From stand-up to start-up: How top entrepreneur’s comedic insights shaped his business

Long before the concept social media influencer became ubiquitous, a young marketer in London started planning his return to South Africa to start his own agency to help brands harness the power of internet virality through popular social media personalities. 

His foresight paid off remarkably. Today, after a “wild” decade of surfing the upheaval of the internet in the advertising industry, Mike Sharman heads up Retroviral Digital Communications, which he proudly describes as having “made more brands go viral globally than any other agency in Africa”. 

Apart from pioneering internet marketing in South Africa through Retroviral, Mike has co-founded, a global platform linking influencers with brands, Retroactive, digital, a sports marketing agency, and, a company that helps sports stars build their own websites.

Mike, a finalist in the 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year® competition, started his career with the idea of becoming an actor. To reassure his worried parents, he studied marketing in Johannesburg where he grew up, but left for Hollywood to study acting and stand-up comedy as soon as he got his degree.   

It proved to be a key ingredient to his success as a marketing expert. The science and art of making a diverse audience laugh is exactly what a marketer needs, says Mike. An observational comedian finds a universal truth to which everyone in the audience can nod their heads, and then he tells a relatable story around it to evoke laughter. Good marketing is essentially the same – crafting a story around a universal truth creates an emotional connection with a broad target market, explains Mike.

His first venture was a play which he wrote and staged in Johannesburg and, with the profits, took to the Grahamstown Festival fringe, boosting his growth as an entrepreneur with valuable project management experience.

Mike’s next career move was sparked by winning a trip to London in a cricket fancy dress competition. He started working at a London public relations firm where he became the account manager for the LG brand. It was here that he saw a clear opportunity forming in the world of marketing and advertising.

It was around 2009, and the idea of using social media to promote brands by “going viral” had already taken hold, but nobody knew exactly how to integrate it with traditional marketing campaigns. Digital agencies were popping up all over the place, but they worked in silos, separate from other arms of campaigns, and often as an afterthought.

Mike started dreaming of an agency that could put together viral campaigns that would “seed” quality content to popular bloggers, vloggers, journalists and thought leaders – today known as influencers. Crucially, it would be integrated with the public relations and activation (direct interaction with prospective clients) arms of the campaign. 

In 2010, Mike returned to South Africa to experience the World Cup and to start his business. Several factors came together to make it a wildly successful first year for Retroviral. Local advertising agencies were keen but clueless about digital marketing, and broadband was rolling out in South Africa. The timing could not be better.

But it was Mike’s personality and approach that gave him the unique ability to grab the opportunity. He “lived the experiment” by posting, blogging and tweeting, not only building his personal brand, but gaining expert knowledge of the fast-changing social-network scene. 

Several of his posts went viral, including one in which he declared his commitment to South Africa despite surviving a terrifying home invasion that year. At the same time, he obsessively analysed the statistics around his social media activity. His prowess with cricket statistics helped him to win the trip to London. Now he found that he could apply the knack to online analytics. 

Above all, he is an excellent networker, never forgetting a face or a name. Soon he was embedded in the Johannesburg PR scene, renting a desk from a local agency. Within a month he landed his first R10 000-per-month retainer, and at the end of the year he won over Nandos as a client. 

Retroviral operated as a loose grouping of freelancers at first but had to formalise quickly as growth skyrocketed. “I started to mature a little bit and stopped going to meetings in flip-flops,” says Mike. 

Although Retroviral was the unmistakable leader in the field of viral marketing in South Africa for a number of years, winning several local and international awards, competition sprung up fast. Large advertising agencies that often hired Retroviral to do the digital leg of their campaigns started setting up inhouse units. 

To counter this, Mike co-founded, essentially placing Retroviral’s database of influencers on a subscription platform where they can be recruited by brands and agencies. New influencers can sign up to the platform for free.

Today, Mike remains a shareholder of Webfluential which has spun off from Retroviral. He chose to focus on building Retroviral into a dynamic content-creation company. With a team of 18, the Sandton based agency is substantial enough today to take on any campaign, but small enough to be agile, without the weight of bureaucracy that stifles creativity. 

A recent example of how Retroviral has managed to maintain its edge was My Kreepy Teacher, a hilarious spoof on the Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher. The Kreepy Krauly ad took 96 hours “from zero to viral in 96 hours”. 

