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COVER STORY: The art of entrepreneurship

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These five highly innovative CA(SA)-turned-entrepreneurs share both the highs and lows of their entrepreneurial journeys. It’s known to be a tough process, but despite the challenges and commitment their businesses demand of them, each entrepreneur says it’s incredibly rewarding.

 

Vision and Perseverance

Marius van Niekerk CA(SA)

From a career as an international mining industry executive to the founder of a visionary fin-tech start-up and an Ironman (triathlon) enthusiast, Marius van Niekerk is discovering a new meaning in life as an entrepreneur

After an extensive career with mining giant BHP Billiton, CA(SA) Marius van Niekerk changed tack to co-found technology start-up b4yougo in 2015 with Gustav Griessel. They initially set out to solve the problem of the legacy people leave behind when they pass on.

Marius’ high-pressure career had already spanned a number of senior roles and seen him moving with his family to several countries when he realised something had to change. ‘I’ll never forget it – in September 2014 we were living in Singapore and learnt we had to move again. My wife Charlene and I looked at each other and said: “Well, what do you want to do?” We had been moving the family around the world for years and we just decided: “Let’s go home.” We came back to South Africa and I started at another corporate shortly after we arrived. But within days I realised it wasn’t right for me and left to pursue a venture I had been considering and refining in mind over ten years.’

Marius felt that the admin involved in life, estate and financial planning had become too complex a chore for 21st-century digital citizens and sought to simplify it. Starting out as a personal Excel file collating the couple’s own portfolio to ensure their children would be looked after in the event that they passed away, the concept developed into a digital platform to help others manage their personal data better. b4yougo was later absorbed into a new product, ‘permyssion’, a play on ‘my permission’ in the new age of data privacy and security, powered and patented by Rattlehub Digital (https://rattlehub.com).

The end-user is enabled by ‘permyssion’ to manage information in a secure digital environment across eight distinct categories: yourself, your family, your estate, your profession and work, your health, your financial portfolio, your accounts, and your social footprint. An advisor console caters for interaction between the end-user and a financial advisor, and the estate console has been developed for the deceased estate industry by referencing the end-user’s information and facilitating the automatic completion of documents and the management of the estate for the executor.

The importance of efficient personal data management was brought home to Marius when his best friend, Theo, died unexpectedly at the age of 43. ‘Theo lived life to the fullest, but his house was not in order,’ he says. Observing the emotional toll wrapping up a loved one’s affairs can have on a family, he stepped up his efforts to take the solution to market.

But starting a new business is not an easy task. Moving from their previous senior executive roles to a position in which they had to go hat in hand to potential partners was challenging, and taught them humility and perseverance.

The team’s perseverance is starting to pay off and they are now an official service provider to Investec Private Bank, whose clients will have access to first elements of the platform through the ‘manage my life’ application, while the attooh! group of companies is branding their white-labelled version ‘my attooh!’, ‘permyssion’ will also soon be available directly to the end-user.

In moving to become an entrepreneur, Marius assessed his top priorities and concluded he wanted to spend more quality time with his family, he wanted to commute less, and he wanted to focus more on looking after his health.

In addition to addressing a gap in the market, his new venture is based only five minutes from his home and has allowed him to achieve his targets of completing the Ironman Africa in 2016 and 2017 with 2018 around the corner. However, his life as a business owner is far from relaxed, he notes: ‘If you think you are taking a break from corporate and think life will be more relaxed working for yourself, think again. You can’t run a start-up as a hobby, you have to commit. You are more driven, you are even more committed, because there is a lot more at stake. There is no such thing as work life balance, there is your perspective of what is important at any time,’ he says.

Based in Centurion, Gauteng, the business has so far been bootstrapped using the founders’ own money and some equity funding from investors. ‘We are on a journey, we celebrate small successes, but there is still a lot of hard work ahead for us to be considered successful,’ says Marius.

‘It’s humbling to have a power team by my side that is ready to take on the world as we believe we are solving a generic problem that knows no borders.’

