7 South African Entrepreneurs Who Went From Nothing To Global Success

These homegrown businesses have grown from local companies to international brands. Here's how these South African entrepreneurs have successfully expanded their footprint beyond our borders.
7 South African Entrepreneurs Who Went From Nothing To Global Success
Image credit: Bigstock
Entrepreneur Staff
Sales Enablement: Content Developer
20 min read
The ability to adapt to a changing environment is a key success factor for any business. But there are those that do more than simply adapt. Working at the cutting edge of their industries, they are continually moving forward and opening up new frontiers. Instead of merely adapting to change, they bring it about. These are South Africa's true entrepreneurial visionaries – and they're taking their businesses global:
7 South African Entrepreneurs Who Went From Nothing To Global Success

Grant Rushmere’s Global Success With BOS Ice Tea

Grant Rushmere’s Global Success With BOS Ice Tea
Image credit: Sarah Schäfer

When Grant Rushmere first envisioned Bos Ice Tea, he did it through the lens of creating a global brand. This wasn’t going to be a small local brand that would grow organically, and maybe enter international markets in the distant future.

No. This was a brand engineered for stratospheric growth, which required a ballsy optimism and willingness to go big or go home.

Of course, that just means a harder and longer fall if things don’t work out, but Rushmere and his founding partner, Richard Bowsher, weren’t thinking about that. They had their eyes squarely focused on the one-year mark.

“That’s how much runway we had,” says Rushmere. “We could see the date when we were going to run out of money, and we were hurtling towards it.”

According to Rushmere, there is a set process to brand creation. First, make the early interaction with your brand simple. “Think about human nature,” says Rushmere.

“If we had a full CV of every person we met, before we knew them, we’d form opinions, make assumptions and be overwhelmed. But, if you meet them, find them friendly, open and engaging, then you want to learn more — and you’ll keep learning more. Finding a brand that you like and identify with is the same.”

Finding (and sharing) your brand story

Once you’ve set this foundation, you follow up with your brand story. “Brands need to be humble. Think about the most successful brands in the world. Their messages are incredibly simple. Red Bull gives you wings. Coca Cola: Open happiness. Nike’s iconic, ‘just do it’. 

“These are all simple messages that have been repeated a lot. These brands have sold a simple idea that has layers and layers of complexity behind the simplicity — but none of that was created in a day. Most importantly, all successful brands are easy to recognise, remember and relate to.”

Bos’s tagline is ‘Not just an ice tea’, highlighting how one simple sentence can have layers of complexity: Rooibos is an alchemical transformation, and the brand’s portrayal of itself has always kept this front and centre.

“We knew we were tapping into a huge global market on the high end of the consumer scale, and that iced tea speaks to a health trend, but this didn’t mean we should scream health from the front of our packaging, and in our marketing messages. If you do that, you lose all sense of fun. 

“You want your consumers to feel a little naughty; like they’re having fun. Long-term, that’s how you build brand equity. It might sound counter-intuitive, but from a brand’s perspective, an emotional hook is much easier to defend than a functional hook. 

“By tapping into emotions — what the brand stands for and how it makes you feel — you give the brand a voice; you’re not just selling features and benefits. If you take a functional approach to marketing, you’re basing everything on the fact that you contain less sugar than other soft drinks. What happens when someone comes along with even less sugar? You’re suddenly dead in the water.”

Fun, quirky, Afrochic — Bos Ice Tea has cemented its place in the hearts of South African and European consumers. And the brand’s journey is still just beginning. Currently Bos Brands’ market is 50% international and 50% local.

Related: How Bertus Albertse Built an R80-Million Global Business From His Living Room

7 South African Entrepreneurs Who Went From Nothing To Global Success

Sarah Collins and the Wonderbag That’s Taking The World By Storm

Sarah Collins and the Wonderbag That’s Taking The World By Storm
Image credit: Adrienna Weerheim

At a fundamental level, the Wonderbag is not a very modern or sophisticated product. In fact, it’s based on the premise of heat-retention cooking, which many cultures have been using for centuries. But what founder Sarah Collins has accomplished is nothing short of extraordinary.

She has taken this simple technology that has been around for ages and turned it into a revolutionary product that is sold all over the world and making a positive impact on the world. It is sold in places like the United States and UK, and she’s partnered with massive companies like Unilever and Amazon.

So, what exactly is a Wonderbag?

“This non-electric bag is made up of re-purposed chipped foam that is housed in colourful, African-inspired printed fabrics with a drawstring at the top to retain the heat. Food is brought to the boil by conventional cooking methods (fire, gas, etc.) and once put into the Wonderbag will continue to cook for up to 12 hours,” says Sarah.

Importantly, Sarah intended the Wonderbag to be, if not an outright social enterprise, something that could have a very positive impact on the world, specifically within those communities that are in desperate need of help.

