Raphelang Rabana and her student peers from UCT started communications company Yeigo in 2006. A deal in 2008 saw the company merge with Swiss-based company Telfree, which today is one of South Africa’s most promising new generation communications companies.
In the early days Rabana and her colleagues achieved what many entrepreneurs dream of but few achieve — she managed to secure angel investment. She identifies one of the main factors which she believes helped the company attract the funding it so desperately needed to get off the ground.
“One of the keys to getting funding in the early days was the fact that we had just got going. We worked out of a dining room on old computers and lived off our parents so that we could build a demo. Demonstrating your commitment sets you apart from someone who just has a good idea, and investors notice this,” she says.
The Yeigo team secured angel investors after launching the first version of their application.
Having something tangible to show for your good idea sends investors a number of important messages: your idea can be made into reality; you have the commitment to see it through and you’re willing to work hard and take personal risks to make it happen. These are key ingredients for a successful and sustainable business and you can be sure that funders are on the look-out for them in prospective investments.
Player: Raphelang Rabana
Company: Telfree (formerly Yeigo)
Contact: +27 (0)21 424 2675
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.
How Jacqui van der Riet Went From Receptionist To Co-Owning A R230 Million Business
Jacqui van der Riet might own an equal share of UDM International, a R230 million business that she’s been instrumental in building from the ground up, with the Chairman, but she started out as just another salaried employee. Not satisfied with answering phones, Jacqui started cold-calling potential customers, writing scripts and reporting conversion rates to clients. Her passion and perseverance helped land UDM its biggest client, and the business just grown from there. Here’s how a young mother with no qualifications got her degree while working and helped build a world-class business, brick by brick.
- Player: Jacqui van der Riet
- Company: UDM International
- Employees: 350
- Launched: 1994
- Turnover: R230 million
- Visit: www.udm.co.za
When the founders of a recently-launched direct marketing company walked into the offices of UDM in 2000, all that greeted them was the anticipation of success.
Jacqui van der Riet exuded confidence and energy. She knew that they were the company to help this dynamic group of people to launch and grow its sales. She’d done her research, written scripts and had her team prepped. They were selling educational policies for children and everyone was excited.
That first day, sitting with her new potential clients in the one small meeting room UDM had, Jacqui instructed her team to walk in and make a mark on the whiteboard each time they closed a deal. Within an hour they’d already come in seven times. The previous call centre that the life insurance company had approached had concluded that this sales campaign was not viable. The relationship kicked off the moment UDM proved otherwise.
Jacqui and her partner knew that this was their chance to build a brilliant business relationship and she put her head down, worked hard and figured it out as she went along. This was UDM’s chance. 20 years later, UDM’s turnover is R230 million.
Here’s how the woman who was hired as a receptionist and general admin person for a small call centre start-up went from earning an average monthly salary to owning 50% of the direct marketing machine she and her business partner have built from the ground up.
From PA to prodigy
Jacqui’s interview at Universal Database Marketing was far from usual. She met her boss-to-be at a lunch-time interview at his office in Randburg. Her goal was to negotiate a higher salary than she currently earned. She’d been told he’d already interviewed many women without finding the right person, so she felt she had negotiating power. She was 25, had two small children, was studying a BCom degree through Unisa, and hated her job at a legal firm, where she was constantly reminded of the pecking order, but didn’t see real room for growth.
She left the law firm for a job that paid almost double what she had been earning, but had no clue what UDM did, or what would be required of her. The company was a small start-up, direct marketing call centre. Its monthly turnover was low, like any new start up, and Jacqui was justifiably concerned that if that didn’t increase — and quickly — she wouldn’t have a job for long.
Her job description was personal assistant to the owner. Aside from the owner there was one other employee — a telemarketer who worked from 9am to 12 noon calling an insurer’s clients whose policies had lapsed and trying to reinstate them. Within days, Jacqui decided to start making sales calls as well.
“At first, I just wanted to see if I could do it,” she says. “I’d never even been exposed to a call centre before, and I saw it as a challenge, a way to learn new skills, and maybe even a way to make sales and boost the business.