 

Calculated Risks and Good Instincts

Matsotso Vuso CA(SA)

When Matsotso Vuso opted to invest seriously in the launch of Nyamezela Group of companies, the move was a carefully calculated risk, backed by a gut feel that the time was right to do so

Nyamezela Metering, a 100% black-owned women company led by Matsotso Vuso, is now one of two electricity meter suppliers to Eskom nationally, with offices in South Africa and in Zimbabwe. As the company is now a key electricity meter supplier in both countries, Nyamezela Metering is excited to expand its footprint to other African countries in the near future.

With more than 60 employees, a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility based in Gauteng, ongoing research and development programme, the company has grown on the strength of effective strategic planning and a lot of hard work, says Matsotso.

Matsotso’s early career as a CA(SA) in corporate environments saw her taking responsibility for major IT audit assignments in the aviation, telecommunications, manufacturing and motoring sectors with extensive DFI experience gained through her association with the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). At the IDC, Matsotso was involved in the evaluation of investment proposals for the tourism industry, as well as taking responsibility for restructuring IDC investments in distress or maximising recovery where financial failure or liquidation proved to be unavoidable. This experience of assessing business plans and evaluating the reasons for business failure has served her well.

Matsotso started her entrepreneurship journey by proceeding into a consulting role while serving on numerous boards. Together with her husband, Chris Vuso, an engineer, the couple embarked on electrical engineering projects for local municipalities.

‘At first, we were mainly conducting technical audits and sending technicians out to do cut-offs, but in some instances we were also doing installations of meters, and that’s where we realised there is an untapped opportunity in this sector,’ says Matsotso.

A careful assessment of the opportunities prompted Matsotso to launch Nyamezela Metering, specialising in local manufacturing of electrical metering systems.

‘The financial muscle I’d built over the years enabled us to have a solid cash flow in the first six months, plus I continued to sub-contract my services as a CA(SA) during this time, thus the move into the engineering space was not so much taking a risk as a calculated move to take advantage of new opportunities,’ she says.

With most electrical meters imported at that stage, Matsotso believed the time was right to offer locally produced products, tailored to local conditions. She did not know at that stage that the Government would designate the production of local electricity meters thus creating an opportunity for local manufacturers, putting Nyamezela Group in the right place at exactly the right time. ‘My experience gave me a critical eye to understand whether a business plan is viable or not, without any undue optimism, and this enabled me to take to the plunge. But over and above the research and analysis, I believe that as a woman we also have instinct that we should not underestimate.’

Nyamezela launched in converted outbuildings at the couple’s home until when the business was sustainable to acquire its own building. Over the years the company had to make significant investment in designing and developing its products in line with Eskom’s requirements.

‘Securing the Eskom contract involved a lot of own investment and risk. When you develop a product for a potential market such as this, you have to invest in it first to demonstrate to the customer that the product will meet their quality requirements. We had to establish the manufacturing facility, develop and test the product with our own funds before we could bid for the Eskom tender.’

While they were still working on product accreditation, Nyamezela also entered the Zimbabwean market, which Matsotso believes offers significant growth potential. The group continues to grow and innovate to meet changing market needs and new opportunities.

As a CA(SA)-turned-entrepreneur, Matsotso brings sound governance and strategic direction to the business. ‘Our growth is due to a combination of skill, hard work and teamwork. I realised my blind spots and recruit appropriate people to help me overcome them. I’m not an engineer, but I hire excellent engineers,’ she says. ‘Within the business, I am where I should be in terms of the strategy – seeing opportunities, evaluating where the business is going and charting the way forward for the business.’

Matsotso balances the demands of her work and time with her family and a certain amount of ‘me time’. ‘I try to live healthily, achieve work/home balance and delegate wisely. On top of that, the church grounds me,’ she says.

