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Weylandt: Chris Weylandt

Managing growth and knowing when to let go have been important success factors forChris Weylandt in taking his namesake store from family-owned outlet to national homeware leader.

Juliet Pitman

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Chris Weylandt of Weylandts

If gaining access to funding is the biggest initial stumbling block for small businesses, managing growth is certainly the most significant second-stage challenge. Countless businesses, in spite of showing early promise have failed for one of many growth-related reasons, from lack of cash flow and skills to poor management expertise or insufficient infrastructure. But perhaps the biggest culprit is an unwillingness or inability on the part of the business owner to relinquish the iron-fist control that they grew used to exercising (and which was essential) when the business was growing. Unable to spread themselves across all areas of the business but unwilling to delegate tasks to others, such entrepreneurs doom their businesses to failure. Either that, or they end up selling to someone who can run a growing operation.

Chris Weylandt, founder of Weylandts furniture and lifestyle stores, is one of a rare breed of entrepreneurs who manage to grow with their business. The most successful among them are the Raymond Ackermans of the world – the people who manage to make the leap from profitable family-run or one-man businesses to major national operations. They know how to balance their entrepreneur’s ego with the cold hard fact that they can not conquer the world alone. Although he lists expansion as the biggest challenge he’s faced thus far, Weylandt quickly learned how to delegate to a hand-selected management team – and to put forward-looking systems and structures in place that could support the growth trajectory he had planned for his company. And while he might still describe himself as ‘hands-on’, he’s the first to admit that being hands-on when you have one store is very different from being hands-on when you’re running multiple stores in locations across the country.

But his success has not only been about managing growth. It’s also been about vision and setting new trends, about leading and finding new ways of doing things instead of following and copying what others are doing. Weylandt is lucky by his own admission to have a head for numbers as well as a feel for creativity, a combination that, unsurprisingly, has been a winning combination in his line of business. His eye for design has been invaluable in achieving his vision of creating a new kind of homestore retail space.

Weylandt grew up with the furniture business (his father owned a small family furniture store in Namibia) and although he studied to be a CA, he returned to his roots. During the five years in which he worked in the family business, he took over the manufacturing plant and started supplying South African furniture stores. “By 1996 I had grown frustrated with simply supplying the retailers – I wanted to get involved in merchandising. I understood the product and wanted to show it to clients in a different way. I wanted to bring a new kind of furniture retailing to the market. At that time, the homeware sector was just taking off and I realised there was a gap,” he relates.

Weylandt’s vision was to tap into the holistic focus on lifestyle that was emerging in the furniture and homeware markets. “What I had in mind was to sell a whole concept, a way of life, a lifestyle. It’s not about selling a sofa or a table –  it’s about creating a space where customers can experience different looks and see a whole mix of products working together to form a living space,” he explains.

The first store was an instant success with the Cape Town public, but looking back on those early days, Weylandt admits that times were frequently tough. “Because I was a Namibian citizen, I really struggled to get permanent residence in South Africa, even though I had established a factory and was providing employment in the area. For similar reasons, it was also difficult to get finance for our first building. In the end, we funded things internally from the Namibian operation but there was only so much ready cash available. I had to juggle it very carefully between getting the building up and running, paying in advance for imports and running a new business. It was exciting but frequently challenging,” he relates. Soaring interest rates didn’t help matters, which makes Weylandt all the more proud that the first store was profitable almost from day one.

The look and feel of the Durbanville store came to characterise the unique Weylandts signature. “I wanted a destination store, which meant that location and the type of building were all-important. The multi-levelled building in Durbanville was perfect because it meant that customers could experience different displays and move through different areas on different levels. We put a crèche and a coffee shop in it so that people could come and enjoy the different lifestyle spaces. This was very important if we were to differentiate ourselves from other furniture stores.”

“But we also differentiated ourselves in what we put inside our stores,” he continues, “and part of developing the Weylandt’s handwriting was about creating a certain style that people couldn’t get anywhere else. Our products are both locally manufactured and imported but the distinctiveness arises out of how we mix them together to create a unique look. It’s quite European – clean and uncluttered – but at the same time it’s not like anything else. I believe that creating your own identity is vital – you can’t simply copy someone else – and that’s a principle that we’ve always stuck to. Our drive has always been to innovate and bring new things to the market.”

