TUMISANG NDLOVU: In this week’s SME Corner we speak to the founders of Cheri Yase Kasi, Sunshine Shibambo and Tumi Mohube. Sunshine, tell us about the company, what is it all about?
SUNSHINE SHIBAMBO: I think the name alone says that we are quite interesting people. Cheri Yase Kasi is 18 months old now; we’re experiential events, ideation, creative, conceptualisation, PR and communications, and influencer marketing agency. We started as a solo act, so I started the business by myself initially after coming back from a trip in Thailand. I loved how the Thai people were such hard workers but everything for them was so simple, it was about waking up and providing for yourself.
After working in corporate for a very long time and working on a really cool brand at that time, I had an eat, pray, love moment, and I thought, Sunshine, if you can’t do this now, then when? So I came back from my holiday and I started the business and because I had worked in corporate I had had the opportunity to see so many gaps that were available that the brand managers, for example, weren’t seeing or finding opportunities in, and they are agencies, the bigger agencies.
So it started from there, I would sit in meetings and think but I would do it like this or I would approach it like that. Unfortunately when you are sitting in corporate there are four other bosses above you, so that idea might never actually come to the table and that could be that big idea. So I was inspired to start breaking down walls, I wanted to show them that a girl from the township can be a girl who lives in the north, works in the north and is actually global, and the name came about that way. So it was this township girl coming in to disrupt. I started very small but through great contacts and having worked in the industry for so long, the business picked up very quickly. I had to steal Tumi, she was actually working somewhere else, we had been friends before and I stole her from another agency that she was working for, and I said this is the bigger picture of the business and I really think this is something you are great at and you could help me to make this bigger than what it is. She joined in July this year and we’ve tripled our numbers just in terms of clients who have come on board, the agency has taken big strides that have shocked me.
Having started it with just a laptop and a cell phone on my couch, and now we have an office with six people, I have two business partners and it’s growing every day. Business is interesting, you never really get equipped to run a business, so having worked in corporate was great because it helped to show me how to make money but they didn’t teach me how to run the business. So every day is a journey, every day is a learning for us, I think we all have this big ambition to do something great and, therefore, are willing to take the challenges as they come.
We’re rapidly growing, we really like to say that we are an agency that likes to disrupt, we are a group of smart creatives, people who find solutions to create something incredible. We love the clients that we have, I think we’ve managed to secure some really big FMCG clients that a lot of businesses so young wouldn’t, Nestlé is one of them. We work with partners like Ndalo Media, having Khanyi Dhlomo say she believes in what you do is really inspiring to try and move forward. So it’s been incredible, we get so many letters of encouragement, a lot from women.
When I started the business I really wanted it to be just women, from the receptionist to the tea lady, to the cleaners, to the designers and so on, the realities of our world right now is that business in this country and globally is still run by men. So it forced us to get a third partner, Mandla Mazibuko, he came on board as our creative director in the business. We finally have this trio that balances each other out, we all have the same vision in the sense that we all come from the township and we believe we can make something out of ourselves and be able to compete with the big dogs that are out there. That for us is success, to be able to compete equally, fairly, to be able to provide that service we work with a lot of young, untapped talent, so we’ve discovered photographers and videographers.
We’ve introduced parts to the business that I think I never thought would have been part of the business, just because of the people who work with us and their ambitions and their passions. So it’s amazing to have a team who believes in the bigger picture and we are all working to be a great Cheri Yase Kasi, get on the JSE one day [laughing].
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Let’s bring Tumi into this, what has your experience in the business been like because it sounds like an exciting journey?
TUMI MOHUBE: I think the one thing Sunshine mentioned, which is quite spot on, is that I wish someone would have taught us about running a business at school. We talk about growing the entrepreneurial space but no one gives you the tools as in this is what it’s going to be like. When they say the first 1000 days are going to be quite challenging, it is exactly that, I think I have never worked so hard in my whole entire life. But the beauty of owning your own business is that it’s worth it when you know that you own it and it’s yours.
So as challenging as it has been and as much work as we’ve had to put in it, it’s been exciting and rewarding. The one thing that we are very clear on and this is why we started, is that we were in spaces where we weren’t allowed to be creatively free and that frustrated me, we all have different reasons in terms of why we started but mine was basically I just wanted to do things, and brands go on and talk about being innovative but very few brands are actually brave enough to actually own the word innovative.
Innovative means that you are willing to think out of the box and do things differently. I think that’s why we are slightly different is that we won’t give you a solution that any other agency might potentially say that this is what it looks like, we’ll give you the tick-the- box answers but we’ll also give you another route in terms of this is what it could potentially look like. We like to own the term smart creatives because it is what it is, it’s about breaking the norms, it’s about being unconventional and also understanding what the marketing trends are all about.
