These 11 South African entrepreneurs have experienced their fair share of ups and downs. Some of them needed life changing events, and external criticism in order to pivot or launch their finally successful business or venture. But in the end, they persevered and today run some of the most thriving companies in the country.
It’s becoming clearer to many that the journey of an entrepreneur is difficult one. They start out in their garages, and some sleep in their cars to save capital. A few realise, after years of running their businesses, that it can’t scale and they’ll need to pivot. Life also happens, which means entrepreneurs also wade through life altering events that regularly drive them re-evaluate their life’s path.
Here are 11 of South Africa’s best and brightest businesspeople, sharing their stories and advice on how they overcame obstacles and struggles in order to achieve success:
1. Mphela & Associates on scaling their legal services enterprise
- Player: Maditsi Mphela
- Company: Mphela & Associates
- Established: 1986
- Turnover: R100 million
- Visit: www.mphela.co.za
As a lawyer, Maditsi Mphela didn’t really consider himself a businessman. But, when he started his own legal practice that is exactly what he became. Law firms are service-orientated businesses, which are notoriously difficult to scale. This is because lawyers are highly-skilled professionals and each case can take lengthy amounts of time.
As the owner, Mphela employed skilled and ‘expensive’ people who spent a lot of time on each case. There was a need to reposition in order to access a growing client base and to facilitate access to the High Court. His practice at the time was successful, earning him R10 000 in the first year and growing from 1 000 to 15 000 clients, but it started to stagnate and he needed to figure out how to scale it.
The top secret
Mphela found the answer by finding a specific focus for his business. Instead of being a general practice, Mphela and Associates would focus their energies on personal injury cases and cases against the state. He found that other cases were requiring more work and time, and offered relatively low incomes for his team. So, he re-engineered his firm to focus on areas that yielded huge returns.
2. Decision Inc. had to pivot to build a sustainable business
- Player: Nicholas Bell
- Company: Decision Inc.
- Established: 2008
- Turnover: R116 million
- Visit: www.decisioninc.co.za
Nicholas Bell launched his business that serviced big corporates and positioned it as a value partner. Five years after launching, his turnover was R21 million and he boasted clients like Simba, Harmony, SAB and Sibanye Gold. However, when meeting with an International Selection Panel to join Endeavour, they told him that they didn’t believe his business could scale, as the Intellectual Property wasn’t his, and that he was open to disruption.
“The feedback made me look at the business critically and evaluate our strengths and weaknesses,” he says. Bell realised that Decision Inc. was open to disruption if someone bought their single vendor. He also looked into who controlled his company’s licence to trade.
The top secret
Once these weakness had been identified, Bell systematically solved each one. First, he partnered with other vendors to avoid future possible disruption from only having one vendor. Then, he turned his attention to IP: “We’re an intellectual business that relies on human capital. Our IP resides in a lot of people’s heads. We needed to get it out of [their] heads and into the business,” explains Bell.
His business had a high capacity, but more employees couldn’t do the work faster. He needed to change his business model, which is what he did. Bell’s business is now worth more than R100 million and in the next five years his business could be worth 10 times return on investment.
3. Get creative when the pay cheques stop coming
- Player: Jerusha Govender
- Company: Data Innovator
- Established: 2015
- Visit: www.thedatainnovator.com
When Jerusha Govender went on maternity leave with her first child, her company decided to not renew her contract for economic reasons. Within weeks of the birth of her son, she had registered her business, Data Innovator. But, how would she get her idea to market? If you can’t get customers to pay for your service, you don’t have a business.
The top secret
“I contacted everyone I knew. That’s a real plus point to working for a few years before you start your own business. The industry gets to know you, you build up a track record and develop necessary experience and expertise to be really innovative in your field,” she says.
However, Govender didn’t have a proven track record as a business owner, so she offered her services for free for a specific period of time to grow trust with her customers. This business model was risky, but in Govender’s case it paid off. She told her clients up front that after two free reports, she would need to be paid for her services, and they agreed. Now, her business is based entirely on referrals and clients have kept coming since she entered the market.