Getting this right means investing a great deal of time sourcing just the right mix of products. “Obviously your starting point is knowing what the market wants and this requires a fine understanding of current lifestyle trends. But at the same time, if you want to push the envelope it also involves educating the market about new trends and directions,” he says, adding that regular international travel has been invaluable in helping the company stay ahead of the curve. “However, you can’t simply copy what’s happening internationally – you need to add local flavour as each country’s market is quite specific. I get inspiration from Europe or Scandinavia but I apply it to our context here. The end result is something new and I always find that exciting,” he adds.

The Greenpoint store followed closely on the heels of the pilot outlet in Durbanville and Weylandt then turned his attention to Knysna, where he opened on the exclusive Thesen Island, a move prompted by Weylandt’s growing reputation. “We were approached by the developer of Thesen Island who wanted to get a shopping node going,” he explains. Knysna was still fairly close to home, however, and the company’s biggest learning curve came with the establishment of its first Johannesburg store in Fourways.

“It was our biggest challenge, without a doubt,” relates Weylandt, “In Cape Town we were starting a business, building a culture and sharing a vision with staff who were growing with us. Suddenly you open a store 2 000 kilometres away and it all changes. Bear in mind that we were still a young company with limited resources in terms of HR and training systems and I couldn’t be there all the time.” As so many other entrepreneurs have discovered before him, one of the biggest difficulties lay in ensuring that the company’s unique culture and brand integrity were not diluted by its growth. “We quickly realised that we needed to put a lot of emphasis on training. Fortunately for me, being so hands-on and close to the staff and operations in the beginning meant that I was totally familiar with all aspects of the business – from how to make the furniture, to assembling, marketing and selling it – so I could pass this knowledge on to new staff,” he says.

Logistics proved another significant challenge. “We’d always had a competitive advantage because we held a large amount of stock and could deliver items quickly, which meant customers didn’t have a long wait between choosing their furniture and taking delivery of it. But when we opened in Johannesburg we didn’t have a distribution centre to start off with. We’d deliver from Cape Town to a transit distribution centre and then on to the client but that had a lot of time implications. So we knew we needed to establish a mirror image in Johannesburg of what we had in Cape Town and that solved the problem,” he says.

But perhaps his biggest advantage lay in the fact that Weylandt recognised his own limitations. “When you can’t be in all places at once you have to ask where your back-up is. I knew that I needed people I could rely on to make decisions when I wasn’t there so three years ago I started to build a management team,” he explains. In doing so, he has focused on internal recruitment. “You can’t underestimate the value that experienced employees can bring to the company,” he says. And unlike many entrepreneurs who try to handle staff issues themselves, Weylandt has established an HR department to deal with personnel. “As the business grows, you realise that you are spending 90% of your time on people issues and this means that valuable time is not being spent on creative or strategic issues, the things that will take the business to the next level. Being able to hand these things over to HR has freed me up to focus on the business and where it’s going,” he explains.

Perhaps the reason so many entrepreneurs are reluctant to give up control of various aspects of their businesses is the fear that implementing hierarchical structures will remove them from the coalface and slow down decision-making processes. It’s not an entirely unjustified concern. Small businesses have a competitive advantage over their larger peers because they can make decisions quickly and react to market changes first. Weylandt is well aware of the need for the business to remain nimble and as he points out, “I may have put various structures in place to improve how the business operates but we don’t have a board of directors. One of our enduring strengths has been our ability to identify market trends and changes and respond to them quickly, and I believe we have retained that edge even as we’ve grown. The industry that we operate in undergoes constant change and evolution and we’ve managed to adapt and evolve with it.”

He’s also been able to balance the business growth with a period of consolidation. “In the past two years we haven’t expanded as it was important to have a period of consolidation after bringing in a management team. You’ll really kill a business if you don’t allow it time to absorb the changes that growth brings. So we’ve been concentrating on getting our house in order and now we’re starting to look to what the future holds for us in relation to our next growth phase,” Weylandt explains.

