PR pro Grace Kadzere and graphic designer Sandra Berzczynski worked for creative agencies in their hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa, but longed to run their own show. They were young (27 and 28, respectively) and fairly new in their respective fields, but they were also talented, ambitious, and determined—just the right mix for launching something on their own. So they went for it, and Continuum Studios, their design and public relations firm, was born.
That, unfortunately, was the year 2008—and when the recession hit most countries, South Africa no exception. So shortly after they launched the company, the duo decided to take a step back—they’d hold onto their day jobs, save their money, and wait to run their company on a full-time basis until “the right time.”
But in April 2011, they realized that there was just never going to be that perfect moment. So with no capital at all—just their laptops, printers, business cards, and some savings—they decided it was time to leave the comfort of their jobs and salaries and finally pursue their dreams.
If you’ve ever tossed around the idea of launching your own company (even in the recession), or wondered what it takes to be your own boss, read on for Kadzere and Berzcynski’s insights, advice, and reflections on their first year in business.
For starters, what inspired you to take the plunge and work for yourselves?
SB: My mother has always been a great influence. She arrived in South Africa from Poland with no language or degree behind her, yet she picked herself up and started her own business. I always loved how she inspired me to do the same.
Taking orders from someone every day was taking a huge toll on me, and all I could dream of was working for myself.
GK: I come from the same background—my mother had little education and arrived from Zimbabwe into South Africa with nothing. But she worked so hard that I was not deprived of anything growing up. That had always inspired me to work for myself one day.
What eventually pushed me over the edge were the restricted leave days, working with clients I couldn’t stand, and the inability to go crazy and get creative with campaigns.
Was it the right decision to “wait out” the recession for a few years before going full-time?
GK: I personally believe it was. A lot of entrepreneurs were closing down their new businesses and going back into the corporate world. Even though that doesn’t necessarily mean failure, I believe it can bruise anyone’s ego to a point where they would never try again.
What’s the entrepreneurship scene like in South Africa?
GK: There are so many businesses opening up every day, but at the same time, many are closing down. From personal observation, a lot of young people underestimate the costs and time needed to start your own thing, which results in people easily giving up. The lack of funding for smaller businesses is next to nothing, compared with the demand for funds, so that doesn’t help either.
So, then, what have been your biggest strengths, or keys to success in staying afloat in this environment?
GK: Intimacy and the ability to listen, and taking criticism without falling to pieces. We get to know our clients outside the work sphere, learn a bit more about them, and stay really close. If they call us for something urgent, even if we aren’t in the office, we never, ever refer them to employees. Maybe in the future we will, but right now we’re very hands-on. We actually have never had to advertise our services—all of our clients have been through word of mouth.
And on the flip side, what have been your biggest challenges?
SB: Competing with bigger agencies is hard! I knew it was going to be hard—but not this hard. It’s always stressful trying to make ends meet and reaching a target at the end of every month. One of the biggest hardships for us is that because we are small and growing, we’re expected to give minimal prices. It’s disheartening because we know our work is worth more than the ridiculous budgets they put on the table.
GK: Our age and level experience do definitely to a certain extent work against us. Some brands that we’ve pitched to tell us their major worry is that we lack experience. But the ones that have given us an opportunity to prove ourselves have actually come back to work with us again.
How have you grown your business since it started?
SB: We’ve been able to retain our clients and make more money through offering them more than one service. I recently found a new passion—photography. Our clients need this and instead of outsourcing, we do it ourselves.
GK: Besides PR, I’ve always been paid to blog for other people and brands, and that’s a service we have now extended to our clients. It makes life so much easier when they can get all their design and communications needs taken care of by one company.
Finally, has being your own boss been everything you dreamed it would be? What’s been the best part?
SB: I love the idea of not having to answer to anyone except my clients. I love being able to work according to my schedule, taking credit for work done under our company name, and being able to have more time to focus on other personal passions.
GK: Picking up the top business newspaper in the country and seeing my client on the cover is one of the most satisfying feelings ever. When I stand in front of clients to present a concept, I am doing it for our brand—there’s no fear that my boss will think I did badly. The joy of being able to do that is like an adrenaline rush—it’s allowed me to go crazy with ideas and has boosted my confidence so much. There’s no way to describe the euphoria of launching a big contract and knowing the income is not going to anyone but us.