Success comes with a lot of grit, resilience, and hard work despite the environment one finds themselves. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs in South Africa are those who came from nothing.
Working at the forefront of their fields gave them the perseverance to alter their narrative. They not only embraced change but also created it. These successful South African entrepreneurs were visionaries who followed their dreams.
Their domestic enterprises have developed from regional players to global names.
1. Ryan Bacher
The biggest online gift shop in SA, NetFlorist, was accidentally founded.
“Our plan was to run the site for one day to prove that we could do it. And then we got $1800 worth of orders. That was the equivalent of a whole month’s revenue at a flower shop.”
On February 14th, 1999, Ryan Bacher, Lawrence Brick, and Jonathan Hackner established NetFlorist.
The founders only wanted to demonstrate their ability to create and manage an e-commerce site, not launch an online floral and gifting business. However, the “test” site performed amazingly well on Valentine’s Day, so they decided not to turn 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.
2. Fats Lazarides
Ocean Basket began as a fantasy and an investment of $49.
“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.”
With $49, Fats Lazarides started Ocean Basket in 1995. The national brand currently generates over $61.5 million (over R1 billion) in system-wide sales.
There were many limitations placed on the business. Only five proteins and two starches could be served. There was only one red and one white wine available by the glass, and they were not permitted to sell salads, sweets, or coffee. Doors were to be shut by 7 o’clock.
Fats Lazarides found an advantage to every drawback.
“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.”
3. George Sombonos
Sombonos discovered a well-kept chicken sauce.
“Without my father’s knowledge, I swapped the existing chicken coating for an untested recipe I bought in the US for $1000. Sales increased and turnover shot up to over $12,000 a month. That was a big deal in the 1980s.”
George Sombonos founded and owns the fast food franchise Chicken Licken, which has expanded to 240 locations nationwide and generated $61.5 million in revenue in 2013.
George Sombono helped his father run the Dairy Den, a roadhouse eatery in the south of Johannesburg, in the early 1970s.
In order to learn more about the business, Sombono was sent to the US in 1972. While there, he ate chicken and hamburgers from every chain and restaurant he could locate. He came across some wonderful chicken in Waco, Texas, but the recipe would set him back $5,000.
He bartered for a different, unproven recipe with his final $1,000 in traveller’s checks.
4. Lebo Gunguluza
Lebo Gunguluza: Self-made millionaire who rose from abject poverty
Lebo Gunguluza founded GEM Group, serves as group chairman, is a turnaround strategist, a motivational speaker, and a dragon on South Africa’s Dragon’s Den.
Lebo Gunguluza had $3.70 in his pocket when he landed in Durban in 1990. At age 26, he started his first business, Gunguluza Entertainment, from scratch. “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.”
Gunguluza, though, is not the type to give up on a goal.
“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.”
5. James Robertson and Philip Cronje
The $6.1 million success of Big Blue: From concept store to successful national retailer.
Big Blue was started by James Robertson and Philip Cronje out of a flea market booth. The business now generates $6.1 million in revenue.
Similar to Robertson and Cronje, they conducted short tests to gather preliminary data before deciding whether to invest more completely in a plan.
The first Big Blue store in Rosebank, which was once known as Kitsch and Kool, was one of these attempts.
It was modelled after the Danzigers warehouse, which had amassed surplus merchandise since 1910 and had developed over the years into a museum of consumer products.
The idea was well received. It resulted in a deluge of magazine and broadcast coverage as well as a large uptick in sales.
This store was also among the first in the nation to sell clothing and gifts together, a practice that has since come to be recognised as “lifestyle stores” in the retail sector.
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