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Women Entrepreneur Successes

How Michelle Royston Took WAXIT From One Salon To Four In Under Two Years

Michelle Royston has opened four salons in under two years and this is just the beginning. Here’s how she’s bootstrapped a Wax Bar Concept and is taking it to new heights.

Nadine Todd

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Michelle Royston Of WAXIT

Vital Stats

  • Player: Michelle Royston
  • Company: WAXIT
  • Est: 2015
  • Growth: Four salons in under two years
  • Visit: www.waxit.co.za

Michelle Royston loves brands. She loves how brands can connect with people, and how they can shape an experience. If you understand your brand’s messaging, you can offer exceptional customer experiences, and, in multiple small ways, you can change someone’s life, just by making their day simpler and more enjoyable. With the right brand, you can also change the lives of your employees.

This is what great businesses are built on: An idea, a dream bigger than any one entrepreneur, and a desire to make the world a better place, one employee at a time, through robust internal development programmes.

Here’s how Michelle is pulling all of these threads together, the lessons you can learn from her vision, and how she’s taken WAXIT from one salon to four in under two years.

1Solve a problem

Michelle spent ten years in retail in the UK, and then five in eventing in South Africa. Hectic, deadline-driven schedules made it difficult to plan ahead when it came to personal appointments.

“I’d suddenly have a weekend open which meant I could finally get a wax or my nails done, except everyone was fully booked. After calling ten salons I’d end up in a little corner of a salon, squeezed behind a curtain because waxing wasn’t their focus, getting a painful, unprofessional and often unhygienic wax,” says Michelle.

“I couldn’t be the only person with this problem. Busy professionals need to be able to make appointments at the last minute, or visit their salon late in the afternoon or early evening, or early on a Saturday morning.”

Related: Why Donna Rachelson Believes The Secret To Your Business Success Lies With Women

Realising that gut feel and frustration are a good place to start, Michelle began researching local and global markets.

The results aligned with what she had expected, but now she had hard data: South Africa was one of a handful of countries that didn’t have dedicated wax salons. Throughout Europe, the UK and the US wax salons not only exist, but are popular. Armed with this knowledge, Michelle started formulating her business plan.

“When we opened our first store we launched with a 40% discount to get feet through the door; we knew we needed people to experience what we had to offer. Most came back and became loyal customers. They asked us where we had been. It really gave me confidence that we were right. We were filling a need.”

The lesson: Most great businesses are the result of a specific pressure point that was recognised by an entrepreneur who then set about solving it. Keep a notebook with you; jot down what drives you crazy, or where you believe you could improve an industry or problem.

2Find a price point that works for customers and delivers a profit

waxit-salon-south-africa

Once Michelle decided to open a chain of wax salons, her next challenge was to develop a business model that delivered value to the business and its clients.

“I started out by testing waxes. My husband was my guinea pig. I learnt how to wax so that I understood the art, and then I started testing different waxes. I settled on a wax brand that we import. The quality is amazing, and it’s pain free, which was important to me. Our entire customer experience model is designed to make you feel as comfortable as possible when you’re in the salon. We offer earphones and iPads if that makes you more relaxed, and we use the best wax available.”

But this raised a new challenge: The point of the business model was to offer affordable waxes. Pricing yourself out of the market or catering to a very niche clientele wouldn’t work.

“I experimented with exactly how much wax was needed for an under-arm, an arm, a leg, chest, back and so on. We fine-tuned it down to exact measurements and developed an online system that tracks exactly how much wax we use for different procedures. This means we can immediately see if we’re using too much. It also ensures we don’t have leakages.”

Armed with these figures, Michelle then worked out what she could afford to pay for rent, which helped her determine the size of the salon, and where she would be situated.

“WAXIT is a retail model — we will always be in shopping centres. However, we’re not targeting large retail malls like Sandton City either. The high rent would mean I couldn’t meet my margins, so finding the right centres that are well situated but not in large malls was essential.”

With all this in hand, Michelle calculated how many customers needed to walk through her doors each month to break even, and how many she needed to turn a decent profit.

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

“Waxing is interesting, because if you wax, it’s a monthly expense. It’s not a luxury that your treat yourself to, it actually forms part of your budget. If you can get people through the door and then keep them, you can develop a loyal clientele, which makes your revenue predictable. The trick is to earn each customer’s loyalty.”

