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Risky Business

Having one large customer is wonderful – until something bad happens.

Ed Hatton

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CHALLENGE

This entrepreneur has printed training manuals for a large national company for 18 months. He purchased additional machinery for their work, although there was no contract in place. Recently the orders have dwindled and the new machinery stands idle. The big firm’s buyer now places orders with a friend. The entrepreneur asks if there is any way he can complain about cronyism.

SOLUTION

Most small businesses dream of having at least one really large company as a customer. Big orders mean rapid growth and the cost of sale is lower than dealing with many small businesses. But there are disadvantages – entrepreneurs entering deals with very large organisations should consider Porter’s ‘Five Forces’ model, where the power of the customer is identified as a competitive force.

In this case customer management had been complimentary about the work, the trainers preferred his manuals and he had believed that the account was secure. He was wrong, and although he could complain to management about the conduct of the buyer he is unlikely to gain by demanding their business as if it were his right to do the work.

It is not – the company is free to choose whatever printer they like, for whatever reasons they may have. The entrepreneur will be better off having a broader spread of customers desperately wanting to buy from him.

Doing things differently

What could he have done differently? What can he do now? One way is by making himself indispensable to the customer, or at least so far ahead of any other company that they would never think of changing. A word of warning – the customer must believe he is indispensable; the entrepreneur’s own thoughts don’t count.

That belief must also be held by people who make money decisions as well as the users. In this case, the trainers were unhappy about orders going elsewhere, but they did not have the power to change buying decisions, nor was their approval strong enough to cause them to protest.

He was not far ahead, let alone indispensable. He also only knows one side of the story; the competitor may have simply outsold him by making a more attractive offer.

There are many ways to make his business indispensable. It may be delivery schedules that others cannot meet; it may be the flexibility to smilingly accept revisions far later than others would dream of, or some level of clarity of text or layout expertise that is unique, or other capability or business practice.

It should be a factor, or preferably a whole basket of factors where the customer will feel a lot of pain if he ceases to be their supplier. These factors are surprisingly easy to find – the entrepreneur could go to the customer and ask them for three ‘magic wishes’ which would make their lives so much easier that they can only dream of having them.

Then he needs to go away and figure out a way to give them all or most of their wish. They will be his customer forever.

Other solutions

A contract is clearly the simplest solution, and should have been in place before he bought machinery. He could still start a new sales cycle to gain a contract for a certain percentage of the work; then at least he will have a minimum guarantee, and know how much equipment he needs for the contract. He may be able to downscale his idle machinery, even if he pays a penalty.

An even better solution is to broaden the customer base, and this entrepreneur should do this right now. Once he knows his unique strengths he should seek out similar organisations to his current customer; they are likely to have the same needs.

If he cannot find any unique or at least unusual strengths of his company then he is running a me-too business, and is dependent on competitors giving bad service, or the luck of being in the right place at the right time. Would any entrepreneur deliberately make this their marketing strategy? I think not, but too many slip into that position.

Ed Hatton is the owner of The Marketing Director and has consulted to and mentored SMBs in strategy, marketing and sales for almost 20 years. He co-authored an entrepreneurship textbook and is passionate about helping entrepreneurs to succeed.

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Start-up Advice

(Podcast) Playing To An Audience Of One

When you’re starting out, you’re often playing to an audience of one.

Nicholas Haralambous

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When you’re starting out, you’re often playing to an audience of one. No one knows who you are. No one understands what you can give them. You need to really, really believe enough in what you’re doing to play to an audience of one until you can build up traction. Don’t give up too soon.

Listening time: 3.25 minutes

Related: (Podcast) What You Buy May Not Be What You Need

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Start-up Advice

Your Questions Answered With Alan Knott-Craig

Which comes first, customers or revenue? To make revenue, you need customers. Here’s how you build a business that people will care about.

Alan Knott-Craig

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How can I start a small Internet service provider ISP business? — Tonderai

This is similar to the hoary chestnut, “How can I take over the world?” The answer is the same. Sit at the knee of a master for two years (at least) and learn the game. When you have a sufficient network of contacts, and understanding of the business, head off on your own. How do you find a ‘master’? Identify an ISP that appeals to you. Get your foot in the door somehow, even if it’s just making coffee. Work your way to as close to the CEO’s door as possible by continuously over-delivering. Learn like a sponge.

The possible alternative to ‘find knee of master’ is to find a technical guy with zero sales inclination. Make him your partner. You become the front office (sales — find customers). He becomes your back office (tech — product delivery). If you can’t find a master or a tech partner, you can’t start an ISP.

