Eight years ago Zoe Molapisi left a comfortable corporate job in the pharmaceuticals sector to start a one-woman communications company. Today, By Design Communications Group has annual turnover fast approaching the R100 million mark, a client list that includes major brands such as Coca-Cola, Telkom and Cell C and a footprint that extends into East and West Africa.
Apart from one temporary dip, her rise has been meteoric. But ask Molapisi what she’s most proud of and she’ll tell you it’s the fact that she achieved all this without capital, connections or favours. “You don’t need patronage and a handout to succeed in business. You can do it with hard work and perseverance, by holding your head up and never holding your hand out,” she says.
Molapisi cold-called her foot in the door of her first clients — and having done so made sure she impressed. “My business was new,
I had no connections to call on and no reputation to point to. But what I did have were the skills I’d developed in corporate life, which included an ability to conduct myself well in a boardroom and to present in a slick and professional way. I knew if I could just get in front of an audience I could use the boardroom as a stage to convince people to give my business
a chance to deliver,” she says.
Learning tough lessons
So convinced were Cell C that they awarded her an 18-month contract in the business’s first year of operation, and so passionate was Molapisi about delivering that she threw all the business’s energy into getting the job done.
“I had originally hoped that the business would do R1 million in the first year but because of that contract it did R5 million. All of a sudden I thought, ‘Hey, this is easy!’” she says, “I just assumed there’d be another contract like it round the corner so I didn’t worry about driving new business. I focused on getting the Cell C job done to an exacting standard of excellence.”
But when the contract came to an end, Molapisi realised that, for more than a year, she’d taken her eye off the rest of the business. Suddenly the work dried up and the company struggled to pay its bills. “Those cash-flow constraints were the toughest challenge I’ve ever faced. Thankfully I always managed to pay salaries and I kept in touch with everyone to whom we owed money, assuring them of our commitment to pay them back,” she says.
Molapisi learned a lesson she’s never forgotten, “Be financially prudent and plan for tough times,” she says, adding, “Today we run a low-cost operation.”
It took time but eventually the business got back on its feet. “We’ve always had a drive to continually improve how we do things and this was even more pronounced after the tough times the business had gone through. I started looking at the rest of the industry and in particular noting which companies were landing the big contracts. I analysed what they were doing right, what their characteristics were and what we could do to outdo them,” she says.
As a result she brought in a highly experienced creative director and placed a laser-like focus on the company’s execution strategy. The exercise paid dividends and By Design landed a large contract with Telkom. “That was really the turning point for us,” says Molapisi.
Doing it right
The company went from strength to strength, tripling the volumes of some of its categories of business between 2008 and the end of 2010 in the midst of the recession. In 2009 it turned its eyes to Africa, successfully launching a number of big campaigns. With an office already established in Nigeria to service the West African region, plans are in place to set up a presence in Rwanda and Kenya to service East Africa.
While the continent only currently accounts for 20% of By Design’s business, Molapisi outlines “aggressive plans” to expand its African operations. “We’re in a good position to help local companies capitalise on our success in Africa and connect with African markets,” she says.
Hers are footsteps in which many an entrepreneur would like to follow, and to this end Molapisi offers the following advice: “My message to tomorrow’s entrepreneurs is simple. You don’t need government incentives. You don’t need hand-holding by some official programme. You don’t need to be well connected. You need passion, commitment and the sort of common sense that tells you to keep overheads low and service standards high. You can make it. I know… because I did.”
Infanta Foods’ Marisa da Silva On Why Scaling Is Tougher Than It Seems
Scaling a business is an important part of growth, but it can be a bumpy ride in today’s economy, and it’s easy to make mistakes. Marisa da Silva of Infanta Foods knows this and explains how she overcame it.
