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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Velocity Media: Shelli Nurcombe-Thorne

Publishing entrepreneur stamps her own brand of fun on popular ‘what’s on’ site.

Monique Verduyn

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Shelli-Thorne

If you’ve ever been at a loss for what to do in Johannesburg, you’ll know about joburg.co.za, a guide to the city’s best entertainment and recreation spots. It’s the brainchild of Shelli Nurcombe-Thorne who started her online publishing business, Velocity Media, in 2004. Joburg.co.za has more than 180 000 newsletter subscribers and an advertising base to match.

The former PR and marketing manager had decided she was tired of Cape Town getting all the attention. “It was time for a site that marketed Joburg to Joburgers,” she says. “I spent a year working on the model with my business partner, Ken Farther, who has all the technology and finance know-how.”

Farther was also the business’s angel, providing the finance to get it launched, while Nurcombe-Thorne did the work.

“I could not have done it without Ken’s help,” she says. “We had to develop the site and then get advertising which was a major challenge after the dot.com crash. New business owners need to have mentors and people they can turn to for advice.”

Nurcombe-Thorne’s sense of humour was a feature from the start, making it immensely popular with advertisers and consumers alike. She grew joburg.co.za through a series of viral marketing campaigns at a time when the concept of viral was new and exciting. She has since launched her blog, Joburg’s Darling, which has had more than 6 000 unique visitors in less than a year.

Vital stats
Player: Shelli Nurcombe-Thorne
Company: Velocity Media
Launched: 2000
Contact: +27 (0)11 781 4563;joburg.co.za

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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Women Entrepreneur Successes

How Teenpreneur Rabia Ghoor Founded A Successful Business At The Age Of 14

At 14, Rabia Ghoor launched her make-up and skincare online beauty store. She made her first sale one year later, and left school to pursue the business full time at 16. Today, this 18-year-old teenpreneur is well on her way to building an empire.

Diana Albertyn

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swiitchbeauty-rabia-ghoor

Vital Stats

  • Player: Rabia Ghoor
  • Company: SwiitchBeauty
  • Position: Founder
  • Established: 2014
  • Visit: www.swiitchbeauty.com

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Tumblr originator David Karp. Multiple Grammy Award winner Aretha Franklin. Oscar-winning director Quentin Tarantino. These incredibly successful leaders in their fields all dropped out of high school at the age of 15. SwiitchBeauty founder and ‘teenpreneur’ Rabia Ghoor is in good company.

“I am a freshly-minted millionaire who ended up skipping over the typical life struggles that most young men and women go through that serve to build their character. If I’m not careful, the result will be success without respect, wealth without restraint and power without responsibility — and just like that, things can spiral out of control,” says Rabia, quoting Jordan Belfort’s book Way of the Wolf. 

While her peers prepare for their Matric dance this year, Rabia has just celebrated SwiitchBeauty’s third birthday with a pop-up store in Milpark, Johannesburg. Although she says she wishes she could participate in this rite of passage, thanks to her company pushing out between 2 500 and 3 000 orders a month, “when they’re writing exams, I’ll be holidaying in Mauritius,” she beams.

“The money has been great, but at present turnover is not my core focus. My main purpose is to provide my customers with the best product at the best price and build a sustainable business that will bear fruit in the future.”

From small beginnings to a big idea

When the break bell sounded and all the other kids stormed the playground, a ten-year-old Rabia would set up her stand and sell stickers. By the following year she’d graduated to selling mini buckets as rubbish bins her classmates would use instead of multiple trips to the class dustbin. “I bought them for about R5 each and sold them for R7,” she explains.

Related: The Make Up of Makeup: How One Entrepreneur is Changing the Cosmetics Industry

Then a teenage Rabia’s interest in make-up blossomed into a business idea she pursued part-time at 14. Using the Internet to learn basic product formulation, she established SwiitchBeauty.

“I didn’t sleep at all during that first year,” she recalls. “School was just taking up so much of my time in addition to working on the business that I would sleep at 4am sometimes and wake up at 6am to redo the day.”

SwiitchBeauty was growing, and Rabia had to approach her parents with a risky proposition she hoped they’d agree to, for the sake of her business success.

Taking the leap, and stumbling

“The plan was always to drop out of school,” says Rabia. “I let my business grow for a year in order to show my parents that it’s profitable, I’m making money, I’m passionate about it, and this is what I enjoy.”

In 2016 Rabia left high school, a year after making SwiitchBeauty’s first sale online. But things didn’t go as planned for her business ambitions. “I’d never known what it was like not going to school — I’d never even missed a day from grade one — so I got lazy after that,” Rabia admits.