The lesson: It’s almost impossible to launch and run a successful business if you don’t know your numbers. Understand your costs, where the hidden costs lie, and exactly how many customers you have to serve to make a profit.

3Develop a brand that says who you are

When Michelle was developing WAXIT she knew three things. First, she needed a name that described what the salon offered. Second, she wanted to cater to the male and female market, so the look and feel of the salons needed to appeal to both genders. And third, she wanted customer experience to lie at the heart of everything the business does.

Coming from a retail background, Michelle understands how important branding is. It’s a reflection of what the business stands for — it’s values and customer promise. Get your branding right, and employees will embrace your vision and carry it through to their interactions with clients, and customers will always know what to expect from you.

“Our clientele is 35% male, and this number is growing. We have a walk-in room, so customers can call 15 minutes before they want a wax and check if a slot is open. We also open early and close late. Our brand stands for chic, comfortable convenience, and everything we do highlights and supports this.”

The lesson: Developing your brand includes the look and feel of your logo, office or retail space, but this should serve as the foundation for a much larger vision and brand promise. Simply having a pretty logo does not deliver value to customers. At the centre of everything you do, ask yourself: What value does this offer our clients, and how will it drive loyalty?

4Be a specialist

music-waxing-salon

“I’m a specialist — that’s always been my thing. I’m successful when I’m really focused. In retail I focused on sports, and then I’d drill in even further. I’d spend time becoming the absolute expert in a field,” says Michelle. “I wanted my business to reflect this. I don’t believe in doing too many things at once. Niche brands are powerful. They become synonymous with their industries.

“I don’t believe that any one brand can do everything equally well. They might offer a lot, but there will be one thing they are really good at, and others that they aren’t. The result is that people end up going to different places for different things.”

The lesson: You don’t need to be everything to everyone. Pick your niche, focus on it, and then find ways to expand your revenue streams within that niche. By diluting your focus you can lose your way, and confuse your brand message.”

Related: Funding And Financial Assistance For SA Women Entrepreneurs

5Perseverance is key

The biggest challenge Michelle has faced is retail space. As a new brand, she struggled to get meetings with retail centres, and when she did, bigger brands blocked her from leasing space.

“The only thing you can do is persevere,” she says. “I even had a lease agreement cancelled at the last minute, which was devastating, but you can’t let it hold you back. There will always be obstacles. By persevering I have four salons in Joburg and Pretoria, and this has changed the conversation. The brand has credibility and retail centres are interested in speaking to me. I’m also working well with competitors in the centres we’re in, which proves that it doesn’t need to be antagonistic.”

Michelle also received push-back from the local beauty industry, with warnings that her concept wouldn’t work. “There’s always negativity when you’re trying something new. You can’t let it affect you. If you’ve done your research and you’re confident in your idea, go for it.”

The lesson: Entrepreneurs don’t take no for an answer. When one door shuts, they find another. It isn’t always smooth sailing, but if you’re willing to keep pushing, you’ll achieve your goals with grit and determination.

6Bootstrap your business

waxing-salon-staff

Any business can be bootstrapped. Michelle launched WAXIT with savings and a small loan from her husband. She then used the first store to bankroll the second store, and stores one and two bankrolled the third.

She approached her brother and sister for a loan for the fourth store to shorten her timeline between salons opening. To date the business has received no external funding.

The lesson: If you know your numbers and what you need to break even and turn a profit, you can ensure a positive cash flow, which in turn can fund your start-up’s growth.

7Have a higher purpose

At the core of her business idea, Michelle has wanted to positively impact her employees. “When I joined the retail space in London I was a floor manager at Lillywhites, the most prestigious sport’s store in the world. I didn’t have a degree, and my experience was limited to being the youngest manager at Sportsman’s Warehouse, where I had worked for a year after school. Lillywhites was an amazing seven years for me, largely because I had incredible mentors who taught me about retail, brands, customer service and sent me on all sorts of courses. Over the course of ten years I had run every single one of the five floors, became operations manager for the entire store and went on to open and area manage many stores across the UK.

“I’ve always wanted to pay this forward and positively impact employees who haven’t had great opportunities. Sometimes all you need is a bit of support and a mentor.”

