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10 Inspirational African Entrepreneurs

The spirit of entrepreneurship burns bright in Africa, despite the socio-economic challenges faced by a number of self-starters. These ten entrepreneurs are leading the charge when it comes to accelerating Africa’s seeding as a destination for investment.

Nicole Crampton

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Cephas Nshimyumuremyi says to be successful is to do what you know

Cephas-Nshimyumuremyi

Image credit: CNN

“Don’t think that you need a lot of capital. Start with a little, but use the knowledge and the environment that you already have.”

Vital Stats:

  • Entrepreneur: Cephas Nshimyumuremyi
  • Business: Uburanga
  • Website: uburanga.com
  • Start-up story: Cephas Nshimyumuremyi used his salary from teaching to fund his venture.
  • Growth: In seven months his business was worth R280 000 the equivalent of Rwf14 million.

Cephas Nshimyumuremyi always wanted to be an entrepreneur but he knew his teaching salary wasn’t going to be enough to fulfil his dreams.

He saw a business opportunity when he became aware that the Rwandan people were attempting to use local plants for skin infections and to improve skin quality.

Nshimyumuremyi decided to use his science background and his knowledge of Rwanda’s local plants to create his company, Uburanga Products to create herbal smearing jellies and soaps out of local medicinal plants. He started his production line in his garage.

His products filled a need in the market because Rwandans were already using these plants in its raw form. As a result, Nshimyumuremyi created a more versatile and user-friendly product that he could distribute around the country. He wanted the benefits from the properties of these medicinal plants to reach a larger audience.

Today the venture is worth R432 000 and he employs 12 workers. In the next three years Nshimyumuremyi plans to release a further eight products. This will give him a total of 12 products and make him a profit of R834 000, this may not seem a lot in rand but in Rwandan Francs it’s roughly Rwf45 million.

Christine Buchanan and Louiza Rademan let their passion make them a success

Oh-Lief

Image credit: ohlief.co.uk

“We have a big vision for our brand – we would like to be the number one organic household brand in South Africa.”

Vital Stats:

  • Entrepreneurs: Christine Buchanan and Louiza Rademan
  • Business: Oh-Lief
  • Website: www.ohlief.com
  • Start-up story: Christine Buchanan and Louiza Rademan founded their business in 2010.
  • Growth: They sell internationally, while 25 leading Woolworth’s stores carry their products locally.

When Christine Buchanan had her first child, a son, he suffered from intolerable nappy rash and she couldn’t find a natural product to help soothe him. Christine’s sister Louiza Rademan concocted a nappy rash balm for him and it worked wonders. Buchanan then began selling the balm to other mom’s in her maternity classes and they swarmed to the product.

Buchanan and Rademan, then realising they had stumbled upon a business opportunity, decided to take their enjoyment for making lotions and balms to the next level. They quit their senior positions in the property sector to follow their passion for creating products using only natural ingredients.

Their first attempt at selling their product happened at a three-day trade show. They sold out 100 tubs of the nappy rash balm on the first day; they went home, made 100 more and sold all of those on day two. They worked through the night to make 100 more for the third day where they sold out again.

Buchanan and Rademan’s products are now sold internationally and are carried by leading retailers including Woolworths. These sisters are so successful because they control all aspects of their business. They realised that taking on the world with a niche product requires ingenuity and innovative marketing.

Related: Meet The 40 Richest Self-Made Entrepreneurs On Earth

Abasiama Idaresit manages being ahead of the curve

Abasiama-Idaresit

Abasiama Idaresit

“We must inspire our kinsmen to look beyond the now and to see the big picture. If we don’t roll up our sleeves and get dirty, no one else will.”

Vital Stats:

  • Entrepreneur: Abasiama Idaresit
  • Business: Wild Fusions
  • Website: wildfusions.com
  • Start-up story: Abasiama Idaresit started his company in 2010 with as little as USD250.
  • Growth: Six years later his company, Wild Fusion is worth USD6 million.

Abasiama Idaresit didn’t make any money for the first eight months. He was chased out of a potential client’s office for his outrageous concept. Digital marketing was almost unheard of in Nigeria at the time.

Idaresit approached Baby M, a small business that catered to the needs of new mothers and their babies. Baby M had a network of sales agents who searched for customers on a daily basis to make ends meet. Idaresit finally managed to convince Baby M, his first customer, to give him a chance by offering a money back guarantee if he didn’t give the company a return on investment.

