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The Midas Touch: Hina Kassam & Irfan Pardesi

ACM Gold’s story spans three continents, and almost a decade of highs and lows. This is the story of how one sibling who paid his way through school, and another who didn’t go to varsity, have built a business with a turnover of R400 million that’s worth more than R3 billion.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Hina Kassam and Irfan Pardesi
  • Company: ACM Gold
  • Launched: 2005
  • Turnover: More than R400 million
  • Profit: R350 million
  • Company Value: R3 billion
  • Awards: World Finance Best Broker Africa 2013
  • ARABCom Best Broker 2012 (Middle East and Africa)
  • Contact: www.acmgold.com

Irfan Pardesi has never seen his father have money. His brothers and sisters have, but as the youngest child, his experiences were of his father losing everything – twice.

It’s not typically the kind of household that an entrepreneur would emerge from, where entrepreneurship meant tough times and a family struggling to make ends meet.

Related: 7 Essentials for Making R10 Million From Scratch

But for the youngest Pardesi, it meant something else: Survival. Growing up in Pakistan and nearing the end of high school, the young Irfan could have dropped out. His family could no longer afford to pay school fees, and by working he could help to pay the bills.

Instead, pushed by his sister Hina Kassam, who was married and living in the UK, he decided stay in school – whatever it took. He was good at his studies, and he wanted to get his A levels. “I started selling mobile phones to pay for my school fees,” he says, and his path to entrepreneurship began.

Wanted: Resourceful spirit

The-Midas-Touch--Hina-Kassam-&-Irfan-Pardesi_Entrepreneur-Profiles_Success-Stories

Today, Pardesi and Kassam run ACM Gold, a forex trading platform that spans international markets, and has a group turnover of R400 million, with very impressive profit margins. Launched in Pakistan, the business’s head office then moved to Dubai, before settling in South Africa.

“South Africa has everything we’ve been looking for. It’s a beautiful country, the climate is ideal, its banking sector is well regulated and trusted, and it offers all the skills we need,” says Pardesi. “We’ve found our home, and we have big growth plans.”

Having lived on three continents, the brother and sister duo have a good understanding of what they’re looking for. Kassam grew up in Pakistan, spent time living in Uganda and Kenya, and settled in London before moving to Dubai to head up ACM in the bustling UAE capital. While Kassam was in Uganda, Pardesi finished his A levels and was looking for a way to study in London.

“I had negotiated with my school to let me finish my A levels in one year instead of two. I needed to save costs. We were broke, there was a lot of unrest in Pakistan, and loans were piling up. I wanted to get on with my future.”

Getting his A levels didn’t solve any of Pardesi’s problems though.

“I would be the first person in my family to get a university degree, and they weren’t having any of it. My father had borrowed a lot of money, and my extended family expected me to start working as soon as I was out of school to help pay off those loans. I didn’t have permission to leave Pakistan to study abroad.”

But this was a kid who had paid his own school fees and finished his A levels in one year. He was going to get to London. The problem was that global events didn’t agree.

“I finished school in June, and started getting ready to leave for the UK. I’d told my family that I was going to Uganda for business. And then September 11 happened, and the British embassy in Pakistan closed.” There was no way Pardesi was getting a visa. The London School of Economics had accepted him, but he couldn’t get to the UK in time for his first semester.

Entrepreneurs are nothing if not resourceful. Their greatest strength is seeing an opportunity in every challenge, and finding solutions where others would give up. If he couldn’t get a visa in Pakistan, Pardesi would fly to Uganda. “Hina was living there and she had a friend in the UK embassy. I arrived in Uganda and they had arranged a British visa so that I could continue on to London.” Kassam had taken a loan and was able to give her brother £730 over and above the £1 500 he’d already saved up for his first term’s fees and living expenses while he found a job.

Becoming a specialist

Entrepreneurship is all about making it happen. Pardesi wanted to get his degree, and he needed to pay his way while also sending money home. In his first week, he secured a job at Starbucks, working 40 hours a week. But this didn’t leave much time for studies.

“I changed my schedule so that I went to university for two days, and worked five days a week. This meant skipping lectures that didn’t fit my schedule. I’d tried convincing the school board to change it for me, but they refused.”

Pardesi’s grades were good enough to qualify him for a scholarship in his second and third years though, and so when he graduated in 2004 he’d managed to not only save some money, but was living comfortably and still sending money home.

By this time, Kassam had moved back to London and was working in bank finance, and Pardesi secured a position at a boutique investment house that negotiated operational leases for aircraft.

“Our role was to find an investor, bank and carrier simultaneously, and then structure a deal. It wasn’t very complicated, but it was a highly specialised field that to outsiders looked scary and difficult. We were a boutique house, and yet institutions like Deutshe Bank and Goldman Sachs were asking us to value deals – and we could charge a premium price for our services.