Related: 15 Of South Africa’s Business Leaders’ Best Advice For Your Business

This ideal is at the core of WAXIT’s DNA. “My salon managers started out as wax technicians at our first store. Today they run their own teams, and focus on financial statements, how to motivate teams, drive sales, avoid product wastage and keep everyone happy and focused on superb customer service. We’ve taught them Excel, Word, statements and the basic foundations of business. Everyone needs to be able to dream and devise goals to move forward in life. These are the skills I want our employees to learn.”

Michelle’s support goes beyond business skills. She has helped her managers to learn to drive and negotiate vehicle finance. “We’ve put down deposits for some of our employees to rent flats near work. This saves on transport costs and brings them into the areas in which they’re working. Sometimes that’s all you need. We want to help our team live better, more successful lives.”

Michelle’s ultimate aim is to attract investors for the next leg of her journey to grow the WAXIT brand, and she’s actively looking for investors who understand the need for social development and who will support the passion she has for the development of young women in the beauty industry.

The lesson: At the core of any great business are a brand’s DNA, and its people. If your people are happy and engaged, exceptional customer service follows. It’s important to have a purpose. Starting a business is tough. It takes time and dedication that is difficult to maintain if you’re not working towards a higher goal.


Key Insights

Rands and cents can make or break your business

Michelle has been able to bootstrap four salons with minimal investment from family because she worked out her costs down to the finest detail.

Armed with this knowledge, she could set price points that were competitive, knowing exactly how many customers she needed to break even and then grow her business.

Specialists own their sectors

Brands that do too much never become the ‘go-to’ names in their sectors. Specialist brands become experts, which makes them the top choice of customers looking for the best products or services available.

Purpose is the key to success

If you have a purpose that drives you, you’re able to weather any storm. Starting a business is mentally, financially and emotionally challenging. A purpose will keep you on track, even when things are at their toughest.

 

Women Entrepreneur Successes

How Portia Mngomezulu Is Conquering The Highly Competitive Beauty Industry

A great product range backed by an ambitious vision and a determination to get the basics right is helping Portia Mngomezulu to conquer the highly competitive beauty industry.

Monique Verduyn

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portia

Vital Stats

Estee Lauder. Elizabeth Arden. L’Oréal. What is so special about these brands? Why aren’t Africans competing in this market? That’s the question that got cosmetics entrepreneur Portia Mngomezulu thinking.

A qualified systems engineer, and a curious entrepreneur by nature, Portia was always selling something that she had concocted.

In 2010, after she had a child, her mother-in-law suggested using marula oil to help with stretch marks. Portia went to her hometown of Phalaborwa, where she had grown up playing under marula trees, and procured the oil from local women. She saw the difference within a few weeks, and that was the seed that germinated into Portia M, a black-owned skin care manufacturing company that caters, in her words, ‘for every skin under the African sun’.

Keeping the retail dream alive

Portia started small. With a two-plate stove and a couple of pots, she manufactured her first batches of product; her ‘secret oil’, which she sold for R100 per bottle at church, and to friends who were pregnant. People kept buying. But she was adamant that she did not want to grow a network marketing business.

“From the start I was determined to compete at retail level,” she says. “I saw my product on the shelf next to the big international brands. Great and successful entrepreneurs have achieved their purpose and goal by setting a strong and clear vision, and by pursuing it with passion.”

Convinced that she was onto a sure thing, she approached the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) and asked for help to have her products and formulas tested. Getting the legal paperwork right was a key step in the growth of the business, and one that would pay off later.

Personal care products are subjected to many different tests before being placed on the market for sale. Testing usually includes evaluations for product stability, purity, safety and the effectiveness of preservatives, which protect the product from deterioration. It’s a costly exercise. In 2012, SEDA arranged for the tests to be conducted by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) at Medunsa (now Sefako Makgato Health Sciences University). The process took around six months, during which she continued to sell, without taking a cent from the business.

Persistence, and the willingness to overcome a wide range of obstacles, usually determines the fate of a company. In Portia’s case, believing that she had the power to achieve whatever she wanted meant that mental barriers such as fear were never an issue.

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Black Entrepreneurs To Watch

After getting Makro to agree to stock Portia M at six of its stores, it took another two years to convince the buyers for Shoprite and Checkers to do the same.

“They eventually agreed to just 20 stores, as they wanted a test run. But I resolved not to take it personally. Instead, I used this time to perfect the range. It’s far easier to rectify mistakes when you have a small footprint. Now, our products are in more than 530 Shoprite and Checkers stores.”

