Santam 1001 Days: A Milestone Business Interview with JesseJames

Santam 1001 Days: A Milestone Business Interview with JesseJames


The first 1000 days of business are make or break for a business. Statistically, very few entrepreneurs survive past 1000 days (3 years) of business. Santam is profiling diverse businesses to get their advice on how businesses can succeed to 1001 days – and beyond.

Meet JesseJames: a successful start-up founded when two childhood friends turned their mutual passion for design into a budding business that produces custom interiors, installations, activations and products for corporate clients.

Day 1 of 1001: Starting out 

After studying and then working abroad, Jesse Ede and James Bisset returned to South Africa. “There were not that many jobs”, says James. “The environment was very stark with few opportunities.” One day, surfing at Milnerton beach in Cape Town, the duo decided to start a design business that “makes things”. Their first ‘studio’ was James’ bedroom, and their first workshop was in Jesse’s artist father’s garage. They began by working for friends.

“We made a bookshelf for R1000. We made no profit, maybe R100”, Jesse remembers. But slowly, through word of mouth, they got more projects.

“Those first days were tough”, explains James. “We were living off our savings and having to make sacrifices in terms of lifestyle.” One of the first marketing exercises they did was to create a website, which they built themselves, and continue to update regularly.

Tip: “A lot of what we do has to do with attention to detail. When you’re starting out, it’s so important to form good relationships with your clients and the way to do that is to make everything absolutely perfect. That way, you build trust, and then a reputable brand.”

JesseJames Workspace

Day 155 of 1001: Created a creative hub

One of the first JesseJames standout jobs was a project for ELLE Magazine, designing the award for their “Rising Star” competition. Around this time, they decided to take the leap and acquire offices.

They found a great space but couldn’t afford the rent. They decided to sub-let the space to like-minded creatives. This not only covered overheads but also proved to be a valuable incubator. “We were all spinning off one another’s ideas and really learnt from one another”, James reminisces.

Tip: “Consider sharing your premises with other businesses to keep overheads low.”


Day 577 of 1001: Creating systems

Another turning point was to start implementing an invoicing system. “We use Freshbooks and it has really saved us time. One of the biggest surprises of running a business is the amount of time spent on emails and not actually doing work!” laughs Jesse.

   Tip: “Don’t spend your precious time on a task if an online solution or another person can do it.”


Day 763 0f 1001: A breakout client

JesseJames landed a breakout client in 2013: a yearlong project for a medical aid company. “We had to create a mobile lab that would tour around South Africa,” James explains. “It was very challenging as there were many innovations we had to brush up on.” The client was very happy and this retainer really helped to develop the business into what it is today.

Tips: “In client service, communication is key. If something is going wrong, let a client know early. Always try to get clients to commit some money on a job upfront. Even if it’s 10 or 20%, it will make them have a vested interest in the project.” 


Day 1001:  Refocus your offering

In 2014, they decided to put new product development on hold and focus on commissions. “The retail world is fickle and suffers from recession”, explains James. “Service-based work always does well. Commissions will hone our skills and give us opportunities to do R&D that can be used on product development in future.”

Tip: “Sometimes you need to keep it simple and focus on what you’re really good at. Don’t try to do too many things at once.”

The next 1000 days

What is on the JesseJames agenda for the next 1000 days? “We would like to invest in more hi-tech machinery as a way to improve further on quality, hire another designer and do more community-based work”, says James.

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Santam is passionate about giving entrepreneurs the right tools to achieve business success. Over the next few months, Santam will be sharing the stories of those that have made it past the crucial 1001 Days, to help more businesses get to this important milestone. For more great business advice, visit our blog: or follow Santam for Business on Facebook and Twitter