Baby M gave him N40 000(roughly USD250) as payment in advance so that Idaresit could work his magic. In three months Baby M’s revenue grew from USD1000 a month to USD100 000 a month through digital marketing. The business was immediately overwhelmed with orders.

Now Wild Fusion spans three countries and boasts clients like Unilever (Nigeria and Ghana), Vodacom, Diamond Bank, Planned Parenthood and many more African and international clients.

Divine Ndhlukula shows us how to keep hustling until you make it

Divine-Ndhlukula

Divine Ndhlukula

“My quest to start and run my own company never dissipated and therefore, even as I was back at work, I started investigating the various opportunities that I could see and think of.”

Vital Stats:

  • Entrepreneur: Divine Ndhlukula
  • Business: SECURICO
  • Website: www.securico.co.zw
  • Start-up story: Ndhlukula founded SECURICO in her cottage with four employees.
  • Growth: The organisation has won over 20 major national and regional awards and Divine Ndhlukula becoming a living African business legend after she won African Woman of the Year 2013.

Divine Ndhlukula always had an entrepreneurial passion; she would sell clothing to her colleagues and rent out trucks to construction companies to make a little extra money. She was always on the lookout for her next entrepreneurial opportunity.

But, her entrepreneurial momentum was side tracked. Her brother fell on hard times and she had to sell all her budding enterprises to save him from bankruptcy. She had to go work with her brother on his farm to keep it afloat and almost lost her house while trying to keep the farm afloat.

Once she returned to work she became aware of an entrepreneurial opportunity to branch into the security services sector. She decided to enter into this sector because of how she, as a customer, experienced the sector. Ndhlukula found that the security sector lacked the professionalism, quality and services that a number of businesses required.

Although she didn’t have a passion for security, she had a passion for business. So with almost no capital and no knowledge of security she started her business with a determination to succeed.

SECURICO is now one of Zimbabwe’s largest security groups and has partnerships in South Africa, China and India. Ndhlukula’s business has developed into a world-class security service organisation.

Related: 10 Successful SA Women Entrepreneurs’ Top Advice On Balancing Work And Family

Chris Kirubi shares his secrets to success; hard work and out of the box thinking

Chris-Kirubi

Chris Kirubi

“Business is always a struggle. There are always obstacles and competitors. There is never an open road, except the wide road that leads to failure. Every great success is always achieved with fight. Every winner has scars.”

Vital Stats:

  • Entrepreneur: Chris Kirubi
  • Business: Director at Centum Investment Company Limited
  • Website: centum.co.ke
  • Start-up story: Chris Kirubi started out by buying and flipping houses.
  • Growth: The Kenyan entrepreneur has built an empire spanning real estate, manufacturing and investments, which has made him one of the wealthiest people in Africa.

Chris Kirubi decided to make extra money by purchasing and selling houses. He used the money he made from flipping houses to invest in some of the city’s finest up-and-coming business and residential organisations. He started out with a clever profit making scheme and investment strategy, but now he is an icon of the Kenyan property industry

Today, Kirubi owns more than 40 commercial and residential properties in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. These properties have a total value of USD200 million and Kirubi owns assets worth USD100 million.

“I rise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world,” admits Kirubi. “This makes it hard to plan the day. But because I want to achieve my purpose and make a difference in society, I will stop focusing on the frightful things I see when I take my eyes off my goals and instead fix them there.”

Jacky Goliath and Elton Jefthas grew their business by exploiting a gap in the market

Jacky-Goliath

Jacky Goliath

“None of us came from rich families so we had to grow it out of our own pocket and I also had to wait for the business to be big enough to actually pay my salary.”

Vital Stats:

  • Entrepreneurs: Jacky Goliath and Elton Jefthas
  • Business: De Fynne nursery
  • Website: www.defynne.co.za
  • Start-up story: Started as a part-time activity with 1 000 plants.
  • Growth: Today it is a 22 hectare farm and the business is still growing.

Jacky Goliath and Elton Jefthas’ story begins when they spotted a business opportunity in selling fynbos. Their part-time business of selling and growing fynbos and indigenous plants was run out of Jefthas’ backyard, but it couldn’t keep up with the market demand. Once their side job paid more than their actually jobs they decided to create De Fynne nursery.