Fake News Damage Control for SMEs

Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent spate of riots have demonstrated how fake news can have far-reaching effects, not only on individuals but on businesses. “Fake news,” a neologism of the digital age, began as a social media phenomenon and has come to describe the proliferation of false content posing as news.

It’s fair to say that the very definition of “media” has changed. Social media has turned users into reporters in what is known as citizen journalism, with the ability to disseminate content and document events using their cellphones. The challenge however, with what many call the “democratization” of news, is that unfounded claims can easily be made, content can be fabricated and easily shared online via social media platforms.

Consider the stockpiling and supply shortages of items such as toilet paper, soap and sugar in supermarkets across the country at the beginning of lockdown. This mass panic buying was set off by fake news. Similarly, during the riots we experienced in July, there were a number of reports of shopping malls being targeted around the country that proved to be false. The ripple effect caused unnecessary shopping mall closures, which affected not only large retailers but boutique stores and small businesses across the board.

The reality is that fake news is not going away, so as a small business it’s worthwhile having a contingency plan or strategy for dealing with misinformation about your business. The following steps could prove useful in combating the effects of fake news on your business:

Step One: Separate Fact from Fiction

In the event that sensationalist news is circulating around the workplace, as a business owner the first step is to determine your stance on the matter – only if and when an immediate threat to your business has been identified. Reacting with an emotion-laden response is likely to cause confusion and may be counter-productive. Instead, it’s recommended to research the facts, establish what the truth is and formulate a response that’s based on these findings. Lay the facts out clearly and distinguish them from hearsay and rumours.

Step Two: Make an Internal Statement

Your employees look to you for direction, so taking a stance on a matter needs to culminate in a formal statement, preferably in writing. Your statement needs to debunk the fake news but also relay empathy towards those who have been adversely affected. Never minimize or negate the effects that fake news can have on the psyche of employees – a well-timed rumour can lead to heightened anxiety and panic, and impact the mental wellbeing of your team matters.

Step Three: Make an External Statement

There are nuances that exist in a formal press release that will differ significantly to the way you convey your stance internally. You may need a public relations professional to assist with formulating a response that makes an impact and communicates your message in a way that cannot be misconstrued by the media or the public. It is not always necessary to make a statement to the media, but when it is, make sure that its well-written and strategically positioned to allay feelings of fear and prevent the repercussions of misinformation on the business. It’s also worth considering whether this external statement needs to be posted to the business’s social media pages for the benefit of your customer base.

Step Four: Seek Legal Advice

What many do not realise is that there are legal repercussions for spreading fake news. The policing of the online space is something that is progressing at a rapid rate, with social media platforms now being held accountable for due process for reporting misinformation and inappropriate content. These legal consequences were made plain, for example, in the case of news relating to COVID-19 – when the new Disaster Management fake news regulations made spreading fake news with the intention to deceive or incite violence, a criminal offence. If the problem escalates, it may be best to seek legal advice, especially if you are able to identify the source of the fake news.

Remaining level-headed during a crisis involving fake news can be challenging. However, taking a firm, confident and reassuring stance on a matter can go a long way in preventing potential chaos and long-term damage to your bottom line.

Innovator leads local retailers’ embrace of ecommerce

Wynand Geldenhuys was still at school when he sold his first computer programme. It was to the owner of a cell phone shop who wanted a computer-based repairs booking system, and Wynand, who fell in love with computer coding at 16, had no problem writing the programme.  

At that stage he had no idea that his passion would lead him to become the owner of Africa’s biggest independent ecommerce software development company, Vectra, and earn him the Innovator of the Year Award at the 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year®competition.

But perhaps these achievements would not have surprised the young Wynand either. “I was always entrepreneurial. A pal and I were always busy with some scheme or other to make money,” he says. 

Today the 33-year-old employs a team of more than 50, of which more than 40 are coders and software engineers. His Pretoria-based company, which he started a mere four years ago, is doing groundbreaking work in the custom building of ecommerce systems for South African corporates and increasingly those from the rest of the continent. 

“When you say ecommerce, people think that it’s all about websites, but that is just the front of a whole logistical system that kicks in when an order is placed online,” says Wynand. Using open-source platforms such as Magento, Vectra specialises in the whole range of software necessary to integrate a company’s ecommerce website seamlessly with its enterprise management systems.

Innovations achieved so far by Vectra include a system called SmartSales which integrates a customer relationship management system with an ecommerce website, and a point-of-sale system that does away with traditional tills, allowing a shopfloor salesperson to order for, advise and conclude a sale with a customer on a hand-held device.  

