Investing in female entrepreneurs in South Africa means investing in our economy as a whole. That’s because, according to the latest South African Women Entrepreneurs Job Creators Survey, women are more likely to develop businesses in industries that promote job creation.
Unfortunately, this message hasn’t seemed to reach the right people in the right places quite yet: according to the latest Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE) in 2022, while South Africa moved up one spot in the world rankings for women’s entrepreneurship to 37th, entrepreneurship as a whole in the country has declined. So how can we get those numbers up and encourage more women to pave their own way?
According to Nicolette Mashile, a successful businesswoman and passionate personal finance advocate, we need more female entrepreneurs to act as teachers and role models for the next generation of go-getters: “I think it would be great if business people could dedicate some time to go into universities and schools and really speak about how to run a business. Let's put away the theory. Let's put away the textbooks. Let's really talk about the day-to-day. Because the reality of running your business and what’s in Josh Kaufman's The Personal MBA book are worlds apart.”
So we sat down with her to talk about the challenges of entrepreneurship, her personal experience and her practical tips for starting a business that she wants every female entrepreneur to know:
1. Know the difference between B2C and B2B
When you’re working on your small business idea, your first decision is whether your business model will be B2B or B2C.
Business-to-business (B2B) is a model involving business between two companies. For example, if you offer social media management services for other small businesses, your business model is B2B. If you manufacture aprons that you sell to a retail brand, that’s also B2B.
In the case of business-to-consumer (B2C), the business sells their products or services directly to the consumer, who is the end user. If you own a boutique store selling clothes to customers in a mall, like Nicolette’s latest venture, that’s a B2C company.
According to Nicolette, the biggest deciding factor in choosing B2C vs B2B comes down to your preferred communication style and your potential customer base. “When you’re servicing business clients, you need to actively go to them to advertise. You've got to identify the decision makers, and go directly to their companies. You've got to email them directly.
It's very different with consumer clients, though – I can send out a message and people can show interest and be like, okay, we want your product or we want your service. I think neither one is easy – it's really just about who you are.”
2. Know the difference between product and service
The next big decision you need to make when you’re working on your business idea is whether you focus on a product or a service as a business. According to Nicollete, that depends on the capital you have for a product business, versus the contacts and reputation you have for a service business.
“I think product is actually far more difficult than service. And I'll give you a very practical example: Right now, I’m working on my kids financial literacy books. From previous books, I’ve learnt that there's a certain quality of book you need to push out. So we went for a hardcover for our books so they look amazing. We hired a full-on, competent illustrator to do the illustrations. Then we needed to print these books. And all of a sudden you are told that to print one book, it's R400 and you're like, how much am I going to sell it if it's R400 to print a unit? So then you decide to print larger quantities so you can get the unit cost going down. But the problem with that is now I'm printing 5,000 copies of books and I've got 15 orders. So you sit with a lot of stock. And now you've got to advertise and market.”
While Nicolette is an advocate for service businesses, she admits there are challenges you face with that business model, too. “I do think that service is a lot easier. The only difficulty with service is that you need to be a trusted name or a trusted brand. So you've got to build brand equity first. It's not always going to be easy. Not everyone is always going to give you a chance. When it comes to service, you need to build on your mentorship. You need to build on your networking. You need to build on your relationships.”
3. Learn how to manage your client or customer
Whether you decide to build a product business or a service business, and whether you’re marketing B2C or B2B, the same rule applies: learn to effectively manage your customer or client. Understand what they expect and need from you, and how to make their experience with your business a good one, and you’re on the right track.
“I always say the biggest thing about business is not your product or your service, it's client management. Can you manage your customers? Can you manage your clients? If you can do that, you can go into service or product whichever one suits and floats your boat,” says Nicolette.
4. Upskill yourself in running a business
Nicolette believes the ‘easy part’ of starting a small business is the idea – the hard part is running it. Even though her first business venture running a sports coaching agency for schools was successful, she still found the actual running of the business challenging. “I was not ready for the realities of running a business because that's a whole different ball game. Starting a business and getting a good idea is the easy part. It’s not as difficult as getting it going and maintaining it.”
Nicolette had to learn the hard way how to prepare herself for all the risks and eventualities that might come along. “I'll give you an example: it’s half past one in the afternoon, and practice is supposed to start, and I get a call from the sports director, and they're like, your coaches are not here. And you're like, what do you mean they're not there? So you call the coach, the coach says, oh, sorry, I forgot to tell you I have an exam. Or the taxi broke down, or there's no taxi to get to the school. Those types of things are the things we never really thought would happen. We never had the foresight for the risks that were associated.
And with that, you start building this reputation that your coaches are not reliable, they don't make it to work. And it's on you. The reality is the sports director or the school is going to call you as the entrepreneur to say, but you promised us, you saw there's a big game.”
Nicolette believes it’s a trap many entrepreneurs fall into. “Oftentimes, when entrepreneurs earn their first business income, all of a sudden they relax. Now you're relaxed, you don't do business development – you're not looking out for the risks that come with it.”
The bottom line? Think of all the possible risks you and your business might face, and how you can deal with them. The more prepared you are, and the more you seek to upskill yourself in managing the day-to-day of your business, the smoother your business will run.
5. Work on your time management skills
For most women, the reality is that they won’t be able to quit their 9-to-5 to work full-time on their small business right from the start. Often, your business has to start as a side hustle and that, according to Nicolette, requires a good dose of time management.
“I was at college trying to get my sports management diploma while I was building my first business. And let me tell you, it is hard. Because clients all think they're the only client that you've got. So when they want an answer, you must drop everything you are doing to respond to them,” admits Nicolette. “I know we're very keen on people starting side hustles, but I don't think we speak enough on how difficult it really is to run a side hustle while you’re studying or while you’re working, or while you're a mom. It's not an easy journey.”
