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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+.

Company Posts

Designing Her Destiny

Oh Yay! owner, Emmerentia van den Hoven does business her way.

QuickBooks SA




In 2011, Emmerentia van den Hoven took a leap of faith when she decided to leave her graphic design job at an agency and pursue her real passion – and it has paid off tenfold. Here’s her story.

“When I started planning my own wedding eight years ago, I fell in love with wedding design and wanted to do that for the rest of my life. Designing for brands had become a set of rules rather than being creative, and I’d always wanted to work for myself. So, in September 2011, I turned my seven-month-old side gig into a fully-fledged business and launched Oh Yay!

I have to hustle every month to get new clients because every client will use my services maximum twice – first for the wedding invitations and then for the stationery on the day – so I don’t normally have returning clients.

Because my main business is seasonal and usually once-off per customer, I have branched out into branding for small businesses in the beauty and lifestyle industry. I also earn a passive income through the Oh Yay! online shop where I sell wedding décor items.  Oh Yay Kids – my other online store – is my passion project. I launched it just before my second child was born, adding items to the store that I made for my two boys when I saw a need for it. I then expanded into prints for nurseries and kids’ party stationery.

I work for myself and have no employees, so the fact that QuickBooks lets me load all my services, products and prices in one place makes running my business so much easier. Being an entrepreneur is difficult because you don’t know if you’ll be successful or not. But if you believe in and love what you’re doing, it reflects in your work and the service you give.”

Less admin, more of what you love


When Oh Yay! was launched, along with her dream of being an entrepreneur, came the nightmare of other administrative tasks. But that changed in 2018 when Emmerentia started using QuickBooks.

“When I was using spreadsheets to balance my books, I was spending 80% of my time on admin, which left very little time to tend to customers’ orders. I now spend no more than 25% of my time on admin, which is important, especially when it comes to the speed at which I send quotes. You don’t get any work if you don’t send out quotes and it’s tough to juggle the admin with your actual job of running the business.

Numbers were never really my strong point, so having a professional quote done in record time not only projects professionalism, but the format also changes the way new clients see me. In my industry, the quicker you can send a quote out, the likelier you’ll get the clients’ business. It gives legitimacy to my business. The QuickBooks system operates so seamlessly that clients communicate with me differently, like I have my own accounting department, when in fact, I’m a one-woman-show.

I used to dread doing admin, but now it’s so easy and quick. I’m not just saying this – QuickBooks changed my life.”

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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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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Owner Of Nouwens Carpets Shares Success Lessons From Running A 50 Year Old Family Business

Embrace technology every chance you get.

Nadine Todd




A company that’s been active for more than five decades in an industry that’s hundreds of years old doesn’t sound like a recipe for innovation — and yet that’s exactly what Luci Nouwens, owner of Nouwens Carpets, is focused on.

The modern carpet has a history that goes back thousands of years. And despite the hipster trend of reclaimed and hard wood flooring, the carpet still remains a popular choice for consumers.

In South Africa, a name that’s synonymous with quality carpeting is Nouwens. When Cornelis Nouwens arrived in the country in the 1950s, bringing the skills of a trade which he had mastered alongside his father in Tilburg, the hub of the Netherlands’ wool textile industry, he passed on the skills and the love of the craft to his family and to workers in the Harrismith region in KwaZulu Natal.

More than 50 years after her father started it in 1962, the company remains family owned, and is headed by Luci Nouwens, who has been with the business for 48 years.

“We have maintained our reputation for premium quality all this time by paying meticulous attention to crafting standards and selecting only the finest raw materials,” says Luci. “Equally important is that we have innovated at every opportunity, embracing technology without ever compromising the traditional craftsman’s spirit.”

Innovation drives growth

Businesses that innovate are able to grow and hire more employees. As a result, they grab a bigger share of the market. That’s true regardless of the size of your business: If you innovate, you can scale up.