Vectra’s explosive growth over the past four years follows a decade in which Wynand slogged as an employee in various roles, quietly building a deep network in the software industry and the corporate clients whom they served, and also a sturdy reputation as an innovator. 

His career started with a major disadvantage when his father died during his matric year, and the family resources had to go towards urgent surgery for his mother and the raising of his two sisters. There was simply no money for studies, and Wynand started working as a coder for a web hosting company straight after matric. Looking back on it, Wynand says not having the luxury of a few years of study was probably good for his career development. “It pressured me to be independent, to take control of things and to find solutions on my own.”

Wynand was constantly trying out new ideas and coding on the side. He even signed up a new client with a point-of-sale system he had designed, but when his employer rejected it as too non-core for their web-hosting business, he decided to leave. The shares that he was given in the company turned out to be fake, and he left with no financial reserves. But he did gain valuable experience, not only in coding, but also in working with people and clients. 

His next move was to partner with a company to develop and sell his point-of-sale software, but the partnership did not work out, and Wynand, already known as a livewire in the industry, was recruited to work for the software giant SAP. There he cemented his reputation as an innovator by heading up their Innovation Lab where he got to experiment with all sorts of new ideas. 

It was a great job and he did well at the company, says Wynand, but the corporate world was not for him. There are too many conflicting personal agendas and, ultimately, you have to work on other people’s ideas, whether you like it or not. 

In 2017 he was contacted by an old client who wanted to appoint him as a software developer, but instead Wynand negotiated a two-year contract with him that would serve as the basis for building his own business. At last Wynand had free reign to implement his ideas and put his pent-up energy to use without having to cater for a boss or a partner, and Vectra grew phenomenally. 

Wynand says the most difficult part of starting Vectra was a dilemma faced by many under-resourced start-ups: in order to win over clients, you must show substantial capabilities first in the form of products, infrastructure and team. To set this up, Wynand had to scrape together every resource he had in the early months without any guaranteed return. 

An easier way around the dilemma would have been to find an investor or a partner, but he was mindful of his previous bad experiences with partners and decided to stick it out on his own. 

It paid off well. Apart from Vectra’s extraordinary growth, Wynand was named the 2019 Innovator of the Year. “I never had to opportunity to study for a degree, and the award felt to me like a graduation of sorts,” he says. With its substantial track record in both retail software and ecommerce systems, Vectra is very well placed to continue its fast-paced growth. Compared to other regions of the world, African retailers, including those from South Africa, were until recently still largely wedded to bricks-and-mortar business. With the shock of Covid-19, and with the unstoppable march of technology, the demand for a local innovator to help them transition to ecommerce will remain high for many years to come.

Five questions to consider before going into business with family or friends

Almost every aspiring entrepreneur gets their chance to weigh up whether it is a good idea to have a close friend or family member as a business partner. The answer is not always simple and almost always varies from scenario to scenario, and person to person. There is certainly a reason why the adage, “never do business with family and friends,” is an expression rather than a concrete rule.

As a starting point, when faced with this kind of decision, ask yourselves the following salient questions:

  1. Are we in it for the same reasons?

The most successful and efficient business partners share a vision and are clear about their goals from the onset. Is the collective ambition to employ a growth strategy that will boost the business’s bottom line? Is it a 10-year plan to build a business worth selling? Or is the strategy to build a legacy? All parties need to be aligned upfront to ensure a fruitful partnership. Singleness of purpose is essential to making joint decisions that will have everyone involved walking away feeling confident. 

  • What will happen when partners don’t agree?

As a business partner of a close friend or family member, you may have conflicting interests, which can lead to complications. The challenge centres around when to “wear the hat of a professional business partner,” and when to “wear the hat of someone who is emotionally invested in the other party.” It is a delicate balance to maintain and disagreements are an inevitability. However, to avoid conflict becoming crisis, you need to agree on a way to resolve matters before you even enter into the partnership.

3. Do the business partners share the same risk profile?

Some of the most pivotal business decisions rest on whether the deciding party is risk-taking or risk averse. It is not always necessary for both parties to share the same risk profile per se, but it is necessary to be able to meet somewhere in the middle. Compromising and calling on each party’s instinctive attitude towards risk is vital when it comes to making decisions like launching new products, taking on a strategic partner or restructuring the business.

