In 2001, Jad Pereira founded and headed up a small but phenomenally successful division of Metcash called Unitrade Management Services (UMS). Then in 2004, a few bad decisions made by Metcash management started to cripple the group.
Pereira moved quickly and raised R50 million to buy UMS in 2006. Today, under his leadership, UMS is one of the country’s top trading groups, providing products and services to 150 independent store owners and turning over R12 billion a year.
Unsurprisingly, he says that looking back, there’s nothing he would have done differently, except start sooner. Here’s how he did it.
Describe your career before you started the business
For some 20 years I was employed in the operations division of Shield Buying & Distribution, which was an independent buying group run by three entrepreneurs.
It was during this time that I met a man named Sid Mcglashan who became my mentor. Working with him, I developed an admiration for South African entrepreneurs – men and women who had built substantial businesses from virtually nothing. I had a great desire to become one of them, but I had three young children and at the time would not take the risk.
In 1994 Shield Buying & Distribution was taken over by Massmart, which is Africa’s third largest, high-volume, low-margin, low-cost distributor of consumer goods.
This was a key factor in my decision to make my move and start a competitor. Corporate culture was simply not for me. Added to that, I did not believe that the buyout was in the interests of independent entrepreneurs in the FMCG industry, as the group would be more likely to focus on its many corporate-owned businesses which would undoubtedly take priority over businesses they did not own but certainly benefitted from. In addition, the group’s businesses were competing with its associated independent retailers.
I resigned in 1998 and went to Bible College while serving out my restraint of trade period. I began to plan my vision for a new independent buying group. It was scary as I had given up a top post in a very progressive corporate group and I had nothing concrete ahead of me.
Why did you decide to join Metcash?
To start the business I had in mind, I needed a partner with buying power so that we could provide independent retailers with benefits similar to those that corporate trading groups were offering. Choosing this partner was important as I needed a group that was progressive, had suitable buying power and understood my need to remain autonomous.
After many meetings with numerous groups, Metcash – then under the chairmanship of Carlos dos Santos, an entrepreneur himself – seemed the most suitable. The downside was that I had no ownership, but time was not on my side as independent stores were being snapped up.
The major groups were expanding rapidly into the previously disadvantaged areas. Wholesaler Masscash was buying up the best of independents and opening up stores wherever Metcash was dominant. Market share battles were raging everywhere and business analysts were forecasting doom for the independents.
By 2001, I was the MD of UMS, a wholly owned division of Metcash, and the business soon became known as the miracle baby of the industry. We grew quickly and in three years we went from R150 million turnover per year to R1 billion.
Our success was based on three elements: The model itself, our knowledge of the independents and the team I had built.
In 2004 Metcash management made a significant decision – to buy out the group from its institutional owners. Sadly, this left the group with insufficient working capital and within two years the business was crippled. This had an impact on UMS and we were eventually threatened with a total shut down. It was then that I had to move quickly – after the Metcash board agreed to sell off its non-core assets we began to look for funding.
What was your vision?
To be the leading wholesale and retail group specialising in the lower end of the market. We want to be the group that is trusted by the consumer to have their interests at heart by offering them product at the right price in a safe, comfortable environment.
How did you finance the purchase of UMS?
This was a miracle. I was introduced to two potential investors who worked closely with me and together we approached financial institutions for the R50 million we needed.
Understandably, the banks were cautious. What were they buying? We had an income stream but we didn’t own the stores so there was no real asset to purchase.
I decided to approach our membership base, store owners with whom I had built strong, trusting relationships. Their faith in me was a most humbling experience. Between about 15 members we raised R10 million to put towards the purchase price. Meanwhile, one of the investors had convinced Absa to invest R40 million and in December 2006 we bought the business. Today, those original members own 15% of the group.
Where is the business today?
The number of member stores has grown steadily by about 10% every year. We have a group of 150 stores that have a turnover (sales out) of R12 billion per year.
Our ’sales in‘ number is R3 billion. That has been achieved as the result of a very loyal partnership base, supportive suppliers and a business model that serves the needs of our partners and their customers.