Goliath and Jefthas eventually moved their nursery from the backyard to a 0.5 hectare piece of land in 2005. Three years later they needed additional space to keep up with growing demand and to host 600 000 plants, so they moved once more to a 1.5 hectare property.

Today, they employ 22 permanent workers and produce indigenous potted plants, fruit trees and other ornamentals for the local horticultural and agricultural industry. To keep up with the constantly growing demand they had to move to a commercial-grade 22-hectare site.

De Fynne nursery now supplies plants to retailers such as Woolworths, Massmart and Spar, as well as landscapers, commercial farmers and wine estates

Related: Reel Gardening Warns That Innovation Is Never Easy

Christine Mbabazi show us how to profit off your own talent

Christine-Mbabazi

Christine Mbabazi

“My friends saw me and saw I was uniquely dressed at parties, weddings and even at work. So the word spread and the demand grew.”

Vital Stats:

  • Entrepreneur: Christine Mbabazi
  • Start-up story: Christine Mbabazi started her fashion journey making clothing for herself.
  • Growth: Her clothes were featured during the Rwanda Cultural Fashion Show.

Christine Mbabazi’s journey began when she decided to make her own clothes so she could look unique and interesting. Her friends saw her designs and convinced her to start selling them. Soon clients would come knocking on her door, asking for her creations.

Eventually Mbabazi had to expand into a store to keep up with the orders. She is still in the early stages of her world domination, but that is exactly what she plans to do. She is strategising to become a household name in Rwanda, and sell her clothing all over the world.

“The brand is promoting African fabric and African designs, with my creativity, and developing it for the rest of the world,” says Mbabazi.

Patrick Ngowi believes; if opportunity knocks, answer

Patrick Ngowi

Patrick Ngowi

“It was a business on the side, nothing serious, but I loved the fact that I was making money and I was becoming a bit independent. The very foundation of the little success I’ve achieved was formed during those years. I learned about profit and loss, about margins, about marketing and hiring the right people– I learned so many things at that stage.”

Vital Stats:

  • Entrepreneur: Patrick Ngowi
  • Business: Helvetic Solar Contractors
  • Website: www.helvetic-group.com
  • Start-up story: Started as an entrepreneur at the age of 15, earning money on the side during high school.
  • Growth: Ngowi is now Chairman of the United Nations Global Compact in Tanzania.

During his gap year, Patrick Ngowi discovered that cell phones in Asia were cheaper to buy than in Tanzania. Ngowi bought cell phones from low-cost manufacturers and sold them to the Tanzania’s gadget enthusiasts for a profit. At the tender age of 18, Ngowi’s first start-up made USD150 000.

At the time, Tanzania’s national power grid met about 10% of the population’s electricity needs. This meant that most companies, government agencies and wealthy families depended on electrical generators. While Ngowi was selling low cost cell phones and traveling back and forth from Hong Kong and China he learnt about solar panels and renewable energy.

He realised another business opportunity had presented itself and Ngowi wasn’t going to let this one pass either. He founded Helvetic Solar Contractors, to help Tanzania manage its energy crisis. Ngowi’s little start-up went on to become the Helvetic Group. This company would go on to install 6000 rooftop solar systems and branch out into Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

Helvetic Group partnered with The Climate Reality Project and Ngowi spoke alongside Al Gore at the first ever Climate Reality Leadership Corps in Africa.

Related: Fake It ‘Til You Make It: How These 10 Entrepreneurs Did Just That

Zainab Ashadu reveals how profitability can come from your roots

Zainab-Ashadu

Zainab Ashadu

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to dream big, but start small.”

Vital Stats:

  • Entrepreneur: Zainab Ashadu
  • Business: Zashadu
  • Website: zashadu.com
  • Start-up story: Zainab Ashadu started her business in 2011 out of a tiny workshop
  • Growth: Her company now sells her handbags locally and internationally.

Zainab Ashadu started a sustainable luxury handbag company, which specialises in handcrafted leather pieces. Ashadu uses locally sourced materials including leather, exotic skins and rough cut semi-precious stones.

Ashadu produces her luxury handbags out of a workshop where her team is able to benefit from traditional techniques passed down through generations, by a community of local artisans.

