The Story of Daniel Strauss
Daniel Strauss grew up in a town that most people have never heard of. Tucked away in the northwestern corner of South Africa, it lies on the Orange River, about 40 km from Upington and nearly 800 km from Cape Town. Keimoes was small enough that you absolutely had to treat everyone in such a way that you could still look them in the eye the next day.
Daniel’s house stood on farmland some 4 km out of town. In other parts of the country, people would call 4.5 ha a proper farm, but not in the Northern Cape. Farms in the area typically cover as much of the earth’s surface as some independent states, and sheep wander across vast expanses of land in search of grazing. The Orange makes it possible to grow fruit and vegetables in a region that would otherwise be too arid and desolate. From the air, you can see the green of the vineyards hugging the river as it snakes towards the border with Namibia and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean. Daniel’s home was nestled in-between those vineyards.
Daniel did not grow up with much money as his father was the youngest of 9 children and had to borrow heavily to buy the piece of land on which they lived. The house was run down, but thankfully they never went hungry; however, they certainly did not qualify as ‘rich’. Unlike most children who left for boarding school at prestigious institutions in other towns, Daniel stayed in Keimoes for the duration of both primary and high school. Daniel longed for the same opportunities as others but made do with what they had.
The businessman in Daniel was strong since his early days. Therefore, to make some money, he grew carrots, tomatoes, and onions in his own vegetable patch on the farm, which he then sold to the local greengrocer. As he was just a boy sourcing seeds and fertiliser from his father’s supply in the shed, his little vegetable venture managed to make a turnover and had no expenses other than his own time; therefore, it churned out a profit.
Daniel learned many things from his father while growing up on the farm and believes his father is the wisest person that he knows; and to this day still daily consults his father before making any big decisions or taking risks.
Selling vegetables was not Daniel’s only experience earning money while growing up. At a stage in primary school, he also dedicated the daylight hours of his summer vacation in Hartenbos to selling newspapers. This side hustle entailed distributing and selling 100 newspapers in a designated neighbourhood daily. Daniel would get up early to report for duty, collect his consignment and load it onto a makeshift newspaper wagon crafted by mounting a fruit crate onto the wheels of an old broken toy. Even though selling newspapers was hard work and some of the rude remarks he received stung, Daniel felt accomplished at the end of each day as he walked home with a bag heavy with cash, and the clinging-and-clanking of small coins, not amounting to much, ringing, making music to his ears.
By the time Daniel Stauss went to Stellenbosch University to study engineering, it was his turn to become a boarder. He resided in Majuba, a male residence on the tree-lined Victoria Street. Suddenly he was living with more than a hundred guys his age, and a whole row of women’s residences was only one street away. Plenty of friends and thousands of girls, imagine that. There were more students his age on campus than people in all of Keimoes.
Daniel Strauss instantly took to campus life and even became the top athlete in the athletics competition during his first year. This victory was due to him winning the long jump, and after clocking the 100 m in 10.9 seconds, he got invited to play for a Maties junior rugby team as a wing. He was not as experienced as the other players; however, he got the hang of it and played for some of the Maties Rugby Club’s senior teams during his remaining years at varsity.
Being a student was fun for Daniel; however, his field of study – industrial engineering – was far from exciting. It infringed on his social life too much! He disliked the coursework and had zero interest in how a machine worked. Within the first six months, Daniel told his mother that he didn’t know what to do with his life, but he knew he did not want to be an engineer. However, Daniel pushed through and completed his degree. Later on, the industrial part of the course turned out to be more interesting for Daniel, primarily when they dealt with strategy and the economy.
After university, Daniel was still not sure what he wanted to do with his life, but high on his agenda was avoiding engineering. He started by trying his hand at farming. It lasted only a year, and it bored him to death. Daniel said goodbye to agriculture in his search for purpose and enrolled for a full-time MBA at the Stellenbosch University Business School. According to the university, Daniel’s work experience was too little; therefore, getting accepted to the business school took a lot of motivation. However, he was very persuasive because he was determined not to return to the farm again.
In 2008, after passing all the MBA subjects, Daniel went looking for a job. If you did not live through the 2008 economic crisis yourself, you have probably seen the movies or read the books, which seem more like thrillers than dull business histories. It was only after a long and tedious search that Daniel finally got a job to work for a property developer.
After a decade of solid growth, the South African property market suddenly stalled as the recession took hold. Furthermore, the country had also just started experiencing the electricity supply issues that South Africans have since become used to. Therefore, the electricity supply issues put all electrification projects on hold, and developments came to a halt, so Daniel’s new office was a sea of tears.
