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5 Key Tactics That Helped Gill Bowen And Tim Hartzenberg Revitalise The Shooshoos Brand

Great brands are built when the right product finds a strong market fit, and the business has a firm strategy and strong foundations in place. Here’s how the owners of Shooshoos are taking a much-loved South African brand global.

Nadine Todd

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Vital stats

  • Players: Gill Bowen and Tim Hartzenberg
  • Company: Shooshoos
  • Launched: 1996, purchased by Gill and Tim in 2014
  • Visit: shooshoos.com

When Gill Bowen and her husband, Tim Hartzenberg bought Shooshoos in 2014, it was because they loved the product and could see its potential. Over the past three years they’ve grown the business by 35%, although this hasn’t been their core focus. Instead, they’ve been laying the foundations for much bigger growth, both locally and abroad.

Here are five ways that Gill and Tim have taken a 20-year-old business, and revitalised the brand while building a solid base from which to grow exponentially.

1Never become complacent — quality and choice keep brands relevant

Even the best brands are in danger of becoming complacent. Shooshoos was no exception. When Gill and Tim took over in 2014, they realised that although they loved the brand, it hadn’t changed much in 17 years. The result was a rise in competitors, lack-lustre retail buyers and an indifferent market.

“When Shooshoos entered the UK market for example, there was nothing like them,” says Gill. “They were new and different, and offered exceptional quality. There were no competitors on the market that even vaguely resembled them.”

Related: How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

But time passed, and the company did not innovate. Styles remained the same, buyers got bored of the same choices they’d had the year before, and competitors started offering their own leather baby and toddler shoes — with more variety.

“One of the first things we did was give our range a facelift. We now have 150 new styles every six months.”

However, Gill is learning that there’s a fine line between variety and too much variety. “We’re pulling our options back for two reasons. First, it will save on our imported leather costs, and these are savings we can pass on to our consumers. Second, this new strategy allows us to release limited ranges. For the true Shooshoos fan, this means something new and different, and when the range is gone, it’s gone.”

The lesson:  Brand longevity requires two core ingredients: Dependable quality and fresh designs and options. By combining both, Shooshoos has become a more desirable brand.

2A single distribution channel grows the value of a brand

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Gill and Tim discovered a second problem with the business’s international growth strategy: Shooshoos had no proper trade agreements in place, and were happy to sell to anyone. The result was three distributors competing with each other for shelf space in big-box retailers and niche baby stores alike.

“This didn’t equate to more business; it did the exact opposite,” says Gill. “It drove down prices as they were all trying to get to the retailers first, and offering discounts to do so. They’d also do deals on consignment, instead of cash on delivery. This devalued our brand, because it was too easy to acquire, and retailers just waited for the biggest discount.”

The lesson: A strong distributor who understands and supports your brand strategy is vital to the overall growth and value of your brand. It’s pointless pursuing one strategy if your distributor is under-cutting the market.

3Consolidate before you focus on growth

“When we bought the business it wasn’t geared for growth. No focus had been placed on developing systems and processes, or streamlining costs,” says Gill.

The company operated out of two separate buildings (manufacturing and offices) that were a 45-minute drive apart. “It was extremely inefficient, from a cost and time perspective,” says Gill.

“One of the first things we did was consolidate into one building that houses our offices, manufacturing plant and warehouse.”

The lesson: It’s difficult to manage a disorganised work space. Inefficiencies result in hidden costs and delays. By consolidating the business under one roof, Gill and Tim were able to implement proper processes and trim costs — even though their staff complement increased from 50 to 60 employees. Firm systems and processes have given the business a sound base from which to grow.

Related: 27 Of The Richest People In South Africa

4Building an export market takes time, so lay good foundations

shooshoos-com

When Gill and Tim took over Shooshoos, the business had an international footprint, but there was no international growth strategy in place. “The US was an online store for old stock, and the UK was in disarray.”

There are two key points to consider when approaching an export market: Are you geared for its seasonality (and the long tail of exporting), and do you have a proper go-to-market strategy in place?