One of the things that was my biggest frustration when I was still in corporate was that the agencies would come back with research or stats or analysis based on books and analytics and so on, and that’s fantastic but what is Tumi really doing, does she want to be drinking coffee at this time. I think we need to get to a point where we understand that social media and technology have changed the way that people consume brands.
So it’s understanding them and understanding the trends and trying to fit the brands into those spaces, as opposed to the other way around. So the textbook is great for just as a reference but there are so many other dynamics over and above the textbook that we apply and, hence, Cheri Yase Kasi will proudly say okay, cool, give us the brief and let’s see what we can do for you.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: I love that. Sunshine, how has the industry received you guys as a whole, I hear your clients are knocking on your door but the whole industry, as you mentioned, you guys are competing with the big dogs out there.
SUNSHINE SHIBAMBO: We are competing and I think what’s been really encouraging for me is I like a challenge and we’re told every day you can’t, and as women you are told every day you can’t. So what’s made it really exciting is to be able to show them that we can. There is no pre-set one plus three equals success. Every brief is different, every method we use to approach that brief is different, so the big dogs get frustrated because there are systems in place in bigger agencies, they have traffic, so their process takes a bit longer.
We have the flexibility and that advantage because we are so small but so hungry as well as a business, to offer our clients triple that they can. So we don’t have the millions yet, we know they are coming. But the one thing we are sure of is that they can never give the same hunger and desire for proving people wrong. They’ve had the businesses for a couple of years, a lot of the agencies I used to work with have been on those retainers for five, six, seven years, so when we come in we disrupt their thinking, we question it. I’ve got two fists on my shoulders and someone asked me why and I said because I’m a fighter. I seem very calm but I like to fight and I fight for women’s rights, and for so long we’ve been oppressed or not given the chance or a voice.
So Cheri Yase Kasi was one of those platforms for me, where it was really important to show them that women can compete at that level. To be honest, a lot of the advice when starting all of this came from my male friends, friends who had been in business for many years and the one common piece of advice they all gave me was you are always going to be pushed back because you are a woman but Sunshine, we know you, we know what a fighter you are. So I always try to give my team that encouragement and say that if you believe in your idea, fight for it. It might not be the right one, the client might hate it but if you believe in it and can fight for it then there’s nothing standing in your way.
The bigger agencies don’t like us because we get called into the same boardrooms as them to receive those briefs, so that really gives us the encouragement to keep going. But some of those agencies have also helped me become the person I am, I have worked with those agencies, I was with SAB before I started this business, I say SAB is like a whole new university, SAB teaches you how to make money. But I also worked in an advertising agency, so I understand the madness of that animal, and I’ve also worked in a media company. So it’s vital to also have the knowledge and the experience.
A lot of entrepreneurs also just think, oh, let me just jump into it. I was an intern at 27, I had no problem putting my pens down and humbling myself, I wanted to understand the media world, so I dropped a real job because I wanted to get into that world because I knew it was part of this bigger picture. I’ve taken jobs that paid me less, where my counterparts were getting money that get them Rangers, I was happy to be in my little car for the sake of the bigger picture, which was one day I know we are going to have something that no one else can say that’s what our business does.
It’s even difficult for us when people ask us who is your competition, how to answer that question, only because nobody else is approaching it the way we are, nobody else is seeing these opportunities the way we are. Yes, there are other great innovative agencies, someone who I would put on a par with us is DNA, run by Sylvester, even though they are more heavily PR, he’s created a way of working that is unique to his team and his business but has also created a unique approach in the industry.
To be able to change perceptions in the industry is what is more important for us, than to try and impress our competitors. So we will learn from the competitors’ mistakes, we will learn from those we admire, there are a lot of agencies we look up to, SoulProviders is one of them, Glen 21 Entertainment is one of them, who have been running businesses successfully as young people for five or six years and not doing it the ordinary way. You speak to someone who has been in business for 30 years and they have this way, and this is the way that works.
But technology has given us a new tool to educate ourselves, we see what others are doing, we are learning from what others are doing. People like Steve Jobs have become an inspiration, to be able to go from a garage to a global brand. So I think it’s just having that thing that is a fire starter of sorts, then it gives you the confidence to not be scared by the big guys. We can’t look at the bigger agencies and think, yeah, we are going to get them. They have been doing this for 20 years, they’ve had really big clients for 20 years and a lot of those clients have spent lots of money in those spaces, so it’s a trust thing. So part of our daily work is to get our clients to trust us and believe in us because to get someone to hand over R2 million to two young black girls, who, a couple of months ago, we were paying you a pay cheque, now you are saying you want my R2 million, hold on.
