Entrepreneurship incubator My Dough is helping small businesses in South Africa rise
Entrepreneurship and accounting might seem like odd bedfellows − after all, the perception holds that while the latter is all about innovation and pushing boundaries, the former is a staid and steadfast profession. However, the team at My Dough is proving that the two go very well together indeed.
Abed Tau, Thabelo Raphala and Thuto Motsie may all have established careers as chartered accountants, but they also find it impossible to resist the allure of entrepreneurship. Having worked with several start-ups, and created a few of their own, they’re eager to help other would-be business owners develop their full potential through the Enterprise and Supplier Development (ESD) programmes offered by corporates and government institutions. They’re also eager to assist them in leveraging entrepreneurship programmes aimed at students, professionals and unemployed youth who would like to pursue entrepreneurship. This, explains Thuto, is why the team started My Dough.
It all started around five years ago and completely by chance, Thuto says: ‘Knowing that we provide tax and auditing services to several SMMEs, a client who wanted to increase their investment in enterprise development asked us to help them identify a potential partner.’ Since then, My Dough has provided ESD services to corporate clients, which have supported over 240 companies in industries ranging from engineering to transport and logistics, manufacturing and professional services.
While there may be no shortage of organisations offering entrepreneurship support in South Africa, the My Dough team has several unique advantages. First of all, having started businesses as diverse as TutaMe and Silico Maboneng, they are well-versed in the challenges associated with growing a company from scratch, what happens once you’ve failed, and how to pivot. They’ve also helped a number of their small clients overcome these same obstacles, and therefore understand the environment from both an internal and external perspective. Finally, they have an extensive network of companies that form part of their clients’ supply chain, making it easy for them to pinpoint candidates who may benefit from those clients’ investment in enterprise development.
The team has a set of criteria that must be met before the SMMEs are able to join as beneficiaries on My Dough’s incubator programmes, however. First, no side hustles allowed: all participants must be full-time entrepreneurs to enjoy the full value of the programme. They should have been in business for at least two years and should have a well-defined product or service that simply needs a little tweaking to take it to the next level.
Experience and insight
Exactly what it takes to reach that next level largely depends on the business itself, says Thabelo, which is why My Dough adjusts its offering according to each business’s needs. ‘As entrepreneurs ourselves, we know how important it is to provide a service that speaks directly to users’ needs, rather than offering a product we think is great but has little impact,’ she notes.
Most frequently, My Dough’s point of departure is the company’s back-office processes which include aspects such as company, industry and regulatory compliance, because ensuring these are in order leads to a more effective front office.
This is especially important for entrepreneurs who find themselves acting as HR managers, finance managers, marketing managers, and general jack of all trades – which means the whole business suffers from a lack of focus. By taking care of financial issues, My Dough ensures compliance – essential if a business wishes to take advantage of new work opportunities. The organisation then turns its attention to upskilling business owners and employees, so that they are able to get the most out of the technology and software that can simplify business processes.
Now, it’s time to look at what Thabelo calls ‘the creative package’. Small business owners often neglect the look and feel of their brand, and yet this can go a long way to boost their professionalism – so My Dough’s in-house graphic design team helps them develop collateral such as business profiles, logos and websites.
With the back office taken care of, business owners can now focus on the real ‘business of business’: selling. Thabelo points out that this is a skill that is frequently lacking: while entrepreneurs may have an outstanding product, they don’t know how to market it – and themselves – effectively. Through masterclasses, workshops and podcasts, My Dough teaches them how to leverage networks and do presentations.
The organisation also works to open access to the market by hosting community meet and greets to generate exposure and helps secure venture capital for businesses in need of finance.
Perhaps most important, however, is the support offered by the organisation. ‘Our sponsors don’t just want to do business with an SMME – they want to know that the business will be sustainable,’ Thabelo says. This means helping small business owners hone their professionalism and guiding them through mentorship and coaching. Often, simply knowing that there is someone who understands their challenges gives business owners the courage to continue – which is the purpose of the Board meetings hosted by My Dough, as well as the content presented on the organisation’s online entrepreneurship academy.
Where it all goes wrong
It’s a sad fact that although some entrepreneurs may have access to the type of support offered by My Dough, many will still fail. Why is this the case? ‘I think that there’s little understanding of how to service the B2B space in South Africa,’ Thabelo opines. She observes that the nature of our economy means that there is only a small percentage of people with disposable income, and so most people who wish to set up a business will end up servicing other businesses – and yet, they don’t understand the dynamics of building business relationships.
She maintains that the route to success for entrepreneurs lies in identifying potential customers, finding the best way to reach them, and then articulating a message around the product – and the quicker these processes take place, the better, so that if you’re not on target, you can change direction quickly.
For Thuto, partnerships form a critical part of success for any entrepreneurial venture. While most people understand the value of surrounding themselves with the right people in terms of skills, it’s equally important to understand how a lack of shared commonalities can make a relationship deteriorate. ‘It’s like a marriage. A partner who you trust is worth more than a partner with a paycheque,’ he says.
Other ingredients in a venture that stands the test of time are accountability or, as Thabelo puts it, ‘the commitment to showing up and getting a job done, even when it means you’ll make sacrifices along the way’, a willingness to keep learning, and an indefatigable work ethic. There’s no such thing as treating yourself like an employee when you’re the business owner, the team insists – no knocking off at five o’clock, because the business stops when you stop. You also need to be ready to keep building those networks, mining your contacts for people who might know who, when or how to solve one of your challenges. And above all, you can never lose sight of your original goal for the business. This is a tough one, because it’s easy to go off course when you’re caught up in the day-to-day management of operations – but when you do, you need to go back to your initial direction, or you’ll get lost.
CAs and entrepreneurs – a match made in heaven?
Thabelo considers it a privilege to work in the enterprise and supplier development space. As the child of two entrepreneurs (her father was a mechanic who owned his own business), she witnessed first-hand the errors that small business owners are prone to making – and was determined to help others avoid them. This is precisely why she chose to change her career title from doctor to CA(SA), completing her MBA with research on the impact of ESD on SMMEs in South Africa. Her experience and knowledge in this area has led her to the conclusion that the best way to secure growth is by ‘knowing, testing and trying’. ‘As entrepreneurs, we spend so much time trying to make our offering “pretty” when we would do better to ask the people we know if they would use it.’ Entrepreneurs are renowned for being secretive about what they are doing, when in fact they should do the opposite, asking for opinions from as many different people as possible. ’This helps you ascertain whether people need this service. It’s a great time saver – if they don’t, you can go back to the drawing board and adjust your thinking, and if they do, you can go for it.’
For Thuto, it’s the learning behind the CA(SA) qualification that create the vital bridge between the profession and entrepreneurship. ‘I think that the most valuable asset you acquire during your training is professionalism,’ he says. This is a common shortcoming among entrepreneurs – it’s not unusual for programme participants to forget they have meetings, the team reveal. In contrast, as a CA, you