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Top tips from South Africa’s most exciting startups

January 24, 2022

The winners of South Africa’s Top 5 Most Exciting Startups list was announced in Cape Town in December. The highly-anticipated competition is a celebration of entrepreneur excellence organised by Heavy Chef and partners.

The xneelo team were there to see the recipients take the stage. We wanted to hear from some of the winners just what it takes to make it as a startup in South Africa. 

Just start

Founded in 2016, Kusini Water uses nanotechnology to help local companies and communities access clean purified water, outside of the municipal grid. They partner with local farmers to source macadamia nut waste for their filtration system. 

Founder Murendi Mafumo, who grew up in Limpopo and studied at Yale University, created his innovative water filtration system to solve the disconnect between urban and rural communities, many of whom do not have ready access to clean water. 

“Done is better than perfect”, says Murendi. “Just get started. That’s the best advice I ever received.”

Go deep

Lethabo Mokoena knows what’s important to the modern consumer – keeping their brand name sneakers looking fresh. He founded his boutique shoe-cleaning company Walk Fresh in 2015, and quickly saw the demand for his services grow. 

Walk Fresh now has  franchises in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and offers refurbishing, maintenance, shoe shining, and repairing services for all kinds of footwear. 

“Intensify before you diversify,” says Lethabo. “Go deep before going wide. Focus on one craft until you master it, before branching out to it’s ancillaries.”

He uses a popular household product as an example. “If you sell toothpaste, be the best at making and selling toothpaste until people start calling you Colgate.”

Lethabo is also a believer in paying it forward. He founded the Sole Survivors Institute, which trains underprivileged youth how to clean sneakers and run sustainable sneaker cleaning businesses.

Learn from your customers

Valenture Institute, founded in 2019 by Robert Paddock, is an online high school offering curriculums from both UCT and St Stithians. Their aim is to increase access to education for all South Africans, and give unprivileged students a step up by offering free courses, scholarships and micro school services. 

“Ship fast and learn from your customers,” says Robert. “Entrepreneurs often spend way too much time refining their product before they get it out to the real world. What really matters is that you ship – offer your product or service to real customers, ask them to pay you, and see where their points of excitement and resistance are. Once you do that, the real learning starts, and you can incrementally refine your offering until you have raving fans for customers.”

Robert is an ardent believer in continuous learning. “The primary currency of entrepreneurship is learning, and learning is always the precursor to revenue and profitability,” he says.

You’ve got this

Founded by Antoine Paillusseau in 2016, FCB.ai is an AI-powered chatbot to help financial service providers engage with their customers.

Antoine believes establishing a product market fit is fundamental to the success of any business as it saves you time and money otherwise spent on solutions that don’t work. 

“The reality is our envisioned products and services for our target market may be correct, but some tweaks and adjustments can be the determinant of success or failure,” he says. 

“Before jumping into development, do the least scalable thing to understand the market and audience. Once you understand these factors a bit more, then you can start development and keep iterating as you learn and grow.”

“Most importantly, don’t try to appease everybody. Good luck on your journey, you’ve got this!”

The full list of winners included Livestock Wealth, founded by Ntuthuko Shezia; Valenture Institute, founded in 2019 by Robert Paddock; Kusini Water, founded in 2016 by Murendi Mafumo; FCB.ai, founded in 2016 by Antoine Paillusseau; and Walk Fresh, founded by Lethabo Mokoena.

As a business enabler, xneelo is passionate about empowering South African entrepreneurs with the tools and knowledge they need to create and grow their businesses. 

This article also appeared on Heavy Chef.

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