It’s a future that will see expansion not only in South but also in Southern Africa. “We’ve built a very strong infrastructure and we can now look at servicing more outlets – we’re looking at Durban and perhaps another store in Johannesburg,” he explains. But he’s quick to point out that the business is not interested in growth for growth’s sake. “I don’t ever want to be a mass retailer – it’s not our business model. We’re niche and specialised and that’s where we want to stay. This limits our local market to a certain extent which is why we’ve also turned our attention to expansion into Southern Africa where I believe many opportunities still exist,” he adds.

Chris Weylandt’s Advice to Aspirant Entrepreneurs

  • Start off with a clear vision of what you want the business to be. You must have thought through the concept thoroughly and have a very clear understanding of what you want to achieve.
  • Drive, passion and a positive attitude are invaluable in making a success of a business, particularly when you come up against challenges.
  • You have to take risks and be willing to put everything on the line. A successful business never arises out of doing things in half measures so decide what you want to do and give it everything.
  • Go with your gut!

Critical success factors

  • Not worrying about what everyone else is doing and focusing on what I want the business to achieve.
  • Building long-term relationships with suppliers all over the world – this helps to ensure that we are always able to source fresh and interesting pieces that reflect new trends.
  • Travelling around the world and visiting trade and design fairs but never copying anything anyone else does. We take inspiration from global trends but mix products together in a way that is unique and locally relevant.
  • Trusting the people I employ to make the right decisions but balancing this with leading by example, always communicating and following up to make sure that things happen as they should.
  • Developing our own handwriting and identity, which gives us a unique competitive edge.
  • It’s never my job to dictate a style – I can only offer ideas; a stitched together philosophy from my journeys around the world.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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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.

FedEx

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Vital stats

  • 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

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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edward-moshole

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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Entrepreneur Profiles

Lichaba Creations Founder Max Lichaba’s Inspiring Journey To Entrepreneurial Success

Max Lichaba finished school with a Grade 10 and no prospects, except for a burning desire to do more with his life than become a miner like all the other men in his community. This is the story of how he started a jewellery business, lost everything, and painstakingly built it up from scratch again.

Nadine Todd

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max-lichaba

Vital Stats

I grew up living in the garage of a friend’s house in the small town of Virginia outside Welkom. My dad lived on the mines, my mom had five kids and nowhere to live, and he gave us a roof over our heads. It was a mining town, and I was expected to become a miner. But, my mom wanted us to have an education. She never blamed anyone for our situation — she just tried to make a plan. School was one of those plans. But, it needed to be a school close to home, and free — or as close to free as possible. That left only one option: A remedial school in Virginia.

Looking back, it had its pros and cons. I got to work a lot with my hands, and discovered I was really good at it. But the school ended at Grade 10, which meant I would never matriculate, and my maths and language literacy skills weren’t great by the time I left. I was never challenged, and an unchallenged mind doesn’t grow.

I’ve only recently completed some financial literacy courses so that I can run my books and understand my numbers. I’d left that to my accountants, and learnt it’s unwise — you have to be on top of your numbers. I didn’t have these skills from my youth, so I needed to go out and get them, ten years after starting my own business. But, if you’re serious about growth, it’s never too late.

By the late 1990s I was 16, helping my mom sell fruit and vegetables on the side of the road, and my school career was over — but then another opportunity presented itself. Harmony Gold owned the mines in our area and had developed the Harmony Gold Jewellery School to upskill the local community.

I wasn’t satisfied with my Grade 10 qualification. I didn’t want to be a miner, and I wanted more than selling fruit and veg on the side of the road. I knew I was good with my hands, and I saw the jewellery school as an opportunity.

Related: How To Build A Disruptive Attitude

I applied late, but that didn’t stop me. Every day I went to the school, and sat in the waiting room, determined to secure a spot if one opened up. There was one student who hadn’t pitched at the start. I pestered the registrations office to let me take her spot. I was relentless. One day I received the call: “Fine, the place is yours. When can you start?” I replied that I was on my way.