She also took the opportunity to show her products to Absa at a trade show. The bank’s representatives were impressed, but said that it was too risky to finance a cosmetics business. Instead, they suggested she take part in a 14-city women in business roadshow they were running. She did, selling more than 30 000 skincare products.

“The last session was in Cape Town, and that was where I met Suzanne Ackerman, daughter of Pick n Pay boss Raymond Ackerman and transformation director of the group. She was impressed by the fact that I had tested the products and had barcodes in place. She encouraged me to approach the company’s buyers. They gave me the opportunity to sell in 20 Pick n Pay stores. It was a life-changing moment and I remember crying when I saw the brand on the shelves.”

The value of social proof

portia-m-cosmetics

Her next challenge was marketing. With no budget available, she had to get the products moving off the shelves. Already accustomed to promoting Portia M to her friends on Facebook, she took her social media presence to the next level, having photos taken of the product range and encouraging people to try it out.

“Miraculously, customers started taking before and after images and telling their stories,” she recalls. The value of ‘social proof’ provided by these testimonials has been immeasurable, and is one of our key selling points — real people, real results. Today we have more than 200 000 followers on Facebook, over 12 000 on Instagram, and over 3 000 on Twitter. At Pick n Pay alone, our sales are worth more than R1 million a month.”

Portia M products are now sold in more than 1 200 stores nationwide. To export the range into other African countries, she has leveraged the operations of Pick n Pay, Shoprite and Clicks to enter Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, and Swaziland.

“Because the paperwork required to export to African countries can be onerous, it made sense to partner with established retailers, convince them to distribute my products for me, and expand the business in this way.”

Words of advice

  • When a brand is new and unknown: “To grow a brand from scratch, you need to build strong relationships with retailers and sustain excellence in delivery. When they place an order, make sure it gets there on time.”
  • When you are competing against multinationals: “Respect the industry, but understand that your competitors also had to start somewhere. Vision and self-belief are key. We are just as capable as global companies of producing top quality products.”
  • When you are trying to get shelf-space: “Shelf space is critical, and you earn it through sales. Our sales are based on testimonials, proving that effective marketing does not have to cost a fortune.”
  • When you need to keep your cash flowing: “Negotiate payment terms with retailers. I have seven-day, 14-day, 30-day and 45-day payment agreements with different retailers, ensuring that my cash flow is always positive.”

In 2015, Portia was named the overall winner of the Tshwane Exporters Awards, thanks to the fact that she registered as an exporter with South African Revenue Services. Representatives from The Innovation Hub invited her to pitch the business, and she was given a small office as well as a 40m2 factory. Today that space has grown to 500m2.

“Moving from home to a factory space was another defining moment,” she says. “I had a team of biochemistry students coming to work for me, using my stove and my pots. It was very embarrassing. They laughed at me at first, but they also believed in me. Together, we formalised the business and one of those students is now the factory supervisor.”

In 2017, she was named a National Gazelle by the Department of Small Business Development and SEDA. She won a grant of R1 million, enabling her to buy additional manufacturing equipment and a truck.

Related: 10 Dynamic Black Entrepreneurs

What lies ahead?

Portia has an audacious five-year goal — to penetrate the African market and to compete comfortably with Africa’s favourite skincare brands. Part of that plan is to get retailers like Dis-Chem and Woolworths on board.

“When I visit other countries on the continent, they want to know how successful the brand is at home,” she says. “To win customers, we differentiated Portia M by providing a tried and tested product, and also by using a uniquely African ingredient that is well-known on this continent. More than anything, I believed in the product before I expected anyone else to, and that has made all the difference.”


KEY INSIGHTS

portia-products

Start with a vision                 

Portia was determined to see her products on retail shelves alongside international giants. She knew this vision was the most important starting point in achieving her goals.

Start small to achieve big                 

Get into the market so that you can tweak and perfect your product while it’s still small. This is much easier to do while you still only have a few customers on board, and it will give you the foundations for a much larger business.

Access Government Programmes    

There are a number of programmes and funds supporting local manufacturers, from access to international markets, to assistance with compliance and even funding. Do your research and tap into them.