Our member stores are known by the brands Powertrade, Food Town and Best Buy. They are a mix of retail, wholesale and hybrid stores that cater for low income consumers and are entirely community-focused.
The business model
What is your business model and has it changed over time?
Essentially, our model is like that of a franchisor, but we do not charge our partners any fees. Our core business model has not really changed at all. Our mission remains to be a business dedicated to the task of building better businesses.
Other groups are what the industry terms as ’buying groups‘; they provide buying power for their members and they do that well. We did not want to be just another buying group. We wanted to build a business that provides all the services and products that any ’head office‘ would give to its own stores:
- Skills development and training
- Marketing that is uniquely tailored to their communities
- Administration support and a top buying team negotiating the best deals
- Credit facilities
- Sales and operational support
- Store development
- Private label programmes
- Business development plans
- Customised promotional plans.
We do not take away the entrepreneurial factor from the individual – we simply add to it. Each of our partners is a business owned by the entrepreneur, but with the added benefit of being part of a group without the associated costs.
Because of the market we serve, we have to keep costs as low as possible. The industry norm is to keep as much as possible. Our norm is to give as much as possible without compromising the much-needed range of products and services we provide to independents. Our profits are less than 1% of our turnover where the industry norm is anything from 2,5 to 5%.
What’s the worst knock you’ve taken?
In 2008, Orient Cash ‘n Carry in Kliptown went into liquidation and we lost R60 million. Fortunately, we have great relationships with our bank and our suppliers. It’s not in their interest for a group like ours to go bust, so they helped us to get through this very bad patch.
Give an example of the ongoing value-add you provide for UMS members
One of the most exciting recent developments is the launch of our state-of-the-art classroom-based training facility for the UMS Academy, which is one of the most innovative added value initiatives in the history of UMS. This will help to address the lack of formal, focused skills development initiatives for independent retailers and wholesalers, their management and their staff.
There is a massive need for knowledge transfer and skills development in our market. The UMS Academy will provide training for business growth, and will ultimately facilitate community upliftment through the development of people. This is our way of giving back to the communities we serve.
How has your business strategy evolved?
We have to compete with large corporate buying groups like Shoprite, which has a more than R90 billion turnover. One of the ways we are doing that is by creating the Amalgamated Buying Consortium (ABC) 18 months ago.
It’s a 50/50 joint venture between UMS and buying group IBC. ABC has a combined turnover of R29 billion at store level through more than 220 wholesale and retail members. IBC and UMS have similar business models and are two of the few trading groups (excluding Massmart’s Shield) that offer central accounting to suppliers and guarantee payment on their members’ purchases.
How is it possible to operate like a franchisor without charging fees?
We take our partnerships with our members very seriously. We may not own their stores, but we behave as if we do. These people are men and women who are without doubt amongst the finest entrepreneurs in the country. We don’t just take anyone on as a partner. We take members who are progressive in their thinking, dedicated to their businesses and understand the need to always evolve.
There is a cost to the business, but not to the members. Where other corporately owned buying groups make more profit than we do, we choose to be less profitable and invest more back into the members’ businesses by producing products that enable them to compete far more effectively.
By building a brand that has become well known in their respective communities, having an academy that constantly upgrades their skills, and employing buying and field operational teams, we don’t just survive in the communities, we succeed.
What impact has the economy had on the business, and how have you responded?
There isn’t a business in this country that has not been impacted by the economy. Because we deal only with the lower end of the market, we have probably been impacted more than others. Strikes and the rising costs of electricity and transport have seriously impacted us all.
How do we respond? We work harder and smarter and we keep the independent competitive. If the cake is smaller, we fight for a larger slice for every individual member. Our marketing initiatives at both a group and an individual level remain the most innovative in the industry. We have many examples that have worked well.
Describe your organisational structure.
We are extremely careful about who we employ. Our culture and values are paramount to our success and we seek out people who are passionate. Mediocrity is not tolerated at UMS. Great companies are not built by average people, and good is not good enough in our culture.
The organisational structure is a flat one divided into operations, IT, merchandise, financial, marketing and academy. Each of these is led by people who live the business, three of them are my own sons. No division is more important than another and we all understand how interdependent we have to be to achieve greatness.
How do you differentiate the group in such a competitive market?
