Wally Fry is the kind of man who jumps in with his boots on. He never intended Fry’s Foods to be an international company, shipping 6 000 tons of food products a year. In fact, he never intended there to be a company, having started making the meat alternative products for which the brand is now famous as “something of a hobby.” But, having made the decision to build something in 1992, he’s been relentless in pursuing his chosen course of action.
“He’s also an absolute perfectionist,” says Debbie, his wife, with whom he started and now runs the company. Wally happily agrees. “I’m pedantic about absolutely everything. There is a process and a system for everything in the company. There’s a process for how you walk into my factory – and if you walk in the wrong way, you have to know I’m going to klap you for it, because that system is there for a reason. It has its foundation in the mistakes that we’ve made and the solutions we’ve found to challenges,” he says.
Doing it all
It might sound overly dictatorial (and Wally uses the word klap in a strictly figurative sense) but, if anything, he has earned the right to his fastidiousness. He’s the kind of entrepreneur who’s done absolutely everything in the company, so he should know what works best and what doesn’t. After all, this is a man who devised the recipes and developed the products and who, along with Debbie and a single employee in the early days of the company, weighed and measured ingredients, cooked the food, packaged it, boxed it and delivered it. He’s fixed the factory machines, run the finances, done the marketing, secured supermarket listings, run the operations, managed the payroll, hired and fired staff, and steered the strategic ship.
Of course today the company has structures in place to run the different functions and Wally and Debbie have been freed up to focus on strategy and growing the business. But Wally gave up control of each function incrementally, and only once he was happy he’d put in place the right person with the right training to run things the way he believed they should be run. “The food we make is unique. No other company does it. It’s not like we’re running a bakery, for example, and can just hire someone who’s worked in a bakery before. We have to make sure everyone understands our processes and systems, and our way of doing things. I had to write the manual on how things worked because every job was so specific,” he says.
It’s that perfectionism talking again, along with a healthy dose of being a stickler for detail. But it’s not like Wally is one of those entrepreneurs who refuse to relinquish control, believing only they have the magic touch to make the company a success — the company wouldn’t be where it is today if he’d refused to delegate responsibility. It’s not even that he believes he has a line into the one right way of doing things. It’s rather that he knows what the right way is. He’s learned what it is through trial and error, through working 18-hour days, and having done it himself. He’s gone from making 20 sausages in his kitchen in his KwaZulu Natal home, using a Kenwood Chef, an AMC pot and a two-plate burner, to running a factory that produces 500 tons of food a month, and has cornered the vegetarian and vegan markets. And that has to count for something. So when he stipulates that things follow a particular course of action, he expects to be listened to.
Setting up systems has been central to the success of the business. Processes and well-defined ways of doing things are vital to any business, but particularly in an area where you want to maintain the same standards and quality throughout. Systems allow a business to scale up and repeat its initial success over and over again.
Sit up and listen!
On that note, there’s something commanding about him in general that demands you listen. Interestingly, what drives this hard-nosed, tough, uncompromising businessman is a deep passion for saving the planet. Get him talking on the subject of the environmental havoc being wreaked by animal farming and that passion flares. He was invited to speak on the topic at the World Preservation Foundation’s 2010 Westminster Conference in the UK, addressing MPs, local government and the media, and got a standing ovation. People listen to him. This is not some peace-and-yoghurt hippie who makes vague hand-waving gestures in the direction of ‘green issues’, or even a fundamentalist who engages in heated rhetoric. He talks straight facts. He knows his stuff. He grabs your attention. Uncomfortably (for a sworn meat-lover) what he says makes sense.
And yet Wally wasn’t always a vegetarian (how many people who’ve been raised on a farm are?). “I’ve been a vegetarian since I was very young but Wally always loved meat, and it caused some degree of difficulty in our home because I wasn’t used to cooking or preparing meat,” says Debbie.
The change came by degrees but started, Wally says, when their daughter Tammy was born. “Since she could understand where meat came from, she refused to eat it. She’d ask me what she was eating and I’d say, “A drumstick” and she’d say, “Drumsticks are for playing drums” so I’d tell her it was the leg of a chicken, and that was it. She wouldn’t touch it,” he relates. The influence of his daughter and wife got him thinking and reading. “At the same time I studied Eastern religion, which of course is centred very much on vegetarianism. I started learning about the environmental collapse being driven by intensive animal farming, and I eventually decided I couldn’t in good conscience continue to eat meat,” he said.
Turning personal passion into a business edge
The fact that he had previously been a meat-eater was, in fact, the driving force behind the development of Fry’s products. “Just because I believed it wasn’t ethically right to eat meat, didn’t mean I didn’t miss it. It was really tough to give it up,” says Wally. That’s when he started experimenting with the creation of a meat-alternative. “I wanted something that had the same taste, texture and mouth-feel as meat,” he says.