4. What will each partner’s role be?

In a partnership that transcends the lines between professionals, it may be difficult to define clear-cut roles and responsibilities. However, professional boundaries are the key to healthy working relationships, and that begins with defining each other’s strengths, capacities, and work ethic. Being able to have an open conversation about what each role or position entails, can be the beginning of building trust and mutual respect. 

5. How will we keep personal and professional lives separate?

In a relationship that entails both a personal and a professional component, the lines between the two can become blurry. However, with transparency and an openness to debate and discuss, healthy “ground rules” can be set. Maintaining a work-life balance is a challenge for business owners across the spectrum. For those in business with family and friends, the challenge takes on its own nuances. On the one hand, the shared, personal relationship may make communication easier. On the other hand, the opposite could be true.

There is simply no blanket answer to whether going into business with friends or family members is a good idea. Different people respond in different ways to the complexities of relationships. However, pausing to ask the tough questions from the beginning, may help avoid future pitfalls.

Pioneering duo opens new path in marketing industry

As ad agency CEO, Taryn Hunter Sharman knew how to spot talent, and had more than once tried to convince a young marketer, Perri King, to join Ebony+Ivory which she ran. Perri, who was carving a career for herself in the corporate sector, always turned her down, mostly because the pay could not match whatever she was earning at the time. 

Then, one day in 2016, she got another call. “If you come work for me,” Taryn told her, “I’ll give you 50%.” Also, there wouldn’t be much in the way of a salary, said Taryn, but she pledged to at least pay Perri’s debit orders with her credit card. “I thought: ‘Now that sounds exciting!’ and I said yes immediately,” says Perri.

That was the start of Faith & Fear, an unusual marketing and advertising business that the two entrepreneurs refuse to call an agency.  

Agencies have a culture of telling their clients what they want to hear, says Taryn, while at Faith & Fear they have an uncompromising approach to saying it like it is. That seminal phone call back in 2016 is just one example. It is also right there in the company’s name, Faith & Fear. 

When she resigned her position as CEO to start Faith & Fear, Taryn knew she was in for a very hard slog, a far cry from the glamorous but false image bestowed on entrepreneurship generally. On the fear side she knew there were going to be a lot of scary, difficult moments, but on the faith side she fervently believed that there must be a better way to do marketing. So why not just put the whole experience in the name, so that there is no chance for anyone, including Taryn and Perri themselves, to forget what they are dealing with?

Their edgy name has since turned into something of a litmus test for Taryn and Perri, who were finalists in 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year®competition. 

They found that if a prospective customer does not quite understand the name, they are probably not a good fit. “But when they love the name, and we don’t have to explain it, we often click instantly and the business kicks off straight away’,” says Taryn.

Taryn’s idea of starting her own business stemmed from her increasing disillusionment with the way in which ad agencies operated even as she doubled the turnover of Ebony + Ivory, where she started as an intern, worked her way to the top in four years and ran it as CEO for eight years. 

Towards the end of her tenure at Ebony + Ivory, Taryn was so disenchanted with the industry that she decided to take a sabbatical to reconsider her career. It took all of the first weekend for her to decide to start her own company, and she called Perri, whom she had known socially for some time. Because of the difficult journey ahead, Taryn did not want to do it alone.  

The timing was good. Perri, who had cut her teeth in the marketing departments of the accounting firm Deloitte and the IT company EOH, had recently stepped out of her corporate career to set up a function venue in Johannesburg with a business partner. It was a good business, but the partnership did not work, so Perri jumped at the chance of launching Faith & Fear with Taryn.

Taryn and Perri, who both operate from Johannesburg, explain that Faith & Fear differs in three important ways from traditional ad agencies. Firstly, the two of them remain directly involved in every project. This is in contrast to the tendency in traditional ad agencies where the senior executives get wheeled out for pitching to important clients. Once the client is suitably impressed and awards the contract, the execution of the job is fobbed off to a junior team, and the client never sees the senior ad execs again. 

Secondly, Faith & Fear ditched the industry standard of billing per hour and chose to quote upfront based on the value of the completed project to the client, and thirdly, they stick relentlessly to the strategy agreed upon with the client, avoiding the drift away from the original plan that so often happens when projects are not properly managed. 

Their departure from industry habits allowed them to experiment also with a radically lean approach to overheads and staff. Taryn and Perri briefly tried sharing an office, but it felt way too much like an agency, and since then they have been working from home, or from whichever spot they chose to put their laptops down. 

