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10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

Remarkable stories about local entrepreneurs who built big businesses and well known brands up from humble beginnings.

Nadine Todd

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Lebo Gunguluza
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Ryan Bacher

NetFlorist, SA’s largest online gifting company, was launched by accident

ryan-bacher

Ryan Bacher

“Our plan was to run the site for one day to prove that we could do it. And then we got R30 000 worth of orders. That was the equivalent of a whole month’s revenue at a flower shop.”

Ryan Bacher, Lawrence Brick and Jonathan Hackner; launched NetFlorist on Valentine’s day in 1999.

The founders of NetFlorist had no intention of starting an online floral and gifting company – they just wanted to prove to Makro that they could design and run an e-commerce site. But Valentine’s day came and went, and the ‘test’ site did unbelievably well, so they didn’t shut it off.

“What’s really crazy is that people were paying for us to provide a service. We had no stock and knew nothing about flowers. We just sent the orders to a flower shop in Sandton,” says Ryan Bacher.

How did they make it work? “We knew our best bet was to get the website out, hack it, and keep changing it. We would learn more from the site being out there in the market than we could ever learn in-house, trying to develop a perfect product. It was basically always a work in progress.”

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Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

From Silicon Valley To SA: How Online Marketplace for Developers OfferZen Was Born

OfferZen was conceived in Silicon Valley but launched in Cape Town. The company founders discuss the advantages (and disadvantages) of starting a tech business in South Africa.

GG van Rooyen

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Philip and Malan Joubert of OfferZen
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Vital stats

  • Players: Philip and Malan Joubert
  • Company: OfferZen
  • Established: 2015
  • Visit: www.offerzen.com
  • About: OfferZen is a curated online marketplace for software development talent. It has over 500 companies since it launched, including big industry names like Barclays, GetSmarter, Takealot, FNB, Superbalist, Allan Gray, and 24.com. Founders Malan and Philip Joubert have been included in Quartz Africa’s annual Africa Innovators list for 2017. The list features 30 of Africa’s leaders in technology, business, arts, science, agriculture, design and media.

As soon as they graduated from university, brothers Philip and Malan Joubert entered the start-up scene. Their first business, FireID, met a rather swift and ignominious end, but they kept the name and launched an incubator under the same moniker in Stellenbosch.

This endeavour was far more successful, helping to launch local start-ups like SnapScan and JourneyApps. Soon, a few of the businesses in their incubator were scaling and in need of funding, so the Jouberts relocated (with the start-ups) to Silicon Valley.

While living in the world’s most famous tech hub, the idea for OfferZen was born.

1How did you get the idea for OfferZen?

We enjoyed running the incubator, but we also knew that we loved start-up life and wanted to launch our own business. We identified education and recruitment as two areas where a tech start-up could be particularly successful and have a real impact.

Related: Meet The 40 Richest Self-Made Entrepreneurs On Earth

We settled on developer recruitment because of how skewed that marketplace is. Companies are so desperate for good developers, that they get spammed constantly on sites like LinkedIn.

We decided to create a site where developers could upload their details and companies would approach them — the opposite of your typical job or recruitment site.

2Why launch in South Africa instead of Silicon Valley?

We knew the South African recruitment market well, so we felt more confident launching locally. Also, South Africa is home to some great developers, as well as many large companies in need of their services, so we knew that a market existed for what we were doing.

Another big reason was the fact that we could bootstrap this business in South Africa, while we would have needed to raise funds if we wanted to operate in Silicon Valley.

Living and operating there is extremely expensive, so you need a lot of runway. There’s also a lot more competition, so you need big names and big money behind you.

3Is visiting a place like Silicon Valley worthwhile if you want to launch a tech business in South Africa?

It is definitely worth it. There is an unbelievable concentration of talent and expertise in Silicon Valley, and people are very willing to speak to you. While we were there and preparing to launch OfferZen, we spoke to countless similar recruitment businesses.

Figuring out what could be handled via software/computers versus what we would need people for was one of our major questions, and it was great to discuss this with experts on the ground. So, yes visiting Silicon Valley can be very useful, but you should be working on a specific project.

People there don’t mind engaging with you, but they want to address specific issues and challenges. They don’t want to chat in general. If you’re not actually busy working on a business, you won’t find it as useful.

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

4How did you manage to attract enough developers and companies to create a viable marketplace?

It really is a chicken/egg situation. You need a bunch of companies on the site to attract developers, and you need developers to attract companies, so how do you build up your database to a point where the whole thing becomes viable? That was one of the biggest challenges we had.

Our advantage, though, was that good developers are so sought after. Companies are desperate to find developers, so they were quite keen to support what OfferZen was doing and join the marketplace. We started by building up a solid database of companies, and then started signing up developers.