Related: 9 Things Successful People Won’t Do

It was Pardesi’s first big lesson in business: Focus on what you know best. You don’t need to be a master of everything, you just need to know a lot about one thing. “We knew who we were, and we didn’t try to be anything else. It made us extremely good at what we did, and highly sought after in the market.”

It was also during this time that Pardesi was first introduced to currency. “We were advising our clients on currency derivatives and hedging of currencies, and an idea started percolating. I’d already learnt that as a specialised expert you garnered respect, and now I started thinking that as a ‘newbie’ if I wanted to launch something of my own, it needed to be in an area where my skills and knowledge were scarce, and I could make a difference.

“The obvious answer was an emerging economy.” Pardesi had saved $120 000 in bonuses and grown a seed fund as his idea continued to percolate, and then he suddenly found himself back at square one.

Reality check

“My father had a liability of $160 000 and my parents needed me to come home. The money I’d been sending helped with living expenses, but hadn’t solved their debt.” The seed funds went towards servicing that debt, and by early 2005 Pardesi found himself back in Pakistan looking for something to do.

“My sole goal was to accumulate as much money as quickly as possible to launch the business I really wanted,” he explains. “I did this in a number of ways. My father had started a small property valuations company that I got involved in. I understood valuations, and we were soon on a panel assisting Pakistani banks with property valuations.”

He also started importing mobile phones, and partnered with a local teacher to open an HR consultancy. “I was scrambling. None of these businesses had the scope I was looking for. They did well, and we made a profit on two of them when we sold them, but I knew they had limited growth potential. I was looking for something where the sky wasn’t even the limit.”

These businesses were fairly simple to set up and run, with low barriers to entry, but in the background Pardesi and Kassam were busy on a different project. “While I was still in the UK, Hina and I had developed a habit of visiting brokers and CEOs of trading houses to see what they were doing,” says Pardesi.

Kassam, in particular, was looking for an additional income stream. “I wanted to start trading forex so that I could leave the bank, but first I needed to learn as much as I could.” They made contact with a South African company, Global Trader, that was operating in the UK, and became introductory brokers (IBs), earning a commission if they introduced traders to the online platform.

By the end of 2005 both siblings were in a position to launch a forex trading company. Kassam was trading and doing well, and had made good connections in London. Pardesi had saved $22 000 in seed funding, and had sold the businesses he was involved in. His plan was to move back to London and launch the business. The plan lasted exactly as long as it took to book a ticket, move back to London, and turn right back around and return to Pakistan.

“I had no business plan; I just wanted to hit the ground running. And then I realised that the money I had saved wouldn’t even last two months in London. I immediately turned around and went back to Pakistan,” he laughs, recalling the shock of realising the miscalculation.

Kassam stayed in London with her husband and family. She would negotiate the platform deals in the UK and Pardesi would set up the business in Pakistan.

Lessons learnt, and improvements made

ACM-Gold_Success-stories

The launch of Accentuate Capital Markets (ACM) in 2005 taught Pardesi his second big lesson in business: You can launch a highly successful business with limited funds.

“After saving and losing my start-up capital, and then saving up again only to realise it wasn’t enough, we needed to find a way to bootstrap the business. My aim was still to reach for the stars, but first we needed to start building a brand, earning a good reputation and securing a client base. We needed to start small to become big.”

The partners worked out a way to launch with limited investment capital. “Hina approached Global Traders and negotiated a deal with them. She was already a client of theirs, plus we’d been IBs for their brand for over a year. They knew us, and we were always aware of how important relationships are in business, so we’d fostered the relationship we had with them.

“We told them we’d be trading in Pakistan and getting them new clients in an emerging market, but we needed their platform for free. Their model was to charge monthly minimums to businesses that used their platform, but we couldn’t afford those fees, so this negotiation was essential to the success of our start-up.

“All trades would still go through their offices in London, and they’d make the commission, of which we took a small percentage. We were working off low margins, but we needed the platform to get started, and eventually they agreed. We were in business.”

Once the deal was signed, Pardesi focused on securing great office space. “Our fees were small, so we needed to focus on volumes. This meant having a good office that people could visit, meet me and the dealers, and feel secure depositing their money with us. Our primary investment went into that first office and securing a few dealers.”

Pardesi had promised Global Trader 400 to 500 new clients each month, which was one of the reasons they had agreed to give them the platform without charging fees, and they now had to deliver. “We’d convinced ourselves (and them) that Pakistan was a new market with endless opportunities and no real
competition.”

The reality turned out quite different. Growth was extremely slow. Pardesi kept the business lean, and they achieved break-even in the first month, thanks to existing clients and contacts, but they were nowhere near their target of 500 clients.

