How Jerusha Govender Left Her Corporate Job To Launch Her Own Business
The best start-ups don't follow the expected norms and restrictions of established industries. They spot gaps, think outside the box, and bring skills together in new and exciting ways.
- Player: Jerusha Govender
- Company: Data Innovator
- Launched: 2015
- What they do: Data analytics and communication
- Visit: thedatainnovator.com
Some people are born entrepreneurs
They’re always looking for ways to service a need, solve a problem and make seemingly disparate skills and disciplines work together. Jerusha Govender is one of those people, but it wasn’t until she found herself jobless that she took the plunge into business ownership.
It was at that point — forced into entrepreneurship — that she needed to critically evaluate what she had to offer that the market needed. She had to draw on her experience and what she knew about her industry to come up with an innovative, ground-breaking offering. Here’s how she did it.
Building up experience
Trained in medical science, Govender moved to Johannesburg from Cape Town shortly after finishing her degree.
“Degrees are tricky things for entrepreneurs,” she says. “You need the skills and the theory, but if you’re a creative problem solver, there often isn’t a degree that neatly packages what you want to do. I wanted to use science to help people, but no degree gave me the necessary skills. Only work experience could do that.”
Govender contacted a company in Joburg that she admired and they gave her a job.
“It didn’t take me long to realise that this wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted. I wasn’t reaching my earning potential or stretching my creative wings.”
Luckily, she was headhunted and the new position gave Govender the opportunity to combine the data analytics skills she had acquired while studying with tech skills she had developed over her varsity and early career years.
“My creativity was given the opportunity to develop. I was tasked with pulling data and stats together, analysing them and creating infographics that allowed NGOs to easily understand their data and what it meant for them.”
When one door closes...
And then motherhood beckoned. Govender fell pregnant and went on maternity leave, hoping she'd see the close of the project or be moved to a new project. “Although many contracts weren't renewed, I believed I was a high-value employee and thought I’d be kept on. Unfortunately, an economic decision was made to replace me with lower level staff instead of keeping me on and essentially paying for my maternity leave.”
Govender was shocked. “It wasn’t what I’d planned at all. But it was also an incredible, life-altering opportunity.
“I had to force myself to stop, think and remain calm,” she says. “This was what I had wanted — to own my own business. I wanted the opportunity to pull all of my skills and experience together and offer something new and innovative to the market. I didn’t want to work in the boxes that I’d been stuck in. This was my chance.”
Within weeks of her son being born Govender had registered her business, Data Innovator.
Okay. Now what? It’s all fine and well to have the necessary skills and even a great idea, but if you can’t take that idea to market and get people to actually pay you for your product or service, you don’t have a business.
“I contacted everyone I knew,” says Govender.
“That’s one real plus point to working for a few years before you start your own business. The industry gets to know you, you build up a track record and you develop the necessary experience and expertise to be really innovative in your field.”
Govender let her entire network know what she was doing, and that she was available for project work. “That’s when I realised that even though I had experience and a network, I had no track record as a business owner, and particularly in the framework that I had personally developed.
“I knew there was a gap in the market, but I also quickly realised that I had to prove it to my potential clients. The only way to prove a hypothesis is to get a case study.”
And so Govender took on some work for free. This is always a tricky position for a new entrepreneur to be in. On the one hand you need to develop a track record, prove yourself and get clients on board. On the other, it’s very difficult to raise your prices and start charging customers who have enjoyed your work for free.
“It was important that I was upfront and transparent about what I was willing to do. I had spotted a gap, and I needed to prove it, but going forward I would be charging. As long as I was straightforward, my clients accepted being charged down the line.”
Spotting a gap
“We’re educated to have a boxed approach in everything we do,” says Govender. “This can be limiting, but it’s also a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs.
Govender’s experience was in the social space, and she recognised that there was a critical need for social development organisations to be able to demonstrate value to their donors.
“Money comes in, but social development organisations aren’t equipped to critically check what’s working and what’s not working. This takes data. For example, non-profits (such as social development organisations, NPOs, CSI, SED, donors and academics) know where they need cash and what they’re doing, but they can’t prove this intuitive knowledge to donors. That takes hard data. The next problem is that hard data is boring. You need to take that data and tell a story. You need to communicate value.”
This is where Govender comes in. “I read journals in my field voraciously, and so I knew that creative data use was already big overseas, but wasn’t being offered to social development organisations in South Africa. There was a huge gap. I focused on communications. Not the data and analytical side of what I do, but the fact that I can communicate what that data says in a meaningful and compelling way.”
Data Innovator combines strong graphic design, storytelling and analytics, underpinned by monitoring and evaluation (M&E) principles to create an offering that social organisations desperately need.
“I can’t do everything myself, and so I’ve built up a network of individuals who work remotely on a project-by-project basis. Together we offer an incredible service.”
A free project or two at the beginning also got the ball rolling. Govender’s business is based entirely on referrals, and they have kept coming in since she entered the market.
“The gap was there and evident, but no one was stepping up to take on the work. It requires a data scientist who understands the importance of the communications side — and actually sells on the communications side.
“I’ve had to be innovative. I’ve had to take risks, carry costs and trust in the value of what I offer. We test what we do for clients first on a single report. Once we prove what we can do, we secure larger contracts. It’s incredible what you can achieve when you believe in what you do.”
- Business is business. It took me some time to realise that not-for-profits also have budgets and a bottom line. If you can’t prove how you positively impact that bottom line, don’t expect business to come your way.
- Understand which stakeholders are affected by your solution. If you want to do business with a company, understand who cares about the project and who it impacts. Those are the people you need to build relationships with.
- Bright-eyed idealism isn’t a business strategy. You need to understand the specific objectives that must be met on your client’s side. Look at the landscape strategically: Who are the players? Who do you need to build relationships with?
- Build up a team of advisors. I reached out to people in the industry whom I admire and realised that people want to give back. I worked my network and developed a body of people who are offering advice — and contacts.
- Never stop networking. Networking is important to source new business and skills. People often don’t know what they don’t know, so talk to people and find the opportunities.
- Good skills are hard to come by. Show great contractors how much you value them to keep them on board.
- Rushed, bad products cost money. Pay more and get top-class work the first time rather than cut corners and pay to clean up messes. It’s detrimental to client relationships, and when you rely on referrals, this can kill your business.
- Work with partners. I work with partners to create a shared value proposition for clients. This gives each partner access to markets, resources and skills that we may not have. For example, Data Innovator partnered with Seed Academy to offer M&E for Enterprise & Supplier Development services to corporate clients, helping them achieve measurable impact of their ESD programmes. Data Innovator provides the M&E skills and knowledge, Seed Academy their corporate network and ESD knowledge. I have access to new markets and Seed Academy is seen as innovative and providing value-added services to clients.