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Spark Schools: Adapting At The Speed Of Scale

SPARK Schools is a disruptive educational business model that has garnered so much investor interest, its founder, Stacey Brewer, has secured R200 million in funding. Here’s how she’s turning a traditional, entrenched industry on its head to solve real problems and bring about systemic change.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Stacey Brewer
  • Co-founder: Ryan Harrison
  • Company: SPARK Schools
  • No of schools in network: 15
  • 2019 goal: ± 12 000 students and 20 schools
  • Est: 2013
  • Visit: www.sparkschools.co.za

In 2012, Stacey Brewer raised R4,5 million in her first round of funding. It gave her an 18-month runway to focus on launching her low-fee private school model, SPARK Schools. This was followed by R28 million from an international fund, the Pearson Group’s Affordable Learning Fund. The business’s most recent round of funding was a Series B round that raised R150 million in 2016, taking SPARK’s overall funding to R200 million.

“We’ve committed to having 20 schools by 2019, which will enable us to educate 12 000 children,” says Stacey. “Our investors still expect a 10X return, but it’s ‘patient’ capital, designed to support impactful business models. Educational companies are highly valued. They provide a good annuity income, but investors also love what we do because we’re focused on achieving systemic change, and funds are looking for that. More and more, funding mandates are focused on the greater good.

“This is still a business though. One school is not a business — you can’t scale it, and so there’s no growth opportunity. If you can build a network of schools however, you can benefit from economies of scale.”

Here’s how Stacey and her team are turning the traditional education model on its head, and in so doing, are providing value for children, parents and their funders alike.

If that’s how it’s always been done, it’s time to do things differently

spark-schools-growthAs a low-cost private school, SPARK aims to make a quality private school education accessible to parents who cannot afford traditional private school fees. What Stacey and her team soon learnt however, is that everyone is looking for quality, irrespective of social and economic status.

“When we started, we thought our price would be a huge selling point. We soon realised it actually switched people off. There was an assumption that you get what you pay for, and that low fees mean a poor-quality education,” says Stacey. “South Africa is very aspirational, and people want the best for their children.

Related: 4 Leadership Lessons You Won’t Learn In Business School

“We needed to reposition what we were doing and focus on the fact that our schools have a modern, aspirational look and feel, and that we deliver a quality education. Once we had driven those points home, we could discuss price. Now that we’re becoming known and our kids are our ambassadors, this is a different story, but it was very important when we launched.

“Parents vote with their feet — just being cheap isn’t enough. We’ve received the investment we have because we’ve developed a model that’s both affordable and can compete internationally.”

A full year’s tuition at SPARK for 2018 is R21 000. How do you provide a quality educational experience at a fraction of the traditional price? To start with, you need to embrace a disruptive mindset.

Stacey says ‘no’ to doing anything the traditional way, as this will immediately drive up the school’s price point, and the business will lose its ‘why’.

So, what’s the solution? “You need to embrace your constraints. It takes a special person to be involved in our team. We need individuals with a high level of accountability, and who can focus on being lean and agile. But it’s amazing what we come up with when we’re forced to think out the box. Raising our fees is the easy answer, and once you go that route it doesn’t stop. Instead, we need to be excited by the opportunity to come up with solutions given the constraints we’re faced with.

“If I hear the words ‘because this is how we’ve always done it’ or ‘that’s how it works’, I immediately know I have to change it. Too much is done simply because it’s always been done that way. If you want to change an industry, you need to find completely new solutions to the same problems.”

The big idea

Let’s take a step back to how the idea for SPARK Schools originated. Stacey was studying an MBA in Entrepreneurship at GIBS (the Gordon Institute of Business Science). During her economics lectures she discovered that although a high percentage of South Africa’s budget is allocated to education, South Africa still ranks amongst the worst education systems in the world. “I wanted to understand what was going wrong, and to research what the solution could be,” she says.

Stacey wasn’t planning on launching a new and disruptive education model, but she did need a theme for her thesis, and she wanted to address a real problem.

“I believe that all entrepreneurs should be advancing the human race. We need to question what we’re doing to change society. What problem are you solving? How are you making the world a better place? How are you making it more sustainable?

“This view meant I gravitated towards one of the biggest problems I believe we face as our country. One of my professors agreed. She liked the thesis topic, and advised me to start networking in that space. I needed to get on the map and speak to other like-minded people who were interested in education.”

Stacey took her professor’s advice, and started networking. “This was how I met our first angel investor, David Gibb, who was on sabbatical after resigning from his position as head of research at STANLIB. At the time I had no plans to start this business, which meant funding wasn’t even a thought, but I found a very supportive mentor who is very passionate about business and education.