’United Yet Unique‘ is our payoff line. We build our business through building the brand, and we build members’ businesses within the community by helping them to run community-based promotions in conjunction with our suppliers.
We do not have the budget for expensive advertising, so we do lots of in-store promotions. This works well because it results in direct contact with that target market. Instead of competing with corporates that have millions to spend on advertising, we go local.
Over and above this, members also have their own strategies within the local market. Being owner-run, our stores are all quite unique and the members are fiercely competitive. What we add to these independents results in a formidable partnership.
How do you ensure the business generates a profit?
We have a financial team led by a financial director that matches any big corporate organisation. We manage our costs well and we provide sales services to our suppliers and members, always ensuring turnover remains at a maximum level. As a team we ensure that the productivity level from each and every person is at its best.
How has your management style contributed to UMS’s success?
I live the business when it comes to culture, values and discipline, and my team is committed to the same. I continuously seek to improve my own leadership skills. I also have ongoing contact with many of our members and I believe those relationships are the business’s greatest asset.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
Write the vision down. See the business in your mind’s eye before you start, then remain focused on your goals. Surround yourself with the best.
Jason English On Growing Prommac’s Turnover Tenfold And Being Mindful Of The ‘Oros Effect’
Rapid growth and expansion can lead to a dilution of the foundational principles that defined your company in its early days. Jason English of Prommac discusses how you can retain your company’s culture and vision while growing quickly.
- Player: Jason English
- Position: CEO
- Company: Prommac
- Associations: Young President’s Organisation (YPO)
- Turnover: R300 million (R1 billion as a group)
- Visit: prommac.com
- About: Prommac is a construction services business specialising in commissioning, plant maintenance, plant shutdowns and capital projects. Jason English purchased the majority of the company late in 2012, and currently acts as its CEO. Under his leadership, the company has grown from a small business to an international operation.
Since Jason English purchased Prommac in 2012, the company has experienced phenomenal growth. At the time he took over as owner and CEO, it was a small operation that boasted a turnover below R50 million.
Today, Prommac is part of a diversified group of companies under the CG Holdings umbrella and alone has grown it’s turnover nearly ten fold since Jason English took over. As a group, CG Holdings, of which Jason is a founder, is generating in excess of R1 billion. How has Prommac managed such phenomenal growth? According to Jason, it’s all about company culture… and about protecting your glass of Oros.
“As your business grows, it suffers from something that I call the Oros Effect. Think of your small start-up as an undiluted glass of Oros. When you’re leading a small company, it really is a product of you. You know everything about the business and you make every decision. The systems, the processes, the culture — these are all a product of your actions and beliefs. As you grow, though, things start to change. With every new person added to the mix, you dilute that glass of Oros.
“That’s not to say that your employees are doing anything wrong, or that they are actively trying to damage the business, but the culture — which was once so clear — becomes hazy. The company loses that singular vision. As the owner, you’re forced to share ‘your Oros’ with an increasing number of people, and by pouring more and more of it into other glasses, it loses the distinctive flavour it once had. By the time you’re at the head of a large international company, you can easily be left with a glass that contains more water than Oros.
“Protecting and nurturing a company’s culture isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. Prommac has enjoyed excellent growth, and I ascribe a lot of that success to our company culture. Whenever we’ve spent real time and money on replenishing the Oros, we’ve seen the benefits of it directly afterwards.
“There have been times when we have made the tough decision to slow growth and focus on getting the culture right. Growth is great, of course, but it’s hard to get the culture right when new people are joining the company all the time and you’re scaling aggressively. So, we’ve slowed down at times, but we’ve almost always seen immediate benefits in terms of growth afterwards. We focus heavily on training that deals with things like the systems, processes and culture of the company. We’ve also created a culture and environment that you won’t necessarily associate with engineering and heavy industries. In fact, it has more in common with a Silicon Valley company like Google than your traditional engineering firm.