In the end, the recession lasted longer than Daniel’s, as he quit after only three months. Thereafter, the only work he could find was as an operational consultant. Every business wants to increase operational efficiency in a recession, so he slotted into a typical industrial engineering role, building simulations for mines and the like. Again, he intensely disliked it.
Daniel wanted to work with people, but there was no way even to get close to people because companies weren’t hiring. It made him think about the conventional wisdom that having a job is the safer option. The recession proved precisely the opposite. Companies went under, and people lost their jobs as a result. The businesses that survived did so by cutting back on staff numbers. Going in alone, being an entrepreneur, might be risky, but not nearly as risky as being employed by someone else.
It did not take long for Daniel to decide that he had enough of this struggle only to make ends meet. He wanted to learn how to look after himself – earn real money and become secure. It was time for a career change. Therefore, Daniel started doing basic research on the wealthiest people in the world. He read up on value investors, entrepreneurs and how to build wealth. He discovered that an average venture capitalist makes more money than the best-paid salaried engineers.
Daniel also did several psychometric tests to determine his personality type and what sort of work would fulfil him. It turned out that he wanted to help people, but he realised he did not necessarily want to bill them by the hour as a consultant did. The more Daniel read about venture capital, the more it looked like the best combination of assisting people in growing their businesses and not charging them per hour. Moreover, there was an entrepreneurial aspect to it that he wanted to explore.
One day, while working in private equity, Daniel Strauss accompanied a friend to Cape Town International Airport. Daniel’s friend was meeting a business acquaintance of his family, and he tagged along to keep him company. Little did Daniel know that the person they picked up would become his mentor and that this chance meeting would change his life.
Who would have thought that a Chinese-Malaysian in his mid-forties and a farm boy from Keimoes in his late twenties would hit it off immediately? He came from a densely populated megacity with a tropical climate; Daniel was from an arid stretch of countryside where the sheep outnumber the people. But they connected instantly. Over a cup of coffee at the airport, they discovered that they shared similar interests. They started talking about business almost from the get-go, covering enough ground that they agreed to meet again the next time he came to South Africa.
A few months later, Daniel’s soon to be mentor contacted him and asked that Daniel make available a couple of days in his calendar. When he arrived in Cape Town, he was accompanied by a young couple from Malaysia. He was mentoring them and would go through a formal process with the two of them – and Daniel, as it turned out – throughout his visit.
He then basically hosted Daniel in his own country. Visiting five-star restaurants wasn’t part of Daniel’s world, but he joined him and the couple on trips to the finest establishments in the Cape Winelands. They dined at world-class restaurants that Daniel had not even known existed.
While eating out, he would teach Daniel and the couple how to live in the present. He would point out how the restaurant uses taste and other sensory tools to increase the intensity of the experience. Activating all your senses ensures that lunch, breakfast or dinner becomes genuinely memorable.
He would also constantly ask them questions. Not to solicit answers but to enable them to come to certain realisations. He would tell them stories about how the world works. They realised that there were loads of important things in life and business that they hadn’t even known that they didn’t know.
For three days, they all ate together and had these illuminating conversations. He also took them out into nature and went through a process to help them achieve aspirational clarity. It was incredible, and the whole experience could not have come at a better time for Daniel. Daniel had been unhappy at work for a while. He was single and did not know what he wanted to do with his life. After it all, Daniel’s new mentor told him that the process he had just been through was only an introduction. Daniel’s new mentor would be presenting an in-depth seminar in Malaysia later that same year.
Daniel was keen to attend the seminar in Malaysia, even though the course and the travel expenses would set him back three months’ salary. The only catch was that the course was in Mandarin. Highly energised by the few days Daniel had just spent, he considered trying to learn the language before the end of the year. But the Malaysian couple who had gone through the same process with Daniel had a better solution. They assured Daniel that they would also be attending the seminar and would translate everything from Mandarin into English for Daniel. That was all Daniel needed, and so he booked his flight.
In December 2011, Daniel attended the three-day course in Malaysia. His new friends translated enough of the contents to keep him in the loop. It opened a whole new world for Daniel as he saw and learnt a different way of thinking. After the course, he spent a few days with his mentor visiting businesses in Malaysia. In some of them, he owned shares; others, he was just looking at, considering whether to invest. He introduced Daniel to company bosses and gave him a real glimpse into the life of a venture capital investor. Armed with new insights and more profound knowledge, Daniel decided that this was what he wanted to do. He would start in South Africa in the new year.
It was during this Christmas holiday in Hartenbos that Daniel Strauss would meet his future wife, and future Miss World, Rolene Strauss. They met at an establishment called De Dekke, where only a few days after returning from Malaysia, he asked her to dance. He needed a good opening line and his was: ‘You look very intelligent.’ It worked, and, even better, it turned out to be true.