When they need to build a team to work on a project, they tap into their network of talented collaborators, many of whom also roam free as they work. In this way, they can scale up a network of collaborators across the globe, as they have done recently for the launch of a South African start-up at the SXSW festival in Texas.

By the time the Covid-19 pandemic forced large numbers of the corporate workforce to work from home, Faith & Fear had been at it for a number of years. They were therefore in an excellent position to advise their clients on what to do, including the messaging that urgently needed to go out. 2020 turned out to be a huge year for Faith & Fear.

This year is unlikely to be as intense now that many companies have settled into a holding pattern and are waiting for clearer signs of the direction of the pandemic and the economy, says Taryn.

As for their own direction, Taryn and Perri have been growing increasingly certain that they are on the right path. Having won major accounts within the banking, insurance and medical aid sectors, they have been making inroads into this usually conservative industry – a good sign that while their approach is radical, it makes solid business sense.  At some point they will have to consider finding more partners like themselves in order to scale up their operations, but, vows Taryn, never in such a way that it becomes like an agency.

Negotiating a fair trade exchange – what businesses should know

Maintaining a constant stream of cashflow is a common challenge that many businesses experience. Strategic business partnerships involving a barter exchange (the direct exchange of goods and services for other goods or services) can, however, be a great alternative solution for preserving much-needed working capital. If done correctly, a barter system can help less established businesses save their capital, while still having access to some of the goods and services that are essential to their operations.

These types of exchange agreements can also form the foundation of valuable, long-term partnerships between growing companies. It’s worth exploring ways to best manage barter exchanges so that they can help sustain your business as it grows.

Tips for negotiating barter exchanges include:

Know your real costs

It’s important to understand exactly how much it costs you to deliver your product or service before you enter into a barter agreement. Take into consideration the full value of what you are offering versus what you are getting out of the exchange and ensure that it’s a fair trade. In such an exchange, your product or service is traded as a currency, but it’s only effective if it results in a cost saving.

Be flexible

Savvy bartering takes creativity and an open mind about what offering within the business could be a valuable currency to others. Start by getting a feel for what other businesses might be looking for and think outside the box regarding what trades would most benefit your business. For instance, you might not be able to afford employee benefits for your staff, but you could enter a trade for dental care. Evaluate your options, depending on your needs, you could barter through a business exchange network, or a once-off deal might be best.

Have a contract in place

It’s not uncommon in South Africa for barter deals to be based on informal agreements, however, this is often the root of misunderstandings and can result in unequal value distribution. Contracts should clearly state what each party will give and receive, include the value of each product or service and stipulate the timeframe in which the transaction will occur – and should be drawn up by a lawyer. A carefully drawn up contract will ensure a successful partnership.

Keep detailed records

Once an exchange has been secured, make sure to keep a detailed record of goods and services traded to ensure the agreement remains profitable. Potential tax implications are another good reason to ensure barter deals are reflected in company records. If bartering through a network, unclaimed trades that you have not yet collected on can result in a tax credit – however, if you are yet to settle a trade when the financial year closes, you need to reflect this in your financials and may find yourself with a tax bill for the trade surplus, so make sure all trades are settled before the end of the financial year.

Trade what cannot be sold

The real value of bartering comes when using otherwise unused capacity – if you can’t sell your goods or services for cash, you can normally barter something to generate value for your business. Barter exchanges can offer operational, customer or staff benefits, as long as it adds value to your bottom line. Once again, this requires being flexible and thinking outside the box.

Effective barter agreements have the potential to generate value to the company while preserving much-needed cash, move surplus stock and serve as a foundation for a long-standing strategic business partnership. It is therefore worth the time to explore potential agreements with like-minded businesses whenever the opportunity presents itself.


Bright future ahead for fast-growing lighting company

It is hard to imagine a more difficult time start to a business than that of Mario Roos’s experience with his lighting and energy company LighTec, a finalist in the 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year® competition. 

The initial spark was a massive fall-out that Mario had with his employer. He was general manager of a similar company that maintains the lighting in retail stores across Southern Africa. He spent years growing the company under difficult circumstances. The passive owner often took large amounts of cash out of the business, leaving Mario to explain to suppliers why they could not be paid in full. 

The final straw was when the owner reneged on an agreement to give Mario some equity in the company, or at least improve his pay, after he had won a R3 million contract with a large retail chain for the company.

