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Start-up Advice

10 SA Entrepreneurs On What They Wish They’d Known Before Starting Their Businesses

Avoid making the same start-up mistakes and mishaps that these successful entrepreneurs did when they started out.

Entrepreneur

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Great idea, wrong spot

Balkan-Burger

Borjan and Lidija Ivanonic

Vital stats:

  • Borjan and Lidija Ivanonic are the founders of Balkan Burger.
  • What started as an experiment at a farmer’s market has grown into a full-time, highly profitable and successful business.

“We bought a 1967 short-body school bus that we converted into a mobile food truck. We took it to Arts on Main in Maboneng and parked it at the entrance of the market, but that didn’t work out for us. It was a great marketing tool – people would stop and chat and want to learn more, but they’d always say they’d come back after looking around and then forget about us.”

Borjan Ivanovic is very candid about the wins and losses of growing Balkan Burger. Effectively pioneers of mobile food trucks in Joburg with no one to guide them, they spent a lot of money buying and outfitting a very cool mobile food truck that was not yet needed.

A combination of being a purchase made too soon and positioning it in a bad spot for food sales, it was a costly trip-up that only started paying itself off once they joined other markets and started landing catering jobs.

Wanting to start a business? You should read these books first

Give people what they want, not what you want

Sumting-Fresh

Andrew Leeuw and Herzon Louw

Vital Stats:

  • Andrew Leeuw and Herzon Louw are the founders of Sumting Fresh.
  • Starting out as a food trailer in the streets of Midrand and making negative profits at first, they’ve since grown by 9 000% and have a staff contingent of 18.

“I’m a qualified chef and opening my own restaurant was just far too expensive to consider. I figured I could bring people restaurant-quality food from a food truck but learnt hard and fast that that’s not what people wanted. They wanted street food.”

Andrew Leeuw and Herzon Louw learnt a costly lesson in their early days as street food vendors. They were serving expensive food, expensively, because that’s what Leeuw thought people wanted. The minute they pivoted and focused on selling quality street food at value-for-money prices, sales rocketed. They went from 80 portions and – R480 a day, to 120, 240 and beyond.

“We really had to take a hard look at ourselves, develop our own identity and style, and then bring it to the people. Be flexible, take criticism constructively, and don’t wait for the customers to decide who you should be.”

Read more: 4 Ways Entrepreneurs Can Become Truly Great

Estimate how long you think something will take, then double it

Yossi-Hasson

Yossi Hasson

Vital Stats:

  • Yossi Hasson is the co-founder of Synaq.
  • Established in 2004 the firm underwent major changes that allowed the business to scale much more efficiently.
  • In 2011 Dimension Data bought a 50,1% share in the business, allowing them to scale at even greater speed.

“When we made the decision to convert from a product-based business to a service-based business, we lost R1,8 million, we owed SARS half a million rand, and grossly underestimated the complexity of the change and planning for it. What we thought would take six months actually took two years.”

It was an incredibly tough time for Yossi Hasson and his business partner David Jacobson, but they maintain it was the best move they ever made.

“We recovered through management pay cuts, we froze salaries, cancelled outsourced providers, managed expenses like crazy, managed to get clients to pay upfront for a small discount, and convinced shareholders to give a little bit more money.” The major lesson they learnt about change?

“Now we always get advice and manage expectations before we start, so we have a more realistic timeline of how long something will take.”

Read more: Yossi Hasson’s full story here

Look before you leap

Chris-Ndongeni

Chris Ndongeni

Vital Stats:

“We should have done more research about the contract cleaning business and industry before we started. We’d landed our first contract with Man Truck and Bus, and on our first day we were shocked to find that there was absolutely no cleaning equipment or detergents and the previous contractor hadn’t left anything behind. We scrambled and made expensive purchases because of that.”

Business plans belong to the last century. Gone are the days of creating 40-page, detailed documents about your business, it’s target market, competitors, finances and so on.

Today it’s about the lean canvas: Starting with a hypothesis, testing it, and quickly iterating depending on the results of your test. Even though this method requires less research, research is still very necessary.

Ensure you know what permits, certificates, and approvals are required to operate in your industry, how competitors are operating, and then figure out what you can do differently.

Read more: Twin Cities Cleaning Services on Avoiding Those Costly Mistakes

Do what you know

Ross-Wilson

Ross Wilson

Vital stats:

  • Ross Wilson is the founder of urbantonic, a Cape Town-based eventing agency.

In 2007, Ross Wilson made a business decision that would take him almost five years to recover from. Despite his background in eventing, he bought a joinery business.