Later that evening, returning home, Daniel told his parents that he had met a girl. Before he could utter her name, his father said that he knew what he was planning to say next. ‘Rolene Strauss.’ Flabbergasted, he asked how he had guessed. He produced a local newspaper, which showed Rolene handing over the crown at a beauty contest she had won the previous year. Her name had stuck with his father, because she was also a Strauss, though no relation between them. And he said he could see from the picture that she would be my kind of girl.
Daniel had made sure to take Rolene’s number that night and asked her to join him for ice cream the next day. She said yes, but on the condition that one of her girlfriends could tag along. He mulled it over that evening and texted her in the morning to say that they should go for a jog on the beach instead. Now, he suspected that most loyal friends would be in for ice cream, but not that many would go for a jog on the beach just for moral support. And that is how he ensured there was no third wheel on our first date. Rolene said yes, but there was no sign of her friend.
Daniel and Rolene ended up talking more than jogging. Their discussion soon veered in a direction that made him realise she was an exceptional person. It was 27 December, so New Year’s resolutions came up. When she told him she had just fulfilled the last of her resolutions for the year, he decided that he wanted to marry her. Hardly anyone even remembers by December what they had resolved to do in January, let alone sticks to it and sees it through. he wanted to surround himself with extraordinary people, and she was certainly one of them.
Unfortunately, they had only about six days to get to know each other. Early in the new year, Daniel had to go back to the Cape to resign from a job he did not like. And Rolene was set to return to Bloemfontein where she was studying medicine. So it was bound to be a long-distance relationship from the start. Daniel was ten years her senior and soon to be unemployed, so he knew it would not be the easiest sell to her parents. But they both knew the relationship had a lot of potential.
This is what Rolene has to say about it: ‘He was quite a bit older than me, but I knew I wanted to get to know him well. So, we made sure our parents got to meet each other very soon. D’Niel (close friends and family call him D’Niel) had already left for Cape Town when I took my parents over to his. Can you imagine how awkward… We had known each other less than a week and now I’m introducing our parents… But it worked. Our backgrounds are so similar. My mom will joke and say our furniture looks the same as theirs.’
From then on, their relationship used the tool of choice at the time: BlackBerry Messenger. And the BBMs would fly from the Cape to Bloemfontein and back, and sometimes Daniel would too. The rest of the time it was phone calls, which, it now turns out, rather impressed her, because everyone else was texting at the time. And the phone conversations had the positive side-effect of forcing them to communicate effectively.
Meanwhile, Rolene wanted to be crowned Miss South Africa, an ambition she had had for a while and something she had set her heart on. The year before, she’d managed to reach the final of the pageant but the feedback from the judges suggested that her English needed some work. If she was to win the title, it also meant that a romantic relationship like theirs would not be allowed out in the open. But it wouldn’t be that much of a hospital pass for their dating, as they were doing long-distance in any case.
Daniel said, if she went for it – actually if they went for it – all-out was the only way. Fortunately, they had the lessons he had learnt from his mentor and a new way of thinking in their arsenal. Rolene did the groundwork by asking the university authorities for a two-year sabbatical. Hold on a minute, you say. If she wins Miss South Africa, her duties would only put her studies on hold for a year… Why take off two? Well, they had an international title in mind from the start. They planned backwards from there. They used the same tools that you would use to build a business.
First, they identified who held the key to success. In a beauty pageant, it is the judges who decide who is crowned the winner. So, they would be Rolene’s target market. They did some research into what the backgrounds of the judges were likely to be. Then they set about finding the attributes they would be looking for. The easier you make it to spot those characteristics, the easier you make it for them to declare you the winner.
They studied the best of the best in the field and zoomed in on the most successful winners of the Miss World title. They identified eleven rent aspects, each an important part of the full package the judges would be looking for. They then developed a playbook on how to win a pageant, based on this information. Their plan mapped out in intricate detail what needed to be achieved in the preparation phases. What had to be accentuated at the pageant itself in order to score well. Then they set about positioning Rolene.
They started building an online profile. They created a website and posted regular blogs by Rolene. When judges or journalists went about their research on her, they would find insightful pieces she had authored. Building a brand was not that difficult. All of the contestants were young and had very little experience, let alone a brand. No one else was approaching their entry in a professional way at the time, so Rolene’s profile soon stood out.