 

 

Embracing Opportunity

Lauren Stockil CA(SA)

When Lauren Stockil looked beyond the safety net of her corporate job, she seized the opportunity to bring an award-winning international baby product to South Africa, and is now learning new skills to enhance her CA(SA) experience

CA Lauren Stockil’s company, Wild and Lovely, holds the sole South African rights to distribute a popular baby product, the Sleepyhead pod, in South Africa. Having secured the distribution rights only 18 months ago, Stockil is steadily growing the product sales in South Africa, and at the same time developing new business, marketing and e-commerce skills.

The move to owning her own business was catalysed when Stockil, who completed her articles at Deloitte’s Durban office and then moved on to the corporate finance team in Durban, fell pregnant with her first daughter, Holly, and went on maternity leave.

‘I’d always dreamed of starting my own business – but I’d always just presumed I’d consult in the financial field to be more flexible once I had a family,’ she says.

While on leave, she decided to take the plunge and resign from her corporate job. ‘A small consulting role had come my way, I essentially had a good first client lined up, so we took the leap of faith. I was sad to leave, because I worked with an amazing team and I loved the work, but things happen for a reason and I was excited at the prospect of working on something new and different,’ Stockil says.

At the same time, she was given a Sleepyhead pod by a friend in the UK. While Stockil had never heard of the brand or the product before, she found it to be the most used baby product she owned, and her daughter loved sleeping in it.

‘When my daughter started outgrowing her Deluxe Sleepyhead, I started doing research to find a bigger size. Still not knowing too much about the product, I discovered they were not available in South Africa, so I had to order a larger one from Amazon UK,’ she says. ‘On a whim, I mailed the Swedish head office asking if they would consider stocking South Africa and what it would take for me to be part of their South African story.’

Stockil was invited to submit a business plan, which secured her sole distribution rights.

‘Our first shipment arrived in June 2016. It’s done very well, with sales up month on month. Because the product is new to the South African market, we decided to market it directly to moms – mainly through social media – and started selling it online via our dedicated online store, and Takealot. Through word of mouth and social media marketing, the result is just as we hoped – moms are going into retailers and asking to buy the product, which in turn has generated massive interest from prominent retailers.’

The new venture has proved a valuable experience for Stockil, who has since had a second baby, and balances work and life as a young mother. ‘Part of our journey which has been eye-opening has been learning about web development, e-commerce, marketing and social media. For a CA(SA) brain, it’s exciting to learn about these creative new fields,’ she says.

But it’s not all glamour, and it’s not always easy, she notes. ‘You might think working for yourself will be all glamorous –working at a trendy coffee shop and using a MacBook, but in reality it can be a lonely road and it’s difficult to find encouragement because you don’t have anything to measure yourself against. One thing I have learnt is that it’s important to align yourself with a team of people who are specialist in what they do. Probably the biggest thing I miss about the corporate environment is having that resource of experts around constantly, to call on or bounce ideas/challenges off or restore your excel when it crashes.’

While Stockil might consider moving back to a corporate environment in years to come, she finds running her own business an exciting challenge.

‘As a young mother, it’s been an incredible challenge to start a small business from nothing, but also incredibly rewarding. Being involved in the baby industry is so complementary to the stage of life that I’m in. It is hard work, and there are days that I  forget to eat or haven’t been able to return a call for hours. Because it’s your own business, you want to focus on it constantly, so it’s always in your head. You never have a break. But I think that that’s part of what keeps you so passionate about it.’

‘Taking the leap has given me a lot more than if I’d played it safe. I’ve learnt so much and grown into new areas, which have been really fulfilling for me. If I went back into a corporate environment, I think this experience would help me relate better to clients and service them better,’ she says.

 

 

‘Uberising’ Professional Services

Scelo Makhathini CA(SA)

The new international hub for professional services, LinkdPro.com, has gone from zero to phenomenal in just 15 months. The new ‘Uber’ of professional services is just the latest entrepreneurial venture by Scelo Makhathini, who started his first business at the age of 14

The idea for LinkdPro was born of Makhathini’s frustration at trying to source appropriate business consulting and high-level financial expertise. ‘After completing my articles at PwC, I was working at Absa Capital in 2012 and I was tasked with finding business consultants who possessed niche expertise for some of the projects I was running. This proved time consuming and complex. In my next job at Investec Corporate Finance, I had the same experience, and I realised there was a gap in the market for an online platform for top professionals and experts with high-end skills.’