“I soon realised that I didn’t only want to make calls, but I wanted to report back to our client on how we were doing, so I kept a record of how many dials we made, the number of contacts, and how many contacts were converted into sales. It was a very manual process — we kept records with paper and pen, and had little tape recorders that we needed to remember to take off pause to record each call. But the client loved the feedback. They were impressed with us.”
And then the founder of the company relocated to London, and sold the business to his brother, Jacqui’s partner and 50% co-owner of UDM today. “He asked me if I thought we could really make a go of it. I’d been learning a lot simply by doing the work — I was writing and tweaking scripts, tracking everything, and starting to learn the industry. I definitely wanted to give it a go.”
Like his brother, Jacqui’s new boss had connections in the financial world, and slowly they started signing clients, but always for small sections of each institution’s portfolio.
“We couldn’t take on permanent staff, but we needed people on the phones, so we turned to students,” says Jacqui. “We paid R20 per hour, and each student had to work 20 hours a week. I wrote the scripts and trained them, loaded the sales, created reports, and slowly figured out how to set targets and even discipline them. Remember, these were students, and we had nothing to do with their chosen careers. They were just there for the money. It was a big learning curve for me. I remember the first time I had to tell them that I was employing them to work, so could they please do what I was paying them to do. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
“I was learning everything on the fly. My financial management coursework helped me to develop targets, but there’s no degree for sales. If a script didn’t work I changed it. I made sure I still spent time on the phones so that I could see what worked, and what needed to be adjusted. I made sure that I was learning something new each and every day. I also tapped into my network — I called former employers and told them what I was doing and if they thought it would work. I was never afraid of asking ‘dumb’ questions. If I wanted to know something, I asked. It’s the only way to learn.”
With her hands firmly on UDM’s tiller, Jacqui believes the business got off to a slow, but sensible start. “Everything we did was with the mindset that it could be done,” says Jacqui. “I think that’s incredibly important. We never allowed ourselves to think that something couldn’t be done. We looked for solutions instead, and changed anything that wasn’t working, or wasn’t performing as well as we wanted it to.”
UDM’s big break came when a new life company called us in. Jacqui and her partner knew they had one shot to impress them, and she wasn’t going to let it slip through her fingers.
Be like Federer
Once they signed with UDM, the life company requested exclusivity. They wanted Jacqui and her team to focus exclusively on their products. UDM agreed. They would work out their current contracts, but they wouldn’t renew them, or take on new clients.
Putting all of your eggs in one basket is always a risk, but Jacqui also saw the opportunity. “Nothing is ever iron-clad, and there are always risks, but we were getting in on the ground floor with each other. Our success would rise or fall together. I believed it was a worthwhile risk and I still do. We understand each other, we speak the same language, and our values align. At the time we are the life company’s sale’s arm — we just happen to be independently owned. We both think this keeps us focused”
While the partnership has been fruitful for both businesses, there have been exciting challenges, most notably with the structure of UDM’s sales force.
“When we launched we were selling the life company’s difficult campaigns. From there, we started relatively easier and more profitable sales campaigns. Because they were more profitable, we were paid a higher fee for them. The result was that I promoted my best sales people onto the easier campaigns — our client paid us more, we paid our top sales people more, and the client benefited as their profits increased. It was win-win-win — until we started noticing the flaw in the entire system.
“We were moving our most talented sales people away from the difficult sales campaigns. The easier sales campaigns were flying, however, the more difficult campaigns were the crux of the business. Our client realised that if we didn’t change our process soon, we would continue to see a dwindling business.
“The realisation was one thing — we couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen the problem earlier, but at least now it was a challenge that we and our client could discuss. That was just step one though. Because we’d moved many of our best people off the vital, yet difficult sales campaigns, we were continually recruiting and training new potential sales stars to replace them. We had set ourselves up for a difficult, sustainable business model.
Companies always get nervous when they change anything associated with top earners, and this was no exception. We knew that if we didn’t do something, we would face a much bigger problem down the line. There was a solution — we just needed to find it.”