“I started outsourcing as SwiitchBeauty grew, so I had nothing to do. It was a difficult adjustment because in the past I had to do everything myself, otherwise nothing would get done. Now that I had hired two new employees to handle that, the plan was to focus on research and development, but it was very difficult, especially in a home environment. For a solid two or three months, I’d wake up at 11am, eat, sleep again, wake up, watch series until about 4pm, only leave the room to get more food, and shower in the evening before getting back into my pyjamas. Meanwhile, business went on, but it didn’t flourish.”

Rediscovering that spark

swiitchbeauty

It took a leisurely afternoon on her parents’ balcony and the realisation that she’d left school to pursue her passion and was now not putting in the work, to get Rabia going again.

“I had to prove myself ten times more than kids who finished school and went out and got degrees and stable jobs. That was my motivation. I’m so glad my parents didn’t get involved during my loafing otherwise I don’t think I would have been able to get out of that rut.”

Remembering why she started SwiitchBeauty in the first place helped her focus on structuring her days, listening to motivational podcasts and growing her business.

She recruited four more staff as business boomed. “I think the biggest misconception, especially with younger entrepreneurs in tech start-ups, is that they think the bigger the business gets, and the more people you hire, — the easier the workload becomes. Its a huge lie!”

Related: Business Plan Format Guide

Filling a gap in the market

“When I first became interested in make-up I realised that there was a gap between the big expensive brands and the pharmacy cosmetics, in terms of both quality and price,” Rabia explains. “I think my greatest advantage was that prior to starting a beauty company, I’d spent a lot of time playing around with existing products, seeing which ones I liked. When I started the company, I began asking myself why I liked those specific products, and it usually came down to specific ingredients and manufacturing techniques. Doing research on these ingredients and techniques was very beneficial.”

Getting back into the swing of things involved researching local and international developments and seeing the gaps there as well. “That motivated me to get the South African beauty industry on par with international trends.”

The outcome of her research was establishing SwiitchBeauty as the loudest, cruelty-free, trendsetting, innovative make-up brand for all women who were tired of being told they needed cosmetics to feel better about themselves, and wanted to be more involved in what they wanted in a make-up brand. “SwiitchBeauty is an inclusive, affordable beauty brand that speaks to women, and not down to them, as many cosmetics companies have done for a very long time,” says Rabia.

Daring to be different

“We’re more educational than advertising-focused. We sell an idea and not a product.”

And how exactly does she set her brand apart from the multiple beauty industry names out there, vying for every woman’s attention? “We constantly engage with our 56 000+ followers on Instagram, requesting feedback, new ideas and recommendations for products, events and educational tutorials on how to use our products.”

The influence of social media has helped self-proclaimed former tech novice Rabia to build her business through the Internet. She’s worked hard to establish a healthy social media following, to the benefit of her business. “Social media has been a gift to our generation of businesses,” she says, adding that SwiitchBeauty’s use of social media influencers has increased its customer base tremendously.

Building a beauty business empire

With a constant flow of deliveries leaving her Laudium office in Pretoria, Rabia’s focused on getting SwiitchBeauty to be every South African woman’s preferred beauty brand, before conquering the markets beyond our borders. “I am focusing on dominating the market of South African beauty enthusiasts before branching out into the more competitive international field, “she says. “I also feel that for now, the rest of the world is very well taken care of in terms of make-up.”

Related: 7 Rules To Master Your Start-Up Success This Year


LESSONS FROM AN ECOMMERCE TEENPRENEUR

1. Social media is a significant tool:

“Build up a following even if you don’t have a product yet. Get people in your industry interested and when you do launch the product they will trust you enough to become customers.”

2. DIY your website and logo:

“Our generation has been blessed with the greatest educational resource — the Internet. Throughout my journey I really have learnt to use this asset to my advantage. Being so young and inexperienced when I started my business, there was much that I had to self-teach. The Internet made that super easy.”

3. Choose a suitable platform:

“For me it was Shopify, as their cheapest package is around $24 monthly, but you get so much so it’s worth it.”

4. Get your finances in order:

“I learnt the hard way after not noting my expenses and thinking I had more to spend than I actually did. My uncle is money savvy, and helped me fix my finances.”

5. Seek support from a mentor:

“I think a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs don’t get the support they need, especially the young ones. Thokoza Mjo from Beyond the Lemonade Stand really helped mentor me after I won one of the company’s competitions. Working with her has opened up so many doors for me.”