“We understood seasonality, and were prepared for it. You need to work 12 months ahead, because buyers will generally order eight months in advance, and their season cycles are different to yours, which requires two completely different manufacturing lines. It took 30 months to ramp the business and orders up to a decent level that we can build from.”

The go-to-market strategy that eventually led to success

Gill and Tim’s go-to-market strategy has focused on trade shows, a tactic that is working well for the business, even if it got off to a rocky start.

“The organisers of our first show assumed we were a cheap brand and stuck us in a corner. No one walked past our stand. Fortunately, we had put a lot of effort into making it look incredible, and so while no one saw our products, the organisers did — and apologised profusely for where they put us. I was able to negotiate a stand up-front at the entrance for their next show based on that. It was a prime spot, and we made our mark.”

By exhibiting at trade shows, Gill and Tim have launched the brand and been approached by Kevin Harrington’s team. “Kevin was one of the first Sharks on the US Shark Tank. He’s the inventor of the infomercial. They filmed our advert for a small production fee, and will air it for a full year, building our brand through their channels. From the second year, they take a 10% commission on every sale.

Partnering for success

“They also host a product think tank that we were selected to attend, where we can share ideas with fellow entrepreneurs at an international scale.”

An essential component of a good go-to-market strategy is making it as easy as possible for consumers to buy from you.

“Tim spent weeks filling in a mountain of paperwork, but the end result was that we were able to open a local bank account in the US. This means customers can pay us without worrying about minimum orders and international money transfers. This has been an essential part of our US strategy.”

The lesson: As with any brand, you need visibility in the market. Trade shows are a good way to learn what other brands are in the market, what customers are looking for, and to make local contacts. However, it’s not a hit-and-run strategy. It’s a continuous strategy that ensures you remain prominent.

5Find a price point that serves the business, but that the market can tolerate

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Pricing can be tricky. On the one hand, the business needs to make a profit. Undercutting yourself and competitors can lead to small (or non-existent) margins, and eventually your business will go under. The same is true of discounts, which also undervalue your brand.

Price too high and you’ll harm the business because value and price doesn’t align in consumer minds. You need to be competitive, and your value proposition must be clear.

As the local economy has tightened, Gill has recognised two key characteristics in buyer behaviour. First, where customers used to purchase three pairs of Shooshoos per basket, they now buy one or two. Second, the styles they choose tend to be essentials that can go with anything.

“Our focus is to continue growing, and we’re doing it in another recession. Exporting has spread our risk, particularly because we earn in different currencies, but we can’t lower our standards to save costs. We won’t compromise the product.”

Related: Social Innovation: Walk a Mile in Vosk Shoes

Instead, Gill has conducted focus groups with retailers and customers to understand how they’re making purchasing decisions, and the price points that the market can tolerate.

“We’ve adjusted our strategy. We still offer colourful Shooshoos made from imported leather that customers love, but we are launching a second ‘by Shooshoos’ brand that is affordable and focuses on simpler designs and colours — the ‘everyday’ baby and toddler shoe.”

The lesson: Research your target market. For example, European and US markets care about non-toxic and eco-friendly products. In South Africa, fit and price are more important. Any growth strategy must be cognisant of buying patterns and what your customers care about — and will pay for.

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

6 Lesson Gems From Appanna Ganapathy That Helped Him Launch A High-Growth Start-Up

Twenty years after first wanting to own a business, Appanna Ganapathy launched ART Technologies, a business he aims to grow throughout Africa, starting with Kenya thanks to a recently signed deal with Seacom. As a high-growth entrepreneur with big plans, Appanna spent two decades laying the foundations of success — and now he’s starting to collect.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

Like many entrepreneurs before him, Appanna Ganapathy hadn’t even finished school and he was already thinking about his first business venture. A friend could secure the licensing rights to open Nando’s franchises in Mozambique, and they were very keen on the idea — which Appanna’s mom quickly dampened. “You can do whatever you want,” she said. “As long as you finish your degree first.”

Unlike many other entrepreneurs however, Appanna not only finished his degree, but realised that he had a lot of skills he needed to develop and lessons to learn before he’d be ready to launch the business he wanted.

