Five homegrown industrialists put their money where their mouths are in the local version of Dragon’s Den on Mzansi Magic. Debashine Thangevelo caught up with the moguls from the series and Rapid Blue’s executive producer, Kee-Leen Irvine, who says they have been sitting with the rights for six years…

SOUTH Africa has become a hotbed for locally-adapted international formats like Strictly Come Dancing, Come Dine With Me SA, MasterChef SA, Chopped and now Dragon’s Den.

Based on the UK version of a hit Japanese show, this series centres on five magnates who, after hearing the proposals of budding entrepreneurs, make an astute decision on whether to back their venture.

For the South African version of Dragon’s Den, which is produced by Rapid Blue, Lebo Gunguluza, Vusi Thembekwayo, Polo Leteka (nee Radebe), Vinny Lingham and Gil Oved are the Dragons.

Co-executive producer, Kee-Leen Irvine says: “We were looking for successful entrepreneurs who had built their own businesses, rather than people who had climbed the corporate ladder, or people who had made their money through share deals, or corporate structuring. We also wanted people with a passion to invest in start-ups and grow companies and who would be committed to mentoring the entrepreneurs.”

After evaluating more than 200 people, they settled on the line-up in consultation with Mzansi Magic.

Irvine hints: “Viewers can expect great drama. Everyone who stepped up pitched their hearts out. We have had people from all over the country on set. There are some big surprises in terms of investments made and revelations uncovered by the Dragons. And there is so much to learn from them about making sure businesses are investment-ready as well as the presentation and pitching and asking the right questions.”


INTRODUCTION: This multi-millionaire has experienced success and failure. But he has learnt from his mistakes and become a tour de force in the events, publishing and hospitality sectors.

TALKING SHOP: In his 20s, Gunguluza was more ambitious than most. He earmarked his goals, starting with being a millionaire by 25, a multimillionaire by 35 and a billionaire by 45 – and then worked towards achieving it.

He recalls: “It definitely wasn’t easy (attaining his first goal). At the time, there were many changes happening in the country regarding the political landscape and it wasn’t easy for a young black African to make serious moves. But growing up impoverished, I made a promise to myself to never be poor ever again. So that was the real motivation.”

Knowledge, experience (of achievement and failure) and motivation are the three pillars he brings to the show.

He shares: “What helped me so much, was first, I identified my talent at an early stage in my career, that means I knew what I was good at and passionate about very early on; second, my appreciation of risk-taking, which helped me reach for my higher education and also venture into business. Also, I have always believed that if you believe, you can indeed achieve.”

As someone who has personal knowledge of what it entails to even taste success, he will be able to spot a willy-nilly proposal a mile away.

In order to get him to part with his cash, Gunguluza says a good business concept is fundamental.

He continues: “You have to be able to state exactly what your business idea is and how it will make money and display a good business sense, in less than five minutes. That will convince me to invest in the potential of an idea. I have to feel so comfortable with the information supplied that I’m jumping out of my seat to invest.

“I am looking for intelligent, passionate, innovative and well-prepared entrepreneurs who have invested time and effort into their business and need the Dragons to take it to the next level.”


INTRODUCTION: Aside from being the youngest director on a JSE- listed company, this motivational speaker’s entrepreneurial skills cemented his success story when he was in his 20s. Today, he has amassed an enviable fortune and has also qualified to join the National Speakers’ Association in New York. And he is the founder of MOTIV8 Advisory Ltd.

TALKING SHOP: On making history with his JSE feat, he says: “It takes so much time to achieve that that one actually doesn’t have a sense of what it feels like as you are too busy running the business and delivering shareholder value.”

His three cardinal rules on staying ahead of his competitors: singular focus, illogical passion and knowing your numbers.

Thembekwayo explains: “You have to be focused on a singular business venture and get it to work and achieve results. So don’t be distracted. People will tell you it cannot be done, it is too difficult, someone out there is better, but you have to believe in your passion regardless of the evidence. I call this ‘illogical passion’. Entrepre- neurship is about a hybrid of gut and savvy. So you have to know your numbers and what they are telling you.”

Although he admits to having hesitations about starring on the show as “being in the limelight is also very dangerous in my environment”, he agreed to educate and empower those budding entrepreneurs out there.

And he is no pushover either.

Thembekwayo notes: “I bring a bootstrapping ability that cannot be equalled. I started my first business with R35 and today we are a Pan-African private equity player. I have had to outgrow my competence and perpetually strive for more. I think any young entrepreneur from the township can learn a lot about what that takes.”


INTRODUCTION: The chief executive of Identity Partners, a small/medium enterprises advisory and fund management services firm, founded in 2007.

