'Your business is not just about a brilliant idea' - Chazanne Long
The entrepreneur of the week is a woman in the sciences who is also co-founder of an analytical services enterprise
This article forms part of the Women's Month 2015 series in which SME South Africa, throughout the month of August, will shine the spotlight on female business leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.
Name of company: Sci-Ba Laboratories and Scientific Consultants
Years in existence: 3.5
Position: Co-owner and geochemist
Location: Cape Town
Can you tell us a little bit about your company and what you do?
Our company is split into two main sections – the first is the laboratory and the second comprises of scientific consultation. We are a group of scientists with niche interests who try to bridge the gap between academia and commerce, in a holistic way that contributes to knowledge gaps and expertise to provide solutions to a variety of customers.
We analyse mostly waters, soils, ores and rocks for the mining and environmental industries, and have been involved with projects on wastewater purification, waste management, process quality control, plant optimisation, remote laboratory control management and new laboratory set-up in South Africa and within Africa.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background – personal, educational and professional.
I studied a BSc in geology at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal where I graduated with a double major in geology. I then moved down to Cape Town and completed a BSc (Honours) in Geology at UCT.
"It's difficult to convince a bank to loan us money for a specialised business setup they didn’t understand"
After this I worked for a couple of national and international consulting companies where I gained experience with field work, sampling of waters and soils for various projects, including environmental and geotechnical applications within South Africa and Swaziland. I worked and lived in Pretoria for three years, where I gained work experience in analytical laboratory work focusing on mineralogy.
Next I started my Masters in Geochemistry (which I am currently in my final stages of writing up) and moved back to Cape Town. Whilst undertaking my MSc, I co-founded Sci-Ba (Pty) Ltd in 2012.
What were some of the obstacles you faced starting out, and how did you overcome them?
Accounting, financial modeling, planning and SARS. We received a lot of help and advice in the beginning using free software available in South Africa. The people at SARS are more helpful than anyone has ever told you, AND they offer some free training courses to help you along the way.
As we grew, we have outsourced some of this to accountants who we work closely with. Working through this took a lot of time in the early stages of our new business, but it gave us a better understanding of how to calculate running costs, expenses and profit margins.
How many people does your company employ?
Six full-time South African staff, and two international internships
What is your overall vision for your business?
- To provide the fastest and most reliable analytical services in Africa.
- To add the most value to our customers’ projects, by actively developing and applying robust scientific principles to meet, and exceed, their current requirements.
What do you think it takes to establish and run a successful business in South Africa?
Adaptiveness (this is not a real word, but it should be). The strength of our company rests on the fact that we customise projects based on the needs of the customer – both in terms of technical requirement and financial constraints.
This needs to be planned within a framework of robust scientific theory to deliver a product which satisfies our customers. Adapting to your customers’ requests is the best way to keep them happy.
How did you finance your business, how difficult or easy was the process?
My business partner and I raised funds by cashing in our provident funds which provided the startup capital. Then, by developing good business relations, we were able to establish agreements for repayment directly with suppliers of equipment, which gave us lower interest rates compared to bank loans.
It was also difficult to convince a bank to loan us money for a specialised business setup they didn’t understand, which in our experience made it impossible as first timers to get successful loan applications. This was, and continues to be, the largest factor which slows down the growth and expansion of the laboratory, but steady progress and proper planning ensures we grow in strength.
When did you know that you were an entrepreneur?
When I started working for other companies and I could see a larger vision than the management in those companies, I realised that I was ‘different’. I’ve been called a ‘workaholic’ many times during my life and admittedly, we spend more than the average working hours, but our passion for our work often makes it feel like it is far more of a life choice than a job.
"Our employees are all entrepreneurs in their own right"
How would you describe your leadership style?
Relaxed - the quest for knowledge and deep understanding drives most scientists. My role as manager is to hire staff who have passion, and then to inspire them to do what they love, within the limits of financial constraints.
Staff are encouraged to self-develop (training, learning and attending courses), to be self-driven, and to find customers who need their knowledge and skills. Our employees are all entrepreneurs in their own right. We just provide the platform and the working environment for things to happen.
What three pieces of advice would you offer young entrepreneurs starting out today?
- Plan well.
- Ask for advice from everyone you can network with, and then Google EVERYTHING! You need to know about every part of your business, and be in touch with the information. Your business is not just about a brilliant idea, it is the whole working model of a business, finances and all.
- Be proactive. Customers don’t find you, you need to show them why you are the best at what you do.
What do you wish you had known starting out?
How much diversity of work is out there. That the dream you have in your head might not be what actually pans out, because you need to grow your business in-line with your customers’ requests. Meeting (and exceeding) customer requirements expands the dimensions of our business in ways we weren’t even aware of when we started out, and that makes the business more robust and more exciting than we imagined.
And finally, do you believe in luck, hard work or both?
I believe in hard work, and lots of it. I believe that if you do the best you can at each and every job. Honest hard work, brings rewards. Luck, it's part of the complex mix of life without a doubt, but it must count for far less than hard work when setting up a successful business.
Hard work is achievable – you need to decide if you can invest the time, money and energy into your dreams and then you are in control of your future, but relying on luck is like leaving life to chance (and I don’t think many entrepreneurs are chancers in that way!).