And therein lies the uniqueness of Fry’s products. “No one else is making a vegan meat alternative range of products,” says Wally. Not only is the product both vegan and vegetarian, it’s also Kosher, Halaal, Suddah and non-GM, making it very special in its category. Wally’s conviction about environmental responsibility and ethics has driven him to extraordinary lengths in developing the product range. “We look at the ethics of every one of our raw material suppliers, and make sure that neither the company nor any of its shareholders is involved in any way in another company that might have interests in animal farming,” Wally explains. The brand has been voted the Best Buy label in the UK, based on the company’s ethics.
This was all driven by the Frys’ passion, but it’s had a positive business spin-off too, giving it a unique competitive edge in a market that’s increasingly focused on sustainability and the ethics of animal farming. It’s opened doors to a substantial international market and the company now exports to 23 countries around the world.
Passion is a significant motivator, and the Frys have it in spades, but is it enough to take you out of a home kitchen and into a global market? How does someone with no knowledge of food science or food manufacturing get to where Wally is today? Part of the answer lies in being willing to put in hours, days and years of hard, hard work. “We weren’t particularly clever but my goodness have we worked hard. I think we’re living proof that if you work hard enough at anything, you will succeed,” says Wally.
Mastering through learning
He’s also proof that you can master an industry about which you know absolutely nothing, having learned most of what he knows from reading books and through trial and error. “I’d read up on the different properties of food ingredients and then experiment by putting together different combinations. I learned that if I put together two different ingredients, it would give me a particular taste or texture, and that’s how our products evolved,” he says.
Wally also put himself through a crash course in machine engineering. “I bought all of our first machines for the factory on auction and I had no idea what they did or even if they were the right ones,” he says. He started learning and in a short time he was carrying out repair work on the factory machines.
And there’s the thing. Wally is the kind of person who masters whatever he puts his mind to. He doesn’t do things in half-measures. This is a ‘go big or go home’ kind of guy. Other entrepreneurs could learn a lot from him. “Someone once asked me what course I’d recommend an entrepreneur should take before starting a successful business and my answer was ‘None’. You need vision and enthusiasm and you just need to go for it,” he says.
Grab opportunities and run
The story of how the company got started is testament to this willingness to grab opportunities and run with them. Wally relates the story of how an encounter with a marketing expert really got things going.
“A vegetarian friend of a friend heard about the products I was making, purely for family consumption, and asked if he could come over and try them. When he tasted them he tried to convince me that they needed to be marketed and listed in supermarkets, but I wasn’t really interested in setting up a business. I was doing this as a hobby really,” he relates.
So convinced was the marketer of the potential success of the product that he offered to conduct market research and compile a full marketing plan for free. “His words were that I owed it to society to commercialise these products and that he himself wanted to be able to buy them in supermarkets,”
Being a natural businessman and entrepreneur, the realisation that there was a market out there was enough to galvanise him into action and he couldn’t walk away from the opportunity once it had been pointed out to him. “The marketing person helped us with the package design, which we hand-drew on pieces of cardboard, I got my kids to make little flags stuck on toothpicks to identify the different products and I set off to go visit the supermarkets to get listings,” Wally recalls.
Getting a foot in the door
Anyone who’s run a business in the food industry knows just how hard this can be. Getting listed in significant supermarkets is the make-or-break tipping point, but it’s notoriously tough to do. Large supermarket chains hold all the cards and competition is fierce.
Here again Wally’s ability to make people listen and to push where necessary stood him in good stead. “I took all my pre-cooked sausages and other products and prepared them in the boardroom tea room before the meeting, sticking all our little home-made flags into the products. When the guys arrived for the meeting they told me they didn’t do taste testings in these meetings, but I said, ‘Well humour me. I’ve done all this work so you might as well eat it,” he relates. “They started tasting and then called in people from outside to taste as well, and when I left they wanted to know when I could start supplying them.”
It was a good question. “We had no factory, no equipment, no staff. I had an AMC cooking pot! I didn’t even know what equipment I’d need to buy,” he says. Machines bought at an auction were loaded into two 20 ton trucks and delivered to a small factory space the Frys owned. Wally snapped up an experienced factory worker who knew how the machines worked – the company’s first employee – and within 15 days Fry’s was up and running. The first delivery was made within three months.
Slowly does it
This makes it sound easy but the reality was anything but. “I had to learn everything from scratch. Food is a highly regulated industry – I needed to learn about food safety standards, how it should be prepared, cooked, frozen, packaged and distributed. I was also used to ordering raw materials in batches of a kilogram and I now had to order them in bulk,” Wally says.
The first orders required large quantities, but thereafter Wally and Debbie would call the supermarkets every day to find out how many boxes had been sold as this told them how much new product they would need to prepare. “We did it very, very slowly, only making as much as was required. If they had only sold two boxes, that’s how much we would make,” Debbie indicates.
It’s a far cry from the dream many entrepreneurs have of reaching a tipping point and ‘making it big’, but Wally stands by his experience of slow, steady, risk-averse growth. “I don’t subscribe to the notion that you need to sit down before starting a business and draw up a detailed SWOT analysis. If you look at the pitfalls too closely, they will become your reality. You don’t need to build an empire overnight. Just start something small and see if it works,” he advises.