She sells her handbags via her company’s website and supplies products to a selected number of boutiques. Ashadu’s brand has spread internationally to London, Paris and the USA, elevating awareness of Nigeria’s beautiful craftsmanship.

Alex Fourie reveals how to turn skills into profitability

Alex-Fourie

Alex Fourie

“Initially, it was when I was solving my own problem. Then it was when I posted my first CapeAds ad and my phone rang 15 times on the first day. I thought that there might be a business here.”

Vital Stats:

  • Entrepreneur: Alex Fourie
  • Business: weFix
  • Website: ifix.co.za
  • Start-up story: Alex Fourie started his entrepreneurial journey with no capital.
  • Growth: Now the company has 11 stores across South Africa.

Fourie’s entrepreneurial journey started when he wanted to fix his iPod. Eventually, his friends started coming to him for help with the same problems he’d experienced and soon he was repairing devices out of his dorm room in Stellenbosch.

Today, his weFix national chain of stores repair on average 10 000 Apple and Samsung products a month. As a result of the high influx of tech related customers, the weFix stores now host in-house product lines. These stylish wooden device casings and accessories are branded Houdt. The weFix stores also host mobile charging stations called RiCharge. Fourie exports both product lines into 12 African countries.

He also offers iSureFix, an affordable protection plan for Apple products and uFix, a DIY Apple repair kit. Fourie believes: “Excellence isn’t a result of one or two good decisions. “It’s a result of thousands of small, good decisions. A bunch of above-average decisions will culminate over time. Everything you do, do it well and the rest will sort itself out.”

 Read more on Alex Fourie Here.

Nicole Crampton is an online writer for Entrepreneur Magazine. She has studied a BA Journalism at Monash South Africa. Nicole has also completed several courses in writing and online marketing.

Lessons Learnt

5 Steps To A Multi-million Dollar Business Before 30

If you want the multi-million dollar business price tag, you’d better be ready to work for it.

Nicholas Bell

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Turning your idea into a multi-million-dollar business before you hit 30 may sound impossible, but with the right attitude and commitment it’s just a long-term goal that you can achieve with the right mindset. Everything in life, from age to business success, is just a number – it’s what you do with that number and how you get there that really counts. Creating a company that has this hefty price tag isn’t easy, but here are five steps you can take to make it less of a dream and more of a reality…

Passion

This point cannot be emphasised enough. You need to be passionate about your idea and to be prepared to work 24-hour days, seven days a week, 30 days of the month to make it happen. Hard work is pretty much the only way that any business becomes a so-called ‘overnight success’. In fact, a quick Google search will reveal that most companies touted as quick wins and huge overnight success stories have had people labouring behind the scenes for years.

Related: How To Go About Making Your First Million

You also need passion for your customers and clients. This is critical. In fact, passion for your customer should come first, followed by passion for your idea. Don’t forget that your customer is the only reason why your business will succeed.

Scale

It may be that you have the passion for your idea, but you also need to mix in a dose of realism. Is the idea scalable? Will the business grow? Is your idea really big enough that it could achieve a multi-million-dollar success? If your idea has that potential and scale, then you’re on the right track, but you need to be absolutely honest with yourself, set specific targets and be prepared to adapt. Which leads to point three….

Adaptability

The idea that first had potential should not be the one that sees you past the multi-million-dollar finish line. You need to be open to reinventing your business model at each phase of development and growth because each one of these phases will introduce new challenges and demand different approaches.

Stubborn refusal to change your idea may work in movies or on increasingly rare occasions, but the reality is that every idea needs to be polished and refined by customer need, feedback and demand.

Failure

I fundamentally disagree with the idea that failure is a benchmark of success. You don’t need to see your business implode five times to say you’re successful. No. It is the ability to adapt and the willingness to adapt that defines success. Don’t be precious about your ideas – some work, some don’t.

Related: 11 Secrets Of South African Entrepreneurs On Making It To The Top

Just be ready to identify the ones that don’t work because people who cling to their ideas often fail. That level of failure isn’t a sign that you’re on the path to millions, it’s a sign that next time you embark on a new business, you need to redefine your adaptability.

That said, every business is going to have a few failures. These don’t need to be earth shatteringly huge – small failures can be extremely beneficial in fine tuning a product, understanding customer requirements and truly taking advantage of opportunities.