Makhathini launched the platform with then Investec colleague and computer scientist Eugene de Beer in 2014. Working through the night after their normal office hours, Makhathini and De Beer spent two years perfecting the platform. Phase 1 launched in May 2016, with Phase 2 live in August the same year.

‘LinkdPro is Africa’s pre-eminent on-demand online platform which connects companies with a network of vetted freelance business professionals and experts for project-based work. Business professionals include top-tier management/strategy consultants, legal consultants, financial consultants, technology consultants and experienced industry sector experts. Companies get matched to vetted business professionals and experts for FREE (that is, no matching/placement fees are charged) and LinkdPro withholds a certain percentage of fees paid to business professionals who find project opportunities on the platform,’ Makhathini explains.

LinkdPro now has a database of over 1 000 professionals and experts across Africa, Europe, China and the US and is used by major clients in South Africa such as Hollard, Pioneer Foods, Barloworld, Old Mutual, and Danone, as well as Centauro in Brazil.

‘We’ve had a warm embrace because companies had long needed a central depository through which they can have on-demand access to a network of business professionals and experts possessing niche expertise, where services are offered efficiently and cost-effectively,’ he says.

But the start-up process demanded long hours and arduous preparation, he notes. In addition to the actual development work, extensive planning and groundwork had to take place. ‘Because the skills on offer are crucial to the success of such a venture, I had to seek out and approach appropriate professionals to list on the platform,’ he says. ‘I met the first 60 face to face.’

The new venture gained traction, prompting Makhathini to resign from his job to focus on managing the new business full-time in August 2017. ‘It was a calculated risk, and a necessary one to grow the business,’ he says. ‘As a co-founder of a fairly new tech start-up, there are no distinctly defined roles in the business. I am therefore anything from an admin clerk and telephone administrator right up to the managing director of the business responsible for the articulation and implementation of the strategic vision of the business.

‘Starting a new business is a tough process, but we knew it was an idea whose time had come, which is evidenced by our phenomenal growth,’ he says.

Makhathini does not view his leaving a stable job to start a new venture as taking a risk, however. He notes that he moved to focus on LinkdPro full-time only once it had proved it could be profitable.

This new approach to risk is a hallmark of the millennial CA(SA), he says. ‘I believe millennial CAs(SA) are less rigid than CAs(SA) were in the past. They are more agile, and well positioned to assess market opportunities, which positions them to be good entrepreneurs.’

Makhathini’s entrepreneurial success is due in part to a legacy from his late mother, herself an entrepreneur whose example he followed, but who passed away in 2002 when Scelo was only 13. Using R80 from the funeral contributions made by his community, he launched a micro-lending business that flourished, later financing his first year in university and supplementing the academic scholarships he earned.

‘I’ve always had a very keen interest in entrepreneurship, and after I started my first business in Grade 9, I have never looked back,’ he says. ‘I knew that I had to study towards something closely related to business and the CA(SA) qualification was a natural choice because of the wealth of business knowledge one accumulates and the prestige that the CA(SA) designation comes with.

‘Other than losing a mother at the tender age of 13 and having to play the role of a mother to two sisters and my dad, I am yet to face another big challenge in my life. I have perceived and handled everything else that has happened in-between as an opportunity from which, if handled properly, invaluable knowledge and lessons could be derived and banked,’ Makhathini says.

 

 

The Power of Mentorship

Jimmy Kalombo CA(SA)

A sports injury halted Jimmy Kalombo’s dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. ‘Lucky for me, Deloitte convinced me that becoming a chartered accountant was a worthwhile goal,’ says Kalombo. The entrepreneur hasn’t looked back since and is mentoring others to aim high

All the latent energy of a former provincial soccer player in Jimmy Kalombo is now contained in a tight bundle of dynamism as the master of his own fate and the founder of Kuwasha Afrika, a financial advisory and technology development firm.