“We launched ART Technologies just over two years ago. If I had started any earlier, I don’t think I would have been as successful as I am now,” he says.

Here are six key lessons that Appanna has learnt along his journey, which have allowed him to launch a high-growth start-up that is positioned to make an impact across Africa.

1. You don’t just need a product – you need clients as well

Business success is the ability to design and execute a great product and solution, and then be able to sell it. Without sales, there is no business. This is a lesson Appanna learnt while he was still at university.

“I was drawn to computers. I loved figuring out how they worked, playing computer games — everything about them,” he says. “My parents lived in Mozambique, and during my holidays I’d visit them and a friend who had a computer business. I helped him assemble them and thought I could do this too while I was studying. I convinced my dad to buy me a car so that I could set up my business — and never sold or assembled a single computer. I delivered pizzas instead.”

So, what went wrong? The simple truth was that at the time Appanna had the technical skills to build computers, but he lacked the ability to sell his product.

“If someone had said, ‘I’ve got an order for 30 computers’, I would have filled it — but to go out and get that order — I didn’t really even know where to start.”

2. Price and solution go hand-in-hand

As much as you need the ability to sell your solution, you also need a market that wants and needs what you’re offering, at a price point that works for everyone.

In 2007, Appanna was approached by a former supplier whom he had worked with while he was based in Mozambique. The supplier had an IT firm and he wanted to expand into South Africa. He was looking for a local partner who would purchase equity shares in the company and run the South African business.

“I loved the opportunity. This was something I could build from the ground up, in an area I understood well,” says Appanna. The firm set up and managed IT infrastructure for SMEs. The value proposition was simple: “We could offer SMEs a service that they could use for a relatively low cost, but that gave them everything an enterprise would have.”

The problem was that although Appanna and his team knew they had a great product, they were competing on price with inferior products. “If we couldn’t adequately unpack the value of our solution, an SME would choose the cheaper option. It was a big lesson for me to learn. It doesn’t matter how good the solution is that you’re offering — if it’s not at a price point that your target market accepts, they won’t choose you.”

It was this understanding that helped Appanna and his team develop the Desktop-as-a-Service solution that ART Technologies now offers the SME market.

“While I was developing the idea and the solution, I needed to take three key things into account: What do SMEs need from an IT infrastructure perspective, what is the most cost-effective way to offer them that solution, and what will the market pay (and is it enough to cover our costs and give us a small profit margin)?”

Appanna’s experience in the market had already taught him how cost-conscious SMEs are, and so he started developing a solution that could deliver value at a price point SMEs could accept. His solution? A unique Desktop-as-a-Service product that combines all the processing power and Microsoft products a business needs, without any capex outlay for servers or software.

“It’s a Cloud workstation that turns any device into a full Windows computer,” Appanna explains. “We hold the licences, and our clients just access our service. A set-up that would cost between R180 000 and R200 000 for 15 users is now available for R479 per user per month.”

It took Appanna and his partners time to build the solution, but they started with the price point in mind, which meant a solution could be designed that met their needs as well as the needs of the market.

“Too many businesses set everything up, invest in the solution, and then discover they can’t sell their product at the price point they need. My time in the market selling IT and infrastructure solutions gave me invaluable insights into what we needed to deliver on, and what we could realistically charge for our service.”

3. Get as much on-the-ground experience as you can

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The time that Appanna spent building the IT firm he was a part-owner of was invaluable. “I started as a technical director before being promoted to GM and running the company for three and a half years. Those years were very, very important for me. They’re where I learnt everything about running a business.

“When I started, I was responsible for sales, but I didn’t have to actually go out and find clients, I just had to meet them, compile quotes and handle the installations. Everything I did was under the guidance of the company’s CEO, who was based in Mozambique. Being the guy who did everything was the best learning ground for me. It set me up for everything I’m doing today. In particular, I learnt how to approach and deal with people. Without people and clients your business is nothing.”