Everyone at the school had completed matric. I was the youngest person in the room with the lowest qualification — but I was good with my hands and hungry for success. Six months later I was one of the best in the class. I spent all my time there, practising and getting better and better at my new craft. I realised that I wanted to make beautiful things I could sell — I was already thinking about a small business.

As we were finishing our course, a local jewellery manufacturer, Regal Manufacturing came to the school and asked for two of their best students. I was chosen, which secured my first job in the sector. The company manufactured jewellery and exported it to South America. With 3 000 employees, it was a major employer in our community, predominantly of women. After nine months, I had the down-payment for my first car, and had just moved into my first flat, when we arrived at work to closed gates. Overnight, and with no warning, the company had closed down. We were all given a letter, stating that we would receive our salaries at the end of the week, and that the business had been liquidated.

Finding a light

max-lichaba-entrepreneurThe women around me — many of whom were the sole breadwinners in their households — were kneeling and wailing in shock. I was also in shock, coupled with a good healthy dose of anger. And then I started thinking. I had no dependants. No children relying on me to be fed. I was 19 and I’d find a job. But what about these women? I couldn’t help everyone, but there were four gogos I knew. In my community, gogos are the backbone of everything. I didn’t hesitate, I just said to them, let’s start something together. Let’s meet at my house tomorrow. We can make this work.

Here’s the problem. A machine costs between R50 000 and R100 000. We didn’t even have R5 000. We needed to start small. Putting our heads together, we realised that the simplest thing — and one we could afford — was beads. We needed to start bringing in cash, and this was the fastest, simplest way.

Between us we collected R1 000 to buy beads and start working from my flat. The local Nigerian market loved them, and then we had a stroke of inspiration — we approached church choirs, offering to make each member a unique set of beads that they could wear at competitions. This became a steady source of income.

We spent 18 months focusing on beads, and then I started looking at our growth opportunities. The business was very hand to mouth — we used our cash to buy more materials. There wasn’t room for expansion, and after a year and a half I wasn’t any closer to buying machines. So, what could we do?

Related: 20 Quotes On Coping With Change From Successful Entrepreneurs And Leaders

After researching SME support programmes, I found SAB’s Kickstarter competition and we entered. We won in our region, and with the R20 000 prize money were able to buy small machines. We didn’t have an innovative business, but we were operational. I believe that gave SAB faith in our business.

Start small, but start — that’s the key. I could have gone out and tried to figure out how to raise R100 000 for fancy machines. I didn’t do that. Instead, I focused on trading — bringing in cash to feed and support us.

The equipment took us to the next level, and I was able to look for our next opportunity, which was a programme run between the Free State Department of Tourism and the Dti that helped local manufacturers market their products overseas. There were many forms to fill in and our capacity to deliver if orders came in was checked, but eventually we were approved for the programme.

We were still in my flat, and we needed more space — but we couldn’t afford rent. We found a tiny shop and convinced the landlord to let us move in, if we agreed to start paying R500 per month as soon as we could. Always ask — you never know what the answer will be. If you’re polite and friendly, people often want to help you — or at least give you the benefit of the doubt.

When everything goes wrong

kwa-lichaba-founderWhile we were gearing up for our first foray into global markets, I concentrated on local growth — and that meant Joburg. I didn’t have a car, and couldn’t afford transport, so I hitched rides, wearing a suit and tie. I had a jewellery business and needed to look the part. I made sure I was always the smartest looking guy in the room. If you take yourself seriously and project where you want to be, others will take you seriously too.

I really struggled to get our jewellery into local stores, but we finished the dti’s six-month programme and were considered export-ready.

Step one was making the products. The African element was popular, so we focused on that. Our choir market had grown, and we were able to use the cash to manufacture more products for export from those sales. Our first trip was to Nairobi and we received immediate orders. Our second was to London, and we realised we were onto something.

