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Women Entrepreneur Successes

7 Foundations Monalisa Zwambila Of Riverbed Believes You Must Have In Place To Build A High-Growth Company

Here’s how Monalisa Zwambila learnt to articulate her vision to propel her company’s growth.

Nadine Todd

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Monalisa Zwambila

Vital Stats

  • Player: Monalisa Zwambila
  • Company: Riverbed
  • Launched: 2007
  • Turnover: R80 million
  • Awards: Winner of the Regional Business Woman of the Year 2017
  • Visit: www.theriverbedagency.co.za

There comes a time in a business’s lifecycle when you realise you are through your start-up journey, and if you want to build a high-growth organisation, you need to put the right foundations in place.

For Monalisa Zwambila, founder of Riverbed, a through-the-line communications agency, that realisation happened in 2013, six years after she had launched the business.

“Four years ago I had an epiphany,” she says. “We had 15 employees and a turnover of R18 million. I realised that if we were ever going to get bigger, I needed to find a way to get my vision out of my head, and into the organisation. It needed to be more than just me working towards a goal. It needed to be the whole organisation working together towards a shared dream.”

Today Riverbed employs 40 people and has a turnover of R80 million, with 100% year-on-year growth. These are the foundations Monalisa has put in place to achieve this growth and they remain the foundations of where she plans to take the business.

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

1Articulate your vision and get the right people on board

monalisa-zwambila-riverbed

For Monalisa, growth had always been a constant. She had never wanted a two-man operation. But when you’re starting out, it’s not always possible to follow a clear vision. You can have a sense of purpose and fundamentals in place, but you’re also a start-up, and you’ll take what you can get to keep the business operational.

“I was MD of a large communications firm before I struck out on my own,” Monalisa explains.

“I had built a reputation based on excellence, hard work and tenacity, and this opened doors for me, and secured our first two clients. Building an ethical and best-of-breed business has always been important to me. I’m a firm believer that if you continually give your best work, something will come of it, and this is what I look for in my employees. But when you’re launching a business, you also need to be a realist.

“In the early days it was just me, formulating the firm’s strategy, and helping my clients develop the right PR strategy and events for their brand. But I needed people to implement, and when you’re starting out, you’ll take anyone. The shift happened for me when I realised that I couldn’t do it alone. I needed like-minded, great people to get on the journey with me. This would only work if they had a sense of purpose beyond just an ad agency, and I realised that it was up to me to give them that. Once I got it, once I realised that to attract and retain the right people, you need to be able to articulate your vision, it brought about amazing changes, both in the character and the culture of the organisation.”

But articulating your vision is easier said than done, as Monalisa, and countless business owners before her, have learnt. You need to be able to get your vision out of your head and into your employees’ hearts.

Do this: If your goal is growth, having the right people in key strategic areas is vital. To attract and retain the best people for your organisation though, you need a clear vision and culture that they can believe in and add value to.

2Find a clear growth path

To move from where they were, Monalisa recognised a step change was needed for the business. There is only so much room for growth for a PR and eventing agency, and so the next logical move was to become a through-the-line agency. In PR, billings are capped. The advertising space offers a bigger creative outlet, and combining these capabilities makes it possible to offer the same clients more.

“There are two ways to do this. You can either bring in heavy-hitters with a client base and expertise in a different channel to your own, or make an acquisition, and grow the business in that way,” she says.

This is true of any business, operating within any industry. If you want to grow through additional revenue streams and areas of expertise, you can build them slowly and organically, or bring in experts and an existing client base. Monalisa decided to make a strategic acquisition.

“We weren’t a big name in the world of agencies, and didn’t hold the right appeal for a creative with their own clout in the market. We weren’t attractive enough at that time for the level of talent that I was looking for. The only other option was an acquisition. The timing was perfect. The owner of Chillibush Communications wanted to sell the business and exit completely, which suited me well. I didn’t want a partnership; I was looking for new, above-the-line skills and an existing client base. Chilibush had a good reputation in the industry, and a solid client base.”

With the due diligence and an agreement in place, Chillibush and Riverbed merged. Monalisa had achieved her objective of becoming a through-the-line agency, but not without some serious growing pains.

“Chillibush had 30 people, and we had 15. It was a bit like the fish swallowing the whale. I had also debated what we would be called, and I’d settled on keeping Riverbed, instead of Chillibush/Riverbed. I had a very clear vision and purpose, and I didn’t want to dilute that, or lose focus. But it did mean that I was making the conscious choice not to keep the name of an agency that had a good industry reputation, and a larger employee base than my own. Ultimately though, I decided that didn’t matter. There would be teething pains — and there were — but it would be worth it. I just had to stick to my vision.

“It was a challenging time. I was clear about the upside, but it was still challenging. Today we are stronger. We’re clear about our purpose, culture and drive, and what we’re trying to deliver on, but we did lose people during the transition. I learnt a valuable lesson. Once your vision and culture is clear, people are able to determine if it suits them or not. If it does, you have full buy-in. If it doesn’t, it’s better for everyone to move on. It took me time to understand this, and to have the courageous conversations when I needed to. You can’t be everything to everyone. Rather know exactly who you are, and create an incredible space for people who share your vision.”

Do this: Are your decisions short-term money decisions, or long-term growth decisions? From a practical business perspective, Monalisa could have kept the Chillibush name and leveraged it to make money. But even though she believed the acquisition of Chillibush was the best growth move open to her, Monalisa had her own vision — one she worked 16-hour days to achieve. To stay true to this vision, she needed to stay true to the brand she was building. It was a long-term decision, but it’s paid off.

