It’s a story that has stuck on Bradley Porter like a tattoo. When you are in the business of renting office space, not being able to pay rent as the leaser can be quite ironic.
Born in the Free State province in South Africa, and growing up in the coastal city of Durban, Porter’s future in entrepreneurship was inevitable having had a father who had a tiling business.
“It’s almost an affliction you are born with and I can’t really help it. I had a burning desire to have control of my own fate and destiny. And whatever it takes, you have to fulfil that desire and passion,” says Porter.
He grew up at the height of apartheid, attending the University of Durban-Westville which at the time was one of the political institutions in the country. When he didn’t succeed in university, he joined the army and from there decided to go live in Britain for nearly 10 years.
It was during this time as an employee that he realized he couldn’t work for someone else for the rest of his life. He packed his bags, returned to Durban, and with the little money he had saved he started two businesses. Along the way, one of his friends, who had purchased space in a building, suggested Porter hire 200 square meters for his ‘Experience This’ business on Florida Road in Durban, a hub of activity for tourists and locals.
“I said ‘I don’t need all that space. I don’t’ need 200 square meters’… but I said ‘if you are prepared to try start this business with me, I’ll take the 200 square meters and we will experiment with this business’ which became known as Flexible Workspaces,” remembers Porter.
In October 2005, Porter founded Flexible Workspaces after spending eight years in the serviced office industry of Britain. The company provides fully serviced offices in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province and Johannesburg. It was founded as a solution to the ever-changing business environment and to offer alternative options to the business community.
The business caters for small businesses that are starting out. Finding the right office space can be daunting especially when your budget is limited and you working with a small team.
Porter and his friend set up offices. They started with just furniture, the phone system that was already supplied and around $10,500 to get the business going.
“We were so undercapitalized it was unbelievable and we didn’t have any spare cash. To start off your business these days, realistically for 1,000 square meters, you would need at least R4 million ($350,000). For 200 square meters, you would need around R1 million to R2 million ($87,000 to $175,000),” he says.
Two years later, Porter says they decided to open up their next offices in Umhlanga, around 17 kilometers from Durban, even though the first offices on Florida Road were not flourishing.
“The reason we opened in Umhlanga was because of the trend at the time. This was around 2007, the trend was very much up north, outside Durban. We needed to be able to provide a presence in Umhlanga, which is becoming the commercial hub for KwaZulu Natal or Durban anyway,” says Porter.
But this move ushered in his worst day.
“I think every entrepreneur will have one and for me personally it’s so real it’s like a tattoo on the back of my brain. I can relate to it now. I get goosebumps when I think about it because it’s just so real still,” says the 44-year-old.
He calls it Black Friday. It was September 7, 2007 and they had just expanded Flexible Workspaces and the rent was due. Porter was abroad on holiday but had to come back to South Africa to solve numerous problems, the main one being that they hadn’t paid R73,000 ($6,360) in rent for the 500-square-meter Umhlanga offices.
Unfortunately for them, with a business renting out space to other small business, Flexible Workspaces didn’t have any bringing in money so that they could pay rent. Porter sat in one of the offices looking at the Gateway shopping Centre with one hand on his head and the other holding the telephone to his ear. He was calling the landlord, apologizing for the late rent and begging for some leniency.
“The business model worked in such a way that we take a risk, we’re a bit like a hotel but for businesses. So we’ll go into a space, we do a deal with the landlord, we take a risk on all the capital expenditure. We fit it out, we staff it, we supply the internet, tea and coffee. Everything gets supplied. These services all have to be supplied on day one. And on day one you usually don’t’ have any clients. Unless you’ve been clever about it and been more strategic,” he says.
“But usually, particularly for us, the day one meant no clients. So by the time we got to day 30, we might have had one or two clients but it wasn’t enough to cover our rent and the overheads we had.”
After spending 15 minutes, which felt like years, on the phone with the landlord, she agreed to give them an extension for a few days to come up with the rent money.
Fortunately, they made it happen. It wasn’t more than a week when the business signed a deal with a data storage company, who remain his clients today. But they had to hobble through paying rent for the following months.
“We went through a three-year recovery period and then in about 2011 we started looking at space in Sandton. And that went really well. We took a small portion of 600 square meters and we filled it very fast. And about a year later, we recovered sufficiently to double the space to 1,200 square meters in Sandton. And we are looking for more now,” he says.
“With the benefit of hindsight I should have started this business in Johannesburg. I think it would have been much more successful by now.”
Flexible Workspaces caters to those who want an office space instead of working from home. Porter says serviced offices reduce the costs and hassles of renting space and combines the best features of a low-cost office in a prime location.
“Our objective was to build a network of business centers, so we were never going to stop at Durban or Umhlanga,” he says.
Since then, the business has 15 employees and turns over around $1.3 million a year.
In October 2013, Flexible Workspaces opened its third serviced offices next to the swanky Montecasino precinct, outside Johannesburg. Porter says that he hopes to open more offices along the continent’s only fast train, the Gautrain, from Johannesburg’s city center all the way through to the country’s capital, Pretoria.
“We want to expand the business nationally and cross borders. I’d like to have a national footprint in five years, international I can’t tell you. We are growing this business organically, so we are using our own money, it’s all self-invested. The pace at which we can grow is limited to the amount of money we make.”
