Bootstrapping

How Portia Mngomezulu Launched Her Cosmetics Business With No Money

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
How Portia Mngomezulu Launched Her Cosmetics Business With No Money
Image credit: Rich Townsend
Entrepreneur Staff
Freelance Writer
8 min read

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Portia Mngomezulu
  • Company: Portia M
  • Established: 2011
  • Visit: portiamss.com

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.  

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 

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.”

    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.

    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.”

    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.”

    Key Insights

    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.

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