In 1968 Nouwens launched a pure karakul wool carpet that was extremely hard wearing and took the company into the commercial carpet market. Luci recalls the manufacturing of the carpet as “a major feat of unique textile engineering.” Another innovation in 2005 was the introduction of a totally new style of flat weave wool carpet, a very clean, minimalist and natural look requiring much less wool without compromising on wearability.

“These innovations are just two of many that have allowed the business to boost its market share over the years,” says Luci. “But beyond that, innovation has enabled Nouwens Carpets to form the backbone of economic activity and upliftment in the local community around Harrismith. This has allowed us to make substantial investment in providing education and skills development for the local population, to ensure that the craft is preserved for generations to come.”

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

Innovation enables sustainability

Innovation in technologies and how they are applied is key to enabling a manufacturer like Nouwens to create new business value, while also protecting the planet.

“We have used technology to enable sustainable manufacturing, for the benefit of the business, the community, and our customers.”

Nouwens selects equipment, materials and manufacturing methods based on their degree of sustainability and protection of the environment. The company is also a member of the Green Building Council of South Africa and submits its products for VOC testing to ensure that harmful emissions are significantly reduced.

“Ultimately, we are driven by a passion for textiles and the ability to constantly find better ways to produce beautiful products. After the downturn in the economy, we started to produce more cost-effective commercial nylon yarns, and in 2017, we became the new kid on the block for synthetic grass. The bottom line is that a true entrepreneur does what has to be done when the time comes.” — Monique Verduyn

The role of disruption in creating value

A disruptive business is a business that challenges and potentially changes the status quo. From a mindset point of view, a culture that questions ‘why’ can help foster organisational and market disruption. But disruption for the sake of disruption is self-defeating, it needs to be on the back of making things better and based on commercial principles, i.e. people or market players actually wanting to be disrupted.

The starting point is this: Does someone, or a market, value what you’re producing? If the answer is yes, you have a commercially viable disruption. Disruption that is valued by its target market has the best chance of resulting in success.

Get that right and you’ll have a customer base, you’ll gain traction and you’ll attract investors, provided you’re also making a meaningful and sustainable difference to your target market or community. — Ian Lessem, CEO, HAVAIC Investment and Advisory Firm


Team up with customers and competitors.

There’s more power in collaboration than competition. We’re stronger together than when we’re apart. When it comes to working with competitors, consider this: They may have something that you don’t, or vice versa, and 50% of something is always more than 100% of nothing. You’re then positioned to add value before you add an invoice, so your clients benefit from your relationships, and the market wins. From there, you become your client’s go-to-person, because you’re putting them first.

Customers are also a great source of knowledge: They might just have the answers you’re looking for, but are you asking them the right questions? They often know more about an entrepreneur’s business than they know themselves, because they’re on the receiving end of your offering. One way to collaborate with customers is to ask them more questions about yourselves, themselves and their clients. Harness their perspective and develop yourself to give them what they want, not what you think they want. — Wes Boshoff, founder, Imagine Thinking

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Business Women To Watch


Know what your audiences are interested in

As a brand, there are many ways to ensure your audience is paying attention to you, but you can’t expect them to find you unless you’re sharing content that captures their interest. If you send out press releases, don’t be too rigid or plain. Audiences want to be engaged, and not to have to deal with long, cumbersome information. An infographic, along with a video or pictures will make your release easier to ingest and more memorable. People don’t want boring figures, they want relatable stories.

One way to be relatable is by tapping into influencer marketing. This doesn’t mean you need celebrities with the highest followings to endorse you. Micro-influencers are proving to have just as much clout as those with larger followings. Evidence shows that micro-influencers have a more established and deeper connection with their audience, which translates to loyalty and a readiness to follow their advice. The trick is to find the micro-influencers who are speaking to the audience you want to reach.

Big data plays a key role in painting a picture of who is ‘out there’. With the right information, you can tailor your content to a specific audience. Big data can show you what topics and problems are trending in your industry, so that you can get the jump on them. Use big data to deliver your own insights on current topics, shaping and leading the conversation, converting your audience’s attention into action. — Madelain Roscher, founder and managing director, PR Worx and Status Reputation Management

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