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Women Entrepreneur Successes

5 Top Lessons From Vimala Ariyan On Building A High-Growth Start-Up

Starting a business takes guts, focus and determination — and a lot of hard work. But get the basics right, and you can create something that makes a real difference in society.

Nadine Todd



Vimala Ariyan

Vital Stats

  • Player: Vimala Ariyan
  • Company: Southern African Institute of Learning (SAIL)
  • Est: 2005
  • Visit:

It took Vimala Ariyan 12 years to build the solid foundations her business needed to become a high-growth organisation. Launching a business with the fundamentals in place lays the ground work for future growth.

Here are Vimala’s five top lessons in high-growth start-ups.

1Know your product, market and industry

There’s a time-tested rule when successfully launching a start-up: Do what you know. For many people, this means not only studying a particular discipline, but working within the industry before choosing the entrepreneurial path.

Vimala Ariyan spent 13 years as a school teacher before branching out into adult education. “I realised I no longer wanted to teach syllabuses and methodologies that kept changing, and which I had no control over,” she says.

With so many South African adults lacking formal qualifications, Vimala knew that she could make a real impact in adult training. She entered the world of adult education when she joined the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). SAQA, together with the three Quality Councils (QCs), advances the objectives of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF).

Related: Funding And Financial Assistance For SA Women Entrepreneurs

Qualifications and unit standards are registered with SAQA on the NQF in ascending order from levels one to ten. The aim of the NQF is to upskill people by providing learning opportunities to previously disadvantaged South Africans who were denied formal education and training.

“Unit standards are the building blocks to a full qualification. When a learner meets all the unit standard outcomes, they achieve competency and are awarded credits for that unit standard on the NQF. A learner can gradually work towards a sector-specific full qualification by achieving clusters of unit standards.

“The system allows you to do your training in stages, and because all results are logged on the NQF, lifelong learning is promoted. One can continuously build skills and knowledge throughout one’s life.”

Be strategic about expansions

The Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) accredit training and quality assure the delivery of training providers, making them the operational arm to SAQA’s strategic one.

Through her new role at SAQA where she co-ordinated SETAs, Vimala was exposed to how courses were developed, accredited, and delivered. After she left SAQA, she worked as a consultant at a SETA and this experience gave her the operational insights she hadn’t previously had. It became clear to her that there was a big gap in the market.

“Training providers who operate at grassroots level faced many difficulties and challenges rolling out training according to SAQA and SETA prescripts. I was one of the fortunate few who had worked strategically and operationally, so I understood the disconnect.

“I also know that where there’s a challenge, there’s invariably an opportunity — if you can find a solution. I saw this as the ideal chance to accredit my own training institute, create my own courses and make a real difference to employed and unemployed adult learners.

“I had experience in how qualifications were designed, the accreditation process and facilitation of learning. I knew I was equipped to provide an excellent service — for which I knew there was a need.”

2Have the commitment to see your vision through


Vimala isn’t afraid of hard work.  For many years, she had no life outside the business. But that hard work paid off in the long run. Vimala built foundations that have formed the bedrock of sustainable growth — and it all started in her dining room, with a laptop and a small Lexmark printer.

“I have the greatest respect for that printer,” she laughs. “It printed so much course material; I don’t know how it kept up.”

Vimala developed much of her course material. “I knew that this was an area where I could differentiate myself, but it would take a lot of hard work. Courses were my products and I needed to build my product offerings.

“In the initial stages of the business, I designed and developed all of my programmes as it was too expensive to outsource. As the business grew, I contracted material developers who were subject matter experts, to quality assure and write new material.

Have fewer, but larger customers

“At the outset, I targeted municipalities as they have a broad spectrum of needs. I realised that a single provider who could cover most — if not all — of those needs would have a clear differentiator.”

Today, SAIL offers over 50 qualifications, and 500 short courses, all accredited with SETAs across sectors and industries. 17 of the qualifications and over 300 short courses are aimed at local government.

It was a full year before Vimala was able to employ an administrative assistant. She worked as a Training and Development consultant to pay the bills and bring cash into the business while she developed courses, got these accredited and grew SAIL’s product offerings.

Related: 10 Successful SA Women Entrepreneurs’ Top Advice On Balancing Work And Family

3Focus on securing excellent referrals

Referrals are everything. This is true for established businesses, but it’s essential for start-ups. When you don’t have a track record, how do you convince clients to test your services? You need work to get work.

