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Women Entrepreneur Successes

5 Growth Advice Secrets From Shameem Kumandan

Shameem Kumandan has gone from a small-business owner to a high-growth entrepreneur by shifting her mindset and following five simple rules for growth.

Nadine Todd



Shameem Kumandan

Vital Stats

  • Player: Shameem Kumandan
  • Company: Washtub Industrial Laundry Service
  • Employees: 87
  • Est: 1995
  • Visit:

1You need a clearly defined market

When Shameem Kumandan launched Washtub Industrial Laundry Service in 1995, it was a small operation run from her backyard in Cape Town. She needed R1 000 monthly for her five-year-old son’s ADHD therapy and so she started a laundry service for Stellenbosch students.

Her backyard operation started growing, and as it grew she found bigger premises. Within two years she’d moved into the industrial market, not because of any strategic planning, but simply because business in that sector had come her way.

“We had no long-term vision,” she says. “Each time we grew it cost us cash until we found additional clients to balance the costs. It was organic.”

Washtub was growing, but by 2008 Shameem was learning a valuable lesson. Organic growth can only take you so far. The lack of a clearly defined market expansion plan and strategy was actually becoming the business’s biggest barrier to growth.

“We would drive to Sea Point, make a list of hotels, and market to all of them,” says Shameem. “We had no knowledge of business needs, and we therefore weren’t profiling our prospective clients and finding businesses that suited our specific offering. We just took anyone who came our way.”

Related: Ocean Basket’s Top Lessons Learnt From 21 Years Of Being In Business

Know who your customers are

This had two consequences. First, Shameem and her team were wasting a lot of time and effort on unqualified leads, when they could have been targeting the right customers.

Second, they were contracting with clients whose needs and expectations were a mismatch to Washtub’s offering. This, in turn, damaged the company’s reputation and brand. Altogether, the cost of new client acquisition was high.

“Our shift came when I contracted the services of an experienced marketing director. She taught us the value of pre-qualifying leads and customer profiling. Previously, we were scrambling for any client we could sign a contract with, fighting other laundry services.” Known as ‘red oceans’, this common sales tactic just leads to blood in the water.

Focus on your top ten biggest customers

Instead, Shameem and her team started focusing on the top ten customers they wanted. “We studied the needs of those clients, created a customer-centric solution for them, and then pitched our business to them. We were no longer just knocking on doors, but actively targeting the right clients whose needs matched our solutions.

“We knew we could offer them an exceptional service, and because we were focused, we could unpack and prove this solution to them.” Through this new sales methodology, Shameem and her team signed The Westin Cape Town. “The Westin was one of our pre-selected top ten clients. It’s the cream of the crop in the Cape.”

Shameem still services a number of clients, both large and small, but the company as a whole has a much deeper understanding of which clients are best supported by their service offerings.

2Invest in growth


Organic growth is often necessary to begin with. It’s difficult to source funding — either debt or equity funding — without a track record or assets to use as surety for a loan. For this reason, many businesses are bootstrapped in their early years.

However, there comes a time when you do need to start investing in your growth, while also protecting your cash flow. For many years, Shameem poured everything she had into repayments, instead of protecting her cash flow.

Knowing what she knows now, if she could go back, she’d protect her cash flow instead of repaying loans used to purchase state-of-the-art equipment she’s invested in over the years as quickly as possible. “In 2011 I travelled to Europe to see the processes and technology available in our industry.

Save for new technology that will set you apart

“I came back with a new understanding of what was possible, and we started saving for new technologies that would not only set us apart in the industry but also help us better serve our customers, particularly in the healthcare market.

“We invested in machinery that is 100% automated; at no point in the wash cycle is linen touched by human hands, thereby eliminating any possibility of recontamination. The machinery also uses recycled water, halving the required water usage of conventional machines.”

From a competitive perspective, the machinery would differentiate Washtub from its competitors, but the way in which Shameem financed her purchases limited her growth.

“We would finance new machines, and then focus on repaying the loans as quickly as possible, pouring all our cash into repayments. I didn’t understand I was actually limiting my growth,” she admits.

“Our growth was slow because we didn’t have enough cash — I was too focused on repaying our equipment finance.”

Shameem has since learnt that managing finance doesn’t just mean having little to no debt. “Once we stopped trying to repay our loans as quickly as possible, we were able to free up cash for other things, particularly investing in marketing spend. This has made a huge difference to the business and our
growth path.”