“Urbantonic was a successful, growing business, but I’d been building it for almost a decade and I thought it was time to branch out. My ego was sky-high. I thought I could do anything, in any industry.”

This would turn out to be a very expensive assumption. 20 months after buying the joinery business, Wilson managed to close it down. It would take a further three and a half years to pay off the debts associated with the business.

“I kept thinking about that Top Gun quote, ‘Son, your ego’s writing cheques your body can’t cash. We built up urbantonic slowly. We offer incredible customer service because we’ve never over-extended ourselves, so our growth has been organic and self-funded. We’ve never spent what we don’t have. And most of all, we know this industry inside out. The joinery business was none of those things.”

Read more: Ross Wilson’s full story here

Hire for cultural fit, not skills

ACM-Gold

Irfan Pardesi and Hina Kassam

Vital stats:

  • Irfan Pardesi and Hina Kassam are the founders of ACM Gold, a R350 million + gold and foreign exchange trading company.

Of course skills are important, but many entrepreneurs have learnt to their detriment that a person with the right skills who is a complete cultural mis-match with the company will bring everybody down, and even put your business at risk.

Irfan Pardesi and Hina Kassam, founders of ACM Gold, learnt this the hard way. As their start-up grew, they started building up a team. The problem came when they made the decision to bring in an experienced management team. They focused on the credibility that they thought big names would bring to the business, instead of whether those same names suited the company’s culture.

“The whole culture of our company started shifting – it was no longer what we had worked so hard to build. It took us months to rectify, and cost us a lot as well. Today we know, always hire for cultural fit. Attitude is everything. Skills can be taught, experience gained, but you’ll never change a person’s values and personality.”

Read more: The Midas Touch: Hina Kassam & Irfan Pardesi

Know your numbers

Kerryne Krause-Neufeld

Kerryne Krause-Neufeldt

Vital stats:

When Kerryne Krause-Neufeldt launched her business, she was so focused on customers and making sales, that she neglected the inner-workings of her own company.

“I particularly wasn’t good with numbers,” she says. This was Krause-Neufeldt’s biggest lesson.

“It’s easy to abscond the numbers to the ‘finance guys’, especially if you don’t have a background in finance. I didn’t even know we weren’t paying PAYE, and ignorance is no excuse. You need a basic understanding of numbers at the very least.”

Once she realised the shambles her start-up’s finances were in, Krause-Neufeldt realised the buck needed to stop with her.

“I did accounting for dummies, followed by financial management workshops. It was time consuming, but worth it. It was the only way for me to truly be in control of my own business. Now I can spot problems in the figures at a glance.”

Read more: Kerryne Krause-Neufeldt’s full story here

Everything will always take twice as long as you think it will

Vusi-Thembekwayo

Vusi Thembekwayo

Vital stats:

  • Vusi Thembekwayo is the founder of Motiv8.
  • He is a Dragon on South Africa’s Dragon’s Den, and the youngest JSE director in SA.

Vusi Thembekwayo is not the first entrepreneur who learnt this lesson, nor will he be the last.

“By the time I launched my motivational speaking and strategic consulting business I had top tier experience at a local FMCG giant. I knew business. I had seed money from ring-fencing and selling the division I’d built up and ran.”

Thembekwayo certainly wasn’t green behind the ears, and yet his start-up journey ended up being very different to how he imagined it to be.

“I used that money to get set up in fancy offices with a PA. I thought that was what you needed. And then it took eight months to get my first client.”

Eight months of zero income, and expensive overheads. Thembekwayo was sleeping in his car, fending off the bank who wanted to repossess it because he wasn’t meeting the payments.

Today that business has a turnover of R140 million, but Thembekwayo will never forget his first real start-up lesson: However long you think it’s going to take to get going, triple it. And you still won’t be there.

Read more: 10 Tips From The Dragons Of Dragons’ Den SA

Not everything is an opportunity, some are a waste of time

Mongezi Mtati

Mongezi Mtati

Vital stats:

  • Mongezi Mtati is Founder and MD of WordStart, a word of mouth marketing firm that connects brands with influencers.

“Your time is yours to pour into the business, not to use on non-paying efforts that present themselves as opportunities,” said a mentor who was discouraging Mongezi Mtati from taking on more work for exposure. “The advice fell by the wayside,” admits Mtati. “Unfortunately, he was right.”

Mtati knows the situation well: When you’re starting out, people offer you the opportunity of ‘exposure’ in lieu of billable work and hours. Start-ups that are desperate to build up their portfolios often agree.