Related: How to Never Give Up On Becoming an Entrepreneur

“I think one of the single biggest lessons I’ve learnt in business, and one we’ve carried through to every decision we’ve made since, is the importance and power of localisation,” says Pardesi. “Entrepreneurs are problem solvers. That’s what we do. But that doesn’t mean much if you’re trying to solve a problem that’s not your target market’s main concern.”

ACM was following the model of a broker based in the UK who does business online. It worked very well in the established UK, US and European markets, but not in Pakistan’s emerging market. “Online trading wasn’t embraced. Even though we had dealers that our clients could call, and white papers we distributed to educate our market, the model just wasn’t taking off.”And then Global Trader went bankrupt. It was completely unexpected as the business had been growing.

“We needed to regroup and re-evaluate what we were doing. It’s never nice to see a business go under, especially one you have a relationship with, but it did force us to change our model, this time with a much better understanding of our market guiding us.”

The secret of localisation

First, Kassam started negotiations with online platform providers that centred on a more holistic partnership. The reason was two-fold.

“Previously, we only hosted the platform and provided on-the-ground support. All accounts had to be set up through our UK partner, and approvals took up to a week and a half. This time delay meant people couldn’t start trading immediately. It also meant that they were essentially doing business with two companies – us and Global Trader, which could become confusing, and all trades were done in foreign currency.”

Kassam’s negotiations with a new online trading platform resulted in a very different business model. The platform was white labelled, so all trades were conducted through an ACM-branded site, which meant the client had only one point of contact. ACM also had power of approval, which meant they could approve new clients and get them trading immediately.

Their next big change was to localise trades. For the first time in the global trading environment, ACM offered a local trading denomination for gold.

“The subcontinent’s gold measurement is the tola. Around the world, gold is traded in US dollars per ounce. We allowed trades in rupees per tola, and did the conversions ourselves. It was a small change that Hina negotiated, with huge ramifications. No one had thought of localising trades. It wasn’t rocket science, or even difficult to do, but it meant our clients could trade in a denomination they were familiar with, and it made a huge difference to their confidence in their own trades, and our platform.”

The third big shift in the business model was focused specifically on how their clients traded. “Our dealers were extremely busy as clients would rather call them and have them make the trades than do it themselves online. They also liked dropping in to the office, and those who did so traded more frequently and for bigger amounts. They loved our environment.”

Armed with this knowledge, Pardesi made a decision that would never have worked in London. He cancelled his sales and marketing budget and redirected everything towards creating a physical trading environment that people wanted to be a part of.

“We had no sales consultants, but we did have three cooks, for example,” he says. “Clients could walk in day or night and order a drink, food – we even had staff who could run errands for them – all for free. We wanted them to feel at home. We were no longer trying to change the social behaviour of our clients; we were adjusting our model to suit their behaviour.”

Soon, clients started bringing friends. It was a lively, social atmosphere where everyone was pampered. “There was something about the energy of the trading floor that they loved. You walked in and you were immediately a part of something special.” Pardesi’s brother, who is a real people’s person, also joined the business, and the company finally started seeing the volumes it had hoped for in its first year, with turnover growing tenfold.

Spreading too thin

By 2007 Pardesi once again started feeling the itch for growth. Their office was doing well, so what was next? “We opened an office in Cyprus as our foothold into the European market, but we soon realised that while we understood the Pakistani market, the European market was very different. We just weren’t making any headway.”

In early 2008, a third office was opened in Dubai, which had a similar environment and structures to those in Pakistan, but real growth still evaded the brother and sister partnership. “We had lost sight of that key lesson: Localisation,” says Pardesi. “We were trying to branch out when we had a model suited to the market we were already in, based in a city of 21 million people! What about opening more offices in the area where we already operated, and had proven our model?”

Pardesi and Kassam now started actively concentrating on a model that had originally brought them into the industry – that of paying commission to local IBs who introduced new clients to the platform. “Each IB could open their own local office based on our model, work off our platform and use our systems. It meant owner-managers across the region were promoting and growing our brand, while building sustainable and profitable businesses themselves.”

It was the start of Pardesi’s realisation that their business model didn’t only help people trade, but also created wealth for local business owners.

“We’ve created many dollar millionaires over the past few years, and we’re proud of that. We don’t charge a minimum, because we got our start that way, and we share a percentage of the commission.” By late 2009 there were 277 offices spread across Pakistan all based on Pardesi’s model and using the company’s own system, which they built between 2008 and 2009.

“Building our own platform was the next logical move. We’d saved up the business’s profits and wanted to create a platform that had the capacity for thousands of simultaneous trades, was highly secure, looked good and was easy to use – and we could hire top international talent to help us do it.”