4. TBO Touch on fighting an uphill battle against your critics
- Player: TBO Touch
- Company: Touch Central, serial entrepreneur
- Established: 2016
- Visit: www.touch-hd.com
When TBO Touch started his career on Metro FM, critics were quick to predict that he wouldn’t be able to grow his primetime show into an asset. His goal, however, was to change the business of radio by converting three hours of radio into a ‘movement’. Throughout his entrepreneurial exploits, it’s argued that the ‘media’ is waiting for him to fail, as he’s already made headlines several times.
The top secret
“My mantra from the beginning of my career has been to under-promise and over-deliver.” This method allowed him to consistently keep his clients happy and coming back for more, despite what was happening in the press.
Another top secret that helped TBO Touch go from strength to strength is to continuously have a positive mindset.
“Everything looks big and daunting until you realise how easy it is when you reach the top. There is no such thing as impossible. There are minds and attitudes that create excuses not to attain goals, that’s all.”
Self-doubt or second guessing yourself can have a detrimental impact on your business, it’s better to rather be positive about your business and the direction you’re heading in.
5. Demographica learnt the hard lesson of adapt and grow or be left behind
- Player: Warren Moss
- Company: Demographica
- Established: 2006
- Visit: www.demographica.co.za
Demographica has been around for a decade already, and during this time the company has enjoyed tremendous growth. But, it had to pivot the business to maintain its growth curve.
Long-term companies can see massive disruption heading down the pipeline and that’s what happened with Demographica.
“Things like the Consumer Protection Act and the Protection of Personal Information Act were coming into being, so I realised that a database service like ours would come under threat. If we wanted to keep going we would have to change our business,” says Moss.
The top secret
“We weren’t simply sending out emails. We were constantly solving problems for clients. Our clients were asking us for help, and we started to build a reputation as a business that could provide advice and insight on a strategic level. We realised this was an area we could focus on, and so we started to turn into more of an agency, with a focus on direct marketing,” Moss explains.
Demographica not only pivoted, but also carved out a significant niche to operate in. “Since changing over, the company has grown by 200%.” So they completely changed their offering and overhauled the whole company in order to avoid being disrupted and to scale effectively.
6. Planet Fitness started with no credit record, no assets and no money
- Player: Manny Rivera
- Company: Planet Fitness
- Established: 1995
- Turnover: R850 million
- Company worth: Between R2 billion and R3 billion
- Visit: www.planetfitness.co.za, www.justgym.co.za
“I started out with no backing, no cash, and no major corporate infrastructure behind me.” But, Manny Rivera was going to launch a major fitness brand to compete with the Health and Racquet Club no matter what.
“I had pure blind passion and only the end in mind. That’s what I focused on. I had a clear vision: I wanted to be the most profitable and successful health club in South Africa…and beyond,” says Rivera.
The first challenge was gaining skills, credibility and a share of the market: “The trick is to focus on what you do have and not what you don’t have.”
The top secret
Manny Rivera used the fact that he was starting smaller to his advantage. His competition wouldn’t be paying attention to him. “I knew they’d underestimate the little guy,” he says.
“I found a stand-alone club with nice, old-school equipment and started negotiating with the owner. I couldn’t get a loan to buy the business, so I had to make him an attractive offer that suited both our needs.” Rivera offered the gym owner R50 000 a month with a 10% escalation per year for the next ten years, after that the gym would be his, and that was his first stepping-stone to building a fitness empire.
7. Do what you know, especially if you can do it better than everyone else
- Player: Busi Skenjana
- Company: Brand Support Keys Marketing
- Established: 2002
- Visit: www.bskmarketing.co.za
Busi Skenjana wanted to become an entrepreneur, but she couldn’t figure out precisely what she should do. “I knew I needed a niche for myself,” says Skenjana. She understood that she had to comprehend her customers, their needs and their challenges and relate her message in a way that made them care about what she was telling them. Except, she just didn’t have an audience.
Skenjana has been a member of a stokvel her entire adult life, and it’s an industry that she knows intimately.
“I could see where brands were getting it wrong. Big companies were doing brand activations in black communities, but they were missing the mark,” says Skenjana.
The top secret
She suddenly realised this should be the industry she should focus on for her marketing business. Big business was missing the social path to their target marker, but Skenjana knew where they would be.
