What It Means To Be Open For Business: Q & A with the Branson Centre CEO

Ideate recently featured the Open For Business Festival, an initiative by the Branson Centre Of Entrepreneurship. They hosted the first one in Katlehong, a township on the east of Johannesburg. I caught up with the CEO, Tracey Webster, to find out what this initiative aims to achieve and what would make more successful startups in South Africa.

What is the Open For Business Festival?

We decided to screw business as usual and change our recruitment tactics. Led by our entrepreneurs, we have identified 3 townships where we create a safe family oriented day for small businesses to trade with each other and the local community. Simply put, local businesses book a stall and sell their goods.

These small businesses make sales which keep their businesses OPEN. On the day of the festival, a team of Branson Centre experts assess the businesses, then give feedback and tips. They also encourage the business owners to apply for attendance at the centre.

The top 3 businesses receive prizes sponsored by the Virgin businesses as well as gain entrance into the centre without the application and interview process. The idea is that the more we create local trading festivals, the more exposure we will give to small businesses in local communities, which will keep their doors Open For Business.

What are some of the issues raised by entrepreneurs at the first festival in Katlehong vs. what studies say entrepreneurs really need?

The issues raised by entrepreneurs are in line with what studies show. Access to business knowledge e.g. one of the business’s pricing model was incorrect and with our support she can relook at her financial model to ensure she makes a profit. I was surprised when most said they don’t need finance to start, the need for finance arises later when they want to expand.

When ‘Corporate South Africa reads this, what are the Top 5 things on your wishlist to get them involved?

1. Drive to Alexandra or Soweto and participate in the Open For Business Festival. You will be surprised by the innovation and creativity in our townships. You also will be inspired by the possibilities – not to mention the great food.
2. Lets partner to unpack your supply chain and enable you to procure from Branson Centre Entrepreneurs.
3. If you don’t know what do with your enterprise development spend, I do.
4. I need your people and your expertise for mentorship, business plan assessments, industry master classes and to attend our events, where entrepreneurs pitch their businesses. I guarantee that your staff will have a ball. Ask Google about their experience with us.
5. We are going BIG for Global Entrepreneurship Week. Get out of the office, catch the Gautrain and come hangout at the Branson Centre in Braamfontein with Google and YouTube. Participate in a lecture or give a lecture. Interact with our entrepreneurs and they will get you up to speed on social media tools and networking – shared learning is the way forward (our entrepreneurs got me tweeting).

What makes a high impact, high growth business?

It depends how you define high impact entrepreneur; I am a social entrepreneur by nature and care deeply about the socio-economic development of the continent. So, in my opinion, given the context we live in – businesses that are addressing social needs get a thumbs up from me. I am seeing great new ventures utilising mobile technology for the purpose of education and health care. An educated and healthy population = high impact to me.

In your experience as the CEO of the Branson Centre Of Entrepreneurship, what do you think will attract international venture capital funds to South African startups?

We have to change our image on global platforms because the West got stuck on the “Single Story” of Africa as the begging bowl of the world. Chimamanda Adichie puts it eloquently in her TED Talk. We need to be more proactive about showcasing opportunities to the West. We need to take up crowd funding opportunities created by initiatives such as Kiva and build our reputation. Our entrepreneurs must understand that they need to give up a decent stake in equity before a VC (Venture Capital fund) will invest. The VC investor is sitting with all the risk and our entrepreneurs have not grasped that as yet. Sitting around waiting for VCs to come to South Africa is not going to happen, we need to hunt them down and get in front of Venture Capital Funds.

The international statics for small business failure in the first 24 months are enough to discourage anyone from starting. What, in your view, will turn the tide for small business in South Africa?

What we have going for us is perseverance against all odds. However, that in itself is not enough. Government needs to come to the party with regards to the regulatory environment, tax exemptions and labour laws (being able to hire and fire more easily). Corporate South Africa also needs to be proactive in opening and procuring from small business. Mentor a small business and walk the road with them to ensure they end up being a great supplier, which may not happen overnight.

Entrepreneurs need to be working 20 hour days, 7-day weeks in the first 24 months and plug into a centre such as ours to get the knowledge they require in order to be successful. Banks need to move beyond traditional finance and better understand the needs of entrepreneurs and how to communicate with them effectively. There is a critical point in the lifecycle of a business when you need finance to grow and expand. All the role players involved need to think creatively and play their part in keeping small businesses Open For Business.

I know there is also another centre in the Caribbean. Are there any plans to roll out the Branson Centre model to other parts of South Africa?

Yes. We are addressing scale, whether that occurs in the form of a physical building remains to be seen. We are piloting a train-the-trainer model where facilitators are being trained the “Branson Way”, then getting them into communities to train entrepreneurs that is what I envisage. This will happen in partnership with other organisations. I think there is also a role for us to play in the online space.

When is the next Open For Business Festival?

The next one will be in Alexandra Township on Saturday 6 October. It will be followed by another in Soweto on 10 November 2012.

How can Ideate readers and all South Africans get involved?

Contact the Branson Centre on Tel: 011 403 0613 or visit www.bransoncentre.org and either invest your time or money. We are on both Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks Tracy, all the best for the centre from us at Ideate.