee with business consultant and good friend Dom Marot, he noticed the sample pair of Tens I was wearing. We got talking about it, and I mentioned in passing our search for finance. His eyes lit up and he jumped in: “I’ll give you the finance! I’m exploring e-commerce and I’ve been looking for an investment opportunity. This seems perfect!” After a few meetings, pitches (where friendship turns to business), and contractual agreements, we had the capital we needed.

Tens South Africa was officially launched in October 2014. The market response has been phenomenal. Instagrammers love the product. And I find myself working earlier mornings and later afternoons just as expected. But I’ve gained priceless knowledge and experience of the beauty of e-commerce in South Africa, and have built friendships with some of the best photographers in the country.

Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. But everyone has to either take its ride, or ride with one. Life is too short not to.

* James Preston is Communications Manager for Tens South Africa. You can find out more at or contact him on [email protected]


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