Planning

It may sound tedious and repetitive, but there really is no way of getting around having a plan. You must define where you want to go (multi-million-dollar business), how you plan to get there (the market, the customer, the growth plan), and the measurements that define your success.

The last point is crucial – set short cycle goals so you can regularly determine if your business is still on track. These allow you to plan accordingly, make far more insightful decisions, and maintain a pragmatic approach.

Incremental goals not only refine the overarching strategy, but they give you the chance to recognise the smaller successes. It’s fantastic to have the multi-million-dollar vision, but set yourself short goals that allow you to taste success. The saying that success breeds success isn’t wrong. Allow yourself to build a highlight reel that showcases achievements along the way otherwise you run the risk of losing sight of the vision and the motivations behind it. Your multi-million is the final destination, but there is no reason why you can’t appreciate the moments along the way.

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Lessons Learnt

Striata Founder Mike Wright Gives Top Advice On Going Global

Mike Wright launched Striata in 1999 from his converted garage in Kensington, Johannesburg. He was 30 years old, with limited capital, and had resigned from his job as MD of a leading web design firm to follow his dreams. To get started, he rescheduled his bond and provisional tax payments, and started working on his big idea. These are his lessons in high-level growth, and the do’s and don’ts of international expansion.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Mike Wright
  • Company: Striata
  • EST: 1999
  • Turnover: In excess of $10 million (+-R120 million+)
  • Visit: striata.com

Striata is a R120 million+ business that operates across South Africa, the Americas, Europe from a base in the UK, and Asia. Launched in South Africa in 1999, founder Mike Wright reached a point where the only way he could grow the business further was to go offshore.

Expansion in the US has been extremely successful, and Mike moved to the UK with his family to spearhead European growth. The business’s efforts in Australia have been less successful however, and a second office has since opened in Hong Kong to service Asia Pacific. Here are Striata’s lessons on international expansion — what worked for them, what hasn’t worked, and how to approach new territories to guide your business’s success.

Learning from the ground up

Mike Wright’s first piece of advice to any entrepreneur looking at international expansion is not to rely on statistics. “In my view, statistics don’t work for the individual,” he explains.

“You can be successful and be doing the opposite of what the statistics say should work, or you can do exactly what the stats applaud and still be struggling.

Related: How Travelit Makes Travelling Affordable For Small Businesses

“If you’re thinking of expanding beyond your borders, hopefully you are already successful in your own market. We reached a level of success and maturity in South Africa that led us down this path. Along the way we’ve learnt that when you enter new markets that aren’t in the business landscape you know and understand, all bets are off. Past achievements don’t guarantee future success.

“You need to look at your business, what you offer, your differentiators, strengths and weaknesses, and use those to determine your go-to-market strategy, based on intensive research into the markets you’re entering. You need to know how and why people do business, and who they do it with, in all the territories you’re looking at.”

In each of the three territories they entered (Australia, the UK and the US), Striata sent pioneers — people they knew, who had worked with them or knew them, and who understood who and what the brand stood for — to spearhead the new international offices.

There’s a fundamental choice you have to make when you launch a division in a new territory: Employ a local with an entrenched network, or send someone that you know shares your values and company culture,” says Mike. The most obvious way to tap into an established network is to find a local partner, or purchase a local business. The downside to this strategy is culture. “The bedrock of a successful business is a shared company culture, but fundamentally you can’t change people. If you go the acquisition route, you need to be absolutely sure you have cultural alignment, and too often it’s only once you’re in business together that you realise you don’t.”

Striata opted for door number two: Supporting individuals from within the organisation to spearhead international growth and building networks on the ground.

“Building a network takes time. You need to attend conferences and networking events and make meaningful connections. We saw this in action in the US. Our pioneer was very good at growing his community and leveraging contacts. The US is a large, mature market, and no one cares where you’re from as long as you deliver. We had a product to sell, not just a concept, and a track record. The right person, market, timing and opportunity aligned for us, and our launch and subsequent growth was successful. We didn’t gain traction overnight, but there was a market for our services, which is the biggest hurdle.”

The strategy worked well in the US and the UK — but not that well in Australia. “We learnt the hard way that the Australian business market is built on long-standing relationships, and it’s a difficult market to break into as an expat.”

As a result, Striata invested more in the market that was working. From 2005 to 2008, US growth was a top priority. “We hired more people, attended conferences and ensured we had a good product with exceptional back-up support and account management. Not every decision will be a win — even when you’re accustomed to getting things right. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and focus on what is working.”

