TUMISANG NDLOVU: In this week’s SME Corner for Moneyweb we speak to Samke Mtshali, the founder of Samke Style. Let’s talk about Samke Style – what do you do, what is on offer?
SAMKE MTSHALI: Samke Style is an online store. What we do is we design and supply genuine leather shoes. Our shoes are manufactured in South Africa but some of the leather and the soles we import.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: So why take this route, why leather shoes and why choose the main focus to be based here in South Africa?
SAMKE MTSHALI: The interest came from the passion that I have for fashion and also the struggles that I’ve had in terms of finding the right comfortable shoes. I’ve also seen that with my friends and my family. When I say “comfortable shoes” I mean quality and reasonableness, something that is authentic as well. When you go to the retail market you’ll find that they do have the size, but if you’ve got wide feet, like me, I used to suffer a lot and I found I was not the only one. That bothered me and I decided to do some research on this.
I started to do my research a year ago and while I was busy with my research I met up with a guy who’s now my mentor/ He specialises in this craft. He’s very good at what he does and he’s in the manufacturing industry. So I spoke to him about the concept that I had which was still unborn at that time. It was just a dream, and I told him this is what I want to do and he was interested in the concept.
He said to me, “I like your attitude, and please don’t change because you are going to go far. But let me mentor you as well, because you are new in the business and you need to learn.” He had been doing this for over 30 years, so I was very, very honoured to be given that chance. So we started working together and we came up with the designs – but some of the designs I already had. So we came up with the first four designs and started working on them. We started last year so the brand, Samke Style, is now eight months old.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: That is an amazing journey. You speak about your love for fashion and in this case there’s a lot of design and a lot of manufacturing involved. Talk to us about how you prepared for that.
SAMKE MTSHALI: During the research I was doing I told myself that it’s good to position yourself with great people who’ve been in the industry, and I didn’t restrict myself in terms of getting mentors. When I say “mentors” I don’t mean only in the fashion business. I was also checking with construction businesses, people who are online, how they were trading. That gave me the confidence to say I’m going to do this, because sometimes here in South Africa as entrepreneurs we think that cash flow can stop us from following our dreams. But I thought that with the little that I had I was just going to start this with what I had, and then see where it goes. To be honest, I am really impressed with how it has come out.
Operating an online store
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Talk to us about how you distribute the product and how it has been received so far?
SAMKE MTSHALI: The way I distribute the products is online, through social media. Our online store is hosted by Shopify. They are very good as you are not restricted when sharing their space. That’s the other reason I like an online store; it’s cost-effective in terms of renting for businesses like mine that are self-funded, so you are not paying rent like a store in a mall. This way people can “walk into your shop” via their cell phone and also on social media. So that’s how we market our business.
It’s interesting because when I started I said I just want to be an online store and I just want to sell my products. But while I was on my journey I realised that there’s a certain kind of audience who wants to engage with a person, especially if you are not known, and there are big brands out there that you are competing against. So in April this year I did a pop-up just to see how it goes because I want to engage with customers and get to understand how they feel and how they are finding the products.
The first pop-up we did in April was in Pietermaritzburg and, as we were advertising our pop-up, something interesting happened in that process of advertising. People were asking who is this? Is she coming from Joburg, is this lady really a local shoe manufacturer? We can’t wait to see her. So that gave me goosebumps and I couldn’t wait to meet people and explain what I was about, because I needed people to understand that it’s not just shoes. My shoes are made of leather, inside and out. So I wanted people to feel them, smell them and touch them. It was really exciting for me.
There are three local brands that are big here. Ntozinhle Accessories – We don’t know each other but I always look up to her and I respect her, the way she runs her business. She saw that I was going to that pop-up event and she was also going, and the event coordinator explained to her who I was and what I did. She said she couldn’t wait to meet me and she started advertising my products on her page. Then social media was buzzing, people wanted to know more and I started getting orders – even way before the event – and the feedback that we got was amazing. I always say to her that I am honoured to know her. She really did something for me and I really appreciate it, because it’s difficult to penetrate the market, especially when you are unknown. You need to market your brand and you need to push extra hard.
Social media as a cost-effective marketing tool
TUMISANG NDLOVU: That’s wonderful, that whole partnership that we have seen in pop-ups and in social media. What do you make of the easy access to social media being a marketing tool, as you have just explained?
SAMKE MTSHALI: To be honest, I never thought social media was this powerful. Each style has a name and each shoe has had its own journey, starting from the design. And when you go to the website I explain that about the shoes, and how to clean them and so on. So it shows people I am passionate, I’m not just selling. The products mean something to me because I also wear them on a daily basis. Social media gives us more exposure as well. Everyone has a phone in South Africa, and everyone has got internet, so we’re always on our phones. People want to know the latest trends and the unique styles, so it’s been quite interesting.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: That is amazing. I want you to maybe take us on a journey of how you name these shoes?
SAMKE MTSHALI: Remember, it starts with the design. So sometimes when you are still drawing the shoe and you are engaging with the other team members, and you decide this is going to work or not going to work, the shape of the design of the shoe leads you to naming the shoe. So let’s say I’m designing a boot that looks like a cowboy/cowgirl style, it then becomes easy to name that shoe in a certain way. Also if a shoe is in a ’60s style – because I create timeless styles – it would lead me to something like “chic vintage”. So the names come easily when you start to draft the designs.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: So as a customer can one request a certain type of shoe and then you make it?
SAMKE MTSHALI: For now we are not yet doing that. But in the future as the business grows we will look at that. It’s expensive to make custom shoes, and for a self-funded business like mine you need to work within a budget and just produce more of the styles that you have and then push your sales. But I’m really looking at that because there are a lot of niche gaps in terms of the designs in the retail market and designs that people would like to see. So, if it’s within the Samke Style concept, we will definitely do so because we don’t specialise in stilettos…
TUMISANG NDLOVU: [Laughing]
SAMKE MTSHALI: So it’s block heels and flat shoes with a bit of cowgirl, vintage style.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Where to then, what can we expect from you in the near future?
SAMKE MTSHALI: I want to approach the manufacturing industry. I just want to work at the back and, of course, at supplying big malls and exclusive shops that want unique and timeless styles. Obviously that was the vision. But for me to pursue it I needed to start like this so that people know what the brand is about. And then when we expand it will be more manufacturing, because we also want to do a men’s range and kiddies’ range, so there’s going to be more.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Thank you so much for your time and we wish you all the best.
SAMKE MTSHALI: Thank you so much for having me.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: That was the founder of Samke Style in this week’s SME Corner for Moneyweb, Samke Mtshali.