Once we had the companies, it was easier to convince the developers. We also offer developers who find employment through OfferZen a R5 000 bonus. Importantly, we started off quite small. Initially we just focused on Cape Town and created a viable marketplace there.

Once that was up and running, we expanded to Johannesburg. If we threw the net too wide, we ran the risk of not having enough developers and companies in one place.

5You have a very impressive developer-centric blog on your site. Why the focus on the blog?

We realise that only a small portion of developers are actively searching for a job at any given time, so we wanted to create something that would allow us to engage and offer something useful to the rest.

Ultimately, we want all developers to be aware of OfferZen and its website, and a great way to do this is to generate useful content that drives traffic to the site. But we don’t think this would work if the whole exercise was just a thinly-veiled marketing exercise.

So, we decided to create genuinely useful content that would interest local tech entrepreneurs and developers. Creating this kind of content takes time and money, but we believe it’s worth it.

6You’ve grown massively over the last twelve months, from five people to more than 20. How do you make good hires when having to fill roles that quickly?

We’ve posted an article on our blog where we go into the minute details of our hiring process, which people can read, but I would add that people should seek out the book Who: Solve Your #1 Problem by Geoff Smart. It’s a fantastic book on the hiring process.

Another thing worth mentioning, which OfferZen does, is to have what we call ‘simulation days’, where a candidate comes in and does actual work for a few days. It requires time and energy from the rest of the team, and it is also risky, since the candidate is doing real work and interacting with real clients, but we find that it’s an excellent way to gauge capability and culture fit.

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Gareth Cliff Shares His Tips For Starting Your Very Own Podcast

Here are Gareth Cliff’s tips for starting your very own podcast.

GG van Rooyen

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Well-known South African DJ Gareth Cliff left radio a few years ago to start his own podcasting company, CliffCentral. The company celebrated its third birthday in May of 2017, and has shown steady growth, both in terms of content and listeners. CliffCentral has definitely shown that there is a South African market for this new medium.

Here are Gareth Cliff’s tips for starting your very own podcast.

1How easy is it to start a podcast if you don’t have a large team/company behind you?

Anyone can start a podcast. You don’t need staff, a studio or expensive equipment. The hard part is delivering quality content and being consistent.

Related: When Gareth Cliff Met Bill Draper – The First Skype Funder

2What advice do you have for people looking to start a podcast? What are some of the dos and dont’s?

What can you do that nobody else can, or what can you do better than anyone else? That would be the start of the content plan for the podcast. Also, be prepared to grow the audience slowly. Building a solid listenership takes time. It isn’t something that happens quickly.

3More and more companies (like Dell and McAfee) are launching branded podcasts. What do you think of this as a content marketing strategy?

We think it’s terrific, as long as it’s relevant and interesting. Take a listen to what Gimlet Creative are doing for Microsoft and Virgin Atlantic. They’re not ads, they’re great to listen to. AutoCentral on CliffCentral is our motoring show, hosted by the guys from AutoTrader — and it’s really good, because they are so passionate about cars. T-Systems also host their own podcast during which they interview ‘disrupters’ in the industry.

4What does the local landscape look like? How is the local popularity of podcasting growing? Do you need to aim your content at an international audience?

Local service providers have told us that podcasting in South Africa doubled from 2014 to 2016 and keeps growing incrementally. In the US, podcasting has increased by 70% year on year for the last three years. That makes it the fastest growing medium of all. Our audiences are local and international. They choose us, we don’t target them.

Related: Celebrity Jen Su On Building Your Brand

5What is it about podcasting that you think sets it apart from other channels/mediums? What are its strengths, and what are its weaknesses?

Podcasting is replacing long-form journalism. People don’t have time to read reams of stuff. You can listen to a podcast while you’re driving, cooking or training. Also, mainstream media try to be everything to everyone. As Dion Chang recently told me in an interview, individuality is the way of the future — and niched content will become much more sought after than bland content crafted to appeal to the masses.

6What are some of the challenges of doing a regular podcast that people don’t tend to think of starting out?

Keeping content fresh, unique and relevant. That sounds easy, but it’s hard to consistently up your game and keep delivering. Listening to podcasts is an active choice — people don’t stumble upon them like you stumble upon a music radio show. That means the audience are discerning; they understand all the choices they have.

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8 Pieces Of Sage Advice From Ernest Corbett of Tintswalo Safari Lodges

Ernest Corbett has been an entrepreneur for decades. These days, he is the chairman for Tintswalo Safari Lodges. Entrepreneur spoke to him about cultivating a growth mind-set and creating an experience clients keep coming back for.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Ernest Corbett
  • Position: Chairman
  • Company: Tintswalo Safari Lodges
  • Established: 2003
  • Visit: tintswalo.com

When Ernest Corbett moved with his family from the Eastern Cape to Johannesburg in the mid-1980s he had no money and very few prospects. The Corbett family had lived an idyllic existence in the Cape, but the focus had not been on making money. Eventually, the money ran out and the family was forced to move to Joburg, where there were more financial opportunities.

