Shifting from Employee to Business Owner

Updated on 9 September 2019

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business owner sme south africa

By: Florence Letoaba, MD, Refilwe Matla Media

One of the biggest challenges in life is stepping out of one’s comfort zone and going into unknown territories – that is pretty much how I describe my transition from employee to business owner.

My background is media and law. I had always wanted a way to merge the two things I’m most passionate about. However, I realised that I would probably have to create this [opportunity] for myself as there was no company which offered me both. This is one of the many reasons which led me to decide to go on the entrepreneurial route.

My company was established in 2011, but I quickly went back to full-time employment after becoming a mother. Then, when I was comfortable again I went back to entrepreneurship. We became fully operational only two years ago.

Now I understand why many are afraid to make that leap from employee to entrepreneur

Taking control

I quite enjoyed the routine [as an employee] and the idea having a boss “like me”.

I think that all changed when I became a mother: I [began] hating the idea of being a grown woman with a child, but still having to beg for time off to spend with my family. I wanted to be my own boss (as cliché as that sounds).

After two retrenchments and a dismissal, I realised that I no longer wanted my future to be in someone else’s hands but my own, I wanted to have control of my own life and destiny.

The leap

I went into the media business because that is where my experience lies. It is different from what I studied (law), but I have found a way to merge my two passions.

I realised that I no longer wanted my future to be in someone else’s hands but my own

I was quite excited about being a business owner initially and although I knew there would be challenges, I wasn’t quite prepared for the enormity of those challenges.

One of the main challenges I faced was getting funded. What we initially did in order to get some money in – which might not have necessarily been the best strategy – was to make sure we were the cheapest on the market, so we under-quoted. My thinking [then] was that we are a new business and this would get potential clients to give us a chance and then see what we were capable of once we are in the door.

One of the smartest things I did, from the onset, was to surround myself with capable people I know and trust

There were months the business was not making money but the company still had [to meet] its financial obligations.

I knew the business would be okay the day we started getting requests for quotations and presentations from big companies we never thought would be keen to work with us so early on, we knew we were doing something right at that point.

Building a team

One of the smartest things I did from the onset was to surround myself with capable people I know and trust because I was always very aware of my own limitations.

I also made a point to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am, which I believe is key. I made it a point to appoint people in key positions where I knew I needed help.

[The tasks] I knew for a fact I could manage and do, I did myself, which when you are a business owner means doing the job of five people at once, particularly when the business is still new and has no money to pay a full staff complement.

Know your worth

I have definitely evolved as a business owner from when I first started, I remember a time when I would be afraid to quote (invoice) what was the standard for the services we provide because I felt nobody knew us. We could not justify what I viewed as exorbitant fees.

I no longer think that way, thankfully, I am now confident in the quality of work we do and produce and we now charge what we are worth. That was certainly a mistake I made in the beginning.

What I wish I had known is that most businesses struggle in the first few years, I put myself and my team under a lot of pressure because I felt we should be doing well within the first year.

I’m glad I went in blindly

It’s a very long and difficult road. Now I understand why many are afraid to make that leap from employee to entrepreneur. I probably would not have done it myself had I known just how many sacrifices I would have to make, but I’m glad I went in blindly. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Upwards and onwards

As managing director of my own company, I have great pride in knowing I have built something from scratch and even though we are not at the top yet. I now have great confidence that we will reach the top.

One major confidence boost we had recently received was being selected by Investec as one of a group of 14 media startup companies to be sent to India as part of a global exposure tour. This told us that Investec believed in us being capable of going global as a company.

We now no longer limit ourselves to South Africa as a business, but have our sights set on international business which is exciting for us as this means the sky is the limit.

About the author: Florence Letoaba is a seasoned broadcaster with over 15 years experience in television news and current affairs anchoring as well as talk radio and news presenting. She is now the MD of Refilwe Matla Media, a full service media services company based in Gauteng.

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