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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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Lebo-Gunguluza

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

Entrepreneur Magazine is South Africa's top read business publication with the highest readership per month according to AMPS. The title has won seven major publishing excellence awards since it's launch in 2006. Entrepreneur Magazine is the "how-to" handbook for growing companies. Find us on Google+ 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

Selling To A Corporate: The B2B Battlefield

If you can apply some of these, you may be able to stop your hair from going grey or halt that premature baldness more effectively than me.

Jordan Stephanou

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So you’re running a start-up that targets corporate clients. All you need is a few corporate signatures on that paper, and all of a sudden you’ll have a sky-rocketing business with an exciting guaranteed revenue stream every month, right? Right… But it’s not quite that easy.

Maybe you decided against a B2C (Business to Consumer model) because the marketing spend to win over one consumer at a time was not worth it, or that the South African consumer market is not big enough in your industry, or that it’s better to get 10 paying corporates rather than a million paying individuals. You’re not alone, and you’re not wrong.

Both models have their major pros and their major cons. Trust me, I know. But here are some of the learnings I’ve had by pursuing the B2B model.

The pitch: Anything other than a resounding ‘yes’ is likely a ‘no’

First step is to get the pitch. There is a huge temptation to go about it as passively as possible, hoping that the deal will fall in your lap with a well written email. Reality is a little different however. To secure most pitches, a combination (or all) of in-person approach, phone call, linked-in message and email could be required. Once you’ve secured the pitch, book it in both parties’ calendars and hope that there’s no last minute cancellation. The exciting part awaits.

Related: Beauty Of Failure: The Art Of Embracing Rejection

The sad fact of human nature is that people don’t always say what they mean, or mean what they say. Possibly it’s because we don’t like to hurt each other, or it’s because we avoid uncomfortable discussion as if it’s the plague.

Whatever the reason, it’s quite rare to receive “hard no’s”. The reality is that after a pitch, anything other than a resounding yes, or a “when can we start”, or “where can I sign?”, is likely to be a soft no; they have no interest in doing business with you. The entrepreneurial spirit is one that looks at the positive in everything, so it could be very dangerous for a glass half-full entrepreneur to receive a soft no, because this person will very much believe the deal is still alive.

Once again, trust me, I know. I recommend tempering the enthusiasm by looking out for any sign of an excuse during the pitch, and addressing it then and there. You know how hard you worked to get that meeting – so make sure you leave with no question unanswered, knowing that you did everything you could to win that business, or learnt everything you could to enhance your product, service or pitch to win future business. If you don’t get their business, it just means you didn’t get their business right now. Extract the positives and move forward.

1. Balance patience & momentum: They don’t operate like start-ups

It’s often said that a corporate is the most important thing to a startup, but a startup is far from the most important thing to a corporate.

As start-ups or SMMEs, we just have to accept that. Where we would respond to an email in a heartbeat, it may take our corporate contact 2 weeks to respond; especially if they are decision-maker. They don’t need our business, but we need theirs. As such, it’s important to remember when following up on a successful pitch that they are big, they are busy, and they have multiple balls being juggled at once. It’s likely that our proposition is the least important to them, and may be seen as a luxury.

Remember, they didn’t pursue you, you pursued them. So we have to be patient. But this is the difficult part; we have to balance patience with the desire to keep momentum. It’s an oft-said phrase that “time kills deals”. As start-ups, we need to be respectful that our prospective client is busy, but also very direct and honest with them in terms of our position and our goals and objectives.

If we are direct about when we want to conclude a deal and why, it could scare them away, or it could lead to them prioritising the deal as a priority. Either way, it’s better to know where you stand rather than have something drag on in that mythical pipeline for months or years as false hope.

2. Their emails are not their priority

emailsAfter the pitch, it’s easy to get in an unhealthy pattern. That pattern could look something like this: Send follow up documents directly after the pitch; hear nothing back from the prospective client; send a follow-up email the following week; hear nothing back; send another follow-up email the following week; hear nothing back; send another follow-up email the following week etc. into perpetuity until you go crazy and re-apply for your old job.

I have learnt that busy decision-makers in the corporate environment don’t just sit at their desk all day reading and responding to emails. They’re on the move, in important meeting after important meeting, flying to London followed by a quick trip to Doha and then 10 days in New York. They’re not setting the wheels in motion in response to your proposal in that spare 30 minutes in the airport.