It was also a business that benefited from the recession. “This helped our growth in two ways. First, people wanted to be in control of their money, which made online trading desirable. Second, in a volatile market, gold prices go up. It’s seen as a long-term, stable commodity. We re-branded as ACM Gold, and focused on this market. Our trade in local currencies and denominations enhanced our success.”

By 2010 expansion was back on the cards. Dubai’s office was doing nicely, and ACM Gold now started eyeing India, which had a similar environment to Pakistan. Pardesi had also opened offices in Malaysia, Macedonia and Slovenia, and began the process of disinvesting from these markets.

“We wanted to grow, but recognised that these markets didn’t want the model that we were so good at. While we realised that we might have to change the model to reach our next level of growth because business is about adapting with the times, it wouldn’t be in those areas.” So where was the next opportunity? The answer was easy – Africa.

The move to South Africa

Pardesi and his wife had honeymooned in South Africa in 2008, and at the time she made him promise that they would return to the rainbow nation. Two years later, that time had come.

“We recognised the huge potential Africa had to offer. We’re suited to emerging markets, and we’d already learnt that localisation works. If we wanted to expand in Africa, we needed to operate locally. South Africa was the perfect fit.

“It has a well-respected Financial Services Board, is one of 11 countries that understands forex, and has a highly trusted banking environment thanks to strong regulations. We knew that people would be comfortable sending their money here, and trading through a local platform.”

Pardesi had also opened offices in Madagascar, Uganda and Kenya which readily accepted ACM’s tried and tested model – but South Africa didn’t.

“It was a big reminder that you can’t make assumptions about a market until you’re physically operating in it,” says Pardesi.

“We had country managers in our satellite offices around the world, and Hina was splitting her time between Johannesburg and Dubai. We had closed most of the Pakistan offices and had handed them over to local brokers. We had a big deal pending with the Pakistan Exchange, and we wanted to concentrate on our growth in Africa — but we just weren’t getting it right.” Then Pardesi realised their error. South Africa may be classified as an emerging economy, but it also resembles Europe. It needed a different kind of localisation.

“South Africans understand forex in a way that many other nations don’t. Everyone has grown up watching how the rand is faring. We quickly realised that South Africans don’t want to be involved in anything they don’t understand. They won’t trade unless they know how the system works and what they’re doing. If we wanted to do well in this country, we needed to cater to this specific need – we needed to educate our market.”

Where Pakistan and India were happy to trade with the advice of their dealers and wanted a social trading floor, South Africans are comfortable trading online, but want to be educated before they do so. As a result, ACM Gold invested in UFG (University of Forex and Gold), a training platform designed with the assistance of Adriano Tabasso, through which they could begin training people.

While this is steadily growing into a comfortable secondary revenue stream, its original mandate holds true: To create a market for ACM Gold by educating the public. “In many ways, South Africans are like Europeans. They don’t want to trade as a hobby, they want to trade full-time, and this takes a keen understanding of the market.”

The fact that ACM’s platform can be localised is a plus point, as all trades are done in rands and dealers can assist their clients in their own language. “We added Kruger Rands to our offering because South Africans understand and are comfortable with them,” adds Kassam.

Pardesi returned to his IB model. “I made a point of attending franchise expos and approaching local brokers. We needed to bring re-sellers on board, and we had a model that made sense. We’re based in South Africa – when you deal with us there isn’t a boss or platform that is operating overseas, everything is here, in local currency. Decisions can be made quickly, and all support is easily available.”

Consolidation for growth

By 2013, the market had grown and changed enough to warrant a relook at the original online model. “The Internet and consumer comfort with online models and trading has come a long way in the last seven years,” says Pardesi.

“We were buying back offices in Pakistan that we hadn’t already closed, and consolidating the business out of South Africa. We can have clients around the world trading through our online platforms now, so the local office model is no longer relevant.”

Today, there is only one small office in each of ACM’s regions with trusted local partners supporting the online trading platform. “If the market isn’t yet comfortable with online, we don’t look at it. We’ll wait two years and they’ll come to us via our online platforms, based in South Africa.”

Top tips

  • Focus on what you know best. The best businesses aren’t masters of everything — they’re specialists in one key area, and invaluable to their clients as a result.
  • Even big brands start small. You don’t need millions to launch a company. Make some strategic partnerships that everyone benefits from, start small and be patient.
  • Localisation is everything. You can be a big, multi-national company, but always take the current, on-the-ground clients into account. Design your business offering with their needs in mind. What works in one market won’t necessarily work in another.
  • Shift the business when the market changes. Don’t hold onto something because it worked well in the past — times change, move with them.
  • Don’t make assumptions. You’ll only understand a market once you’re actually operating in it. Launch your business or local office, but be prepared to shift your model as you learn about the market and what it wants.
  • If your business allows, build a network of re-sellers that believe in you and your products, and help them achieve their goals — you will automatically achieve yours.
  • If you want to get the best out of people, appreciate their efforts lavishly and give them a path to grow and prove themselves.  The bigger the dream, the more important the team.
  • If everything seems to be under control, you’re not going fast enough.

