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 Mentor becomes young entrepreneur’s ‘business mom’

 

 Mmabatho Mokiti would have survived in business – probably even thrived – without the advice and guidance of a mentor, but the 27-year-old entrepreneur from Johannesburg is adamant that signing up with a professional business advisor was one of the best things she did since starting her business three years ago.

Freshly graduated in maths and chemistry from the University of Johannesburg in 2010, Mmabatho launched herself straight into her own business called Mathemaniacs, a maths and science education service. She knew it was – and still is – the more difficult path to take to financial and career success. Making use of a business mentor was an important step she took to make the difficult journey easier, she says.

By the age of seven, Mmabatho had already decided that she was going to lead a life of entrepreneurship. She spent evenings with her grandfather in her family’s Diepkloof, Soweto, home helping him count the day’s takings from his small transport business. Mmabatho was struck by the freedom that the business gave him and her determination to one day run her business became a bit of a family joke – until her family realised, much to their horror at first, that she was so determined that she turned down several lucrative job offers during and after her university studies in favour of starting a business.

At university another bug had bitten Mmabatho – a passion for teaching. She started tutoring for pocket money and was soon working as a junior manager for a maths-tutoring franchise. Becoming a teacher was, however, not an option. “I couldn’t imagine myself within the constraints of teaching,” she says. Rather, she decided to combine her two passions and started Mathemaniacs as soon as she graduated.

At first she worked from her home in Vosloorus with one or two clients brought over from her days at the franchise. The business grew by word of mouth, and probably would have continued like that in a slow, bumpy way. But then Mmabatho signed up for a programme called Future Fit, which looks at the personal development of social entrepreneurs. Here she had her first experience with the power of one-on-one business advice.

The programme had a life-coaching component and she found herself having monthly sessions with a coach – something she would previously have dismissed as mere “therapy”. The effect was dramatic. It changed her view of herself as a small one-man show to that of a true entrepreneur driven to build something big. “It helped me to take my business really seriously,” she says. “It awakened the giant in me.”

She started networking differently, widening her clientèle from parents and students to corporate social investment programmes and teachers in need of training. She started recruiting students to work for her as tutors.

Future Fit also turned out to be an excellent networking forum. She met her future business partner, Ezlyn Barends, on the programme. The fact that they both went through the same personal-development programme helped them to make very sure that they shared the same values, vision and work ethic.

Apart from cash-flow difficulties caused by the annual December-January education shut-down, Mathemaniacs was doing well for a tiny outfit trying to make a name for itself. But with hindsight Mmabatho sees how unprepared she was for real growth. “I had this chart up on my wall showing how I was going to be a millionaire within a year,” she laughs.

The kind of nuts-and-bolts advice that she needed to take her business to the next level came from business mentor Frances Wright, who later became more like her “business mom”, says Mmabatho. Through the Future Fit programme, Mmabatho was urged to enter a business competition for young entrepreneurs held by Business Partners. She came second, and part of her prize was twelve monthly sessions with Frances.

It was like a mini-MBA, says Mmabatho, except that the lessons were one-on-one, and the focus was solely on her business and its challenges.

Frances says she always starts a business-mentorship intervention with a health check on the business, after which she would focus on one or more of six areas of business where the need is most urgent: financial management, HR, marketing, supply chain, quality control and technology. In Mathemaniacs’ case, she found the business in good health, and focused mostly on marketing.

Key to the success of the mentorship was the fact that Mmabatho came prepared to each hour-long session, and diligently implemented the exercises that Frances recommended. Frances says she often struggles to get business owners to implement her advice, such as preparing crucial tools like cash-flow forecasts. Half of the face-to-face mentoring time is then taken up by helping them to do it during the session.

Mmabatho also had none of the nobody-can-teach-me-about-my-business attitude that some business owners suffer from, says Frances. She accepts that the mentor, who may not be an expert in the industry, casts a crucial outsider’s eye over the business, and advises on the nuts-and-bolts systems that all businesses need.

For Mmabatho, one of the biggest advantages of the mentorship exercise was the fact that her relationship with Frances turned into a long-term one where she can call or email if she needs help or advice. This ranges from small things such as how to handle a certain client, to really big decisions, like responding to offers to buy the business.

Frances agrees that the follow-up relationship is a crucial part of successful business mentoring. She does not charge her clients for these ad-hoc requests for advice. Apart from the satisfaction that it gives her to see her clients grow, Frances knows it will be repaid with referrals and future projects.

Mathemaniacs is now working with more than 20 tutors throughout Gauteng, and has started expanding into fun maths-and-science camps, teacher training interventions and corporate social investment projects. With so much expansion to deal with, Mmabatho is sure to need Frances’s good counsel for a while still.

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