“Fortunately I had a strong education and training background, but I still needed to break into the industry,” says Vimala. “I was knocking on doors and getting nowhere. The business desperately needed a client to start up — so I set out to find clients… even if they didn’t pay me.

“I offered training to three big organisations at no cost to them. I got to pilot my programmes and, much to my satisfaction, now had a few organisations as my references.”

High quality work is sort after by more than just your clients

Vimala’s big break came when the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) agreed to a free training programme. “Not only did the DBSA ask me to set up their training academy based on the work I’d done for them, but they referred two big clients to me. I was in business.”

To date, SAIL has trained people extensively in the public sector. “This has become our niche. Our referrals in this sector are excellent. We’re known for overcoming obstacles, being dependable and going the extra mile. Training doesn’t stop after you leave the classroom; there are admin processes to follow. We ensure that the follow-through happens.”

4Find smart ways to market your product

Different products and services require different marketing strategies. In the case of training, Vimala has discovered that experiencing how SAIL approaches education is the strongest marketing tool they possess.

“We partner with local organisations, municipalities and government initiatives to offer free workshops to target audiences. For example, at a women’s day event we hosted, we gave 150 delegates vouchers for a workshop on entrepreneurship to experience a sample of our national certificate in New Venture Creation.

“We’re ticking two boxes: We’re giving back, because there’s value in even a small sample of the course, and if we get delegates signing up for the full programme, that’s a good ROI for us. We’re passionate about training, and always give a few free seats in most of our training sessions to unemployed individuals who cannot afford training.”

Develop strong relationships to expand your reach

Vimala and her team have many innovative ways to generate business beyond this marketing tool. “Due to a high standard of delivery, we’ve developed good relationships with various organisations across the country.”

“SAIL has earned a strong reputation among the nine SETAs within which it operates. We know which areas they are focusing on, where they have identified skills shortages, and where the focus in future training will be. This allows us to prepare and pitch programmes to meet identified skills shortages.”

SAIL runs public courses and has a yearly calendar set up for enrolment. The SAIL e-Learning Department was recently launched. Learners can attempt accredited learning at their own pace and convenience. SAIL has also added a strong social media campaign to its marketing strategy, focusing on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn to generate inbound leads.

Related: How Women Entrepreneurs Can Change the SA Business Landscape

5Increase your revenue streams

As a start-up, your most important strategy is your go-to-market plan. For Vimala, this was developing as many accredited courses as possible to increase SAIL’s product offerings.

As a business grows, however, it is necessary to diversify its revenue streams. “We’re now focusing on the corporate sector, and increasing our presence there,” says Vimala.

“We will always target our niche, the public sector, but the bureaucracy of government organisations means we are often only paid 90 days after invoice. We’ve had to manage our cash flow carefully to make this work.

“Diversifying into the corporate sector helps our cash flow and opens new opportunities. It’s a different sales model, and we need to spend time showing the value of our solution. Corporate clients have different needs and expectations, and we’ve adjusted our model accordingly.

“The strategy is working well for us. We’re also aware that e-Learning is the future, and it allows us to reach new audiences and learners — even growing beyond our borders, which is a big focus for 2017.”

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt

Vimala’s biggest lesson came when a US organisation expressed an interest in acquiring SAIL. “It was only during the due diligence that I realised what we had: A wealth of qualifications, a huge learner database, and an excellent pool of facilitators on our books. There’s great value in all of those areas.”

But the due diligence also exposed gaps in the business. Most notably, working ‘in the business’ was preventing SAIL from achieving its potential as a high-growth organisation.

“I’d been so busy working in my business that I failed to work on it. The years spent developing the Institute gave us a clear differentiator, but it was now time to take a step back and work strategically on the business itself.

“That’s how you shift from start-up to a sustainable growth organisation. In the past two years, SAIL’s business strategy has been to reach our goals faster.”

Vimala and her marketing team network extensively to grow their client base. She is a member of the Women Presidents Organisation and a certified WeConnect supplier (an international organisation that links female suppliers to corporates).

“SAIL is constantly upgraded and upskilled with the latest innovations and technologies within the training environment. We now have a business consultant on a full-time retainer to help scale the business.

“We’ve put systems and processes in place, implemented a proper marketing strategy, and hired the necessary staff to build a robust business. We currently have 20 full-time employees and aim to increase this to 35 by 2020. Over the last two years we’ve grown by 25%, thanks to a strong focus on sales and marketing. Strong foundations and a new focus have geared us for the future.”

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

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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