When he left school at 16 he was told by a teacher that he’d never succeed in business – but today this self-made entrepreneur owns a multibillion-dollar project focused on generation and transmission of clean energy and commercialisation of space-based solar power.
Peter Sage has the gift of the gab. Ask him anything and he fires off an answer instantaneously. He’s seen into your question and he has the reply ready. It pours out at a hundred miles an hour, sprinkling a few original aphorisms and sound bytes that you can tell he’s used before, that he has stashed in his ready reference drawer. Mostly they make sense, mostly they’re right on the button. In fact, many of the things he says are things I’ve heard before, and he says them well; he gives them unique angle, a special clarity, a sparkle.
Peter Sage is a great self-promoter. This is too often a swear word, particularly in South Africa. Here we seem to believe that success and fame for an individual should happen – or appear to happen – as the result of external, unbidden forces, by any means other than the person’s own involvement. It’s an attitude, ironically, that stands in the way of many people achieving their dreams, and achieving your dreams is what Peter Sage is all about. Not achieving your dreams because of what other people think, well he calls that “swimming in goop” – goop being the “good opinion of other people” – and Peter Sage makes sure, during his morning ritual every day, that he’s not swimming in it.
According to his website, Sage is “a well-known international serial entrepreneur with over twenty years of experience in growing fast-paced enterprises”. He built a number of these before the age of thirty. He’s “a world leader in the field of entrepreneurship education” and “currently serves on the Entrepreneurship Advisory Board for INSEAD – a global top-five business school”; he is a “personal development specialist”, a “top-selling author”, a “philanthropist” and an “endurance sports achiever”. He’s in South Africa to compère the two-day Success Summit which features as its headline speakers, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and The Wolf of Wall Street author and crazy fast-talker and self-promoter extraordinaire, Jordan Belfort.
Entrepreneurship is a buzzword in South Africa right now. The government is looking to stimulate entrepreneurs in order to create jobs and has created incentives, through the B-BBEE scorecard, for massive amounts of corporate social investment spending to be funnelled towards it. Mostly, those projects are executed to serve the more marginalised and less formalised end of the entrepreneurial market.
The people who will be attending the Success Summit in the Sandton Convention Centre will be mostly the well-heeled, already successful entrepreneurs looking for ways to take it to the next level, or corporate ladder-climbers looking to escape that rat race and, as Sage terms it, “Get out there and swing the bat”. Their motives will vary: passion, purpose or simply dreams of great wealth. It will be more first than third world.
Still, everyone up to the upper echelons of Harvard Business School, in the form of management guru Michael Porter, is talking about the need for an entrepreneurial approach to solving the major social issues that governments have not managed to solve, and of educating entrepreneurs to do it.
So what is Sage’s take on all of that? He fires off his answer without a moment’s hesitation: “Commerce traditionally came from a mindset of, ‘How can I get my needs fulfilled and offer you something at the same time?’ But what we’ve gained and given hasn’t taken into account an ecological viewpoint. The world’s never been small enough for us to think that it would be impacted by [our actions]. Now we know different.’ And here comes the first sound byte: “We’re all shareholders in planet Earth now, and we have to be conscious of how our decisions will impact on that."
This same view, he adds, will drive profitable businesses that solve social needs: “They’re not driven from a core purpose of, ‘What’s in it for me?’, but from a core perspective of, ‘How do we solve problems by adding value in a way that contributes to all parties?’”
Given his seat on the board of INSEAD, how does he advocate we best educate people to become entrepreneurs? Instant response: “Traditional education has been largely ineffective in supporting entrepreneurship. It was designed to develop people to work on assembly lines. Turn up on time, do as you’re told.”
What should educators do instead? “The goal of every teacher should be for their students to excel them. Everything other than that is ego. Their job is to be a custodian of hope, a midwife of the dreams of the people that you are blessed enough to be able to teach."
In other words, he explains, they should focus more on self-esteem and life counselling, rather than knowledge and career counselling. It should be more about promoting each person’s uniqueness rather than trying to box them by measuring everyone using the same test – and putting to shame those who don’t pass it. His own experience – he left school at 16 and was told by his humanities teacher that he’d never succeed in business – is clearly a reference point here. “Give people the chance to swing the bat,” he says, “and they’ll find the right career for themselves.”
