The Secret To A Successful Start-up? You Need To Just Start

Pepe Marais has built a R780-million business because he and his business partner took the most important step in launching a business – they started. Don't spend your life planning. Do instead.

You're reading Entrepreneur South Africa, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Vital Stats

  • Player: Pepe Marais
  • Company: Joe Public United
  • Claim to Fame: Medium Business Entrepreneurs of the Year Award, 2018
  • Visit:

Joe Public was launched by Pepe Marais and Gareth Leck 20 years ago. They had no money, but they were selling their time, experience and ideas, so they could keep their overheads low. Their approach to advertising was innovative, and they soon became profitable.

Devin Lester

They then chose to sell the business, which turned out to be a huge mistake. The culture of the company changed, and they realised they did not want to belong to a large corporate multi-national.

It took a few years, but they bought their business back. They lost their biggest client, which wiped out half the revenue in their business, and made some expensive mistakes, but they kept going. This was their dream.

Today Joe Public United is South Africa's largest independent agency with a turnover northwards of R780 million.

Here are Pepe Marais's lessons in starting a business that can survive and thrive.

Q: What do you wish you had known before you started your business?

We started our business in 1998. It was based on an idea. Ten years later we faced near bankruptcy – an event that forced us to do some serious introspection as to why we existed as a business. We uncovered the purpose of our business and put it at the core. The result of a more purposeful approach has been nothing short of spectacular. I can't help but wonder where we could have been today if we were clear on the purpose from outset.

Q: Given hindsight regarding your start-up journey, which areas of the business would you spend more time, energy and resources on and where would you spend less?

I think that people tend to overthink the start-up of a business, losing energy in the process, which may lead to never starting. In my book, Growing Greatness, I dedicated a whole chapter to everything you need to know about starting a business. It has one word in the entire chapter: Start.

That said, if I had to do it over, I would spend more time upfront on finding the greater purpose of my business, because ultimately this will crystalise the long-term strategy.

I would further break my focus into mainly three key areas:

1. The caliber of the people I employ

Often in the past, I have been guilty of moving at speed and employing job titles rather than excellent people. People can make or break a business and therefore has become one of my key priorities.

2. The caliber of my product and service to my customer

I cannot express the importance of product and service excellence. A top-end restaurant is the perfect metaphor for any business. Quality food. Quality service. In a quality environment. The higher the level of excellence of your product and your services, the higher your chance of achieving success in your business. It really is that simple.

The amount of money that you make is a direct by-product of the level of excellence that you offer to your customer. And that is why the bottom line of your business should be at the bottom of your list of priorities. And product excellence near the top, second only to purpose.

3. The culture of my business

I am invested in growing a business that will live beyond my lifetime. And for this reason, culture is so important to me. It is one of my pet obsessions. What is culture? It is simply a mash-up of your greater purpose, your greater vision and the key values that drive the daily behavior of your people to ultimately connect where you come from in your heart of hearts, to where you dream of as your ultimate destination. Culture plays a critical role in the delivery of excellence to our customers.

Q: What have your three most valuable learnings been from mistakes made during the planning and launch phases?

There was no planning stage in my journey. We had an idea. We acted upon it.

But there's been many mistakes along the way. For example, not being honest with people sooner. Tolerating average within an environment that stands for growth and greatness.

Allowing people into our organization that are not aligned to our purpose, our values and our vision. Not pushing back to clients when their demands are simply not possible to deliver upon. But all of these are part of the journey. Mistakes are gifts, as long as we only make the same mistake once.

Q: Knowing what you know now – what would your best practical advice be to new entrepreneurs?

Forget about making money. Find greater purpose to your business in service of others. And everything will flow from there. In abundance.

Q: What lessons have had the greatest impact on your start-up journey?

That a business is indeed like a child. If you want to create a successful adult, be willing to walk the long journey. Don't expect your child to run at the age of three. Don't expect him or her to stand on their own two feet by the age of ten.

Ours is 21 this year. We are about to hand over the key to unlock the next chapter in Joe's book called Growth. We are proud parents, we are not holding on as tight as a blink ago, but we are still equally concerned with his everyday well-being.