- Player: Marisa da Silva
- Company: Infanta Foods
- Est: 1994
- Visit: www.infanta.co.za
Marisa da Silva’s parents founded Infanta Foods in 1980. It’s a manufacturer and distributor of raw materials and ingredients for the baking, confectionery, milling and biscuit industries. Marisa joined the business in 2013, although she started working there from the age of seven and basically grew up in the factory. Her brother Alex had joined full-time three years earlier. Having completed a BCom Honours degree in business management, she brought to the family-owned business a fresh way of doing things and a keen understanding of how to do business in today’s tough economy.
Scaling up is tougher than it looks
Rapid growth can be a perilous thing. Scaling a business is tough, and it presents some serious challenges. But after Marisa completed a business coaching programme, she realised that she wanted to take Infanta Foods from a family business to a family empire. The big question, however, was how to do that with an established business that was already more than 30 years old.
Shortly after Marisa joined the business, she had a lightbulb moment — the best way to start was with a ‘cut, cut, grow’ strategy. “Coaching taught me immeasurable skills, and one of the most important was that there are always ways to cut back on costs. When I introduced that concept to the family, it was like a tinder to the flame. No matter what business you are in, the precursor to growth should be to delve into the company and look at every single expense.”
And she means every expense — from insurance fees to coffee, stationery, pens and toilet paper. “Think of the business as a ship,” she says. “If you move forward without plugging the holes that are draining your cash, the ship will eventually sink.”
In two months, Infanta’s expenses were down by 23%; the following month they were cut by a further 38%. In the third month the business began cross-merchandising and upselling, pairing a muffin mix with a pie filling, or a hot cross bun mix with raisins.
But then Marisa faced a challenge common to many businesses that are scaling up — operational capacity. “Because our growth happened very quickly, our machines were close to running at 100% capacity, so I did the sums around how many more sales were needed before we could buy additional equipment. As much as I tried to plan and forecast, things never work out in reality as they do on paper. We reached full capacity in two months instead of three. What helped was that because I had started to do the research a few months prior, we had already started to think about the buffers we could put in place. Forward planning is really essential. On the personnel side, because we were looking at new equipment, we had to restructure and reallocate the team. We also needed to start hiring. One of the problems with hiring people when you need them is that you don’t necessarily get the best candidates — you get the best candidates available at the time. Once again, we had started vetting people months before, so that exercise was not as tough as it could have been.”
Transparency is key
According to Marisa, communicating with staff was critical because when people are empowered with knowledge, they are also supportive. She let them know that the business was in a growth phase, and that she wanted the team to have an opportunity to grow too.
With operations sorted, suppliers became the next big challenge. As a business grows, it often gains much bigger clients. In Infanta’s case, the first big win was a biscuit factory in Mozambique. “We needed to ensure we had the right number of suppliers in place to enable us to fulfil the orders, as well as back-up suppliers, ‘just in case’. We also had to deal with regulations and rules of origin as we were dealing with a foreign country with its own set of rules.”
A big question she says business owners must ask is, can your suppliers provide you with what you need if you triple your business?
“When you’re on a growth curve, take a month’s purchases from a specific supplier, call them and ask them if they could fulfil your order if you tripled it in size. If their answer is no, best you make a plan.”
Marketing was also Marisa’s baby. “The business was old school,” she says. “I relooked the website, our Facebook pages, and our brand awareness. We didn’t even have our logo on the invoices.”
Working through these challenges enabled Marisa and her family to 5X the business. It now moves more than 210 000 kg of goods per week. From being purely B2C, it now also has a retail arm operating from the premises in Pretoria, and supplying wholesale products to consumers.
“We showed the market that we are able to innovate,” she says. “The fact that we are embracing new opportunities has changed people’s perception of the business. Now, when customers are looking for a new product, they will come to ask us if we can do it, because they know we have embraced innovation.”
Getting your people on board for growth:
- Establish process owners
- Define roles, responsibilities and workflows
- Make a schedule
- Focus on group deliverables over individual tasks
- Educate, educate, educate.
Watch List: 50 Black African Women Entrepreneurs To Watch
These female entrepreneurs are breaking barriers, transforming industries and inspiring change on the continent.