Appanna didn’t just learn by default — he actively worked to expand his understanding of all facets of the business. “At the time I wasn’t planning on leaving to launch my own business,” he says. “I was a shareholder and I wanted to grow that business. That meant understanding as much as possible about how everything worked. If there was something I wasn’t sure of — a process, the numbers, how something worked — I asked. I took personal responsibility for any errors and got involved in every aspect of the business, including areas that weren’t officially ‘my job’. I wanted to really grow and support the business.”

4. Stay focused

Interestingly, while the experience Appanna has accumulated throughout his career has allowed him to build a high-growth start-up, it also taught him the importance of not wearing too many hats as an entrepreneur.

“I’m glad I’ve had the experience of wearing multiple hats, because I’ve learnt so much, but I’ve also learnt that it’s important to pick a lane, not only in what you do as a business, but in the role you play within your business. I also race superbikes in the South African Kawasaki ZX-10 Cup; through this I have learnt how important it is to focus in the moment without distractions and this is a discipline I have brought into the business.”

“If you’re the leader of an organisation, you need to let things go. You can’t be everything to everyone. When I launched ART Technologies, I knew the key to growth would be the fact that although I’m technical, I wasn’t going to run the technical side of the business. I have strong technical partners whom I trust, and there is an escalation framework in place, from tech, to tech manager, to the CTO to me — I speak tech and I’m available, but my focus is on strategy and growth. I believe this is the biggest mistake that many start-ups make. If you’re wearing all the hats, who is looking at where you’re going? When you’re down in the trenches, doing everything, it’s impossible to see the bigger picture.”

Appanna chose his partners carefully with this goal in mind.

“All the partners play a very important role in the business. Ruaan Jacobs’s strength is in the technical expertise he brings to the business and Terry Naidoo’s strength is in the support services he provides to our clients. Terry is our technical manager. He has the most incredible relationship with our customers — everyone wants to work with Terry. But there’s a problem with that too — if we want to scale this business, Terry can’t be the technical point for all of our customers.

“As partners we have decided what our blueprint for service levels will be; this is based on the way Terry deals with clients and he is developing a technical manual that doesn’t only cover the tech side of the business, but how ART Technologies engages with its customers.

“Terry’s putting his essence down on paper — a step-by-step guide to how we do business. That’s how you build a service culture.”

5. Reputation, network and experience count

Many start-ups lack three crucial things when they launch: Their founders haven’t built up a large network, they don’t have a reputation in the market, and they lack experience. All three of these things can (and should) be addressed during start-up phase, but launching with all three can give the business a valuable boost.

Appanna learnt the value of networks at a young age. Born in India, he moved to Zambia with his family as a young child. From there he moved to Tanzania and then Mozambique, attending boarding school in Swaziland and KwaZulu Natal. At each new school, he was greeted by kids who had formed strong bonds.

“I made good friends in those years, but at each new school I recognised how important strong bonds are, particularly as the outsider.”

Appanna’s early career took him back to Mozambique, working with the UN and EY on various projects. When he moved to South Africa, as a non-citizen he connected with his old boss from the UN who offered him a position as information officer for the Regional Director’s team.

His next move would be to the tech company that he would run for just over three years — also the product of previous connections. “Who you know is important, but how you conduct yourself is even more so,” says Appanna. “If your reputation in the market place is good, people will want to do business with you.”

Appanna experienced this first hand when he left to launch his own business. “Some key clients wanted to move with me,” he says. “If I had brought them in it would have settled our business, but I said no to some key customers who hadn’t been mine. I wasn’t ethically comfortable taking them with me.”

One of those multinational clients approached Appanna again six months later, stating they were taking their business out to tender and that they were hoping ART Technologies would pitch for it. “Apart from the Desktop-as-a-Service product, we also provide managed IT services for clients, particularly larger enterprise clients. Due to the client going out on tender and requesting for us to participate, we pitched for the business and won. The relationship with this client has grown, allowing us to offer them some of our services that they are currently testing to implement throughout Africa.”

“I believe how we conduct ourselves is essential. You need your own personal code of ethics, and you need to live by it. Business — particularly in our environment — is built on trust. Our customers need to trust us with their data. Your reputation is key when it comes to trust.”

