Inana Nkanza, MD of iLAYO Software Solutions, found a career in IT by mistake. He did a diploma in programming to bide his time while making plans to go to university.
When he was approached by then IT giant Q Data to work on its helpdesk for a few months, he thought that would give him something to do while he waited for the academic year to begin.
Three months turned into a three-year contract, exposing Nkanza to almost every aspect of the IT world. Along the way, he discovered that he was a natural born salesperson. He was subsequently employed by the sales division of Computer Associates’ South African distributor, which was later acquired by CA when the company returned to South Africa.
“I was the only black salesperson on the team at the time,” say Nkanza. “I thrived in the sales environment and became CA’s best performing salesperson.” After three years he moved to Software Futures. “From an American multinational, I joined a small but very energetic business that had started operating out of a backroom.
My experience with Software Futures showed me that it was possible to create and grow a company.” In 1998, Software Futures was acquired by CCH, which was itself acquired by MGX, one of the biggest IT companies in the country, in 2000.
“I was aware of the fact that I was one of the few black people in the technology business, and I decided that I wanted to build a company that could focus on developing black talent in IT.”
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He used his savings to launch iLAYO Software Solutions in 2002, focusing on infrastructure management. Nkanza bemoans the lack of funding for start-ups in this country. “Funding bodies finance infrastructure, but not intellectual property, and that was all I had.
Because the business was self-funded, we had a short window of opportunity, but I was fortunate that I had built relationships with many large corporates while I was employed. Our first deal came through Telkom.” iLAYO has experienced double digit growth every year during its first five years, with 25% growth in years one and two, followed by a period of stabilisation in years three and four.
The company is anticipating double digit growth again in 2007. “There were only four of us in the company to begin with,” he says, “but we forged a partnership with MGX, so we were able to walk into large organisations with confidence, unlike typical start-ups.”
iLAYO encountered certain pitfalls along the way. “The demise of MGX resulted in a number of new competitors entering the market,” says Nkanza. “We countered the competition by leveraging our solid relationships with international suppliers.”
Among the challenges he has faced, Nkanza names the ability to fund growth as the biggest. “A small business tends to live from hand to mouth in the beginning. That is why partnerships are so important. Another key element is brand management – if you can get the market to trust your brand, you will have succeeded in fast-forwarding your business growth.
Our business is skills intensive, and it’s sometimes difficult for a small company to hold onto experienced staff, but our people are drawn to the fact that we have such a strong brand.” Nkanza is quick to point out his belief in the power of public relations.
“Many companies claim they cannot afford to do PR; my belief is that we cannot afford not to. Our growth has been about relationships and our core customers have always stood by us.” He stresses that it is important for business owners to identify where they want to go early on and drive towards that goal.
“Everyone wants to grow their company, but growth must not happen at the expense of quality. It’s one of the things you have to bear in mind when you are chasing deals. In a highly competitive market, relationships, reference sites and a solid track record are what pave the way for sustainable growth.”