In the ensuing argument, Mario announced his resignation, but instead of allowing for a notice period and refusing to pay him the leave owed to him, the boss told Mario to leave immediately. And so he found himself on the evening of 17 August 2017 with his wife Hayley, who wasn’t working at the time, sitting at their dining room table of their rented house in Cape Town without any income or savings. 

What he did have was a firm belief in the potential of the industry that he joined a few years before as “a guy who climbed the ladder to change the light bulbs”. One of his frustrations with the company is that was just about all they offered – changing light bulbs. As he rose through the ranks and later became general manager (GM), he saw lucrative opportunities to add electrical, engineering and power-consumption solutions to the service.

Now, he was determined to do it in a business of his own. Hayley decided to find a part-time job to tide them over, and Mario, who had built strong contacts among retail chains with his hands-on approach as GM, convinced Exclusive Books to give his new company, called LighTec, a chance. Not only that, but they agreed to pay LighTec every seven days for the first few months. Once again, Mario found himself as the hands-on light-bulb changer as he traveled the country with a bakkie and one helper.

Then came a further blow – Mario’s former boss sued to enforce a vague restraint-of-trade that Mario had agreed to when he was appointed GM. With the help of a lawyer friend, Mario negotiated them down from a restraint of two years to six months only, and he was allowed to keep Exclusive Books as a client. 

Constitutionally, restraints-of-trade are difficult to enforce, but even so his former boss would perhaps have negotiated harder had he known what LighTec was about to become. Today, Exclusive Books is still a client and in just four years Mario has grown the company to where it services 1200 retail stores throughout South Africa, employs a total of 24 staff members in its Johannesburg head office and Cape Town branch and is projecting a turnover of R18 million this year. 

Mario describes a difficult organic growth path for his business, starting with servicing the Exclusive Books contract himself, then appointing subcontractors for the next contracts he landed, and later employing those subcontractors as employees. Hayley soon joined the company and today heads up its administration.

Remarkably, Mario has been able to build the company with virtually no outside finance, apart from a recent COVID-19 emergency loan. His aversion to debt stems from his first business, a property development firm which he started as a young accountant just before it was wiped out in the financial crash of 2008. He lost everything, but gained valuable lessons, says Mario, not least of which is how to start over from scratch. It was that setback that brought him into the lighting industry as a lowly worker, and since then he has never stopped learning the ropes of the industry which he has grown to love. 

One milestone for Mario was to be honoured as a finalist in the 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year®. From a marketing perspective, the competition put the company on a different level, says Mario. Just the video on the company that was produced for the competition has helped enormously as a marketing tool. 

LighTec’s services go far beyond the simple maintenance of lighting and the changing of light bulbs. It employs highly qualified electricians and has electrical engineers on retainer so that it can offer maintenance of refrigeration, power generation and air-flow systems. Most recently, LighTec finds itself on the forefront of the fledgling certification industry for the energy-efficiency of buildings. 

Mario’s horizon as an entrepreneur has also broadened. He is setting up a venture capital fund for investments in small technical companies such as LighTec, and he is involved in a project with the University of Stellenbosch that will bring sustainable electrification to twenty poor schools, and light to the lives of the children who learn there.

Finding the right mentor to help grow your business

Any business owner worth his salt can acknowledge the fact that there is always something new to learn about their business or market. Especially when starting a new company and guiding it through its initial years of operation, the value of learning from other, more experienced entrepreneurs, cannot be overstated. 

However, finding a suitable mentor can be easier said than done – most don’t know where to start, or how to go about approaching another busy professional with the prospect of mentorship. It is therefore unsurprising that so many entrepreneurs struggle with the idea of enlisting the help of an outside advisor. 

It is well proven that guidance and advice from a mentor can offer as much value as any other form of training, if not more. This is due to the support being tailor-made to the specific needs of the business and offering expertise that are lacking within the business. Guidance from a mentor with extensive experience can help to significantly shorten a less experienced entrepreneur’s learning curve, often saving valuable time and money. It is therefore vital that a business owner knows how to seek appropriate mentors and consultants to help steer them in the right direction. With this in mind, here are a few tips to help make the search for a mentor easier:

Shared core values 

Having clear core values is incredibly important to guiding your business. It informs how decisions are made, how teams are managed and whether the business is heading in the right direction. It stands to reason that mentors add the most value when they understand and align with their mentee’s core values. The likelihood of finding a mentor that is willing to spend their time offering guidance is also far greater if you share the same values. When initially talking to prospective mentors, ask them about the values that drive their own companies, and take the conversation further if you find that their values echo your own. 