Related: 4 Social Media Tips For B2Bs

As such, when they are available, you need their full attention and you need to get them to commit to the next step. Either a phone call or in-person visit is effective with this. Getting through to them and asking them the difficult questions about the next step is the only way to be top of mind, and to find out if they are serious about this deal or not.

From my learnings, I recommend emails as secondary to the phone call as a way of confirming what was discussed over the phone in terms of next steps.

3. Improve the product / service – become irresistible

With all else said, there is only one way to consistently increase chances of getting a deal over the line. That is, simply, have an incredible product or service that solves a real problem. If you have pitch after pitch where the response is luke-warm, you should ask them before leaving “what would this product have to do / look like for you to sign up right now?”.

Once you’ve had a few meetings like this, you will understand exactly what your market needs. If you build that product or service that the market craves, you’ll be turning away clients because the demand for your business will be so high. Become indispensable. Build something so good that your clients would be crazy to say no to.

4. Build a pipeline

Your business should never rely on one client saying yes. Putting too much emphasis on one deal will make you desperate, and desperation is the easiest way to scare someone away – relationship, business or anything else. Your market should be big enough that a rejection here and there is water under the bridge and simply a learning.

Closing one deal will provide a proof of concept and credibility that can be leveraged to close the next deal. Each subsequent client should, in theory, be easier to win than the previous one.

Finally, if the product or service is constantly being enhanced according to the market’s needs, if there are enough clients in the pipeline, and if the follow-ups after a great pitch are being done effectively, deals should go through systematically. At the end of the day, closing a deal shouldn’t feel like hard work. The best way to win business is by building a great business that solves real problems.

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Start-up Advice

How to Name (Or In Some Cases, Rename) Your Company

Naming a company is hard, and founders often get it wrong.

Jason Feifer

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Jennifer Fitzgerald is co-founder and CEO of Policygenius. But in 2013, when her company was starting out, it had a different name: KnowItOwl.

“We thought it was a clever play on the term know-it-all,” she says. The company helps consumers find the right insurance policy for them, so she wanted a name that suggested wisdom and guidance, with a friendly animal like the GEICO gecko.

“Then we started talking to investors, engaging our first users and talking to vendors and insurance company partners, and we just kept having to repeat the name — spell it, explain it. Pretty soon we were like, We’ve got a problem.”

And it’s not an uncommon problem.

A name is one of the biggest early decisions a company founder will make, and many get it wrong. Best Buy was first called Sound of Music. Nike was Blue Ribbon Sports. Google was BackRub. Each was a mistake in some form — too narrow, too generic, too evocative of the wrong thing. (BackRub?) For Know­ItOwl, the problem was being too clever.

Related: The Do’s And Don’ts Of Naming Your Business (Infographic)

So how should a company pick a name? Fitzgerald did some research and came up with this process.

Step 1: The big name dump

Fitzgerald created a shared Google Doc for her five-person team and over the course of a few weeks sent out prompts to focus people’s creativity — asking for portmanteaus (like Microsoft, the merging of microcomputer and software), names with numbers (like Lot18), themes like references to trees and more.

Step 2: Structure brainstorming

One Saturday, she invited friends in the branding and marketing industry to join her team for pizza, beer and what she calls “structured group brainstorming.”

She’d put up a word that related to her business — say, protection. Everyone in the room had 10 minutes to write down 10 protection-related names.

Related: What You Need To Know About Naming A Start-up

Then they’d pass their list to the person to their left and take seven minutes to create seven names inspired by the other person’s list. They repeated this a few times.

Step 3: Cut the crap

Between the Google Doc and the brainstorming, they had hundreds of names and started eliminating them in phases.

First: “Can you imagine saying your company name to a Wall Street Journal reporter?” That wiped out many. (Bye, “Harmadillo”!)

Then they nixed any similar to competitors’, names that could come off as unintentionally wrong (a classic of the form: Pen Island) and names they couldn’t get a dot-com domain for.

Step 4: Judge by colour

The surviving names were evaluated based on various criteria, including brevity (shorter is better), evocativeness (does it convey meaning?) and searchability (is it unique enough that when searched for, it won’t get lost?).

Related: Checking the Availability of a Company Name with CIPC

Each criterion was marked as red, yellow or green. The name Policygenius, say, got a yellow for brevity. Too many reds meant elimination.

Step 5: Test people’s memories

Will people remember a name? Can they spell it, if they hear it? To test this, the team recorded someone saying the finalist names, posted the audio to Soundcloud, and embedded it in surveys that they paid $2,000 to have sent to 1,000 people.