Fast-forward a few years, and Nicolette is now running seven businesses and has a few projects in planning across a range of industries. How does she do it? With effective time management and a clever project management tool:
“So after I sold that business and did my degree, I ended up working in an advertising agency where I learned about something called a status document. I can tell you now, the reason why I can run seven businesses at this point is simply because I have a status document. At five o'clock every morning, when I pop my eyes open, I don't get out of bed. Instead, I go through every single business and give myself a to-do action for each of them on my status document.”
Status documents work for Nicolette, but it’s all about finding your own method for managing your time effectively. The bottom line is keeping a good tab of what’s going on in each aspect of your life and business and finding the flow that works for you.
6. Fund your small business by saving
When I asked Nicolette about funding small businesses, she was passionate about the idea of taking your time to save. “I don't enjoy sourcing capital at the beginning of starting a business. I think a lot of us worry that capital is going to be our biggest need when it comes to businesses. And capital is not always going to be your biggest need. No amount of money or marketing or funding is going to make up for a mediocre business or a mediocre service.
So before you start thinking about capital, think about what it is that you want to put out there. Think about how much it is going to cost you to put one out and rather focus on getting the capital to do that one thing. If you look at it that way, it becomes so much easier to be able to source or save capital, and your options become far more large.”
The biggest pushback she gets when she offers this solution to her coaching clients is time: they’re impatient to get started with their business. “The problem is that people think, okay, if I'm saving R10,000, for instance, and saving R1,000 a month, it will take them 10 months to get there, right? But how many people have kicked themselves for not starting 10 months later!”
She was so passionate about the topic, we wrote a whole blog post from the interview based just on that.
7. Ask for advice directly
Nicolette is an advocate for mentorship in entrepreneurship, and believes more businesswomen need to be teaching practical skills to up-and-comers. But she thinks our idea of mentorship is flawed: “We need to change the idea or definition of mentorship. In South Africa we've got a very skewed idea of what mentorship is supposed to look like and what it's supposed to be. If you want to start a business and join a business community, you need to be an open person. You need to be able to walk up to someone and say, listen, I am starting a business and you know what? I have no idea how to grow this business.”
This openness also extends to asking the questions directly and making the most use of your mentor’s time. “Many of us are afraid to open our mouths and ask people. And when we do ask them, we're not very clear on what it is that we want. We go to the person and we say, please be my mentor. And that mentor’s sitting there thinking, oh my goodness, with my work and all of the things I need to do, I ain't got no time to be mentoring someone.
Don’t get me wrong, business people love to talk about their businesses. Business people love to talk about their war stories and how difficult it was. But people are busy. So speak to people, that's step number one. But when you do speak to people, get to the point. Ask your questions directly.”
8. Look for your mentors in less flashy places
Mentorship, especially in business, has become a bit of a buzzword. And because it’s ‘trendy’ to get yourself a business mentor, we often look for mentors in the wrong places because we want them for the wrong reasons.
“People put their brand out there on social media, the way they want to be seen and the way they want to be perceived. Now that does not mean that big social media brands are the only entrepreneurs that are out there. There are many entrepreneurs, and many of us grew up around them.
You know the mama down the road who sells the vetkoek in the morning. You know the uncle who goes and fetches children and offers school transport. You know the aunt in your family who makes soaps or candles or runs a pottery school. I think we've got a lot of entrepreneurs around us already, and we don’t need to always go to the ones that are glittered. We need to start checking our qualification list of who we think is a great entrepreneur and who we can learn from. It's not always the celebrated people. Some people really can just teach us the basics.”
Nicolette’s advice is to start by asking yourself where your weak points are in yourself and your business, and what kind of guidance you’re looking for, then finding the right person with that skillset: “If you want to learn the art of selling, it's the street vendors on the road who will teach you the art of selling. If you want to understand client management, go to the advertising agencies and speak to the guys who are running big businesses, who are heading up client services. They will teach you how to manage clients. I think entrepreneurship mentorship is everywhere.”
9. Always think four steps ahead
When closing off our conversation, I asked Nicolette if she had some last pieces of advice to hand over to female entrepreneurs starting their first business. Her response (and you’ll notice there’s a trend in her philosophy!) was to think four steps ahead if you want your business to succeed:
“We don't build businesses for them to die, but change in society can kill a business. You look at the meter taxi industry, you look at the video hire store – when there's a change in society it can really make your business obsolete.
There's this guy who runs Valuetainment – a YouTube channel – called Patrick Bet-David. He always speaks about the fact that as a businessman or woman, you must already be thinking about what your fourth next move is. Not your next move – your fourth next move. You've got to look at the probabilities of what could happen.
One, your business could really shoot up and grow and you need to scale. And scaling is also one of the hardest things that you can ever do in a business. Secondly, you must consider what happens if the business doesn't grow and you're sitting with all of the stuff that you've bought. What are you going to do with that stock? Thirdly, you must think about, okay, what if the business is made obsolete because of the industry that you're in? What do you do then? What is your next move? So he says you've got to think four steps ahead in terms of how you run a business.”
Are you ready to start your business?
According to Nicolette, if you’re looking to start your own side hustle or build your small business, it’s not going to be easy. But it is going to be rewarding and as we can clearly see, it not only benefits you and your family’s income, but the South African economy as a whole. “Entrepreneurship is probably one of the things that's going to save South Africa's economy. I think we need small businesses and we need those small businesses to grow into large businesses. We need our own corporations that are from here.”
Entrepreneurship and building your small business requires forward thinking, research, saving, practice and sometimes, failing and learning. But with the support of more successful business women like Nicolette, you can rest assured you’ll be guided and inspired all along the way.