Nisha Maharaj: Entrepreneurship is not for the faint-hearted

11/02/2017


Nisha Maharaj, a serial entrepreneur and founder of multiple start-up companies has been cited as one of Africa's top innovators in technology and has won a number of accolades such as Africa's most influential women, Country and SADC regional categories in the past two months. Niche Integrated Solutions is a company that focuses on software and services, with more specific competencies in lending, digital transformation, and networks and telecommunications amongst other. Niche Integrated solution is a finalist in the 2017 Fairlady Women of the Future Awards. In this interview, she shares business lessons with us.

Tell us a bit about your company, Niche Integrated Solutions and why should anyone use your services?

We are a women-led company in the technology space, a very specific statement that we would like to make in a world pretty much dominated by men. We are specialists in software and Priya the co-founder is an expert in networks and telecommunications. We are disruptive, blue ocean, drivers of technology innovation to our continent and have unique offerings that are global leading. We also cater to all levels of business from SMMEs all the way to up to the corporate giants and we pride ourselves in finding solutions for our client's challenges.

What are some of the challenges that women who want to go into the world of technology face today?

Women may sometimes feel as if they are the lesser sex in the technology environment, however, we have met many CIO’s and CEO’s that are female.  Yes, you still walk into boardrooms where you might be the only female but be strong and have the knowledge to make a convincing case. Irrespective of whether you are a man or woman, people listen to you if you make sense so there is no need to be nervous or feel inadequate.

What was your career path to this role?

I always wanted a technology company, but never really had the experience to do it. But quick learning, ability to network and great products helped us to make traction, quickly. I quit my well-paying job, traded that for zero and never turned back.

How do you strike your own work/life balance?

This is the most difficult part of being an SMME. You might think that having your own business won't require an 8 hour a day routine, to the contrary, we now find ourselves working 15 hours a day. Fortunately, my children are getting a bit older so they give me the space to put some extra time in order to build the business. Hats off to Kash, Ash and Akshay for not disowning me as their mom by now. I make an effort to try though and things get easier as we go along.

How did you raise your startup money?

I didn't raise start-up money. You don’t always need start-up money to start a business. This is a trap that most SMME fall into in their own minds. If you structure a start-up business in such a way that it can be replicated, with minimal capex and OPEX costs, and use other peoples brains as well as possible, you can make it. Without funding, we have survived, diversified and all other. What makes you a real entrepreneur is when you can still emerge with your own funding or without funding at all.

Did you write a business plan? Was it an effective tool for you?

It was because it allowed me to rationalise, focus and filter out the things that did not work well for the business. It gave me a vision as to where I want to be in the future and very clearly how to get there step by step. People underrate business plans. If you really put your mind to it, it makes a huge difference to your sustainability.

Who did you hire to help you with your business - bookkeeper, an accountant, lawyer …? 

I hired accountants, hr, lawyers and other professionals. At the outset, this is an expensive cost to bear on a  fixed basis, you need to find alternative means so as not to absorb the heaving costs too early. It also does not harm you to outsource work to people who are more skilled than you in these disciplines. In my case, I simply did not want to do the work that other people are skilled to do in order to focus more on what I am skilled at.

Would you suggest others do the same?

Yes, focus on your core strengths and let others offer their core strengths to you at the outset. This can change later on but try to avoid the big business theory unless you have lots of capital at the outset to hire people in each of the different disciplines.

Have you outsourced any portion of your business? And has that worked for your business?

Not really, but we build a number of strategic alliances in order to help us grow quicker. Rather have a small share of a bigger relationship that a big share of your only relationship. This is what we classify as outsourced-we apply it more in the sense of strategic partnerships and relationships.

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?

Narrowing down and focusing on the core of our business. We had lots of things at the start bearing in mind all of our various competencies but we picked 3 core competencies and started refining these even more. It is amazing what focus can do.

How do you effectively manage the finances of your company?

That’s a tough job but we diversified, took some of our profits and put them into other opportunities. We don’t have savings for rainy days, it is mostly invested into other opportunities that we view as savings.

What's a financial mistake you made as a business owner in the beginning? And how did you bounce from it?

Having expensive solutions which were a long and hard sell. We then opened up more channels and offerings which were quicker and easier to sell and implement whilst we were still working on the big deals in the background.

With the current economic slump, what cost-saving tips would you share with new entrepreneurs?

Find offerings that can help you get to market quicker and cheaper so that you can start realising cash at a quicker pace. Don’t go big on footprint, capex and heavy costs at the outset. Yes everyone wants a huge empire but always test it first for a few years to see if it's sustainable. Once the model works, you then know that you can invest and get to the next level.

What advice can you offer female business owners on making sure they're being compensated fairly for their work?

First and foremost, do not feel as if you are the weaker sex. You pay the same price for anything at any store as any man. You also go to work as would men. What I'm saying is that you are not different, so don’t be submissive and stand your ground on compensation.

Do you have business mentors, and if so, how have they helped you develop as an entrepreneur?

Amazing mentors who are now part of my business. Christiaan my mentor is tough and quite critical and shapes us up whenever we are out of angle. I have learned much from my mentors. This is an asset and if you don’t already have one, then find one immediately. You must have someone champion challenging you in order to have constructive criticism to improve.

We all know service is key. How do you motivate your staff to keep a constant service ethic?

We don’t really have a lot of staff yet, but we believe in practising what you preach. Allow people to have their opinions and take them seriously. If they appreciate the business culture and ethics then they will practice it.

What's on the horizon for you?

I am not sure yet, there are so many things, yet so little time as they always say but the rest of Africa is where we want to be at and we are looking to expand there.

What have you learned from starting your company that might be useful to would-be entrepreneurs?

You can pretty much do anything that you want if you put your heart and soul to it and do not quit unless it is warranted. If you see something failing, don’t continue and lose all your money. Know at which point you need to stop or to find different avenues and keep going. My context to the statement “ never give up”  is that you must give up on things that are not working well and bring in options that might work better. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint-hearted but never stop being an entrepreneur. And always have plan A, B, C, ready!

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