Related: For Founder Of National Tekkie Tax Day Having A Higher (Business) Purpose Keeps Her Driving Forward

3Focus on your numbers

In every business, there are areas where money can be saved without damaging the integrity of the brand or quality of your service. In fact, in some cases those savings can enhance the overall capabilities of the business. Most importantly though, savings free up valuable cash flow that can be used to fund further growth.

“We started our eco-smart journey in 2008 when South Africa had its first energy crisis. We were looking for ways to reduce our electricity usage. As a business that ran 24 hours a day and was powered by electricity, we knew there was a serious threat to our business continuity, and that we needed to find ways to reduce our consumption.

Always reduce consumption where you can

“We started with what we could change quickly and have maximum impact, and once you’re on the journey, paying attention to your numbers, it’s incredible what you can find to reduce consumption.

“For example, we invested in a coal-fired boiler, changed the motors on our machines to variable speed motors, which use half the energy, created natural light in our warehouses, taught staff to switch off lights and conserve energy in even the smallest of ways, including boiling smaller kettles. It’s all added up to significant savings.”

The lesson is simple: Once you know your numbers and dig into the details, there are many areas where you can save in your business — which, in turn, frees up cash for growth.

4Automate your processes


When an entrepreneur starts out they are by necessity jacks of all trades. Shameem was no different. She was financier, office liaison, admin assistant, HR and sales all rolled into one. However, as the business grows, it’s essential to hire the right people and delegate these tasks so that you can start focusing on the business and strategy, instead of working in the business and performing operational tasks.

“When I applied for government funding, my network facilitator introduced me to a consultant who explained the concept of capacity building to me. It was a big shift in my mindset. Instead of thinking I had to do everything, I started thinking about how to develop policies and procedures.

“It was all in my head, and I’d been wanting to document everything, but I didn’t know where to start. She got me on the journey. Today there is a document and procedure for everything, from answering the phone and giving directions to our premises, to washing and sanitising our linen.”

Stay plug-in to your business until you reach your goals

It’s been an integral part of Shameem’s growth strategy. “You can’t separate yourself from the day-to-day operations of your business and focus on growth until all your processes are documented and ingrained,” she explains.

“Working on your business means recruiting people to execute those tasks, training them exceptionally well, while you go to work on planning, executing and achieving the business’s long-term growth strategy. It also means knowing your business; knowing your numbers and which areas can be improved upon and developed.

“Finally, in order to maintain control, policies and procedures need to be monitored carefully. Checklists are created that are ticked off daily. I insist on absolute discipline in this regard. An unyielding, relentless drive to maintain excellence in every action and choice we make has had a noticeable impact on the business, the integrity of our solutions and our growth path.

Related: The Money School Weighs In On What’s Really Stopping You From Financial Freedom

5Invest in your people and yourself

Shameem’s introduction to an external consultant opened her mind, and from then on she embarked on a self-learning journey.

“I went from a small business owner to having a much bigger vision. I started working on the business and not in it, and that required a dedication to personal growth, but also helping my people to grow.

“On a personal level, I think there’s enormous value in getting help from an external source. Often a fresh set of eyes helps place our objectives in a better perspective. I’ve learnt that the input from a suitably qualified professional is invaluable.

The benefits of multiple SWOT analysis’

“In addition, a SWOT analysis conducted at different stages of a business cycle will yield different insights. An external professional is completely objective about what products and services work or don’t work.

“As business owners, we can be emotional in our decision- making; external consultants help you to remove emotion from the equation and focus on the facts and figures.” In addition to consultants, Shameen continues to increase her business acumen through courses like EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women, an executive leadership programme for established women business owners.

Shameem hasn’t only focused on her own development though. “I’ve always been passionate about people and empowering and training them, but we’ve now taken this to the next level. Every Monday we hold training across a wide range of topics, from finances to health and safety.

Look after your employees

“As a business owner, the health, comfort and stress levels of your employees all impact their happiness, overall efficiency and productivity; over and above this, I believe we have a commitment to support our employees where we can.”

Because the business is focused on automation and innovation, a lot of processes that were previously performed manually now have a technical element, and this also takes training and educating staff, as well as managing their fears.

“We’re a manual labour intensive industry. As you automate, there are fears that people will lose jobs. Instead, the opposite is true. When we automated in 2013 we increased our staff complement by 43%. We still need people; people need to watch the machines and look out for snags. Pillowcases still need to be counted, but now they can be scanned instead of manually counted. There is less room for error, and our employees are being upskilled.”

