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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

AnaStellar Brands Founders Top Tips For Taking On Entrenched Competitors

Launched in August 2016, AnaStellar Brands has seen strong growth over a short period. According to founders Anastasia Dobson-du Toit and Michelle Dateling, success depends on getting the fundamentals right.

GG van Rooyen




Vital Stats

  • Players: Michelle Dateling and Anastasia Dobson-du Toit
  • Company: AnaStellar Brands
  • Est: 2016
  • About: AnaStellar Brands is a female-owned South African company, with a focus on the development, marketing and sale of innovative brands in the FMCG, cosmetics and pharmaceutical sectors. All of the company’s brands are manufactured and packaged within South Africa.
  • Visit:

Anastasia Dobson-Du Toit, a qualified pharmacist with a BCom degree and Michelle Dateling, an optometrist, met while both were pursuing an MBA at Wits University in 2010. Anastasia had spent years working in her family’s pharmaceutical company, which was eventually sold to a multinational. Michelle, meanwhile, was working as an optometrist and also has a stake in an optometry business. A few years after successfully completing their MBA degrees, both were looking to start a business.

“Initially, there were six of us — six ladies who had been in the MBA programme together. We all felt that there was no gain in simply getting an MBA. We needed to actually do something with it, so we decided to start a business together,” says Michelle.

As often happens, though, several members of the group withdrew for one reason or another, until eventually, only Anastasia and Michelle were left. Having exited the family business in 2014, Anastasia was ready for a new challenge and Michelle was also keen to venture deeper into the realm of entrepreneurship.

The industry they settled on was a challenging one, but also one that Anastasia was intimately familiar with: Pharmaceuticals. They launched AnaStellar Brands in 2016, a company that produces consumer health products that target the body and its functions in a holistic way.

“We make use of a mixology of targeted ingredients in a safe, cost-effective and convenient way, ensuring continued compliance and thus effective results. Our products focus on the nutritional requirements of women throughout the various stages of womanhood, including prenatal supplementation,” says Anastasia.

Related: Funding And Financial Assistance For SA Women Entrepreneurs

Of course, making inroads into an industry that is incredibly competitive and heavily regulated isn’t easy, yet the company has enjoyed impressive growth over the last 18 months. How did the founders manage to establish and grow their start-up so quickly? Here are their tips for taking on entrenched competitors.

1. Focus on what you do best

“We focus on the development, marketing and sale of products.” says Anastasia. “We don’t manufacture anything ourselves and we don’t handle things like warehousing and distribution. When we launched the company, we knew that we wanted it to be a South African businesses — that the money should stay in the country and stimulate the economy here. However, we also realised that we didn’t have to manufacture ourselves in order to accomplish this. There are plenty of South African businesses with the necessary capacity, just hoping for the business. So, we focus on the development and branding, which is where our strengths lie and contract the rest out. Trying to manufacture on a large scale when you are a small start-up is just too costly.”

2. Don’t give your company away

“Bootstrapping a business isn’t easy, so saying no to funding can be hard. However, you have to be very careful when it comes to taking outside funding. Although people were offering us money for something that didn’t truly exist yet, we decided to rather fund the business ourselves. Equity is cheap when a start-up is young, and a founder can end up regretting giving a big chunk of the business away. Also, you can quickly find yourself in a situation where you are no longer your own boss. If at all possible, fund the business yourself,” says Anastasia.

3. Know your market and customer

“Although we only launched late in 2016, we had spent a lot of time researching and preparing before this. We analysed the market carefully and really looked at our competitors. We tried their products and took photos of shelves in stores. We knew exactly what the market looked like, and we knew how we wanted to position ourselves by the time we officially started doing business,” says Michelle.

4. Build intellectual property

At the end of the day, all you really have is your brand and your IP, so you need to focus on those when launching your business. You need to know exactly what you want your brand to be. You need to sweat the details. Logos, packaging and marketing materials are important.

You need to stand out and you need to be able to compete with large multinationals. We spent time and money on good packaging, for instance, even creating boxes that are printed on the inside. This adds to cost, but helps build the brand,” says Michelle.

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

5. Have a clear marketing strategy

“A start-up doesn’t have the marketing budget of a large business, so you need to be strategic and targeted in your marketing. We decided to recruit a sales force to target the doctors who would prescribe our products, instead of spending money on traditional marketing campaigns. This was a strategy that really worked for us. You need to look at what the most cost-effective marketing solution is for your business. A young business needs to see a great ROI when it comes to marketing, otherwise it isn’t worth it,” says Michelle.

6. Protect your IP

“A good lawyer can be expensive, but it is absolutely worth the investment. You need a lawyer to look at any contracts you sign, and you need someone who can help you to protect your IP. Too many start-ups launch without worrying about IP. By the time they come round to it, it’s often too late. Get a good IP lawyer and protect your brand from day one,” says Anastasia.

