From working in the hospitality industry for 10 years, to stints with Vodacom (where she learnt so much), Primedia (her first board positions) and the First Rand Group (where she helped launched eBucks), Janine Hills certainly has a varied career history.
For the past 14 years she has been helping individuals and corporates build and maintain their reputations through her own venture, Vuma Reputation Management. Here are the lessons she’s learnt along the way as a media entrepreneur, her advice to youngsters, and what she views as the challenges and opportunities.
Q: Why did you decide to branch out with your own business, rather than work for other companies or corporates?
A: Very much from an entrepreneurial point of view, you learn from great entrepreneurs. This is the key thing. So even though I didn’t have the scholastic background, I had incredible leaders that guided me and I learnt from, to be able to eventually start up my own business.
It’s kind of almost in your spirit. Learning how to start and launch eBucks was really about building the business, all the logistics and processes, not just on the marketing and communication side… It was almost a stepping stone. But it goes right back to the age of 13 where I was working at my father’s side. A handyman business from home. I had to answer the telephone, and deal with the customers and the clients, but that’s what you do as a kid. You work. So at a very early age, that whole seed of entrepreneurship was ingrained in me. A lot of people used to say, ‘Janine when are you going to open your own business?’ But I made a concerted effort not to do this until I had learnt enough.
Q: How did Vuma Reputation Management’s business journey unfold over its 14 years?
A: After having all that experience, at the age of 40, I felt comfortable enough to start the company. On the second day, we signed our first client. On the third day, we signed our second client, and on the fourth day we signed our third client. The first month we were able to break even, that was crucial.
In 2008 we hit a real crunch in the country, and we saw it. I had to sell my home or close the business down, so I lost my home. I went to speak to people like Michael Jordaan, my former boss at First Rand Group, and explained to them what I was going through as a business founder, and he just kept reassuring me. That’s what’s so important, having mentors around that know you, trust you, and guide you through those challenging times.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced with your business?
A: One of the biggest, serious challenges is cash flow. The first three years are always tough, but you have to get to that, then year five, and then year 10 and once you get there, you’ve generally got a good, sustainable business, which is sound and solid and can retain a couple of knocks. But you need discipline, planning for rainy days and difficult eventualities.
What they also don’t tell you is that you’re working anything between a 12 and 18 hour day and that’s what it’s going to take. What you put in is what you’re going to get out.
Also, it’s great when you follow your passion, which is crucial, but the key thing is you have to learn a lot more at a higher level, for example financials, auditing, legal, HR, all these processes. You need a broader understanding of it; you can’t pass it off to others, and master all of these to build a sustainable business.
Q: Has there been a standout moment for you in the history of the business, that you were proud of or was a major success?
A: The big one has been the investment into great people. So in 2017, we did a BEE deal, which saw some of our employees become shareholders. In 2015, I made a decision that we needed to up our game, this business couldn’t just be Janine, we needed to expand support infrastructure. So that investment is where you make a calculated risk, and I’m very proud that we got Palesa Madumo and Tshepo Sefotlhelo. Those people have now become our shareholders, it’s a nice sustainability model and they are learning.I ‘m no longer a one man band.
Q: Earlier this year, Palesa Madumo and Tshepo Sefotlhelo were named as joint CEOs, with you remaining in the business as a director and reputation management expert. Why did you decide to step down as CEO?
A: I’ve been doing this for 14 years, and in any business you have to have innovation. I believe in innovation and new ideas, and as long as you have the sustainability and soundness of the business, you’re fine.
We divided the roles and responsibilities up and looked at our strengths, and said ‘Let’s play to them’. When you’ve been leading for so long, it’s nice to step back and allow other people to lead, and I sit on five other boards, so I’m busy. It’s a great opportunity to give a chance to others. They’re hungry, they’re at the right age, and they’ve got the experience. Now they need to learn what that leadership position demands of them and you can’t teach them that, they learn by doing. But, also, I’m still in the business.
Q: What characteristics, do you think, make someone a good media entrepreneur?
A: You’ve got to be incredibly flexible. You put a strategy together and plan everything for the year, but then there are market changes.
You’ve got to keep an eagle eye on everything. From finance to legal to HR. It may not be your passion, but it’s your business. Whatever you don’t have, employ the best around you. And if you can’t afford to bring them into the business, then subcontract.
Q: What would your advice be to young people who are just starting out as media entrepreneurs, or who want to start their own media business?
A: You have to be prepared to take risks, but it must be a calculated risk. Does it make business sense that you’re doing something, or are you doing it on a whim? Make sure you’ve done everything in your power to mitigate the risks.
Q: What can people expect next from Vuma Reputation Management?
A: We’re in a process of consolidating, retaining existing clients and maximising the reputation of them. When you do a BEE deal and consolidation of new shareholders, that’s very important. For the next year that’s our main focus, process and driver.
Upskilling internally, is also a focus for us, because there’s very few reputation management schools out there.
The other side is our growth into Africa. We’ve got a footprint already with an alliance with strategic partners in 11 countries, but it’s constant growth and strengthening those relationships. Africa working together, we constantly want to carry a message that Africans are working together, not South Africa working with Africans.
Absolute transformation is also important for us. It’s something you’ve got to work at, be focused on, and understand it. Together as an industry we need a couple of leaders, and then help others go through that journey.
Q: What do you think needs to happen to encourage more media entrepreneurs, not just to help them but so they stay on course?
A: There are two things. The media entrepreneurs themselves, I would strongly recommend that when they are starting out they ensure they have the skills around them. Follow your passion, but make sure you understand business. Upskill yourself, but be prepared to pay for it.
Q: How do you pay it forward?
A: I have at least 15 mentees in the industry… On the other side, if you look at the projects we’re involved in, we do a lot of pro bono work, which you have to do, as it’s part of opening networks. We have an obligation to pay it forward, so whatever you do, help!
Follow Michael Bratt on Twitter @MichaelBratt8
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