No need to reinvent the wheel, just listen to your customers

Warren Graver is the director of Envirodeck, a business that supplies environmentally conscious and sustainable decking products to the local building industry in South Africa and Namibia, with plans to expand to Angola, Botswana, Nigeria and Mozambique. Graver has turned the company into an industry leader, an achievement that made him a finalist in the 2012 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year award.

Graver shared his business tips with How we made it in Africa.

Looking back, what have been some of your entrepreneurial failures, and what have you learned from them?

My first failure was not doing enough market research into the market I would be competing in. Added to that I also did not do enough background research on the initial supplier which I nominated to work with – the Canadian company then subsequently closed its doors six weeks after landing the first imported container. This pretty much left us high and dry without the possibility of a resupply and basically signalled the end of the business before it even started.

In addition to the first mistake, we added complimentary product offerings like PVC railing out of the USA, which proved to be a hard sell in Africa because our architectural designs are very different to North America. Once again the lack of market research proved to be the vital flaw in my business endeavours.

I have learned to focus on listening to what the customers require. You don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel, you just simply have to be a good listener to what your customers require and from there you can find out what will best suit the needs of the industry. Once you understand your market and what is required, you can then go back and work with quality suppliers – coupled with good local branding and correct pricing, which provides a platform to achieve entrepreneurial success.

Besides extending your business to Namibia, do you have plans to expand your footprint into other neighbouring Southern African countries?

The market growth in Southern Africa is phenomenal and expanding our business into these regions is critical to the growth of Envirodeck. Currently we are negotiating supply contracts into Angola, Botswana, Nigeria and Mozambique. The focus of the business is to get Envirodeck represented throughout Africa in the next five years.

What is the biggest challenge you face as an entrepreneur?

The biggest challenge is not diversifying your product range or doing it too quickly, as you will run out of cash flow. Cash flow is everything to running a successful operation and making a mistake by investing in a product range or market you do not fully understand can damage your business extremely quickly. Focus on an area that your competitors will find hard to compete in; and you will have a majority percentage of the market share secured to your business. Added to that is finding quality human resources who share the same passion and energy for the business that you do. Without a good team striving to make a difference and not adding value to others through your vision will render the business useless.

Do you think being an entrepreneur has affected/changed your relationships with your friends and family?

Family and friends do not always realise how much effort or behind the scenes hard work goes into running a start-up business until they get involved in the business; and they often cannot handle the stresses or pressures involved in running an entrepreneurial business. In my case, I have been lucky to include a close friend into running the financial side of my business. I feel each member of the team has to focus on a common goal through working hard and longer hours than what is usually expected from an individual who works in a corporate environment. In my case, relationships have changed as I have to wear many hats in the business, from being a director to a son and friend in the business. I enjoy giving others the opportunity to harness their entrepreneurial ability within an entrepreneurial environment.

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.