How a personal need inspired entrepreneurial innovation

Martin Brown is the founder and CEO of Radical Mobility, a South African business that designs, manufactures and markets power wheelchairs for people with disabilities. Brown is a quadriplegic and has been confined to a wheelchair since 1998. His company sprouted from the need to find an electric wheelchair that catered for his needs – such as the ability to drive on beach sand and overcome slopes and other obstacles. He is a finalist for the 2012 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year award.

Martin Brown

How we made it in Africa talks to Brown about how unique challenges can shape entrepreneurial innovation.

Tell us about the inspiration for starting Radical Mobility.

Necessity, I needed a power wheelchair that was built for me and for my active lifestyle. I could not find a wheelchair; everything was off the shelf products and just did not meet my needs. So if I have that need, how many other people also need that? I think a lot of businesses have been started due to fulfilling a need for yourself and then realising that the need is greater than you.

How did you finance your business and how long did it take before it started being profitable?

Financing – the great headache for most budding entrepreneurs. After the writing of a business plan, a five year financial projection and market research, I got Business Partners to see my vision. It took about three years before we crossed the break even line into profitability, but it is an ever changing status as you continue to reinvest back into your business.

What are the barriers to entry in this market?

Entering the disability market is [challenging] as you are narrowing you customers quite dramatically. We only supply power wheelchairs, and we are competing against companies that have dominated the market for the past 60 years.

How do you go about marketing Radical Mobility and what has been your most successful form of marketing?

We now manage a large portion of our client interaction as cloud based, meaning everything runs via the world wide web. This change has allowed us to communicate with clients almost 24/7/365, be it via email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype, etc. Soon we will be running a cloud base PABX phone exchange allowing customers to always reach you.

We will also be implementing a cloud based project management application. This allows clients to follow the progress [of the manufacturing] of their wheelchair live over the internet. In return it allows us as a company to monitor the flow of a project, and to identify possible bottlenecking in the production line.

We are not just innovative with the products that we design and build, but [we are] also staying ahead of our competition in how we manage customer relations – relating to customers on a social basis and not just pushing sales.

Drawing from your experience, what would you say are the top three skills needed for starting and running a successful business?

Tenacity – never let anybody or anything stand in the path to your goals.
Money – account for every rand; do not squander it and have strict bookkeeping rules.
Meandering – if you want to die early then allow your business to stagnate or become complacent.

In your opinion, what is the best way to achieve long-term success?

Discipline in basic ‘my business’ principles (SMME – staff, money, marketing, entrepreneurial spirit).

Is there any popular entrepreneurial advice that you disagree with? Is so, why?

“If it works why change it?” Because as an entrepreneur it is your job to make it work better, faster and cheaper.

Where do you see Radical Mobility in 10 years?

Today Africa, tomorrow the world. We are already exporting worldwide but we would love to broaden our footprint. [There are] also some exciting developments with expanding into IT to enhance the life of the disabled by combining technology.

The Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year winners will be announced on 6 September 2012. Over the next few weeks How we made it in Africa will feature interviews with many of the finalists.