“I realised that I had failed as a father and a breadwinner,” says Corbett. “I viewed it as a sort of treason.”

He didn’t give up

Corbett used this realisation as a motivator to create some of South Africa’s most successful property developments. These days, he is heavily involved in the exclusive Tintswalo Safari Lodges. Here is his advice on creating a company that not only shows solid growth, but surprises and delights customers as well.

Related: AutoTrader South Africa’s George Mienie Knows Disruptive Innovation Is More Than Shifting Gears

Have a good partnership in place

Very few entrepreneurs have all the skills necessary to run a successful business. I believe that the right partnership is essential. For me, that partner is my wife, Gaye. I have always been the goal maker and Gaye the financial and detail controller. This is possibly the biggest single reason for our success — the two of us working together.

If you don’t have a purpose, you’re not even in the starting blocks

Very few people will attain long-term success if they care only about making money. Financial success alone is not a good driver for long-term growth. If you want to create a business that lasts, it’s important to figure out exactly what your purpose is. What do you ultimately want to achieve? For me, it’s always been about family.

I wanted to create a business that could offer work, opportunities and financial freedom for my whole family — that was my purpose. Of course, this isn’t the only worthy goal, but it’s important to have a goal. Pursue something that has true value for you. If you care only about money, you’ll lose your drive when the business becomes successful, and that’s when a company stagnates. Real growth comes from pursuing something bigger than money.

Never underestimate the value of data

Tintswalo Safari Lodges

We’ve always placed great emphasis on tracking statistics. When you experience great growth, you want to be able to identify the reasons behind it. You don’t want to have to guess. You want to know exactly what’s driving growth, and you want to be able to double down on it. This is only possible when you track all activities in a business.

Similarly, you want to know the moment that there is a downturn in the business. Without comprehensive data, it can take you too long to notice an issue, so by the time you start tackling it, it could be too late. The adage is true: You can only manage what you measure. Identify your primary goals in the business, and focus on the metrics that’ll get you where you want to be.

Know when to spend and when to save

Many companies start cutting back on expenses the moment that the economy takes a dip. This isn’t a bad idea in principle, but it’s important not to cut back on the wrong things. I’ve never believed in cutting back on marketing, for instance. That could easily end up just slowing your growth even further.

When the competition is marketing less, that’s when you should get your name out there and increase market share. That said, you only want to push aggressive growth when the company is on a solid footing. Let the data tell you when it’s the right time to grow.

Related: Stuart Weaving’s Unexpected Journey To Becoming A Serial Entrepreneur

Don’t be a debt slave

Success and growth can often lead to unnecessary spending. As soon as you become ‘successful’, there’s a temptation to splurge and show the world just how successful you are. That’s not how you build a great business. Sure, incurring debt is often necessary when building a business, but it needs to be the right kind of debt.

Don’t spend money on fancy cars and offices. Don’t get into debt just to impress the world. More money and success can too easily just result in more debt. If you want to build a great company and enjoy long-term success, you need to first break out of the cycle of debt.

Hire a good financial director

If you want to grow your business, you can’t be too operationally involved. You need to be able to step away and take a more strategic view, and you can’t do that if you’re putting out fires every day. You should be the goal setter — the one who gives the business direction. Find great people and delegate. Specifically, find a great financial director who can handle the money. In my opinion, it’s hard to lead the organisation and focus on the bottom line.

Every business hits barriers

And every time you hit a barrier, you have the choice to either back off or swing for the fences. The important thing is to not view challenges as barriers, but as tests. Life gives us challenges so we can overcome them.

Every great business is the result of immense tenacity. Ultimately, it is defined by the challenges that it faces and manages to overcome. Growth comes from viewing challenges as opportunities.

Surprise and delight your clients

We go to extreme lengths to surprise and delight the guests who visit our lodges, specifically those who are regular clients. When a business becomes a certain size, you run the risk of losing touch with your customers. You start focusing too much on the big picture, and not enough on the individual people who have played a role in your success.

My wife and I often fly to a lodge just to greet regular guests, or we’ll arrange for drinks and snacks to be set up specially for them during a game drive. Regardless of the size of the business, the little things are important. Never take your customers for granted. Treat every client like your first.


Key Insights

You can only manage what you measure

Identify the primary goals in the business and focus on the metrics that will help you get to where you want to be.

Track all activities in your business          

There should be no guesswork in business. You want to know exactly what’s driving growth so that you can double down on it.

Every challenge is a test of success         

Life gives us challenges so that we can overcome them. All growth comes from viewing challenges as opportunities.

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