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Lessons Learnt

Johannesburg Fresh Produce Market: Kgosientso Ramokgopa

Johannesburg Fresh Produce Market CEO and 2008 Boss of the Year, Kgosientso Ramokgopa, speaks to Juliet Pitman about leadership, vision and winning.

Juliet Pitman

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Kgosientso Ramokgopa of Fresh Produce Market in Johannesburg

You’vebeen named Boss of the Year 2008. What does this mean to you?
It’s incredibly gratifying, particularly becauseit’s an affirmation of my leadership style and a vote of confidence from mypeers, colleagues and staff. It’s also important to me because it highlights toother young people the possibility of achieving anything you set your mind to,provided you pursue your goals with passion, commitment and focus.

What,to your mind, are the qualities of a great leader in business?
Leadership is about articulating the vision and forging acommonly-shared view of the future, and then being able to communicate that insuch a way that people at all levels within your organisation can understandand internalise it. To do this, I think you need to be able to anticipate thefuture and formulate a vision of the company’s position in that future.

It’s also important to remember that yourcharacter becomes associated with an organisation, so if you are cold anddistant, that will play itself out in the company and the people you lead. Ifyou are approachable and fair, those characteristics will filter down to alllevels. Finally, I think it’s important to live by the values you subscribe to.This creates consistency because people know what to expect from you.

Howwould you describe your leadership style?
I stronglybelieve in the wealth of collective ideas and in the richness that is to befound in diversity, so I’d describe my leadership style as inclusive andcollaborative. Having said that however, once I have consulted with allrelevant parties, considered all factors and made a final decision, I stick toit with absolute commitment.

What is the most challenging aspect of yourjob? Making tough – but necessary – decisions. The unpopular decisions areoften the right ones and they need to be made. When I took over here thecompany was unprofitable and we needed to close down a number of operationsthat were bleeding the organisation. Doing so was necessary to the overallhealth of the company, but that didn’t make the decision easy or the choicepopular. Retrenchment is always the last option and it’s always a tough periodto get through.

Howdid you manage that difficult time?
I always try toremember that people are individuals, not statistics, and need to be treatedwith dignity and respect, no matter what their position in an organisation. Thetea lady might be low down in the business hierarchy, but at home she is amother, household manager and decision-maker. My mother was retrenched when wewere growing up and I’ve never forgotten how we struggled afterwards. I try tobear that in mind and balance it with the need to make choices that are rightfor the company.

Whatdo you enjoy the most?
The huge diversity in thepeople who work here. Getting to know them individually and interacting withthem.

Wasthere any person in particular who served as a role model or mentor to you? My mother – undoubtedly. She was a black woman from the rural areaswith no education, but she raised eight children and instilled in us a respectfor the value of education. From her I learned resilience, humility, collectiveresponsibility and the importance of respecting other people.

Whatare you most proud of having achieved? Turning theorganisation around and putting it on track to meet its objective of being thebiggest, and the best, fresh produce market in Africa. Achieving our goalsrests on having the right people in place to operationalise the vision and I’vebeen very lucky to be able to put together a team of people who are the best intheir field.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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.

FedEx

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This article originally appeared on FedEx Blog.

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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Communication Skills To Succeed In Business

Article by Nicky Lowe, Wits Plus Lecturer in Business Communication.

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A Scientific American blog about the role of luck in success mentions the popularity of magazines such as Success, Forbes, Inc., and Entrepreneur and argues that we can learn to be successful by reading about successful people:

There is a deep underlying assumption, however, that we can learn from them because it’s their personal characteristics – such as talent, skill, mental toughness, hard work, tenacity, optimism, growth mindset, and emotional intelligence – that got them where they are today. This assumption doesn’t only underlie success magazines, but also how we distribute resources in society, from work opportunities to fame to government grants to public policy decisions. We tend to give out resources to those who have a past history of success, and tend to ignore those who have been unsuccessful, assuming that the most successful are also the most competent.

While not discounting the role that luck, or family inheritance and reputation might have in success, consider the massive role that good communication skills play in success. For example, if you cannot express yourself well, your proposal will be unsuccessful. If your business plan is full of grammar errors, then even if the financials add up, and you can show a past history of success, you are less likely to get the funding you’re after.

Related: A Business Lens For Learning And Development

There are many daily examples where stronger communication skills would have made the difference between success and failure. If a junior data processor bypasses her line manager to ask another manager for help with entering a batch of data in a different format, but is not clear about the batch names, she is unlikely to be successful in getting her job done. Jumping ranks will not go down well in corporate hierarchies, for starters. Moreover, if she lacks the corporate know-how to avoid this faux pas once, she is likely to blunder several times, thus generating the impression that she is disloyal to her own line manager and not a valued team-player. On the other hand, the lack of clarity in her emails can very effectively be overcome by improving her business communication skills.

Effective business emails need to be short and to the point, with very specific detail, especially if a request or instruction is given. The reader cannot be expected to do anything if they do not know what is actually being requested. It may be a simple case of giving the label names of the data batches, as in this example, but often managers grumble about staff being incompetent or lazy when the problem is their own poor communication skills and inability to use email effectively.

The best part of this solution is that it does not rely on luck. We all have the innate ability to improve our own communication skills. For those who want to improve their communication skills mindfully, there are short courses that take only a few hours a week for a couple of months that will give them insights into well researched theories and techniques so that they can apply these strategically in their personal and professional lives.

Related: Personalised Learning Is Optimised For Your Needs

In the reading about luck, talent is defined as “whatever set of personal characteristics allow a person to exploit lucky opportunities” and talent includes “intelligence, skill, motivation, determination, creative thinking, emotional intelligence”. These skills are highlighted in the Wits Plus Effective Business Communication short course to equip our students to make the most of opportunities. Studies have shown that the most talented people are not the most successful in life, but that luck and opportunity may play an unseen role in that success. Excellent communication skills are key to making the most of opportunities and breaking through to success!

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