Jacqui knew she needed to solve three key issues. First, she had to find a way to convince her top sales people — all of whom were now accustomed to the ‘easier’ sales campaign to move back to the vital and difficult sales campaigns. Second, she had to ensure their high earnings remained the same or even improved, and finally, she needed to ensure that the ‘easier’ sales quantities didn’t decrease because her top sales people were not focused on them.
“I spent a lot of weekend hours figuring it all out,” she says. “I had to work out an incentive structure that ensured the company didn’t lose, our client didn’t pay more, but our staff were positively positioned. In discussions with our client, the first piece of the puzzle was put in place. The fee structure could be aligned with the new sales model. The incentives on the easier sales campaigns was where magic had been happening for 13 years — but there’d be no magic if the number of sales on the difficult sales campaigns diminished.
“Next, I turned my attention to our top sales people. I needed to make it amazing for them. What do people really care about? What would I want in their position? People love titles, recognition, and real perks. And so, we created an Elite floor. There are 28 positions open in Elite, and it’s never full. There are very specific criteria to qualify for Elite, and if you don’t cut it you’re out. You need to be like Roger Federer — you’re only as good as your last game, or in this case, your last months’ targets.
“If you’re in Elite however, you get the title, your own parking space, a weekly massage, food orders from a menu every day, snacks, and access to the Elite Shop when you’ve hit target three months in a row. The shop offers everything from tumble dryers and washing machines, to pool tables. Our Elite team also earn in excess of R100 000 per month if their targets are met.”
Once Jacqui had worked out the offer, she gathered her 20 top sales agents into a room and pitched the vision to them. “When they walked in, many of them had been crying. They’d heard rumours about what was happening, and they were not happy being forced back to the more difficult sales campaigns, so I approached the change from a different angle.
“I unpacked the whole picture: Why the change was necessary, what we would do, what the future would look like if we did nothing, what we could achieve if we made this change, and the structure, benefits and earning potential of the Elite floor. I then asked for four volunteers — the idea was to pilot it and prove it worked. All 20 put up their hands. We were in this together, as a team. We launched two years ago, and we haven’t looked back. Our difficult sales campaigns achieved a 30% growth in our first year, and more importantly, our client’s valuable ‘easier’ sales campaigns remained steady. In fact, the sales to conversion rates increased.
“We now move our most promising trainees onto easier campaigns in their latter weeks of training which has increased our permanent placements. Creating Elite was a risk for everyone, but one worth taking.”
Learning to fly
From taking up one floor in 2000, UDM now occupies two buildings, one with the insurance team, and the other focused on cosmetic sales.
“We’re always excited by new challenges, and our revenue from cosmetics has grown from nothing in 2010 to nearly R50 million, but we had a lot of lessons to learn to get to where we are today. I thought a customer service approach was the right move for a cosmetics brand, but we soon learnt you need sales people. We then moved some of our top insurance sales people over, but it’s a very different product, and that didn’t work either. I needed to move onto the floor, and get onto the phones myself to really understand what this side of the business needed, and from there we could start building the right sales team, structures and incentives.”
This wasn’t the first or last time Jacqui immersed herself in a section of the business. She is always moving between divisions, and regularly gets back onto the phones to test UDM’s scripts and experience the entire process from start to finish.
“When I come in from an outsider’s perspective, I can see if things flow smoothly. We often get used to processes, even if they’re a bit clumsy. The only way to make the right adjustments is if I experience everything myself, first hand.”
Integral to Jacqui’s approach is looking at each individual hub and evaluating how it can become a revenue generator. “We even look at our client services division and evaluate how we can get salaries paid more efficiently. Are we robust enough to pay bonuses immediately, and how do we simplify our systems to make them as flexible as possible? Nothing at UDM happens slowly. I want everything done today.”
In fact, everyone who works at UDM knows that anything can be done in a short period of time if you have a motivated and flexible team.
“There’s no such thing as requisition forms that get sent to one floor, then signed and sent to another inbox for a few days. Things happen immediately — that’s the precedent I set.”
