Serial entrepreneur shares hard truths about what it takes to succeed

Vishal Tilak did not grow up surrounded by privilege and opportunity. Raised by his grandmother in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, he knew what it meant to live in a household

dependent on a monthly pension. To raise extra income, his grandmother opened a tuck shop and he learned all about profit margins and always being on the lookout for opportunities. 

“It was hard and that was how many of my generation were raised. We had to have grit and had to learn to keep going no matter what,” says Tilak, who has just turned 40. “So many of the young people I see now lack this ability to keep going, to keep coming up with solutions. You have to have patience. So many young people give up too easily.” 

He adds, “You have to hustle every day and have grit, that is what I’ve learned. Life is about sales — every day you are selling yourself, not only at work, but to your partner as well, convincing them why you are a good choice. If you break it down, everyone is buying and selling all the time.” 

Tilak only came to entrepreneurship in his 30s. By then he had already made a mark in the corporate world. An engineer by training, he chose to go into business management, becoming senior general manager at Barloworld Handling then joining Thomson Reuters as corporate account director before going on to be director of emerging markets in Africa at TransUnion, a multinational credit reporting agency operating in more than 30 countries. 

A health scare prompted him to take stock of his life and re-examine his choices. He saw the hours he was working and even though the pay and the benefits were good, he started asking himself how much value he was creating, for himself and for others. He wanted to move beyond his comfort zone at the corporate level into the more unpredictable – but potentially more rewarding – world of the entrepreneur. 

“My wife was pregnant, and I was asking myself questions about my legacy and what I was doing with my life, what I was doing for my family and for others.” 

In answering this question, he turned to business consulting and founded

i-DotIT, a management, technology and procurement consulting firm that works with leading businesses and government. From here, his interest in healthcare burgeoned, a passion stemming from his conviction that there is an urgent need to create more options for more affordable and accessible healthcare on the continent. There are also numerous healthcare gaps to be plugged that offer innovators a world of opportunity, he says. 

One of his first ventures was assisting in developing the world’s first and only integrated diagnostic testing device with a doctor and friend, Dr Akhil Desai who expressed

concern about the high number of contaminated urine tests he saw in his GP practice. Research revealed this was a common problem around the world, with a report from the Microbiology Association of America stating that urine contamination rates are about 33% to 45%. 

Considering how vitally important medical diagnoses are made based on urine tests every day, Desai came up with a new device that allows for true mid-stream samples, reducing cross-contamination and resistance far better than current methods. The device has obtained US Food and Drug Administration approval and is preparing to launch to market. 

Tilak has also worked on other products and acknowledges that it has been tricky breaking into African markets and dealing with pharmaceutical companies. But, he says, he loves challenges. “I like innovation and technology and I like to be disruptive. I enjoy thinking out of the box and coming up with solutions.” 

A judge at the recent SA Innovation League Awards, Tilak says he is encouraged by the innovation many South African organisations and entrepreneurs are showing, but thinks too many good ideas are not making it to commercial viability because entrepreneurs often fail at the basics. 

“Insufficient market research and not asking simple questions. They don’t know their customers well enough and new market segments; the assumptions are always based on best-case scenarios and [they] think if their idea is good enough things will work out for the best. Wrong,” says Tilak. “You have to have proof of concept.” This, he explains, means evidence or an experiment that tests an entrepreneurial idea in the market and determines its feasibility. 

Another important thing many entrepreneurs fail at is coming up with a punchy elevator pitch – one great sentence to sum up your business idea – a vital aid in selling it to investors. 

Tilak credits his MBA studies at Milpark Business School in Johannesburg with helping him cut out the clutter in his mind and showing him where and how to clarify and focus his thinking. “It’s necessary to apply a basic root-cause-analysis model, which looks at solving a problem by looking at the root of the problem, not the symptom.” 

He recalls how he started his dialysis business in 2020 because a family friend died of renal failure. He looked into it and was shocked to find out that chronic kidney disease

was a leading cause of death globally. For African patients, treatment is often too expensive, or centres are inaccessible, contributing to lower life expectancy. 

“Many patients in Africa essentially get a diagnosis and are sent home to die,” he says. In response, Tilak spurred the development of dialysis products that have proven to be up to 40% cheaper. 

There is no reason why more young innovators can’t follow in his footsteps, Tilak insists.

“Times are tough, yes, the economy is struggling. But this creates opportunities,” he says, “This is the time to be innovative in your entrepreneurial and organisational thinking. Adapting, being open, having grit and being flexible; this is the way of the future.” 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Jane Usher
Dr Jane Usher is head of department: postgraduate studies at the Milpark Business School for the MBA and PGDBA programmes.

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