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Attitude over aptitude, says founder of Oz’s first unicorn

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Whenever King David High School Linksfield (KDL) alumnus David Shein sits at a table, he always looks around and says to himself, “I’ve got to have the lowest IQ at this table.”

That said, Shein’s dad always told him, “You haven’t done too badly for a bloke who read two books in his life,” so he believes his dad would be most surprised to see that his son has recently authored and published a book, The Dumbest Guy at the Table – How I built Australia’s First Unicorn.

Com Tech Communications, a specialist supplier of networking and communications products, was that unicorn – the term for a start-up company valued at more than a billion dollars, typically in the technology or software sector.

When Shein established Com Tech in Australia in June 1987, he had just emigrated from South Africa with Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Accounting degrees from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

His mother-in-law pointed at him, and said, “You’ve got to get yourself a job like any normal South African.” In 1989, she asked, “Why don’t you give me any shares [in Com Tech]?”

Eleven years later, in 2000, Com Tech was sold to Dimension Data at an enterprise value of $1 billion (R15.6 billion). At that point, Shein’s company had more than 1 400 employees, offices throughout Australia, and revenue of $700 million (R10.8 billion). Com Tech had been profitable since its inception, and never used external debt.

Since the sale, Shein has been an early-stage investor and mentor for several start-ups, many of which have been successfully exited.

A couple of years ago, KDL’s former headmaster, Elliot Wolf, sent an email to Shein, reading, “Dear David, I will be coming to Australia and would love to catch up with you. I so fondly remember how you excelled academically and your feats on the sports field were no different. Your sister was also such an asset to the school.”

Shein replied, “Dear Mr Wolf, I neither excelled academically nor on the sports field, nor do I have a sister. I was a naughty kid, and didn’t excel in school by any means.”

Reflecting on this, Shein said on 13 April 2022 during a Wits-organised webinar titled “How a Witsie built Australia’s first unicorn”, “I think Mr Wolf definitely got the wrong student. There are two things that probably saved my life. One is I did national service. That really was a life-changing experience fortunately for the right reason. I just grew up in those two years, and they knocked the crap out of me.”

His other life-changing moment was after concluding his national service, when he said to himself, “You’re 19, you’re old, and you’ve done absolutely nothing with your life.”

Shein was lucky enough to garner a “fantastic education” at Wits between 1980 and 1984. “If you looked at the marks that I got for my matric, I should never ever have been accepted to any irreputable university, let alone a reputable one like Wits,” he said.

Before Shein went to Wits, his brother told their father, “I’m not sure how you can be sending him to university. He’s not university material.” That was a time when you didn’t even have to pay fees to attend Wits.

Some of the best lessons Shein learned came from outside the curriculum. “I remember when I was in the first semester of first-year law, our lecturer said, ‘When you answer your exam, just assume that the lecturer knows absolutely nothing because just for stating the obvious, you’re going to pass.’”

Shein has adopted this approach when communicating with staff, customers, and business partners.

“Albert Wessels, who bought Toyota to South Africa, was the keynote speaker at my graduation,” said Shein. “I’ll never forget that in his speech, he said, ‘In my lifetime, there have been eight recessions and seven booms, so I guess we’re heading for another boom.’ I have always looked at that knowing that when things are really good, they can’t last forever, and when things are really bad, they’re not going to last forever. You just have to ride those bad times out.”

When Shein emigrated to Australia, he was all set to work at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Somehow, I met someone in South Africa who had a company in Australia in the technology industry.”

Shein said securing a job in this company was his “luckiest break because I was paid badly. I was treated badly. I had a job which felt like someone was pushing me out the door to get to the office. I had no say in what I did, it was almost like I was paid to do, not to think. I just hated my job. My opportunity cost was that low – A$2 000 (R22 542) a month – that I thought that if I ever wanted to have a go at starting my own company, I might as well do it then.”

He founded Com Tech. “Obviously I was good at something,” he said. “I was a good salesperson, I was good at attracting and retaining people, I was good at selling to our business partners. But as with most things, there were a lot of smarter people than me, especially in the areas I wasn’t good at.”

Shein is a firm believer in EQ (emotional intelligence) over IQ. “It’s no use getting a degree without understanding how to deal with people,” he says. “I would advise anybody that it’s your attitude, not your aptitude, that will determine the altitude.

“I always say, ‘fair first, tough second’. If I have a blemish on my manager-management style, my biggest is that I was fair for too long, that I probably should have sometimes cut my losses a little bit earlier than I did. I would maybe have tried to educate that person, but you still have to make those tough decisions when you have to.”

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