They also asked respondents to write down any emotional associations the names created z- “just to make sure nothing was offensive or conjuring up any emotions we didn’t want to conjure up,” she says.

After this, Policygenius had its name. It now employs 130 people and helps a million people each month find insurance, either through its service or content — success that (ahem) owl started with a great name.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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Start-up Advice

How To Develop A Unique Brand Name In A Global Marketplace And Protect It

A helpful How-to-Guide on developing a unique brand name and conducting trademark searches.

Julian Diaz

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As a marketer, I know just how important it is to choose the right name for a company or product. It needs to be easy to spell and pronounce (in various languages if you’re going international). If possible, it should have some positive connotations (definitely no negative ones) that can be associated to your company or product. And above all, it must be distinctive and unique.

The question is how do you work out what is unique, beyond a URL search, and then how to protect it? The answer is trademarks. I know what you are going to say…

Do I really need to worry about trademarks?

Yes, for two reasons.

  1. You might be a small business already trading under a name that already exists in the market. And maybe the other company that has trademarked that name in your industry classification won’t ever issue you with a cease and desist letter when you enter their market, because they are nice people and just don’t feel there’s any harm in letting a company by the same name trade in their market. Or maybe they do. It’s a decision that is totally out of your control. Do you really want to take that chance as you build a global brand?
  2. You’ve invested tonnes of money into building your brand in your market and then all of a sudden another company enters the market with the same name. Trademarking your name protects your brand from being copied or from another company riding the wave of your brand awareness you’ve invested so much into building.

Trademarks are important if you want to build a brand on a solid foundation and protect it in the long-term.

Related: When do I register a trademark?

How hard is it to successfully trademark a name?

According to the US Patent & Trademark Office, there have been 182,000 trademark registrations and 312 000 applications in the past 5 months alone. That’s more words than there are entries for in the Oxford Dictionary!

You can imagine how hard it is, and how much harder it gets with each passing month, to dream up a name for your product or company that is unique and distinctive enough that it can be successfully trademarked and protected in large markets like the US or Europe – especially in the technology industry. But there are a couple of routes you can try when developing a new name if you find your chosen one is already trademarked.

How to come up with a unique company name

When coming up with a company or product name, you can either go with:

  • an acronym (IBM, SAP),
  • a family or person’s name (Ford, Dell)
  • an existing word (Amazon, Apple, Salesforce)
  • a misspelled word that looks or sounds like an existing word (Xero, Google), or
  • a completely new word either made up of a combination of existing words (PayPal, Instagram, Accenture), or
  • a completely new word entirely made up (Skype).

Related: (Infographic)Top 10 Reasons To Rebrand Your Business

How to make sure it’s available

Try Google first. If you don’t get any companies coming up that are using that word as a name in your industry, you’re off to a good start. Keep in mind that even if another company does come in the results, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve trademarked it.

Check the national trademark search database for the country or countries you want to trade in and search for your name within your industry classification:

If you don’ t come across any trademark registrations for that same word in our classifications, then contact a trademark attorney to conduct a more thorough search using their local experts in those markets and advise you further. You don’t need to work through an attorney as you can register a trademark yourself, but working with one can save you a lot of time and increase your chances of getting your registration through the first time.

In conclusion, some advice

My advice to any company already operating and with ambitions to grow globally is make sure your brand name is trademarked and protected.

If it is not, you should

  • conduct your own search in any of the national IP or trademark offices’ databases (some of which are listed above, others can be found through a simple Google search);
  • hire a credible trademark attorney to either register your name or advise and guide you along the process of registering a new name.

Related: What You Need To Know About Naming A Start-up

If you MUST change your businesses name, then

  • hire a brand development agency for the creative process of developing the right name for you. (We didn’t do this but only because we had no idea how time consuming and difficult it would be. Although it worked out well in the end and we love our new name, it did take up a lot of time and perhaps more importantly “headspace.” I could have been focusing on other pressing things requiring that required this level of strategic thinking or creativity;
  • hire a change management agency or consultant to help with the communication and roll-out process of the new name to all stakeholders: staff, partners, customers, and the market. We managed well on our own, but if you don’t have the internal competency for this, or the time, rather outsource this very important and often neglected step;
  • and finally, just pray to whatever god(s) you believe in that whatever name you finally come with gets the green light from stakeholders and your trademark attorney. (Yes. Seriously.)

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