Pulling together the threads of success

mike-wright-striata

According to Mike, Striata’s South African success was based on a simple formula: To successfully run (and grow) a business, you need to keep moving forward — hire the next person, make the next contact, add new partners where applicable, run a good business with a good team that’s focused on execution. You also need a good product, back-up support and account management.

“The minimum level of all these parts working together allows you to service your customer. The maximum level creates a customer who loves you and gives you more business,” says Mike.

“There isn’t one secret to success. You need to get lots of little (and big) things right. A minimum level of service requires repeatability, a focus on service, references, and a good product. The problem is that when you think most of them are ticked, you end up finding one you ignored.”

For Striata, that has not been people. The company’s senior team are all veterans of the business. “A business becomes easy to run — and infinitely more scalable, especially across multiple territories — when your core management team have been with you for a long time. We value our team, offer the right rewards, create wealth for them and give them a career path, and we have the foundation of a phenomenal business.”

However, before you can get your people, systems, processes and service right, you need to start with a product and a business model.

“When I launched Striata I knew I wanted a business based on annuity income. I’d been MD of VWV Interactive, a web design company, and in my 18 months there I’d learnt that when your business is built around projects, you’re either snowed under with work, or scrambling for your next project. I did not want to pursue that business model.”

Prior to VWV, Mike was employed as an accountant at Coopers & Lybrand (pre- PwC), where he was part of their Computer Assurance Services. This was the beginning of computer auditing. “The Internet had come along, and we needed a website. I straddled tech and marketing, so this became my project. Next, we developed eTaxman, a form that calculated your tax return online. It went viral before the term viral even existed. I was on TV, at conferences and on the radio talking about eTaxman. Coopers was at the top of the game and experts in the ‘Internet’.”

The exposure brought VWV knocking. A team of brilliant young designers, they decided they needed more structure in the business. Being 28 and tech savvy meant Mike qualified for the position. “They were the best in the business in terms of creative design, but they needed to build a business around those capabilities as the market shifted to eCommerce,” he says. “It was a fantastic 18 months, but I realised I needed more — I wanted to build something of my own.” At the time, Mike was at the forefront of what corporates could do with tech, and how the Internet was changing the way companies did business and interacted with their customers. “I was looking for a gap, and concentrating on where there were — and weren’t — already players in the market.” Paying attention led the young entrepreneur to a key question: Who was handling corporate focused emails?

Related: 21 Inspiring Quotes About Success, Persistence And What It Means To Be An Entrepreneur

“Corporate South Africa caught on to email quickly — it was an excellent way for companies to communicate with customers and constantly tell them what they were doing, and how they were building a better online experience. The problem was that a corporate exchange server can’t handle 100 000 messages in a queue, particularly when that bulk message could delay the CEO’s very important email. We needed to provide a service that could deliver personalised bulk emails.”

With his idea in hand, Mike’s first move was to ‘take a loan from the taxman’ by delaying his provisional tax payments. “I spoke to SARS, acknowledging the debt, and they charged me interest. I wouldn’t recommend this avenue to everyone. You have to be extremely disciplined to pay it off as agreed, and the interest was high, but it worked for me.”

He also reached out to his network, and secured some corporate funding. It was enough to hire a techie who understood email. “We bought a license for ‘list-serving’ software that allowed for personalisation, and entered the market with our solution.”

Since pre-launch, Mike has consistently asked himself these two questions: What do we do/sell? Is there a market for that? “The secret to any business success is being able to take an idea or concept, put it together, connect the dots and get someone else to pay for it. Then you need to ensure you can repeat what you’ve just done, and that you have access to the resources you’ll need to do so. Build it, sell it more than once, and then iterate. That’s where you create value.”

The foundations of growth

There’s a second set of questions Mike asks himself, and these are the foundations for growth: Where are my constraints? What’s stopping me from getting to the next level? “Within our first year, it became clear that not being able to make changes to the licensed software was constraining us. We needed to be more flexible. If you have your own code, you’re in control. Ninety percent of competing software solutions do the same thing. It’s the 10% that gets you the job — you need that 10% to be exceptional, and you need to own it.”

