Piecing together a success story

10 August 2007

Not that long ago, Mamaki Mlangeni was an ordinary young Sowetan, unsure of what to do with her future. But she did enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles.

A short 15 months later, Mlangeni’s life has transformed, demanding that she answer a continuously ringing cellphone. The calls are usually from clients in Botswana or South Africa wanting to place orders for the jigsaw puzzles she designs and manufactures.

Mlangeni teamed up with Gabrielle Ritchie to establish Blue Fish Puzzles, a company that manufactures souvenir 60-piece jigsaw puzzles for corporates, individuals and kids. Ritchie is the operations manager, running the business from its offices in Cape Town; Mlangeni works in Johannesburg as the sales and marketing co-ordinator.

Indigenous puzzles
She attributes the idea behind Blue Fish to a group of friends who had gathered at a wedding, where they chatted about their love of doing puzzles – and remarked that it was a shame there were no puzzles relating to South Africa and its culture.

“My friends and I used to buy puzzles as gifts for each other,” Mlangeni says. “However, to be always spending money on puzzles and building images that were not related to our county wasn’t realistic.”

Driven by an impulse to turn her hobby into something that could generate an income, Mlangeni enrolled at the Business Place, a Johannesburg centre where budding entrepreneurs can get training and legal and financial guidance in starting and running a small business.

Having undergone training, she and her partner got going on Blue Fish Puzzles, working around the clock to get their first order, produce their first stock, print business cards and manage a website.

From hobby to business
Although believing that Blue Fish still has a long way to go, Mlangeni says it is starting to flourish, with products available through major South African retailers CNA, Incredible Connection and Exclusive Books in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, as well as at airport shops and in neighbouring Botswana.

Mlangeni speaks highly of the Business Place, describing it as “a one-stop business hub where one should go if one is struggling to run a business”. She says she still visits for help when faced with tough business decisions. “I’ll always value their input.”

The centre also takes orders for Blue Fish Puzzles. “Most of our clients are recommended to us by it,” Mlangeni adds. “We are in the process of becoming established and getting our business known so that we can expand the brand. We want to produce more products, add more styles and images.”

Mlangeni’s message for would-be entrepreneurs is to be prepared to make sacrifices. “The rewards are abundant, you just have to be committed.

“What you don’t know you can learn,” she adds. “Don’t give up; have faith in yourself and your business ideas, and believe that you will one day prosper.”

The Business Place
Since its inception six years ago, the Business Place has helped almost 50 000 South Africans – all of whom were in the same shoes as Mlangeni – to get businesses off the ground.

Of these, around 25% are established businesses, 10% are in fully grown stages of business management, and around 65% are in the development stage. Most are in manufacturing, construction, information and communication technology, and tourism.

The initiative is backed by financial services company Investec and the City of Johannesburg, which contributes around R2-million a year.

According to Marcel Newsome, who manages the central office in Johannesburg and oversees the satellite centres – in Soweto, Alexandra, and Metsweding (Bronkhorstspruit) – the Business Place has grown its monthly intake to more than 2 500 people.

On offer is business training; one-on-one guidance; affordable workshops, including sector networking sessions; and access to the internet to check for available opportunities.

Access to information
While new clients usually ask general questions on starting a business, a client’s needs are first identified, then that client is sent on a workshop suited to his or her level of business knowledge. “We do consultations as we assess their progress and make sure that they walk away with a better understanding of how to start a business,” says Newsome.

Business acumen is also built. The workshops are engineered to give a basic outline of all the important details needed to establish a business. “Our focus is to give people access to information through workshops that can enhance their businesses.”

The Business Place also identifies business opportunities on behalf of its clients. “We keep a database of opportunities available in different industries and we then identify a client who is appropriate for that position,” says Newsome

Appointments aren’t necessary, he adds. “Just walk in and you’ll get all the help you need to create your own business.”

Source: City of Johannesburg