I have been a business owner for a few years now and I have also been an employee while simultaneously working on these projects. I have had sustainability from my formal income, which gave me the allowance to make mistakes. And in these last few years, I have failed countless times at business. I have made critical financial mistakes that have cost me tens of thousands of rands. My business administration has been shocking and even with a project management background, I have often found myself at odds with managing anything, sometimes even myself.
I can attribute this to waking up at 4am; working tirelessly from 8am – 5pm and then putting in an extra four hours a night on my business along with just trying to breathe. The pursuit of excellence is not for the faint hearted. But throughout these four years, I've always had the back up of my salary; credit cycle; and job security.
The last three months however have been completely different as I have had no financial support structure except for my business. What I have learned in these last few months has blown my mind. Entrepreneurship can be lonely and depressing, but it does not always boil down to the understanding of the family and friends around us but instead to the external personalities we deal with on a daily basis: our suppliers and clients. Those two facets are the reason businesses exist: we are serviced by and service these groups. And nothing can stress a business owner more than a client.
I have come across horrendous suppliers who let you down but I have also been pleasantly surprised at how easy it is for me to work with others. I have fostered good relationships with most of my suppliers by simply being respectful; knowing when to push and pull; and always keeping in mind that they too run a business.
Remember the controversy in 2016 when Lerato Shabalala, former True Love editor, released a black business critique called "The Way I see It"? Black people were swinging from the depths of hell ready to defend our principles and our perceived "behindedness" in entrepreneurship. Although having never read the book because of the packed excerpts I came across in the media, her disposition towards the struggles of black business owners infuriated me.
Firstly black people have entrepreneurship ingrained in them – have you taken the bus or been in a class with black students? There's always something on sale and all the teenagers already running hair salons during their break time in the township, does that count for anything? The kids around age nine are already selling amagwinya on trains, we see opportunities and we take them up, Lerato.
It's so disappointing realising that the commonalities between black service providers and consumers are the very things that separate us instead of fusing us together.
These last few months have humbled me and I feel ready to migrate to a quiet corner to listen to what she has to say. Why? Because I am so frustrated by black clients. And quite frankly the race of my clients does not matter, but black business services a predominantly black clientele because of our history. We are still viewed as the worker and not the producer so we do not have a significant say in the economy of business in South Africa, we remain at the back-foot scrabbling for seconds. Small black business has decided to service people who look like us thinking that will make all the difference, but that has instead made us feel inferior.
The constant negotiation for lower prices and loose or handshake terms and conditions and the constant complaints. Often when I get to discussing clients with other black entrepreneurs, the mood in the room is that these very same clients would never treat our white counterparts in a similar manner. The WhatsApp messages and calls at ungodly hours; the "why debate this when I am paying you", the "I will expect five-star service but refuse to be billed at your industry relevant rates" etc. It's so disappointing realising that the commonalities between black service providers and consumers are the very things that separate us instead of fusing us together.
We just have a considerable amount of work to do as business owners and professionals to educate our consumers that we are offering often far more than big business: we deliver more in trying to get the business than our white competition, we are willing to have after-hours meetings to accommodate your work schedule, we often undercharge ourselves by not paying ourselves to be accountants, administrators, head of logistics etc. We have a million roles to play in our small businesses yet we remain on the back pedal having to explain our worth.
It's exhausting. It's tiring to have to educate someone who has contacted you that you deserve to be seen. And it's seldom our own fault. It is the ingrained programming of seeing black people as less than and being easily available to be taken for a ride.
We have to be intentional about unlearning this. Or black business will always remain insignificant.