The Best Advice I Ever Got

When Siya Mapoko's first business was failing, he was desperate for advice. He turned to the JSE's top business titans to discover the secrets to success. What he learnt not only changed his business, but also influenced countless other SMEs over the years.

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Siya Mapoko
  • Company: Mapoko Research International (MRI) 
  • Launched: 2012, although Conversations with JSE AltX Entrepreneurs was published in 2008
  • Visit:


Mike Turner Photography

The best advice that Siya Mapoko ever got was from Mark Lamberti, CEO of Imperial Holdings, in 2009. There were two parts to it. Here, in his own words, are what that advice meant, and how he continued to grow through other lessons learnt.

First, Mark told me that when you do things, whether it’s for business, your personal life or your career, you need to define your standards upfront, and then don’t settle for anything less. In a business context, this goes beyond you to your hires.

You hold them to those same standards, and they should hold you to those standards as well. It keeps you honest and it lays the foundation for the right culture in your business. 

The second was around the concept of success. I asked Mark what success meant to him. He pointed out that it shouldn’t be an arbitrary point in the future, but something you measure daily. Get up, live your goals and ensure you’re moving in the right direction.

This still influences everything I do. If you measure how successful each day is, you’ll reach your goals without being daunted by the scale of them. Seven successful days and you have a successful week. 52 of those and you have a successful year. It’s really that simple.

I measure success by four yardsticks, and each evening I ask myself these questions:

  1. Did I learn? I make it a goal to consciously learn something new every day. I keep a journal to record these lessons.
  2. Did I love? If I’m doing what I love, the time flies past. It’s also important to have clients who you love, and to love the people with whom you work.
  3. Did I serve? Our customers are our boss. We need to serve them in a way they’ve never been served before. They’ll pay us a lot of money if they are well served. I even consider this when I send something as small as an email. Did I make someone’s day better? 
  4. Did I earn? Getting paid is the whole point of business, so it’s important to be earning. If you aren’t, you need to relook your time and priorities


I measure these four things every day

If the answer to each is positive, I don’t need to worry about the week or the year — I’m moving in the right direction.  

I left Investec at the age of 25 because I wanted to start my own business. It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought it would be.

I reached a point where I was desperate for advice. Advice is a funny thing. Some of the best lessons that have stayed with me have been advice given to me by other people. There is so much value in learning from those who have walked the path, but advice also needs to come at the right time.

Entrepreneurs can be so sold on their own ideas that anyone who says anything that sounds vaguely negative is ignored and discounted. It’s such a pity, because once you learn to use advice, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities.


Accessing great ideas

I was desperate for advice when I wrote Conversations, but who could I ask? To me, the JSE is full of successful business titans — I just needed to figure out how to access them. I sold the idea of a book to the JSE. I would get the advice I was looking for, a product that other entrepreneurs would be interested in, and the JSE would get positive exposure in the corporate and SME communities. They agreed and gave me access to their database.

Interestingly, the advice I received led to a whole new business, first because I realised that I wanted to build my business around things I’ll still want to do in 30 to 40 years from now, and that wasn’t digital signage, which was what I had been doing, and second because I suddenly had this incredible resource that would bring in revenue while I thought of my next move.

I closed down the digital signage business and found jobs for all of my employees except for one, Andrew Chavhunduka. Andrew and I went into business publishing the book. It was to be our positioning tool.  

I wanted to inspire entrepreneurs, and big corporates wanted to partner with me, especially banks that wanted to access and support the SME market. We started a roadshow. Our banking sponsor could draw crowds with my talk and the book, and then pitch their products to a captive audience.

It was clear that advice wasn’t only desperately needed by the SME community, but welcomed; at least by those intent on growing their businesses.

This has been the foundation of everything we’ve done since. I’ve written two additional books, The Best Advice I Ever Got and Damn Good Advice, and each has been a mix of my own insatiable desire for great advice and building products for our business.


Successful people are successful because of how they think

I’ve spoken to more than 200 CEOs and we’ve collected an incredible amount of qualitative data. We’ve learnt how successful people think and make decisions. We’ve used this to build a consultancy and develop software to help organisations grow.  

Through the roadshow we built an SME database, and we pitched our services to them. We’re selective about who we work with though. You need to be serious about growth.

In each workshop we only have space for 20 SMEs, so we need to make sure that they will put in the work. We’re there to help them evaluate the areas that are stalling their growth. The next 90 days are spent implementing those strategies. 

At the end of that period, if they’ve seen measurable improvements, they can join our annual programme. It’s a very specific model. On the one hand, keeping it exclusive increases its value to our clients.

On the other, we have to do our job, because they need to see a measurable return to sign up for the full year programme. It all goes back to the value of powerful advice from successful people, and understanding how business leaders and customers think.


Advice is only as valuable as you make it

You need to teach yourself to be open to advice; you need to listen. But you also need to test it. Not every piece of advice will work for you. Take what works, implement it, measure it, and then be prepared to adjust your strategies and assumptions. 

The things you thought you knew for sure are often not what you thought at all. Everything is a learning curve, and as our businesses grow, what they need shifts. As your business changes, you need to change. You need to be able to ask: Is this true for me? And then realise you may need to revisit the same point later.