5 Ways To Fast Track Your Startup Success With This Expert Advice
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
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Three local entrepreneurs, Tara-Lee de Wit, SJ Koortzen and Carmen Peters unpack the lessons that have helped them get their businesses through the start-up hurdles new companies face, and build sustainable brands.
Lesson One: What's Your Big Idea Worth?
In 2014, after returning to work from maternity leave, Carmen Peters struggled to find meaning and purpose in her job.
The division she was working in was sold to another company, and she found herself spending three hours a day in traffic, only to arrive at her office and sit around while management tried to figure out what everyone should be doing.
She had enough, resigned, and decided to take the plunge into entrepreneurship, acquiring an online store, babarazzi.co.za, which she had big dreams of turning into the next Yuppiechef.
A few months later she launched VA Virtual Assistant after spotting a clear gap in the market. Her husband Bradley developed the website, and when the company he was working for closed down in 2016, he joined the business full time, and the two entrepreneurs combined their skills to offer their clients admin, tech, marketing and social media support.
Knowing Where To Start
Many wanna-be entrepreneurs know they want to own their own businesses, but they don’t always know where to start. Is their idea good enough; is there a market for it; will people or companies part with their hard-earned cash to pay for it? These are just some of the questions start-ups should be asking themselves.
Innovation Is the Sum of Experiences
Rapelang Rabana, entrepreneur, tech expert and chief digital officer at BCX has clear advice on how you find and follow great ideas. “Your ability to innovate and be creative is based on the sum of all of your experiences,” she says.
“Great ideas do not take shape in our minds, they are the result of external stimuli hitting a prepared mind.
“We don’t think up ideas — we notice them. We connect the dots in new and creative ways. And our ability to do so is based on how prepared we are to notice what’s happening around us, and to tap into that information.”
When Carmen bought babarazzi.co.za, she applied to the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship and was accepted into the programme. It was there that the idea for VA was born. “Meeting and speaking to fellow business owners I realised that we all had the same or similar struggles,” she recalls.
“We all needed extra hours or an extra set of hands, but couldn’t afford an additional employee — either because of the costs involved, or because there wasn’t enough work for a full-time position.
“I did loads of research and found that virtual assistants are popular internationally, but there wasn’t a big offering locally. I recognised the gap and VA was born.”
SJ and Denise Koortzen, co-founders of Kgalagadi Lodge, also spotted a gap, this time 1 000kms from Joburg and in the middle of the desert, but the same rules applied. Based on their experiences in the hospitality industry and what they knew of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, there was a clear business opportunity.
“We visited the park often as it was close to our farm, and we always noticed how full the accommodation got — it was clear there was a high demand for more accommodation in the area, all we needed to do was find the right piece of land.”
A new road to the Kgalagadi was also under construction, so the timing was perfect. SJ and Denise knew demand would only increase, with no new players currently creating offerings of their own.
Tara-Lee spotted an opportunity for a recruitment specialist who didn’t treat candidates or clients as a number, but could add a personal touch. To deliver that added level of service though, she needed to branch out on her own.
Find Your Big Idea
Pay attention to the world around you. There’s no such thing as knowing too much about an industry, target market or its needs.
Keep a notebook for your observations — what frustrates you, what you would do differently, and what you love.
These ideas will start percolating together until you formulate your idea.
Lesson 2: Make Access To Market Your Top Priority
Born and bred in the Kalahari, SJ Koortzen fell in love with the hospitality industry when he visited his grandparents’ lodge as a child. This love grew when his family opened Dreghorn Kalahari Game Ranch many years later.
Having returned from a gap year in the UK, SJ recognised that building a lodge on the family farm would maximise the farm’s profits. After meeting and marrying his wife, Denise, SJ realised he wanted to build his own lodge.
It wasn’t easy. The site that is home to Kgalagadi Lodge is only five kilometres from the popular Kgalagadi Transfontier Park, but hundreds of kilometres from anywhere else.
SJ and Denise lived in a caravan on the site for the first four months, and had to deal with the challenges and logistics of building something far off the beaten track. They didn’t give up, and today their lodge is a gem in the heart of the red dunes of the Kalahari.
If You Can’t Make Sales, You Don’t Have a Business
This is one of the most important, yet toughest, things start-ups — and more mature businesses — face. If you can’t make sales, you don’t have a business. Before you can sign deals though, you need to have access to your market.
Finding Your Market Takes Persistence
One way to gain access to market is through your location. For SJ, there was a captive market of tourists who wanted to visit the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, but couldn’t if the accommodation was fully booked. Over time, word of mouth ensured repeat business, but he had a market he could access based on his proximity to a very specific tourist destination.
“I can confidently say that, even though I couldn’t foresee all the obstacles we faced due to the location, I did my homework and research well, and we couldn’t have chosen a better location to build such a successful and beautiful lodge,” he says.
For SJ and Denise, location and lack of competitors was their access to market. Their delivery is how they’ve secured repeat business.
