How I Built My App-Based Business, And How You Can Do It Too

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For South African entrepreneurs who have ever felt frustrated about the lack of locally-relevant information regarding the process of launching an app-based business, Thuli Hlongwane, a techpreneur who launched two mobile apps in 2018, has advice.

Hlongwane has an extensive background in the IT industry, she previously held positions such as head of shared application and technology director and has worked for the likes of Old Mutual, Woolworths and Pearson.

She is the founder and managing director of Prim-U Infotech which launched PRIM-U and Primlancer.

Prim-U is an online booking hub that connects beauty entrepreneurs in the industry to customers and hundreds of salons, spas, hotels and guest houses countrywide that she launched in 2018. Primlancer matches freelancers with salons and spas to offer their services which include doing make-up, hair, nails and massages.

Both apps are currently available on both Google Play and the Apple Store.

Hlongwane talks to SME South Africa about what inspired her app business and the process of building an app. 

Why the decision to launch an app-based business, and why the beauty business?

My background as a corporate worker, [also] my experience in the technology industry coupled with the stress levels [experienced as a result of needing] to look prim and proper (nails and hair).

How easy or difficult was taking PrimU from idea to reality?

A few sleepless nights and still more sleepless nights, but very exciting.

How useful was your previous IT experience in launching PrimU?

I love the way technology works in connecting people to respond to personal needs. I see more of the benefit when thinking of advancing this in the future.

Other expenses that can sometimes be overlooked is the cost of marketing the product

What does the tech building process look like – from finding talent, building the framework, duration etc?

The MVP (minimum viable product) was built without copying from something that existed or a foundation to duplicate from. The next steps were finding a partner to work with who understood the requirements and [was] willing to estimate costs and effort appropriately.

What would you say the most challenging aspect of that process was?

Getting the work started was a challenge that required excellent negotiating skills. Building a prototype was also a challenge because it is complicated to articulate or give requirements with a product that is new on the market.

How was PrimU funded?

All self-funded.

We get a lot of questions on this, but just how expensive is launching an app, and what are the typical expenses that entrepreneurs can expect?

The answer is always linking to the expertise required, whether the solution is simple or complex, interfaces required etc. The cost of maintenance and support varies depending on the type of environment/s required and support of the systems.

The other expenses that can sometimes be overlooked are the costs of marketing the product and training that might be needed by users at different levels and the cost of unexpected delays.

The people aspect – finding the service providers, what did that process look like and what went into that conversation?

You can start the business by hiring full-time employees, which might be demanding right at the beginning because all teams are new and all data is based on forecasts and predictions. The second part is getting contract resources as and when required. There are pros and cons in the sense that full commitment requires more time and effort to manage.

How big is your team? What kind of talent is needed to run an operation like this?

Most activities are outsourced to contain the costs. The resources that we have are specialised based on the skills required at different levels.

How did you initially find customers? How important was the feedback that you got from them?

Engaging with close friends and family members, as ambassadors, was vital in understanding what type of feedback to use. They sometimes think that you are crazy, but they are your best ambassadors. Getting a mentor to work with is also very important. You get asked questions that you didn’t think of, but they are valuable in your planning and [building a] road map.

Be clear about the problem that you are trying to solve

How big is your current user base?

We have more than 180 service providers registered in the major cities only for now (Durban, Gauteng and Cape Town).

How comfortable and eager are South Africans to use apps?

They love the idea. It is always refreshing when you mention [the app] to someone for the first time, and you see their look of excitement when hearing about it.

App-based businesses seem to have slowed down in popularity, why do you think this is the case, and what kind of implications does this hold for your business?

This is the case where technology is seen as a silver bullet and not as an enabler to solving a business problem. We see Prim-U as an opportunity with a social impact as it is a platform that matches entrepreneurs with customers, enabling them to run profitable small businesses.

Any advice for entrepreneurs looking to launch their own app-based business?

Be clear about the problem that you are trying to solve and use that information to draft precise business requirement specifications. Get the full costs upfront for a business solution not just to develop the App.

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Lebohang Thulo
Lebohang Thulo
Lebohang Thulo is the editor of SME South Africa. She enjoys keeping up with the country’s exciting and fast developing entrepreneurship ecosystem. You can find her at @lelele3

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