Like many consultancies and entrepreneurial businesses, Flamingo Moon began life as a ‘boot of a car’ operation, with Lizwe Nkala unable to afford an office and using his car as a mobile workplace.
Because he was essentially selling time and not a product, this was possible, but Nkala had big dreams, and being a mere seller of time was not one of them. “I had already been running my business for two years when I read an article that completely changed my perception of what it means to be successful,” he explains.
“The article highlighted the fact that there are two types of people in this world: buyers of time, and sellers of time. The buyers of time understand that there are only so many hours in a day, and in order to build an empire and achieve all their goals, they need more time.
The sellers of time take their time, package it in a particular offering or service, and then sell it. These are salaried employees. The buyers of time are the world’s great entrepreneurs.”
Up until this point, Nkala was nothing more than a seller of time. He had left his corporate position as head of strategic marketing at Old Mutual to become a strategy consultant and run his own business, but had ended up contracting his services to other larger consultancies anyway. He was still nothing more than a seller of time. But he wanted more.
Deciding to go solo
For Nkala, his entrepreneurial journey began while he was at Old Mutual. “Throughout ten years of corporate life I dreamt of owning my own business,” he says. “I actually used my job to role-play my future. I was passionate about strategy and I started coordinating internal brainstorming sessions, some of which weren’t even in my department.
“Everyone thought I just liked to volunteer, but really I was researching the way people interact with each other and how to get the most out of a strat session.”
By 2008 Nkala realised that he needed to make a choice. He could persevere and move his way up the ranks of Old Mutual, he could take his passion for strategy and consulting and approach one of the big five firms to join them, or he could leave to start his own venture. He chose the latter.
“The recession was just beginning and everyone knew the economy was about to contract, but I had read the biographies of all the great business leaders that inspire me, and they all had the same thing in common – not one of them built their businesses under perfect conditions. It was time to take a chance on myself.”
With three months’ income saved up, which he thought would be more than enough time to get on his feet, Nkala launched Flamingo Moon. “I had no idea what was in store for me. If I can offer other potential entrepreneurs one word of advice, it’s to cut back on all your expenses before you launch your own business.
I had a bond, car instalments and kids in a private school, and while I was earning a corporate salary it was all fine. This debt became extremely difficult to carry once I was living hand to mouth, just waiting for my next client.”
Bumps in the road
To make ends meet, Nkala began contracting to other firms. “I had a definite skill and I started making a name for myself, but as long as I was contracting for other firms, I wasn’t actually building my own business. I was a contracted employee.”
The problem was that contracting to other firms was the only way Nkala could operate at that point. “Cash flow issues weren’t my only problem,” he explains. “I had no infrastructure. When you work in a corporate environment you just take all the formal structures and processes for granted. There’s a system in place that works like clockwork.
“Suddenly I needed BEE certificates, admin documents and tax certifications, I needed to invoice clients, recon the work I had done, bills paid and money received, and chase clients for late payments – all things I hadn’t really taken into account and hadn’t made provision for.
I was so carried away with what I could do that I completely missed the fact that my admin capacity would seriously let me down.”
Working with larger firms meant all these things were taken care of. The problem was that Nkala had bigger plans for himself. He wanted Flamingo Moon to become a well-known name in the industry, and to do that he needed to stop operating from the boot of his car.
“Becoming a buyer of time requires a mind shift,” he says. The process was slow. Given the choice of paying his bond or registering his company, he chose the bond. He had no extra cash to invest in the company and so he continued consulting to other firms. But he wasn’t idle.
“Not everything can happen overnight. It took me two years to reach a point where I had systems in place and enough money reinvested in the business that I could rent office space and begin hiring employees. I needed to be patient. But I also needed to remain focused on that goal. Once I got my client base up and running I could have easily remained a consultant. But how was that different to my previous corporate employment, aside from perhaps a little bit more flexibility?”
Becoming an employer
“Buying time from others is an investment. You need to invest in a team and you need them to believe in your vision. I had intellectual capital; now I needed to find a way to really turn that into a business.” Step one was the acceptance that teams cost money, but that the investment would be worth it.
In order to go from small consultant to big consulting firm, Nkala knew he also needed to show the local business world the value of his offering.
“As a small firm with an entrepreneurial mindset we are incredibly flexible, which can be hugely valuable for our clients. We also have strong faith in our intellectual capital. Spending an additional two years, from 2008 to 2010, testing my acumen and adjusting my offering according to successes and the way clients reacted to my services, turned out to be a good thing.
“As entrepreneurs we tend to gnaw on our ideas like a dog would a bone, and the whole time we’re doing that, trying to perfect our business, we aren’t out there telling our potential clients about the value we have to offer them.
“This means when we’re finally ready to launch they know nothing about us, and we also haven’t actually tested our ideas and services in the open market. I realised that I had been out there testing my offering and adjusting it, so when I did officially launch Flamingo Moon in 2010, I was in a much stronger position than I had been in 2008.”
Today Flamingo Moon competes with the big five firms instead of contracting to them, and Nkala has just launched the Strategic Institute, which is the product of client interaction. “As we see where the gaps are, we need to shift our offerings.
This is the only way to grow,” he explains. “When something isn’t working, ditch it. But always, always pay attention to what the market wants and respond accordingly.”
From consumer to creator
One of the biggest lessons Lizwe Nkala needed to learn was the shift from a consumption mindset to one of creator. “At the beginning I operated on the basis of ‘If I earn this much, I can pay for that…’ I had bills to pay and not enough cash coming in to cover them.
“The problem was that as long as I continued to live hand to mouth, I couldn’t invest in the business. I couldn’t create my vision.” It was a difficult shift, but Nkala needed to actually reduce his take home pay even more so that he could formalise his work space and begin hiring a team.
“I paid my employees first and then myself, and concentrated on really showing potential clients the kind of value we offered. With a team and a formal structure behind me, I wasn’t just a consultant, I was a serious business, with a serious offering.”