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'Look after your customers and they will look after you' - Robyn Smith

The entrepreneur of the week is a pioneer in the e-commerce and natural and organic product market in SA


Company Profile
Name of company: Faithful to Nature
Years in existence: 8
Position: Director/Founder
Location: Cape Town

Can you tell us a little bit about your company and what you do? 
Faithful to Nature is South Africa’s most established online organic and natural store with a truly authentic eco-friendly inventory of over 9000 options for our customers to buy more ethical products. We have enjoyed over 70% year-year growth for the past three years and send thousands of organic orders across the country to families every week. 

We are one of the only companies in the world to carefully scrutinise every ingredient of all products listed for safety to our customers and the environment. Whilst ethical and transparent labeling is a core passion; we devote extensive resource to empowering our customers with information on how they can take back the power to live in toxic-free homes and to cause as little damage to the environment as possible with their buying choices. We hand out pocket guides that list common contentious ingredients found in cleaning; cosmetic and food products to assist our customers with ethical products choices, no matter where they shop.

We have a blog with a massive amount of resource intended to inspire ethical living. We believe that purchasing ethical product should not mean taking a step back in terms of choice and luxury and as a result, we are passionate about top class customer service as is indicated by the consistent stream of positive reviews and extremely high customer retention rates that we enjoy.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background – personal, educational and professional?
I was born in Johannesburg and grew up in the Eastern Cape and studied in Cape Town, where I completed my honours in Business Science at UCT. I started the business eight years ago after returning from a few years in London where I worked as an innovation consultant, supporting top businesses across the world with insights and learnings on creating a sustainable innovation culture within their corporations. 

I am driven by impact and purpose and have endless energy to devote when I know positive ripples will be made. I am passionate about transparent and ethical labeling and am fiercely devoted to ensuring that people feel empowered by their buying decisions. 

What were some of the obstacles you faced starting out, and how did you overcome them?
Eight years ago both demand for organic products and e-commerce was very niche and so it was difficult to muster support amongst potential business partners to share my vision of what the business could become. I overcame this through unfaltering belief in what I was doing. 

The courier network was still fairly undeveloped and expensive and so we had to remain innovative on all fronts to provide our customers with world-class service – we used the post office for regional areas but developed our own postal slips and system to "help" the various post offices deliver the parcels on time and to the correct addresses.

I had very little seed capital to start the business and this provided constant cash flow challenges on all fronts. It did force us to develop and sustain a very lean culture where innovation is rewarded over budget at all times. These challenges have really served us as we never waste opportunities, time or money and have learnt to successfully market this business without a marketing budget.

"I expected the success to come much quicker than it did and this often meant I could not see how far I had actually come, or how much had been achieved"

How many people does your company employ? 
26 people currently

What is your overall vision for your business?
It is my wish that everyone have the choice to buy more ethical product and to really understand what makes one product better than another. It is for this reason, we intend on guiding Faithful to Nature to become the 'green Amazon of Africa'. If there is a greener or more ethical alternative, we are looking to list it and make it available for sale to our growing customer base.

What do you think it takes to establish and run a successful business in South Africa? 
Flexibility and adaptability built on a strong platform of innovation. We look for solutions rather than allowing challenges to become road blocks.

How did you finance your business, how difficult or easy was the process?  
For seven years, I begged and borrowed money from friends and family and finally took on investors early this year. It has been a very tough process for two reasons. Firstly, many investors are new to the world of e-commerce and did not understand the business valuation because it is a long tail business model. Secondly, the ethics by which we operate are non-negotiable and so it has been a journey to also find an investor who not only understands the world of e-commerce but also understands that it's core to our value proposition.

When did you know that you were an entrepreneur? 
There I was in London, working at a company that had won ‘Best Place To Work’ in both the UK and the EU for a few consecutive years, besides the brightest minds I had ever encountered, travelling the world (business-class too), doing work I love and still something was missing.

I knew it would not get better than this, and that there was nowhere else to go but to become an entrepreneur where I could create more flow in my life. I wanted to work hard and be successful while making a positive contribution to the world around me. I needed to know that my work truly counted for something, and this is when I returned to South Africa intent on finding a gap to start an ethical business.

How would you describe your leadership style?  
I role model myself on leaders like Mandela who understand that compassion, vulnerability and understanding are powerful traits.  I endeavour to inspire my team to greatness rather than to threaten them to be great.  Above all, I follow my heart. This is certainly a work in progress as I learn more about myself and what is required from me every day.

What three pieces of advice would you offer young entrepreneurs starting out today?

  • Careful planning goes a long way so be clear on what makes your business different, how exactly you are going to execute it and lastly how you are going to fund it.
  • Loyalty begets loyalty. Look after your customers and they will look after you. Never forget the lifetime value of a customer when you need to pay to correct a mistake you may have made to keep them happy.
  • Remain ruthlessly honest whilst deeply compassionate with yourself.

What do you wish you had known starting out? 
I wish I had been more patient. I expected the success to come much quicker than it did and this often meant I could not see how far I had actually come, or how much had been achieved.

And finally, do you believe in luck, hard work or both? 
I believe in serendipity. When you are doing what your heart and soul long for you to do the universe conspires to make things happen. And this does not necessarily mean it will be an easy road either as we are here to learn – so nothing is going to happen without hard work.

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