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Bandwidth Barn: Odette Potter

Cape Town-based business accelerator gives entrepreneurs the space to grow

Monique Verduyn

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Odette Potter of The Bandwidth Barn

Odette Potter’s dream is to help others achieve theirs. The enthusiastic manager of the Bandwidth Barn, a business accelerator which provides support and infrastructure to small and medium sized ICT businesses in the Western Cape, joined the organisation in 2002.

She brought with her an in-depth knowledge of financial management. “Working with entrepreneurs and watching them grow has been the most fulfilling experience. It is amazing to be surrounded by people who have the courage to start their own businesses,” says Potter.

The Barn tackles the E-Myth – the fatal assumption that people who understand the technical work of a business must also inherently know how to run a business that does that kind of work. Sooner or later they realise that just as they invested time and energy in learning their trade or profession, they also need to acquire business development skills and learn how to effectively manage and grow a business.

“One of the main objectives of the Bandwidth Barn is to help entrepreneurs overcome these challenges,” Potter says. “We provide the best possible environment to enable opportunities for success and because we face the same challenges and stresses as any other business, we are able to understand the worries faced by our tenants.”

The Barn, a subsidiary of the non-profit organisation Cape Information Technology Initiative, started in 2000. Today, it is recognised as the most successful business accelerator of its kind in South Africa. The organisation supports companies by reducing the cost of overhead services through its shared office environment.

It also offers business development programmes to equip tenants with all the skills required to move from start-up to profit-generating stable companies.When the Barn opened its doors, a 64k Diginet line cost in the region of R6 000 to R7 000 per month. The costs were prohibitive and meant that start-ups had little or no access to technology, a factor which inhibits growth in today’s Internet economy. The Barn was launched in response to the need for affordable bandwidth and started out with 17 tenants sharing a 192k line.

“We received a grant of R1 million once only,” says Potter. “Because of that we have had to be creative. As a non-profit organisation, we have had a break-even philosophy from day one. What it costs us to run the Barn is what we cost out.”From its humble beginnings, the Barn’s turnover in 2006 was R71 million and its tenants included companies like Obsidian, IT Web Informatica and online success story Bizcommunity.

In 2002, global IT company Verizon became its chief corporate sponsor. Its achievements are most likely attributable to the fact that The Barn is unique in South Africa. In addition to 24/7 connectivity, it also gives entrepreneurs quality office space and professional reception services and presentation facilities.

All of these vital services are reasonably priced as a result of economies of scale. Potter notes that a fixed address also gives the Barn’s tenants the added advantage of stability, which means their own clients can feel secure about contracting with them. The Barn’s mentorship programme pairs new business owners with experienced business coaches who have done it all before.

“If one of our tenants is keen on taking their business global, we team them up with someone who has had the experience of doing that successfully,” saysPotter. But one of the Barn’s most important offerings is its entrepreneurially supportive culture.

Entrepreneurs can get lonely and afraid, something that the Barn addresses by providing a networking environment that gives tenants access to a vibrant community of fellow entrepreneurs. “It’s a place for like-minded people at different stages of their business,” says Potter.

“It provides a natural space for information sharing and support.”To become part of the Barn, a business must be in the ICT sector, be able to pay the bills and submit a business plan that includes current projects. The Barn has interventions aimed at different stages of a business, from enabling start-up and establishing stability to facilitating growth. Potter measures success by monitoring sustainability. “64% of our companies are still in business after five years. Given that 80% of businesses fail in their first year and many more drop off in their third, our successes are remarkable.” Contact: +27 21 409 7000; www.bwb.org.za

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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