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Bootstrapping Soweto-style – a young entrepreneur’s story of life in the “tough” business world (By Kagiso Monnapula*)

August 18, 2013

A while ago I was watching Morning Live when the late Vuyo Mbuli said  “Business is tough”. My world paused a little as I slowly tried to swallow it. I have heard a lot of business people explain what they think business is. Not one of them ever gave a straight answer. If this is not strange behavior, I don’t know what is. I am a young businessman and perhaps the reason why I was affected by Vuyo’s words was that I had also been guilty of this. Something called to question by a simple truth that,  business is just plain tough!

In all fairness I couldn’t have known that things would toughen once I had started my business. There were a few positives that made starting up much easier. In a way, business chose me and not the other way round. From my teenage years there was a lot of informal and quasi business activity which I think gave me a business edge most first-time business owners, do not have.

At the time when the Government was promoting cooperatives, I became a member of one. I was then a matric scholar and would ask permission from my teachers to leave school early to attend the cooperative’s meetings. I was the only white shirt and grey-trouser member among lawyers and other business people. I was also a SRC Representative on the academic board of one of Gauteng’s biggest Colleges. At board meetings there would always be a few seconds of dead silence after I spoke. Because members, some of whom some were regional ANC big shots, struggled to respond to my contributions.

This kind of experience will aid any person who plans to start a business in the future. It may not have the effect of a red flag waved in front of you to signal just how difficult running a business is. But it helps.

In business you have to offer value for money. My product did just that. My clients responded superbly to my offering. I was selling advertising to businesses in Soweto and up to 80% of all the establishments I spoke to purchased my product. This was fantastic. It added the cherry on top of the cake. Starting a business couldn’t get any easier!

There is a saying to be careful what you wish for because you might just get it. I got what I wished and that was clients who had paid. I worked hard to get them. It included walking in the blistering sun from one business to the next. I had very little money to pay for the printing of contracts and business cards. Even the camera I was using to take photos of their products was borrowed. To top it all, most these business owners were old people to whom I’d first have to explain why they needed to advertise.

The time for me to walk the talk had come. I was in possession of my clients’ money. Carrying out their work involved printing so off I go shopping for a printer. To my shock; the prices are so high. The long and short of this story is that, firstly my costing was totally wrong, and as a result I would not make a profit.

Statistics show that in the first three years of existence most business will struggle. In plain terms that means you are going from one mistake to another. Starting a business is almost like buying a smashed car that you need to fix before you drive it. All new businesses start off ‘broken’ and to get customers, develop an effective financial management system, manage staff relations well and, indeed, get every aspect of the business functioning effectively, the business owner has to do some fixing.

I have given you a testimonial of some adventures I had when starting my business. But perhaps the most significant fixing that any young business needs is for the owner to fix themself. Business is tough! It requires steadiness. You have to ride the tide similar to Michael Schumacher driving his Ferrari at high speeds but exercising control where he needed to brake, accelerate and bend with the twists and turn of the circuit.

Success in business comes not so much from getting contracts and employing people. It is derived from actually staying in business. The longer you remain in the game, the better your prospects become. To be a business person is to be an exorcist. It is really about facing your demons, stare defeat in the face – and overcome it.

* Kagiso Monnapula is a young South African who is determined to change his future.


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