Start with an informal approach

It’s best to start by building a more informal relationship with a prospective mentor. A simple phone call around a specific question to an industry veteran can start a wider conversation and may even lead to a visit to your business premises. Many professionals are also more willing to meet for coffee over a weekend or after hours when the pressure is off. In this way, the first contact with the mentor runs very little risk of being unsuccessful, and both parties are able to get a sense of whether it will be worthwhile to build a formal mentor/ mentee relationship.

The importance of trust

Trust is paramount to a successful mentorship relationship, as is mutual respect between the two parties. As a business owner you must feel completely comfortable sharing information on all aspects of your business with your mentor. With this in mind, avoid finding a mentor among competitors – instead, seek out individuals in unconnected industries that may share the same methods or challenges. Retired, or semi-retired business leaders and entrepreneurs are often great mentors as they have seen it all and have the time to spare and are not affiliated to any competitors.

Be willing to learn 

Entrepreneurs are generally quite strong willed, and though this is a great (and necessary) characteristic for entrepreneurs starting a business, it can be a barrier to learning. However, any form of mentorship will be of little use if the entrepreneur is not open to suggestions and new ways of doing things. Good mentors usually have little time to spare, and therefore will be unlikely to continue with mentees who are too rigid and unwilling to take on their advice. It is possible to hold on to the vision for your business while being open to different paths for reaching one’s goals. Keep this in mind, and make a point of conveying to prospective mentors that you are willing to learn.  

Growing a business in a competitive environment or a depressed economy is complex and challenging, and entrepreneurs would be prudent to take all the good advice they can get. Mentorship offers access to the tools and expertise one needs to grow a business, so take a lesson from all the successful entrepreneurs that have walked the path before you, and seek guidance.


Fabulous fashion brand built dress by dress

Malesela “Ouma” Tema’s Plus Fab fashion brand started long before she knew it, when she began shopping for fashion at the turn of the century just like all of her teenage peers. None of the popular clothing chains catered for her size, and the one business that did was far from fashionable. Ouma was young and gorgeous, and she wanted clothes that accentuated and embraced her curves, not hide them.

In an early sign of her entrepreneurial spirit – and her keen sense of fashion – she would buy the clothes she wanted and have them adjusted to her curves and her vision. Her creations were so striking that her fellow students at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), where she studied public management, often thought that she was one of the fashion students. Wherever she went, and whenever she posted pictures online, people wanted to know where she got her outfits. 

Ouma, who was born in a small Limpopo village near Phalaborwa and raised by a single mother, grew to be a student leader and after her studies was recruited to the board of the TUT. When she went to work for the Department of Higher Education in Pretoria, she still did not have a clear idea of becoming a business owner. But by that time she was building a list of everyone who expressed interest in her outfits. “I just knew that I didn’t want to work for government all my life,” says Ouma, who found that the focus of her life shifted to her activities after hours – hanging out at a friend’s fashion studio, learning all she could about the industry, and building a database of potential clients. 

By 2011, the idea of starting her own fashion brand had developed to such a point that she decided to put a summer collection of five dresses onto the market. She marketed her designs on social media, recruited one seamstress to work from her garage, and custom-made dresses for her growing number of clients. 

While still working in her day job, Ouma actively marketed her range to celebrities whom she hoped would propel her brand to a new level. Her success was remarkable, winning over the likes of actor and poet Lebo Mashile, talk show host Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu and many others. 

The idea was to build such a brand presence that customers would start asking for the Plus Fab range when they walk into the mainstream fashion shops. It worked, and soon Plus Fab’s stylish garments could be found in The Space, the high-end mall-based national fashion chain. It was a huge step-change for Ouma and her fledgling business, which had already moved out of her garage to an office. She realised that it would require all her attention to make sure the new surge of orders is fulfilled and in 2015 Ouma resigned from her government job. 

She describes her transition to a full-time entrepreneur in terms that many business owners would recognise.

On the one hand the work was so much that she often had to cancel dates with friends or arrive nearly at the end of social gatherings. On the other hand, she felt that every minute she worked was her own, and very often it did not even feel like working. “It was a liberating experience,” says Ouma.

Fully embracing her identity as an entrepreneur, Ouma entered the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year which is run by Business Partners Limited. She was named runner-up in the Emerging 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year competition. Ouma says the experience validated her sense of being an entrepreneur. The vetting and evaluation process of the competition is real, and it helped her to see her performance as business owner from the perspective of the judges.

