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How Roman’s Pizza Got A Great Big Slice of Success (Over R1 Billion Of It)

When John Nicolakakis took over the reins of Roman’s Pizza from his father, he had only one goal: To create the biggest pizza brand in South Africa. R1 billion in system-wide sales into this journey, and the company’s aggressive expansion plans have never wavered. In fact, if ever there was a poster child for the mantra ‘go big or go home’, Nicolakakis would be it.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: John Nicolakakis
  • Company: Roman’s Pizza
  • Turnover: Over R1 billion in system-wide sales
  • Accolades: Young Business Leader of the Year – Southern Africa, 2015 All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA) Brand Builder of the Year 2016, Franchise Association of South Africa (FASA) 2016 Awards Nominated for EY 2015, EY Entrepreneur of the Year, Exceptional category
  • Visit: romanspizza.co.za

The first Roman’s Pizza franchise John Nicolakakis ever sold was to a complete fraud. He was 23 years old, and it was his first deal since joining his father in the family business.

“I was so excited when he handed over the cheque for his joining fee. I didn’t realise it was the last cash we’d see from him. He couldn’t even cover his set-up costs. We had to step up and help him get the business up and running. We basically loaned him the money to buy a franchise from us. And we had to do it. The brand was more important than my mistake.”

Nicolakakis’ father hadn’t liked the prospective franchisee, but he’d gone through with the deal anyway, against his father’s wishes. It was a lesson the young businessmen took to heart.

“On the one hand, I was 23 with a 30-year-old’s experience. My dad had spent my whole life talking about the restaurant business. He always explained every decision he made to me, and would ask me questions. ‘John, this is a good site. Can you tell me why?’ Sites, restaurants, customers, I was always learning, which is why by the time I agreed to join him in the business, I had a solid concept of a good site — but I was very short on people skills.

“From that moment on I became far more discerning, and a lot less eager. The agreement that my father and I had when I joined the business was that we would embark on an aggressive expansion plan. That was my condition. My father had grown a strong brand with 28 stores and a distribution centre, but he loved the restaurant business and serving customers. That’s what made him happy.

“I wanted to grow a brand that would be a household name. But I was realising that there’s a right way to grow, and a wrong way. Every decision I made from then on had to take the sustainability of the brand into consideration.”

Related: How Flick Visual Foundry Found High Rewards By Taking A Narrow View

Informal Growth

pizzeria-romans-pizza

Arthur Nicolakakis’ goal was to run the busiest pizzeria in South Africa. Serving people was his first love, and the fact that many of the 25 stores in 2001 were franchised was simply because Arthur had agreed to let a few friends purchase franchises if they could find a good site. “That was my dad,” says Nicolakakis.

“His philosophy was ‘If I know you, trust you and you have my number, we can chat about a franchise.’ That’s as formal as the process got. When I joined the business in 2001 there was an entire filing cabinet filled with little slips of paper: Franchise enquiries that my dad’s secretary didn’t know what to do with, so they all ended up in drawers.”

But Nicolakakis Senior must have understood his son and what it would take for him to join the business, because even though it’s never been discussed between the two, he had quietly laid the foundations that Nicolakakis would need to build the business into a formidable brand.

“The distribution centre was started when the brand had less than 25 stores and didn’t need it yet,” says Nicolakakis. “But it’s much easier putting these systems in place when you’re small than when you have hundreds of stores. My dad had incredible foresight for what the business could become, even though that wasn’t his personal goal. These foundations allowed us to scale and keep costs down for our franchisees. Back-end infrastructure is crucial if you plan to grow. You have to start small, but think big. What will need to be in place as you hit certain milestones? The better your infrastructure, the smoother and more successful your growth.

“In hindsight it’s possible my dad played me,” laughs Nicolakakis.

“I had always been adamant that I was going to be a stock trader in New York, and yet here was this business with all the right foundations, ready for someone with completely different growth objectives to take over and run with.”

Nicolakakis had some conditions though. First, all profits had to be reinvested into the company. Profits couldn’t be saved so that one day the family could move back to Greece, as so many of Arthur’s contemporaries were doing. “If we did this, we were going to grow aggressively,” says Nicolakakis. “That was my main objective.”

Arthur was ecstatic to have his son on board, and happy to let Nicolakakis run with any growth plans he had. He was supportive, but he didn’t interfere with his son’s strategic decisions. This was why the young franchisor had a lot of hard lessons ahead of him.

