Vusani Ravele taught himself to craft home decor with an unlikely tool.
Two men quietly sit in the corner of a warehouse, covered in sawdust, as they deftly carve a rendition of the Johannesburg skyline on a block of wood, oblivious to the creative mayhem around them.
They are focused on ensuring that the plywood is silky-smooth and ready to adorn a stranger’s living space.
At this warehouse in Wynberg in Johannesburg that we are visiting, we are confronted by the constant din of drilling and the high-pitch buzz of machinery that is in fact etching shapes on a sheet of birch plywood. In no time, we are covered in pulp and wood shavings.
A few minutes later, the brainchild of Native Décor, 32-year-old Vusani Ravele, arrives, ready to tell us how he turned a cordless drill that was a Valentine’s Day gift from 2015 into a lucrative online business with a R2.2 million ($154,522) turnover.
“She was probably trying to hint that I should make more things for her — not that I was lazy,” jests Ravele.
This millennial is anything but disinclined to work. He used the gift as a medium to explore creative ideas at home, most times, this was after putting in long hours of work by day as an industrial engineer.
“I just started drilling holes into everything and I realized that this was a lot of fun,” recounts Ravele.
Originally from Tzaneen in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, he moved to Johannesburg in 2005 to pursue a career in industrial engineering, not knowing he was destined to become a business mogul in the home decor industry.
It all began when he posted some of his work on Facebook and it led to more ‘likes’ than he had anticipated.
As he continued to attract a new market, he invested R100,000 ($7,028) into his enterprise making nifty home accessories and corporate gifts.
His creativity grew as did his entrepreneurial edge — something he believes he inherited from his mother, who had an exemplary work ethic and was resourceful.
“At some point, my mother would sell some fruit and vegetables from the back of her car. It was very exciting for me,” Ravele says.
Following in her footsteps, he opened a tuck shop at his high school which eventually outdid the main school tuckshop.
“Clearly, I had an affinity for running a business,” he says.
A year after establishing Native Décor, he made waves on M-Net’s Shark Tank South Africa, a show on budding entrepreneurs who pitch their business concepts to moguls with the hope of securing an investment.
Gil Oved, now the COO of investment company LLH Capital, was impressed.
“I remember saying to my girlfriend if there is anyone that I need to go home with, it is Oved. I just knew a lot about what he had achieved. He is a go-getter, he is well-connected and I thought he would be the perfect entrepreneur to take me to where I need to go,” Ravele says.
Ravele believed in Oved’s ability to grow his business that he offered him a 40% stake of Native Décor.
He did not make use of all the funds — an attribute he wishes other startups would also grasp.
“Sometimes, when you receive funding so early, it can confuse everything. You feel like you are successful but you are really not,” he says.
The mentorship from Oved honed his business acumen.
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“He is one of those guys that you have to go to and know what you are talking about. So don’t go to him and ask him a question that you have not researched before… He will give you the feedback that you are looking for and more,” he says.
Ravele says that being open-minded has helped him approach his work artistically.
“Creativity is everywhere… Look around and just see different shapes and how they work together and you get ideas. Then you experiment, and see how things work. When one thing doesn’t work out, you can try something else with the same concept and it sort of flows.”
He believes that the home accessories market is currently thriving in South Africa.
“If you are, perhaps, moving into a new house, you need to buy furniture. The furniture can’t be by itself, you need decor to put on your walls and those sort of things,” he says.
Native Décor is an online retail store, which is also available on other platforms such as eBucks and takealot.
“In this day and age, we are moving into the online space rapidly. More people are shopping from their cell phones; forget your computers. If people are there, that is where you want to be as well,” Ravele says.
According to eShopWorld, in South Africa, there are currently 18.43 million eCommerce users, with an expected additional 6.36 million of users by 2021. The online shoppers are expected to be spending approximately $189.47 each on average.
Online trading has also proved to be more beneficial for Ravele’s bottom line.
“The overheads are low so it doesn’t cost a lot to sell online. The beautiful thing about selling online is that you do not have to have stock on hand,” he says.
“Our model is that we make to order everything that we dispatch. It can be a surprising thing, because people believe that we have this warehouse full of stock… and the online space is great for that.”
Ravele might appear to understand the decor business to the core, but that was not always the case.
“It all has been, amazingly, YouTube; it has been my friend. I feel like anybody can learn anything from there apart from professional things like being a doctor. It is a great resource and anybody can make use of it,” Ravele says.
That is why he believes that providing guidance to others is a necessity for entrepreneurs and that “information should be free”.
“I don’t have all the answers, sometimes people come to me that are in business and they ask me for advice. It is nice to get that sort of attention but it is also quite nice for me to develop that sort of rapport with other people to network.”
He is still learning as much as he can, but looking after his money is the greatest lesson that he has learned in his journey as an entrepreneur.
“In business, you can make money quickly and lose it at twice the speed. It is a space where you have to be awake all the time and be ready for change. Change drives you to be constantly re-evaluating everything.
“I decided that I was never going to be in that situation again. Now we are able to think on our feet and react much better.”
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The exposure to Shark Tank South Africa enhanced his Valentine’s Day gift, and for that, Ravele will be forever grateful.
Martin Monareng, a craftsman at Native Décor, attests to his success.
“The workload has increased because we are getting a lot of business as compared to when we were working from his [Ravele] house. Things were tough for us at that time, we were not even really sure if the business would grow,” he says.
Despite the din all around him in the warehouse, Ravele is calm.
“I am no longer working from my living room, so that is a relief,” says the man turning wood into workmanship.
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