How Seelan Sundoo Turned a Bad Partnership Into Success
Seelan Sundoo learnt the hard way how a bad partnership can kill a business. Today he's taking a different approach.
- Player: Seelan Sundoo
- Restaurants: Seelan Restaurant and Bar (V&A Waterfront), Sundoo Indian Tappas and Bar (Sea Point), and Three Wise Monkeys, a Raman noodle bar (Sea Point)
- Additional ventures: And now for something completely different, Seelan is busy opening an underground gallery in Salt River, Luni, for un-commercialised artists; the space will be a space for artists to enjoy Jazz and each others’ art and company
- Visit: www.seelan.co.za
In 2012 Seelan Sundoo opened his first restaurant, Shimmys after having a fallout with his previous business partner of five years. He followed that up with his dream restaurant, Seelan Restaurant & Bar in late 2013.
It’s a concerning scenario for many entrepreneurs: How do you find a business partner who shares your vision, values and whom you can trust? After experiencing a bad partnership first hand, Seelan is more wary about how he now conducts business. He’s opened three restaurants in three years, with two more in the works.
He’s well on track to meet his initial five year goal of five restaurants, and he’s doing it carefully and strategically, with people he trusts, and knows he can work with. These are the lessons he’s learnt from working with the wrong partner, and finding the right partners for his new ventures.
1. Critically evaluate every offer, and who you’ll be working with
Although Seelan studied chemistry, it was his waitering and bartending jobs, which he needed to pay for his studies, that eventually shaped his career.
“I joined La Perla as a bar-back,” he says. “Within six months I was head waiter, and a year and a half later, head manager. I trained in the kitchen, learning our menu so that I could travel, research and expand it. We were a high-end niche restaurant, and I learnt the ropes from the bottom up.”
Seelan spent 14 fruitful years at La Perla, discovering his love for the business, as well as his natural talents for running a restaurant. It was these talents that attracted the attention of an investor who was looking to launch The Grand Café in Camps Bay. The Grand in Plettenburg Bay was doing extremely well, and she wanted to expand.
“She wasn’t a restauranteur, so she needed a partner. It seemed like the ideal opportunity for me. There was nowhere further I could grow at La Perla, and this was a chance for me to have part ownership of my own place. I jumped at the opportunity.”
Unfortunately, as Seelan would learn, he hadn’t taken the time to consider who he was partnering with. Were their goals and values aligned? Who would make the final decisions, and what would the balance of the partnership look like?
“I learnt a hard lesson. I would never change it, because it was the first time I got to build something from the ground up. But, it was an unequal, unbalanced partnership, which meant that even though I had the industry experience, my decisions were constantly over-ridden by my partner; even worse, I could see how those decisions were negatively impacting the business, without any recourse to change them.
“It didn’t feel like a partnership, and after five years I decided to leave. I didn’t believe the business would continue to sustain itself. I hadn’t considered who I would be partnering with carefully enough; I’d just allowed myself to be enamoured with the opportunity.”
2. Choose partners based on shared needs and favourable outcomes for all parties
With two decades of industry experience, Seelan went out on his own. Opening the type of restaurant he had in mind, situated at the V&A Waterfront, was capital intensive, and Seelan couldn’t do it alone. He needed a partner, and so he sat down and thought carefully about what he was and wasn’t looking for.
“You need to define what a partner is to you, what level of involvement you’d like, and how much of the business you’ll share. I knew after my last experience that I was looking for an investor who would be a silent partner.”
With this in mind, Seelan began looking for an investor who was interested in making interest on his capital investment, but not in being involved in the day-to-day operations of the restaurant.
“Once you understand your parameters, you can find a partner that suits your needs. “Just make sure what you’re offering suits their expectations as well. If they’re unhappy with the arrangement it will have a negative outcome. You need to put all your cards on the table, and ensure that you’re on the same page.”
In the case of Seelan Restaurant and Bar, this has worked perfectly for both parties. Seelan has ensured prompt payments with interest, and his investor is only interested in dividends, seeing the management accounts and receiving reports on the overall health and operations of the business.
“As long as the numbers look good, he stays out of the business.” This means that Seelan has to stay on top of everything to keep things running smoothly, but as he sees it, that’s just another incentive to keep him focused.
3. Good partners require shared respect and similar backgrounds
Partners don’t have to be alike. The best partnerships are based on individuals with different, yet complementary strengths and skill sets. However, as Seelan learnt in his Grand Café days, mutual respect is imperative in a successful partnership.
Since then, Seelan has embarked on a completely different partnership. “In 2014 Ashley Mair walked into my restaurant selling organic chillies. He’s an urban farmer, and not only did I love his product, but we’re cut from the same cloth. We have similar backgrounds, learning experiences and we understand and respect each other. Together, we run Bonder, an organic chilli and chilli sauce business.”
Seelan’s second restaurant, Sundoo Indian Tappas and Bar, was opened with profits from Seelan’s, but his third, Three Wise Monkeys, is with Ashley and a silent partner who has invested in the business.
“I work with incredible people, and have developed successful partnerships based on mutual respect.”
4. Understand yourself — do partnerships suit you?
There’s a general business principal that partnerships will always be more successful than solo entrepreneurs. Many investors will only back partnerships. However, Seelan has a different view.
“When you’re alone, you’re forced to deal with reality. You can’t rely on partners; you need to make it work yourself, and find ways to stand on your own feet. By throwing money at a problem, you bail the business out, instead of looking for the cause of the problem: Evaluating the business, making changes where necessary and fixing the problem.
“I’ve learnt that I work well under pressure. It drives me to succeed. Having said that, in most of my businesses I do have a partner and I’ve ensured that we are in agreement on what the partnership looks like.”
Seelan’s focus has been on growth. He’s made personal sacrifices to pump everything he makes back into his businesses. “I’m creative, and I love to explore,” he explains.
“It’s why I haven’t opened three of the same restaurant. They all have a thread that binds them, but they have their own individual personalities, like siblings from the same family. This allows me to keep creating and exploring new ideas and concepts, while building on what works.”
With the right partners on board, a positive attitude and strong cash flow, Seelan is well on his way to reaching his five- year goal.