In Mike’s own words, to create the complex and ground-breaking products that Striata is built upon, you need a ‘serious’ rocket scientist. Luckily, Mike knew where to find one — he just needed to wait out the one year non-solicitation he’d agreed on when he left VWV. The second it was over, he approached Nic Ramage to join the business.

“Start-ups generally can’t afford the top experts in their field, even with VC backing, so you need to get creative,” says Mike. “Nic was up for the challenge, but he also came on as a partner and shareholder. If you really want to attract top talent, you need to give them the right incentives.”

From year two Striata started making money. Mike says, “It may be ‘old school’ but whether you have funding or not — or perhaps even more importantly if you do — I believe you must pay your own way by becoming profitable as quickly as possible.” Trained as an accountant, and growing up with a parent in the financial services sector, Mike admits he’s no gunslinger. His approach to business is conservative, and he hates unnecessary risks. But he’s also very focused on growth. “You need to do the work, bill your clients, pay salaries and then put what’s left into R&D. As our development team grew we needed to fund this from normal operations. Perhaps this constrained our growth, but we built a stable base, which worked in our favour when we started focusing on international expansion.”

Striata has chosen to stay focused and niche. “We’ve built up domain experience. It’s tough to be a mile wide and a mile deep — you have to choose between being a generalist or a specialist. We’ve chosen specialist. But, this doesn’t mean we haven’t added new solutions to our overall offering.

“We recently introduced a secure document storage solution in the Cloud — like a document vault. Online archiving and storage is the second leg of our product set. Our differentiator has always been security. All documents we send or store (such as bank statements invoices and insurance policies), are encrypted and password protected.

“We’ve learnt to listen to our customers. That’s how we grew from emails to encrypted documents. Then we realised they needed a way to store documents, so we built a solution to that. We’re also clear on the fact that we do message delivery — not only email. Our model is being ready for the next mode of communication. We need to have solutions before our customers ask for them.

“Our value proposition is to enable communication as an efficient customer service and an engaging customer experience. There’s more interaction between companies and customers than ever before. The actual protocol might change (email, SMS, WhatsApp), but our product is communication. We can go deep within this niche area of expertise.”

Striata’s plan was simple: Develop the secure attachment market in South Africa, until it become a de facto standard. By focusing on a need and creating the right products to address it, while adding functionality customers could benefit from, this is exactly what happened.

“The first time we offered an encryption service was for Diners Club statements. Their parent company, Standard Bank, also liked the idea and issued an RFP.” And this is where Striata moved up a level — its competitors were IBM, who were going to build a similar solution, but hadn’t yet, and an international company, ACI, who had no track record in South Africa.

“We were ahead of the curve, and this secured us the Standard Bank project. We were local and we sold the hell out of our software and capabilities.” Today, Striata counts a number of South Africa’s top banks as clients.

Related: The Mindset Strategy From The “Rock Star” Coach Can Turn Your Beliefs Into Results

International expansion

From 2004, Mike aggressively sought growth avenues. His five-year-old business was established, and servicing much of corporate South Africa. “There are two ways to grow: Add a product to sell to your current clients, or look at new geographies. We did both.”

There are a few major points that work in Striata’s favour. “Our currency gives us a margin that international competitors can’t match.” That said, many other international tech companies, including Amazon, have set up development hubs in Cape Town to take advantage of local skills and the exchange rate.

Second, South Africa operates in the same time zone as the UK and Europe, so tech support is only a phone call or email away.

“When we started looking overseas, we were a relatively young software company that had a software as a service (SaaS) offering. We knew we had the capability to sell anywhere and everywhere, and we had a cost advantage based on the rand exchange rate. We had the ideal business model for international expansion, we just needed to gain traction.”

By 2008 Striata — and Mike in particular — reached a crossroads. The US was growing, the Australian business was struggling, and the UK presented a fantastic opportunity, yet many deals just didn’t close. “I realised I could make a difference in the UK market. South Africa had a strong, established team. I wasn’t needed there anymore to continue the day-to-day operations of the business.” Mike has spent the past nine years in the UK, and travels between all of Striata’s operating territories. “We’ve got a good base, but we’re just getting started. Communication is shifting so quickly; we have to stay on our toes to ensure we’re the ones spearheading new solutions and growing our markets.”

