What takes a brand from a bright idea to one of Africa’s most admired brands in under six years?
To mark global Entrepreneurship Month, Jason Mellow, head of business insurance at MiWay, spoke to Bathu founder Theo Baloyi – a long-standing MiWay client – to find out.
What does the Bathu brand stand for?
Bathu started as the brand for the people, and this hasn’t changed. Bathu set out to be a sneaker brand that Africans can proudly affiliate with - from Africa for Africa. We are passionate about igniting hope within African communities and we remain committed to creating sustainable jobs. We now have over 300 employees at our stores, as well as creating opportunities for our suppliers and supply chains.
How has the business grown?
Six years ago, I was an accountant at PwC. I noted the trend at the time for colourful socks, but that shoes didn’t make them visible, so I wanted to develop a made for Africa shoe that was cool and colourful – a mesh sneaker that showed the socks. I had no background in fashion or retail, but my consulting experience had taught me to learn and adapt. I spent 18 months studying the manufacturing and retail business, and how to optimise supply chains, while at the same time refining our shoe design. There were a lot of surprises and some failures along the way, but our launch was more successful than I hoped. We now have 30 bricks-and-mortar stores and our online store which supports customers across the continent. The online store has over 150,000 sessions a month, with a good conversion rate. The numbers keep increasing and we see a lot of repeat customers. With strong growing customer bases in East and West Africa, we now have bigger plans to expand the business across Africa.
As a successful entrepreneur, what help did you need when you started?
The experience I gained from working in a corporate stood me in good stead. I also leveraged the insights and experience of the right people, and used influencer marketing at the right time. I also had a lot of support from influential people. However, I didn’t need help with financing – I used my savings and leveraged value chains and stakeholders across a network of service providers. For example, by demonstrating how you can add value to a supplier through a trade exchange, you can reduce your upfront investment. Initially, I couldn’t meet the minimum order requirement of 1,200 pairs at the factory, so I went down there and promised them my growth would be their growth. They saw potential for me to grow, and I committed my future orders to them, so they reduced the minimum order requirement for my first order of 100 pairs of shoes.
What risks have you faced in starting and running the business?
Trends change fast in the fashion sector, and you have to move with them. You also have to learn about buying patterns or you risk producing the wrong styles and quantities of stock at the wrong time. As an emerging and aspirational brand, we also face the risk that others will try to replicate our approach and methodology in the counterfeit market. We have seen counterfeit products emerging, so we educate consumers and make sure our brand equity is strong enough.
What words of advice do you have for would-be entrepreneurs just starting out?
You have to have a very clear vision and a strong brand story for your business, and you need to clearly identify your market.
Leverage value chains, stakeholders, opportunities and experience. For me, corporate experience allowed me to grow, learn and make mistakes at the expense of a large corporate that could afford to let me make mistakes. I took a lot of knowledge with me.
For those who don’t have an opportunity to gain experience in a corporate environment, I’d say leverage the knowledge available online and through low cost or free programmes for entrepreneurs. Learn as much as you can about the fundamentals of entrepreneurship, finance, sales and marketing.
The good news is that now could be the best time to start a business. We’re going into the next normal and nobody really knows what to expect. Everything has been reset, so startups could be on a more equal footing with seasoned businesses right now.
MiWay is a licensed non-life insurer and Financial Services Provider (FSP 33970).