Trading + Gaming = Traming

Pardesi’s latest project is traming.com, an android app that merges trading with gaming.

“Traming.com has been created to give everyone easy access to the financial markets,” explains Pardesi.

“The concept emerged from the understanding that in this age of simplification, people are constantly looking for quicker, simpler ways of doing things, and in that vein, even online trading was still too time consuming. I wanted to develop an app that made trading fun, quick and easy.”

With Traming.com, users can decide what direction the market will take in an allotted time frame. Will it be up or down in the next 60 seconds? Get it right, and you’ll see up to 85% return on your investment — within 60 seconds.

“These trades are available on most global asset’s including currencies, commodities and shares,” concludes Pardesi. 

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

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1 Comment

  1. Dane A. Mesane

    Sep 16, 2015 at 06:44

    Inspired.

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Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

In business, your offering is only as good as your relationships. Neil Robinson from Relate Bracelets explains how FedEx Express has helped the business grow into Africa and beyond.

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  • Who? Neil Robinson
  • Company: Relate Bracelets
  • Position: Managing Director
  • Visit: relate.org.za

Neil Robinson, MD of Relate Bracelets understands the importance of business relationships. While Relate is a non-profit organisation, it is run like a business. It does not rely on donors, but instead produces and sells a product.

For each bracelet sold, one third of the income goes towards the materials and operating costs, one third supports the people who produce the bracelets, and one third goes to the charity for which that particular bracelet is branded.

In order for the business model to work and be sustainable, Relate’s partners are incredibly important. These include the retail chains that stock the product and who provide prime point-of-sale positioning, the charities who Relate works with, and most importantly, Relate’s logistics service provider, FedEx Express.

“Retail is all about visibility and availability,” explains Neil. “A brand is a living, breathing thing. People can see it, use it, and comment on it, but if they can’t access it, it’s all for naught. And so, at the point of purchase, it’s both visible and available, or it’s not.

“Logistics is key. You need to get your product to the retailer on time, 100% of the time. The expertise and focus that FedEx displays in supply chain and logistics encompasses far more than just retail, they understand our specific needs, making them a strategic partner, rather than merely a supplier.”

Related: Zenzele Fitness’s Clever Tactics To Grow In Next To No Time

Building a relationship

The FedEx/Relate Bracelets relationship stretches back to 2009, when Relate Bracelets launched its first campaign with ‘Unite Against Malaria’ leading up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

“We did the first campaign in partnership with Nando’s,” says Neil. “Robbie Brozin was passionate about the cause, and he pulled in strategic partners to launch the campaign. Within two years we’d shipped hundreds of thousands of bracelets. FedEx was an incredible partner, ensuring the integrity of our product and time-sensitive deliveries, and we’ve worked with them ever since.”

As with all good B2B relationships, the FedEx and Relate Bracelets teams understand that regular strategy sessions and updates are important.

“FedEx understands the inner workings of our business,” says Neil.

“A successful campaign has multiple elements, from planning and strategy, to marketing support, pricing and distribution planning. Of these, distribution planning is the most critical. For us, the bridge between our brand and the consumer is logistics. FedEx have delivered beyond expectations. They literally and figuratively go the extra mile for us.”

Protecting a brand

FedEx has customers across different industries and each of their needs are different. In the case of Relate, who operate in the retail sector, buying patterns are important. “Retailers run a tight ship,” explains Neil.

“They have planning cycles and seasons. Besides the fact that penalty clauses are built into contracts, you can’t miss a deadline by two days, or you’re in the next cycle, and that might be two weeks later. Not only are you missing out on valuable shelf time, but this can affect an entire campaign. Lost sales can also influence the retailers’ buying decision the following season. FedEx has made it their business to understand our business, so they know what’s at stake and what’s important to us.”

Supporting growth

FedEx has also played an integral role in the overall expansion of Relate Bracelets, particularly into new markets. “As a global organisation, FedEx has been absolutely critical in supporting us to grow our business into Africa, the US, Australia, the UK, Western Europe, and now New Zealand. They play an enormous role in the delivery of our products, with sophisticated tracking systems ensuring that the quality and integrity of our products are maintained.”

Through the relationship with FedEx, Relate experiences the benefits of working with a globally recognised and credible brand. “When you work with quality, you get quality.”

