Bathabile Mpofu: You can’t go blindly into business with just your passion driving you

by - October 07, 2016

Bathabile Mpofu is the co-founder of Nkazimulo Applied Sciences. Her daily responsibilities include design of experiments and kits and perform demonstrations at schools. She is a registered scientist with the SA Council for Natural Scientific Professions. She graduated with BSc Honours in Chemistry from UKZN and worked at a university as a laboratory technician for 5 years. She later went on to obtain a PDBA at UCT in 2013. She’s currently studying towards a MBA on a modular basis through UCT.

Tell us a bit about your business? 

We are Nkazimulo Applied Sciences – unleashing the scientist in you. Our vision and mission is to improve the quality of science education in SA and we aim to do this in a fun, interesting but informative manner with the emphasis on understanding how science knowledge is applied. We started by performing experiments in disadvantaged schools free of charge but realised this is not enough for the impact we wanted to have. So we developed a science kit called ChemStart to be used by learners at home for continuous hands on interaction and engagement with science concepts to improve the learners science understanding and performance. So the kit comes with a manual that explains the concepts but relates them to real life application to help learners relate to what they're learning about at school. Our kit is aligned with the school curriculum.

What motivated you to start?  

Many things. Firstly, my own realisation of how unprepared I was for science tertiary education. I struggled considerably even though I knew I had an ability to learn science. I played catch up all the way to the end. I fortunately became a technician at the same university I studied at and I could see first-hand, learners from a similar background, struggling with this and I knew I had to do something to help the situation. This is why last year we started visiting schools but more had to be done, hence the development of ChemStart. Had I had a kit like this, I am certain I would not have battled at varsity the way I did. Many learners in SA find themselves in this situation. A shocking statistics from claims that out of 21,000 ordinary schools, only about 1,200 have stocked labs. You can imagine then how many learners are in need of this box at a high school level. And of the stocked schools, how many actually know how to use their kits?
So at high school level, learners can perform these experiments themselves with our kits provided they are given clear instructions to follow.

How did you raise your start up money?

The initial amount was provided by my husband who is also my business partner to buy the items to use in schools. The amount used to develop the kit was obtained from SAB Foundation and the UCT GSB, who were looking for social businesses to fund and this opportunity was availed to MBA students. The second amount we got was from LifeCo Unlimited and we had to pitch in front of a panel for it and that's how we received the funding. We also won R600k  from Total Startupper of the Year competition 2016.

Did you write a business plan? 

Yes we wrote a business plan.

Was it an effective tool for you?

Yes it definitely helped us to think through the business and all the decisions that needed to be done to make it happen. We looked at various things like, where will source our materials, location, who is our customer, what is the best way to approach them and how are going to deliver the products to them; how many units should we sell at any time, what are the risks involved and how to mitigate against them, etc. You can’t go blindly into business with just your passion driving you. You have to make calculated and informed decisions and writing down a business plan will prepare you. Having said that, don’t be stuck on the document. If the situation calls for it, change direction.

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

My husband and I share those responsibilities. He is a general manager at a large chemicals importing and distributing company, so his understanding is invaluable. My MBA studies and experience from a previous job I held in investments management have also come in handy. But the basic book keeping is not been my strong skill and so my husband handles that. When filing though at SARS and CIPRO, we just outsource an accountant.

Would you suggest others do the same? 

Yes absolutely. An expert will make it easier for you if you don't have the expertise in a particular area. This will save you time and stress so you can do what you are good at.

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

Yes we outsource so that we can focus on what we need to do. As previously mentioned, we hire an accountant for certain jobs and we also did for the development and maintenance of our website. It takes less time for the experts to do these things and saves us the trouble of trying to figure them out.

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

I speak to my potential customers directly. I speak to parents more than I do to learners. In organisations, I aim to speak to the owners or CEO and executives. I have found that once they learn how easy it is to use the product and why it's needed then they buy it immediately. This is the reason why they are the top of my list. By speaking to the people who make the decisions directly, it makes it easier. I have also been fortunate to get nationwide publicity from winning the competition and he publicity has given us the advertising we need as a start-up. So when people hear about ChemStart they immediately buy it in numbers.

How do you effectively manage the finances of your company?

We purchased bookkeeping software which helps with our finances. But software is as good as the information you put in it. My husband has been very helpful in this area. As a scientist, this is an area I have been struggling with so having a skilled partner has been very helpful. Another thing that helps is buying on account (credit) from our suppliers and selling the products on a cash basis. This is good working capital management.

Do you have rainy-day savings for your business?

Absolutely. We opened an investment account for the business which we can access on a 7 day notice. The rest of the operations are through a cheque account. Balancing our stock and operating on a cash basis informs us when it’s a good time to put more money away into the investment account.

What's a financial mistake you made as a business owner in the beginning?

We bought some items we thought we needed and later we found out we didn’t need and we couldn’t take the items back because they were designed specifically for us and now they are white elephants. This was because of bad planning. Another thing is that we didn't do enough homework on suppliers. We found out that a supplier we had been using was charging us ten times the amount on a chemical, more than another supplier for the same product with the same specifications. This cost us a lot of money. Now we plan better and do a thorough homework when it comes to suppliers.

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

As I have already mentioned, find as many suppliers as you can because there will always be that one who will surprise you with their favourable pricing, always.

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

We ladies need to get some negotiating skills and practise them often! We just accept what is dictated to us even though we know we are not happy with it. It is because we do not know how to negotiate.

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

Not really. Established ones are quite busy and are hard to find! I am still looking for them to add to the couple I have. Let’s just say it could be better.

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

There is funding, you just need to know how to get hold of it. Many companies have recognised the challenges faced by women in starting business and getting funding; and so they've made that available. Currently as women, we are in a good position to actually get our hands on that funding, especially if you a social entrepreneur because there are so many funding opportunities looking for you.

Related: Lebo Madiba: Business is about making money, and if you are not, you are just collecting rent. 

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