Related: Want To Leave Customers Grinning And Vowing To Return? Do The Following

How do I find a co-founder? How do I find a development team? — Kirsten

For a technical co-founder, Tinder is best. Jokes. In fact, Tinder is the last place on earth to find a technical co-founder. Rather try family and friends. Conferences. University. Milk your networks by letting everyone know that you’re looking for a technical co-founder. Failing that, you must hire a development team.

The days of compensating software developers with equity in lieu of cash are long gone. Absent a technical co-founder, there is only one way to develop software: Pay for it. How do you find the right dev-house?

Word of mouth is best. The rules of thumb are:

  • Maximum project duration = three months.
  • Scope it once. Don’t change the scope.
  • Keep it simple.

For your first iteration, it usually makes sense to go with a young and relatively inexperienced crew (try www.avochoc.com). Yes, the product will not be future-proof, but your first version need not be future-proof. You just need something to start signing up customers and getting market feedback.

If you get traction, then you can start worrying about scalability and consider engaging with more experienced (and expensive) dev-houses.

I have invented a hamburger roll that ensures the patty and toppings cannot escape. Would you suggest I patent it?  — Albert

Interesting idea. From the photos, it seems your solution is a variation of a pita bread. It may be worthwhile reading Zero to One by Peter Thiel.

He argues that consumers will always resist change, even change that is very obviously good for them, ie: non-leaking hamburger rolls. The only way to introduce innovation into an established market is if it represents a minimum of 10x improvement over the status quo. Only such a quantum improvement will induce people to change behaviour.

Although undoubtedly a big improvement, I’m not sure the non-leaking hamburger roll qualifies as 10x innovation. And so it probably will not succeed in the market place.

Before patenting, I suggest you try sell some rolls to establish whether you can get traction and prove revenue potential.

Related: Direct Marketing: Go Where Your Customers Are

I’d like to launch an app with an advertising revenue model. What do you think? — Mvelo

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but advertising is an insufficient revenue model in South Africa. You need to figure out another way to make money. Most times, the paths to non-advertising revenue streams only reveal themselves once you have users.

You should work on the assumption that it will take you at least two years to get sufficient traction, therefore you need to have two years’ worth of runway before plunging into your entrepreneurial adventure. In those two years, you should be growing your users as much as possible.

The size of your user base will determine your negotiating power with potential investors and/or customers, and will determine the odds of success in finding a non-advertising revenue stream.

Okay, forget advertising. I’m going to charge my users a monthly subscription of R20. — Mvelo

I realise that it’s a chicken and egg situation, but it’s very hard to find backing until you have proof of your theory working in the real world. On other hand, it’s hard to get proof without first finding backing. That’s the entrepreneurial quandary.

Generally speaking, the egg comes before the chicken. The egg is users. The chicken is revenue. Before you can test your revenue theories, you need users. Refer to previous answer.


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How The Black Umbrellas Programme Can Boost Your Local Black Business

Going it alone and succeeding isn’t unheard of in entrepreneurial circles – but getting the right backing can accelerate your success. South African SMEs have a ‘big brother’ in Black Umbrellas, explains CEO Seapei Mafoyane.

Shanduka Black Umbrellas

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Vital Stats

Going it alone and succeeding isn’t unheard of in entrepreneurial circles – but getting the right backing can accelerate your success. South African SMEs have a ‘big brother’ in Black Umbrellas, explains CEO Seapei Mafoyane.

The networks that the programme has are extensive. Along with mentorship, when these building blocks come together, they do something really majestic for the outlook of SMEs.

The Challenge

“The perception of SMEs in corporate South Africa is that they’re risky, unreliable and incompetent,” says Seapei. This results in a lack of opportunities for SMEs because large corporates still view them as potentially risky.

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

Joining Black Umbrellas offers the following:

1. Cameraderie

Belonging to a group of people who are going through the same challenges that they are. I think it’s extremely encouraging to find people who understand the challenges in the environment you’re going through.

2. Entrepreneurial spirit

You find businesses in different sectors and at different maturity levels in their business lifecycle. It’s very encouraging for someone starting out in their business to find a more mature business, perhaps in their second or third year, that has banked some projects.

3. Relying on a big brother

Black Umbrellas has been able to build a brand that is recognised for understanding the needs of corporate South Africa and being able to empathise with the requirements and support structures of SMEs. What entrepreneurs look for in the programme is that big brother that helps them weather the storm.

The Solution

“In a market where there’s quite a visceral relationship between corporate South Africa — where the majority of markets are — and smaller, medium enterprises trying to locate those opportunities, Black Umbrellas really is a meeting place,” says Seapei.