TALKING SHOP: As the panel’s only female, Leteka says: “I see it as a privilege for anyone to be chosen as a Dragon and, of course, it carries with it responsibility which can be daunting. I would have loved for there to be more women on the panel as I believe there are many phenomenal women entrepreneurs who are successful in their own right. I am therefore hopeful that such programmes, going forward, will have better gender representation. The guys have been amazing thus far and I have thoroughly enjoyed the debates and input from each of the Dragons. We are all very different which makes for interesting conversation.”

On the experience she brings to the table, she says: “I have been investing in SMEs for more than five years and have learnt many lessons about the challenges of access to appropriate funding for this market. I have also invested in women-led SMEs and bring some insight into their funding and business support needs as well.

“So I will be bringing technical expertise in investing in this market and, more importantly, I hope the show will also be an educational platform on entrepreneurship as we move South Africa forward in its journey towards successful entrepreneurship.”

As for what will secure her attention, Leteka notes: “Businesses that are scalable and have a great potential for significant growth and long-term sustainability.”


INTRODUCTION: At 24, he dropped out of UCT to start his first technology business. So confident was he that he sold his house and racked up a debt of R75 000.

That tenacity paid off.

The San Francisco resident has gone on to initiate several ventures, his latest being Guyft, which was launched this year. In 2006, he was honoured as one of the top young information and communications technology entrepreneurs in Africa in the Endeavour Global: High Impact Entrepreneurs.

TALKING SHOP: On taking such a big gamble at the start of his career, Lingham says: “New ventures are always risky. But the more experience you have, the easier it is to avoid some of the pitfalls and that improves your odds of success with every new venture.

“The best ideas are often simple and focused. Experienced entrepreneurs know this and budding entrepreneurs often try to do too much with too little. I cannot over-emphasise how important focus is in a start-up. Do one thing and aim to be the best in the world at doing that thing. And if you do that, but you don’t succeed, you would still have learnt a lot.”

Chuffed about being on the panel, Lingham has been groomed by his past offers from hopefuls.

He notes: “I get bombarded with offers. The best way to get to me is by an introduction by mutual friend. I don’t really have time to respond to every e-mail, so having someone who knows me make an intro is the best way to reach me, or any investor for that matter.”

Lingham says he is watchful for a few things on the show, namely passion and drive.

“And that I will get a great return on my investment,” he adds. “If I don’t believe in the person, I can’t back the idea. I am looking forward to giving other South African entrepreneurs the chance to turn their dreams into reality.”


INTRODUCTION: After his online trading firm with business partner Ran Neu-Ner went bust, they launched The Creative Council, which has grown into one of South Africa’s biggest activation agencies. Thirteen years later, they have a turnover of R500 million and a staff of 650 .

That’s not forgetting their various investments along the way. Named one of GQ’s 50 Best Dressed Men in South Africa, he, along with Neu-Ner, was awarded the 2013 Absa Unlisted Company Award for business excellence and entrepreneurship.

TALKING SHOP: Oddly, Oved was set for a profession in the entertainment industry before his career trajectory shifted.

He shares: “I was only hell-bent on becoming an actor until I finally got onto TV. While I loved it all initially, I actually transformed my perceptions of the ‘on-screen’ environment versus the ‘off-screen’ environment. I found right from the start that I was far more fascinated with the behind-the-scenes versus performance.

“Directing and producing means you are master of your destiny. It means you get to invest in the story and tell it in your style. It means you have a vision and convert it into a reality. All of that is exactly what entrepreneurs do all day. Those early days made for a good precursor to my business career.”

On being approached to be a Dragon, he says: “My initial reaction was one of humility and some degree of flattery. I have watched so many episodes of Dragon’s Den from all over the world on YouTube. I can’t count the number of times I have shouted out in frustration or glee at the decisions and reactions of the Dragons on the show.

“I hope to bring just ‘me’ onto the show. I have learnt that in life you have to be genuine, authentic and real. I don’t suffer fools easily. I expect people to know their numbers and to understand their business and industry.

“I believe in giving entrepreneurs a break and, most of all, will be looking for people with a passion for what they’re pitching.”

And those hopefuls making their pitches-cum-pleas had better bring their “passion, ingenuity and hunger”.

He admits: “We (referring to his company) have always focused on backing ‘the jockey’ not the ‘horse’ – that is to say, we look for good entrepreneurs more than good businesses. While a good concept is important, the truth is that over time businesses change, they morph depending on the environment, as such entrepreneurs need to be agile, alert and dynamic. At the end, you can only ever back the people.”

Now that the five Dragons have had their say, viewers have an idea of what’s in store from the series which, hopefully, will enjoy more seasons. After all, it’s compelling, edifying and nerve-racking – in the best way!

• Dragon’s Den SA hits the small screen on Mzansi Magic (DStv channel 161) next month.