Jacqui knows that to achieve this, she needs to be accessible at all times. “When your staff can see that someone is listening, and that they have power to implement changes, they respond positively. The culture becomes one of action, but they also speak up, and that’s how an organisation keeps moving forward.”
Another key to UDM’s success is incentives; everyone, from cleaners to supervisors, managers and sales people, is incentivised. “We’re very transparent with our base salaries, and the available earnings if targets are met. For cleaners, this means that set bonuses are paid for grocery stock control, the bathrooms being spotless within an hour after tea break and so on. Supervisors and managers have similar incentive structures, but their targets are related to their job scopes.”
According to Jacqui, the process works because of complete transparency. “Each of us knows what we are on and what our targets are. We know exactly what we’re aiming for, and what we need to do to achieve it. The sales agents know what they need to do, every hour of every day.”
Everything in UDM is tracked — Jacqui is copied in on all daily sales tracking reports. “I know what every team has done, each and every day. They have to explain to me why that day’s target wasn’t met, and what they’re going to do to make it up. If we’re 2% behind where we have to be this month for example, we need a plan of action to get 5% ahead — everything is tight and well calculated.”
Jacqui is the first to admit that it’s a tough and fast-paced work environment — but employees who can handle the mental and physical demands of their jobs are well-compensated and experience growth and development in their professional lives.
“I like churn. I’d rather lose the people who won’t cut it early on. This is a tough environment, so we’ve put a lot of measures in place to weed out anyone who won’t make it. We don’t want to waste their time or ours.”
One of those measures is the training academy. Thirty new recruits start a 12-week programme each Monday, but only the best stay on as permanent staff. UDM’s biggest churn is in the first year, but that’s fine. “I don’t want anyone sitting here who doesn’t want to be here and can’t do the job,” says Jacqui.
“I know the job is achievable, but you have to have the right mindset, work ethic and love for the job. I pay attention to the smaller details, for example, how people walk — based on this one small detail, I know if they’re going to excel with us.”
Jacqui is a firm believer that if people are paid well and receive recognition for their achievements, they stay. “It’s a massive learning curve for anyone coming into this business, but once they get it, there’s no way you don’t know where you are, or what you need to do to achieve your goals.
“Some managers make the mistake of expecting and accepting the mediocre. We don’t. Anything is achievable, I know that, and people often just need a leader who can break it down and show how exciting it is to achieve excellence. We’ve learnt that high achievers thrive on structure, under fair discipline and with great recognition. I think we have all of that here. In the first year the reality of the job sets in, and it’s tough. If you’re not making target here it’s quite a difficult place to be. We have high standards, and I’m proud of them. Everyone here has a high standard of living. 63% of our staff have been with us for over two years, and we have 30 employees who have been with us for over a decade. If you fit our culture, you stay — and we help you fly. That’s our ethos, and it’s worked for us.”
Psychology of success
1. Believe in your positive contribution
I wanted to become a partner in the business I was helping to build. When the opportunity arose for me to own equity in the business, I grabbed the opportunity and worked hard to ensure it paid off.
2. The first step of success is to show up and learn
Seize the moment. Be authentic. If you don’t understand something ask the dumb questions — you’re no dumber than anyone else. I’ve learnt that most people are just winging it. You need to learn, so don’t let the fear of looking like you don’t know something hold you back.
3. Figure out what your business needs
Most of what we’ve built started out with logic. I didn’t know anything about telemarketing, but because I got on the phones and started writing scripts, I figured it out. Put your head down and start — the more you do, the more you’ll learn.
4. Look for a way for everyone to win
I aim to please: Clients, the business and the people working for me should all benefit from what we do. This is a big thing for me. I look for win, win, win in every situation — and believe me, solutions that work for everyone can be found if you’re transparent, understand what everyone needs, and explain the business and personal logic of your decisions.
5. I have an innate drive
When I was born I came out checking the competition. This passion to do everything well has really pushed me in life. I always want to deliver better. You need that drive if you want to build something great.
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