Related: Business Partners Limited Explain What It Takes To Have The X (Fundable) Factor

Getting Serious

romans-pizza-franchisor

Missteps are common for all businesses, particularly in start-up and growth phases. What’s important is not that they happen, but that lessons are learnt and systems, processes and strategies are adjusted as a result.

This is an area where Nicolakakis has been particularly vigilant. “Mistakes happen. I know, I’ve made my fair share of them,” he laughs. “But I’ve had one goal since joining the business, and it was only strengthened when I took over the helm from my father in 2004. I want to be the biggest pizza brand in South Africa. Nothing less will do.”

To achieve this ambitious goal, Nicolakakis has focused on three core areas of the business: The business model, marketing, and franchisee selection and support.

1. A business model that delivers on key objectives

When Nicolakakis joined the business, Roman’s Pizza was a strong brand in a localised area of Pretoria. His first step was to sell franchises — he wanted to grow the company’s footprint as quickly as possible, increasing its reach on a national level. But he also knew that while the pizza business had been a fledgling industry when his dad had first bought a struggling pizzeria in 1993, the landscape was far more competitive in 2001.

If Roman’s Pizza was going to be the largest pizza brand in the country, he needed to give consumers a compelling reason to choose Roman’s over a myriad of other pizza brands and take-away options.

That reason was a high quality product at a low price point. Now he just had to figure out how to deliver on that brand promise. High quality at a high price point is easy. Similarly, it’s relatively simple to price low if you aren’t concerned about quality and service delivery. High quality, low price is much harder to achieve — and maintain.

The distribution centre was an important first step that was already in place. It allowed the brand to purchase in bulk, and pass those savings onto its franchisees. It also meant Nicolakakis could control the quality of the product. All calamata olives, anchovies and pizza sauce are imported from Europe. Seeman’s is the company’s meat supplier, and only the highest quality mozzarella is used.

To offset the costs of quality, Nicolakakis needed some smart cost-cutting strategies. The first involved the operation of the head-office and distribution centre. This is a lean, mean operation. Offices are functional and above the distribution centre. There’s no plush furniture or frivolous expenses.

“We strip out all unnecessary expenses. The aim is to keep costs down, and other than our ingredients, every buying decision is made through that lens.”

Next, Nicolakakis turned his attention to the customer experience. With the exception of independent brands, most of his competitors — from pizza takeaways to burgers or fish — offer a free delivery service.

“This was the area in which we could really make a difference on our bottom line,” he says. “I don’t believe the South African market suits a delivery model. Urban areas are congested with traffic, and suburban living means that a delivery radius needs to be quite large. It’s expensive to offer; even if it’s marketed as ‘free,’ that service has to be built into the product’s price point. It’s also difficult to deliver a hot product that’s as good when it reaches its destination as it was when it left the store, and there will always be incorrect orders.”

As a result, Nicolakakis made the bold decision to be a call and collect business. It was flying in the face of traditional customer expectations, but the price point he was able to offer as a result also broke conventional norms. As a Roman’s customer you can purchase a high-quality pizza for less money than anywhere else — as long as you’re happy to pick up your order yourself.

As it turned out, most people are perfectly willing to do just that, and the model has been a runaway success. “We are the leaders in terms of value, and this is why — we can’t afford to deliver without raising our prices to cover those costs. Yes, we lose out on people who will only order deliveries. That’s okay, we’ve chosen our model and it’s working.”

Related: Urban Property Development Brand Blok’s Niche Designs For The Urban Dweller In Mind

2. Aggressive marketing and discounting tactics

Roman’s Pizza operates some of the busiest pizzerias in South Africa, and aggressive marketing campaigns and crazy discounting deals play a large role in that success.

“We’re in unprecedented times,” says Nicolakakis. “For the first time in 15 years the consumer sector is facing a proper downturn. How will we weather this recession? The consumer is stretched beyond belief, which means as a brand you need to give a reason why people should buy from you.

“It’s accepted that quality is important, but in this sector, so is price. Our stock-standard menu pricing is 10% to 35% cheaper than our competitors, so we’re already better value for money. Our whole model is built on discounted prices. But it’s important to remind consumers who you are. Never stop marketing, particularly in a crowded market. We’ve learnt that you need to get a little bit crazy.” Roman’s Pizza markets 365 days a year, but ad campaigns switch between generic campaigns and discount campaigns.

“We see an effect with our generic branding campaigns, and they’re important, but the real response comes from our promotional campaigns. The problem is that there’s a fine line you need to walk when you’re offering discounts to that degree.