Related: Alphabet Soup Founder Nikki Lewin Discusses How They Compete With The Big Boys

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Erna Basson Of Erabella Hair Extensions On Acting The Part And Finding The Gap

Erna Basson says that building your own empire is one of the toughest things you can do, but also one of the most rewarding. She unpacks the lessons she has learnt that have helped her launch and grow three businesses into sustainable brands.

Monique Verduyn

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erna-basson

Vital Stats

  • Player: Erna Basson
  • Company: Erabella Hair Extensions
  • Est: 2017
  • Visit: www.erabellahairextensions.com
  • Career highlights:
    • Named South Africa’s top entrepreneur under 30 for 2017
    • Global female entrepreneur of the year 2017
    • Top 100 most influential young South Africans 2017
    • Interviewing Grant Cardone — 2018
    • Opening speaker at the Mega Success event 2017 in Los Angeles.

Originally from Bloemfontein, Erna Basson has always been highly competitive. She completed a four-year bachelor’s degree in three years, while holding down several part-time jobs. She was first bitten by the entrepreneurial bug in her second year at UFS (University of the Free State). Her class was struggling with business law, so she read the text book and produced an annotated summary that she then sold to desperate students.

Today, she heads up Erna Basson Ltd, a business coaching and speaking venture; Woman Entrepreneur, a global platform empowering and educating female entrepreneurs from around the world on how they can start and scale their businesses; and Erabella Beauty Global, a premium hair extensions brand available in South Africa and globally.

On acting the part

“I was a cheerleader for the Cheetahs while I studied, and I also worked as a hostess at Cubaña,” she says. “I got the opportunity to do tons of promotions for liquor brands and that experience taught me how important it is to always be on point and professional, as the event sponsors could pitch up at any time to check on what was happening.”

Related: How To Start A Salon And Spa Business

After moving to Port Elizabeth with her now husband, Nellis Basson (who is also an entrepreneur), she started working for Gestetner and was out on a sales call at Distell when she heard the regional manager complaining about bad service from an events company. “I said to him, ‘if I can have a company up and running within 30 days, will you make use of my services?’ and he said ‘yes’. I walked into the company as an employee and walked out of the company with a new life and opportunity, and this has taught me a valuable lesson that I still follow every day. Take advantage of every opportunity, even if it scares you. You need to be out of your comfort zone to grow.”

That was one of the first principles she learnt, and which she speaks about to her global audiences.

“The bigger the problem you are solving for people, the more valuable you are to them, and the more money you will make.”

People are always searching for solutions. They will always look for better, faster and smarter ways to accomplish tasks. Erna knew that to grab her customer’s attention, she had to start by solving their problems. “If you can take a person from point A to point B, by identifying their crucial problem and then offering to solve it, you will be able to create a real business that matters.”

Another important thing happened that day. She went back to her boss and immediately told him what had transpired. “Honesty, loyalty and integrity have always been the three key pillars of my business, starting from then, and it paid off — Gestetner became a client soon after.”

She started the promotions business with no staff and she didn’t know anyone in Port Elizabeth. “I called up a friend of one of my husband’s friends and asked her to give me ten phone numbers, and then I asked each one of those women to give me another ten. I sold my Citi Golf so that I could have a small start-up fund, and then the business just took off. We got clients like SAB, MTN, Sony, Mango, Maybelline and L’Oréal. I was earning R450 000 for ten days’ work at the age of 23.”

She soon had seven permanent employees, and more than 500 promoters working on campaigns across the country. “Within a couple of years, I had created systems and processes, which enabled the company to reach its goals and function independently without having me in the business, making it a perfect opportunity to sell and move on to the next challenge.”

Finding the gap in the market

It was just before Erna got married that she came up with an idea for another venture — while she was looking for venues, dresses and décor ideas. “I kept on wishing there was one place where I could find everything related to weddings, and then I thought why don’t I create one?” That was how website and magazine Majestic Weddings was born, an online directory and monthly magazine. After growing it into a successful wedding planning tool, she sold that company in April 2017, through an international business broker, and used the profits to launch her hair extension company Erabella.

Transitioning from services to products

erna-basson-grant-cardone

Erna had never run a product-based business before, but there’s a first time for everything, right? Problem is, product businesses are extremely hard to build and get traction for. They require upfront capital and investment, as well as a whole lot of excitement. Erna certainly had the latter, believing that every woman has the right to have gorgeous thick hair.