So it’s business, it’s proving yourself, it’s being a woman but if we constantly looked at those as challenges then we would be caught up in our own fear. So what we do is we say, okay guys, yes, we may be little kittens but they are putting us in there with the lions, so put on you lion pants, let’s go.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Interesting. Tumi, how would you advise someone who is looking to jump in and start up because from what I hear from this conversation, being bold, being brave and doing your own thing makes sense. But what would you say to a young person who will be listening to this interview and thinking wow, this is exactly what I’m thinking but where do I start?
TUMI MOHUBE: I’d personally say it starts with a dream and I know it sounds cliché but if you can dream it, you can do it. I happen to be a mom of a beautiful seven-year old and if anything else I would like to leave a legacy and teach her that being in a woman is more than just being in the kitchen and so forth because we come from a generation where we are taught that this is how you do things and behave as a woman and so forth.
One of the reasons why I went into a business with Sunshine is because she had the passion and the fight to do that, so you have to be passionate about what you want. Truth be told, you do spend 80% of your time at work and if you are going to be spending so much time not being with your family and not being in a relationship, you make so many sacrifices, make sure that it’s worth it. But I think over and above that get mentors, get people who believe in you, even when you don’t know where and how to start, just start.
Honestly, like Sunshine was saying, it starts in a garage, it starts with an idea, it starts with sitting with my friends and saying what do you think. But you literally have to start somewhere and by no means, whatever happens, that little thing in your head that says fear, I can’t, just squash it because that’s the only way you’ll get started. I said to my friends that the one thing that also made me do what I do is that I was very fearful of living with the regret of what if, I wouldn’t be able to live my life, so I thought if I’m going to try this then at least I tried it and at least I know but there is no life that is more painful than living with regret, so just start.
SUNSHINE SHIBAMBO: And find the support, even though I just started with my laptop on a couch and a cell phone, before I did all of that I had to sit with my family, my parents, and explain that things are not going to be the same, I’m not the daughter who’s coming home with Nando’s for everyone because there’s no money for Nando’s, I might actually need you to pay for my rent. If you can sell it to your family or your close ones and they actually believe that there is something there and they support you, it’s easy to start.
I sold everything, I took my last pay cheque, I got my thirteenth cheque, I got my pension and I said, okay, we have to save half and then half is to start something. It wasn’t a lot of money, I didn’t have R2 million sitting waiting for me. I registered my company and I only had R5000 and I had to buy a laptop and I had to load airtime. But I had people supporting me who I could phone and say, listen, I can’t pay rent this month, so could you help me with that. Not having partners, we are single girls, not by choice but others have partners who can help them with that. I think having support is vital to starting. Had I not had two or three people saying yes, this makes sense, this is something you should do, why haven’t you been doing this, this is what we’ve been trying to say to you all these years.
So run it by our friends, run it by your aunt in the kitchen, simplify it. What scared me was how everyone said so what’s your business plan and I said what’s a business plan, I don’t know what I want to do yet but I do know that there are these things that I love.
TUMI MOHUBE: I think that’s one of the reasons why we decided to go the untraditional route of going to find funding because when you go to a financial institution they would then want a business plan. You must understand that we are an advertising/marketing/experiential eventing business, so the ideas are in our heads, so it’s very difficult to quantify on paper and say I foresee XYZ, which hopefully in years to come financial institutions will somehow restructure and find ways of assisting businesses like this.
So for us it was a matter of okay, you sell your car, I moved back home but support was absolutely key in terms of how we are going to do this. The one thing that we are sure of is that we don’t want to owe anybody, so we’ve become quite strict in terms of how we spend money. Yes, we’ll buy champagne every now and then but it’s making sure that the work gets done and so forth but it’s quite important at the end of the day that you are fully supported and it’s doable.
SUNSHINE SHIBAMBO: And you don’t need lots of money. Our greatest strength as people is what’s in your head, you are unique by just how you think, how you approach life, how you do things. So if you really believe that your atchar is the best tasting atchar in Meadowlands, start, sell it in cups, do something but start and see how it goes. I was so scared to ask for help when I started, I was so scared to be seen as wrong or for people to say what does she think she’s doing? The moment I opened myself up to be able to do that then the help came easily, then information came easily, now you can pick up a phone and say this is what I’m thinking, have you done this before, I don’t know how to charge this client.