“Acquisitions can be particularly tricky when it comes to culture and vision. As mentioned, CG Holdings has acquired several companies over the last few years, and when it comes to acquisition, managing the culture is far trickier than it is with normal hiring. When you hire a new employee, you can educate them in the ways and culture of the business. When you acquire an entire company, you import not only a large number of new people, but also an existing organisation with its own culture and vision. Because of this, we’ve created a centralised hub that manages all training and other company activities pertaining to culture. We don’t allow the various companies to do their own thing. That helps to manage the culture as the company grows and expands, since it ensures that everyone’s on the same page.
“Systems and processes need to make sense. One of the key reasons that drove us to create a central platform for training is the belief that systems and processes need to make sense to employees. Everyone should understand the benefits of using a system. If they don’t understand a system or process, they will revert to what they did in the past, especially when you’re talking about an acquired company. You should expect employees to make use of the proper systems and processes, but they need to be properly trained in them first. A lot of companies have great systems, but they aren’t very good at actually implementing them, and the primary reason for this is a lack of training.
“Operations — getting the work done — is seen as the priority, and training is only done if and when a bit of extra time is available. We fell into that trap a year ago. We had enjoyed a lot of growth and momentum, so we didn’t slow down. Eventually, we could see that this huge push, and the consequent lack of focus on the core values of the business, were affecting operations. So, we had to put the hammer down and refocus on systems, processes and culture. Today Prommac is back at the top of it’s game having been awarded the prestigious Service Provider of the year for 2017 by Sasol for both their Secunda and Sasolburg chemical complexes.
“If you want to know about the state of your company’s culture, go outside the business. We realised that we needed to ‘pour more Oros into the company’ by asking clients. We use customer surveys to track our own performance and to make sure that the company is in a healthy state. It’s a great way to monitor your organisation, and there are trigger questions that can be asked, which will give you immediate insight into the state of the culture.
“It’s important, of course, to ask your employees about the state of the business and its culture as well, but you should also ask your customers. Your clients will quickly pick up if something is wrong. The fact of the matter is, internal things like culture can have a dramatic effect on the level of service offered to customers. That’s why it’s so important to spend time on these internal things — they have a direct impact on every aspect of the business.
“Remember that clients understand the value of training. There is always a tension between training and operational requirements, but don’t assume that your clients will automatically be annoyed because you’re sending employees on training. Be open and honest, explain to a client that an employee who regularly services the company will be going on training. Ultimately, the client benefits if you spend time and money on an employee that they regularly deal with.
“For the most part, they will understand and respect your decision. At times, there will be push back, both from clients and from your own managers, but you need to be firm. In the long term, training is win-win for everyone involved. Also, you don’t want a client to become overly dependent on a single employee from your company. What if that employee quits? Training offers a good opportunity to swop out employees, and to ensure that you have a group of individuals who can be assigned to a specific client. We rotate our people to make sure that no single person becomes a knowledge expert on a client’s facility, so when we need to pull someone out of the system for training, it’s not the end of the world.
“Managers will often be your biggest challenge when it comes to training. Early on, we hired a lot of young people we could train from scratch. As we grew and needed more expertise, we started hiring senior employees with experience. When it came to things like systems, processes and culture, we actually had far more issues with some of the senior people.
“Someone with significant experience approaches things with preconceived notions and beliefs, so it can be more difficult to get buy-in from them. Don’t assume that training is only for entry-level employees. You need to focus on your senior people and make sure that they see the value of what you are doing. It doesn’t matter how much Oros you add to the mix if managers keep diluting it.”
When Jason English purchased Prommac late in 2012, the company had a turnover of less than R50 million. This has grown nearly ten fold in just under five years. How? By focusing on people, culture and training.
Who’s Leading Your Business Billy Selekane Asks – You Or The Monkey On Your Back?
You’re either a change-maker, or someone who is influenced by the shifting conditions around you. The truly successful know how to determine their own destinies. Here’s how they do it.
- Player: Billy Selekane
- Company: Billy Selekane and Associates
- About: Billy Selekane is an author, internationally acclaimed inspirational keynote speaker, and a personal, team and organisational effectiveness specialist.
- Visit: billyselekanespeaks.com
We live in a world of disruption. We live in a world where Airbnb’s valuation is $31 billion, but the Hilton’s market cap is $30 billion. Airbnb doesn’t own one square kilometre, and yet they’re worth more than the world’s biggest hotel chains with enormous assets. We live in a world where things have been turned upside down.
