It can be challenging to make it through the first 1000 days of business - just ask Raymond Rampolokeng, one of the co-founders of SO WE TOO - a cooperative of seven enterprising tourism operators in Soweto. We sat down with this bird watching extraordinaire to learn more about his business journey and share his ultimate survival tips.
Starting out as a volunteer, Raymond worked for Birdlife SA for many years, becoming Soweto's first ever bird guide and a leading conservationist in the area. In 2007 he founded his company, Bay of Grace Tours, providing birding tours for the first time in the history of Soweto. In 2011, Raymond's business, along with six others in Soweto, took part in a 6-month mentorship programme hosted by the TEP (Tourism Enterprise Partnership). Each business was linked with a mentor and taught to scrutinise its business plan, bankability, and objectives. Encouraged by the TEP's Hidden Treasures Programme, SO WE TOO was born to bring together these businesses under a new brand to share various unique and alternative experiences available in Soweto.
Tip: "If you are struggling as a business on your own, see how you can strengthen your offering by partnering with other like-minded companies."
Day 1: Grouping businesses into a united force
The entrepreneurs came up with the name SO WE TOO. "It's obviously a play on Soweto but we also wanted to send an uplifting message of 'so we too can do it'", explains Raymond. The 7 businesses are:
- The Soweto Hotel
- Roots Restaurant and Gallery
- TKD Tours (cycling and walking tours)
- Mahlatsi Arts and Crafts
- Aahaah Shuttle and tours
- Soweto Outdoor adventures
- Bay of Grace Tours
"We are all from Soweto and we share the same goals and ideals. Together we came up with a township experience with a difference. You not only get to see a truly authentic Soweto but you could do so for 24 hours." With minimal start-up capital required, and two members being from advertising backgrounds, they designed their own logo and started publicising their brand. Combining birding, quad biking, dining, arts and accommodation, they devised 12-hour and 24-hour tours that they could start to market to corporate and leisure clients.
Tip: "My best advice for someone starting out would be to research, research, research the field you are going into. That leads to better planning and improves your chances of succeeding."
Day 155: The launch of SO WE TOO
In October the group held an official launch, using the free facilities at the Soweto Hotel. They invited the media to the event to showcase their new tour offering. This launch approach got them great coverage in the local media.
Soon afterwards, a partnership was formed with City Sightseeing, the company operating the open top red double-decker buses in Johannesburg. "This was a big win for us in terms of credibility and having an instant central administrator for the bookings side of the business."
It took a while for the group to get systems right so they implemented weekly meetings at the Hotel. "Sometimes, if a driver was sick, we'd all have to pitch in, for example once I drove the tour bus," remembers Raymond.
Tip: "If you collaborate with other companies, treat it as a professional partnership. Make the time to meet regularly, compile an agenda and iron out any differences before they become a problem. You never want the client to become aware of any issues."
Day 245: First Challenge
Working to a 24-hour schedule brought its own challenges. "We often had to take time out of our daily business lives to meet new stakeholders or pitch on new business", says Raymond. To solve staffing shortages, the group contacted the CATHSSETA - the Culture Art Tourism Hospitality and Sports Sector Education and Training Authority. With the help of a grant, they offered 6-month internships to students.
Tip: "There is some assistance for entrepreneurs if you dig around a bit. For example, training initiatives such as SETAs can be a cost effective way to solve staffing challenges."
Day 377: Second year, taking a second look at the business plan
The second year of business proved to be a "baptism of fire", according to Raymond. "You start with great enthusiasm, thinking everything will be rosy. The sad truth was that not everyone in the cooperative was getting new business as expected." To remedy this, Raymond decided to revisit his mentorship contacts - "the great team at Soft Touch, in particular Mr Premanandha Gangiah".
"These tough times were actually a blessing in disguise because it forced us to refocus", says Raymond, who is the treasury of the group. "We had to get our administrative ducks in a row, know exactly what the financial performance of the company is and so on. We had to make sure that drivers collect all tickets so that we can submit these and be paid on time."
In May 2012, the group exhibited as SO WE TOO at the Tourism Indaba in Durban for the first time.
Tip: "My best advice would be to get yourself a trusted mentor if you're starting out. And don't be too proud to regularly ask for help and to ask that person to endorse you, for example on LinkedIn."
Day 798: Overcoming a big glitch before the Tourism Indaba
For their second exhibition, SO WE TOO received funding from Gauteng Tourism to pay for their stand. However, disaster struck when the stand builder couldn't finish it in time. "We had to build our own stand which was a bit nerve-wracking but great for teamwork!", explains Raymond.
Next 1000 days
In 2014, SO WE TOO was awarded a Lilizela Tourism Award for Social Participation and now services an astounding 800-900 clients per month, with 3 tours per day.
What's next for SO WE TOO? "We would love to see other businesses coming together like we did and replicating this throughout the country. It really is a beautiful model that benefits all the businesses involved, as well as the local area." According to Raymond, the majority of visitors come from all over Africa. "The African market has been so supportive and we see many people coming for the 24-hour tour then deciding to spend a few more days in the area, which is great."
Tip: "When times are tough or you run out of start-up capital, it's time to get resourceful about what you can get for free, for example free advice from a mentor and using free marketing channels such as social media (Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn)."