For most entrepreneurs, access to market isn’t quite as clear cut. You need to know who your market is, what they need, and most importantly, how they will find you. Even though many entrepreneurs hate it, cold calling is often the only answer to securing clients.
“I picked up the phone and started calling companies,” says Tara-Lee de Wit. “The only way businesses were going to know who I was and what I offered was if I told them.”
As an entrepreneur, you need to learn to sell. If this is outside of your comfort zone, you’re going to have to get over it.
As Alan Knott-Craig loves to say: If you’re not ready to be a salesman, you’re not ready to be an entrepreneur. Finding your idea is the easy part — sales takes seriously hard work, discipline, and above all, perseverance.
You might have to make 20 phone calls to get two connects, and you’ll secure one meeting for every ten connects.
You won’t know your ratios until you’re making those calls and knocking on doors, so get started. There are other ways to access your market. Word-of-mouth referrals are excellent once you have a few clients, and the Internet also offers a world of possibilities.
Carmen accessed her first client, a business woman based in Zambia, through eLance, a platform that sources freelancers. She did her research, found out which sites virtually linked skills with businesses, and registered on them.
Unable to afford to advertise, Carmen and Bradley also attended as many networking events as possible. “Virtual Assistants is a new but fast-growing industry in South Africa. We told people who we are and what we do and that helped us grow,” she explains.
“We needed to be out there educating other business owners about who we were, and what our industry was. That’s how you start building up traction.”
Fish Where The Fish Are
There’s an old saying, ‘Fish where the fish are’. To find clients, you need to be marketing yourself where they can see you. The more you understand your market, the higher your chances of accessing it.
And then you need to learn how to sell. For a masterclass, read Mark McCormack’s book What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.
Lesson 3: Dictate Your Own Terms
Tara-Lee de Wit started working when she was 16. She was home schooled, and balanced studying with employment. At 14, she knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur one day, a goal she wasn’t shy to share with her father, a 40-year Telkom veteran.
At 19 she took the plunge. She’d been working in recruitment and saw the placement fees her employers charged. Instead of continuing to make money for other people, she decided to shape her own destiny. She moved to the Western Cape and launched a boutique recruitment agency, Principal Class Placements.
Don’t Be Too Flexible – You’ll Be Taken Advantage Of
Start-up entrepreneurs often believe they have to bend over backwards to secure a client. In some cases, this is because companies will take advantage of start-ups, assuming they’re desperate for the business, and in others it’s simply because the entrepreneur doesn’t know their own value and won’t stand up for themselves.
In both cases, the result is a skewed balance of power, to the detriment of the entrepreneur. “I was extremely flexible with my first client,” says Tara-Lee.
“They wanted flexible terms that were not at all to my advantage, and I agreed to their terms to secure them. We agreed that they would pay the first 25% of the placement fee upfront, and the remaining 75% three months later.
“When it was time to pay, they refused. The placement had gone through, and there was nothing I could do. I found a lawyer willing to work on a pro rata basis, and she managed to get them to pay within five days, but that was a year after the placement.”
Carmen and Bradley had a similar experience. “We had an arrangement with a small business that needed tech support and web development. We billed them at the end of every month, instead of in advance, which is our usual practice. Clients buy a pre-agreed amount of hours each month and pay upfront before the work commences.
“We thought it was worth it because it would be an ongoing relationship. It went well for a few months until they defaulted on paying our last invoice.
“We later found out that they had lost a really big client, and that had a knock-on effect to our cash flow. Now we always stick to our terms — the risks of not doing so are just too high.”
Don’t Under-Value Yourself
Launch discounts and flexible terms might secure early customers, but then what? It’s difficult to change terms or increase prices once you’ve already created an expectation in your customers’ minds. Don’t be unreasonable, but don’t undervalue yourself either. If you respect yourself, your business and your offering, your customers will as well.
Bravery Is a Habit
Practice being brave. Bravery is a habit. It’s a muscle that can be developed. The more you stand up for yourself, the easier it will become, so start sticking to your guns. You might lose a few clients, but those aren’t the customers you wanted anyway.
Lesson 4: Not Everything Goes As Planned
Despite the best laid plans, research and even operating within their markets, every start-up (and even mature businesses) face curveballs: Left-field issues that they didn’t see coming.
In some cases, the start-up had control over them, in others they didn’t. Either way, an essential trait for every entrepreneur is the ability to roll with the punches, learn, and implement solutions.
You Will Face Obstacles – But You Can Overcome Them
“One of our lowest moments in the past five years was a big tourist attraction in the area placing a limit on the service that they offer,” says SJ. “They’re a big attraction to tourists in the area, and the shift is having a direct effect on the lodge, our guests and our employees. We’re still trying to assess how big the impact is likely to be on our business.
“On top of that, even though we trademarked our name six years ago, we’re being sued for using it — another obstacle we didn’t see coming at all, particularly since we ensured we did everything necessary when we trademarked the name.
“Both of these obstacles have hit me hard, and I have to keep reminding myself that this is what being an entrepreneur is about. I now have to find the best possible solutions to ensure that my business grows from strength to strength through it all.”