“Gross profits (GP) collapse when we do this, which means volumes have to make up the losses. A GP of 40% instead of 50% is fine as long as volumes make up the difference, and then you carry your increased customer base through a generic marketing period. It’s a balance and it takes constant work.”

To make the large-scale discounting campaigns work, head office takes on the risk. “If the growth in turnover does not ensure that the franchisee maintains the rand value of his GP, we will subsidise the loss through a rebate or royalty discounts. We’re a debt free family-owned business, which means we have no partners and shareholders to report in to. It gives us an enormous amount of freedom.”

Well-marketed discount campaigns mean a sudden influx of customers, and this needs to be carefully managed as well.

“We’ve been doing it for so long we now know how to prepare for our discount campaigns,” says Nicolakakis. “In the early days we had some specials where the wheels fell off, but today we’re prepared for those volumes. Our stores are built for high volume, low margins.

“Our first above-the-line advertising was a R750 000-radio campaign. A few months later we followed up with our first TV campaign, offering incredible discounts. Volumes skyrocketed by 40%. It was chaos. As the distributor, it’s up to us to ensure that our franchisees receive the stock they need. We needed extra trucks to deliver the volumes. It was all hands on deck, working around the clock.

“The trick with discounting is to drive the volumes, and then be able to deliver. In-store the franchisees and their staff need to be equipped to handle high volumes, but our support is crucial. It’s a team effort.”

3. Finding and supporting the right franchisees

Nicolakakis’s growth strategy has always been a franchise model. Currently the brand has 25 company-owned stores, 30 joint ventures and 140 franchised stores.

As so much of the brand’s success rests with its franchisees, the company has also fine-tuned its franchisee selection process since Nicolakakis’ early (and over-eager) mistakes.

“Our first step is to verify financial records and vet all financial criteria,” says Nicolakakis. “We learnt the hard way that you can’t just take someone’s word at face value. We conduct personal interviews and do psychometric testing as well.” As a general rule, Roman’s Pizza franchisees should be owner-operators, and before any documents are signed or money exchanges hands, each prospective franchisee spends one full week in a store, from open to close.

According to Nicolakakis, many prospective franchisees drop out of the process at this point. “This business is a lifestyle choice. You either love it, or it’s not for you. But it’s important to know which before we embark on a relationship together. Protecting the brand is far more important than selling another franchise. We want our franchisees to love what they do and what Roman’s Pizza stands for.”

Given how seriously Nicolakakis takes service delivery, it’s an important distinction. Franchisee cell phone numbers must be prominently displayed in-store, and customers must be able to contact you, no matter the day or hour. Nicolakakis’ own number is readily available for all customers as well.

“We have a lot of loyalty towards our franchisees, and we will always go the extra mile for them, which is why our first franchisees are still with us, 20 years later. But we expect excellence from them as well — and will be completely transparent if something isn’t operating according to our expectations.

“Great franchisees are irreplaceable. This is why we spend so much time vetting new candidates; it’s why we will always give first option of a new site to an existing franchisee, and it’s why we are so focused on maintaining an open and transparent relationship with our franchisees.

Related: From Simple Idea To Sideline Business: How Nkosenhle Hlophe Spotted An Opportunity

“Our worst store is a corporate store, our best is a JV. Corporate stores tend to trade on average. They’ll trade better than a bad franchisee — bad franchisees take shortcuts, buy inferior products, and will destroy your brand, no corporate store will ever do that — but they also lack the passion of an exceptional franchisee.

“We’ve also found that it’s incredibly important to have corporate stores from an overall business perspective. We’re able to test new procedures, systems and standards at our corporate stores before rolling them out, and it keeps our finger on the pulse of the market.

“For example, we insist that franchisees spend a minimum of 1% of sales on local marketing, but at our corporate stores we spend 2,5%. It’s our testing ground. We need to back up our theories at store level before we can expect franchisee implementation.

“We’re an aggressive brand. We’re hands on, passionate, and value personal relationships. But we’re also very straightforward. If you play ball and we make an error, we’ll do anything to fix it. But we expect the same from you.”

Throughout this expansive growth journey, Roman’s Pizza has remained a family business. “My dad is a sounding board. His experience is a vital factor in our growth. But we’re also both alpha males, and we’ve boxed over the years. We’re the two people who love this business most, and when we fight it’s truly for the business’s best interests. We might not always agree on what’s best for the business, but we know any argument is coming from a good place.”

With that degree of passion behind its name, it’s no wonder Roman’s Pizza has become a household brand.

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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Entrepreneur Profiles

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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Vital stats

  • 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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