In this brave new world, you can either thrive, or fight to survive. As a leader in your organisation, the choices you make, the mental mind-space you occupy and how you engage with those around you, will determine your personal success, as well as that of your entire organisation.
“The business of business is people. You can’t just pay lip service to the idea that they are your most important asset. You need to live it. Leaders must be intelligent and honest. You can’t just push people to meet the numbers,” says Billy Selekane, personal and business mastery expert and international speaker.
The problem is that great leaders need to first find balance within, before they can successfully lead their organisations.
“Things can no longer be done the same way,” says Billy. “Success today is defined by people who are driven, are inspired by their own lives and goals, and have the power and capability to inspire others.” But before you can achieve any of this, you need to rid yourself of the monkey on your back.
Related: Billy Selekane
The monkey on your back
“If I continue doing what I’m doing, and thinking what I’m thinking, I’ll continue to have what I have,” says Billy. “That’s the definition of insanity. Are you doing things by default or design?”
Billy’s analogy is a simple one. It’s something we can all relate to, and it’s the single biggest thing stopping us from clearing our minds, focusing on the positive and achieving success. He calls it the monkey on our backs.
“Every one of us is born with an invisible monkey on their shoulder,” says Billy. “Your monkey is always with you. Sometimes they’re the one speaking, and you need to be careful of that.” What you need to be even more aware of than your own monkey though, is everyone else’s monkeys.
“Every interaction we have is an opportunity for what I call a monkey download. You have an argument with your spouse before work, and you end up getting into your car with not only your monkey, but theirs as well. Your irritation level has doubled thanks to the extra monkey. Now you get irritated with a pointsman, another driver or a taxi on your way to work. You’ve just added three monkeys.
“By the time you walk into the office, you’re bringing an entire village of monkeys with you. They’re clamouring, clattering, arguing with each other, and the noise is deafening. Not only does everyone get out of your way, but you can’t hear yourself think. And the more your mood drops, the more monkeys you download from the people around you. This is not the path to focus, achieving your goals or being happy. It’s certainly not the path to great leadership.
“Great leaders know how to keep all those monkeys out. They know how to control their moods, and regulate their own positivity. They understand that they are the architects of their own success.”
Getting out of the monkey business
To be a great leader — and personally successful and happy — you need to start by getting out of your own way, and as Billy calls it, ‘getting out of the monkey business.’ You need to not only shake your own monkey, but everyone else’s as well.
According to Billy, there are four simple areas you can begin focusing on today that will help you become the person (and leader) you want to be.
First, honesty is the foundation of everything else you should be doing. “Be clear and straight. Speak to people simply and honestly, but with respect. Connect with them, not through the head, but with the heart. Don’t play tricks.”
Next, be authentic. All great leaders are authentic, and recognised as such. Aligned with this is integrity. “This is sadly out of stock, not only in South Africa, but the world,” says Billy.
“There is nothing as disturbing as a leader without integrity, and on a personal level, you won’t achieve emotional stability if you aren’t a person of integrity.”
Finally, you need to embrace love. “Wish your employees well. Wish your family, friends and connections well. When we are given love, and trusted to perform, we take that and pay it forward. In the case of business, this means your employees are giving the same love to customers, but if everyone showed a little more love, the world would be a better place. When people feel cared for, they show up with their hearts and wallets, and they pay it forward.
“Great leaders understand this. They don’t only focus on making themselves better, but adding to everyone around them. Remember this: In every business, there are no bad employees, just bad leaders. Employees are a reflection of that.”
If you want to build a better future, business or life, you need to start with yourself.
Stop letting negative thoughts and minor irritations derail you. You are the master of your moods and thoughts, so take personal responsibility for them.
Shark Tank Funded Start-up Native Decor’s Founder on Investment, Mentorship And Dreaming Big
Vusani Ravele secured offers from every single Shark in the first episode of Shark Tank South Africa, eventually settling on an offer from Gil Oved from The Creative Counsel. Entrepreneur asked to him how this investment has changed his business.