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Infanta Foods’ Marisa da Silva On Why Scaling Is Tougher Than It Seems

Scaling a business is an important part of growth, but it can be a bumpy ride in today’s economy, and it’s easy to make mistakes. Marisa da Silva of Infanta Foods knows this and explains how she overcame it.

Monique Verduyn

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marisa-da-silva

Vital Stats

Marisa da Silva’s parents founded Infanta Foods in 1980. It’s a manufacturer and distributor of raw materials and ingredients for the baking, confectionery, milling and biscuit industries. Marisa joined the business in 2013, although she started working there from the age of seven and basically grew up in the factory. Her brother Alex had joined full-time three years earlier. Having completed a BCom Honours degree in business management, she brought to the family-owned business a fresh way of doing things and a keen understanding of how to do business in today’s tough economy.

Related: Spark Schools: Adapting At The Speed Of Scale

Scaling up is tougher than it looks

The Challenge:

Rapid growth can be a perilous thing. Scaling a business is tough, and it presents some serious challenges. But after Marisa completed a business coaching programme, she realised that she wanted to take Infanta Foods from a family business to a family empire. The big question, however, was how to do that with an established business that was already more than 30 years old.

The Solution:

Shortly after Marisa joined the business, she had a lightbulb moment — the best way to start was with a ‘cut, cut, grow’ strategy. “Coaching taught me immeasurable skills, and one of the most important was that there are always ways to cut back on costs. When I introduced that concept to the family, it was like a tinder to the flame. No matter what business you are in, the precursor to growth should be to delve into the company and look at every single expense.”

marisa-da-silva-infanta-foods

And she means every expense — from insurance fees to coffee, stationery, pens and toilet paper. “Think of the business as a ship,” she says. “If you move forward without plugging the holes that are draining your cash, the ship will eventually sink.”

In two months, Infanta’s expenses were down by 23%; the following month they were cut by a further 38%. In the third month the business began cross-merchandising and upselling, pairing a muffin mix with a pie filling, or a hot cross bun mix with raisins.

But then Marisa faced a challenge common to many businesses that are scaling up — operational capacity. “Because our growth happened very quickly, our machines were close to running at 100% capacity, so I did the sums around how many more sales were needed before we could buy additional  equipment. As much as I tried to plan and forecast, things never work out in reality as they do on paper. We reached full capacity in two months instead of three. What helped was that because I had started to do the research a few months prior, we had already started to think about the buffers we could put in place. Forward planning is really essential. On the personnel side, because we were looking at new equipment, we had to restructure and reallocate the team. We also needed to start hiring. One of the problems with hiring people when you need them is that you don’t necessarily get the best candidates — you get the best candidates available at the time. Once again, we had started vetting people months before, so that exercise was not as tough as it could have been.”

Transparency is key

According to Marisa, communicating with staff was critical because when people are empowered with knowledge, they are also supportive. She let them know that the business was in a growth phase, and that she wanted the team to have an opportunity to grow too.

With operations sorted, suppliers became the next big challenge. As a business grows, it often gains much bigger clients. In Infanta’s case, the first big win was a biscuit factory in Mozambique. “We needed to ensure we had the right number of suppliers in place to enable us to fulfil the orders, as well as back-up suppliers, ‘just in case’. We also had to deal with regulations and rules of origin as we were dealing with a foreign country with its own set of rules.”

A big question she says business owners must ask is, can your suppliers provide you with what you need if you triple your business?

“When you’re on a growth curve, take a month’s purchases from a specific supplier, call them and ask them if they could fulfil your order if you tripled it in size. If their answer is no, best you make a plan.”

Marketing was also Marisa’s baby. “The business was old school,” she says. “I relooked the website, our Facebook pages, and our brand awareness. We didn’t even have our logo on the invoices.”

Related: 27 Of The Richest People In South Africa

The Lesson:

Working through these challenges enabled Marisa and her family to 5X the business. It now moves more than 210 000 kg of goods per week. From being purely B2C, it now also has a retail arm operating from the premises in Pretoria, and supplying wholesale products to consumers.

“We showed the market that we are able to innovate,” she says. “The fact that we are embracing new opportunities has changed people’s perception of the business. Now, when customers are looking for a new product, they will come to ask us if we can do it, because they know we have embraced innovation.” 


TOP TIPS

Getting your people on board for growth:

  • Establish process owners
  • Define roles, responsibilities and workflows
  • Make a schedule
  • Focus on group deliverables over individual tasks
  • Educate, educate, educate.

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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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