“Dave and I had incredible discussions around the problem, and what the solution needed to take into account. I still had no concrete ideas of actually launching a school, but I was on a path that clearly showed we needed to create something completely new. Tweaking the current model wouldn’t be enough.

“The MBA and my thesis also forced me to take a deep dive into my research. I’m not sure start-ups always do this, and certainly not to the level I took it. But it’s been a very important success factor for us. The research I conducted while completing my thesis has allowed us to position ourselves very well within our market. More importantly, it helped us get from ‘what?’ to ‘how?’”

Related: Why You Need A Million-Dollar Pitch Before Your Start a Business

Thanks to Dave and Stacey’s own tenacity, she was also developing a strong network in the educational space. “Dave introduced me to the blended learning model in the US. He then offered to fund a trip overseas so that we could evaluate if the tech the blended learning model is based on would be feasible in South Africa.”

It was at this stage that Stacey asked Ryan Harrison, a tech-savvy friend from university, to join her on the trip. “I understood the educational landscape, but not the tech — I asked Ryan to join me so that he could evaluate whether or not it suited our local conditions.”

Stacey and Ryan returned to South Africa, and she knew this wasn’t just an idea or a thesis anymore. “I knew I was going to open a school. Ryan was also excited by the concept and wanted to join me. Our trip introduced us to Rocketship Public Schools, who have pioneered blended learning in the US. They were very open to us, and shared everything they’re doing. This feeds back to purpose — they want to change education and solve a real need, and they’re supportive of anyone who shares that passion. Two of their staff came and joined us when we launched, and one is still with us today.”

The lesson: Stacey didn’t start out thinking she wanted to launch a business and trying to figure out what that would be. Instead, she found something she was passionate about — something she knew was broken and needed real, innovative solutions to fix. That passion led her down a path where she learnt as much as possible about the topic, met other passionate people with ideas and solutions to share, and finally developed a model that would help her solve a societal need and drive systemic change.

Matching problems with solutions

spark-schools-logoOnce Stacey and her co-founder Ryan had their big idea, they needed to launch. A school (or more specifically a network of schools) requires capital. You can’t bootstrap a school. This is one more reason why you need an idea that will drive real change (and returns) — something investors are increasingly looking for.

“David Gibb gave us some seed funding and bridged the gap to find formal investment, and GIBS introduced us to a network of angel investors. This was how we raised our first round of funding of R4,5 million to launch our first school.”

Interestingly, raising funding isn’t just about pitching your business to investors — it’s also a dialogue between the entrepreneurs and their investors. At the end of the day, it’s in everyone’s best interests for the business to do well.

“At that stage, we were looking at buying or building a school,” says Stacey. “Our investors disagreed. Their advice was that we prove the model instead of focusing on property. We needed to focus all of our attention on the problem at hand. What makes education expensive?”

The basic premise of all innovation and disruption is starting with the problem. If you can clearly define the problem, the solution will often start to present itself.

In the case of education, particularly providing low-income earners quality but affordable education, the problem is cost. “Infrastructure and salaries are the two biggest costs. To bring down fees, you need fewer teachers and smaller spaces. You also need to achieve both while improving quality. That’s the benchmark. Once we knew that, we just needed to figure out how to do it.”

An added element was the investment component. Funders are interested in businesses that can scale. As we’ve already mentioned, one school is not a business. But a network of schools is. Once you have a network, you can leverage economies of scale, which is when investors start seeing their returns.

“Once we were introduced to the blended learning model, we realised it was exactly what we were looking for. The traditional model doesn’t support low fee solutions. We needed a different solution. I did not want to rely on donor funding.

“NGOs become too dependent on donors and end up struggling over time. They’re also constantly needing to raise cash. I want SPARK to live far beyond me. If we built it properly from the beginning, with decent margins and a sustainable price point, we knew we’d get investors on board — particularly because so many funds are now interested in creating systemic change as well.

“We quickly realised blended learning was the solution we were looking for. It’s a model that drives cost efficiencies by focusing on the utilisation of assets. It’s also data rich, which drives quality. Most importantly, it can be scaled.

“At first, we were fast followers, now we’re evolving into leaders in this space. Our delivery of quality at our price point is one of the best in the world. We never, ever throw cash at a problem. Instead, we rethink and redo the system — that’s where we know we’ll find the solutions we need.”

The lesson: Start with the right problem and you will find a solution. If you aren’t clear on the problem though, you’ll be working around it, either following existing solutions or making assumptions about what people need. You need to dig into the detail. The problems that really need solving are often complex, so learn to interrogate things from every angle.