7. Hire carefully

“As a start-up, we hire a lot of young and inexperienced sales people who we train and help grow,” says Anastasia. “The problem with this, however, is that you can spend a lot of time and money training someone, and then quickly lose them to a bigger company once they have gained some experience. Make sure that you aren’t simply training someone for the competition. Hire employees who are committed for the long term. It’s even worth including a clause in employee contracts that state that employees need to repay the cost of training if they leave the business within a certain period.”

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

VP Of SAB and AB InBev Doreen Kosi Explains What Drives Success

When SABMiller and AB InBev merged in 2016, two organisations known for exceptional systems, processes and a winning attitude became one. Incredible growth and an enduring long-term vision are proof that the right culture can go a long way. Doreen Kosi unpacks the personal success mindset that drew her to SAB, and reveals what it means to be a part of a winning team.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

  • Player: Doreen Kosi
  • Company: SAB and AB InBev
  • Position: Vice President: Legal & Corporate Affairs — SAB and AB InBev, Africa Zone
  • Visit:;

Anything is possible

If you put your mind to it and ask for help when in doubt, you can achieve any goal you set for yourself. As a leader, you don’t need to always have all the answers. That’s why we build strong teams made up of specialists in their fields; we all need to learn from each other. I’ve found it’s important to steer your team, but also to be led when necessary. Ultimately, real success is achieved when we work collaboratively.

Quick collaborations build solutions-orientated teams

doreen-kosiSAB/AB InBev has an open plan office culture. As an exco member, I don’t have an office, I have a desk. In my previous positions, I’d arrive at my office, close the door and start working. Since joining this organisation, I’ve realised how collaborative it is to work in an open plan environment. Instead of sending emails to discuss setting up meetings, you can address an issue then and there, in five minutes, and find a solution. It encourages team members to reach out, share thoughts and ideas, find solutions, make immediate decisions and move on to the next challenge or task.

Related: 15 Wise Insights From 15 Entrepreneurial Icons

Partnerships drive success

Beyond your own organisation, when you work with the collective you stand a better chance of succeeding. More minds are better than one because they bring about diversity of ideas and ways of doing things. Surround yourself with positive people and support them as well.

When you build partnerships between corporates and SMEs, you increase the chances of leveraging off one another, learning lessons, sharing risks and driving shared success and growth. When you all grow together, your impact on job creation and improving lives increases. But, it’s important to take ownership and be accountable for your own actions and results. When you do this, you have a collective commitment to improve the lives of more people in more communities, and also to build communities by developing people and creating authentic and sustainable jobs that can be measured.

Top players encourage best-of-breed behaviour

When everyone is working side by side, and you have an office full of top performers, the bar is constantly being raised. You’re exposed to best practice and you start shaping your own behaviour accordingly. Don’t hide your stars. Expose their way of thinking and doing things to everyone around them. Pay attention to what top performers are doing around you as well — what can you learn from them, and how can you adjust your own style to get more done?

Top performers are drawn to winners

Long ago SAB and AB InBev made the decision to focus on cultivating a winning culture, and it’s worked. This is a company of winners and owners. It’s a place where results and personal goals are aligned. There’s an overriding culture that if you’re focused on results and have personal accountability, you cannot fail. There’s a huge amount of focused energy when you walk through the doors of any SAB/AB InBev office around the world, and it’s because of this. When you create an organisation of winners, other winners want to join you.

The result is a team of high performers drawn to each other, all pushing each other to greater heights. If you don’t accept mediocrity, if you’re driven by the exceptional, and you build your teams with people who hold the same values, eventually, you’ll attract more of the same individuals.

Related: A Great Time To Be A Woman In Business

Understand your personal philosophy and live by it

ab-inbevIf you want to build a team of winners, or join one, you need to be disciplined in your goals. You need to strive to manage yourself well in all aspects of your life, and to be emotionally intelligent. I have a dual philosophy I live by. Make decisions, stick by them and live with the consequences; and ‘lift others as you climb’. This isn’t my original quote, but I believe in it strongly.

Hand-in-hand with self-discipline is resilience

One fundamental truth that experience has taught me is that successful professionals and entrepreneurs are resilient and not shy to get up when they fall. They pull themselves together and start over again, no matter how many times they fail. Never give up. The less successful are those who give up when things get tough.

Believe in yourself

There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. The one pulls people towards you, the other is a turn-off, so be careful how you build and embrace your confidence, but whatever you do, believe in yourself. To the point above, it’s how those who fail get back up and try again. Understand your worth. Never sell yourself short. Self-motivation is key. I think it’s clear that I believe in the value of teams and partnerships, but you can’t add value to a team if you aren’t confident in your worth and what you bring to the table. Confidence also opens up many possibilities.

When you’re confident, the possibility of people warming up to you and being open to supporting you are very high. And don’t forget: Success is hard work. Work hard, be authentic, persist and develop a thick skin. Things won’t always go your way.

Personal growth is key if you want to be successful

Never stop learning. If you can, learn something new every day. Concern yourself with what is going on in your surroundings and recognise the phenomenon of global citizenship. SAB/AB InBev has such an incredible growth and innovation culture that we drive within the organistion, but ultimately it starts with the individual. For example, we have a global Best Practice Programme.

