The King III Report on corporate sustainability and the idea of ‘triple bottom line’ responsibility has blurred the line between pure profit and ‘doing good’. Companies are starting to realise that behaving in a socially conscious way can in fact make good business sense too.
But profit-driven businesses that have developed a social conscience still remain different to true social entrepreneurs, who have always existed. These are the people whose businesses are driven by a powerful social conviction and the need to bring about solutions to society’s most pressing problems – the profit, while important, is a secondary necessity that ensures ongoing sustainability so that the businesses can live to help society for another day.
For Shona McDonald, one of South Africa’s most recognised social entrepreneurs, the social entrepreneurship model is the way all business should be run. “Business has such immense potential to meet a need – it’s the basis on which most businesses are built. And if that need is social, and the business can sustain itself by making a profit, then so much the better. I think it’s true for all businesses that if you focus on meeting a real need, the profit will follow,” she says.
The founder of ShonaQuip, an Endeavor South Africa entrepreneur and the recent recipient of both the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Award for Social Entrepreneurship and the 2011 Shoprite Checkers Woman of the Year award in the Socio-Economic Business Developers Category, McDonald started ShonaQuip in response to the pressing need for better wheelchairs and equipment for disabled people.
Responding to a personal need
When she was 19 she had a daughter, Shelley, who was born with cerebral palsy (CP). At the time the only wheelchairs available were for adults and even these were only designed for temporary transportation within hospitals. “Shelley was given a foam-padded folded cardboard insert for her pram with a large piece of webbing to tie her in. I learned that once CP children outgrew their prams the option was to tie them into hospital wheelchairs,” she explains.
Refusing to accept what was available, McDonald poured over books on CP sent from a cousin in the UK. What she noticed were the wheelchairs. “There was an amazing photo of a chair from Sweden so I asked my cousin to buy the motor and wheels from England and bring them over,” she continues. Parts in hand, she approached the Biomedical Engineering Department at UCT where, working from a photograph, she and Mike Price built Shelley a chair.
The motorised chair solved Shelley’s mobility challenges so McDonald moved on to other issues, developing communication cards so that Shelley could tell her parents what she wanted, and modifying toys so she could play. Being involved in parental support groups, it was only a matter of time before people started requesting similar products for their disabled children, and a business was born in McDonald’s home.
An organic evolution
Things could have ticked over quietly in McDonald’s garage for years, and she might always have run a small non-profit organisation. She readily admits that she never planned to run a business. But what’s clear is that she had enough business suss to recognise that sustainability lay in being able to make a profit and control her own finances.
She got increasingly frustrated with relying on fundraising from NGOs: “Funders wanted to do things their way, and this wasn’t always aligned with the needs on the ground. I wanted to take control of the finances myself and do things the way I wanted to do them, and I suppose that’s really when the business itself was born,” she says.
Over 19 years the company grew to take over McDonald’s house before eventually moving to new premises. Based in Cape Town, it has branches in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng, and a community based outreach programme for deep rural areas.
Meeting the needs on the ground
But even as ShonaQuip grew and evolved into a for-profit business, it stayed true to its purpose of providing disabled people with the tools to gain entry into society. A more inclusive society is McDonald’s driving passion. She has been instrumental in shaping public policy on disability and helped write the World Health Guidelines on Wheelchair Distribution in Remote Areas.
The driving force behind McDonald’s crusade has also been the business’s key success factor. “We address the needs of people,” she says simply, and in this respect at least social entrepreneurs are no different from their mainstream entrepreneurial peers.
All products start out being developed in response to an individual person’s need, and if a more universal use for that product is identified it is developed into a product range. But McDonald is adamant that the business always develops bespoke products, whether these will ultimately be commercially viable or not. In this respect she’s very different from businesses driven purely by the need to make a profit. “We’re not prepared to give this side of the business up and I don’t see that we should. The business is still able to sustain itself. We exist to help people – this is the thing that has enabled us to make money in the first place,” she says.
A recent grant from the SAB Foundation for Innovation Awards will allow McDonald to focus more on the kind of innovation that has driven ShonaQuip’s success from day one. She recognises this as her strong point: “I don’t really enjoy the day to day business side of things. I’d like to employ a general manager to take care of that part of the company. I see myself more as an innovator and as someone who wants to leave a legacy that’s better than the one I found,” she says. In that respect, she’s a true entrepreneur.
The rise of the social entrepreneur
Social entrepreneurship becomes more important as social needs increase and public resources shrink.
Quietly getting on with the job, social entrepreneurs are the businesses that usually fly under the radar. But recently, their role has been given increasing importance, particularly in South Africa. Referring to research that formed part of the 2009 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Report, Jacqui Kew from the UCT Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business, points out, “The effect of the recent global recession and its impact on the global recovery is likely to be felt for a considerable time. Social entrepreneurship will, if anything, become more important as social needs increase while government and civil society resources decrease.” As people lose faith in government’s ability to find sustainable solutions to society’s problems, they may look increasingly to sustainable socially-minded business to achieve what’s required.
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.
- 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.”
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 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.”
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.”
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
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
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.
- 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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