But there were some challenges:

  • The output of a service-based company is intangible, but a product-based business sells goods that customers can see and touch.
  • A services company does not have to keep goods in stock or maintain an inventory. The service is created or sold as and when the customer
  • needs it.
  • Service-based companies do not have to put up capital — they provide a service and the customer pays for it.
  • In the service industry, you have maximum control — when it comes to a product based company, you sometimes don’t have control over certain things (like a late courier, or late imports, or increase of exchange rate) but it serves as a great opportunity to apply more systems and processes to lower the risk.

“I had to buy stock for the first time. Different lengths of hair extensions, and different colours. Suddenly, I had invested more than R1 million, just like that. What’s more, in South Africa, there is a 20% import duty, which immediately raises the price of your product, making it more difficult to compete globally.”

Related: Want To Start An Import Business – Here Are The Importing Terms And Documents Involved

There was another problem too. Erna had decided that Erabella would be an online business, but it didn’t grow as fast as she wanted it to and she quickly had to change the business model. “That’s when I realised that you cannot take business personally. The minute you invest emotionally, you will make mistakes. When something is not working, you need to take immediate action and make the necessary changes. Nearly every successful company since the beginning of time has had to change strategy and direction to survive and grow.”

Reverse engineering

She also learnt about the importance of starting with the end in mind.

“If you want to make $1 million, write that figure down and reverse engineer. If my hair extensions are priced at $250, I will need to sell 4 000 sets per year, which means 11 sets a day. Instead of being dumbstruck by that big figure, I’ve now got something manageable to work with. It’s that old story about how to eat an elephant.”

Two can be better than one

Another key lesson Erna learnt was that you can do anything, but you can’t do everything. “When I started Erabella, I had one staff member in Johannesburg, and lots of competition. I had to do everything, from accounts, social media, business development and so on, but now we have an entire team in each department. The business grew too slowly and I realised that doing it alone was not going to work. I found a business partner in Cape Town, Karel Vermeulen — a very successful businessman who owns a personal care brand — and I knew we would be a great fit. I knew I could trust him with Erabella SA because he was invested, and I moved on to growing Erabella New Zealand and Australia.”

As a result of the partnership, the business is soaring. Today, Erabella hair extensions are available in South Africa, Namibia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Dubai, with Canada next on the list.

That personal investment principle is one that Erna has applied in her coaching business. People do not appreciate what comes free, she says. “If I coach you at no cost, chances are you will say the programme did not work. But if I charge $6 000 a day, I can guarantee that you will do the work required to make it a success, because you have skin in the game. You will value and appreciate the process.”

Related: The Glamorous and Sleek GHD Offices


Erna’s key principles

  1. In the words of Grant Cardone, author of The 10X Rule, follow up, follow up and follow up: ‘90% of business lies in the follow up’. “I always do, and believe that you should follow up so much that they tell you to go away, and then follow up again two weeks later. I chased a client in Cape Town for two years. When their promotions vendor let them down, I was top of mind and I got the deal.”
  2. Never focus on the 10% that’s negative; focus on the 90% that’s positive: “We all need to have bad days in order to appreciate the good ones. When a client says no, see it as a new opportunity (take the negative from the word no, and turn it into a positive new opportunity) to recreate your strategy.”
  3. When people say no, ask them why not: “If I don’t close a deal, I ask, ‘What is the reason we did not do business today? Objections are only complaints — find a solution, and you will win all the time.”
  4. Don’t ask how: “Focus on the what and the who. What do I need to do to achieve my objective and who do I need to speak to? The ‘how’ will take care of itself.”
  5. You are 100% responsible for your business: “Don’t blame the economy, the government or your staff. If you are not successful, it’s your fault.”

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Alphabet Soup Founder Nikki Lewin Discusses How They Compete With The Big Boys

Advertising doyenne Nikki Lewin reveals the importance of personal brands, living your values and finding your niche in the market.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Nikki Lewin
  • Company: Alphabet Soup
  • Awards (2017): MOST Awards Winner of Traditional Specialist Media Agency; MOST Awards Runner-up for Media Agency of the Year; the Adfocus Media Agency of the Year Finalist
  • Media Billings: R100 million annually
  • Launched: 2000
  • Visit: www.alphabetsoup.co.za

Why did you choose entrepreneurship over a corporate leadership position?

