At The Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2017, in a breakout session that examined entrepreneurial case studies, two entrepreneurs who benefitted from enterprise development programming and mentorship, together with their expert mentors, shared the experiences, challenges and successes encountered in their entrepreneurial journeys.
Meet the entrepreneurs
Thembi Sithole, co-founder and co-owner of G&T Autobody – an auto vehicle repair business – is currently enrolled in Sanlam’s ESD programme, managed by Edge Growth. Sithole first joined the autobody industry as a car washer. She was promoted to receptionist, office administrator and finally general manager. Seeing an opportunity in the industry – and tired of fielding the question “are you the owner here?” at her last place of employment – Sithole partnered with someone who shared her love of cars and they opened their own panel and repair shop in 2010. G&T Autobody’s next ambition is to move to larger premises and scale up, enabling the business to employ more people.
Ezekiel Madigoe is founder and owner of Mamapo Chemicals – a chemical engineering company. He is a graduate of the Eskom Contractors Academy. Madigoe holds a PhD in chemical engineering, but always had entrepreneurship in his blood: as an undergraduate student, he started multiple businesses, including a spaza shop, an IT and a poultry business. “I have always loved solving problems…in exchange for money,” he joked. In 2015, Mamapo Chemicals won the Eskom Business Investment Case Competition, enabling Madigoe to join the Eskom Contractors Academy.
Despite different backgrounds, the challenges experienced by these (and other) entrepreneurs are often similar. For Sithole, her most pressing obstacle was finance. “I just didn’t have the cash I needed to start out. And people promised to help, and then didn’t. So I would lease equipment, and sign, and then the money wouldn’t come through.” She ended up investing her provident fund into her business. For Madigoe, although by all standards Mamapo was a successful enterprise, he struggled to secure long-term and major contracts.
Enter the experts
Siya Ralawe is a small and medium sized enterprises (SME) Growth Support Associate at Edge Growth, who currently works with and mentors around 20 small businesses and entrepreneurs. “Entrepreneurs are special people,” he noted, “so we do our jobs with humility. But there are certain services that we can provide to help them unlock their businesses’ growth potential.”
Steph Prinsloo is Programme Manager at the Eskom Development Foundation. “At the Eskom Contractor Academy,” he explained, “we ask: how can we help emerging companies to be successful? How can we help them not to outsource stuff they could be doing themselves? This is not a university programme. This is fundamental business management training. We teach people things they can take and implement in their businesses immediately.” The Academy, noted Prinsloo, does not accept people who want to be entrepreneurs. Rather, it looks for entrepreneurs that have been in business for at least two years – and have survived.
For both Sithole and Madigoe, the business skills they learnt through the respective enterprise development programmes have been crucial to the growing success of their businesses. Madigoe pointed out that one of the most important aspects to a successful business is being able to generate good, sustainable sales. “And so I had to learn marketing and sales skills, which I did not enjoy. South Africans often glamourise entrepreneurship, but you don’t wear a suit from day one. You have to start from the bottom.” For Madigoe, The Eskom Contractor Academy helped with these skills and others, such as safety standards and compliance, and better project management. “That is what really helped us to get more corporate customers,” he said.
“You need to work on your business, not in your business”
Sithole added: “there’s no mentorship like experience. But expert mentorship really helps – especially when growing your business. Mentorship has taught me the difference between being a worker and an owner – which is that you need work on your business, not in your business. The training I have received has also prepared me to anticipate and deal with changes in my business. It has also really helped my confidence – I’m much more comfortable now with escalating things, and persevering until I get what I want.”
Ralawe pointed out that a successful business does require business management skills, but also that entrepreneurship is a different way of thinking. “You have to stop merely answering the phone,” he said. “You have to make calls, and follow up calls. You have to persist and ask people why they’ve turned you down. Entrepreneurs need so much confidence. They have to constantly work on improving. There is an element of tenacity that you need to learn or re-learn. And you need to learn how to hear ‘no’ and face rejections – because you will face a lot.” Session facilitator and Trialogue Director, Nick Rockey, added: “But an understanding as to why you are being rejected means that you can tailor and adjust.”
Getting a foot in the door
Responding to a question from the floor on how to get a foot in the door as an entrepreneur, and build traction, Madigoe agreed with Ralawe. “I can’t even count the number of doors I’ve knocked on. You will find something eventually. It’s not easy. You just have to keep searching. But – the most reliable finance is the customer. If you can just generate a little bit of money – even as a non-profit – you can grow and go from there.”
Having said that, however, Madigoe did express his appreciation to Eskom. “A big thank you to the corporates,” he said. “But also – pay more attention – you can get more with the same budget by using your CSI funds to achieve your company objectives. How many people that come through your CSI programmes are able to get their own contracts? Enterprise development is not about making the introductions, or giving them contracts. It’s about making sure they are prepared and equipped to succeed themselves.”
This session was presented in partnership with
- Ezekiel Madigoe, founder and owner of Mamapo Chemicals
- Siya Ralawe, SME Growth Support Associate at Edge Growth
- Steph Prinsloo, Programme Manager at the Eskom Development Foundation
- Thembisile Sithole, co-founder and co-owner of G&T Autobody
- Nick Rockey, Trialogue director (Facilitator)