Forget IQ and EQ, what you need is AQ

Stacey is a firm believer that the success of SPARK is rooted in her team’s AQ, or Adaptability Quotient. “We’ve gathered a team of smart thinkers who are able to adapt quickly to new challenges, based on the ingrained idea that the old solutions won’t work. The problem is that you’re unlikely to be adaptable if you don’t also have passion.

“The name for our schools comes from William Yates, who said that education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. It’s about igniting passion, and we needed that same passion to really start solving our education crisis. We want to spark a change across the country.

“I bring passion, and my team has passion and common purpose — when you have these ingredients, you figure things out,” says Stacey. “When you’re constrained, both in terms of cash and human capital, you need to be smart. We call it ‘frugal’ innovation. If you don’t throw people or cash at a problem, you really find solutions. You can also seldom cut back costings once they are there. I love a constrained environment — I see it as an opportunity.

“We had one major advantage: We didn’t have an education background, which meant we questioned everything. More importantly, it means we’re not precious about anything. We’re willing to try new things to see if they work, and if they achieve our objectives. I’ve learnt that too often, people don’t even know why they do things — they just do them because that’s the way it’s always been done.

“Infrastructure and salaries are the two highest costs we need to solve. We’ve combined two blended learning models to address this. The first is lab rotation. From Grade R, our students are in and out of learning labs. Our teachers introduce a concept in the classroom, and then the students rotate to a learning lab, where they practically work through problems related to the concept on computers. Data is gathered during these sessions and addressed. Our teachers see multiple students based on this rotation. The learning labs are run by facilitators, not teachers. At full capacity it’s a highly operational schedule, and our students are always in small, flexible groups of four to six children. Our staff cover multiple classes and are experts within specific areas.”

The lesson: What skills and attributes does your organisation need most? This may change as you start scaling, but in order to know who you need in which positions, you need to understand your organisation.


KEY INSIGHTS

Don’t do what’s always been done                       

Following an accepted industry or business practice will only help you achieve more of the same. If you really want to radically improve your business, a sector or the lives of your customers, you need to question everything.

Start with the problem                     

If you can’t clearly define your problem, you’ll never come up with a solution that suits your target market.

What’s your AQ, or adaptability quotient?                       

Forget IQ and EQ — businesses that are looking to scale need to be highly adaptable.

Scale fast, but learn faster

You’d think that finding a model that solves the cost versus output problem South Africa’s education system currently faces would have been Stacey’s biggest challenge. It wasn’t.

“Our biggest challenge has been scale. We’ve doubled our network of staff and kids every year since we launched our first school in 2013. In 2017 we had 4 000 students and 450 staff. This year we are educating 7 000 kids with a staff of over 700.

“We understood 4 000 kids, but towards the end of last year we needed to seriously consider what 7 000 kids would look like. You have to think about it before you get there. What does 20 000 kids look like? You’re going from a village to a city. There are changes, and you need processes and systems to cope.

“I personally need to grow faster than the organisation. I need to reinvent myself and my role every six months and stay ahead of everyone else. It’s imperative that leaders of organisations are self-aware and willing to improve themselves.

“I have mentors and coaches. I’ve built a network of people that I can reach out to when I have questions or challenges. I love feedback, and I’m always asking ‘what’s next?’ What does the company need from me? Today I’m less operational and more focused on strategy. What are we doing? How do we start leading our industry? Are we engaging other stakeholders?

“These aren’t only local questions. What are people doing and thinking globally? We can’t solve this by ourselves. We need other people to open schools, to offer more choice for families. People vote with their feet, and that’s good for business. I’m all for competition. The people who benefit from healthy competition in this sector are the families and their children, because it puts the power in the family’s hands in terms of choice and accountability. The problem is also so big, there’s room for multiple players.”

A big part of Stacey and SPARK’s success is the team she’s built around her. This frees her up to focus on strategy, but it also gives the business a growth foundation.

“Hiring the right people for their specific roles has been essential for us. You need to understand your organisation and its needs to get this right. At head office, we need two different types of people: Those who can build and improve schools, and those who can focus on operations and structure.

“Scale is tough on people. Things break when you’re scaling, and you want them to break quickly so that you can fix them. If you’re too slow you’ll actually miss stuff, but it takes a very specific type of person who can operate at that pace.”

The lesson: Organisations that are in scale-up mode are changing quickly. Does your team have the tools and skills they need to handle that change? Do you support them? Does everyone understand why changes need to happen quickly so that you can solve problems sooner rather than later?

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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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Company Posts

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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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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Company Posts

Communication Skills To Succeed In Business

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

Wits Plus

Published

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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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