Nelson Mandela, beloved iconic leader and South Africa’s first democratically elected President believed that to invest in young people is to invest in the future.
“The Youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow,” he famously said.
Architect Tebogo Leshaba, 29, is exactly who Madiba was referring to – a young man, with a dream, making a difference in the lives of others.
Tebogo, the founder of Thuso Architects says Covid-19 severely impacted his business. The lockdown resulted in him not being able to meet his financial obligations, leading to job cuts at the small firm. In 2020, he went from six employees to two. As a recipient of the BU/Jobs Fund Covid-19 Relief fund and through an aggressive turnaround strategy, his business is now on an upward trajectory. Five full time staff members are back, bringing to six the total number of people he employs.
The Johannesburg based architect – a graduate of the Black Umbrellas incubation programme – said he does not want to return his fledgling SME, Thuso Architects, to pre-Covid “normal” times.
He said: “Normal was an illusion where things remained within the status quo, and our unique selling point was just an abstract concept. Our new normal confronts how to stay competitive so we don’t just survive from month to month.”
Tebogo attributes his success to the lessons he learnt while being a part of the Black Umbrellas Johannesburg Incubator.
We asked him to tell us what his company does and to detail how he survived 2020, a year that will go down in the annals of history as the most economically challenging year the world has ever had.
What is the name of your business? Thuso Architects.
Where are you situated? Our head office is in Bryanston, Johannesburg. We are in the process of launching a branch office in Kempton Park.
What does Thuso Architects do?
We focus on enriching and enhancing African architecture to make us global contenders. We help unlock value for home or building owners by designing and constructing buildings that save them on capital and operational costs while increasing the long-term value of the investment.
How many people do you employ?
We currently employ 5 full time and 3 part time staff, two interns and over a hundred casual labourers through our construction sister company, Thuso BLD (Pty) Ltd.
How were you impacted by Covid-19?
Covid-19 continues to impact us, although less severely than it did in early lockdown. In March 2020, we were sitting with an order book of over R20-m for the coming twelve months. Just one month into lockdown, with no money coming in, we could not pay full salaries. This was devastating as our business development effort was finally coming to fruition and momentum from the previous two years was finally showing results. Projects were, at last, being actualised.
Prior to Covid, we brought in more staff as it became necessary, and invested our reserves on equipment and tools to meet our order book. This left no reserve cashflow as the business was steadily growing. When lockdown hit, ALL our projects were indefinitely suspended. To this day, most of those contracts remain dormant with just a few clients slowly starting to consider picking up from the pre-Covid time.
We landed a project which we thought was a lifeline at a time when we were not sure our business would survive. We were offered immediate cashflow relief for our flailing entity and we grabbed it without doing due diligence. We got immediate cashflow relief, but in the long run, taking that opportunity caused detrimental harm to our business and to me as the director of the company. I learnt a hard lesson: question offers that seem like low hanging fruit.
What did you do to survive?
Lockdown quickly forced us to identify our inefficiencies and focus our attention on rectifying them.
- Our office infrastructure was inadequate for us to effectively implement remote working.
- Our systems and processes relied too heavily on the physical co-ordination from a director. We had to implement changes so our staff was “accountable” to our clients objectives as opposed to being accountable to the director.
- In business, one tends to focus on what is required to keep you going from month to month. Beside the main vision, a business needs to turn a profit to remain sustainable. After a month of no income, at the edge of collapse, it became clear that our hand to mouth model was neither profitable nor sustainable. This led us to re-examine our model: we need to turn a profit and create reserves for our growth and long-term sustainability.
- For me, lockdown forced me to take a break and gave me the space to reflect on why and how the business started in the first place. I had the time to question whether the vision is still relevant and to realign with the original vision, passion and mission. This is why I value engaging with all things Black Umbrellas related: they remind me to bring everything back to the genesis; that inspiring reason that led to the spark that creates a business. It’s easy to get caught up with the technical deliverables of a job. My relationship with BU reminds me why the business was established in the first place. You don’t learn eveything in one BU lesson. Rather, there’s a process of absorption as you become part of the BU environment and business eco system.
Are you back to normal now? What does that look like?
We are not back to normal, thank goodness, because it was an illusion. Our new normal confronts how to stay competitive so we’re not just surviving from month to month. We are currently sitting on an order book of R36-m and have prospects that could quadruple that within a space of 12 months should 80% of our lead prospects materialise. We have surpassed what could have been imagined last year. We’re looking to capitalise on that.
