The journey so far: Tumi Phake, founder and CEO, Zenzele Fitness Group

Tumi Phake

Zenzele Fitness Group is a gym management business which operates fully-equipped health clubs for, and in partnership with, various large companies and universities.

The excerpts below have been slightly edited for clarity.

Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.

The toughest situation was being able to source funding and meet my deadline with a client to be able to open on the specific date. I remember about a year ago, it was a very tough situation, because banks at the time had a very slow turnaround time because of my lack of track record and lack of proven concept. Sometimes it would take three to six months to source funding – just back and forth of wanting additional information. The client didn’t even know. From the client’s point of view, everything was perfect.

How I mitigated it was I spoke to my suppliers who I was buying equipment from, and they trusted me – so they actually delivered the goods before I paid them because they trusted that I would be able to pay for the equipment. On the day the stuff was delivered, I think the money was just confirmed – I hadn’t physically paid my suppliers. But my suppliers went and installed the equipment. And normally people wouldn’t do that. I actually had no deposit, I had put zero deposit on the deal. But they still took the risk to install the stuff – this was R2m (US$138,000) worth of equipment. I think I paid them a week later.

I think it is all about creating good relationships and people trusting you, because you will find yourself in situations like that where you can’t deliver things on time and people that trust you will back you up, they will support you because they know at the end of the day you’ll stick to your word. When you’re first starting up as a business, when people invest in the business, they also invest in the person.

Which business achievement are you most proud of?

I think winning the Small Business Entrepreneur of the Year award – I am very proud of that. Because I think out of 167 businesses that applied for this prestigious entrepreneur competition held by Business Partners and Sanlam – to come out as the winner in my category was [amazing].

And the second was meeting President Obama. I was part of a leadership programme last year – the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders – where they select young leaders in Africa to study in the US for two months on a leadership programme. So I was at a university there and meeting other young African talent – it was quite an honour to be in that space and rubbing shoulders with those kind of people. Some of them are still my friends today. And I think the whole idea was for Africans to collaborate with one another in business and in all spheres of trading, knowledge, and anything that will sustain our economy. It was a life-changing experience which [inspired me] to want to make Zenzele a pan-African business that will tap into all African countries where there is opportunity.

Tell us about your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.

My greatest weakness is wanting to do everything on my own and taking on too much responsibility. A lot of the responsibilities that I took on [in the past] were things I had no real experience in. And I think how I was able to mitigate that was I actually started finding people that had the right expertise and skill set to assist me. I think typically we entrepreneurs tend to want to do everything ourselves, and I quickly realised that’s not good – you need to find people that have a skill set to assist you.

Secondly, a big weakness for me is sometimes I lack the ability to make quick decisions. I am actually in the middle of making quite a big decision, but I can prolong doing so because I don’t want to challenge it head to head. The decision could be with people I work with, or whatever it is. I suppose I am soft in that regard, with people, and I think I need to build a character that if something does not serve me, I need to quickly, and with due respect, say: “This is not working for me, I have to move on.”

Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?

There is a saying that not everyone is born an entrepreneur. I disagree with that. Every single day I meet people that have ideas and see solutions on how to change the world. I think society has structured us in a way and instilled fear in us so we don’t really explore those opportunities. The only thing that’s stopping those people is fear. And I don’t think fear is the only thing that should measure a person as a great entrepreneur, or just because you have guts to take risks. A lot of people have had guts and they took risks, and they failed horribly because of lack of planning.

Entrepreneurship is about solving a problem in the world. And that’s what entrepreneurs are; we are just here to identify a problem and solve it and I think all of us have the ability to see circumstances and situations within our environment, and to find a solution. Everyone is capable of being an entrepreneur – it is just a choice. I don’t believe that some people have special genes and that they are born an entrepreneur – like you’ve got blue blood or something.

Name one business opportunity you would still like to pursue.

I am interested in tech and getting into the food space, and I am actually working towards developing an app.  I think in about a year or two, I will definitely be tapping into those spaces.