The Dti gave us an incredible opportunity. They work on turnovers, and move you into different regions based on your level. We worked with them until 2015, and gained a foundation for growth. They also helped us build up our cash reserves.

At the time, we were exporting our jewellery successfully, we’d won Kickstarter and had deployed those funds into the business. But, I was looking for more. Success makes you feel invincible, and my experiences with the Dti had been positive. Then I found another opportunity: We could open a school, similar to the one Harmony had run, and give youth the opportunity I’d received. The Dti funds initiatives like this, which meant we could give back to our youth, with government support.

I achieved the NQF accreditations I needed, and set up the school at a cost of R900 000. We were told we’d be paid within 60 to 90 days of each student enrolling, and we took the plunge.

But harsh reality stepped in. I took my eye off Lichaba Creations to concentrate on the school at a time when we’d moved into new, bigger premises to handle our increased international orders. The first payments came through 12 months later than expected. Lichaba Creations was effectively carrying the school, and the result was that we couldn’t pay rent for the jewellery business.

Related: Successful People Always Chase the Impossible – Here’s Why

After two months our landlord told us he was locking our doors. I begged him for more time, promising I’d pay him soon. I kept hoping the Dti payments would come through, but they didn’t. I was in Joburg trying to get paid when I received a call from someone I thought was my friend — he was laughing. Our doors had been locked and all my equipment was being auctioned off. I raced back to Welkom but couldn’t stop it. I owed R30 000 and couldn’t pay it. I watched my machines get sold for R300, and I couldn’t even afford to buy them myself.

At the same time, I realised that as I’d built the business, I’d paid less attention to family, and more to friends — and I was learning that they weren’t very good friends. They’d laughed at my fate and told me that they hadn’t expected my good fortune to last. I realised I was surrounded by people who didn’t truly care about me, or believe in me, and some were even satisfied at my loss. It was time for change.

One of the toughest things you’ll ever do

Starting over is one of the hardest things in life. I had nothing, and worse, I’d failed the people I had wanted to protect. They were all jobless, my old ladies and my new staff. The younger staff who hadn’t been with me at the beginning were particularly angry and wanted their salaries. I was devastated.

The one light at the end of my tunnel was the support of my brothers, who came back to Welkom from Joburg to help me. It was a stark and humbling reminder of the value of family. I’d been open and shared my story, asking my friends for assistance. They all said no. I realised these were just ordinary people, and I’d put too much faith in them. My brothers were the opposite. They each took out a R3 000 loan that they couldn’t afford to help me pay my staff and settle some debt. And they did it in faith, believing I would make a plan to pay them back. I would never neglect my family again.

I needed to get back on my feet, and I no longer had a business, or the school. I started by reaching out to my old school — could I teach there? For six months, that’s what I did. I taught and saved every cent I could. I sold most of my furniture, and slept on a mattress on the floor. When I had enough cash in the bank, I started visiting all the pawn shops in Welkom. I knew my equipment was specialised, and I had a feeling that the people who had bought it wouldn’t be able to use it. I was right — I started to find my machines at different pawn shops. Piece by piece, I bought them back.

It took eight months, but I was able to get back up and running — at a very small scale. I worked from my flat, exporting to India and the UK. I was totally focused. I vowed I would never lose sight of my core business again, even if I pursued other ventures.

I finally got the cash I was owed for the school, and paid my gogos’ retirement packages. I then made my second biggest mistake. No matter what we did, we couldn’t get into retail stores in South Africa. There isn’t enough of a funnel for gold jewellery in the local market. But, we didn’t want to admit defeat, and so we opened our own stores in a Pick n Pay centre in Welkom, in Randburg, and in Orange Grove. The money we made overseas went into these black holes — and we did it for three years. Having a personality that won’t admit defeat has its pros and cons. It’s kept me going in the face of enormous adversity, but it’s also sustained me when I should have admitted defeat and moved on. We spent too much on stores for limited returns. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to admit a second defeat so soon after the failure of the school. Whatever it was, I held on too long.

But, you live and you learn. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and move on.