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

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Erna Basson Of Erabella Hair Extensions On Acting The Part And Finding The Gap

Erna Basson says that building your own empire is one of the toughest things you can do, but also one of the most rewarding. She unpacks the lessons she has learnt that have helped her launch and grow three businesses into sustainable brands.

Monique Verduyn




Vital Stats

  • Player: Erna Basson
  • Company: Erabella Hair Extensions
  • Est: 2017
  • Visit:
  • Career highlights:
    • Named South Africa’s top entrepreneur under 30 for 2017
    • Global female entrepreneur of the year 2017
    • Top 100 most influential young South Africans 2017
    • Interviewing Grant Cardone — 2018
    • Opening speaker at the Mega Success event 2017 in Los Angeles.

Originally from Bloemfontein, Erna Basson has always been highly competitive. She completed a four-year bachelor’s degree in three years, while holding down several part-time jobs. She was first bitten by the entrepreneurial bug in her second year at UFS (University of the Free State). Her class was struggling with business law, so she read the text book and produced an annotated summary that she then sold to desperate students.

Today, she heads up Erna Basson Ltd, a business coaching and speaking venture; Woman Entrepreneur, a global platform empowering and educating female entrepreneurs from around the world on how they can start and scale their businesses; and Erabella Beauty Global, a premium hair extensions brand available in South Africa and globally.

On acting the part

“I was a cheerleader for the Cheetahs while I studied, and I also worked as a hostess at Cubaña,” she says. “I got the opportunity to do tons of promotions for liquor brands and that experience taught me how important it is to always be on point and professional, as the event sponsors could pitch up at any time to check on what was happening.”

Related: How To Start A Salon And Spa Business

After moving to Port Elizabeth with her now husband, Nellis Basson (who is also an entrepreneur), she started working for Gestetner and was out on a sales call at Distell when she heard the regional manager complaining about bad service from an events company. “I said to him, ‘if I can have a company up and running within 30 days, will you make use of my services?’ and he said ‘yes’. I walked into the company as an employee and walked out of the company with a new life and opportunity, and this has taught me a valuable lesson that I still follow every day. Take advantage of every opportunity, even if it scares you. You need to be out of your comfort zone to grow.”

That was one of the first principles she learnt, and which she speaks about to her global audiences.

“The bigger the problem you are solving for people, the more valuable you are to them, and the more money you will make.”

People are always searching for solutions. They will always look for better, faster and smarter ways to accomplish tasks. Erna knew that to grab her customer’s attention, she had to start by solving their problems. “If you can take a person from point A to point B, by identifying their crucial problem and then offering to solve it, you will be able to create a real business that matters.”

Another important thing happened that day. She went back to her boss and immediately told him what had transpired. “Honesty, loyalty and integrity have always been the three key pillars of my business, starting from then, and it paid off — Gestetner became a client soon after.”

She started the promotions business with no staff and she didn’t know anyone in Port Elizabeth. “I called up a friend of one of my husband’s friends and asked her to give me ten phone numbers, and then I asked each one of those women to give me another ten. I sold my Citi Golf so that I could have a small start-up fund, and then the business just took off. We got clients like SAB, MTN, Sony, Mango, Maybelline and L’Oréal. I was earning R450 000 for ten days’ work at the age of 23.”

She soon had seven permanent employees, and more than 500 promoters working on campaigns across the country. “Within a couple of years, I had created systems and processes, which enabled the company to reach its goals and function independently without having me in the business, making it a perfect opportunity to sell and move on to the next challenge.”

Finding the gap in the market

It was just before Erna got married that she came up with an idea for another venture — while she was looking for venues, dresses and décor ideas. “I kept on wishing there was one place where I could find everything related to weddings, and then I thought why don’t I create one?” That was how website and magazine Majestic Weddings was born, an online directory and monthly magazine. After growing it into a successful wedding planning tool, she sold that company in April 2017, through an international business broker, and used the profits to launch her hair extension company Erabella.

Transitioning from services to products


Erna had never run a product-based business before, but there’s a first time for everything, right? Problem is, product businesses are extremely hard to build and get traction for. They require upfront capital and investment, as well as a whole lot of excitement. Erna certainly had the latter, believing that every woman has the right to have gorgeous thick hair.