Soon Plus Fab took another huge leap forward. At first Ouma outsourced the manufacturing of her new retail orders to what is known in the industry as a cut-make-and-trim operation, usually a small clothing factory that receives the plans and the material from the design house, in this case Plus Fab.

In 2016, Ouma had the opportunity to buy the factory that fulfilled her orders, putting the business firmly in charge of its own products and orders. Ouma moved her whole business to a factory in the centre of Pretoria where her staff soon grew to 25. A remarkable feature of Plus Fab’s growth was the fact that Ouma never used outside finance, not even a bank overdraft. She did not even use her pension pay-out in her business when she resigned from her job and was able to draw a salary on the strength of the business from the start. She bought the factory based on a private deal with the previous owner to pay it off in instalments. She managed to grow by reinvesting every cent she made back into her business. If it was not for this frugality, Plus Fab might well have succumbed to the disaster that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the lockdown and social distancing, the demand for dresses and fashion items plummeted as social life and events froze, and 2020 turned out to be a hard year for Plus Fab. The fact that Ouma had her own factory meant that she could compete in the overcrowded market for face masks. As usual, Plus Fab produced stunning face masks, but the market was not big enough to sustain the factory at its usual size.

Another challenge is the rampant copying of her designs by cheap manufacturers overseas. She often finds her designs selling at knock-off prices on the local counterfeit markets.

In recent months, Ouma has had to work on downsizing and restructuring her factory. 

But she is optimistic that 2021 will be a better year. Her brand is strong, and sales will no doubt rebound as South Africa emerges from the pandemic. But Ouma is under no illusion that pulling through will require another gear shift in how she runs her business. And that is something that she has proven to be good at.

Are your workplace COVID protocols up to scratch?

With the start of the 2021 commercial year coinciding with the peak of South Africa’s second wave of COVID-19 infections, the Department of Employment and Labour has called on local businesses to ensure that their workplaces are still following all required safety measures and protocols.

After all, it may be a new year, but the pandemic is unfortunately still with us, and it is your responsibility as a business owner to check that all necessary precautions are being taken to protect employees, suppliers, and customers.

Based on the most recent regulations gazetted by Government, here is a simple checklist to ensure your business is remaining lockdown level-three compliant, in order to avoid a hefty fine or worse:

1.      Do you have a COVID-19 plan and compliance officer?

First and foremost, all businesses are required to develop a COVID-19 plan which outlines measures being taken to meet the standards and national health and safety protocols. Furthermore, businesses are required to appoint a COVID-19 compliance officer to oversee the implementation of these prevention measures and ensure that the workplace meets the prescribed health and safety standards.

2.      Are you following the required health and safety protocols?

Business owners must ensure adherence to all relevant protocols set out in the COVID-19 Occupational Health and Safety Directive, as well as any applicable sector-specific directives. For example, anyone who enters a workplace or public space must wear a cloth face mask that covers the nose and mouth at all times. Furthermore, regular handwashing and strict employee hygiene measures should be prescribed.

3.      Have you implemented the necessary policies to ensure social distancing?

Businesses with more than 100 employees must try to reduce the number of employees at the workplace at any given time by introducing the rotation of workers; staggered working hours; shift systems; and remote working arrangements. A phased approach to reopening is also recommended to ensure social distancing measures are adhered to. For businesses with fewer employees, the key is to ensure that social distancing is practiced – for example, you must ensure the distance between desks meets the required guidelines.

4.      Are you protecting vulnerable employees?

In a business’ COVID-19 plan, special measures must be outlined for employees who are 60 years and older, as well as for those with co-morbidities such as asthma, to facilitate their safe return to work. Wherever possible, measures should be taken to enable these more vulnerable employees to work from home.

5.      Is the business abiding by curfews and restrictions?

While all brick-and-mortar wholesale and retail shops are allowed to continue trading under the level three extension, there is still a curfew and alcohol ban in place. The country’s curfew has been shortened by an hour in the morning and now runs from 21h00 – 05h00, which means all employees need to leave work with enough time to be home by 21h00 at night. 

It is vital that all businesses comply with the above listed COVID-19 regulations, or risk being shut down. In this case, the employer will be given a prohibition notice and will remain closed until measures in line with COVID-19 guidelines from the Department of Health are put in place. Furthermore, it should be noted that non-compliance with COVID-19 regulations is a criminal offence and a case can be opened with the South African Police Service (SAPS).