When asked what his advice would be to aspirant entrepreneurs struggling to get their business ideas financed, Fulton Ramaphakela, winner of the Best Emerging Entrepreneur category in the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Awards, answers, “Business is not about getting finance.
You can start with nothing; it will take time to build but you will succeed. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get finance – just around the corner is an opportunity.” It might be glib advice were it not coming from someone who started a business with nothing and built it into an industry leader in just 10 years.
Today Ramaphakela is CEO of Moloko Group Holdings, a company that started as a computer hardware supplier, but has grown into a group of diverse businesses, including Moloko Information Systems, Vimba Security, iSource and AssetCARE. Big name clients include Stats SA, Spoornet, the Departments of Education, Health and Transport and the South African Post Office.
Ramaphakela, who always dreamed of owning his own business, says he was inspired by his electrician father who ran a small township business.
But starting up wasn’t easy: “I resigned from my job and took 30 days’ leave. I had an offer from another company so I knew I had 30 days to make the business work, otherwise I would have to go into employment again.
During that time, all I had was my last salary and I wanted to sell computer hardware, so my biggest challenge was how to get finance.” With nothing other than his business idea and enthusiasm, Ramaphakela was turned away by many financial institutions, but he dealt with this set-back with characteristic optimism.
He realised he didn’t necessarily need finance to purchase computer hardware; he could still make money by getting suppliers to supply his clients and getting the clients to pay the suppliers directly. He himself took a commission from suppliers.
While the solution he hit on sounds simple it hinged on two vital ingredients: Ramaphakela’s ability to sell the idea to suppliers and his ability to instil a sense of trust in all parties. “I won’t lie to you and tell you it was easy.
I did a lot of pushing,” he explains, adding, “At the time, I didn’t have established relationships with any suppliers or clients and I knocked on every door I could think of. I would show the suppliers proof of order and get the clients to change the order into the supplier’s name if necessary.
Eventually they realised I was for real.” The Sandton Town Council was the first organisation to take a chance on him and Moloko Information Systems was born. Looking back on the early days, Ramaphakela laughs, “I was a one-man show making deliveries in a Polo I couldn’t afford to pay the installments for.
At one time I really had to duck and dive and try to delay the bank’s repossession of the car, but I have no regrets.” Dogged determination paid off and success has followed quickly in its wake. Effectively Ramaphakela turned a challenge not only into an opportunity but into an advantage as his solution meant he didn’t have to carry any capital risk himself.
“I always tell the following story to illustrate how entrepreneurs look at problems differently,” he explains, continuing, “Two people walking down a street notice lots of rubbish lying around. One comments on how dirty the place is and how the people living there don’t look after themselves properly.
But the entrepreneur sees an opportunity and goes about setting up a rubbish collecting business.”
It’s an attitude that has contributed immeasurably to Moloko’s growth and success. Vimba Security was started when Ramaphakela realised the armed response market in the townships was wide open and ripe for the taking.
When clients indicated their need for an asset management service, he started AssetCARE without any financial knowledge or expertise. Not all his risks have paid off, however, and Ramaphakela is quick to point out that he has started business divisions that didn’t work. “The trick is to know when to cut your losses and call it a day on an idea that isn’t working,” he says.
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