Under 30 alumni, born on the same day and with similar stories of entrepreneurship, are collaborating to disrupt industries and shape the future of Africa.
The road to entrepreneurship is cold, lonely and riddled with potholes. It helps if you are walking it with someone else.
Millennials Siya Beyile and Thato Kgatlhanye are doing just that.
Together, they are redefining business and shaping the future
“Entrepreneurs always talk about collaborations but we don’t do it enough. We want to resource Africa’s future. Resources go beyond natural resources, which is where the world has been focused. Our ideas, our people and the way we do things has value, so we must take advantage of it,” says Kgatlhanye.
Beyile and Kgatlhanye have big dreams, but a year ago, they were strangers, treading a path of hardship and pain.
At just 25 years old, Beyile has a resume most would envy.
In 2013, he founded The Threaded Man, a fashion blog for men, inspired by his mother, who often called him “umfana othungiweyo”, the ‘threaded man’ in isiXhosa.
He worked with major brands such as Adidas, Stuttafords, American Swiss, TITAN watches, H&M, SAB, Hugo Boss and Pandora. He styled stars like Nomuzi Mabena, MsCosmo, Khuli Chana, AKA, DA LES, Amanda Black and Somizi Mhlongo.
At the age of 22, he was appointed Fashion Director of the South African Music Awards and MTV Africa Music Awards, he was named one of the seven leading voices of African men’s fashion by GQ and he graced the cover of GQ Style.
Beyile was adored by many, but beneath the stylish exterior was a story that was less flattering.
A slew of bad business decisions saw him lose money and his credibility, and the setbacks almost cost him his life.
“I had to shut the business down because of depression. I tried to commit suicide many times. I had made a lot of money but I had not touched it. It had gone to pay loans and also buy my company back. I never got to enjoy it. I shut down,” he says.
It took a toll on his confidence. He tonsured his head and spent six months in a rehabilitation facility, where he worked on rebuilding himself.
“I lost a lot of public value. People started unfollowing me [on social media] and just didn’t like me. People in the industry that I respected even turned on me. I would go to places and people would whisper around me and look at me with shame. It was embarrassing. I would go home and cry.”
He closed his business and moved back home to Cape Town to rethink and rejuvenate.
With a new attitude towards life, he relocated yet again to Johannesburg to start over. In February, he connected with Kgatlhanye, a FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 alumni and award-winning entrepreneur.
“When we met, we realized we had the same vision of disrupting. She was tired of being known as a bag entrepreneur and wanted to make sustainable luxury and wanted to get into fashion and I wanted my fashion to be sustainable and wanted to run a factory but didn’t know how. She had the experience of running a factory and I knew all things fashion,” says Beyile.
Kgatlhanye is the founder of Rethaka Group, which started in textile manufacturing and waste management. She became known for collecting and recycling plastic waste into solar-powered school bags for poor children.
“We started like that so we could get an understanding of the nuts and bolts of manufacturing. Most of the time we don’t own the value chain of products. Take clothes, for example, people just go somewhere to buy things but don’t know the suppliers of zips and buttons and you end up cutting into your margins by virtue of not understanding the value chain. So we collaborated to form a new company, where we bring in the ability to build and make things in a sustainable way and then sell them on our platforms,” says Kgatlhanye.
Beyile and Kgatlhanye founded 712 Group, which now houses both their brands. The company is named after their birthday; they were both born on December 7.
“We are building a global powerhouse with African brands. Those brands will be spread across technology, manufacturing, fashion and sustainability. Africa right now has become a focal point but a lot of the brands we consume on a daily basis are not African. We have a lot of talented people in these spaces but we don’t see them opening stores around the world and disrupting. We feel like our market has been hijacked. There is no corporate structure that supports our brands,” says Beyile.
The pair agree there is more power in collaborating than working in silos.
“Working together helps. We know our strengths and weaknesses. For example, I know that I can’t be CEO. In the last five years, I have been in business, I have learned I am not capable because there are certain things I don’t think about. However, I have also learned I am a visionary. I am good at coming up with concepts and connecting people but I am not good at implementing. However, Thato is good at taking the idea and having it live in the world, which is a nice balance,” says Beyile.
Kgatlhanye concurs: “There were a lot of loopholes in our individual businesses that we were struggling with. It would have taken us longer to try togrow our businesses individually than it will take us now as a combined unit. I was a master in something he needed and he was a master in something I needed.”
Beyile says they have both learned not to rush, but rather to build a solid foundation, generate cash reserves and work on growth.
“A lot of businesses led by young people will ‘grow’ but when you look at their growth metrics, staff turnover and profitability, those things are not solid,” says Kgatlhanye.
“The biggest lesson from my journey is that business is not a friendly sport. If you have ambitions to be a billionaire and to be on the cover of FORBES AFRICA magazine, to get there, you will suffer.”
Given the current market, Beyile says their business structure is different.
“When I look at media companies, their staff turnover is low. This is because young people are frustrated. They don’t want a nine-to-five. They want to build their own businesses and have their own lives. We can’t expect to hire young people full-time and expect them to be happy and to work for us for 20 years… Young people need to be put in positions of empowerment, so we work with freelancers and businesses owned by young people on a project-by-project basis.”
They say the additional benefit of collaborating is it helps them save money on office space, speeds up project turnaround times, ensures quality work and gives them faster and more effective growth and team results.
It is true: teamwork makes the dream work. The future is bright for these young entrepreneurs born on the same day in the same year and with the same vision for Africa.