Starting over and pursuing passions

I wasn’t done trying new things though. I’ve always loved cars. When I was at school, we learnt to fix cars. I’d had this idea for a while: A luxury car wash where you could sit comfortably and eat chesa nyama and drink a beer while you waited. I thought the combination would attract more people. At that stage, we’d closed down two of our Lichaba Creations stores and only had one still operational. I bought a plot on Vilakazi Street in Soweto and started building my dream, brick by brick. It’s a big building, and it took my whole family a year to finish. It was funded through the jewellery business, so we built on and off, depending on cash flow.

I wanted to launch in December, so towards the end of 2013 we all put our backs into getting it finished. My brothers travelled from their homes in Vereeniging every day, and together we got it ready. We opened on 16 December and haven’t looked back.

Related: 4 Success Lessons From The Entrepreneur Who Quietly Grew Pinterest Into A $12 Billion Company

Kwa Lichaba gives us incredible returns. We chose to charge an entrance fee to attract a specific clientele. It was trial and error at the beginning, but slowly we’ve shaped one of the go-to venues in Soweto, with a vibrant, loyal clientele.

We realised we had something worth more than gold: Access to a captive, middle to upper-middle class black market. It took us a year to get traction with the concept, but we now host corporate-sponsored functions throughout the year, giving brands access to our clientele. It’s an incredible model, and one we replicated in Lesotho — my grandmother’s place of birth — in 2016, and this time we didn’t lay a brick ourselves.

Lichaba Custom Rides, a car customisation and sound business, followed, reflecting my passion for cars. We also opened a refinery to recycle precious metals ourselves, so that we can supply the gold we need for Lichaba Creations, which continues to do very well overseas.

I’m in a good place. I know that life — and business — have their ups and downs, and I have no doubt there are more lessons to learn on this journey. As long as I apply those lessons and keep picking myself up, I will always have something to show for my hard work, and a legacy to leave for my children and the people I love.

Lessons Learnt

kwa-lichaba-event

Know your numbers

This sounds so obvious, but I trusted people with my books for years — mainly because I wasn’t financially literate. I reached a point where I would no longer accept that I couldn’t run my own books, and so I upskilled myself. I took business management, bookkeeping and finance courses. It’s never too late to learn something new.

Education is everything

This is one area where I’m lacking. I’m filling the gaps as much as I can in my later life, and determined to give my children a better education than I had. I also want to help other children. Through the Lichaba Foundation, we close Kwa Lichaba on Wednesdays so that we can feed Soweto’s children and gogos in need once a week. We also have social workers and educators on site, to try and do as much as we can. Once a week isn’t enough, but it’s a start — and you always need to start somewhere.

Pay it forward

There are so many people who have helped me over the years. Never forget that you don’t achieve success alone. It always takes a village. I believe it’s our duty to give back if we succeed. We started out making boerewors rolls from the boot of our car and handing them out in townships. Today we have the Lichaba Foundation. We support the children of Soweto, have a magazine that supports local businesses and gives them free marketing, and the Miss Lichaba competition, an annual pageant for Soweto-based teens. The winner receives free university tuition, and is the face of all our businesses for a year. She is also expected to give back to her community, paying the idea of social awareness forward.

Work as a community

All of our businesses operate within a community — which is true of all businesses. You can’t operate as an island, and ignore those around you. And why would you want to? It creates goodwill, a vibrancy that operating alone could never achieve, and encourages everyone to work together towards shared goals.

Look for your own opportunities

When I look back at my life, it was tough as a kid. There was so much pain and embarrassment. Kids laughed at me because I sold fruit and vegetables at the side of the road and went to a remedial school. I was driven to prove myself. I’m a human being and a man. It’s my life, and only I can prove myself. I wouldn’t let my circumstances hold me back. I saw these things as challenges and obstacles I had to face, but also as opportunities. You need to look for opportunity. No one else will do that for you.


Listen to the podcast

matt-brown-podcast

Matt Brown interviews Max Lichaba and unpacks his incredible journey from small-town kid to successful entrepreneur.

To listen to the podcast, go to www.mattbrownmedia.co.za or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.

The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.

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