The decision to start my own business was part of my DNA. In 1999 I was offered two media director positions of multinational agencies. I knew I wanted to make a difference and be in control of my own destiny, and that meant launching my own business instead of joining another big multinational.

It basically boils down to a couple of key factors — your appetite for risk, self-belief and knowing why you would walk away from the safety net of a guaranteed income and a defined job spec.

How are you competing against those same big multi-nationals?

When I launched Alphabet Soup I believed there was a market need for specific boutique offerings. I’d been in contact with numerous clients who wanted to work with uniquely South African companies and keep things local.

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Black Entrepreneurs To Watch

The more market research I did and the more I tapped into my network, the stronger I became of this conviction. It’s important to do that legwork before you start anything, and my experience in the industry gave me the insights I needed to be confident in my decision.

That same research revealed that we needed to offer our clients a complete, 360-degree solution, and so we created an agency that covers all aspects of advertising media — from strategy, planning and media owner negotiations, to market analysis, below-the-line, promotions, sponsorships and digital media. We also have clients that need media placements throughout Africa, and have since branched into that field as well.

This broad focus, our independent positioning, and the accolades we have received over the years allow us to be competitive, even though we are relatively small in comparison to many of our competitors. You don’t have to be big to be the best. You just have to punch above your weight.

We don’t aim to be the biggest agency, just an agency that delivers intelligent and professional media solutions. We do this by ensuring we are completely up-to-date with the latest strategic thinking in our industry, and we invest in staff training. It’s up to us to be able to educate, inform and guide our clients through key media knowledge.

How important are awards?

The topic of awards centres around whether they add real value to the business or not. In some cases you are nominated, in others you need to choose to enter. It takes time and effort to enter awards programmes, so there needs to be a strong business case for doing so.

We’ve found that the whole process — particularly winning — builds the agency’s reputation and is good for staff morale. For me however, it’s just one component of the journey.

Client longevity is critical and becoming an intricate part of their business is more advantageous to the agency’s success than any award. That said, awards do lend credibility to your brand if a client hasn’t worked with you before, but referrals and word-of-mouth will ultimately lead to business.

The MOST awards are about peer recognition. How important is this and why?

alphabet-soup-nikki-lewin

I have always set high standards, both personally and for my staff, and the same applies to media-owner interactions with clients. Our relationships with our media partners are based on integrity, respect and a mutually-beneficial relationship that relies on a cerebral output in order for our clients to have successful campaigns.

We have placed in the top three for the past ten years at the MOST Awards, and it was obviously great to win in 2017, but awards should never let you rest on your laurels. You can’t take past successes for granted. We need to continue to focus on building key relationships in all aspects of media.

Related: Watch List: 50 Black African Women Entrepreneurs To Watch

How important is a personal brand in building your own business?

My personal brand and business brand are essentially the same. I try and live to the values that are key to me and those that I try and teach my children. The values of respect, honesty, trust and integrity are paramount in my personal life as well as within my business. No matter where you are or what you do, people are always going to form an opinion about you.

My view is that you need to make sure it counts. Stand up for what you believe in, live with passion and make sure you have educated and informed opinions. It’s important that people know where they stand with you and I generally am pretty forthright in my opinions.

How do you separate yourself from the business brand, so that clients want to work with the business, and not just you?

After 18 years in the market, Alphabet Soup has become a brand in its own right, no longer ‘Nikki Lewin’s agency’. I’m just one part of it. I have a supportive team and we have earned our reputation with clients. I’m still always available to clients though, and I’m intricately involved in every aspect of the business. To be successful you need to have your finger on the pulse of your business.

I have always believed in keeping my work life and personal life separate in order to try and achieve a balance. Of course, this is not easy with two young children. Fortunately, my husband was in the advertising business early in his career and is incredibly supportive, while running his own retail and travel business.

Related: Funding And Financial Assistance For SA Women Entrepreneurs

Is it important to build a reputation in the industry before launching your own business?

I believe your reputation starts with your first day on the job and every interaction you have thereafter. It’s up to you how you manage that reputation. Respect is earned and if you are passionate about what you do and what you believe in, that transpires into your own DNA. If you’ve built a strong reputation, this will obviously give any new venture you embark on added credibility, but you can build your reputation as a start-up as well. You just need to be consistent and hold true to your values.

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