But there were some challenges:

  • The output of a service-based company is intangible, but a product-based business sells goods that customers can see and touch.
  • A services company does not have to keep goods in stock or maintain an inventory. The service is created or sold as and when the customer
  • needs it.
  • Service-based companies do not have to put up capital — they provide a service and the customer pays for it.
  • In the service industry, you have maximum control — when it comes to a product based company, you sometimes don’t have control over certain things (like a late courier, or late imports, or increase of exchange rate) but it serves as a great opportunity to apply more systems and processes to lower the risk.

“I had to buy stock for the first time. Different lengths of hair extensions, and different colours. Suddenly, I had invested more than R1 million, just like that. What’s more, in South Africa, there is a 20% import duty, which immediately raises the price of your product, making it more difficult to compete globally.”

Related: Want To Start An Import Business – Here Are The Importing Terms And Documents Involved

There was another problem too. Erna had decided that Erabella would be an online business, but it didn’t grow as fast as she wanted it to and she quickly had to change the business model. “That’s when I realised that you cannot take business personally. The minute you invest emotionally, you will make mistakes. When something is not working, you need to take immediate action and make the necessary changes. Nearly every successful company since the beginning of time has had to change strategy and direction to survive and grow.”

Reverse engineering

She also learnt about the importance of starting with the end in mind.

“If you want to make $1 million, write that figure down and reverse engineer. If my hair extensions are priced at $250, I will need to sell 4 000 sets per year, which means 11 sets a day. Instead of being dumbstruck by that big figure, I’ve now got something manageable to work with. It’s that old story about how to eat an elephant.”

Two can be better than one

Another key lesson Erna learnt was that you can do anything, but you can’t do everything. “When I started Erabella, I had one staff member in Johannesburg, and lots of competition. I had to do everything, from accounts, social media, business development and so on, but now we have an entire team in each department. The business grew too slowly and I realised that doing it alone was not going to work. I found a business partner in Cape Town, Karel Vermeulen — a very successful businessman who owns a personal care brand — and I knew we would be a great fit. I knew I could trust him with Erabella SA because he was invested, and I moved on to growing Erabella New Zealand and Australia.”

As a result of the partnership, the business is soaring. Today, Erabella hair extensions are available in South Africa, Namibia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Dubai, with Canada next on the list.

That personal investment principle is one that Erna has applied in her coaching business. People do not appreciate what comes free, she says. “If I coach you at no cost, chances are you will say the programme did not work. But if I charge $6 000 a day, I can guarantee that you will do the work required to make it a success, because you have skin in the game. You will value and appreciate the process.”

Related: The Glamorous and Sleek GHD Offices

Erna’s key principles

  1. In the words of Grant Cardone, author of The 10X Rule, follow up, follow up and follow up: ‘90% of business lies in the follow up’. “I always do, and believe that you should follow up so much that they tell you to go away, and then follow up again two weeks later. I chased a client in Cape Town for two years. When their promotions vendor let them down, I was top of mind and I got the deal.”
  2. Never focus on the 10% that’s negative; focus on the 90% that’s positive: “We all need to have bad days in order to appreciate the good ones. When a client says no, see it as a new opportunity (take the negative from the word no, and turn it into a positive new opportunity) to recreate your strategy.”
  3. When people say no, ask them why not: “If I don’t close a deal, I ask, ‘What is the reason we did not do business today? Objections are only complaints — find a solution, and you will win all the time.”
  4. Don’t ask how: “Focus on the what and the who. What do I need to do to achieve my objective and who do I need to speak to? The ‘how’ will take care of itself.”
  5. You are 100% responsible for your business: “Don’t blame the economy, the government or your staff. If you are not successful, it’s your fault.”

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Alphabet Soup Founder Nikki Lewin Discusses How They Compete With The Big Boys

Advertising doyenne Nikki Lewin reveals the importance of personal brands, living your values and finding your niche in the market.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

  • Player: Nikki Lewin
  • Company: Alphabet Soup
  • Awards (2017): MOST Awards Winner of Traditional Specialist Media Agency; MOST Awards Runner-up for Media Agency of the Year; the Adfocus Media Agency of the Year Finalist
  • Media Billings: R100 million annually
  • Launched: 2000
  • Visit:

Why did you choose entrepreneurship over a corporate leadership position?

