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 Plucky entrepreneurs not scared of steep learning curves

 

 With nothing more than a laptop, a website and lots of chutzpah, Wouter and Tammy du Plessis managed to land a R1.6m contract for the supply of tents, launching their fledgling events management company into business success.

In 2010, the recently married Johannesburg couple had both resigned from their jobs to go into business together. Tammy was a psychology graduate who had cut her teeth in the events management industry. Wouter had been working as an electronics salesman and then as a manager in his mother's small lubrication business.

Both were in their early 20s and “probably didn't know any better”, says Wouter, when they set up So Where 2 Events at home. Apart from their boundless optimism, they had one thing going for them: Google Ad Words.

Back then, says Wouter, Google Ad Words was pretty new, and they were virtually the only ones in the events management industry buying local search terms from Google that would ensure that their website link would come out top of the list whenever a South African internet user would search Google with events-management related terms.

They paid painful school fees with their first contract. A fellow events manager who found them on Google convinced them to help him out with a tender that he had won from a government department. They jumped at the opportunity and helped to organise the event perfectly, only to find that the operator had disappeared. They never got paid.

Much wiser, they kept on landing a couple of jobs per month, until the request came through to quote for the supply of tents for a nationwide Rica campaign for one of the cellular giants. They sourced a supplier, quoted R800 000, and won the contract.

They were savvy enough to build pre-payments into the contract, as well as penalties for any delays on the side of the client, and eventually the contract ballooned to R1,6m.

How do two inexperienced business people get to be so street wise? Wouter says he learnt a huge amount of practical business skills from his former boss at the electronics firm where he had worked. “He taught me to look at any business deal from all sides – from the client's perspective, the supplier's perspective, the service provider's perspective,” he says. They also had help from an experienced structural engineer whom they took to meetings with the client in the run-up to finalising the contract.

The contract went well, despite three hectic sleepless nights during the implementation, but they still had a lot to learn. They found out later that their closest rival for the contract had bid R4,5m. They could have doubled their price and still won the deal.

Wouter and Tammy do not shy away from steep learning curves, however. They were still doing a handful of jobs a month when one of their suppliers suddenly asked them if they were interested in buying her events management company that had landed in trouble due to internal theft. Not only would this give them their own catering and events equipment and staff for the first time, but also a set of regular clients.

With the help of a family loan, they bought the company, moved to the hired premises on a smallholding and found themselves in the deep end. Wouter said they had never managed staff before – suddenly they had five. Where they were used to two or three clients a month, they now had to service 20 per weekend.

They clearly pulled it off, because the business kept growing, and soon they had to move to new premises. They found a conveniently located warehouse of close to 500 square metres in Strijdom Park in Randburg and signed a lease with Business Partners Limited.

The new premises allowed the company to expand its stock of catering equipment, drapery and furniture, and today most of So Where 2 Events' revenue comes from the hiring out of these items. One of their main struggles over the years, says Wouter, was the lack of reliable suppliers, which gave them the opportunity to become a supplier themselves to the events-management industry.

The rental of furniture, which they manufacture themselves, is especially lucrative.

Just in the last year, their revenue doubled, and today the company employs ten staff members.

Their growth prospects are excellent, but their one limiting factor is space. It is a good problem to have – much better than having too much space for lack of clients, says Wouter, who is looking for premises of at least three times the size.

It will be a big leap for the two entrepreneurs, but if their track record is anything to go by, they won't hesitate to take it.

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