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Top Billing: Basetsana Kumalo

A media specialist with interests in mining and property, and a former Miss South Africa to boot, Basetsana Kumalo is a woman of considerable business acumen. She spoke for the first time about her business journey to Entrepreneur.

Andrew Honey

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Basetsana Kumalo of Top Billing

Known to most South Africans as Bassie from the television magazine show, Top Billing, Basetsana Kumalo is far more than just a beautiful face. Behind the former Miss South Africa title lies a business brain that has built a personal brand of extraordinary value in a very short space of time. Using her title as a platform to launch herself into the business world, she is an example of someone who can identify an opportunity and pursue it.

At the age of 20 and with very little business experience, Bassie negotiated the first external contract to be awarded by the SABC to an all-female production company when Tswelopele Productions, of which she is a 50% partner, took on the job of producing Top Billing.

Since then, she has opened a publishing division in the company and launched the very successful Top Billing Magazine, started her own make-up, clothing and sunglasses range, and amassed business interests in mining and property.

It has been a steep and steady learning curve that has been driven by a combination of a hunger for success, a grounded personality and an ability to keep her eye on the ball at all times.

Entrepreneur: What influence did Miss SA have on your business career?

BK: Having that platform opened up so many doors of opportunity. I understood that it was just a 12-month reign and that it was important to use it positively to achieve my short-, medium- and long-term goals. From a business point of view, it meant people returned my calls, simply because I was Miss SA, even if they didn’t know what I had to offer in business.

It was through Miss SA that I met my current business partner, Patience Stevens, who was producing Top Billing for SABC at that time. I did a promo and she was impressed by the fact that I managed it in one take, so she invited me to be on Top Billing.

E: Did it teach you any particular business principles?

BK: It taught me that you always need to look for opportunities and make the most of them, and not to doubt my ability. It taught me a bit of chutzpah (it takes courage to strut your stuff on a platform in a bikini, in front of people you don’t know!) and that has served me well in business.

E: During your reign you were awarded an honorary scholarship by Madiba to study overseas. Did you take up this opportunity?

BK: Not yet, but I will! It’s a scholarship to Georgetown University where Bill Clinton studied, and is open for me to take it up when I want to. I have a love for politics and believe I will end up in that arena in some or other way in the future, so I think that I will probably study politics there.

The reason I haven’t done it yet is that I have been building the business for the last 12 years, and I need to focus on creating a succession plan and grooming someone to take my place when I step back a bit.

E: How easily did you slot into the role of TV presenting?

BK: Even though I never taught in a school, I think my training as a teacher helped a lot. Also, I don’t think it takes brain surgery to read a script so it wasn’t all that difficult, and you either sink or swim. I still get butterflies, but I have managed to teach them to fly in unison.

E: Did you receive any training?

BK: I did some elocution lessons when I started on Top Billing, but my mom was really my coach. I am a very fast speaker and she always used to say to me, “I didn’t hear a thing you said! Which train are you trying to catch?” Again, the Miss SA pageant obviously prepared me in some way.

E: How did the title Revlon face of Sub-Saharan Africa assist you in ‘building your own brand’?

BK: It was a key element in building the Bassie brand and was critical to where I am today because of the stature of Revlon as an international company. Brands are not necessarily born – sometimes they are made, and that was the case with the Bassie brand. Revlon definitely helped create it.

E: You have very successfully built a business around the Bassie brand. Was it something you had conceptualised at the outset?

BK: No, it has evolved over time. I have an appetite and enthusiasm for going into new terrain and have been involved in beauty, fashion, mining, property and media. These all create publicity, and the publicity builds the brand.

E: What are the keys to building a successful personal brand?

BK: When you wake up each morning, you have to think of yourself as a brand and act accordingly. How well you do that will define the brand’s success. If you live the brand well, people start to believe in it and buy into it. Over the years, people have shown great confidence in the Bassie brand and that’s been really humbling.

E: How did Tswelopele Productions come about?

BK: Top Billing is Patience Stevens’s brainchild. She took it to SABC, they liked the concept and offered to take it on and pay her a salary. After three months or so of presenting on Top Billing, I thought, “There’s got to be more to television than just reading someone else’s script.”

I also thought there was something wrong with the idea that Patience had a concept but someone else was making the money. So I spoke to Zwelake Sisulu, who was CEO at the time, and over six months, negotiated that they give us the contract as independent producers.

I was 20 going on 21 and I didn’t have any of the right business speak, but all I knew was that the picture looked wrong. Patience and I each have a 50% shareholding in the company.

E: How did you finance it?

BK: I borrowed money from my parents and we found money wherever we could. I had also won some cash prizes and appearance money from Miss SA and I put that into the business. I remember the bank asking for collateral, which was a big word for a 21-year-old!

E: What were the early challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

BK: Being a Miss SA had pros and cons and one of the challenges was overcoming people’s perceptions that I was nothing more than a beauty queen and had nothing to offer. I realised that I could either allow people’s perceptions about what a Miss SA can and cannot do to determine my destiny, or I could use the opportunity to show that I had something real to offer.

I worked really hard to prove myself and made sure that everything I did was done to the highest standard of excellence. My attitude was that, although I knew that I didn’t know much, I was willing to learn, so over time I did business courses and learnt from others in business.