What about politicians, what can they do? Unhesitating reply: “I don’t do politics. I don’t vote, never will. I’m a great believer in creating my own world.
“Most politicians don’t have experience in how to run a business, let alone a country, and most people who can run a country never get into politics. So if you’re looking at making noise around creating jobs, when was the last time they employed somebody? When was the last time they created something? Because that’s what entrepreneurs do. Any job that exists was created by an entrepreneur, case closed.”
You get people who attend self-help and personal development and financial success courses and you get people who don’t. Those who do make a meal of it. They go to everything. They do the circuit. In line with the Japanese proverb that, “It’s better to read one book a hundred times than a hundred books once,” they subject themselves to hearing the same things over and over, until it sinks in. The one obvious subject that gets repeated again and again is the subject of money. One of Peter Sage’s pre-packaged products available on his website is a so-called ‘straight talk’ titled, ‘What is Money?'
So we ask Peter, what is money? He fires off another sound byte: “Money is a consequence of how much value you can add, case closed.” Uh-huh? “If you don’t have as much as you’d like, are you willing to look in the mirror and ask honestly, ‘Have I really given enough?’ Because the last time anybody had money was because they gave something first for it. It could be 40 hours a week in a job, it could be for a service. It’s a byproduct or a consequence.
“So people who are chasing money usually are chasing their tail. It’s like sitting in front of the fire and saying if you give me some heat I’ll go fetch you some wood. It doesn’t work that way. If you want money, concentrate on becoming a person of value. You’ll look over your shoulder in a while and think, oh wow, where did that money come from?”
So can you start a business without money? Sound byte: “If you think you need money to start a business you’ll never start one if you don’t have money.” Explanation: “In every industry there’s an example of a person who didn’t have the resources who went out and found a way to get them. There’s always a way. You don’t need money, you need a better strategy. You need to be able to think differently. You need to figure out how to add value.”
Everybody wants to be Steve Jobs and thinks that a great idea is what will get them there. “There’s a big difference between a good idea and a commercially viable business. Two very different animals. You see business based on average ideas make billions, and you see great ideas fizzle out. Understanding the fundamentals of business is what’s most important.”
Research has shown that most entrepreneurs only start in their forties. What does he say to those who think that because they weren’t Zuckerbergs they’ve missed the boat? It takes him not even a heartbeat to say: “Old Chinese proverb: When’s the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. When’s the second best time? Today. It’s never too late. If you’re still breathing you can start a business. Get out there and swing the bat.”
As a warning he gives a brilliant précis of Michael Gerber’s E-Myth argument: “Many entrepreneurs are not real entrepreneurs, they’re technicians who suffered from an entrepreneurial seizure one day and decided to go out and start their own business. What’s the difference? When things become uncertain, which they will, the technician turns to what they have the most certainty in, which is performing the technical task. They work longer hours and soon are trapped, earning less per hour than when they were employed.
“The entrepreneur doesn’t do that. The entrepreneur follows their passion and finds a better way to do it. The entrepreneur asks better questions and therefore gets better answers.”
That last point about following a passion is key. He sums it up thus: “Don’t start a business because you want more money! That’s like saying I’m going to have a baby because I want more time! If you’re passionate about doing something, start a business in it. If you’re passionate about doing what you do now, but you don’t own a business, just get better at it and get promoted and earn more money. If you’re sick of not having money, adjust your lifestyle to fit your means and be grateful for what you currently have, focus on becoming a person of value, and go from there. But moaning that you can’t fly a Lear jet but you don’t want to start a company is never going to be a decent psychology to build a life of fulfilment on. Unless you want to be a Lear Jet pilot.”
The time is nearly up. The publicist in attendance intervenes with a time notice. “I’m fabulous,” says Sage. “Bordering on magnificent. If I was any better I might even be you guys!”
Last question, then. What’s the key to coming to terms with business ideas that don’t fly? The aphorism flies from his mouth: “Understand when your commitment to the outcomes supersedes your heart telling you that it’s time to move on. A lot of the time we stick with something because we’re afraid of what people will think if we quit. If you’re following it for the right reasons, keep following it. If you’re following it because you’re too committed or you’re afraid of what people think, then you’re swimming in goop and you’re not following your truth. Do what all good gamblers do. Know when to stop.”