Keet van Zyl, partner at Knife Capital
  • One of SA's most prominent VC investors keeps all his rejection letters.
  • Celebrating failure has become quite the fad.
  • South African entrepreneurs share their failures at F***up Nights.

Keet van Zyl is one of South Africa’s most prominent venture capital investors. He worked for Mark Shuttleworth’s venture capital fund Here Be Dragons (HBD) before launching Knife Capital with some of his HBD colleagues. Knife continues the active management of HBD’s South African venture capital portfolio on behalf of the South African billionaire.

Van Zyl has been involved in a number of early investments in lucrative companies, including in the payment company Fundamo – which was snapped up by Visa a couple of years ago. More recently, Knife's interest in the SA technology company iKubu, which developed a radar system for cyclists, led to an exit to Garmin. Knife has also disposed of its stake in FlightScope, the global developer of ball-tracking radar for sports, in a successful management buy-out.

Last year, Knife invested alongside the founders of Candy Crush in a Swedish mobile technology firm. It also holds stakes in ticketing platform Quicket and other local ventures.

It is part of Knife’s culture to celebrate any kind of success (“we spend a lot of money on champagne”), but personally Van Zyl also likes to acknowledge failure. He keeps all of the rejection letters he has ever received, recently tweeting a picture of his stash, which includes rebuffs from SAB, McKinsey, Remgro and Investec.

Van Zyl's stash of rejection letters

“It is kind of like an ‘anti-CV’ of companies that I would have loved to work for at some stage, but the timing was not right,” says Van Zyl.

“I’ve read enough autobiographies of successful businesspeople to know that you need to knock on many closed doors before luck and timing collide. So that’s what I did. Every rejection – while hard on the ego – was another battle-scar that I wore with pride as I knew that it took me one step closer to eventual success.”

He says his stash of rejection letters is a good motivator. In fact, when he started collecting the documents, he envisioned one day commissioning a piece of art of all the letters to hang in his wine cellar.

“I envisaged executives from these companies – which by then would be friends and/or  business partners – seeing these letters and cringing. My moment of revenge. And then we could laugh about it and drink good wine. All of this is still work-in-progress,” he added.

Still, Van Zyl ended up working with, or for, three of the companies which initially rejected him. After sending Remgro a “thank you, fate accepted” note in response to their initial rejection letter, the company offered him a position. A couple of years after being rejected by Investec, he got a job with the group. The same happened with HBD.

Van Zyl will be a guest speaker at an upcoming F***up Nights event on 20 March in Cape Town.  F***up Nights is a global movement that started in Mexico in 2012. Each month at events across the globe, local entrepreneurs share their stories of failure.

In recent years, celebrating failure has become quite the fad, with research studies showing the benefit of failure (including what nearly winning does to your brain).

After all, no innovation will happen without mistakes. A fear of failure stifles experimentation. Accordingly, many businesses are embracing failure and encouraging employees to move on quickly after making mistakes. Many firms now have official policies to reward mistakes, including the Indian conglomerate Tata, which dedicates an annual award to an employee who had the best failed idea.

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