- Player: Vusani Ravele
- Company: Native Decor
- Established: February 2016
- Visit: nativedecor.co.za
- About: Native Decor creates visually pleasing products from sustainable timber. The company’s designs are innovative and functional, with its creations mostly inspired by South African cultures, landscapes and wildlife.
It all started with a cordless drill. In February 2015, Vusani Ravele received a drill from his girlfriend as a Valentine’s Day gift. He immediately became obsessed.
“I couldn’t stop drilling holes in things,” Vusani laughs. “I just loved working with my hands.”
Unlike most people, who lose interest in a Valentine’s Day gift by the first day of March, Vusani’s passion for his cordless drill didn’t dissipate. Instead, it had reignited a spark. Thanks to that cordless drill, he rediscovered a love for design he’d first felt in high school. And one year later, he had started a company called Native Decor.
As a start-up he then made the bold move to enter the inaugural season of Shark Tank South Africa. He was funded by Gil Oved on the very first episode. It was a life-changing experience, but Vusani is keeping a level head. The money helps, but he’s trying not to let it change his approach too much.
I’m doing my best not to think of Native Decor as a funded start-up. The money has allowed me to do certain things, like buy a new CNC machine, but I still try to think like a founder without money. Once you have a bit of money in the bank, the temptation exists to throw it at every problem, but that’s not how you create a successful business.
You need to bootstrap and pretend that you don’t have a cent in the bank. With a bit of lateral thinking, you can often come up with a solution that doesn’t require money. It might require more effort, sure, but I believe it creates a stronger foundation for your business. If a business can carry itself from early on, its odds for long-term success are much higher. You also need to fight the urge to spend money on things like fancy premises or extra staff. The longer you can keep things lean, the more runway you create for yourself.
I didn’t enter Shark Tank just for the money. The money was important, of course, but there was more to it than that. Looking purely at money versus equity, Gil Oved’s offer wasn’t the best, but I knew that I wanted to work with Gil. Stepping into the room, my primary aim was to attract him to the business.
He wanted 50% equity for R400 000 of investment. I wanted to give away 25% for the same amount. We settled on 40% for R400 000 with an additional R3 million line of credit. It was more of the company than I initially wanted to give away, but I was okay with it, since I saw it as the cost of Gil’s involvement, which I knew would add bigger value to the business than just the cash injection.
Investment comes in many forms. I wanted Gil to invest in the business because I realised that investment isn’t purely about money. I didn’t just want him to invest his cash in Native Decor, I also wanted him to invest his time and energy. You can get money in different places. You can create a business that funds its own growth, for example, or you can get a loan from a bank.
What an investor like Gil offers, however, is knowledge and access to a network. Money can help a lot with the growth of a business, but a great partner can help even more. By giving Gil 40% of the business, I’ve ensured that he has skin in game. He has a vested interest in seeing Native Decor succeed, and that’s worth more than any monetary investment.
True mentorship can be a game-changer if you’re running a young start-up. A great advantage that often comes with investment is mentorship from someone who knows the pitfalls of the entrepreneurial game. With a new business, it’s easy to be sidetracked or to chase an opportunity down a dead end.
Gil is visionary, and he has helped me focus on the long-term goals I have for Native Decor. He has also helped me to think big. As young entrepreneurs, I believe we often think too small. We don’t chase those audacious goals. Someone like Gil, who has seen huge success, can help you push things further and to dream bigger.
You need to dream big, but act small. It’s important to have big dreams for your business, but you should also chase those easy opportunities that can help you build traction. When I started, I wanted to try and get my products into large retail stores, but the fact of the matter was, as a start-up, I didn’t have a strong negotiating position.
There was a lot of bureaucracy to deal with. Gil advised me to focus on the ‘low-hanging fruit’ — those small gift stores that would be keen to carry my products. By doing this, I’m gaining traction and building a track record for the business. Also, I realised the importance of aligning myself with the right kind of stores. Perhaps being in a large retailer isn’t a good idea, since this is where you typically get cheap items produced overseas. Unless you’re purely competing on price, that’s probably not where you want to be.
Funding is great but it’s not all about the money. If that’s what you’re chasing you’re doing your start-up an injustice.
Watch the Shark Tank investment episode here:
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