E: Is there anybody in particular whom you have looked up to from a business point of view?

BK: Definitely my parents. My mother was a teacher and my father was a bus driver, but they were so enterprising and did a number of things to make extra money. They ran a small construction company, my mother and sister made and sold curtains at the end of every month in Lesotho, and as children, we were expected to play a role in making extra money.

I sold sweets to friends at school, and we would sell sandwiches and ice cream at soccer matches on weekends. So from a very early age I understood what business was about and I knew how to work with money. All the basic business principles I learned from watching my parents.

E: What difficulties did the company face with the demise of Union Alliance Media (the now-defunct listed company that had owned shares in Tswelopele Productions before going bankrupt)?

BK: We paid our school fees! The initial UAM deal afforded us the opportunity to play in the stock market. It augured well in the beginning and gave us an increased profile. I think its going under was a blessing in disguise, though.

It gave control of our company back to us. We had got ourselves into a situation where we were being controlled by people who didn’t understand our business but were telling us how to run it. In the end, the whole thing worked to our advantage.

E: What did the experience teach you?

BK: That sometimes it is better to run a small outfit and have control over it rather than be swallowed into a large conglomerate, where people don’t really understand what you do and are only interested in the bottom line. It taught me to think long and hard before selling off.

E: What has helped the company grow?

BK: In the first year we made a loss and only made R63 000 profit the next year. But every time we made some money, we put it back into the business to buy more facilities and upgrade our systems. Patience and I also have a great partnership.

I call her the Spielberg of television – she takes what I do and turns it into good television. She’s more technically orientated and I am more on the marketing, HR and contractual side of things. So we complement each other’s skills. We also have the same value system, we understand each other and we’re passionate about the same things.

E: You have built a number of different sub-companies. How are these businesses going?

BK: They’re going from strength to strength. We produced Pasella and have just finished producing Our Beautiful Country. We have also just been awarded a contract to do another magazine show. We’ve gone into corporate videos and that’s doing fantastically well, and we are doing below-the-line commercials.

As you know, we opened up a publishing arm which now produces Top Billing Magazine. I took a proposal for that to the IDC and they funded it because they believe in the strength of the brand.

E: What kind of infrastructure have you developed to manage all the different products?

BK: I have a great team and have surrounded myself with some of the best brains in the business. Leanne, my PA, keeps me sane and I have a wonderful husband and family support system. I am surrounded by good people and good energy.

Your six keys to success in business: 1. Dare to dream

2. Take risks

3. You have to be street-smart and have suss, which no one can teach you

4. Don’t take “no” for an answer

5. Surround yourself with the best brains in the business

6. Go with your gut feel

E: With so many projects on the go, how do you manage your time?

BK: My biggest gripe is that there are not enough hours in the day. I prioritise things according to their level of urgency and plan at the beginning of the year, so I have diarised all the important meetings and events well in advance. I have cut down on the international travel as well and I lean on people to help me.

E: As sales is critical to the business, what sales strategies do you have in place?

BK: Publishing has been one of the most difficult and challenging businesses I have ever embarked on. At my last count, there are over 572 titles so you need to have a unique product offering. Initially, advertisers have a ‘wait-and-see’ approach, so I had to hussle and push, making use of all the contacts I had built up.

Consumers are very sophisticated and the product must speak for itself, so our strategy is to back our sales pitch with an excellent product. I try to impress upon the team that we are only as good as our last performance and when we have a bad issue, I tell them. Nothing goes to print without me seeing it first.

E: Entrepreneurship is about innovation and succeeding against the odds. where have you been the most innovative?

BK: In the area of media. I have extrapolated many facets of it, from presenting to producing to publishing, writing – the scope is so wide and I have tried to become a media specialist.

E: Has innovation ever caused failure and how did you overcome it?

BK: My husband and I were invited to buy into a Spar in Bryanston and we invested in it, but it was bleeding from day one. The numbers looked good, but we ended up having to go to court and pay huge amounts of money. I learned a very hard lesson about knowing when to cut your losses and walk away. Also, signing surety is a bad thing! I did it three times, when I was 20 and young and naïve, and I won’t do it again.

What Bassie sees as the key aspects of developing a personal brand

The birth of a brand is achieved with publicity, not advertising.

Once born, a brand needs advertising to stay healthy.

A brand should strive to own a word in the mind of the consumer.

The crucial ingredient in the success of any brand is its claim to authenticity.

In the long run, a brand is nothing more than a name and how that name is perceived.

E: What is Bassie planning on doing next?

BK: I want to start consolidating and making sure that the future direction holds a clear and positive path. My next goal is to go to Georgetown and take up the scholarship and also to list the company.

Andrew Honey is the Group CEO of Entrepreneur Media SA, ThinkSales Corporation and SmartCompany Networks. He is passionate about sales and sales leadership. In 1999 he led Freewind Publications to display outstanding sales service and sales acumen at the annual Marketing Mix Magazine MOMA (Media Owners Marketing Awards) where the company defeated sales teams from large publishing houses such as Media24, Caxton, Associated, Ramsay Son & Parker and Oracle Airtime Sales (M-Net).

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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

appanna-ganapathy-art-technologies

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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