Eight years ago Zoe Molapisi left a comfortable corporate job in the pharmaceuticals sector to start a one-woman communications company. Today, By Design Communications Group has annual turnover fast approaching the R100 million mark, a client list that includes major brands such as Coca-Cola, Telkom and Cell C and a footprint that extends into East and West Africa.
Apart from one temporary dip, her rise has been meteoric. But ask Molapisi what she’s most proud of and she’ll tell you it’s the fact that she achieved all this without capital, connections or favours. “You don’t need patronage and a handout to succeed in business. You can do it with hard work and perseverance, by holding your head up and never holding your hand out,” she says.
Molapisi cold-called her foot in the door of her first clients — and having done so made sure she impressed. “My business was new,
I had no connections to call on and no reputation to point to. But what I did have were the skills I’d developed in corporate life, which included an ability to conduct myself well in a boardroom and to present in a slick and professional way. I knew if I could just get in front of an audience I could use the boardroom as a stage to convince people to give my business
a chance to deliver,” she says.
Learning tough lessons
So convinced were Cell C that they awarded her an 18-month contract in the business’s first year of operation, and so passionate was Molapisi about delivering that she threw all the business’s energy into getting the job done.
“I had originally hoped that the business would do R1 million in the first year but because of that contract it did R5 million. All of a sudden I thought, ‘Hey, this is easy!’” she says, “I just assumed there’d be another contract like it round the corner so I didn’t worry about driving new business. I focused on getting the Cell C job done to an exacting standard of excellence.”
But when the contract came to an end, Molapisi realised that, for more than a year, she’d taken her eye off the rest of the business. Suddenly the work dried up and the company struggled to pay its bills. “Those cash-flow constraints were the toughest challenge I’ve ever faced. Thankfully I always managed to pay salaries and I kept in touch with everyone to whom we owed money, assuring them of our commitment to pay them back,” she says.
Molapisi learned a lesson she’s never forgotten, “Be financially prudent and plan for tough times,” she says, adding, “Today we run a low-cost operation.”
It took time but eventually the business got back on its feet. “We’ve always had a drive to continually improve how we do things and this was even more pronounced after the tough times the business had gone through. I started looking at the rest of the industry and in particular noting which companies were landing the big contracts. I analysed what they were doing right, what their characteristics were and what we could do to outdo them,” she says.
As a result she brought in a highly experienced creative director and placed a laser-like focus on the company’s execution strategy. The exercise paid dividends and By Design landed a large contract with Telkom. “That was really the turning point for us,” says Molapisi.
Doing it right
The company went from strength to strength, tripling the volumes of some of its categories of business between 2008 and the end of 2010 in the midst of the recession. In 2009 it turned its eyes to Africa, successfully launching a number of big campaigns. With an office already established in Nigeria to service the West African region, plans are in place to set up a presence in Rwanda and Kenya to service East Africa.
While the continent only currently accounts for 20% of By Design’s business, Molapisi outlines “aggressive plans” to expand its African operations. “We’re in a good position to help local companies capitalise on our success in Africa and connect with African markets,” she says.
Hers are footsteps in which many an entrepreneur would like to follow, and to this end Molapisi offers the following advice: “My message to tomorrow’s entrepreneurs is simple. You don’t need government incentives. You don’t need hand-holding by some official programme. You don’t need to be well connected. You need passion, commitment and the sort of common sense that tells you to keep overheads low and service standards high. You can make it. I know… because I did.”