You don’t know these things when you start. So I think for the first six months I was working just to pay my rent, pay for my car, we’ll see profits later but let’s get this name going. We used social media to get our name out there, we couldn’t afford a PR agency or to have a website. So start with what you have. Facebook has become a tool for businesses like me and you, and smaller businesses, where we can’t afford billboards but you can promote your pages on Facebook for ten bucks a day and reach 2000 people and with that 2000 there’s that little gold mine in there. So the fear is what cripples us, the fear is what gets you into this place where you say I can’t.
But it’s so liberating to try and to speak to people who are trying and going. Everyday we’re learning and building, the cement is wet, it didn’t dry, now we can’t do the ceiling, so simplify it. I speak in simple terms to my clients, to my team because I want them to understand it in their way. I will read a complicated textbook and I will phone complicated people and say this is too much English, talk to me like I’m in grade two, so that I can understand it and that way I can share the information with somebody else, who maybe was so intimidated by this textbook.
So we also work with people who are really serious businesspeople. We have great mentors, I’ve been mentored from SAB, from SABC, where I worked, from Media24, so it’s been great that there’s always someone that I can pick up the phone and ask, if they don’t know then they can pick up a phone and ask someone. What South Africans are great about, I think having travelled all over the world, is that we are such a sharing community but we are also taught to be humble and never need help, so it’s this catch-22.
But it’s okay for us not to know and it’s okay for us to ask and that’s the only way we are going to learn. I learnt that from working in corporates and with bosses telling me that there is nothing wrong with asking, if you don’t know then how else are you going to learn. So just start and they can email us, I’ll give them my running a business for dummies version that I have. There are a lot of young entrepreneurs, Green Robot is great, he’s got a graphic design company, he’s made the Forbes list and the Mail & Guardian list, and he’s an incredible young man, also from the township. He’s now got a team of ten and also started as I’m a designer, I’m tired of this agency life, what do I do. He started and it takes one client.
It took one client for me to realise I need a team, I need partners because this could be big and then I’d think this is happening too soon, and the I’d phone a mentor and they would say but what did you want to happen. There was never a timeline set for this because your moment could come in two days.
TUMI MOHUBE: As much as we don’t have a business plan yet, it’s still sitting in our heads but the one thing we are very clear on is we needed to define so what is this, is this an advertising agency, experiential eventing, creative agency and so forth, the one thing that I feel people make a mistake in is trying to be everything all the time. Yes, we are capable of designing a flyer or coming up with a concept but what we knew that we did very well that no other people were doing or that no other agency offered, was that we are very good at experiential eventing, and that’s still a very new term.
We learnt that from SAB because when someone says design the consumer journey from the beginning and you sit or you employ typical agency people and then you think what does that mean. So that is also not in textbooks, so we took what we knew that we were great at to start building an empire and then as you go you can also say but we also do and we also offer and so on because those resources are available but start with what you are great at and harness that and then build it that way round.
SUNSHINE SHIBAMBO: We were great with township, South Africa’s buying market is becoming more black, the South African consumer is more black. We are young and black, we understand what that consumer needs, we are that consumer, having been township kids who are fortunate enough to make it to where we are today.
But I think a lot of the time the bigger agencies were just missing how to communicate with that person, they were making those assumptions, where we have the advantage of killing those assumptions because we have lived that life. I understand the township life, I understand that a Saturday is waking up, sitting on a corner with a quarter and a two litre, and that’s normal, so how do you communicate with me? It’s not going to be the same way you are communicating with the black girl at Tasha’s. We took advantage of that fact, if anything we can go back to the township and listen and trial it and, as Tumi said, I think a lot of the agencies don’t want to take that risk, they don’t want to take that chance, is this going to work.
Black consumers are also finally becoming really educated on their rights in terms of products, what they will consume and where I will spend my money, they finally have options. I think when we were growing up, I’m a child of the ‘80s, we didn’t have a lot of those things in the township. I remember having to catch three taxis to get out of the township to go somewhere and now I use Uber. So now it’s interesting to see a township say, okay, we are going to create our own Uber, just for the township. It’s just about how and it’s a great place for us to be in because we can say hell no, that would never work in the township. We can be part of that noise, where consumers say we don’t like how brands are talking to us. So we are saying okay, brands, this is how you talk to them.
TUMISANG NDLOVU: Thank you so much, ladies, this has been an eye-opener and we wish you all the best. That was Sunshine Shibambo and Tumi Mohube of Cheri Yase Kasi in this week’s SME Corner.
Instagram: @cheriyasekasi, @sunshineshibs, @tumi224
Twitter: @sunshineshibs, @tumi_mdluli
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