Vimala Ariyan's 5 Lessons in Startup Growth

Starting a business takes guts, focus and determination - and a lot of hard work. But get the basics right, and you can create something that makes a real difference in society.

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Vimala Ariyan
  • Company: Southern African Institute of Learning (SAIL)
  • Est: 2005
  • Visit:

It took Vimala Ariyan 12 years to build the solid foundations her business needed to become a high-growth organisation. Launching a business with the fundamentals in place lays the ground work for future growth.

Mike Turner Photography

Here are Vimala's five top lessons in high-growth start-ups.

1. Know your product, market and industry

There's a time-tested rule when successfully launching a start-up: Do what you know. For many people, this means not only studying a particular discipline, but working within the industry before choosing the entrepreneurial path.

Vimala Ariyan spent 13 years as a school teacher before branching out into adult education.

"I realised I no longer wanted to teach syllabuses and methodologies that kept changing, and which I had no control over," she says.

With so many South African adults lacking formal qualifications, Vimala knew that she could make a real impact in adult training. She entered the world of adult education when she joined the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). SAQA, together with the three Quality Councils (QCs), advances the objectives of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF).

Qualifications and unit standards are registered with SAQA on the NQF in ascending order from levels one to ten. The aim of the NQF is to upskill people by providing learning opportunities to previously disadvantaged South Africans who were denied formal education and training.

"Unit standards are the building blocks to a full qualification. When a learner meets all the unit standard outcomes, they achieve competency and are awarded credits for that unit standard on the NQF. A learner can gradually work towards a sector-specific full qualification by achieving clusters of unit standards.

"The system allows you to do your training in stages, and because all results are logged on the NQF, lifelong learning is promoted. One can continuously build skills and knowledge throughout one's life."

The Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) accredit training and quality assure the delivery of training providers, making them the operational arm to SAQA's strategic one.

Through her new role at SAQA where she co-ordinated SETAs, Vimala was exposed to how courses were developed, accredited, and delivered. After she left SAQA, she worked as a consultant at a SETA and this experience gave her the operational insights she hadn't previously had. It became clear to her that there was a big gap in the market

"Training providers who operate at grassroots level faced many difficulties and challenges rolling out training according to SAQA and SETA prescripts. I was one of the fortunate few who had worked strategically and operationally, so I understood the disconnect.

"I also know that where there's a challenge, there's invariably an opportunity — if you can find a solution. I saw this as the ideal chance to accredit my own training institute, create my own courses and make a real difference to employed and unemployed adult learners.

"I had experience in how qualifications were designed, the accreditation process and facilitation of learning. I knew I was equipped to provide an excellent service — for which I knew there was a need."

2. Have the commitment to see your vision through

Vimala isn't afraid of hard work. For many years, she had no life outside the business. But that hard work paid off in the long run. Vimala built foundations that have formed the bedrock of sustainable growth — and it all started in her dining room, with a laptop and a small Lexmark printer.

"I have the greatest respect for that printer," she laughs. "It printed so much course material; I don't know how it kept up."

Vimala developed much of her course material. "I knew that this was an area where I could differentiate myself, but it would take a lot of hard work. Courses were my products and I needed to build my product offerings.

"In the initial stages of the business, I designed and developed all of my programmes as it was too expensive to outsource. As the business grew, I contracted material developers who were subject matter experts, to quality assure and write new material.

"At the outset, I targeted municipalities as they have a broad spectrum of needs. I realised that a single provider who could cover most — if not all — of those needs would have a clear differentiator."

Today, SAIL offers over 50 qualifications, and 500 short courses, all accredited with SETAs across sectors and industries. 17 of the qualifications and over 300 short courses are aimed at local government.

It was a full year before Vimala was able to employ an administrative assistant. She worked as a Training and Development consultant to pay the bills and bring cash into the business while she developed courses, got these accredited and grew SAIL's product offerings.

3. Focus on securing excellent referrals

Referrals are everything. This is true for established businesses, but it's essential for start-ups. When you don't have a track record, how do you convince clients to test your services? You need work to get work.

"Fortunately I had a strong education and training background, but I still needed to break into the industry," says Vimala. "I was knocking on doors and getting nowhere. The business desperately needed a client to start up — so I set out to find clients… even if they didn't pay me.

