As we wrap up an ambitious year that saw us running several ambitious programmes, including the local South African cohort of the global Accelerate 2030 programme, Impact Launchpad 2019,The Hub Hustle entrepreneurship support programme, and DESSI-CoP, we’re focusing on building an online community with our members and regional entrepreneurs.
Good things come in pairs, and we sat down with two of our inspiring members and entrepreneurs: Thulani Masebenza and Kopano Mere, co-founders of both Vula and iMpilo to explore their combined entrepreneurial journey.
Vula exists to ensure that both personal growth and startup growth become less expensive, less risky and more fun. They’re building a community to support people in the process of doing what they’re great at and running their startups in ways that are efficient and strengths-focused.
iMpilo is a companion web-app that helps health science students & professionals successfully navigate their career journey. iMpilo was chosen as one of 10 Best of Ecosystem from each of the major capitals around the continent during the Africarena tour, and will be featured at the upcoming Africarena Summit.
As we started our interview with Kopano and Thulani, we wanted to find out more about their personal stories, and the “why” behind their ventures.
Kopano: We met at Wits business school when we were both doing our post-graduate work. On orientation day, when they were doing personality tests at the school, Thulani was sitting across from me. We were in the midst of a Myers-Briggs personality test – and the organisers were reading out codes and asking people to put their hands up when they heard their code. When I heard ENTJ, I put my hand up thinking I was the only one with this code. I guess that’s because I have always believed that I’m special and unique. Then, out of nowhere, this guy puts his hand up as well. I just thought to myself, “why?”, so that is where I first noticed Thulani. We didn’t really connect until our acting course in 2017, and our friendship cemented after 2017 when we both went into the consulting business. Our initial conversations centered on answering the question, “how do we apply the skills we gained consulting for big companies towards helping small businesses?” Our goals included helping those businesses that can’t necessarily afford the big consulting firms or big accounting firms.
Did one of you start the business or did you incubate the business together?
Thulani: Our first venture was called Startup Shack which we actually realised in partnership with Impact Hub Joburg. That’s how we came to be integrated into this community. We ran a 4-week programme during which we brought early-stage entrepreneurs into this glass box, and we started ideating with them, helping them build out their businesses. From there, we realised that we wanted to work together, but also that we wanted to take this to the next level, one which was beyond just a side hustle.
Who came up with the grand business idea?
Kopano: The launch of that has been more of a journey than a destination. We worked together on safely leaving the corporate world, and validating questions and concerns we had around, can we do this full time? We wanted to continue helping other entrepreneurs while we were learning along our journey. As we were growing, we thought about, “what can we do for the next person coming our way?“. Certainly, that’s where Vula started, and then iMpilo came along as a mostly commercial business. We realised that we can realise an opportunity and fulfill a need with our solution, and that’s how we decided to do it. Vula is about opening up the ecosystem for entrepreneurs. When we started Vula, the vision was to make entrepreneurship as accessible as possible.
How do you make money, and how do you impact other people beyond the four walls that you incubate them within?
Kopano: The bottom-line is difficult to achieve with social enterprises. The revenue generation process was particularly more difficult for Vula because we were dealing with early-stage entrepreneurs. For iMpilo, we have an existing platform, a placement directory, which helps health science students evaluate healthcare placement facilities, to inform their internship and community service placement decisions, and we are now building on that platform. We have 4500 users on the platform already, and it is endorsed by the Department of Health. We recently got shortlisted as one of the top 5 South African startups that are ready to scale. The growth of iMpilo is subsidising the growth of Vula. Therefore, we can do something we’ve always been passionate about, which is making entrepreneurship more accessible through Vula, whilst also doing something we’ve grown to love and that we see tremendous opportunity in – iMpilo.
How do you define your ideal protege when it comes to working with someone who is just starting out?
Thulani: What I would tell them is, “who you’re with and where you are is much more important than what you do.” For me that means to place oneself in the right environment and connect with the right people. That’s a lot more important than your ideas or the business that you are trying to build. If I had a protege, I would tell them to be coachable and place themselves in a good environment, surrounded by good people.
How long have you been at Impact Hub Joburg and how has it been to be a member of the community here? Why would one choose Impact Hub?
Kopano: We’ve been here since May 2019, but we’ve known the Impact Hub community since 2018. The people that work here saw value and potential in us way before we worked here. We didn’t necessarily know Impact Hub before we knew the people here. We first met Lana Lovasic, who is one of the founders of Impact Hub Joburg, when she took a bet on us and Startup Shack way back. When we did come here, everyone was welcoming and we saw familiar faces. Impact Hub is “homey” – it feels so much like home. Impact Hub enables people to do work that aligns with what the global network stands for. Everyone who walks through these doors is an extension of Impact Hub values.
What do the next three months look like for you? What is the future like in the first quarter of 2020 for you?
Thulani: We’re basically taking things to the next level now. The vision of iMpilo was to go from a directory, a healthcare platform to help healthcare students, and now we’re actually building it into something that can help healthcare professionals.
For quarter one of 2020, the focus won’t just be on growing that platform, it will be on actually launching it and getting users on board.
Kopano: We’ve found an area we can add more value in, and that area impacts our initial user base. We are now building a community, an environment of learning that will enable people who were once just healthcare students, and are now young healthcare professionals, to thrive in their careers. We are now building a new digital learning platform. We’ve already secured and attracted the right people in terms of investors and key stakeholders. We’re putting all of that together and creating the necessary content for the new learning platform, and we have a waiting list for the actual launch of the platform. Our team is looking for new partners when it comes to content creators. Next year, we will be launching on a much broader level.
You can support these two ambitious entrepreneurs by staying up-to-date with their ventures on social media, and joining their online entrepreneurship support community.
If you want to connect with them directly, and with more social innovators like them, you can join the Impact Hub Joburg online community. We’ll be sharing exclusive content, including all of the videos from our Hub Hustle programme, entrepreneurship tools and more! Sign up for our mailing list to find out more about our community network and stay in the loop about upcoming events!