When Sheree O’Brien launched Splakavellis Management at the age of 19, she couldn’t find anyone willing to give her start-up capital. Instead, she used the money she was earning as an events manager at clubs by night, and from her ‘real’ job by day, to bankroll her dream. It was a time of little to no sleep; of cashing up at the club at 5am before going home for a shower and heading off to her day job.
The hard work and dedication was paying off though, and soon O’Brien was the only artist management and booking agency based in East London. In a scene dominated by ‘big Jozi cats’, she was managing a handful of legendary artists like DJ Mbuso, Soul Candi and Phezulu Records’ stable of DJs.
Once she was reasonably established, O’Brien made the first big mistake of her career. One that would almost cost her everything. Hard lessons
"I invested in a national tour for a then-popular girl group, with two other partners," she recalls. The tour did not go well. Because all of the venue deals and the contract with the artists’ management company were in O’Brien’s name alone, she knew that pulling out halfway through the tour would just lead to legal action.
"To avoid being sued and possibly ruining my company’s reputation, I decided to go broke instead. I made sure the artists, security providers, drivers, accommodation and meals were settled from the income of the events, but sacrificed my needs to make ends meet. I was sleeping in our combi and not eating. By the time we reached the final city in the tour, I didn’t have R1 to my name. I couldn’t even get home. My friend Lira (who was also still a struggling artist back then) bought me a train ticket back to East London. It was an 18-hour journey, and I couldn’t afford anything to eat. I would smell the food wafting up from the food car and try to sleep to ignore my hunger — but sleep also doesn’t come easily when you’ve just bankrupted yourself."
Her partners had cut and run, leaving O’Brien to carry the debt alone, but instead of throwing in the towel, she redoubled her entrepreneurial efforts, this time armed with some valuable business lessons and insights under her belt.
"I learnt how fickle our industry is and that I will never know everything. On a practical level, I learnt how important it is to always put a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in place when embarking on a joint venture. Your MOU should outline who is contributing, how much, and what the return expectancy is. It can also highlight potential scenarios of loss. If I’d had an MOU in place, I wouldn’t have borne the losses of the tour alone.
"From then on, I stopped investing my own finances into events, at first out of necessity, but later as a general rule. I also started working more closely with my accountant. Today I won’t even buy a new laptop without asking her permission. She helps me to keep things lean. When my six-year-old laptop died on me and I asked her if I could invest in a MacBook, her reply was that I should get some ‘MacCommonSense’ instead. Picking up and carrying on
Taking such a hard knock shook O’Brien’s confidence. Almost everyone she knew was telling her to declare bankruptcy and move on. She refused.
"I’d been working on this dream since I was 14 years old. I’d had a major setback, but that just made me even more determined to succeed. I had to move back in with my parents and start all over again, getting a day job and freelancing after hours, but slowly I paid off my debt and got back on my feet. All it took was patience and determination."
O’Brien’s decision to bite the bullet and save her reputation paid off. "My brand name stayed strong, and so I didn’t actually lose any clients during that time. If anything I was even more in demand than before. For seven years I sacrificed buying new clothes, eating take-aways, sleep, family time and my sanity in order to pay off all of my debt and start on a clean slate."
Once again, it was seven years of hard-won lessons though, particularly because O’Brien refused to cut corners or compromise on her morals.
"I learnt three big lessons while I was rebuilding my business from the ground up," she says.
"First, the only way to learn about risks is to take them. As an entrepreneur, safety should not be your go-to place. You have to be all-in, regardless of how many times you fall.
"Second, there will always be people who want to make a quick buck off you. I can’t tell you how many offers I received from friends of friends of government officials to enter into tender partnerships with them in return for kickbacks. They thought I was absolutely mad to turn away ‘big money’, particularly because I was in debt, but that wasn’t how I wanted to build my business. I’m a firm believer that the best tool in your marketing arsenal is your reputation, so I made sure that throughout my journey, mine stayed intact. Whenever I was offered a deal that I was uncertain about, I asked myself if my parents would be proud of this decision. If the answer was no, I walked away.
"Finally, if you’re passionate about something, and you know you’re making a difference in your industry and impacting the world positively, then it’s okay to take your time to build something great. Not everything has to be a rush. Rather build something well that will last than something quick that has no staying power." Finding a balance
Alongside her business hardships were personal ones, and O’Brien has worked as hard on finding a balance between her personal and professional life as she has on building a sustainable foundation for Splakavellis Management.
"Business isn’t only about planning and strategising," she says. "As an entrepreneur you need to understand that success doesn’t only come from managing your business well, but from managing yourself well too."
O’Brien knows what she’s talking about. While she was struggling to pay off her business debts and emerge from bankruptcy, she was also trying to put an abusive relationship behind her, leaving East London for Joburg, only to be stalked by her ex-boyfriend in her new city. Family deaths as well as the passing of one of her artists also took their emotional toll.
"In between all of this, I also became a parent. Being a single mother and a business owner really makes you understand how important it is to have a support base, but also that your business and personal lives can’t exist in isolation. They impact and influence each other.
"I’m incredibly blessed to have an amazing family. My business requires me to travel every other weekend, and sometimes for weeks at a time. Without their help this wouldn’t be possible."
O’Brien is proof that you can have it all, as long as you understand that there are no clear lines between personal and business for an entrepreneur.
"My professionalism has been incredibly important in this regard. I’ve always been known as the hardest working woman in this industry. In 16 years I’ve never missed a deadline because I don’t take anything for granted. I always do more than what I’m hired and paid to do.
"This focus and dedication on going above and beyond has meant that when I’m facing challenges in my personal life, I need to accept them and move on, without wallowing in my own misery. It’s easy to get side-tracked by the personal, but then I would lose my competitive edge professionally. Instead, I’ve found that personal challenges can actually be a strength, because I throw myself into my work.
"There are so many reasons not to be successful if you look for them, but I’ve found that there are just as many reasons to fight for your dreams. It’s all about how you look at a situation, and your attitude. If you want something badly enough, you can always make it happen." Remember this
The only way to learn about risks is to take them. As an entrepreneur, safety should not be your go-to place. You have to be all-in, regardless of how many times you fall.