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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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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

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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

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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

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. 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

quickbooks-business_emmerentia-van-den-hoven

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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