It’s difficult to plan for the unexpected — but how you turn unexpected events to your advantage is the mark of a true entrepreneur. “We didn’t plan for Bradley’s employer to close down. But once it happened he was able to join me,” Says Carmen.
“By pairing our skills and experience, we’re able to offer our clients more than just admin support. We provide tech support, website development and marketing support. Clients get more done without having to go to different companies to find all the services they need.”
The realities of entrepreneurship, and start-ups in particular, is that expectations and reality are often miles apart. “The reality is that we work more hours now. A big part of leaving my corporate job was to have more time with my kids. But when you’re building and growing a business it’s not easy to find the balance in your life.
“Your business always needs you. We’ve found our balance through flexible time. For example, my oldest son is a cricket player and if we plan our work load and our days efficiently we can go and support him at his games and still deliver to our clients.”
The Tools To Persevere
Find the tools you need to help you persevere. Surround yourself with positive people, follow motivational posts and talks, and concentrate on your inner voice. Are you telling yourself you’re going to succeed, or that you’re going to fail? Business is tough — it always will be. Your ability to succeed starts with you, and how you emotionally, mentally and strategically handle curveballs.
Lesson 5: Balance Strengths With Weaknesses
Every business has strengths and weakness — the trick is to not ignore either, and to turn weaknesses into strengths where possible.
A Weakness Can Be A Strength
“It’s wonderful how one of your weaknesses can also be one of your biggest strengths. Our location created challenges that we didn’t plan for,” says SJ. “We used service providers from Joburg and Cape Town who couldn’t always come to our site and everything took longer to build and implement because of our distance from main centres.
“But our location is also what makes the lodge so successful — it’s our biggest attraction. I’m confident in the fact that even though I didn’t foresee all the obstacles we would face (and continue to face), I did my research — we couldn’t have chosen a better location for our lodge.”
Do Your Research
Regularly conduct a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) to mitigate any risks that might impact the business, but also to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. Strengths should be fostered, and weaknesses addressed where possible. Be careful though — sometimes a weakness isn’t worth addressing if changing it won’t move the needle in your business.
We learn by doing. We experience something, and if we’re able to critically analyse the events, we can learn and implement lessons learnt. But we can also learn from others. Here are the top lessons Tara-Lee, Carmen and SJ learnt that they wish they’d known when they started their businesses.
1. Always have a pipeline. “My business picked up traction quickly. I had a nice pool of repeat clients and I was making placements, and I stopped picking up the phone,” says Tara-Lee. “Eventually I had no sales left in my pipeline. My eggs were all in one basket, and when we had a big client who didn’t pay us, we had no new business in our pipeline that we could approach to make up for our shortfall.
“You always need a balance. When old clients keep coming back you can get complacent — don’t let yourself fall into this trap. What will you do if one of those clients drops off? What if they won’t pay you, or they suddenly put a halt on their expenditure, or they simply have cash flow issues and can’t pay you?”
2. Nobody is an overnight success. “Embrace your mistakes and see them as lessons. It’s tough — you want to get things right from the beginning, but that’s not how start-ups work,” says Carmen. “We need to be more forgiving of ourselves, and make sure we learn and implement lessons learnt.”
3. Keep an eye open for gaps. “I’ve found that when things are going well you don’t see the gaps in your business. It’s only when something goes wrong that they’re suddenly so obvious,” says Tara-Lee. “Learn to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses routinely so that you can address critical gaps before they become a problem.”
4. Evaluate your costs carefully. “Cheap now could be very expensive later,” says SJ. “We should have used more expensive suppliers who were close to us than choose suppliers based in big cities who gave us cheaper quotes. In the long run, the distance was a real issue, and ended up costing us a lot more.”
5. Invest in critical skills. “We waited far too long to hire additional employees, and when we did we hired people who were inexperienced so that we could train them. We saved money, but it ended up costing us money to have inexperienced people dealing with our clients,” says Tara-Lee.
“Then one day I realised that if I hired an experienced consultant, and paid them well, they would make me money, instead of costing me money. Skills are the bedrock of any business. Go for the best and you’ll have a revenue generator, not an expense.”
SJ agrees. He hires from local communities, but as a start-up he didn’t invest enough time into developing skills. “We’ve changed this — skills development is critical to the business, but if I could, I would have set these systems up from day one.”
6. Don’t be afraid to say yes to learning new things. “International clients often ask us to work on systems or with software we have never heard of. We always accept the challenge. Not only do we have happy clients, but we have been able to add to our experience,” says Carmen.
7. Learn and adapt. “You can’t expect to do better if you’ve been doing the same thing every year,” says Tara-Lee. “We’re now focusing on targets and KPIs. We need to make a certain amount of placements each month, and we need to know our metrics to achieve them. I’ve never wanted to be like a big corporate agency only focused on numbers, and so I missed the key principle here — we don’t have to treat people like numbers, but we should still track our own metrics to achieve growth and success.”