Related: 5 Key Tactics That Helped Gill Bowen And Tim Hartzenberg Revitalise The Shooshoos Brand

3Keep your clients happy

riverbed-south-africa

When you’re on a growth path, there’s a fine line between landing big deals and keeping your existing clients happy. This is even more true when it comes to a merger. Riverbed’s team identified the key clients from both businesses, and ensured they were kept happy.

“We needed to win Chillibush’s clients over,” says Monalisa. “We promised it would be a smooth transition — and kept that promise — plus we unpacked the value of what they could now tap into with our additional services, which was to their benefit. These accounts were key — we had higher overheads and a much larger staff complement to take care of. We also made sure we didn’t alienate existing clients.”

Do this: When you’re on a growth path, communicate with your clients often and openly. Be transparent about your plans, and any challenges you’re facing. Unpack the benefits to them, and ask for support when you need it, while giving assurances that any upheavals are short-lived. You never want to alienate existing clients that have supported you up until that point.

4Build your brand

With the right capabilities in place, Riverbed has now focused on brand building. “We’ve been under the radar,” says Monalisa.

“If we want to start securing really big deals, we need to position ourselves in the minds of the right companies. In this industry most pitches are closed tenders, and the process is managed by two or three search companies. We need to be on their radar.”

To achieve this, Riverbed has embarked on its own PR strategy, but this would have been impossible without the ten-year track record that Monalisa and her team have patiently built up.

“The market needs to know who we are. We’re competing against the huge multinationals. We don’t stand a chance unless we get our story out there. We need to let them know that we can do the job just as well, with better local insights, and probably at a better price — but it’s not up to them to find us. It’s up to us to make sure they see us, and can’t ignore us. That takes time — you need to build up a track record. But once you have, it’s time to make use of it, and show your potential clients what you’re made of.”

Do this: Build the right foundations. Most overnight successes are ten years in the making. You need to build credibility and a good reputation. You need the right systems and processes in place to ensure delivery. And you need the confidence to bid for large tenders — and win them.

5Have a purpose — and share it with the world

riverbed-south-african-business-purpose

“We’ve found that to be considered by clients, you need to share your story. People need to notice you, and want to share your story too because it resonates with them,” says Monalisa.

“For us, we’ve launched an initiative called the Greater Good initiative based on my business philosophies. I’ve always held these philosophies, but it took time and experience before I was able to fully articulate them. People and clients have approached me wanting to work with us because we always strive to do Great things for Good. They don’t always remember all the details of what I said, they just know it resonated with them, and that’s the start of the conversation. Ultimately, people do business with people, and so what you care about, and how you do business, matters.”

Monalisa’s path to articulating her vision began with her epiphany four years ago. She realised that all businesses exist within their environments, and impact the world around them. This can either be a force for good or not. “I started thinking about how we can do great things for good,” she explains. “I wanted to align all our campaigns and the clients we choose to work with to this ideal: Where is the good?

“We’ve broken this down into three key areas: Greater good for our clients, which is doing great work and asking what greater good idea can come out of that campaign, and is there a benefit to people?

“Then we look for the greater good for employees. Is there excellence for its own sake? And how do we build, monitor and recognise greatness?

“Finally, is there greater good in the communities we serve? We quantify the pro bono work we do, and we’ve already put two graduates through university. We’ve found that this philosophy gives us purpose, and keeps us all on the same page. We have a benchmark that we can measure our decisions against, and this keeps us on point and all working towards the same goals, which is essential in a growing organisation.”

Do this: Develop a clear vision and purpose, and align this with your core strategy. This gives you a clear point to benchmark all decisions against. What’s your north star and does the current decision support it? This will help you maintain focus and give you and your team fulfilment.

Lessons Learnt

  • It’s all about people. When you go through the process of a structured deal, you tend to do a due diligence on the balance sheets and income statements, but you don’t look at the people, and yet that’s what you’re buying. That’s where the skills lie. This was Monalisa’s biggest mistake – she didn’t spend enough time looking at the people.
  • Leadership is a journey. Recognise that your leadership skills are always a work in progress — and work on them. As the head of your organisation, how you lead your team is essential to your growth prospects.
  • When you make a decision, own it. Monalisa interrogates everything. However, this means that once she makes a decision, she takes complete ownership of it, and never casts blame if it doesn’t work out as planned.
  • Learn to be decisive. When you’re growing a business, you have your head down, working, working, working. And then you look up and realise how many people are now following you. This is often a rough transition for business owners, because you have to own your position — including the tough decisions and conversations that come with it. In this position, decisiveness is crucial. You can’t take time making key decisions that affect your team, business and clients. You need to be decisive.

Key Insights

business-insights

No man (or woman) is an island                

The greatest entrepreneurs recognise the importance of a team. They know that their role as leader is to articulate their vision in such a way that they attract and retain the right employees, who are ultimately able to execute that vision.

Own your decisions            

Don’t cast blame when things don’t work out as planned. Take the time to evaluate all possible outcomes, weigh your options, and then own your decisions.

As a leader, you need to be decisive, and the best way to make that a habit is to have confidence in your decisions, good and bad.

Remember, ‘no decision’ is worse than the wrong decision.

When you buy a business, you’re buying its skills and people           

Due diligence processes look at a business’s books and finances. They evaluate cash flow, current and potential clients, and growth possibilities. What is often overlooked is the core of the business and what makes it tick: Its people. Spend time getting to know the people — they could be your greatest asset, or your greatest burden.

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

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Designing Her Destiny

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

QuickBooks SA

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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

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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

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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

Collaboration

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

PR

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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