“Every Saturday there are thousands of stokvel meetings happening around the country. People are engaging with each other on a social level. It’s an engaged audience and far more focused than people at taxi ranks or in malls,” explains Skenjana.
Another top secret, Skenjana says: “If you put your market first and really focus on their needs, success will naturally follow, because you’ll be offering a service that adds real value to businesses and lives.”
8. Partner with your competitor to continue experiencing growth
- Player: Rudolf Vavruch and Peter Puren
- Company: RentMyRide
- Visit: www.rentmyride.co.za
Peer-to-peer car rental is an exciting business model in its own right within South Africa. There is, however, some debate around how much growth these sorts of businesses can achieve given the largely higher LSM’s and corporate entities that this model initially appealed to.
Being unable to scale would have eventually caused RentMyRide to become stagnant and the business would have slowly downsized, or faced disruption by a competitor.
The top secret
Recognising this potentially limited growth, the founders of RentMyRide partnered with Uber in South Africa to provide easy and equitable solutions for both fleet partners. A separate business and platform, DriverSelect, connects these parties and enables the owners to still get great returns on their vehicles, but with far less involvement in the administration of their fleet.
9. Launching amidst a global economic crisis made Car Service City stronger
- Player: Grant Brady
- Company: Car Service City
- Established: 2004
- Visit: www.carservicecity.co.za
For a young company, launching and being hit by a global economic crisis is the worst scenario you can think of. Establishing and growing a business under normal circumstances is hard enough, but when the world’s economy contracts, it can be nearly impossible to succeed.
But, Car Service City didn’t close down like many other businesses did when the Global Financial Crisis of 2009 hit. They flourished. And, over the past decade the brand has expanded to over 60 franchise locations nationwide.
The top secret
“We believe our business is recession-proof because road transport is the main method of transport for South Africa. Because we use cars so much, we need to keep them in top condition. The maintenance of vehicles is therefore key to keep them in top conditions,” Brady says.
Car Service City also focuses their attention on one-man-show car service businesses. This allowed them to both convert the competition and create new experienced owner-managers.
10. Avoid assumptions that a great career will come with time and patience
- Player: Kate Moodley
- Company: Discovery Consulting Services
- Established: 2010
- Visit: www.katemoodley.co.za
In her early 20s, Kate Moodley was told to have patience and build her career. Trying to beat this misconception can take many years for entrepreneurs to overcome. Listening to bad advice can be just as devastating as a disruptor or an economic crisis.
Thankfully Moodley was far too impatient to wait ten years for a promotion, which is how she became a GM at Momentum by 26.
The top secret
She achieved her promotion by upskilling herself while she looked for opportunities. “I went out and taught myself the skills I needed to fill that role. Typically, successful people are doing things that other people don’t want to do. Where you put in effort is where you’ll see the rewards.”
Moodley focuses religiously on her self-development and keeps herself disciplined enough to work on it continuously.
“Do it the right way. Don’t choose options that make it easier in the short term – think long-term; learn more, look longer and further into the future,” she says.
11. A man with ‘only matric’ on becoming a universally loved brand
- Player: Brian Altriche
- Company: RocoMamas
- Launched: 2014
- Visit: www.rocomammas.com
Brian Altriche started his work life airbrushing Harley Davidsons and leather jackets on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. During the late 80’s, early 90’s it was finally time to return to the new South Africa.
He moved to Yeoville and started painting signage for restaurants. Altriche had no tertiary qualifications, but he was creative, and a fast learner. He was paying attention to branding and marketing, and figuring out what customers responded to. And then his accident happened, he broke his arm and leg along with sustaining a head injury. He was stranded in hospital. During his time in hospital he re-evaluated his life path.
The top secret
He became obsessed with visualisation, the visualising of his life path, what a successful brand should look like, various options for how customers would experience a particular offering. Nothing would happen until he visualised it down to the tiniest detail, because once he saw it perfectly in his mind’s eye, he could aim for it and achieve it.
Twenty years later, this fanatical relationship with the power of visualisation would lead directly to the launch of RocoMamas, which is arguably one of the most successful new food chains in South Africa’s fast, casual dining sector.
AUTHOR: Nicole Crampton
IMAGE CREDITS: http://www.mphela.co.za