Sarah-Jane Boden: I embrace the fact that business has its ups and downs

Sarah-Jane Boden is the founder and executive creative director  of SoulProviders Collective. SoulProviders  is a creative agency composed of imagineers, creators, marketers, writers, designers, illustrators and strategists. We're also musicians, runners, ballerinas and fashionistas.  In this interview, she talks about the lessons she's learned in business.

Tell us a bit about your company, Soul Providers, and why should anyone use your services?

SoulProviders Collective is a couture content agency, we create and tell eye-catching stories on behalf of brands and organisations that help them connect with their consumers and audience. Why work with us? Because we're passionate about marketing in a fresh and unusual way, we're future-minded and a great, dedicated and highly creative team of people.

What was your career path to this role?

While I studied literature, media, cultural studies and the arts, I started my career in production in video, events and industrial theatre.  A couple of years in, I was lucky enough to have a boss that let me cross from production into creative in my early twenties which let me learn about strategy and creative direction.  I then lived in London for a couple of years where I worked in all kinds of marketing and events positions and some other dodgy jobs - and I also learnt about design and layout as I learnt DTP and copy-editing. Moving back to SA I went back into events and brand activation as a creative director and was writing scripts and conceptualising the creative and visual direction for events like the SAMAs, I was so lucky to get behind video and live performance again. Encouraged by a friend who loved going around with me as I shared my favourite places and spaces in downtown Jozi, I then started my blogazine which focused on bringing diverse people together around music, arts and the changing face of downtown Jozi in the mid 2000s. This was the beginning of my digital content journey. I was freelancing at the time as a strategic creative director and I registered SoulProviders as an entity - I was lucky to be working on some epic brands and collaborating with some incredible creative minds, many people that I still work with today and who have been such massive supporters of SoulProviders. 

How did you raise your start up money?

I didn't have any start up money. I was lucky to be married so my husband had a salary to sustain us, we lived very simply. But mainly it was sweat equity, some savings and careful planning.

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

Actually I didn't. I tend to be more on-the-fly kind of business person.

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

I hired a bookkeeper yes and I would suggest that one does that straight away. However, what I would also suggest is that one sits down with the book-keeper and works out what kinds of books are needed for your business and try to get onto a software like Sage or similar. This wasn't possible when we started as these kinds of packages were so expensive then. And actually try to keep the records yourself for the first while, while checking in with your bookkeeper monthly to keep your outsourcing costs down. Learning the financial fabric of your business is super important and let's you have the data at your fingertips.

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

Not really. As our content industry was such a new one and one that was working itself out as our business was shaping up, we had to learn and teach everything in-house, which meant that we were very hands-on with all of our staff, particularly in the first 4 years of growth. The only parts of our business we outsource is where specific expertise is required like a specialised photographer, videographer, sound, media expert, websites etc.

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

In the first few years our clients took massive risks bringing a feisty young agency like us onto their brands and there is no ways that we could let them down, this promise to our clients means that I have had some principles that I have tried to drive from day one - things like high efficiency in delivery, excellent quality of work always, pushing creative depths, providing exceptional results and a great work ethic.
I have also tried to create a different kind of internal culture, somewhere that shapes and melds our team's lifestyle and needs with our work and demands.

Do you have rainy-day savings for your business?

Yes we do. I always say that some of the clients on a 60 day payment cycle are rainy-day back ups. We also run a number of bank accounts and there are some that we do not touch and leave the money in and pretend it's not there.

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

Because the industry was new and we were having to prove ourselves, we certainly played the angle of undercharging and overdelivering.  I don't think it's avoidable when you are muscling in with massive global agencies having to make way for you, as you need differentiators to make the clients give you a chance. However backpedaling your way out of that can be quite difficult although I consider that part of business learnings.

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

If you are in a services-based industry like ours where our highest expense is salaries, do whatever you can to keep your headcount lean. Don't hire more people if you can see things are slowing - rather freeze your hiring and when people resign don't replace them immediately but see if you can cope without them and also consider outsourcing to freelancers to reduce the payload.
Don't overinvest in flashy office spaces and equipment, keep your overheads down and lean. Try to find shared space or affordable spaces even if they may not be exactly what you want. Stick to starter-pack vibes while you build up your business.

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

Sho, I think again it's about asking for what you want and finding the right fit with clients. Also finding female client that are pushing the female agenda. Try to identify and choose clients that believe in what you have to offer and are willing to pay you fairly. Also, start to think about how to build out your business without being so reliant on your client base for survival . That would be a good survival tip looking at the world right now.

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

I am so sad to say that I don't have any official mentors. It's one of my regrets. I have really learnt the hard way. If I was to do it again it's something I would immediately do differently. Learning the hard way means you make many more mistakes, but the lessons go a lot deeper. It's very different being a sole owner and can be very lonely, especially during high growth phases - it's a tough journey. I have made many mistakes but I try to learn from them and not repeat them. That's important. 

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

I think this comes down to the kind of people you hire. We try to hire like-minded and upbeat personalities, and to support the team during rough or draining times. I also try to lead by example.

How do you deal with set backs in your business?

Actually I am a very resilient person and by year 6 I have been through so much and seen so much that things tend to be very manageable. Something that would have freaked me out in year one or two does not even bother me anymore now. I have learnt to be very pragmatic and level-headed about most challenges that come my way. I also embrace the fact that business has its ups and downs and that I am only human and that no matter how hard I try for things to go my way and go smoothly there will always be those areas where you have shortfalls and where there are more lessons to learn and growth to be had. Personal and business. 

How do you strike your own work / life balance?

I think that work/life balance is a very fluid thing - and in many ways I think it's a myth. The world we live in places so much pressure on us as individuals to try and carve out a living and it's really not easy to get it right all the time, particularly for entrepreneurs. For example at the beginning of your business or when you are in a high growth phase, it's going to be very difficult to get it 'balanced' and you will find that for a few years you may make personal sacrifices to push and build your business to the levels you need to become sustainable. I say do what you must and do your best to prioritise the elements of your life that you can make time for when the going gets tough - for me that's always been my family.
I think that as you grow and learn about business and get a team that can take some of the load off of you you can then 're-introduce' the other parts of your life that you may have neglected. Whatever you do don't beat yourself up about it, but try your best to work on it. 

What's on the horizon for you? 

I am excited about SPC - we are evolving and changing and while I am not involved in operations anymore and the leadership team is running the day-to-day work, I am still driving the vision and the future of the business. I am a very future-minded person and very curious about what's next, four areas that I am focusing on in 2018 are:
- What does the new advertising and marketing agency look like - what does selling in the future look like? How do we go there first?
- How do we build a new kind of business structure, one that benefits all who build it?
- I will be focusing on sharing the lessons I have learnt with start-up entrepreneurs through a series of free workshops in 2018 around the basics of building a creative business
- I will be nurturing some of my side businesses and projects - Suketchi our design and branding agency with David Tshabalala, I still have my Soul+Design brand and shop to build and I want to get involved in creating more jobs and small business opportunities.

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