“The reality is that most of that exposure does not amount to billable work. It ends up being a waste of time that could have been used to either make money or spent in the business waiting for the phone to ring or drumming up sales. It could even have meant going to SARS for an hour or two, which saves you pain and punishment later in the year.

“The rule is simple: Don’t work for free,” he says. You’re there to make money, so do it.

Read more: Mongezi Mtati on How Wordstart Proved the Power of Word-of-Mouth Marketing

Never treat the business’s cash like your own

Lebo-Gunguluza

Lebo Gunguluza

Vital stats:

  • Lebo Gunguluza is the founder of the GEM Group and a Dragon on South Africa’s Dragon’s Den.

Like many young entrepreneurs, Lebo Gunguluza treated the money his start-up made as his own. After a few weeks, he realised that he needed to start saving the cash he was making in a bank account if he wanted to hire some help. It wasn’t a lesson that translated into good cash flow principles. The more the young entrepreneur made, the more he spent.

On the one hand, he was a bootstrapper, and he made his first million at the age of 27 without funding, tenders or loans. This just meant that he at least didn’t owe anyone money when he went bankrupt a year later.

“I spent my first million in one year,” he says. “Instead of using the money I was making as seed capital, I bought a GTI and partied like there was no tomorrow. It didn’t take long before I was flat broke.”

He learnt from that lesson, built himself up, and never squandered cash again, and to this day he warns other young entrepreneurs: Never treat the business’s cash like your own.

Read more: Lebo Gunguluza’s full story here

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Mothusi Mosala

    Mar 11, 2016 at 13:30

    I want to start my own business in cleaning service industry, I don’t have any funds to start up. I am currently studying but have enough time to can manage it once I start opening it.

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Start-up Advice

Put On Your Wellies: It’s Time To Wade Into Risk

Entrepreneurs aren’t all leaping into the unknown like lemmings off a cliff, but they do need to consider it…

Chris Ogden

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You’ve had a great idea. You’ve looked into its development. You’ve recognised that it has potential beyond just what Auntie Mabel and Mike From The Grocer think. And you’ve clearly nailed a pain point that can make money. Now it is time to take the risk of running with it.

Every big idea comes with risk. You can’t step out into the world of entrepreneurial thinking and business development without it. Your idea may fail. It will also be time consuming, demanding, hungry for money, and hard work. It is unrealistic to expect that your project will leap out into the world and be an unmitigated success.

It is also unrealistic to assume that it isn’t worth taking this risk.

There are steps that you can follow to ensure that your risk is managed so you aren’t blindly leaping off that cliff…

Step 01: Do your research

No, canvassing your neighbours, friends and family is not doing research. You need to know that your idea will appeal to a broad market and that it will have significant legs. This may sound like daft advice, but you would be surprised how many people think an idea will take off just because Susan in Accounting said so.

Step 02: Understand the costs

Projects are hungry for money and investment. Realistically work out your budgets and how much it will cost to take your project off the ground and then stick to it.

A calculated risk is a far better bet than one that shoots from the hip and hopes for the best. You can also use this as an opportunity to draw a clear line under where you will stop investing and end the project. If it keeps eating money and isn’t getting anywhere with results you need to be able to walk away.

Step 03: Know when to walk away

As mentioned before, this can be defined by a line you’ve drawn in the proverbial sand (and budget) but no matter where you draw this line, you have to stick to it. Often, when time, money and energy have been poured into a project it can be incredibly hard to walk away.

You think ‘but I have put so much into this, just one more’ and then it gets to a point where the ‘just one more’ has taken you so far down the line that walking away feels impossible. Leave. Learn the lessons. Apply them to your next project.

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Start-up Advice

Mind The Gap

The entrepreneur’s guide to finding the gaps and building the right solutions.

Chris Ogden

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Innovation may very well be the key to business success but finding the gap into which your innovative thinking can fit is often a lot harder than people realise. Some may be struck by inspiration in the shower, others by that moment of blinding insight in a meeting, however, for most people finding that big idea isn’t that simple. They want to be an entrepreneur and start their own high-growth business, but they need some ideas on how to find that big idea.

Here are five…

1. Network

It sounds trite but networking is actually an excellent way of picking up on patterns and trends in conversation and business problems. The trick is to note them down and pay attention. Soon, you will find patterns emerging and ideas forming.

2. Look for pain

Just as networking can reveal trends in the market, so can spending time reading. The latter will also help you find common business pain points. These are the touchpoints that frustrate people, annoy business owners, affect productivity, or impact employee engagement.