"I offered training to three big organisations at no cost to them. I got to pilot my programmes and, much to my satisfaction, now had a few organisations as my references."

Vimala's big break came when the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) agreed to a free training programme. "Not only did the DBSA ask me to set up their training academy based on the work I'd done for them, but they referred two big clients to me. I was in business."

To date, SAIL has trained people extensively in the public sector. "This has become our niche. Our referrals in this sector are excellent. We're known for overcoming obstacles, being dependable and going the extra mile. Training doesn't stop after you leave the classroom; there are admin processes to follow. We ensure that the follow-through happens."

4. Find smart ways to market your product

Different products and services require different marketing strategies. In the case of training, Vimala has discovered that experiencing how SAIL approaches education is the strongest marketing tool they possess.

"We partner with local organisations, municipalities and government initiatives to offer free workshops to target audiences. For example, at a women's day event we hosted, we gave 150 delegates vouchers for a workshop on entrepreneurship to experience a sample of our national certificate in New Venture Creation.

"We're ticking two boxes: We're giving back, because there's value in even a small sample of the course, and if we get delegates signing up for the full programme, that's a good ROI for us. We're passionate about training, and always give a few free seats in most of our training sessions to unemployed individuals who cannot afford training."

Vimala and her team have many innovative ways to generate business beyond this marketing tool. "Due to a high standard of delivery, we've developed good relationships with various organisations across the country.

"SAIL has earned a strong reputation among the nine SETAs within which it operates. We know which areas they are focusing on, where they have identified skills shortages, and where the focus in future training will be. This allows us to prepare and pitch programmes to meet identified skills shortages."

SAIL runs public courses and has a yearly calendar set up for enrolment. The SAIL e-Learning Department was recently launched. Learners can attempt accredited learning at their own pace and convenience. SAIL has also added a strong social media campaign to its marketing strategy, focusing on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn to generate inbound leads.

5. Increase your revenue streams

As a start-up, your most important strategy is your go-to-market plan. For Vimala, this was developing as many accredited courses as possible to increase SAIL's product offerings.

As a business grows, however, it is necessary to diversify its revenue streams. "We're now focusing on the corporate sector, and increasing our presence there," says Vimala.

"We will always target our niche, the public sector, but the bureaucracy of government organisations means we are often only paid 90 days after invoice. We've had to manage our cash flow carefully to make this work.

"Diversifying into the corporate sector helps our cash flow and opens new opportunities. It's a different sales model, and we need to spend time showing the value of our solution. Corporate clients have different needs and expectations, and we've adjusted our model accordingly.

"The strategy is working well for us. We're also aware that e-Learning is the future, and it allows us to reach new audiences and learners — even growing beyond our borders, which is a big focus for 2017."

The Biggest Lesson I've Learnt

Vimala's biggest lesson came when a US organisation expressed an interest in acquiring SAIL. "It was only during the due diligence that I realised what we had: A wealth of qualifications, a huge learner database, and an excellent pool of facilitators on our books. There's great value in all of those areas."

But the due diligence also exposed gaps in the business. Most notably, working "in the business' was preventing SAIL from achieving its potential as a high-growth organisation.

"I'd been so busy working in my business that I failed to work on it. The years spent developing the Institute gave us a clear differentiator, but it was now time to take a step back and work strategically on the business itself.

"That's how you shift from start-up to a sustainable growth organisation. In the past two years, SAIL's business strategy has been to reach our goals faster."

Vimala and her marketing team network extensively to grow their client base. She is a member of the Women Presidents Organisation and a certified WeConnect supplier (an international organisation that links female suppliers to corporates).

"SAIL is constantly upgraded and upskilled with the latest innovations and technologies within the training environment. We now have a business consultant on a full-time retainer to help scale the business.

"We've put systems and processes in place, implemented a proper marketing strategy, and hired the necessary staff to build a robust business. We currently have 20 full-time employees and aim to increase this to 35 by 2020. Over the last two years we've grown by 25%, thanks to a strong focus on sales and marketing. Strong foundations and a new focus have geared us for the future."