Any team can submit a ‘best practice’ solution, and if it’s tested and is better than the current solution, it will be rolled out across the organisation. It means we are all constantly looking for ways to improve our systems and processes, we focus on innovations, and we’re competitive. But most importantly, you can’t develop best practice solutions if you aren’t personally focused on growth. The two go hand-in-hand. We learn all the time.

Knowledge evolves and we cannot stop the hands of time. Networking opens new possibilities and ideas and builds contacts from which you could benefit. When your networks expand, you have a bigger pool of resources and support. This works for both individuals and entrepreneurs.

Related: Before Time In Soweto – The Décor Hire And Catering Entrepreneurs That Are Growing Their Business Annually

Simple steps to successful entrepreneurship

Doreen offers her top tips for building a successful career and business:

  • Define your own success and become a champion of your own dreams.
  • Clarity breeds action. Identify what you want to do. Do a proper due diligence of the market and identify gaps carefully before you start up. Have a clear idea of how you want to close those gaps and convert your idea into a bankable business idea.
  • Keep your idea simple and do not shy away from repeating the same actions until success is imminent.
  • Have the courage to get started. You might not get everything right but do start anyway because unsuccessful aspirant entrepreneurs fail, along with their ideas, for fear of acting on their dreams.
  • Have a game plan: Be realistic about your idea and craft a solid strategy around it before execution.
  • Map out a measurable execution roadmap and keep it in constant check.
  • Focus: Do not become distracted at all costs.
  • Always go back to basics and ensure constant relevance of your plan. Use the time to ensure that you are ready to adapt when the need arises.
  • Recognise stumbling blocks and understand them for what they really are.
  • Use your fear to your advantage: Embrace your fear because it will take you out of your comfort zone.
  • Find positives in negatives and work on them to reach your success.
  • Be ethical and fair in your dealings with others.

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Relax Spas Founder Noli Mini Shares Her Insights On Building A Business Of Value

While Relax Spas is all about rest and relaxation, the business itself is the product of hard work. Founder Noli Mini explains how she got her unique business idea off the ground.

GG van Rooyen




Vital Stats

  • Player: Noli Mini
  • Company: Relax Spas
  • Founded: 2010
  • About: Noli Mini started in 2010 as a ‘mobile spa therapist’, going to different hotels and offering mobile spa treatments. The concept has evolved and Noli has set up bases, including two spa suites, at various hotels and guest houses.  An additional aspect of Relax Spas’ offering is to provide spa treatments at corporate offices and on corporate wellness days. She also has her own range of massage oils and is introducing her own brand of beauty and skincare products. To complete the circle, Noli will soon be launching her beauty and spa training institute.
  • Visit:

Previous experience in an industry is key

Working in an industry before launching your own operation is crucial, since it provides you with the understanding and expertise needed to successfully launch your own business. By working in other businesses first, you gain a realistic idea of what the industry is like. You also experience different environments.

You see what works, and what doesn’t. You can cherry pick from different companies and create an organisation and culture that will work for you.

Related: Noli Mini – The Full Beauty, Wellness And Entrepreneurship Package To Keep An Eye On

Know what you’re getting yourself into

Passion and a fun business idea are important, but you also need to understand the basics of launching a company.

  • How easy will it be to develop your product or idea?
  • How will you market it?
  • What sort of financial controls will you put in place?
  • What regulations must you comply with in your industry?
  • Are any licences required? What are the labour laws?

These are all questions you need to be able to answer before launching.

Build a good team around you

The combined effort of a team is almost always greater than the sum of individual contributions. Find people that can complement your skillset and bring tools to the table that you don’t have. Improving your business acumen and knowledge is important, for instance, but you don’t necessarily need to go to university to do it.

You can also increase your knowledge by surrounding yourself with the right people, particularly mentors who can guide you in both a personal and business capacity.

Create a buzz around your business by sharing your story

People love hearing stories, and I believe that just about every start-up has a great story to tell. Offering to write free editorial content for magazines is a great way to do it. Another is to speak at conferences. These strategies require effort, but they can greatly increase your reach and position you as a thought leader in your industry.

Use every single opportunity you get to market your business

You need to live and breathe your brand. Marketing is about more than spending money. You can market your business by sponsoring charity walks, wellness events and golf days in your community. Collaboration is another good strategy. There’s no better way of building a business than to get out there and shake some hands. You need to get to know people. Also, be authentic in your networking so that people get to see and know the real you.

Related: Before Time In Soweto – The Décor Hire And Catering Entrepreneurs That Are Growing Their Business Annually

Build relationships

Establishing strong relationships with your clients and business partners is of paramount importance. One way you can do this is by face to face weekly or monthly visits, depending on the demographics of your business. Another way is by keeping in touch using email or telephonically. Remember, human interaction is key. People love feeling appreciated. Also, remember that customer service is important, as a person will usually base his or her entire opinion of a business on a handful of personal interactions. So, you need to make sure that those interactions are positive. It’s all too easy to lose a customer forever.

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