“We provide a marketplace for corporate buyers and SMEs to come together in an environment that is trusted. Some of the opportunities our businesses are able to access would not have been accessible to them if they were flying solo.”

SMEs abound, but it’s not always easy for larger corporations to find, vet and mentor them.

SMEs that join the Black Umbrellas programme have reported reaching levels they never saw themselves achieving outside of the programme.

“It sounds overly-simplistic, but I think the change is tremendous when SMEs join Black Umbrellas,” says Seapei. “It’s quite a thing to watch: A business trying to do this on their own and how their outcomes change when they join the programme.” Black Umbrellas opens them up to a network of help that is as wide as it is deep.

Related: Attention Black Entrepreneurs: Start-Up Funding From Government Grants & Funds

partnershipThe Power of Partnership

“We’d never be able to do anything we do without relying on collaboration,” emphasizes Seapei. “We rely very heavily on corporate partnerships to avail those opportunities to us and those markets for SMEs to be able to do what they do.”

Black Umbrellas has an extensive network of funders and donors that is expanding continuously and prides itself on being the custodian of SME development in South Africa. She says the programme aims to ensure high-impact SMEs produce incredible results to turn the outlook of the economy around.

One of Black Umbrellas’ longest-standing partnerships is with Transnet:

  • Transnet understands the mandate set out by Black Umbrellas and the need to invest in entrepreneurs.
  • We’re able to support their supply chain through the development of these dynamic businesses that go on to transform their supply chain and respective communities
  • Transnet has an incredible impact on the economy — through just two small incubators in Richard’s Bay and Port Elizabeth, with almost 500 jobs, which is a huge social return on investment.

BECOME A BLACK UMBRELLAS SME

Black Umbrellas’ mandate

Many start-ups don’t make it beyond the first two years because of inadequate planning, lack of support, financial or knowledge resources. Yet the growth of the SME sector in South Africa is vital for economic development of our country and in solving the unemployment crisis.

Black Umbrellas offers a platform through which to develop a business from its start-up phase to full independence. Because the programme addresses the multidimensional components required to develop an emerging business into a sustainable one, entrepreneurs are 100% supported on their business journey, which gives them the leverage to succeed. This support includes access to markets, networks and finance.

Programme benefits

Emerging businesses are supported with infrastructure, mentorship and collaboration, to assist their transition from incubation to viable, independent businesses.

For committed, hardworking and dedicated entrepreneurs, this multi-tiered business support programme is an important catalyst in enterprise development.

Related: 10 Dynamic Black Entrepreneurs

Black Umbrellas’ contribution to the economy

  • In seven years 1 000 SMEs have achieved a collective turnover of over R2 billion
  • The programme has contributed a combined R118 million in taxes back to the fiscus
  • Over 10 000 jobs have been created through our SMEs
  • R436 million in salaries has been contributed as a result of the programme.

Mistakes to avoid when establishing your SME within a large supply chain

Focus on a specific area where you can add real value. You’ll never be able to maximise every opportunity by trying to be all things to all people, says Seapei. “As an SME you want to find a particular niche that you can fill successfully, thereby maximising your unique value proposition.” 

Who should apply?

  • Entrepreneurs with a business enterprise at its start-up phase
  • The business should be registered with the Companies & Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC), and for small business tax
  • You must have the passion to succeed and be willing to work to achieve your business goals
  • You must be South African and black according to the BEE definition.

The 2017 National Enterprise Development Awards

Top performing small and medium enterprises have been recognised at the Black Umbrellas National Development Awards. Black Umbrellas established the National Enterprise Development Awards (NEDA) in recognition of the achievements of the entrepreneurs in their business incubation programme. These awards highlight the hard work and dedication required to establish and sustain a successful business that creates jobs and contributes to the economy.

The finalists were selected from regional enterprise development awards ceremonies held at each of the Black Umbrellas incubators across the country. The businesses in the incubators have altogether created and preserved over 10 000 jobs across key economic sectors, which include mining, construction, engineering, security services and project management.

Overall winners were:

  • Most Jobs Created: Hula Minerals and Processing
  • Best Performing Company: Aquila Projects (PTY) LTD
  • Best BU Ambassador: Recycle 1st
  • Overall National Winner: Modi Mining
  • Incubator of the Year: Johannesburg incubator
  • People’s Choice Award Winner: Recycle 1st

Seven Years  1 000 SMEs R2 billion collective turnover

  • Contributed a combined R118 million in taxes back to the fiscus
  • Created more than 10 000 jobs
  • Contributed R436 million in salaries
  • Expect more from your ESD Investment.

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