South African entrepreneur on lessons learnt from Silicon Valley and tough times

Aisha Pandor, co-founder of SweepSouth

SweepSouth is a South African start-up which allows customers to book a home cleaner online at R38 (US$2.8) per hour. The company was launched in Cape Town in June 2014 by husband-and-wife team, Aisha Pandor and Alen Ribic, and has since expanded to Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban.

In 2015, the couple spent four months in Silicon Valley after being selected to take part in the 500 Startups accelerator, a first for a South African venture. Today the company has close to 20,000 bookings a month and has just concluded a series A financing round with the aim of expanding to other African and emerging markets.

Pandor has also just been named one of Africa’s Breakthrough Female Tech Entrepreneurs of 2017 by the World Economic Forum. How we made it in Africa catches up with her to find out about some of the business lessons she has learnt over the last three years.

Give us a quick crash course in something you learnt during the accelerator programme in Silicon Valley.

So one of the things was the notion of an experiment pipeline. As a start-up you should be constantly testing and measuring results… and one of the things that we learnt, and do now as a result of our time there, is have an experiment pipeline. It is literally just a spreadsheet with tens, if not hundreds, of experiments that have a very short lifeline, and all of those experiments start with a hypothesis.

As an example, my hypothesis could be that I think our user sign-up form should be the first thing you see when you come to our [website] landing page, versus maybe the last thing you see when you scroll to the bottom of the page. So you design an experiment to test that and you A/B test. You need to know what the outcome is that you are looking for, and those things need to be detailed on the spreadsheet. There is an experiment owner, a timeline for the experiment, specific aims (whether its conversion or retention)… and then there is measuring results, analysing results and taking some sort of action as a result of that. Then you do it again – having anything from three to 10 experiments running regularly. You run the business like that, no matter what stage you are at. It is something Twitter, for example, does right now.

So that was a big thing for us and it has changed the way that we run the business. Before, we always thought you run one experiment, focus everything on that, and it is a big deal. Now we have a culture of constantly testing, measuring and analysing.

Are you more likely to first expand to another African country rather than another South African city, like Port Elizabeth?

I think that probably is the case… We want to hone in on cleaning in markets where the service can grow… and where there is a match in terms of what people are willing and able to pay for domestic services, and what we are trying to do in terms of lifting up pay rates. So the cities we are currently in have satisfied that. [Now] we want to look at and launch in other big cities in [other] countries, and then if there is a value proposition in launching into smaller South African cities, we will simultaneously look at that. But we feel the time is right in terms of the company, maturity wise, to start looking at what SweepSouth Kenya will look like.

And Nigeria is also in your sights, yet this is a notoriously tricky market.

It is. Firstly, it is a huge market. I think you have got to be very savvy in operating and going into that market, and we obviously have to keep an eye on how they are doing economically. But, again, it is a service that people are using anyway… We didn’t reinvent the actual service. What we did is provide a really great way to get access to it for both sides and manage that whole process using technology. In doing that we also tried to change mindsets around the value people assign to domestic workers in their homes, and tried to professionalise this service. But ultimately it was a service that people were using and wanting to use anyway. So I think that is what we are expecting from the markets that we go into. Even if Nigeria is going through a recession, and they are struggling when it comes to being able to afford these types of services, people are still doing it anyway.

Describe a particularly challenging period for your company, and what you learnt from it.

It was over December 2016 and we planned to have an increase in the number of people requesting the service, but we hadn’t really [expected] it to be as big as it was. So we had a situation where our team members were really tired. I don’t think we planned adequately for the growth that we experienced during that time and so everyone was really exhausted. They were not able to spend time with their families. We had customers who were let down over that time. So it was a lesson around planning and making sure that you are agile.

What works and doesn’t work when it comes to marketing and sales?

Marketing is fantastic in terms of getting your brand out there, but it is not necessarily going to get you users… So you have to have an active sales role and think about sales as distinct from marketing. The idea that getting good PR and winning competitions and that sort of thing is going to get you sales – well, that is definitely not the case.

I think what we have also learnt is it’s important that you really understand your brand and your culture well. Particularly where it’s a relatively new concept in a market, you need to keep it simple initially and try not confuse people with all of the different things that you want it to be in the future.

So we have learnt to be very clear about what our brand is… and not to confuse getting nice PR and winning competitions – and even getting funding – with actual sales and how well your company is doing in terms of growth and key metrics.

What advice do you have for other start-ups looking to hire a PR company?

You have to understand exactly what it is you expect… What do you want that return on your investment to be? Again, don’t have the false idea that PR will result in the same value of sales, because that won’t be the case. I think also understand that a PR agency, or any sort of help around PR, does not magically create a fantastic story around your company. You have got to be able to do that yourself, and PR’s job is to help you maybe refine that and get the word out.

Any tips on starting a business with a spouse?

It is [about] the type of co-founder you choose, and choosing someone whose skills and personality are complementary to yours. If that is not the case, don’t do it.

[My husband and I] find that we have very different personalities but they kind of enhance the best parts of each other as opposed to causing clashes. Then I would advise to have set parts of the business that you each deal with and are responsible for so that ultimately when it comes down to difficult decisions, each party respects that the other is an expert on whatever their field is.

And then try also have a good work-life balance as well, because if it works well it means that you will probably want to talk about and be obsessed with the business. You need to have a good work-life balance and make sure you are a couple as well as business partners.