Early on in his career, Kalombo spotted a gap in the market to provide advisory services to medium-sized firms requiring spare consulting capacity. ‘I was always being asked to sign off audits, so I knew I had the business acumen to head up my own firm,’ he says of his decision.

When Kalombo set Kuwasha Afrika’s wheels in motion in January 2016, he was employed by a leading bank. While from the outside he looked set financially, he was frustrated.

The repetitive, systems-oriented work was stifling his entrepreneurial nature. ‘Two months in I told my employer I didn’t think it was going to work out, to which he replied, “continue for a while”.

‘Once I reached the point where I couldn’t hold down my day job and my fledgling after-hours consultancy work, I went full time.’

But starting a business is never easy and it’s no different for a CA(SA). Establishing a client base doesn’t happen overnight. Kalombo describes the past year’s schedule as ‘crazy’. Luckily, he says, ‘I was able to secure a client in manufacturing, which led to enough work off their network of associates to launch my start-up.’

App will connect graduates to mentors

Never one to sit still for long, Kalombo also founded KuwashaTech, an educational technology start-up that will connect graduates in niche professions through online communities. Kalombo is one of a four-member team, including his brother (the software developer), who put the innovative app together from conceptualisation to the final stages of testing within the space of a year – a formidable feat.

The app will be launched in 2018, initially targeting graduate CAs(SA) in partnership with the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA).

The idea for the app sprang from Kalombo being inundated with questions from aspiring CAs(SA).

‘I identified the means through which graduates could be better informed,’ says Kalombo.

‘We needed an innovative way to reach graduates other than just answering questions ad hoc as they arose. Many students were asking the same questions about information that should be readily available to them.

‘But not everyone has direct access to people developing them. This app means that graduates can always be connected, learn from others’ experiences and importantly, be inspired,’ he says.

‘Mentorship is incredibly powerful. Andile Khumalo, chief operations officer of MSG Afrika Investment Holdings, inspired CA(SA) Mbusiswa Ngcobo through social media from his school days.

‘Today, Ngcobo is the newly appointed president of the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants of Southern Africa (ABASA), a role which he emulated from his mentor Andile,’ says Kalombo, emphasising the importance of mentorship and role models.

Mandela Washington Fellowship 

Mentorship is something Kalombo takes very seriously – even in his personal capacity. This dynamic entrepreneur recently returned to South Africa following a three-month stint as a Fellow of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, at Washington University in the USA. This is an incredible feat when you consider that he was one of 60 South Africans chosen from 74 000 applicants throughout Africa. The fellowship empowers young people through academic coursework, leadership training and networking.

Interacting with thought leaders from Africa has inspired the CA(SA).

‘We represented entrepreneurs, civic leaders and public managers from various professions,’ says Kalombo. ‘The attendees included a presidential candidate who plans to change Africa through entrepreneurship. There was a 26-year-old IT whizz kid who has built a platform for political issues in Tanzania attracting 2,5 million users every day’, he says.

‘There was also a Nigerian who has the biggest tutoring app in Africa. He was voted in the Top 10 by Forbes Africa and has secured millions in funding. Another entrepreneur with an Uber-style app connects farmers in Mozambique to customers.’

With Kalombo being nominated as one of the Top 200 South Africans of 2017 by the Mail and Guardian, it’s clear that he was the right calibre of person to join the programme.

The fellowship included lectures at the Kellogg School of Management. ‘The lecturers were successful business people, including a former CEO of Walmart and a retired billionaire who shared lessons from running his business for 40 years.’ These lectures, says Kalombo, were a real eye-opener.

‘Entrepreneurs can also have a low point,’ says Kalombo. ‘A Fortune 500 company CEO shared his experience of the gas being cut off in his business and home. He was on his last thread waiting on a big cheque to come through.’

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