The decision to start my own business was part of my DNA. In 1999 I was offered two media director positions of multinational agencies. I knew I wanted to make a difference and be in control of my own destiny, and that meant launching my own business instead of joining another big multinational.

It basically boils down to a couple of key factors — your appetite for risk, self-belief and knowing why you would walk away from the safety net of a guaranteed income and a defined job spec.

How are you competing against those same big multi-nationals?

When I launched Alphabet Soup I believed there was a market need for specific boutique offerings. I’d been in contact with numerous clients who wanted to work with uniquely South African companies and keep things local.

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Black Entrepreneurs To Watch

The more market research I did and the more I tapped into my network, the stronger I became of this conviction. It’s important to do that legwork before you start anything, and my experience in the industry gave me the insights I needed to be confident in my decision.

That same research revealed that we needed to offer our clients a complete, 360-degree solution, and so we created an agency that covers all aspects of advertising media — from strategy, planning and media owner negotiations, to market analysis, below-the-line, promotions, sponsorships and digital media. We also have clients that need media placements throughout Africa, and have since branched into that field as well.

This broad focus, our independent positioning, and the accolades we have received over the years allow us to be competitive, even though we are relatively small in comparison to many of our competitors. You don’t have to be big to be the best. You just have to punch above your weight.

We don’t aim to be the biggest agency, just an agency that delivers intelligent and professional media solutions. We do this by ensuring we are completely up-to-date with the latest strategic thinking in our industry, and we invest in staff training. It’s up to us to be able to educate, inform and guide our clients through key media knowledge.

How important are awards?

The topic of awards centres around whether they add real value to the business or not. In some cases you are nominated, in others you need to choose to enter. It takes time and effort to enter awards programmes, so there needs to be a strong business case for doing so.

We’ve found that the whole process — particularly winning — builds the agency’s reputation and is good for staff morale. For me however, it’s just one component of the journey.

Client longevity is critical and becoming an intricate part of their business is more advantageous to the agency’s success than any award. That said, awards do lend credibility to your brand if a client hasn’t worked with you before, but referrals and word-of-mouth will ultimately lead to business.

The MOST awards are about peer recognition. How important is this and why?


I have always set high standards, both personally and for my staff, and the same applies to media-owner interactions with clients. Our relationships with our media partners are based on integrity, respect and a mutually-beneficial relationship that relies on a cerebral output in order for our clients to have successful campaigns.

We have placed in the top three for the past ten years at the MOST Awards, and it was obviously great to win in 2017, but awards should never let you rest on your laurels. You can’t take past successes for granted. We need to continue to focus on building key relationships in all aspects of media.

Related: Watch List: 50 Black African Women Entrepreneurs To Watch

How important is a personal brand in building your own business?

My personal brand and business brand are essentially the same. I try and live to the values that are key to me and those that I try and teach my children. The values of respect, honesty, trust and integrity are paramount in my personal life as well as within my business. No matter where you are or what you do, people are always going to form an opinion about you.

My view is that you need to make sure it counts. Stand up for what you believe in, live with passion and make sure you have educated and informed opinions. It’s important that people know where they stand with you and I generally am pretty forthright in my opinions.

How do you separate yourself from the business brand, so that clients want to work with the business, and not just you?

After 18 years in the market, Alphabet Soup has become a brand in its own right, no longer ‘Nikki Lewin’s agency’. I’m just one part of it. I have a supportive team and we have earned our reputation with clients. I’m still always available to clients though, and I’m intricately involved in every aspect of the business. To be successful you need to have your finger on the pulse of your business.

I have always believed in keeping my work life and personal life separate in order to try and achieve a balance. Of course, this is not easy with two young children. Fortunately, my husband was in the advertising business early in his career and is incredibly supportive, while running his own retail and travel business.

Related: Funding And Financial Assistance For SA Women Entrepreneurs

Is it important to build a reputation in the industry before launching your own business?

I believe your reputation starts with your first day on the job and every interaction you have thereafter. It’s up to you how you manage that reputation. Respect is earned and if you are passionate about what you do and what you believe in, that transpires into your own DNA. If you’ve built a strong reputation, this will obviously give any new venture you embark on added credibility, but you can build your reputation as a start-up as well. You just need to be consistent and hold true to your values.

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Watch List: 50 Black African Women Entrepreneurs To Watch

These female entrepreneurs are breaking barriers, transforming industries and inspiring change on the continent.

Diana Albertyn



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