It was a hard road to business for Bheki Kunene who grew up poor in the streets of Gugulethu, on the fringes of South Africa’s wealthy tourist city of Cape Town. He was selling peanuts at just 15 years old and then graduated to fruit and vegetables.
When he finished high school, Kunene had to pay his own way to college. There was a new baby in his family which ate up the money needed for fees. Scholarships were his only way to get a higher education and he got one at the Ruth Prowse School of Art in 2006.
“I got a scholarship to study graphic design which paid for everything provided I get above 75% for all subjects,” says Kunene.
As part of the course, he had to do a six-month internship at a graphic design company. Instead, he put up R600 ($57) and a computer with two other classmates to start their own business called Mind Trix Media, specializing in web development and design, printing, marketing and developing mobile applications.
His classmates soon left but Kunene quickly landed his first big client – AAA Shuttles. He had to create a website and develop other projects for the tourism company, all on his own. His deadlines for the projects were very tight and he worked tirelessly to prove himself. Ismail Louw, the owner of AAA Shuttles, paid a 50% deposit for a website.
All was going well. But a knock on the door two weeks into the business turned his life upside down.
It was a summer’s morning on a Saturday in December 2010 and Kunene was printing t-shirts. Two detectives walked in. Kunene assumed that they were friends of the local pastor and they were just coming in for a small chat.
“They started asking me questions of where I was the previous night. Then they told me to take off my rings, belt, shoelaces and I knew something was not right,” Kunene says.
To his horror, the detectives arrested Kunene for murder.
“When I got to the police station, they told me they’d torture me like no-one would believe. Each morning it was another torture,” he remembers.
“The more I cried, screaming that I knew nothing about a murder, the police would continue to torture me, claiming that all criminals cried and said that they knew nothing until they were tortured into confessing. But I was telling them the truth.”
The police would punch him in the ribs and stomach. Once they tired of that, they would cuff his hands behind his back and force him to his knees while standing on the cuffs which pulled and squeezed on Kunene’s wrists.
After spending about five days in a tiny cell, the police released him.
“They told me they found the real culprit who had dreadlocks and they thought I had cut my dreadlocks the night before. I cut my dreadlocks a few years ago,” he says.
Kunene immediately went home and was worried about his first big client. He called Louw explaining his ordeal.
Luckily for Kunene, Louw was sympathetic and he kept the contract. It took about three weeks for Kunene to recover from the torment.
Business soon picked up. Word of mouth helped him gain more clients, partnerships and even make his first million rand. Soon, the awards started rolling in. Kunene made it into the top 10 national finalists of the South African Breweries Kick Start Business Competition. This is where he learned how to run a business and met Virgin’s Richard Branson and other motivational entrepreneurs.
“I learned some of the most basic foundation things from these guys. They kind of taught me the frugal lifestyle. They said ‘keep it silent my friend, live below your means and just study,’” Kunene says.
“Each day, I read for an hour and each time I walk down the road I’ve got audio books in my head and I’m learning more each day I’m reading. And I do some of the things these guys taught me.”
One of the best bits of advice Kunene took from the speakers was for him to go see a psychologist immediately after he made his first million because he grew up poor.
“You’d be like the tender guys, up one moment and the next they’re down,” the businessmen told him.
“You have to do it differently if you want to be like us. First thing, go get yourself counseled, understand what you are in now. Next step, learn about investment. Read more and read more,” Kunene remembers.
One question he asked Branson and co was what wealthy people did with their money.
“They said, we take our money and make more money for us. Then we take the interest and buy the fancy stuff. It’s not our money.”
For now, Kunene is earning his future interest with Mind Trix, the company he started from his mother’s house. It then moved to Loop Street in Cape Town’s central business district, and then moved back to the township where it started. Today, it has clients in Zimbabwe, Angola, Vietnam, Italy and the United States.
When I meet Kunene at their offices on the ground floor of a double-storey house, he tells me he hardly does any of the corporate work anymore, but solely focuses on running the business. He hopes to open five more offices and avoid any more painful misunderstandings w