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Zanele's story on... building a sustainable business by ‘eating off the land’

Zanele’s entrepreneurial journey started some time ago, working in the construction industry, and due to the loss of a key client, she found herself in the position of starting from scratch.  In this journey of painful loss, she came across the tech industry, and was drawn in by the industry's uncanny ability to build to scale.  She viewed this newfound home as a more sustainable one and being the curious and determined person she is, she threw herself in, travelling to San Francisco to immerse herself in the tech and startup culture.  Coming from a more traditional business background of 40 page business plans, long winded processes, and the like, she was exposed to a whole new world.  

On her return, and given her open mind, she noticed a gap in the market in terms of access to healthcare services including medication especially as the Covid-19 pandemic had just hit.  From medicine delivery to accessing healthcare at home, her business idea emerged.  Like many Founders when they start out, there were little funds to access the tech help she required to hire a developer but that didn't stop her.  She took the bull by the horns and made use of a simple WhatsApp chatbot at a fraction of the cost and launched her business.  Working on the frontline, engaging with her users, constantly getting valuable feedback to iterate and improve, Zanele was married to the problem of solving issues for her users.  She advises fellow Founders not to wait for perfection, but to just START! 

“You have to have that inner voice that says you will make it despite the support you think you need from others.  Remember it starts with you,  no one is going to save you, you need to rely on yourself.  If you have conviction, then the funding, the team, it will all come, just start.” 

As Zanele transitioned from a more traditional business environment to a more non-traditional business in the form of her own StartUp, she believes that infusing old and new business ways gives us the happy medium to find business success.  There is much needed experience and wisdom we can draw on from our traditional counterparts in how business is conducted, and the same applies in taking learnings from new/emerging approaches to business. 

“The old school of thought says eat off the land.  Knock on doors, go out, and get customers to keep the business alive.  Being exposed to both worlds, has helped us survive our first three years of running a StartUp which many don't survive. Investment came later, once we had built a sustainable business.”

Zanele talks to how many of us feel in this new business era, without investment we need to turn off the lights and shut down.  She reminds us that traditionally, a business grew from using funds from first customers, and investment came later, once a self-sustainable business had been established. When she started her  business, it was never about funding, and it so happens that investors have always come to her, not the other way around.  Why?  Because she focused on building the product and getting those paying customers. And when that investment comes, she reassures us that it is okay to walk away when you feel your business is being undervalued, because once you accept, you are married to them for the foreseeable future.  Her bravery in doing just this is admirable and we appreciate the wisdom she shares, as many Founders continue to battle the funding conundrum.  

Talking to the tough parts in her journey, Zanele shares the difficulty experienced by many technical Founders who may be more entrepreneurial and business wise, but lack the technical capabilities to bring their idea to life.  For her this meant ‘kissing a lot of frogs’ till she got the right expertise to develop her platform.  Another challenge she addresses is the maturity of the African market when it comes to new ways of bringing in expertise.  Where our global counterparts are more familiar with concepts like ‘sweat equity’, this is still difficult to bring into reality in the African ecosystem, with very few being willing to put skin in the game.  While this way of work is still emerging, Zanele advises Founders to look at hiring in expertise on a more contractual  basis over bringing in employees with the responsibility to pay salaries. This strategy is more palatable until the business can sustain the full time investment and responsibility of a permanent workforce.  Early days of resourcefulness have paid off for her as Zanele now scales into the rest of Africa.  

“You will always be learning, you simply do not have all the answers.  Always learning, always pivoting, until we reach our goals.”   

Zanele draws inspiration from her love for reading and writing.  Her mission is to tackle the issue of access to healthcare in the home across the African continent. On a more personal level, she continues to be an evangelist for entrepreneurship, to inspire and empower others to use it to bring change.  She is well aware of the need to break the silos and encourage a sense of community amongst entrepreneurs in order to achieve our goals.  A woman of her word, she has built up connections and networks with a giving attitude, a true role model for any aspiring entrepreneur. 

“Solving niche challenges Founders face”.

Illustrator: Lisa Williams (Instagram: @artist_llw)


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