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How Dial A Nerd Managed To Dial Up Profits

Dial a Nerd’s enduring success is realising that profits matter more than bright lights and courting equity partners. To grow profits brothers, Colin and Aaron Thornton, have strategically brought their turnover down and today run a simpler, consolidated and more sustainable company. This is their story.

Nadine Todd

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Vital stats

  • Players: Aaron Thornton and Colin Thornton
  • Company: Dial a Nerd
  • EST: 1998
  • Visit: dialanerd.co.za

What is success?

It’s a question that the founders of Dial a Nerd, brothers Colin and Aaron Thornton, have often thought about and debated with their fellow directors, Roberto Caprio and Phil Case. Is it massive top-line growth? Check.

We-recommend-tickWe recommend: Dial-a-Nerd: Staying on Top While the Market Changed

Growing from one retail store in Joburg to 14 nationwide, with another 26 on the cards? Check. Drawing the attention of a large ISP who wants to acquire you, and then signing a three-year structured buy-out deal? Check.

By 2008 it seemed like nothing could go wrong, and the brothers would be in their 30s and retired by 2011. And then the wheels fell off.

“In hindsight, the writing was on the wall,” says Colin.

“At the time, we felt like we were flying. We were signing expensive leases, chasing top-line growth and focusing on getting bigger and bigger and bigger. We were no longer just Dial a Nerd either. A few years into the business we formed Nerdworks as a holding company for Dial a Nerd and Network Nerds. We had home, software development and website divisions. We were doing a lot — and fast.”

What they didn’t see was how the buy-out would negatively impact their business, the effects of a global recession on the horizon, and how the home IT market was about to radically shift.

Growing pains

dial-a-nerd-car

The ISP’s interest and the buy-out deal just accelerated Dial a Nerd’s growth, which meant 100% of Aaron and Colin’s focus was on the top line, instead of paying careful attention to the market. Before long, the cracks started to show.

“It was a perfect storm,” says Aaron. “We were chasing turnover growth without properly considering what it was costing us, or if there was a smarter way to be making better margins and higher profits. We were blinded by the beautiful retail stores we were opening and the brag factor of the growth we were experiencing.” It soon became apparent that there were some fundamental flaws in the buy-out deal.

“The ISP that we’d signed the deal with was aggressively gaining market share, and wanted to partner with a support company. They also wanted to break into the SME space. They saw us as the ideal partner for this. One of their goals was for us to grow to 40 branches nationwide. We were all for it, and used their cash for aggressive expansion,” explains Colin.

Unfortunately, the reality of the deal was quite different to how it looked on paper.

“We’ve learnt that in a successful partnership, 1 + 1 = 3,” says Aaron. “Then it’s worth it, and you have real, sustainable growth that everyone benefits from. This just wasn’t the case for us. The synergy wasn’t right.”

“We all got carried away with the value of our organisation, and when we joined the ISP, we didn’t do enough homework on the market, what they were purchasing, where the gaps lay, and who our competitors in the space were,” adds Colin. As it turned out, a lot of those competitors were actually resellers for the ISP.

”By marketing ourselves to their end-users we would’ve alienated the resellers who, as you can imagine, weren’t happy. Once they got wind of our plan they threatened to stop selling the ISP’s services – and that obviously wasn’t acceptable. A major ‘synergy’ we had identified just evaporated.

“To make matters worse, the ISP’s board wanted us to cover South Africa as fast as possible to help accelerate their own growth. We were trying to grow too quickly, which was putting enormous pressure on the business’s sustainability,” says Colin.

Finding an exit and facing new challenges

“We stood back, took stock, and realised the whole deal wasn’t working out the way we’d planned,” says Colin. It’s never easy to admit that you’ve made a mistake, let alone face the fact that the deal you thought would make you rich just isn’t delivering on its promise.

Colin and Aaron could have ignored this realisation and kept pushing, hoping they could turn it around or that they could still make it work. Instead, they decided to take their company back and build it on their terms, at their pace.

“We were lucky. The ISP’s focus was shifting, and we no longer represented the core market they wanted to concentrate on. Roberto approached the board and asked them if we could take ownership off the table, walk away and pay back the money they’d already given us,” says Aaron.

“They were happy with the proposed deal. We agreed on a payment structure, and it took us three years to pay them back.”

Not only were the brothers now free and clear to rework their entire business strategy, but they managed to salvage a good relationship with the ISP, which remains to this day.

They might have extricated themselves from a poor partnership, but the business’s problems were far from over.

“Our relief at ending the partnership was short-lived,” says Colin. By 2011 the market started to shift rapidly. First, operating systems were getting much better.

Second, while the 2008 crash took a while to get to South Africa, by 2011 it was starting to impact consumer buying trends. Both would have a significant impact on Dial a Nerd’s business model.