They didn’t change anything about her. She just became a magnified version of herself. Using careful planning, they achieved the same things that fame would have done. And no other contestant was able to do the same. This is what Rolene has to say about it: ‘D’Niel immediately took on a mentorship role. Similar to the way he approaches the entrepreneurs he invests in. He really unlocked my mind to a new way of thinking. I had decided I wanted to be Miss South Africa, so I could use winning the title as a starting point and plan backwards from there. Then all the steps necessary to achieve the final goal were quite straightforward.’
They prepared for the interviews together, they workshopped questions and possible answers, and, of course, they worked on her English. They even got a pageant coach to help. At the time he was completely unknown, but later became the number one in his field globally. If you ask Rolene, she will tell you that she had zero stress because she was well prepared: ‘And importantly, it was not all or nothing for me. I had my studies and a career ahead of me. I also had D’Niel.’
Daniel was also very calm. He couldn’t imagine that anyone had ever before delved into so much detail about what the judges actually wanted and then gone to the effort of delivering exactly that. So, for him it was a win-win. If Rolene was awarded the title, he would have the satisfaction of seeing her realise her dream. If she did not, they could get married sooner. Late in March 2014, Rolene was crowned Miss South Africa and Daniel made sure that he was in Sun City at the time.
‘Usually when someone becomes Miss South Africa, they are so ecstatic that they just sign everything immediately. D’Niel told me to hold on before putting pen on paper and combed through the contract first. So he actually negotiated the terms of the deal for me, which I’m not so sure ever happened before,’ says Rolene.
It was the start of a very busy year for Rolene and, unfortunately, it also meant that they were not allowed to be seen together in public. When it came to the Miss World pageant, which took place in December that year, most of the preparations had already been done. After several months as Miss South Africa, Rolene had as much experience as anyone there.
But spending a month with 125 other national beauty queens is not necessarily a walk in the park. This time, they focused more on Rolene’s emotional preparation.
Rolene avoided the trap of comparing what she fears are her weaknesses to the strengths of others. In the end, she was extremely calm and composed. On 14 December she became the first South African to win the title in 40 years.
Daniel had, long before this, decided to ask her to marry him. Can you imagine the pressure of looking for an engagement ring for Miss South Africa? And then she becomes Miss World! It had to be something proper. He didn’t have much money to spare at the time. Luckily, he had been building his business in the meantime and one of their first big deals came off just in time.
On 25 December Daniel got down on one knee. She said yes. But she could wear the ring only when she was visiting him. They remained secretly engaged for six months. Rolene handed over her crown late in 2015. They got married in February 2016.
Daniel Strauss was travelling to the Far East regularly to accompany his mentor when he looked at companies to invest in. It was on one of these trips that Daniel ended up in the boardroom during a pitching session in Mandarin. The investment committee asked him what he thought about the luxury wristwatch maintenance business.
He said something very simple, in English of course, about the danger of overestimating how much growth opportunity the maintenance business would have. His mentor translated it and, from what he could gather, he made Daniel sound rather a lot smarter. Everyone seemed duly impressed by Daniel’s contribution.
On the same visit, Daniel’s mentor was a guest speaker at a business event of more than five hundred people. While on the stage, he said something like: ‘I brought Daniel Strauss a venture capital investor from South Africa, and he is going to address you now.’ Daniel was somewhat taken aback as he didn’t have anything prepared. The speakers were from all over the world. There were translators and the attendees had earpieces, ready to listen to Daniel’s pearls of wisdom. Daniel’s mentor urged him to come on stage, telling him not to speak for too long, and he said a few words.
Afterwards, he asked Daniel: What did you just learn? Always have a speech prepared.
At home, Daniel was engaged in building a business. He wanted a portfolio of investments with long-term growth potential. The only challenge was that he had almost no capital to start with. It takes money to make money, people often say. But his mentor had a different take on it, asking him: What makes you think that you can make money with money if you cannot make money without money?
Daniel started off with sweat capital and gradually built up a decent but modest portfolio of private investments. It also gave him the opportunity to observe different businesses in various industries and at different stages of development. His mentor opened his mind to a new way of thinking – and to the importance of mentorship.
Daniel had his big ‘aha’ moment with him very early in their relationship, in one of those Cape Winelands restaurants when Daniel realised that there were things that he didn’t know and that he didn’t even know he didn’t know them. And that Daniel’s own frame of reference is not how the world is actually put together. Daniel’s mentor gave Daniel the insight that there are certain rules that people use to build incredible wealth.
Over time, Daniel has tested many of the things he learned from his original mentor and from others, refining his philosophy on investing specifically for the South African context. Daniel has realised that it is vital to see the bigger picture and to Think Above the Line. But in a South African context, you still need to focus on the details and you can’t neglect the underlying business.
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