There's hype around entrepreneurship again. A sense of newness is often associated with the gleam of new technology and exciting catchphrases such "disruption" and "innovation". These concepts have managed to usher in unheard-of markets, products and new ways of doing business. But the two questions that remain are: is the new totally devoid of the old, and can the old become new?
Ritevac Media and Legends Barbershop are two businesses that at first glance seem on the extreme ends of the spectrum, between the old and the new, yet prove that operating in non-traditional ways will always include an element of the old.
When the author Seth Godin coined the phrase “connection economy” he recognised the immense potential that online social networks had in reshaping entire industries. Ritevac Media was founded by managing director Themba Ndala. It forms part of a group of new businesses that tap into the power of online networking in order to create content and position clients in engaging and relevant ways. The advantage these usually small companies have is their nimbleness and ability to quickly adapt to changing environments. Among some of Ritevac's prestigious clients are Standard Bank Joy of Jazz and the globally iconic SA-based choir Joyous Celebration.
As Ritevac prepares to launch its own commercial streaming service, Ritevac TV, Themba reflects on the far less glamorous origins of the company. He started out studying IT at Cape Technikon in the early 2000s. He had arrived in Cape Town from Tzaneen, Limpopo, to study, with nothing but an acceptance letter in his hands. To make ends meet, he designed websites for small companies for R2 500, which, he points out jokingly, “was a lot of money for a student”. Themba was also an avid drummer and on weekends he played with jazz bands.
"I made sure that I did it better than those who had studied it formally. I was unavoidable." – Themba Ndala
For Themba, the road to owning a successful new media company included being financially excluded from varsity, struggling to make rent while juggling being a new father, moving back home, starting a networking site only to have to shut it down due to a lack of finances, living in a Formula 1 hotel with his family, and one day seeing his daughter trembling from hunger. Throughout this period he refused formal employment. After turning down a job paying R7 000 a month, he said that “somewhere in the back of my mind I believed that I could make it on my own and that taking this job would kill me”.
Besides his web design skills, his only other asset was his network of musician friends and acquaintances he had built up as a drummer. He began creating websites for well-known artists such as Lebo Mashile. His reputation grew until his name was pitched to Joyous Celebration. In 2012, the choir hired him as head of its digital marketing services, on a freelance basis. Instead of being paid a salary, he requested that the choir buy him camera equipment instead. This was so that he could expand on his product offering while retaining a level of autonomy. “Slowly I started to understand the business that I was in was no longer about web development but about content creation,” he explains.
That is the premise on which Ritevac was founded in 2014. Its first office was in Hyde Park. Themba concedes that he never had the educational background that would have been required should he have entered the industry through the front door. There was a lot of learning still to be done and mistakes to be made. “What attracted clients to my business,” he says, “was that I was good at what I did and I made sure that I did it better than those who had studied it formally. I was unavoidable.”
The Standard Bank Joy of Jazz team saw Themba's work. Meetings with large companies and agencies followed, and he was able to familiarise himself with how the industry functioned at that level. Through his work with the organisation, he helped introduce the "Discover Stage” at Joy of Jazz Festival, which aimed to expose up-and-coming artists to larger audiences. The stage has been running for four years now. Through that project, he built up a company that focuses on premium content creation and online campaigns for artists and music events. While Ritevac may be a new age company, the basis of its very existence relies on the age-old premise of connecting people.
Cutting hair as a form of grooming is one of the oldest professions around. As a business, it is as traditional as it gets. Legends Barbershop has found itself at a point when its signature fresh, razor-sharp fade dominated local pop culture so intensely that it is as though no other barbershop exists in the country.
The company, which operates out of five branches across different provinces, with a sixth opening in Cape Town soon, was founded by Sheldon Tatchell in 2012. Before that, Sheldon worked at a bank and was also once a professional boxer.
Sheldon started cutting hair at 14 years when his father bought him his first pair of hair clippers, and it was a fascination with cutting hair that saw him discover his purpose. He credits a natural entrepreneurial knack and the discipline he gained through boxing as having given him staying power. In 2011 Sheldon was cutting hair in front of supermarkets in his hometown of Eldorado Park. In 2012 he moved into his first rented premises. That's when the idea of an actual barbershop business occurred to him.
But things didn't go smoothly in the beginning. After a fall-out with a business partner, Legends Barbershop closed down in the year it opened. But did Sheldon stop cutting hair? Not a chance. He got himself a scooter and started going to the homes of his clients, some of whom were accomplished businessmen. Sheldon thought that he could tap into that resource when the time came to raise the business from the ground again. But that wasn’t to be.
"A haircut is not as important as good relationships." – Sheldon Tatchell
“When I relaunched the business in 2014 I literally went knocking on people’s doors. I went back to the customers whose hair I used to cut.” All of them refused. After the rejection and initial anger, he realised that “if they had given me money at that time then my business would have failed”.
With no funding, and through sheer hard work, the business was relaunched, focused on making a difference in the lives of clients, through quality work, and the lives of employees, who all go through one of the five training centres the company runs.
It was the advent of social media, and Instagram in particular, that gave the business its most potent shot in the arm. A multibillion-dollar pop music culture had taken over urban areas, music artists from America had popularised fresh haircuts and proliferated the imagery on social media. Local artists and fans alike wanted in on the action and by all accounts, it seemed as though only one barbershop could offer the goods. The game-changer was when Legends Barbershop launched its mobile service. A bus was decked out to exude the brands' premium personas kitted out the latest technologies and amenities such as cold bottles of bubbly. Yet the most valuable asset the business has, as Sheldon puts it, is relationships. "A haircut is not as important as good relationships."