Related: Entrepreneur BB Moloi’s Inspiring Story of Rise To Success Through Grit And Hard Work

The business

If you’ve ever bought a beaded bracelet that supports a cause (for example: United Against Malaria, Operation Smile SA or PinkDrive), chances are it was a Relate Bracelet. If you bought it at Woolworths, Clicks, Sorbet or Foschini, it most definitely was.

To date, Relate Bracelets has raised more than R40 million, which supports various charities and ‘gogos’, women living on government grants and supporting their grandchildren, and who desperately need the additional income Relate Bracelets provides.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Slikour’s Moto: If You Dream It, You Can Be It

Rapper and entrepreneur Slikour believes his success is the result of one key element: The aspiration to make something of himself, and create a platform for his voice to be heard. Now he’s bringing that mindset to South Africa’s black urban youth.

Nadine Todd

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Take note

Before you can achieve great success, you have to believe in the possibility of success. This is the single greatest secret to changing your circumstances — you have to believe it’s possible.

Did music or entrepreneurship come first? Siya Metane, aka rapper Slikour, isn’t sure himself. The two have worked hand in hand for him since he started selling cassette tapes of his own music when he was 12 years old.

What has developed over time however, is an innate and deep understanding that with his success comes a responsibility to pay it forward, and help his community and kids like him see that they can be anything they put their minds to.

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Businesses From Nothing

If they can dream it, they can be it — provided they realise they can dream it in the first place. This is his challenge, and greatest driving force.

Start small, but dream big

I bought cassette tapes on Smal Street in the CBD for R5. My best friend, Lebo and I recorded our own rap music onto them and sold them in our neighbourhood for R15. We needed the mark-up — it meant we could buy more tapes, and also that we were making a profit.

Related: Zuko Tisani Learnt These 7 Invaluable Lessons On His Path To Success

I’m not sure if we were trying to start a business or launch our rap careers, but if you’re living in a hood like Leondale you don’t always recognise that there are opportunities open to you. No one is going to do it for you — you have to have your own aspirations, and find a way to make them happen.

Keep dreaming big, no matter what

That was one of the biggest and earliest lessons I recall growing up: The ability to dream big can be stifled out of you. I lived in a hood where there were no aspirations past our neighbourhood — the neighbourhood and its opportunities were everything. If 90% of the people you know are suffering, who are you to not suffer?

It’s a very limiting mindset, and one that does a lot of damage to our youth. I knew kids who had incredible potential, but could only look at their immediate environments for opportunities. So a budding young scientist doesn’t find a way to change the world — he finds a new way to make drugs.

Those are the limiting aspirations I was surrounded by. I call it the Trap, and it’s the driving force behind everything I do today. I want South Africa’s urban youth to recognise the Trap, and understand that they should have aspirations beyond it, because they have the abilities and potential necessary to break free.

Work hard, be determined and believe in yourself

I was lucky, I wasn’t a victim of the Trap. What so many people don’t understand is that I could have been. Hard work, drive and discipline aren’t enough to break free of the Trap. You need to believe you can break free — to look beyond your current circumstances. In my experience, that seemingly simple mindset shift is the biggest hurdle to overcome. It’s more complicated and pervasive than you can imagine.

Two things showed me a different way. First, my mom got me bursaries at Holy Rosary Convent and then St Benedict’s College. I was surrounded by rich white kids, full of privilege, and it struck me that here were the same talents and opportunities, but with a wealth of aspiration in the mix.

Related: Self-Made Millionaire At 24 Marnus Broodryk On How To Build A R1 Billion Business

That was the real difference — not ability, but recognising that ability and having the aspiration to do something with it. It was eye-opening. The second was meeting my best friend, Lebo Mothibe. Lebo, or Shugasmakx, as he’d later be known in the music world, had one foot in the privileged world, and one foot in our world.

His mom lived in the hood, his dad was a wealthy entrepreneur who lived in Illovo. And Lebo straddled both worlds effortlessly, and with humility. But he looked beyond the limiting beliefs held by many of his neighbourhood peers.

Find people to inspire you to reach success

His dad was also the first self-made, wealthy black man I met. But when I heard his story, I realised that it wasn’t overnight success. He’d slept on Lebo’s mom’s couch while he slowly but steadily built his business. It gave me an understanding that success is earned. You need to work at it, and push on against adversity. This had a huge impact on me.

Lebo was the ying to my yang. Even though we didn’t think of each other as business partners, that’s what we were, from the age of 12. We formed Skwatta Kamp, we hustled and shook up the music industry together, and changed the face of rap music in South Africa.

I was the dreamer, the visionary, and Lebo was the executor. He found a way to make my crazy schemes and ideas come to life. This is exactly what a partnership should be — helping each other grow, and complementing diverse skill sets.

