Sheila Otieno-Osanya: It's never easy so you just have to hang in there

Sheila Otieno-Osanya is a director at The Spa at Marion on Nicol and also runs her own spa consulting company.  After studying hotel management in Switzerland and growing through the ranks in the hotel industry, she moved to South Africa. In 2004 she was appointed spa director for the Spa in the Country. She then joined the ArabellaSheraton Grand Hotel (now the Westin Grand Cape Town Arabella Quays) as spa manager. While at the Westin Grand, the spa won the award for Hotel/ Resort Spa 2006. Sheila is a finalist in the category of Business Woman of the Year selected by the Mogale City Chamber of Commerce in 2004. Sheila is also a qualified lead auditor for the industry. In this interview, she shares the lesson that's she's learned as businesswoman. 

Tell us a bit about your business?

I'm the MD of The Spa at Marion on Nicol which is located in a boutique hotel and we've been open since February 2016. I wanted to create a point of difference from other spa consultants in the industry because that's what I am. A spa consultant is a person who helps other people to open up and set up spas from the beginning until they open. We have the contacts in the industry, so setting up a spa is not that hard for us. Some of the spa consultants have a skincare range and some of them specialize in training but none of them has a spa, well at least in South Africa. So we wanted to have something different and that's why we opened The Spa. 

What motivated you to start?

I've been working in the spa industry since 2001. At the end of the day, it's all part of the hospitality industry. People come in and you provide a service and go out of your way to make them happy. Then you make money out of it and you carry on like that from day to day. 
I'm passionate about the spa industry and spa interested me because it's part of a whole wellness and healthy lifestyle. The work that I'm doing is also part of me. There is no differentiation between me and my work and this ensures that I don't have two personalities i.e. work life and personal life. 

Why do you think it's important for women to take care of themselves?

General life is stressful and women tend to bear the bigger burden. We also take more responsibilities and make more sacrifice because it just comes naturally for us. It's important for women to balance their lives with work, family, spouse/partner and also take time out for themselves even if it's for an hour to recharge. 

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

I have many, many years of running departments and managing stuff. The biggest thing is education. When I went to hotel school in Switzerland, I learned skills that covered a whole lot of spectrum from management to HR and I was very fortunate when I worked at the Arabella that my job as Spa Manager was very much performance based and we were encouraged to run departments as if they were our own business.  And that gave me skills that I need to do this today. 

What's the difference between running your business and working for someone else? 

When you work for someone else you do the best you can do and if you don't meet your target you still get a salary at the end of the month. And you also don't worry about paying people their salaries or paying the bills.  But when you are a business owner, everything is on you. I have to make sure that we meet our monthly budget and am always thinking about what is best for our guests.  And it's up to me to make sure that what must be done, gets done. 

Do you have rainy-day savings for your business?

No, but everything we make from the business goes back into the business. At the moment we are more or less breaking even. 

How did you raise your startup money?

I'm a person who saves so when the opportunity came, I used all my savings to start the business. 

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

Yes, I did. A business plan gives you a very clear idea of the financial costs involved in setting up a  business.  

Who did you hire to help you with your business - bookkeeper, an accountant, lawyer …? Would you suggest others do the same?

My personal account has been handling all our books.  I also have a friend who is a lawyer and she helped us with the lease agreement. And when things come up from time to time she helps out. 

How do you compete with larger spas to get customers in the doors of your business?

We offer every treatment that most spas offer. What differentiates ourselves from them is that we offer a personalised service to our guests and we pay attention to detail. 

What drives you to want to succeed? 

I describe myself as a self-motivated person and I work well under pressure. I'm also very passionate about the spa industry and I'm daily challenged to make sure that the business works well. I also have moral support from my family. 

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

Being part of a boutique hotel has definitely helped us because there was another spa before us. So the former spa’s guests keep coming to us as they live around the area and it's convenient for them. And about 10% of our clients come from the hotel residents and another 10% is visiting groups that come to the hotel for meetings, etc. A lot of our success comes from our aggressive marketing on social media, especially on Facebook. We also have a couple of people who have a huge following on social media who help us punt the spa.  We always try to think out of the box when promoting the spa. 

How do you keep your staff motivated so that service is always consistent with your vision? 

We have an open communication and have targets in place for them to achieve. And I'm a big fan of development so we send the staff for continuous training so that we can keep increasing the quality of service for our guests. We also have people from the product houses coming through almost every week for a refresher course for the ladies. 

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

Right at the beginning when we started we should have allocated a bit more money to the day to day up-keeping of the spa.  But because we have been involved in helping clients with setting up their spas, we were more or less in line with our budget. 

Do you have mentors or people you go to for support? 

I rely on the experience that I've gained over the years in the industry. And my husband is my biggest champion. He is always been there to support and encourage me.  He's a banker and he understands how money works so that helps in talking to him about finances.

How do you decide which products are best for your clients? 

We choose the products we liked ourselves and believed were best for our clients. We use QMS and BABOR skincare ranges.

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

The one mistake I made was not drawing a salary when I started. And I'm not talking about a high salary just money to cover my own expenses. I've been drawing a salary now for the last two months and some of my staff are earning more than me (laughs). The point of a earning a salary as a business owner is to give a true reflection of the business in our accounts.  And also you need to remind yourself that you are qualified and competent to do this. 

How do you decide what to charge your clients? 

We based our prices on the competitive analysis that we did on spas around our area. And we decided to charge a little less than most established spas for the same products and services they offer. And the products we use also have a recommended retail price so we stick to that. 

Were there times when you had doubts about whether you would be successful? How did you stay positive during the lean times?

It's never easy so you just have to hang in there. You can't just give up when obstacles come your way and you will have many obstacles as a businesswoman. Believe in yourself and have a support network, not necessarily people who in the same industry but people who will be there for you. And like my husband always says, life is never easy so when you have a good day be grateful. 

What do you say to women who are struggling with their business? 

I think it's good to join the network groups with other entrepreneurs. I think that if you have a support network of people who are on the same journey as you, you are able to tap into their strengths and give each other advice. Speaking to other people is so encouraging. Sometimes you're going through a rough time and when you speak to someone else, you are able to learn something that will help your business.

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