Setting up shop in South Africa. Travelstart up stories 19/20


When we
originally planned to set up shop in South Africa we had a couple of different plans
and budgets we were playing around with. After all we had no clue how it would
work and how the uptake would be to our service. We also didn’t know where the
market was going in Scandinavia and how well we were going to answer to market
needs. In short who the hell knows anything about the future.

So we did
what I believe is the right thing to do, plan for different scenarios but at
the same time being open that it can be something completely different. The
only thing we didn’t have was an escape plan. And I am happy for that now. Our
original idea was a small South African shop with some 5 to 10 employees
servicing the local market. Our South African business was also going to
service other English speaking markets that we expected to grow.

We rented
office space in an old factory building where we had the opportunity to grow if
needed. Our launch was delayed 1,5 years due to technical delays and management
issues. We lost momentum and landed in a tailspi.jpgn of hesitancy. So we let out our
office space to a small start up selling funeral policies to black people. They
later flopped big time and never paid the rent. Meanwhile I rented a desk in an
office hotel for start-ups called Bandwidth barn. The good thing with the Barn
was the vibe and the young people. Suddenly I could go to work have meetings and
build to do lists. Slowly the momentum came back. Building a company or project
is simple; its about doing stuff, ticking off to do lists.

The first
set of management team I hired wouldn’t work very well for the long run, but
they did a great job setting things up so we could get going.

As we came
closer to launch we needed a larger office than the 10 sqm five of us were
crammed into. We got a beautiful old building called Avalon and had every
single furniture item specially designed for us. We hired customer service
agents, finance people and I got myself a PA for the first (and probably last)
time in my life.

The launch
was delayed another couple of months. We trained our customer service staff and
slowly resentment from our team back in Sweden started to set in. But I was too
busy to even bother about that now. We worked at warp speed to set everything
up. I wanted this company to become perfect. We worked with marketing, we
worked with our blogs, we worked the press we worked with the “feeling” and
culture. I had great help in forming our brand strategy from two amazingly
talented designers Anne Sophie Leens and Damian Stephens. It was a creative
chaos and order at its best.

Then in
July of 2006 we launched our beta site. Newspapers wrote about us. But on the
booking front not much happened. A few bookings and a couple of calls. People
running around the office, waiting for the flood. A couple of weeks into beta I
got tired of waiting so I ordered that we went to alfa. Big launch. Boom. Bookings
started to roll in. I was in heaven. It was a done deal. I thought

The next
day, nothing. I couldn’t believe it. The next day again, nothing. The third
nothing, the second week nothing. By the second week I thought there was
something not right.  The staff
just sat there doing nothing all day. Trying to look busy using MSN watching
gossip news on the computers. One of our customer service people was looking at
me as I was going home one evening saying, “ It will come”. I just thought
about the end scenes in the movie “Bugsy”. Bugsy Siegel standing in the bar at
the newly built Flamingo hotel, that he bet his life on, while the rain was pouring
down and staff were trying to look occupi.jpged in an empty hotel.

we cracked the code and got our marketing calibrated for the South African
market, but it took us a couple of months,

By the time
bookings started to roll in we found that most of the staff actually wasn’t up
for the task at all and had to be replaced. Our manager had personal problems
at home and eventually had to leave so the whole day to day operation landed in
my lap. I had not been a daily leader in my company since 2002. I was not good
at it then much less now. So between my PA and me we were trying to figure out how
to manage customer service, payments, staff, payrolls and all other practical
stuff. Slowly but surely we found that our finance was in a mess and when
addressing the recruitment firm who had sold us our financial manager we found
that they refused to take her back. So finance landed in my lap as well. The
positive was that bookings came in. On the negative side. Everything in
operation had to be redone.

The budget
for the venture exceeded with 200% and I was very worried. When planning for
the project I never planned for failure so there was no abort button, which I’m
glad for now. But I was worried for a while.

eventually managed to turn everything around replacing every single soul,
except two from customer service, that are with us still today, doing a great

We employ
close to 40 people in South Africa today and of the different scenarios we
planned we are not really doing any of the original ones. The scale and scope
of things has become way bigger and we have just started…


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