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Burned But Not Broken; The Tale Of Fiery fashion
Don’t be fooled by his infectious smile and designer clothes; beneath his tough exterior is a layered story of depression and despair.
On a rainy autumn morning in Johannesburg in March, we meet Adrian Furstenburg in the small affluent suburb of Parkhurst.
Ironically, he is dressed in black – a symbol of grief – to recount the day when his design studio, including stock and equipment worth R70,000 ($5,800), burned and was razed to the ground.
“The damage was so painfully clear in the bright, winter morning light,” says Furstenburg.
To get to this story, it is important to start from the beginning.
Furstenburg was only four years old when he first said he wanted to become a fashion designer.
“I was at my granny’s house and we were watching a fashion show on television, and as we were watching, that is when I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life,” says Furstenburg.
However, his father, a farmer, had, other plans – he wanted him to pursue law.
Somehow, Furstenburg found a way to persuade his father to allow him to enter a career not so distant from the fashion industry.
“It was the early 2000s and it was pretty cool to study graphic designing, so he said ‘that’s okay, I will pay for you to study graphic designing’,” he says.
In his last year at college, he specialized in textile design, which led to him crafting a career as a handbag designer.
“I think that is one of the wisest decisions that I have ever made, there are definitely no regrets,” says Furstenburg today.
As part of a college assignment, he was required to do a practical project.
“I weaved this beautiful piece of fabric and then I actually made a handbag. This project is where my passion for handbags started,” he says.
After he graduated, he started freelancing as a designer and stylist, set on his journey of one day being a fashion mogul selling swanky handbags.
But his worst day was lurking around the corner, ready to throw him into a state of melancholy.
It was June 6, 2012.
“The day isn’t etched into my memory. I recall it from a much deeper, more visceral part than that,” he says.
He and his business partner at the time, Nkululeko Msibi, of 2souls clothing, had recently set up a small studio just off Gandhi Square in central Johannesburg, where they produced every kind of clothing and accessory to keep their bank balances and ambitions afloat.
“We landed one of our biggest projects producing costumes for a major dance production. We spent hours planning, designing, sourcing, selecting, sewing, stitching. Their budget was strict and the schedule was even tighter with virtually no room for error,” says Furstenburg.
But a disaster that would discredit him and Msibi was about to blaze through their studio.
Furstenburg was picking up materials from a supplier before heading to the studio that Wednesday morning when he received a frantic phone call from Msibi.
“Fire was really the only word I got from the conversation,” says Furstenburg.
He describes how surreal everything felt in the bright, winter morning light when he arrived at the studio.
“The thick smell of smoke hung throughout the building. Inside the studio, sooty black licks ran up the walls where the fire had devoured our machines, stock and the rails of costumes for the production,” says Furstenburg.
This was just three days before they had to deliver the costumes to their client. They were also not business savvy-enough at the time to have insurance.
“We sat sobbing on the ashy floor. The nausea swam in my stomach as the reality of the situation gained momentum in my head.”
“I called the client, trembling. The shouting started on the telephone and didn’t stop until they left our charcoal pile with a few pieces that had escaped the flames while stored in another studio,” Furstenburg recounts.
They were livid – understandably so.
“They were so outraged, because I was dealing with their dream as well. It was a costume production. They had a look of utter hatred and disgust on their faces,” he says.
They lost the clients.
“I spent two weeks in a blur of fear and guilt… Almost no one trusted us with their work and the landlord suspected that we were to blame for negligence,” says Furstenburg.
He went home, depressed for weeks, not knowing what his next move would be.
“I don’t have children but my business is my child. I have fought very hard for it. Seeing it die was the worst day of my life. I took about two weeks where I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do this anymore,” he says.
Fortunately, it was soon established that the fire was caused by old wiring. They salvaged what they could and Furstenburg decided to change his focus from production to styling – that is how he slowly managed to recover from what was his worst day.
He started from scratch, working on freelance projects making very little money.
“It was far from ideal and barely sustainable but somehow my resolve strengthened not to allow this incident to raze me permanently,” says Furstenburg.
The passion for designing handbags ignited within, in 2013, he equipped himself with business training at the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship.
When he completed the three-month training, the center placed an order with him for 70 small, original-design messenger bags to be given as gifts to guests at an event held during one of FORBES AFRICA cover stars Richard Branson’s visit to South Africa.
“It could be said that someone else spotted what I had to offer before I had known exactly, and acting perhaps more in response to a veiled instruction than personal confidence at the time, I started making bags,” he says.
“Amusingly, whatever I might have lacked in self-belief was effectively offset by a desire to wow anyone and everyone and so I almost simultaneously entered the Independent Handbag Designer Awards of that year [in New York],” says Furstenburg.
It took four years of applications before he was accepted in 2016 into the All About the Logo by Guess Handbags category. He was the first South African applicant accepted – and the first to win. This opened doors for him locally and internationally.
Furstenburg is currently working on a procurement deal with an international airline. If successful, it will be the golden game changer that takes his business to the goal of netting an annual profit of $1 million by 2019.
Six years after his worst day, Furstenburg is not without challenges. But he is continuously taking it one step at a time, ensuring that the fire he has for designing world-class handbags never burns out.
“I must admit that I get a little breathless reflecting on the trajectory that the business has followed in the last 15 months, not least because of the risks we’ve survived and the gratitude I feel to those who’ve guided and supported me,” he says.
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