We-recommend-tickWe recommend: Dial-a-Nerd: Colin Thornton

Shifting markets

aaron-and-colin-thornton

“IT costs were dropping and the home consumer market was becoming incredibly competitive,” says Colin.

“Consumer electronics were becoming commoditised, and large retail chains were squeezing suppliers for better prices.”

What did this mean for the business? When Dial a Nerd had first launched 11 years earlier, Colin made the decision to focus on the home user market, which needed assistance, but wasn’t being serviced. Desktop computers couldn’t just be bought out the box.

They were custom-made from specific components based on the customer’s needs. There were only a handful of computer brands on the market, and these were high-end products.

“It was actually worth personally spending an hour or two with each customer who wanted a laptop or desktop to find out exactly what their needs were at their homes or offices,” says Aaron, who would then take the specs back to a technician who would build it from components and then set it up for the customer — again at their homes.

“Everything was complicated. We had a document a page and a half long with instructions on how to connect to the Internet.”

Fast forward a decade and things were very different. Laptops were standard, and could be bought out the box.

Apple had launched the iPad, and suddenly consumers didn’t need desktops at home anymore — they had laptops at work and tablets at home. Nothing needed to be custom-made, and there was a range of out-the-box products to choose from.

Large retailers bought and sold on price, and Dial a Nerd, which had retail stores and sold products, but at a much smaller scale, just couldn’t compete on price.

Disappearing margins

“At this stage around 50% of our revenue was hardware sales, and we had all these fancy retail stores,” says Aaron.

“However, our FD Phil, kept warning us that margins were disappearing. We began to seriously question not only our original strategy of opening 40 stores nationwide, but even keeping the existing 14 stores.”

“It’s amazing how you can be blinded by the trappings of looking successful,” says Colin.

“We loved opening stores — they were beautiful, and you’ve got this showcase that you feel incredibly proud of. Of course, there was a reason behind them. We needed a way to present the hardware on offer, and it meant that technicians had a base to work from.

“They’d waste so much time travelling from Bryanston to the East or West Rand, so it made sense to open offices in each major area. But as the market changed, rents were going up, and margins were shrinking. What’s the point of a high turnover if you’re working so hard for small margins? The model just wasn’t making sense anymore.”

We-recommend-tickWe recommend: To Fund Or Not To Fund?

Start-up story

dial-a-nerd-store-front

“Launch is the wrong word. We fizzled into existence,” is how Colin Thornton describes Dial a Nerd’s beginnings. It was August 1998, and Colin was 19 years old. He’d just dropped out of his first year of university — an interesting choice, considering his father was a professor and his mother was a teacher — and he needed to make an income. His dad had been clear: If he wasn’t studying, he needed to pay rent.

“I had always been interested in computers. In 1984, when I was six years old, we got our first computer. It was one of the first private computers of anyone we knew, and I was always fiddling with it — playing games, breaking it, fixing it. I loved it. From a young age, friends and family asked me to look at their PCs when they broke, and to train them.

“By the time I was in high school I was charging R50 an hour for my services. When I realised that I didn’t want to study, this was the natural place to turn to. I had some clients, I had skills and most importantly, I had a passion for technology. What I didn’t have was a business — or enough clients.”

Colin’s solution was simple. He paid his rent, and every cent he made above that he spent on flyers.

“They were cheap flyers that I printed in bulk, and I handed them out everywhere – at robots, in car parks, at malls. We got chased out of more car parks in Joburg than I can count. We paid car guards to put them under people’s windscreens, and students did mailbox drops for us. If I could have hired a helicopter to blanket them over the city I would have.”

Gaining customers

It worked. Home users needed help, and Colin was affordable. Word started spreading, and as the business grew, three other friends who knew PCs came on board.

By 2000, Dial a Nerd had offices and a receptionist, and then Aaron, who had made it to his second year in varisty, decided to drop out as well.

“I knew tech, but we needed someone who could focus on marketing, business growth and clients. Aaron was a perfect fit, and I asked him to join us.”

Eight years later, the business had grown substantially and the brothers attracted the interest of a large ISP. A deal was signed. By 2010 that deal was reversed. By 2014 the debt to the ISP was settled, and consolidation began. Today, Dial a Nerd is a smaller business, but a far more profitable one. And growth is more on the cards than ever.

Time for a new strategy

Dial-a-nerd-founder

The brothers took stock yet again. Turnover was good, but profits were not. Because they couldn’t compete with large retail chains on price, the validity of the retail stores was called into question.

They were still helping clients set up their home tech systems, even if the tech was being purchased elsewhere, but this side of the business didn’t require a showroom.

“In addition, even the home user market was shrinking — operating systems were getting better and much simpler to use. People with very little tech-savvy were able to plug and play without technical assistance. Tech was also getting cheaper, which meant in most cases hardware would be replaced instead of fixed.

