Local entrepreneurs who built their businesses from nothing

dream big

We have heard stories about Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg’s meteoric rise to the top. If you are looking for inspiration, here are a few stories about local entrepreneurs who built big businesses from humble beginnings.

1. Ryan Bacher

NetFlorist, SA’s largest online gifting company, was launched by accident. “Our plan was to run the site for one day to prove that we could do it. And then we got R30 000 worth of orders. That was the equivalent of a whole month’s revenue at a flower shop.”

Ryan Bacher, Lawrence Brick and Jonathan Hackner launched NetFlorist on Valentine’s Day in 1999. The founders of NetFlorist had no intention of starting an online floral and gifting company – they just wanted to prove to Makro that they could design and run an e-commerce site. But Valentine’s Day came and went, and the ‘test’ site did unbelievably well, so they didn’t shut it off. “What’s really crazy is that people were paying for us to provide a service. We had no stock and knew nothing about flowers. We just sent the orders to a flower shop in Sandton,” says Ryan Bacher.

How did they make it work? “We knew our best bet was to get the website out, hack it, and keep changing it. We would learn more from the site being out there in the market than we could ever learn in-house, trying to develop a perfect product. It was basically always a work in progress.”

2. Albe Geldenhuys

USN went from zero to R1 billion in 15 years. “At first, I wasn’t even thinking about launching a product line or even a business. I just wanted to be out there, selling product and making a profit.”

Albe Geldenhuys, launched USN sports supplements in 1999. Even though it sounds like an America product, USN was launched from a small flat in Pretoria, where Albe Geldenhuys’ girlfriend mixed creatin formulations with a hand-cracked washing machine (the Sputnik).

A born salesman, Geldenhuys didn’t concentrate on business plans or marketing strategies – he focused on selling. “I targeted anyone, I had no strategy beyond just sell, sell, sell.”

The ‘non’ strategy paid off and word began to spread around Health & Racquet clubs in particular – if you wanted good quality sports supplements at an affordable price, Albe was your guy. The entrepreneur kept things lean – all revenue went back into product, allowing the business to ramp up sales until it was able to support offices and product development at the CSIR.

3. Lebo Gunguluza

Lebo Gunguluza went from dirt poor to self-made millionaire. “Notice the difference between what happens when a man says to himself, I have failed three times, and what happens when he says, I am a failure.”

Lebo Gunguluza is the founder and group chairman at GEM Group, a turnaround strategist, motivational speaker and Dragon on SA’s Dragon’s Den. When Lebo Gunguluza arrived in Durban in 1990, he had R60 to his name. At 26 he bootstrapped his first company, Gunguluza Entertainment. “I spent my first million in one year. By the end of 1999, I was flat broke. My car was repossessed and I was blacklisted.”

But Gunguluza isn’t one to turn away from a goal. Down and out, he would walk to the CNA and stand in a corner reading business books that he couldn’t afford to buy. If the staff chased him away, he’d go home, change his clothes and come back.

“I made up my mind that whatever I went into next, it would be in a space that pays well and has structure. I would also continuously reinvest in the business, watch my cash flow, and do business only with scrupulous clients who paid on time.”

4. Fats Lazarides

Ocean Basket was launched with R800 and a dream. “We convinced all of our suppliers to let us pay them with post-dated cheques, and then we worked like hell to make enough money that month to ensure they didn’t bounce.”

Fats Lazarides founded Ocean Basket in 1995 with R800. Today the nation-wide brand has system-wide sales of over R1 billion. Ocean Basket was launched from a store in Menlyn Park with some crazy restrictions because the centre management had assured their current clients there would be no more restaurants in the centre.

They could only serve five proteins and two starches. They weren’t allowed to serve salads, desserts or coffee, and only one red and one white wine by the glass. Doors had to be closed by 7pm. For every restriction, Fats Lazarides found an advantage. “We focused on the lunch-time trade. Meals were cooked and served quickly. Bar stools set up against the wall saved space and let single shoppers eat without feeling lonely.”

Soon, families would deliberately eat an early dinner before the store closed. “An entire family of four could eat for R60 because we let them bring their own salads, wine, and even desserts.”

5. Anat Apter

“When you’re small, it takes chutzpah to get noticed. There was a long queue of people trying to get a stall at Bruma flea market and I was at the back of it. So, I stood on my toes and yelled, ‘Excuse me, do you want me to sell falafel here?’ The man in the booth waved me to the front of the queue,” said Anat Apter, founder of falafel and schwarma franchise, Anat.

Starting out, Apter bought a food trailer for R600 that she paid off over six months. At first, she only sold falafel because it’s what she knew how to make best, and she wouldn’t settle for anything less than the best quality. The strategy worked.

The food was delicious and she slowly introduced schwarmas for meat-loving South Africans once they’d been perfected. The schwarma was such a money spinner that two years later, Apter opened her own shop at the market. As the market started to wane, she moved to Sandton City to win over a new customer base.

That feat took two years, but the gamble paid off: She franchised the business two years later, using franchisees’ capital to help her grow the brand to 26 stores around the country today. All because of a focus on starting small, serving the absolute best and keeping things at their most affordable and value for money.

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