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The Make Up of Makeup: How One Entrepreneur is Changing the Cosmetics Industry

Energetic, enthusiastic and fun are three words to describe Alina Lucía Imbeth Luna. But her favorite words are organic, vegan and cruelty free. They’re the backbone of her Medellin, Colombia-based cosmetics company, Pure Chemistry. Learn how this chemist and engineer is revolutionizing the cosmetics industry and read about her advice for future entrepreneurs.

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What is Pure Chemistry?

Pure Chemistry is a company that invents, manufactures and sells beauty products directly to the consumer. What makes us stand out is that we are certified organic, vegan, and cruelty-free.

Many companies say they do no testing on animals, but we go one step further. None of our processes or ingredients has any animal components. Ingredients from animals are common in the cosmetic industry but for us it is not an option.

If it’s common, how do you avoid using them?

For virtually any synthetic or animal ingredient, there is an organic, plant-based alternative.

Collagen, for example, is an animal protein that we don’t use because there are vegetable alternatives that give us better results.

As for honey, we don’t take honey away from bees, we use cane honey.

So for whatever reason people have, be it religion, ethics or they just decide not to use a product that has ingredients that come from or are tested on animals, they can come to Pure Chemistry.

Related: Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

Many companies use the word “organic,” but you are “certified organic.” How is that different?

We are proud to have the Ecocert certification. Ecocert is an international entity that has a standard for the definition of what’s considered organic cosmetics.

To get certified, ingredients need to come from renewable resources, manufacturing must be environmentally friendly, packaging must be biodegradable or recyclable so it’s not just about the product, it’s also the packaging and the production of all our ingredients.

Certification, for us, is very important. I could tell you right now that I am Hillary Clinton, but if I don’t show you an I.D., you won’t believe me, right?

That’s why it’s important to be certified.

How are your products tested?

Our products are tested on people because they are made for people.

We have a testing club at Pure Chemistry. Many are from our University and are chemists and physicists as well friends and customers who volunteer to test our products.

People call all the time about being in our new product test group and we pay no one for testing.  This is very important to us so people are honest about the product and their results.

What is your team like?

We are a company of women and everyone has their own expertise.We all have some authority roles over our own specialties but there are no hierarchies here. The business model is a circle. We all support each other.

We have no set schedule. Our team comes to work when they need to – at the time that they need to work. You don’t have to be sitting here doing nothing if, at that time, there is nothing to do. It works very well for us.

Our customers are also an important part of the Pure Chemistry team. Since 2015, many new product ideas have come from clients’ requests. They write to us, send us messages, and we keep a list.

People started requesting, “Please, we need a toothpaste,” and we said, “Let’s work on a toothpaste.”

Others wrote, “Please, we need a product in a size that can go in a carry on bag at the airport,” so we did.

We mean it when we tell our clients, “Your comment, message, suggestion won’t be in vain.”

How hard is it to develop your products?

As a child, you don’t think about having to make money to do this and that.

For me, product development is like that little girl inside me that wants to experiment.

It’s fun, but not easy. It took us almost six years to develop a shampoo to make sure it did not have sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate, the quickest, fastest, and cheapest way to make shampoo. It took us that long to get a product that would comply with the organic certification and one that you could use on both babies and adults.

We also have to think ahead. When we started developing nail polish, we also needed an organic nail polish remover, one that was also not flammable so it can easily be shipped internationally. Now we have a patent pending water based nail polish remover.

We are always amazed and encouraged when something that we came up with is working for someone. They write things like “I love this product. I love this company. I love you guys.” It’s very heartwarming.

This is what makes me get up in the morning.

It’s creativity with a purpose.

What advice do you have for other women entrepreneurs?

 Don’t just make a business plan and wait. Entrepreneurship shouldn’t stay on paper.

There should be no excuses. Go for it. Be willing to make mistakes. As long as you are clear about where you want to go, there are many ways to get there.  You can make a mistake, you can fall, a million things can happen.

 Examine and redefine your goals as you learn from your mistakes.

Related: Funding And Financial Assistance For SA Women Entrepreneurs

What advice do you have for little girls?

I would tell any little girl or boy, “Start by writing it.” Write about what you want to do, what you dream about.

As years go by, look to see if that was just a kid thing, a whim, or if it was really a dream. As you grow up you forget that as a child you wanted many things, but if you write them down, it will give you something to look back on.

For me, I can say, “Look, I wanted to be a scientist, and I did it!”

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