Interestingly, although Appanna and his team developed their product based on a specific price point, once that trust is built and a certain standard of service is delivered, customers will pay more.

6. Start smart and start lean

Appanna was able to launch ART Technologies with the savings he and his wife, Kate, had put aside. He reached a point where he had ideas he wanted to take to market, but he couldn’t get his current business partners to agree to them — and so setting up his own business became inevitable.

Although he was fortunate to have savings to bootstrap the business, it was essential for the business to be lean and start generating income as quickly as possible. This was achieved in a number of ways.

First, Appanna and Kate agreed on a start-up figure. They would not go beyond it. “We had a budget, and the business needed to make money before that budget was reached.” The runway Appanna gave himself was only six months — highly ambitious given the 18-month runway most start-ups need. “Other than my salary we broke even in month three, which actually extended our runway a bit,” says Appanna.

Appanna had a server that he used to start with, and purchased a second, bigger server four months later. He also launched another business one month before launching ART Technologies — ART Call Management, a virtual PA services business that needed a PABX system, some call centre technology and two employees.

“I’d been playing around with the idea for a while,” says Appanna. “We were focused on SMEs, and I started noticing other challenges they faced. A lot of entrepreneurs just have their cellphones, but they aren’t answering them as businesses — it’s not professional.

“In essence we sell minutes — for R295 you get 25 incoming calls and 50 minutes of transferred calls. We answer the phone as your receptionist, transfer calls and take messages. How you use your minutes is up to you. For example, if you supply the leads, we can cold call for you. ART Technologies uses the call management business as a reception service and to do all of our cold calling. It’s kept the business lean, but it’s also brought in an income that helped us with our runway.” In 2017 ART Call Management was selected as one of the top ten in the SAGE-702 Small Business Awards.

The only problem with almost simultaneously launching two businesses is focus. “It’s incredibly important to know where you’re putting your focus,” says Appanna. “The call management business has been essential to our overall strategy, but my focus has been pulled in different directions at times, and I need to be conscious of that. The most important thing for any start-up is to know exactly where your focus lies.”


Into Africa

Thanks to a distribution deal signed locally with First Distribution, ART Technologies was introduced to Seacom, which has available infrastructure in a data centre in Kenya.

“It’s a pay-per-client model that allows us to pay Seacom a percentage of every client we sign up,” says Appanna. “First Distribution will be our sales arm. They have a webstore and resellers, and we will be opening ART Kenya with a shareholder who knows the local market.”

From there, Appanna is looking to West Africa and Mauritius. “We have the product and the relationship with Seacom gives us the foothold we need to grow into East Africa.”

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Kid Entrepreneurs Who Have Already Built Successful Businesses (And How You Can Too)

All over the world kids are abandoning the traditional notion of choosing a career to pursue until retirement. Gen Z aren’t looking to become employable job-seekers, but creative innovators as emerging business owners.

Diana Albertyn

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Do kids have an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to starting and building a company? It depends on how you look it. Juggling school, friends, family and other aspects of childhood and adolescence comes with its own requirements, but perhaps this is the best age to start.

“Being an entrepreneur means having to learn, focus, and connect to people and these are all traits that are valuable throughout life. Learning this when you are young is especially crucial, and will set you up for success and to be more open to other opportunities,” says billionaire investor, Shark Tank personality and author Mark Cuban.

Here are some of the most successful kidpreneurs who have cashed in on their hobbies, interests and needs to start and grow million dollar businesses borne from passion and innovation:

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30 Top Influential SA Business Leaders

Learn from these South African titans of industry to guide you on your entrepreneurial journey to success.

Nicole Crampton

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Entrepreneurship is said to be the answer to South Africa’s unemployment challenges and slow growth, but to foster entrepreneurship we ideally need business leaders to impact grass root efforts. Business leadership is vital to improved confidence and growth. These three titans of global industry say:

  • “As we look ahead, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates
  • “Leaders are also expected to work harder than those who report to them and always make sure that their needs are taken care of before yours.” – Elon Musk
  • “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” – Steve Jobs

Here are 30 top influential SA business leaders forging the path towards a prosperous South African future.

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