Be the Panado that fixes these pains.

3. Luck

luck

This is probably the most annoying of the ideas, but it is unfortunately (or fortunately) very true. Luck does play a role in helping you capture that big idea. However, luck isn’t just standing around and random people offering you opportunities. Luck is found at networking events, it is found in research and it is found in conversations with other entrepreneurs.

4. Luck needs courage

You may have found the big idea through your network, a pain point or pure blind luck, but if you don’t have the courage to take it and run with it, you will lose it to someone else.

Being bold in business is highly underrated because most people assume that everyone is bold and prepared to take big leaps into the unknown. However, not all brilliant entrepreneurs were ready to throw their family funds to the wind and leap into an idea – they were courageous enough to figure out a way of harnessing their ideas realistically.

5. Pay attention

This is probably one of the most vital ways of finding a gap in the market. Often, people are so busy that they don’t really pay attention to that niggling issue that always bothers them on a commute, or in a mall, or at a meeting. This niggling issue could very well be the next big business opportunity. Pay attention to it and find out if that issue can be solved with your innovative thinking.

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Start-up Advice

5 Things To Know About Your “Toddler” Business

As you navigate this new toddler phase of your business, here are five things to bear in mind.

Catherine Black

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Ah, toddlers. Those irresistible bundles of joy bring a huge amount of energy, curiosity and fun to any family – but there’s also frustration and worry that comes with their unpredictability, as they grow and start to become more independent. If you own a business and it’s successfully past its “infancy” of the first year or so, it’s likely it will also go through a toddler stage of its lifecycle.

Pete Hammond, founder of luxury safari company SafariScapes, agrees with this. “Our business is now three and a half years old, and we’ve found that we’re not yet big enough to justify employing a large team of people to handle the day-to-day admin tasks, yet we still need to grow the business as well,” he says. “As a result, our main challenge is finding the time to step back and see the bigger picture. Kind of like when you are raising a busy toddler and you spend most of your time running after them!”

As you navigate this new toddler phase of your business, here are five things to bear in mind:

1. This too shall pass

Everything in life is temporary – and that goes for both the good and the bad. It’s as helpful to remember this when you’re facing the might of a toddler temper tantrum, as it is when you’re facing throws of uncertainty in your business. If your new(ish) venture is going through a rough patch in its first few years, it can be easy to think about giving up – but don’t. As long as you have an overall big idea that you believe can add value to your customers, keep pushing through the rough parts until you come out the other side.

2. Appreciate what this phase brings

The toddler years mean that the initial newborn joy is officially behind you. But these small humans also bring their own kinds of joy, as you watch them learn new skills, say funny things, and give affection back to you. While your two-year-old business may not hold the same exhilaration for you as it did during those first few months, there are now different things to appreciate about it: Maybe you’re expanding your product range, or employing new people who can take the workload off you.

3. Establish boundaries

Toddlers thrive on boundary and routine – and your toddler business will too. As it grows into a new phase, try and establish limits in terms of the type of clients you want to work with and the type of work you’ll do. It’s also a good idea to make a decision about the hours you’ll work and when you’ll switch off, which will help you establish a good work-life balance.

4. Take a break

Every parent with a toddler needs a break every now and then, even if that means a walk around the block (on your own!), a dinner out with friends, or even a few days away. The same is true for a demanding small business: every so often, remember to take time out to rest properly, where you switch off your laptop and completely unplug. You’ll return much more inspired and resilient to deal with the everyday uncertainty that it brings.

5. Give it space to make mistakes

While the unpredictability of a young business can be stressful and tiring, it’s also a time for trying new things without the risk of huge consequences if they don’t quite work. After all, it’s much simpler to change your USP if you’re a small business employing a few people, rather than a big company where 50 people are relying on you for their salary, or where you’ve received a huge amount of investment capital. While you may fail in some of the things you try with your business (in fact, this is almost guaranteed), see it as a toddler that’s resilient enough to pick itself up, dust its knees and keep moving forward.

During this phase of business growth it’s also essential to have the right type of medical aid cover. There are medical schemes such as Fedhealth which has a number of medical aid options and value-added benefits to ensure that your health and wellness is taken care of too. After all, the healthier you and your staff are, the more productive your business will be – during the toddler (business) stage and beyond.

While this phase can be frustrating, it’s a sign that your business is growing and adapting, rather than remaining in its infancy, and that can only be a good thing! So embrace the difficulties, learn from them, and watch as your business strides forward confidently into the next exciting phase.

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