South African product designer and managing craftsman, Vusani Ravele won the hearts of TV viewers following his appearance on Shark Tank South Africa. Vusani shares with us the impact securing investment has had on developing his business Native Decor, the challenges and rewards of growing a sustainable creative business, the importance of preparedness, having passion and believing in yourself.
1. PLEASE INTRODUCE YOURSELF, AND TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND, WHERE YOU ARE BASED, AND WHAT LED YOU TO A CAREER IN PRODUCT DESIGN?
I grew up in South Africa in a small town called Tzaneen. In high school, I ran a tuck shop and had my first taste of entrepreneurial success on a small scale. At the same time, I was suppressing my artistic flair and just being a teenager. I went on to co-own a publishing business after studying Industrial Engineering at UJ. That business failed and left me a bit vulnerable but highly skilled at a few things. Following that, I worked as a sales rep and reached my peak as a sales manager within that company. It was on Valentine’s Day of 2015 that my girlfriend bought me a cordless drill that it all changed. I couldn’t stop drilling holes in things. Soon after that, I found myself building all sorts of things and eventually bought a CNC machine which was stationed in my living room. I was fascinated with this thing! With a website running and a few successful designs, I would work on my passion during my lunch hour (I lived 10 min from work), after work (much to my neighbour’s dismay), and on my weekends. The rest, as they say, is history.
2. YOU USE THE TITLE ‘MANAGING CRAFTSMAN’ WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF USING THAT WORDING AS OPPOSED TO CALLING YOURSELF A ‘DESIGNER’.
I love this question. As a designer/artist, it is easy to fall into the trap that you’re not running a business and that your designs are not the product that you sell. I knew very early on that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and that helped me quickly realize that I had to apply a business mindset to my passion if I wanted to create a brand under which I could sustainably, and successfully grow as a “Designer”.
3. CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT WHAT INSPIRES YOUR WORK, YOUR DESIGN/PRODUCTION PROCESSES, WHAT MATERIALS YOU LIKE TO WORK WITH, AND THE IMPACT YOU WANT YOUR WORK TO HAVE IN THE WORLD?
Inspiration is a tricky thing because it is ever-changing and difficult to pin down over a period of time. I usually take inspiration from my surroundings and travel in SA, as well as other artists. At the moment I am taking inspiration from our incredible African artists who are so diverse and talented. This is most likely because I’ve been partaking in a spree of festivals and exhibitions which have exposed me to this other world.
4. HAVING TO PITCH YOUR IDEA PRODUCT OR SERVICE TO LAND THAT DREAM CLIENT OR SECURE INVESTMENT IS PART OF BEING AN ENTREPRENEUR. AS ONE OF THE WINNERS OF AN INVESTMENT DEAL ON M-NET AND TELKOM SA’S REALITY SHOW SHARK TANK SOUTH AFRICA YOU, HOWEVER, HAD TO DO YOUR PITCH NOT ONLY IN FRONT OF A GROUP OF SEASONED INVESTORS BUT ALSO TO A VIEWING AUDIENCE OF MILLIONS. WHAT WAS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE, AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM IT?
The experience was a very validating one. It was also not a coincidence as I had been building up to this moment for most of my adult life. Unlike winning the lottery, you have to prepare yourself in every possible way; I received a good deal of coaching from my close friends and family beforehand. Walking into the Shark Tank, I knew that I was prepared to leave my full-time job and dedicate myself fully to this process. With one failed venture under my belt, I’d already made the brave decision to do it again after pouring in my savings and maxing out my credit card to start this business. At this stage, I was profitable, confident in my abilities, somewhat experienced, and most importantly, ready. They saw this, and all made aggressive offers in an attempt to stave off the competing Sharks. Despite their generous offers, I had done my research and had already decided that Gil Oved was the right Shark for me.
5. LOOKING AT THE IMPACT OF, AND LIFE AFTER THE SHOW IN WHAT WAYS HAS SECURING INVESTMENT HELPED TO GROW YOUR BUSINESS? AND WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER TO READERS WHO ARE THINKING ABOUT EXPLORING EXTERNAL INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES TO TAKE THEIR BUSINESS TO THE NEXT LEVEL?
I believe that securing an investment should be viewed as a vote of confidence. Most start-up entrepreneurs don’t have the first clue of what to do once they have secured funds and so end up misappropriating these funds – makes you think why they needed it in the first place. If your business is not already performing/growing, my view is that it would be a mistake to seek investment at that stage. Your business is not ready for it. Behind a loan, your business has to be performing so that it can pay those funds back and then some.
6. VIEWER COMMENTS AFTER THE SHOW SHARED ON SOCIAL MEDIA SPOKE OF YOUR PASSION, HUMILITY, AND VISION. WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU FEEL ARE NECESSARY TO FOLLOW A CREATIVE ENTREPRENEURIAL PATH AND BUILD A CAREER OUT OF YOUR PASSION AND TALENTS?
I think everyone is different and they should embrace what works for them. If people like you because you’re a kind person, then allow that kindness to be engrained in your company’s culture and the work that you do. If you’re a humorous character, lead with that. People will gravitate to what your truth is. And then, of course, there is perseverance, grit, consistency, focus etc. If you love what you’re doing, those things will come naturally.
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