“Instead of lamenting how tech developments had harmed the business, we decided to focus on how they could help us instead,” says Colin.

“We’d built a great brand over the years. It was well known, respected and trusted. That was a really excellent base to start from. We just needed to accept that we could no longer do what we’d always done if we wanted to continue to grow the business.

“In terms of the retail side, our options were to enter into a pricing war or start importing ourselves. We didn’t want to do either. Tech support was what we were good at, and that’s where we needed to focus. We made the decision to close the retail stores and stop actively selling products. We also made the decision to shift from home users to businesses.”

We-recommend-tickWe recommend: Mark Pilgrim On Authenticity In Business

A revenue problem

2012 became Dial a Nerd’s first year of consolidation. “Over the past three years we’ve wrapped up a branch every six months,” says Aaron, who spearheaded this side of the business.

“We were watching our revenue evaporate, and as a branch stopped making cash completely, we shut it down.”

“We also started focusing on the business sector,” adds Colin.

“We tried to ramp it up at the same pace that the consumer side was dropping. It took longer than we thought it would, as it so often does, but we were on the path. Corporate has a much longer sales cycle, and you need to take the time to really build trust and put proper service level agreements in place. There’s a lot more at stake in corporate IT support, because downtime costs money — sometimes millions per day in lost revenue and productivity.”

The fact that things were moving more slowly than planned was alright, though. “We knew that this was where we had real scope to grow, unlike the consumer side, which was the exact opposite,” says Colin.

At the same time, business support was getting exciting. “Servers, networks, security, the cloud — there’s so much happening in the tech space; so much scope. Business is now impossible without IT. It’s one of the most important functions of any business.”

Balancing costs with growth

dial-a-nerd-entrepreneur

The past three years have been a balancing act for Colin and Aaron. They split their roles: Aaron would wind down the consumer side of the business while Colin concentrated on building the business side.

“It’s a strange position to be in, because you still have to give good support, watch the bottom line, and make profits while decreasing the size of the business and closing branches,” explains Aaron.

“As we shut branches the best operators stayed and became ‘mobile’ operators. They were on the road anyway; now it was just official. To manage technicians who were always on the road, we needed different systems and support to control and get live reporting from. We bought off-the-shelf, yet specialised software to do this. We needed to keep our best operators and the highest billers, but we didn’t need to keep the offices and branches.”

As a result, although the business continued to focus on home users for the next three years, it got rid of overheads.

“We had no company cars, offices or scattered administrators. We focused on creating a mobile workforce with all admin consolidated in one central office with robust systems to support the shift.

A shrinking market

“The market was shrinking, and we shrank with it, keeping only the higher LSM. Today our home users account for 30% to 40% of our turnover, but without the overheads of rent and admin it’s become a very profitable revenue stream.”

An additional revenue generator has been the direct result of technological advancements.

“Robust systems have allowed us to create a low-cost mobile workforce, but on the business side, technology has allowed us to offer off-site support. Our business technicians can monitor our clients’ servers and systems from our offices, without getting in their cars and driving to the client. This means we can spot and solve problems before the client even realises they are there, but it also means technicians can now offer eight hours of support in one day instead of four,” says Colin.

“It’s been amazing for our profit margins. The costs associated with time on the road have just evaporated. The advances of tech meant we had to shift our business model, but the benefits of those same changes have been immense. We just needed to recognise them and make the best use of them.”

Reaping the rewards

Ultimately, while the last few years have been tough, and radically changing a business model can be daunting, for Dial a Nerd, the rewards have been well worth it.

“With the home division we’ve always waited for the phone to ring. Business customers are different. We’ve put contracts in place, which has created an annuity income. This means we know how much revenue is coming in each month, and can plan (and spend) accordingly,” says Colin.

“While getting here has been scary as hell, our lives are simpler as a result and we’ve substantially grown our profits. Our turnover might be down by 35%, but our year-on-year profit growth over the past three years has been 100%.”

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital stats

  • 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.

Jason English

Related: 5 Top Lessons From LAWTrust To Prepare For Super-Charged Growth

“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.

Related: Establishing The Wheels Of Change In Business

“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.

prommac

“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.”

Exponential growth

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.

key-insights-from-jason-english

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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.

Nadine Todd

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  • 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.”

Related: 5 Top Lessons From LAWTrust To Prepare For Super-Charged Growth

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.


Do this

Stop letting negative thoughts and minor irritations derail you. You are the master of your moods and thoughts, so take personal responsibility for them.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital stats

  • 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.

Related: 6 Great Tips For A Successful Shark Tank Pitch

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.

Vusani Ravele of Native Decor

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.

Related: Shark Tank’s Dawn Nathan-Jones: How Leaders Who Focus On Growth Will Build Successful Companies

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.

Related: Shark Tank’s Romeo Kumalo Weighs In On High-Impact Entrepreneurial Businesses


Take note

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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