From Startup To Serious Player

Nkululeko Silimela has created a slick and professional operation that is still agile and boasts low overheads. Here are his tips for creating a successful start-up.

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Vital Stats

Entrepreneur first encountered Nkululeko Silimela of Nkusi-IT when it accompanied a bunch of promising local tech entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley in the US. The entrepreneurs were hosted by Investec and En-novate, giving promising young South African business people access to international markets, ideas and funders.

GG Van Rooyen

Nkululeko is an impressive individual who gave up a promising (and secure) job in the corporate world to launch his own business. The company, Nkusi-IT, was launched in 2011, and has now become an established business with an impressive list of blue-chip clients.

Giving up a solid corporate salary and choosing to try and launch a new business is never easy, so how did Nkululeko manage it? A big reason for his success can be found in the lessons he learnt in the corporate world. Early on, he realised that start-ups need to act and look like large companies.

How, after all, can you hope to take business from corporates if you can't offer the same level of professionalism? Here are Nkululeko's tips for launching a competitive start-up.

1. Act like a corporate

"What struck me about the corporate firms where I worked was the focus on excellence and professionalism," says Nkululeko.

"There is a culture in these companies that demands your best at all times. Not only do you need to be great at your job, but you also need to act and look the part.

"You need to be professional. That means being on time, dressing appropriately and engaging clients in an appropriate way. It was an ethos I took with me to Nkusi-IT. I didn't want the company to act and operate like a start-up. I wanted to offer clients the same experience they would have when dealing with a corporate, because I realised it was the only way I could ever compete with them."

2. Work for a corporate

"Spending time in a large company can teach you a lot about culture, and it can also make you better at your job. So, I would recommend spending a few years in an established firm before you launch your own business. It's very hard to create a competitive business if you have no idea how things are done in an established organisation.

"Also, a corporate job can be invaluable in creating a professional network. It would have been much harder to grow NKusi-IT if I didn't have industry connections that I could go to for help and advice," says Nkululeko.

3. Find a (big) partner

"While still working in the corporate world, I was a systems engineer who focused on Microsoft products. So, because of this, I knew the company's products well, and I was familiar with some of the people within the local office.

"When I started Nkusi-IT, I decided to approach Microsoft and to become an official Microsoft Partner. Becoming a recognised partner isn't simple — it's quite a process — but it opens a lot of doors for you.

"My aim was to focus on government business, something that few companies were doing at the time because of the red tape and complexity. But I believed that there was a real opportunity for a company that could go in and assist government to be more efficient.

"As a new entrepreneur, you should remember that companies like Microsoft are often looking for small partners that they can invest in and help grow. A lot of corporates view it as their moral obligation for operating in a country like South Africa. Don't be afraid to approach large firms and propose a partnership, even if your business is still very small," says Nkululeko.

4. Build your brand

"As a start-up, your biggest barrier to landing large clients will be a lack of credibility," says Nkululeko. "When you're just starting out, you don't have a track record, so it can be hard to convince people that you will be able to do the job if you're given the contract.

"The solution is to make your business appear as professional as possible. You should act and look like a corporate. It comes down to the simple things. Pay someone to create a professional website for you. Pay someone to tweak and edit any company profiles or proposals you send out.

"A badly-written proposal with loads of typos and grammatical errors will send a terrible message, even if the ability to write is unrelated to the work you'll be doing."

5. Don't overspend

"Your brand and image is important, but that doesn't mean that you need to spend a fortune to look like a large firm. You might splurge in certain areas, but save money wherever you can.

"For instance, Nkusi-IT consists of a very small team. There are still only three full-time employees today. When we get a massive contract, I simply make use of a large regular pool of contractors that I know and trust, and who have started to actually feel like full-time employees.

"The point, however, is this: You don't want to hire a whole bunch of people who you need to keep paying, even when there's a dip in contracts."