Build your success, one step at a time

We built our success, brick by brick. I entered a TV show competition, Jam Alley, and won. I used the cash and Dions vouchers to buy recording equipment. Lebo’s dad helped with speakers and a keyboard. My brother, who was studying IT, downloaded software and helped us with our recording quality. Everyone pitched in with what they could. 

Be your own biggest cheerleader

We tried the recording contract route for a while, but realised that the only people who cared about our success were us. And so we hit the streets — hard. We had street crews, we sold our own CDs and negotiated with music stores to carry our albums.

Recording studios kept saying they’d sign us, but they never had a studio available. They just didn’t see the value in rap and hip hop. They didn’t believe there was money in it in South Africa. We needed to prove there was.

Gallo finally approached us and signed us after we won at the South African Music Awards (SAMAs) as an independent act. We used real guerrilla tactics to get our name out there — on stage, with that platform, we told our fans that if a music store didn’t carry our album, to burn it down. We wanted the attention — that’s how you build a name.

Related: Entrepreneurial Powerhouse TBO Touch On How Success Is Built From Small Acts

Our first album went gold, and we used that to push the idea of rap into mainstream media. If 20 000 people bought the album, another 200 000 had bootlegged it. There was money here; and slowly brands and advertisers started realising we were right.

Drive a movement with your business

We were musicians, but first and foremost we were driving a movement, and that meant we needed to be businessmen as well. We hosted end of year parties, and got brands on board, realising we had a captive audience that aligned with their target market demographics. We started our own label, Buttabing Entertainment.

Our goal was to find and nurture young musicians from the hood to get them established in the industry, and show other kids in the Trap that it could be done: Anyone can create their own destiny. One of the things I’m proudest of is discovering a kid in Katlehong, Senzo Mfundo Vilakazi, who would develop into Kwesta.

He’s doing phenomenally well, and recently appeared on Sway in the Morning, one of the biggest hip hop shows in the US. Our success spilt over into Kwesta, and now his meteoric rise will hopefully inspire a whole new generation to dream bigger than they ever thought possible.

Pivoting to further growth

All success has its pinnacle. By 2010 we had achieved so much as Skwatta Kamp. We’d brought rap music into the mainstream and opened opportunities for countless kids, as music labels actively sought rap and hip hop acts. I realised that I’d hit a ceiling. I needed to step back, regroup and figure out what to do next.

What I did was something I’ve only ever associated with privilege. I moved home, spent a lot of time lying on the couch, and wrote. I wrote my life, my lessons, my dreams, my ideas. I don’t know how I reached a point where I was able to do that, but I’m grateful. I started collecting my thoughts and understanding my purpose.

During that time I was approached to join a few marketing agencies. I had no formal marketing training, but we’d worked with big brands at our parties and activations.

Sprite was the first to recognise that they had an opportunity to authentically connect with the black urban youth through us, and so we partnered up. I learnt above-the-line marketing in a Coca-Cola boardroom, and built onto what we’d learnt on the streets about below-the-line marketing.

Take a step back, and rediscover your purpose

That experience had drawn attention, and so for a while I joined an agency. But its mandate was sponsorships, and my heart was with the black urban youth. I’d discovered my purpose, even if I’d subconsciously been living that purpose for almost 20 years.

I wanted to create a platform that gives young black artists a voice; established artists a way to reach out to the youth that other platforms don’t offer; and brands a way to authentically connect with that audience — not just to sell products, but to show black urban youth that their culture is important, that it holds value, and that they, in turn, hold value.

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

Adidas’s support of Run DMC in the US showed that kids from the ghetto had a message worth listening to. Big brands have the power to connect the unheard and voiceless to the mainstream, if it’s done correctly. I had the marketing experience to understand the ROI that brands need, as well as what I could do with that to support black urban youth.

All I had were dreams and a URL, but that was enough. I quit my job and launched my website, Slikouronlife.

Reveal opportunities and create aspirations with your message

This is my politics and CSI. If we can get marketing to marry culture, and change the positioning and perception of young black South Africans, we can show there are opportunities out there, and create aspirations.

But we need to put culture first and tap into the authenticity of who we are as South Africans. We need to recognise and acknowledge the mental traps that exist in our neighbourhoods, and that we are victims of limiting beliefs, and then show that there is another way.

Everyone told me I was nuts. That black people don’t go online. I did it anyway. With Skwatta Kamp we had created a market for our music. Kids supported us; my name added value — and then brands came on board. We now average between 200 000 and 250 000 unique visitors a month, which is impressive for a mainstream website, let alone a niche music site.

Ten months ago we were a team of three operating from my house with one desk. Today we’re a team of ten with one focus: To make a real difference on the ground. To give the voiceless a voice. To prove that if we can drive the aspirations of South Africa’s urban youth, the sky will be the limit.


Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Small Businesses To Watch

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

Edward Moshole started a business in 1999 with just R68 in his pocket. Today he has a company that not only has a turnover upwards of R25 million, but is also on the cusp of expanding to the next level. Here’s how he’s turning clients into partners.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital Stats

In 1999, Edward Moshole was a cleaner with just R68 in his pocket, but he noticed a business opportunity.

Good quality detergents and disinfectants could make a tough cleaning job much easier, so he started buying quality products in bulk and selling them to his fellow cleaners. He wasn’t satisfied, though. He wanted a business that made and sold its own products. So, he tackled the long and arduous process of creating cleaners and detergents that could pass strict regulations and compete with the best products on the market.

It wasn’t easy, but he kept at it. In fact, he only got his first real breakthrough in 2006 when a supermarket agreed to start stocking his products. Today, his Chem-Fresh products can be found all over Africa, and he counts Pick n Pay as one of his main clients. How did Moshole manage to turn R68 into an empire?

Here are his rules for building a large and sustainable operation.

1. Find the right clients

“Very early on, I identified Pick n Pay as a must-have client. I could see that the company was changing its strategy — it was starting to move into townships and rural areas, places where it hadn’t been operating until then — and I thought it would be the perfect place to sell Chem-Fresh products,” says Moshole. But getting in wasn’t easy.

“As a small business, you don’t get to sit down with decision- makers. Becoming a supplier to a large retailer is a difficult process. It took me years to get a foot in the door, but I didn’t give up. I just knew that Pick n Pay was the right company to do business with, so I kept at it.

I refused to take no for an answer. Today, Pick n Pay operates more like a partner than a client.

Related: Attention Black Entrepreneurs: Start-Up Funding From Government Grants & Funds

Thanks to my partnership with Pick n Pay, I’ve been able to scale Chem-Fresh quickly and access a distribution channel that allows Chem-Fresh products to be sold all over the continent. Once you have the right clients, you gain instant clout and reliability.”

2. Own the manufacturing process

chem-fresh-products

PC: risingafrica.org

When starting out, entrepreneurs often have little choice but to buy other companies’ products and resell them. It’s not necessarily a bad thing — it can be a successful strategy. However, it can eventually limit your growth.

Firstly, buying and reselling products places a cap on your margins. When you own the manufacturing process, you can increase your margins, since making and selling products tends to offer wider margins than merely buying and reselling.

That said, you have to keep in mind that this is only true when you operate at a certain scale. Making and selling something in small quantities can often be more expensive and time consuming than simply buying it from a supplier. You need to crunch the numbers and make sure that the expense of a manufacturing facility is actually worth it in the long run.

Secondly, it allows you to keep control of the quality of your product. “The secret to any great brand is consistency,” says Moshole.

“People should know what they can expect from the brand, and one of the best ways to ensure this is to have total control of your product. If you make it yourself, you’re in charge of the quality.”

3. Be willing to diversify

Some companies can grow while sticking to a very specific niche, but most have no other option but to diversify. Although Chem-Fresh started out selling just one or two products, Moshole soon started to expand the range. The company now has more than 100 products.

“Generally speaking, you can only capture so much of a market. Sometimes it makes sense to actively try to grow your market share, but it’s also a good idea to diversify. Not only does this open more revenue streams, but it also protects the business against market changes. So, if the sales of one product slows down, another speeds up and everything evens out,” says Moshole.

Related: Sibongiseni Mbatha’s Top Collaboration Techniques To Grow Your Business

But the important thing is not to stray too far from your comfort zone. Chem-Fresh now has a large product range, but it has stuck to an industry that it is knowledgeable about. The company has built a name for itself within a specific industry.

4. Build a strong foundation

“Don’t wait too long to start thinking about the long-term life of your business,” advises Moshole. “The stronger the foundation of the business, the easier it is to grow it, so you need to implement the right systems and processes early on. If you don’t, the business will fall apart without you.

“You will always be very involved at an operational level. You’ll be so busy with the daily grind, that you’ll never be able to take a strategic view and focus on building the company.

So, you need the right systems and the right people. You need to know that the business can keep going without you. If you do this, you will be able to grow the company while others deal with the operational demands.”


Key Insights

There’s no substitute for perseverance

It took Edward years to get his product onto Pick n Pay’s shelves, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Today, the relationship is more like a partnership.

Own the process

In the right quantities, producing and selling your own product can significantly increase your margins over selling someone else’s products.

Strategically increase revenue streams

Diversifying your product range within your niche allows you to offer the same clients a greater range, tap into new markets, and protect the business against market changes.


TAKE NOTE

Take a long-term view when contemplating the growth of your company. It’s never too soon to prepare a business for growth. Implementing the right systems and processes right now can make it much easier to scale the operation down the line.


Related: 6 Of The Most Profitable Small Businesses In South Africa

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