What made you join BU? Are you doing what you always wanted to do?
I joined BU because I was getting passive business and operating informally. I wanted to have control of the type of business we attract and eventually accept. I also wanted to create an organisation that follows best practice and presents an alternative that can match global best practice.
When did you start your business?
The business started informally in 2012 to supplement my needs as a student. It was formally established in 2017.
Which incubator were you attached to?
The Johannesburg Incubator.
Who is your mentor and what did they teach you?
My mentors were Mamiki Matlawa and Mmathebe Zvowbo. I simultaneously approached Paragon group and Stauch Vorster Architects (SVA). SVA is now an official ESD partner and a similar relationship with Paragon is being pursued. These relationships are invaluable. Entrepreneurship is lonely; it should be requirement for all entrepreneurs to have someone to guide them, someone to seek counsel from. These relationships have saved me from near collapse.
What would be your advice to someone who was in your position when you started?
Understand your driving force and question whether it’s enough to make it a life-long commitment. Be prepared to see your vision through to actualisation. Remember that it could take 10 years when you’ve planned on three! Entrepreneurship is challenging, but rewarding. Make sure you know your Why before embarking on the journey. If your Why has the ability to push you through the difficult times, then that business idea is worth pursuing.
What has been your biggest stumbling block?
Planning and follow through! I plan every quarter, but unforeseen developments that force me to focus on immediate deliverables derail those plans. This means that while short-term needs are met, attention is not given to the necessary long-term plan.
What has been your biggest learning?
Authenticity! This one phrase encapsulates what I believe is the only lesson that will drive your long-term fulfilment as an individual, and not just as an entrepreneur.
How do you intend to PAY IT FORWARD to other SMEs in need of advice or assistance?
As a budding business owner I yearned for guidance, direction and an opportunity to prove myself. It’s why we host students and interns; it’s why we give advice to potential business owners. I pay it forward by offering myself as a mentor to black businesses that Black Umbrellas incubates, as well as building our supplier chains through the networks BU incubates.
Black Umbrellas NPC is a non-profit Enterprise and Supplier Development incubation organisation that has, since 2012, developed 100% black owned SMES that have created and preserved over 12 000 jobs. BU currently has just over 300 clients in incubation and has, since 2012, developed over 2 000 SMEs. Thuso Architects is one such SME. Here is the story of the company’s success, told by founder Tebogo Leshaba.
FAST FACT FILE:
- Black Umbrellas NPC is a non-profit Enterprise and Supplier Development incubation organisation.
- Black Umbrellas Capital (Pty) Ltd and Black Umbrellas CGC Consulting (Pty) Ltd are registered companies.
- BU is a partner entity of the Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation
- BU partners with entrepreneurs, investors and communities and finds dynamic solutions that drive an inclusive and sustainable economic future.
- BU has, since 2012, developed over 2 000 SMEs
- BU has, since 2012 has developed 100% Black owned SMES which have created and preserved over 12 000 jobs.
- BU currently has just over 300 clients in incubation.
- BU has introduced a range of new products to provide an end-to-end ESD solution to corporates to build resilient and localised supply chains.
- BU has (largely) moved out of the physical incubator space, digitised its business model and launched a virtual incubation platform.
- BU continues, through its Business Foundation, Business Readiness and Acceleration and Business Continuing Development (ABCD) programmes, to upskill business owners and enable access to procurement, funding and network opportunities when ready.
- BU has created Black Umbrellas CGC Consulting (Pty) Ltd together with CGC Consulting, a boutique procurement and supply chain company that provides end-to-end ESD solutions to both Corporates and SMEs.
- BU has implemented an ESD Debt Fund– the Black Umbrellas Mianzo ESD Debt Fund, a partnership between Black Umbrellas Capital and Mianzo Asset Management, that enables access to funding by ESD SMEs required to scale and grow their businesses.
- Black Umbrellas Capital has licensed a revolutionary invoice financing product called Payment Accelerator that allows SMEs to to be paid 75% to 80% of the value of an invoice within 24 hours of invoices being validated as due and at no cost to the purchasing company and no changes to normal payment terms. The risk management component of the technology also enables suppliers to access working capital funding at interest rates normally only available to large and listed companies.
- BU has been certified as fully compliant with requirements of the B-BBEE Codes of Good Practice and all relevant criteria therein for the recognition of Enterprise Development and Supplier Development contributions.