‘If I can’t afford it, I don’t want it’
Growth was incremental but continuous – and entirely self-funded. Wally’s
personal rule is, ‘If I can’t afford it, I don’t want it’ and he’s applied that rigorously to the company, which has never borrowed a cent.
“If we had borrowed money the growth might have been quicker but we only know now that the product was a success. Back then, we didn’t know that so we grew organically and we’ve been very happy with that,” says Debbie.
The company was able to make use of factory space that it already owned, and some might argue that it’s easy to make a business succeed if you are lucky enough to have access to such assets. But here’s the thing. The reason the Frys owned that space in the first place was because Wally had already built up and then sold a construction company. This is the second time he’s made a success of a business, the second time he’s put in the long hours and the hard work to make something happen. So luck has nothing to do with it. And it’s worth bearing in mind that while the Frys have never borrowed money, they risked their early retirement money to make the business work.
Developing a brand people fall in love with
As Fry’s initially had no marketing budget, the product became known only through word of mouth. However, it was unique enough to make itself felt. “One supermarket told us they would have to delist us because they simply weren’t selling enough. Three months later they called us up and asked us to deliver stock because there’d been such an outcry from the vegetarian customers who had been purchasing our products,” Wally explains. Listings grew incrementally, until the product reached that golden ‘critical mass’ where stores would be out in the cold for not stocking it.
Creating something unique that meets a previously unfilled need is one thing, but how do you develop a brand that people fall in love with? Ask Wally and he’ll tell you it all comes back to passion. “You can’t start a business just because you want to make money. You need to start it because you are inspired to deliver a service or a product to people that will make their lives better or easier in some way. You need to have conviction that what you are supplying is really great for people to use. Believing in and being passionate about your product will inspire other people to believe in it too. People buy into passion. You can’t manufacture it,” he says.
Fry’s offers its customers an alternative to meat products, giving them the opportunity that Wally hoped for – to eat a meat-free or, at the very least, a reduced-meat diet. But it also offers them a chance to go green, save the planet, prevent animal cruelty and, ultimately, make a difference. That’s what builds brand loyalty and getting it right is what every brand is trying to achieve.
Taking on an international market
Customers’ demand for Fry’s products indirectly drove its penetration into international markets, as expats who wanted to continue to buy the product contacted the company to find out if they could distribute it in their new home country. “We’re represented in other countries by people who have the same passion and conviction that we do, and that makes all the difference to our success,” says Wally.
The international market currently accounts for just 25% of the company’s business, but Wally has a vision to grow aggressively on the international stage. “We just got into the States and the response has been phenomenal – our first container was sold before we had time to get the second one on the water,” he says. He’s certainly not about to ignore the South African market, but indicates that if the scales of economy are right in another country, the company would consider setting up an operation outside South Africa’s borders. “It’s not something that’s on the cards right now but yes, we’d look at it,” he says.
Wally’s drive is relentless and sometimes surprises even him. “When we were packing 500 kilograms a day I said to myself, ‘Now I’ve reached my goal. This is enough, I need to take a rest.’ But somehow I never did and today we pack 16 tons a day,” he says.
His drive propels continuous improvement in the company and the development of new product lines. A few years ago the company turned its attention to reducing the salt and fat content of its products. Today fat content is down from around 12% to between 3% and 4% while sodium content has been halved.
“We’re researching new ingredients all the time. We look all over the world, and of course where we source from has to be aligned with our ethics and values. This means R&D can take months or even years, but it’s worth it,” Wally says.
“I’m working harder now than I ever have, but I’m loving every minute of it. I’m doing something I really believe in.” It’s something nearly everyone wants to be able to say, but in the case of Fry’s Vegetarian it’s no accident – it’s integral to the business’s success. And there must be a lesson in that for other entrepreneurs.
The impact of animal farming
“The world is currently raising over 50 billion farmed animals for slaughter each year and, in addition to its major impact on global warming, this is contributing significantly to the destruction of tropical rainforests and other valuable habitats. Because of its high degree of inefficiency compared to plant protein production, animal agriculture is disproportionately depleting the planet’s dwindling reserves of fresh water, land, fuel, and other resources,” says Tammy Kelly.
The company draws on hard facts to support its position. Here are some of their stats:
- At least half of all the greenhouse gases are due to livestock production
- If all Americans ate no meat, chicken or fish for just one day a week, this would result in the same carbon savings as taking 19,2 million cars off the road in the USA for an entire year, or save gas emissions equivalent to 46 million return flights from New York to Los Angeles
- It requires 500 times as much land to produce 1kg of beef as it does to produce 1kg of vegetables
- It takes 250 litres of water to produce 1kg of wheat, and 25 000 litres of water to produce 1kg of meat
- Cows, pigs and sheep bred for human consumption discharge millions of tons of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Livestock accounts for about 18% of greenhouse gases, more than all the world’s transportation systems including
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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