Name: Michelle Fouche
Business Name: Trade and Lateral Development
Business Description: WordPress Website Design
1. How long have you been operating?
I opened in May 2000, so more than 20 years! My business can vote and drink! (Although maybe I’m the one who needs the cocktail – running a business with a small baby is tough…)
2. How did you start your business?
I always wanted to be an actress, and had been to England to make enough money to get to the States to, in theory, get an agent and take Hollywood by storm. In San Francisco, agents wouldn’t even speak to me because I had the wrong accent and no Green Card. So, having just turned nineteen, I came back to South Africa and told my parents I was still going to be famous, I was just going to start locally. My dad agreed that was great, but he asked how I was going to feed myself on my way there?
I decided to try to sell PowerPoint presentations to his transport clients because I had no formal training in anything, and it was the only thing I knew how to do. I advertised my service by sending emails to his transport customers. My emails were purple and yellow because my theory was that they’d stand out against the plain, black and white text emails that everyone else was sending. (This was the dot com era and South Africa was only just discovering email. Websites were virtually unheard of. People preferred to fax event invitations and sent newsletters by snail mail.) My dad’s insurance broker saw my colourful email and asked how much I would charge to design one for him. The rest, as they say, is history.
3. How old were you when you started it?
I had just turned nineteen.
4. What can you tell us to show the scale of your business?
We have approximately 50 clients that we service on a regular basis.
5. What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best is being able to choose my own hours. If I have something important to do during the day I can make up the hours in the evening or over the weekend. I also love dreaming up new ideas and having the freedom to pursue them.
The worst is not being able to take time off when I’m sick. Being creative when you feel like death warmed up is haaaaard.
6. What was the hardest lesson you had to learn in business?
I had to learn the value of not depending on any single client, no matter how lucrative. Years ago, I had a client who made up 70% of my turnover. One day, they decided to take all their work inhouse because they had grown large enough to warrant an internal division doing what I did. I was gutted. I struggled to deal with the sense of rejection and the massive hole in my income, and I couldn’t see a way out. Listening to other entrepreneurs’ stories of their darkest moments and how they overcame them really pulled me through. It took a herculean effort on my part but I was able to replace the income I had lost. I learned the hard way that it’s far safer to have many, smaller clients, so that if one leaves you, you’re not left high and dry.
7. Did you ever want to quit and, if so, what did you do to overcome it?
There have been a few times I’ve wanted to quit. Losing my biggest client was the probably the closest I’ve come, but I also almost quit about a year and a half in. I had been selling email newsletters that only worked in Outlook Express (remember that?!). I was incredibly frustrated because I knew there was another way to make them work universally, but I didn’t know what it was and every “I.T.” person I asked had less of a clue than I did. (Google was not yet a thing, so I couldn’t search for answers there.)
At the time, I desperately wanted to sell my email brochures by educating my clients. (They all still preferred to fax…) I wanted to send a “PC Tip of the Week”, but I didn’t really know how to build the email, and I didn’t have anyone to send it to. After months of trying and testing and asking questions, I was no closer to my goal and I was losing hope. One Friday afternoon, I headed down the South coast for the weekend and cried all the way there. I finally decided to quit. I didn’t know the code and had run out of people to ask. On 10pm that Friday night I downloaded my email for the last time and received two that changed the course of my life.
The first was a newsletter I had subscribed to weeks before – an American guy had been looking for guinea pigs to test his newsletter course. This edition explained, step-by-step, how to make images in email newsletters work – the thing I had been struggling with for months! The second email was from the Durban Chamber of Commerce. They had addressed it CC instead of BCC, and unwittingly shared 490 email addresses that I used to launch my database. (Yes, I know this isn’t cricket nowadays, but this was 2002 and the rules were different then.)
I took my newfound images trick and my new database and launched the “PC Tip of the Week” that would run for several years. I was known around Durban for that newsletter and it brought me more business than I could handle.
8. What are/were you most grateful for while running your business?
I’m most grateful for the support of my family, who are all entrepreneurs. They share their war stories and inspire me to keep going when I’d rather crawl under a rock. Knowing they have survived worse gives me the courage to keep fighting.
9. What has the potential to keep you up at night?
Not much keeps me up at night but I’ve always been a firm believer in “behave in such a way that you can sleep at night”. I try to be kind. I try to give back where I can and help people who I feel deserve it. Oh, and I do my best to avoid debt. If I had debt that would definitely keep me up.
10. Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs starting out?
Find a niche and serve it. Or figure out what problem someone has and solve it. People pay for solutions to their problems, and they’ll pay a premium for goods or services they can’t get anywhere else. Also, you don’t need a lot of money to start a business. Many people, starting out, make the mistake of thinking they need to take out massive loans to launch their dream business. With a bit of creativity, there are plenty of ways to start a business without going into massive debt.