The South African Serial Entrepreneur On Co-Working Spaces And Staying Grounded

Published 19 days ago
By Forbes Africa | Tiana Cline
Andrew Robinson; Photo by Manelisi Dabata
Andrew Robinson (Photo by Manelisi Dabata)

Andrew Robinson has an impressive track-record of building big businesses in Africa and around the world.

“The biggest thing Covid taught me is that when something is failing, another thing is succeeding.”

With ventures that span multiple industries and countries, at 46, Andrew Robinson is someone who already holds many titles – CEO of Siand, founder of SiSebenza, Executive Director of WeWork South Africa, Co-founder of AM Vineyards and Co-founder of TradingHouse Global. From farming to commodities trading to making the WeWork model successful in South Africa, Robinson’s incredibly diverse business portfolio is not only a testament to his strategic insight but also his pragmatism. As an entrepreneur, Robinson has managed to remain grounded, prioritizing his physical and mental wellbeing while maintaining a minimalist lifestyle. Everything works because of this inherent practicality.  

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“Business is simple,” he says. “Anybody who I sit down with that complicates business is genuinely less successful. At the end of the day, you’ve got to make sure that you sell it for more than it costs you to service and that you’ve got enough fat in to make profit.”

For Robinson, a business cannot simply be a passion project, investment requires numbers – the basic fundamentals of revenue, costs and profitability. Although he has a proactive, excited attitude, Robinson understands the importance of never romanticizing his business ventures. “The numbers will tell you if it’s an investable thing because at the end of the day, numbers are the language of business,” he adds.

Making WeWork work

In 2017, Robinson approached WeWork to become its African partner. “At the time, WeWork was going through massive growth but didn’t really know much about the South African market,” he elaborates. “We weren’t able to do the deal at the time – they weren’t ready for us.” Stepping out of the picture but staying close to the global WeWork team, it took seven years to get the co-working space into the country.

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“Today, we have the most innovative, exciting startups as well as some of the biggest companies in the world taking space at WeWork South Africa. It’s a hive of activity, the lighthouse of the city,” he smiles, adding that through SiSebenza, his holding company, there are plans to open WeWork offices in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Mauritius. “SiSebenza was born to catch this mythological unicorn… but we weren’t able to,” laughs Robinson. “Instead, SiSebenza became a private equity investment vehicle for disruptive technologies and businesses.”

Making an impact

From TradingHouse Global, a commodity trading operation that sources, warehouses and delivers physical products across the globe (and includes supplying humanitarian aid to some of the world’s most distressed areas) to AM Vineyards, a premium yet sustainable wine production business that has become a massive player in the Chinese market, Robinson knows what it means to diversify as well as why it’s an important part of mitigating risk. “The biggest thing Covid taught me is that when something is failing, another thing is succeeding,” he adds.

Born in Africa, TradingHouse is one of Robinson’s most interesting ventures to date. With long-term contracts in place, he describes it as a simple logistics business – they’re moving containers; trading commodities. “But because we’ve learned how to operate in different environments, there’s now a new division in the business that focuses on humanitarian aid,” he says. “We operate in some of the most complicated places on the planet as well as in countries that are in difficult spaces. In Albania, for example, there was a call for help from our partners. We’re not making money out of it but we’re doing good work.”

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The end game

Even though everything Robinson is involved with differs, as a businessman, his approach remains consistent – he’s solution-oriented but also someone who understands the value of discernment. “The older I’ve got, the more I’ve learned to say no. I used to say yes to everything and you kind of find yourself on this hamster wheel of not being efficient. It zaps your energy,” he explains. Being active in so many organizations requires good partnerships and smart people, something Robinson has found with Stefano Migliore, the CEO of WeWork South Africa and Executive Director of SiSebenza.

Forever focused on the outcome – the end game – is what Robinson believes is his ‘secret power’. “When I get involved in a business, I see what the end is. It’s a very strange thing. When somebody brings an opportunity to me or we’re trying to figure something out, I always see what the outcome is,” says Robinson. “When an artist starts painting, he knows the painting before he begins. For a business, I see the painting, what the business looks like… it’s just my thing.”

For Robinson, this unconventional approach is a gift. He believes that success comes from understanding what the problem is before you can solve it. “First seek to understand before you are understood,” he adds. This is why jumping into something headfirst without planning is not an option, especially within the distressed environments he operates in. “It’s not only a lot of thought, it’s contingency. This and that happens. You cannot go in and expect to figure things out after. It’s a chess game that you play and you have to be ten moves ahead on the board.”

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