Be realistic

“Entering foreign markets will almost always be harder and take longer than you initially anticipated. So, be realistic (even a little pessimistic) in your predictions, and don’t get discouraged. Know that you need to be determined and keep plugging away at it. I remember arriving in New York for the first time. I knew absolutely no one and it was very daunting. It can be tempting to turn and run, but don’t,” she says.

“If you want to build a successful international brand, it’s a good idea to not just be in it for the money. Great success comes from having a mission, and not just from trying to make money.”

“Being from the southern tip of Africa, many of us tend to place people from Europe or America on a pedestal. We simply think that we can never engage with them or operate at their level,” says Sarah. 
“It’s not true. 

“Wonderbags are now sold through Amazon, and that happened simply because I sent Jeff Bezos an email. I didn’t know him at all, so I just took a chance. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.”

Find other markets

“If you want to take your brand global, you need to consider how it can be marketed and sold in various parts of the world. Try to find alternative uses and markets for your product. With the Wonderbag, for instance, we are currently focusing on the leisure market. 

“Being able to prepare food through heat-retention cooking is obviously great if you’re a camper or overlander. Suddenly, we’re selling the Wonderbag to a very different kind of customer,” says Sarah.

Related: How Erna Basson Went From Promo Girl to Global Entrepreneur

7 South African Entrepreneurs Who Went From Nothing To Global Success

Mike Wright’s Lessons In International Expansion

Mike Wright’s Lessons In International Expansion
Image credit: Devin Lester

Mike Wright didn’t discover he was an entrepreneur at heart when he turned 30. He had entrepreneurial DNA from a young age. He studied accounting because he knew it would be good for business, and he spent a few years in the corporate world learning as much about business, marketing, sales and profit making as he could. Then, when he was ready, he took the plunge.

Mike launched Striata in 1999 from his converted garage in Kensington, Johannesburg. He was 30 years old, with limited capital, and had resigned from his job as MD of a leading web design firm to follow his dreams. To get started, he rescheduled his bond and provisional tax payments, and started working on his big idea. These are his lessons in high-level growth, and the do’s and don’ts of international expansion.

Striata is a R120 million+ business that operates across South Africa, the Americas, Europe from a base in the UK, and Asia. Launched in South Africa in 1999, founder Mike Wright reached a point where the only way he could grow the business further was to go offshore.

Expansion in the US has been extremely successful, and Mike moved to the UK with his family to spearhead European growth. The business’s efforts in Australia have been less successful however, and a second office has since opened in Hong Kong to service Asia Pacific. Here are Striata’s lessons on international expansion — what worked for them, what hasn’t worked, and how to approach new territories to guide your business’s success.

Learning from the ground up

Mike Wright’s first piece of advice to any entrepreneur looking at international expansion is not to rely on statistics. “In my view, statistics don’t work for the individual,” he explains.

“You can be successful and be doing the opposite of what the statistics say should work, or you can do exactly what the stats applaud and still be struggling.

“If you’re thinking of expanding beyond your borders, hopefully you are already successful in your own market. We reached a level of success and maturity in South Africa that led us down this path. Along the way we’ve learnt that when you enter new markets that aren’t in the business landscape you know and understand, all bets are off. Past achievements don’t guarantee future success.

“You need to look at your business, what you offer, your differentiators, strengths and weaknesses, and use those to determine your go-to-market strategy, based on intensive research into the markets you’re entering. You need to know how and why people do business, and who they do it with, in all the territories you’re looking at.”

In each of the three territories they entered (Australia, the UK and the US), Striata sent pioneers — people they knew, who had worked with them or knew them, and who understood who and what the brand stood for — to spearhead the new international offices.

There’s a fundamental choice you have to make when you launch a division in a new territory: Employ a local with an entrenched network, or send someone that you know shares your values and company culture,” says Mike. 

The most obvious way to tap into an established network is to find a local partner, or purchase a local business. The downside to this strategy is culture. 

“The bedrock of a successful business is a shared company culture, but fundamentally you can’t change people. If you go the acquisition route, you need to be absolutely sure you have cultural alignment, and too often it’s only once you’re in business together that you realise you don’t.”

Striata opted for door number two: Supporting individuals from within the organisation to spearhead international growth and building networks on the ground.

“Building a network takes time. You need to attend conferences and networking events and make meaningful connections. We saw this in action in the US. Our pioneer was very good at growing his community and leveraging contacts. The US is a large, mature market, and no one cares where you’re from as long as you deliver. 

“We had a product to sell, not just a concept, and a track record. The right person, market, timing and opportunity aligned for us, and our launch and subsequent growth was successful. We didn’t gain traction overnight, but there was a market for our services, which is the biggest hurdle.”

