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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.

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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appanna-ganapathy

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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Entrepreneur Profiles

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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