From creatives, to tech gurus and medical scientists, here’s how these African women have revolutionised their communities through their innovative and sustainable businesses:
- Portia Mngomezulu
- Nandi Dlepu
- Nthabiseng Ramaboa
- Ntombenhle Khathwane
- Sunshine Shibambo
- Mogau Seshoene
- Nontando Molefe
- Thato Kgathlanye
- Nothando Moleketi
- Allegro Dinkwanyane
- Sandra Mwiihangele
- Shakeela Tolasade Williams
- Reabetswe Ngwane
- Mabel Suglo
- Lucy Agwunobi
- Patience Maame Mensah
- Rachel Sibande
- Nneile Nkholise
- Nelisiwe Masango
- Sheila Afari
- Samke Mhlongo
- Kelebogile Mabunda
- Aisha Pandor
- Karabo Mathang-Tshabuse
- Zanele Matome
- Shingai Nyagweta
- Funke Bucknor-Obruthe
- Vere Shaba
- Khanya Mzongwana
- Portia Masimula
- Monalisa Molefe
- Nozipho Dube
- Rapelang Rabana
- Botlhale Tshetlo
- Lebo Mphela
- Sarinah Matema-Morgans
- Tsholo Wesi
- Theo Mothoa-Frendo
- Palesa Sibeko
- Mokgadi Mabela
- Sibongile Sambo
- Tam de Vries
- Constance Mapule Bhebhe
- Phendu Kuta
- Linda Mabhena-Olagunju
- Nobesuthu Ndlovu
- Regina Luki Kgatle
- Hlengiwe Vilakati
- Lilian Muhammed
- Bonolo Mataboge
Starting a business is not for the faint of heart, but that didn’t stop these 50 women from doing it. Across the continent, women have pursued entrepreneurship, some for the very first time at 50 years old, while others have never even been formally employed.
Watch List: 50 Top SA Business Women To Watch
Don’t miss out on these 50 female trailblazers making an impact in the South African and international entrepreneurial space.
Here are the 50 top South African business women to watch in no particular order
- Anastasia Dobson-du Toit and Michelle Dateling
- Charlotte Aubin
- Rapelang Rabana
- Lynn Baker
- Dylan Kohlstädt
- Noli Mini
- Stacey Brewer
- Nonkuthalo Thithi
- Daniella Shapiro
- Xoliswa Daku
- Lorren Barham
- Allegro Dinkwanyane
- Nadia Rawjee and Zahra Rawjee
- Karen Carr and Hanneke Schutte
- Michelle Royston
- Donna Silver and Elvira Riccardi
- Magda Wierzycka
- Jennifer Da Mata
- Thuli Magubane
- Tracy Kruger
- Monalisa Zwambila
- Keri Stroebel
- Claire Reid
- Ramona Kasavan
- Carrie Leaver and Shona McDonald
- Donna Rachelson
- Mahadi Granier
- Liesl Esau
- Prudence Spratt
- Joyce Mnguni
- Janine Starkey
- Shamila Ramjawan
- Busi Skenjana
- Benji Coetzee
- Jerusha Govender
- Lauren Edwards
- Ouma Tema
- Annabel Biggar-David
- Jennifer Glodik
- Ntsoaki Phali
- Tara-Lee de Wit
- Kim Coppen-Watkins
- Mogau Seshoene
- Andy Golding
- Lien Potgieter
- Ezlyn Barends
- Rabia Ghoor
- Katy Valentine
- Leah Molatseli
- Lynette Ntuli
“Globally, women entrepreneurship rates are growing more than 10% each year. In fact, women are as likely or more likely than men to start businesses in many markets,” says Karen Quintos, EVP and chief customer officer at Dell.
The growing momentum of female entrepreneurship can clearly be seen in this comprehensive list of 50 of South Africa’s finest. Although this movement has far from reached its peak, for those looking for inspiration, lessons or businesses to invest in, look no further than this list of female pioneers.
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