The strategy worked well in the US and the UK — but not that well in Australia. “We learnt the hard way that the Australian business market is built on long-standing relationships, and it’s a difficult market to break into as an expat.”

As a result, Striata invested more in the market that was working. From 2005 to 2008, US growth was a top priority. “We hired more people, attended conferences and ensured we had a good product with exceptional back-up support and account management. Not every decision will be a win — even when you’re accustomed to getting things right. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and focus on what is working.”

International expansion

From 2004, Mike aggressively sought growth avenues. His five-year-old business was established, and servicing much of corporate South Africa. “There are two ways to grow: Add a product to sell to your current clients, or look at new geographies. We did both.”

There are a few major points that work in Striata’s favour. “Our currency gives us a margin that international competitors can’t match.” That said, many other international tech companies, including Amazon, have set up development hubs in Cape Town to take advantage of local skills and the exchange rate.

Second, South Africa operates in the same time zone as the UK and Europe, so tech support is only a phone call or email away.

“When we started looking overseas, we were a relatively young software company that had a software as a service (SaaS) offering. We knew we had the capability to sell anywhere and everywhere, and we had a cost advantage based on the rand exchange rate. We had the ideal business model for international expansion, we just needed to gain traction.”

Related: 5 Lessons From Shooshoos On Going Global

7 South African Entrepreneurs Who Went From Nothing To Global Success

Peter Bauer And Neil Murray Cold-Called Their Way To A Billion Rand Business

Peter Bauer And Neil Murray Cold-Called Their Way To A Billion Rand Business
Image credit: Sarah Schäfer

Peter Bauer and Neil Murray launched Mimecast in 2003. It is now an international business with R1 billion of annual turnover. One of Peter Bauer and Neil Murray’s first hires when they were building Mimecast in the UK was a sales rep.

“He had massive self-confidence and an almost inexhaustible ability for cold calling. For the first four months he cold-called for nine hours a day, week after week.

His rejection rate was 98%, but because of the volumes of his calls, that 2% built our business from 50 clients to several hundred.

He also had a neat little trick with accents. If he called and was denied an appointment, he’d call back later with a different accent, which meant he could take a few shots at the same companies.

“We also used the fact that he was Canadian and had an American accent. It made us appear bigger than we were. A lot of companies assumed we were a US firm launching in the UK. Once they met us they realised the mistake, but by then we had our foot in the door and could show them what we could do.”

Related: 5 Lessons in Growth From Former Dimension Data CEO, Brett Dawson

7 South African Entrepreneurs Who Went From Nothing To Global Success

Erna Basson Went Back To Basics To Build A Global Beauty Empire

Erna Basson Went Back To Basics To Build A Global Beauty Empire
Image credit: Mardee Maree

Originally from Bloemfontein, Erna Basson has always been highly competitive. She completed a four-year bachelor’s degree in three years, while holding down several part-time jobs.

She was first bitten by the entrepreneurial bug in her second year at UFS (University of the Free State). Her class was struggling with business law, so she read the text book and produced an annotated summary that she then sold to desperate students.

Today, she heads up Erna Basson Ltd, a business coaching and speaking venture; Woman Entrepreneur, a global platform empowering and educating female entrepreneurs from around the world on how they can start and scale their businesses; and Erabella Beauty Global, a premium hair extensions brand available in South Africa and globally.

Another key lesson Erna learnt was that you can do anything, but you can’t do everything. “When I started Erabella, I had one staff member in Johannesburg, and lots of competition. I had to do everything, from accounts, social media, business development and so on, but now we have an entire team in each department. 

“The business grew too slowly and I realised that doing it alone was not going to work. I found a business partner in Cape Town, Karel Vermeulen — a very successful businessman who owns a personal care brand — and I knew we would be a great fit. I knew I could trust him with Erabella SA because he was invested, and I moved on to growing Erabella New Zealand and Australia.”

As a result of the partnership, the business is soaring. Today, Erabella hair extensions are available in South Africa, Namibia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Dubai, with Canada next on the list.

That personal investment principle is one that Erna has applied in her coaching business. People do not appreciate what comes free, she says. “If I coach you at no cost, chances are you will say the programme did not work. But if I charge $6 000 a day, I can guarantee that you will do the work required to make it a success, because you have skin in the game. You will value and appreciate the process.”

Related: Bob Skinstad Unpacks How You Can Use The 8020 Principle To Drive Growth

7 South African Entrepreneurs Who Went From Nothing To Global Success

Brian Altriche Took SA’s Love Affair With The Burgers Beyond Borders

Brian Altriche Took SA’s Love Affair With The Burgers Beyond Borders
Image credit: Mike Turner

Twenty years after Brian Altriche experienced a life-changing event in his mid-20s – a car accident that left him with a broken leg and a broken arm – RocoMamas was born. Arguably one of the most successful new brands in South Africa’s restaurant industry and the leader in fast casual dining. 

