South African entrepreneurs share their toughest days on the job

How we made it in Africa asked some of South Africa’s most dynamic entrepreneurs to reveal the toughest situations they’ve found themselves in as business owners, and how they overcame these challenges.

1. Bruce Dube, MD, Nine80 Digital

Nine80 Digital is a pan-African digital media publishing company. Its presence includes South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

“Being bankrupt and in debt was a tough phase of my entrepreneurial journey that impacted many personal and professional relationships negatively.

“I overcame the challenge by adopting a more frugal approach with the overall business model, [thereby] fostering a business that focused more on giving value to consumers at lower costs by stripping down all the excess that doesn’t speak to the core of the business and translate to revenue growth.”

Read the full interview here

2. Tumi Phake, founder and CEO, Zenzele Fitness Group

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

“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.”

Read the full interview here

3. Wesley Lynch, CEO, Snapplify

Snapplify is a global edtech company that was started in Cape Town, South Africa. The business is focused on content distribution, mobile publishing, and innovation for digital education. 

“It is tough managing the growth of a company as it begins to expand and bring on new team members. These changes to the core team dynamic and company culture can have negative side effects if not compensated for or planned for to maintain a balance. Although Snapplify doesn’t exactly qualify as a startup anymore, we’ve tried to maintain that fresh, innovative culture that comes with a startup environment, which seems to be working so far.

“Another challenge is being able to identify and adapt to important differences when entering new markets. It’s impossible to cookie-cut lessons learned across different markets and territories, and hope for similar success. It is important to learn how to adapt ideas to suit changing circumstances and situations.”

Read the full interview here

4. Nokwethu Khojane, co-founder, Lakheni

Lakheni is a Cape Town-based company which has developed a platform that aggregates low-income households into buying groups, allowing them to benefit from reduced prices for everyday items.

“Fundraising. Raising funding for growth is really the hardest part. I think you’ve got to be more targeted about the doors that you knock on, as opposed to the spray and pray approach. When you are more targeted you tailor each request so that it aligns with that specific funder. I believe this is a much better strategy than to just send out countless proposals.”

Read the full interview here

5. Judith Middleton, founder, DUO Marketing + Communications

DUO Marketing + Communications is a South African public relations and digital agency that serves the business-to-business tech industry.

“Without doubt: cashflow management. The business can be strong and healthy, with solid recurring revenue, but that doesn’t mean customers pay on time or adhere to their part of the contract. Fortunately, this has only happened twice in our nearly 15-year history and when we were truly honest with ourselves; we acknowledged that the mutual value and respect for one another just wasn’t there. So we took a hard line and ‘blessed and released’ the client.

“The impact on one’s health, wellbeing and team morale just isn’t worth a late-paying client who disregards the agreement. We also created a firmer payment policy with penalty clauses, which we now enforce. Trust and hope are an entrepreneur’s reverie when we don’t really want to confront what truly is so.”

Read the full interview here

6. Adrian Gardiner, chairman, Mantis

Mantis is a family-run collection of privately-owned hotels, eco escapes and lifestyle resorts located around the world, with a large presence in Africa.

“During the 1970s, I ran various businesses, ranging from roads and infrastructure, tennis courts and swimming pools to other recreational facilities in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. When the 1979 recession started, I lost everything and had to start again. This was my ‘university of life’, and you soon realise who your real friends are – as well as the people who will stand by you during the most difficult times. I looked at this experience positively and made the best of the lessons that I learned. I have no regrets.”

Read the full interview here

7. Trevor Gosling, CEO, Lulalend

Lulalend is a Cape Town-based online lending platform for small businesses.

“When I left investment banking to pursue entrepreneurship I made sure I had a six-month runway in terms of personal cash flow to keep me going. Little did I know that it would be 18 months before I would see my first pay cheque from my startup. Those were some dark days but taught me to live lean, which I encourage every entrepreneur to do.

“Don’t be afraid to eat dirt and get uncomfortable for a couple years because the pain will all be worth it.”

Read the full interview here

8. Rahul Jain, CEO, Peach Payments

Rahul Jain

Peach Payments is a payment processor focusing on Africa and other emerging markets. It offers payment solutions to online and mobile businesses, enabling them to accept payments from consumers across the globe.

“In the early days, our seed-funding round collapsed at the last step. This was a setback because we needed the funds desperately. It took us another year to raise the money. During this time, we were constantly with our backs against the wall. We were funding the business with our savings, including paying salaries, while not having taken a salary ourselves for two years.

“One week, we were out of business; and, the next week, there was some hope. This was truly a rollercoaster business-wide and also emotionally as individuals. The only way we overcame this challenge was to put our heads down and focus on growing sales and revenues.

“This way we started to solve the cash crunch, little by little. Mentally, it was a big challenge to keep ourselves motivated, and I think it was the small victories that really helped on that front.”

Read the full interview here