The idea for RocoMamas came about after his head injury led him to become obsessed with visualisation: Visualising his life path, what a brand should look like, how customers would experience a particular offering. But nothing happened until he visualised it down to the tiniest detail. 

Brian’s fanatical relationship with the power of visualisation would lead directly to rapidly building the concept from three stores to 49 in 18 months and is spearheading South Africa’s renewed love affair with the burger.

RocoMamas just landed in Australia, but there are already plans for locations in India, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Cyprus. RocoMamas has become an overnight household name, but longevity is going to come through slow, careful, sustainable growth, which is exactly what Brian is doing.

Related: How Tim Hogins Went From Security Guard to Theme Park Mogul

7 South African Entrepreneurs Who Went From Nothing To Global Success

Callie and Francois van der Merwe broke new ground through partnerships

Callie and Francois van der Merwe broke new ground through partnerships
Image credit: Callie van der Merwe

In the complex, fast-paced and ever-changing world of design, keeping up is difficult enough. Setting trends is an ability found in an exclusive few and it is to this elite group that The Design Partnership belongs. Co-founded by architects Callie van der Merwe and Francois van der Merwe, the business has broken new ground in forging a cohesive new discipline that combines architecture, design and branding.

Callie explains the company’s evolution: “Francois and I both studied architecture but as time marched on, retail commissions seemed to roll in at an ever-increasing pace. Retail and Hospitality design chose us. It is almost as if we had no say in the matter.” The partners launched The Design Partnership Retail & Hospitality division, anticipating and exploiting synergies between retail and architectural design.

“The boundaries between the design disciplines were purposefully eroded to encourage more interaction and yielded great results,” continues Callie, adding that one of the most defining trends in the world of design today is that of blurring the lines between design disciplines.

How to be focused and niche

The lines between architecture and interior design, graphic and product design, even fashion and food design, are less clear than they have ever been in the past.

Understanding the interaction between the disciplines, particularly in the retail and foodie markets where fashion trends dictate what’s vogue, The Design Partnership has excelled at delivering innovative retail and hospitality projects, among them Doppio Zero, Mugg &Bean and Carducci.

The more entrenched the company became in the retail design space, the more they recognised the need to tie the location, interior and exterior design in with the brand. Callie explains: “It dawned on us that because each business is developed around a very specific target audience we should logically communicate a very clear single message to this audience.”

The launch of the Brandertising Division followed and with it, a new concept in design and branding. John Gordon, divisional director, explains, “If the brand is not to be diluted, you need to strap everything relating to it in with one belt. That’s what brandertising does.”

He adds that everything about a retail or hospitality space should follow on from the brand.

The process he and his team follow starts with the essence of the brand and where it would like to be positioned in the market. 

As Callie outlines: “A project generally begins with a brainstorming session about a current market offering, its competitors, where it is hoping to penetrate the market and where it would like to position itself in that market.”

The team then comes up with a single-minded message – a ‘soundbite’ –that reflects the essence of the brand. “The soundbite is the thing that will help a brand to penetrate the market, so that’s where you need to start.

“It’s the thing that draws people to a place. When they get there, the interior and the furniture and the location will have an impact and play an important role in reflecting the brand, but the soundbite is what gets them there in the first place,” he elaborates.

One of their more recent projects is FSH, a seafood restaurant in Rosebank, Johannesburg. John explains how The Design Partnership developed its soundbite: “Major competitors in the same market already owned words such as ‘ocean’ so we had to come up with a soundbite that would get as close as possible to the restaurant’s core offering.

“We couldn’t use a generic word like ‘fish’ so instead we used FSH – when people read it they automatically fill in the ‘i’. It gives them ownership of that word in that market.” Brandertising projects such as this one have taken The Design Partnership’s business to a new level.

This is a team that understands that to be a leader in business is not about carving a niche for oneself in an existing cliff face; it’s about discovering a new mountain and summiting it before anyone else realises it’s even there.

Related: 9 Business Lessons From Danny K

  • 7 South African Entrepreneurs Who Went From Nothing To Global Success
  • Grant Rushmere’s Global Success With BOS Ice Tea
  • Sarah Collins and the Wonderbag That’s Taking The World By Storm
  • Mike Wright’s Lessons In International Expansion
  • Peter Bauer And Neil Murray Cold-Called Their Way To A Billion Rand Business
  • Erna Basson Went Back To Basics To Build A Global Beauty Empire
  • Brian Altriche Took SA’s Love Affair With The Burgers Beyond Borders
  • Callie and Francois van der Merwe broke new ground through partnerships
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