What is it that you guys are trying to do?
Bongani Masilela (BM) - CampusPlug started out as an idea called ‘Book Plug’, which was a second-hand textbook store for university students to sell their textbooks online but we realized that students are starting to enterprise in fields outside of selling textbooks second-hand. People are creating cosmetic products, they’re selling clothing, electronics and also providing services in the form of tutoring and so on. According to ‘Student Village’ about 11% of students in South Africa (this was in 2015) make their primary income from some sort of entrepreneurial activity, so we wanted to create a platform that will make them more accessible outside their immediate circles and their social media pages.
Boitumelo Mpakanyane (TM) - The way in which youth entrepreneurs are forced to orientate inside entrepreneurship and inside businesses is not scalable. Youth entrepreneurs have a way of orientating business that is very informal and it means that when they get to a point where their demand exceeds the capacity to supply they do not grow anymore. Basically, you have youth entrepreneurs running around Braam with duffle bags delivering stock or going to a post office to deliver stock which is not a sustainable way to grow your business, so Campus Plug was created with the idea of democratizing economies of scale and to give youth entrepreneur access to an online platform that will allow the scalability of their business.
Why do you think young entrepreneurs do not end up scaling their businesses?
TM - Firstly, it is the cost. It is incredibly expensive and to create an online presence for yourself is incredibly expensive and not easy at all; whether it is resulting to websites like Shopify where there is a significant barrier to entry from the economic and financial perspective or whether it is creating your own website which has its own economic burdens. There is the cost of creating an online presence; the cost of brand building; the cost of creating a coherent brand of the business that you run and the cost of warehousing. All of the auxiliary costs that come with running a scalable business and having a scalable business model as the first thing.
Secondly, the culture has come to accept the informal way of which youth businesses run. The culture of consumption has become accustomed to the idea of having to DM someone in order to buy a product from a person, which some consumers has definitely opted into and bought into the culture where if it means procuring a good at a discounted rate I don't mind having to engage someone on my Instagram, Whatsapp or Twitter DM's in order to procure a particular product. What we're saying is okay cool "that's dope" but it is not scalable. You will only be able to fulfill a maximum of 20 orders a week and you will never grow beyond that. Businesses have been forced to assume the burden of enterprising on their own because we can't wait for the state to give us free democratized education or whatever would be the emancipator means for young entrepreneurs, we have to do it ourselves.
Are you guys connecting buyers and sellers or are you aiding with the people to produce more and reach out to the market?
BM - It is literally connecting buyers and sellers. It is taking students who already sell products and warehousing and shipping their products for them. We also give them an online presence. It's not necessarily us creating a system where we set benchmarks for people and telling them to produce 500 head wraps as opposed to 200. They open up the store and through the support system the platform has, they are able to sell to a larger market.
What forced the entrepreneurial drive within you guys?
BM - I started a company last year called 'Tshimong' with my partner Thamsanqa Pooe, and essentially that company organizes and facilitates debating tournaments for school kids using sponsorship from government and companies. There we found a business model that could combine empowering young children with the skill of communication and debating whilst leveraging government and corporate companies to sponsor such programmes and that is where the entrepreneurial spirit started.
I then moved towards looking at my immediate university student environment and what it is that they needed and I realized that a lot of them are moving towards enterprising but they clearly experiencing differences so how can I use my love of entrepreneurship to empower them and help them solve the problems that they are experiencing with their business, because we are all clearly interested in enterprising but some people have more difficulties than others, so how do we streamline those? And for me it was migrating online.
TM - Given my strengths, I figured that the way I could best contribute to my community and the space I orientate inside of is through this. That and the idea that I come from a very enterprising family so starting a business or like this is sort of the next big thing in terms of coming of age, I don't come from the kind of family where what you do is you get a degree and you go work, that's not how my family generally works and I think entrepreneurship is a space I have been socializing into.
Do you think that amongst your peer's entrepreneurship is something a lot of people are looking towards?
BM - If you go outside to the library lawns right now there are markets being set-up because people want to sell things at lunch time, so that is where Wits University is moving towards as a wave. This is something that UCT has had an affinity towards for a long time. UCT has a very rich entrepreneurship culture, where if you invent an app right now, within two months you will get R50 000 funding from some rich person or the university itself. There is an intertwining of interest between the students and the university support structures where the trend is very clear. The trend is that entrepreneurship is growing and people are making a living from it.
TM - The youth and people our age are starting to imagine themselves and their futures outside of the traditional way of doing things. I think it comes from a lot of social and political factors. You look at an BSC graduates not being able to get jobs in the formal employment structures, chilling on street corners or robots with placards saying 'I AM A BSC GRADUATE AND I NEED A JOB'. People are starting to definitely envision themselves inside of entrepreneurship as the mechanism to either change their material realities or just to empower themselves.
Where do you guys see Campus Plug going? What is the vision?
BM - To change the way Africa does commerce, especially South Africa. There is a lot of animosity towards online shopping in South Africa and online shopping still only makes up 1% of the R900 Billion that is spent in the retail sector per year, which is very low compared to not just developed countries, but also Nigeria and Kenya. Their retail spaces and retail market is moving towards online shopping. The goal is to, firstly, change the culture around online shopping in South Africa and to move people towards a more convenient way of shopping, but ultimately we would like to put students at the forefront of that because we already have online market places like 'Takealot' and 'Superbalist', but the problem with those is that they get all their products and they source all their products from the same, old large corporations that have been supplying online market places. 'Superbalist' is not empowering South Africans by getting their orders from 'Nike' or 'Calvin-Klein'. What we would like to do is not only move South Africans to online shopping, but to make sure that young South Africans are at the forefront of that and that in 10 years time 'MbalEnhlesis' is the new 'Louis Vuitton'. Started off by selling head wraps on campus, opened up a Campus Plug store and in 10 years time they're moving R10 million worth of doeks per annum. That's the goal.
Is there any kind of businesses or products that you are specifically looking to work with?
TM - We try to make CampusPlug as diverse as we can while still focusing on the kind of things generally offered by young people. CampusPlug does not necessarily have a section for listing an auditing service because that is not a youth orientated business. Maybe one day we will get there when that becomes a norm but we're definitely trying to prioritise products and services offered by young people.
BM - Which are predominantly centred on fashion, electronics and textbooks.
When you guys think of the word 'success', who or what comes to mind?
BM - Success is wholesome in my opinion so things like my personal health. Then there are relationships as well. Am I fulfilling my relationships with my very close friends and my family? Am I strengthening those relationships and sustaining them? That is a huge part of success. At the end of the day when you leave the office, who do you go home to? Who still has your back and feels like you never neglected them? There is the relationship aspect; there is the corporation aspect and the personal health aspect. So for me that is success, that wholesomeness.
TM - I think the reason Bongani and I work well together is because we share a lot of those things. A huge aspect of success for me is who I share the journey with, but the one benchmark which I think I do have is impact and the extent to which the platforms I put out to the world impact the people that they are impacting.
What is the best word in the dictionary?
BM - Remarkable.
TM - Family. It sounds so moist.
Boitumelo mentioned how one of the things that drove you to entrepreneurship is the people that you'd want to take on the journey, and just from speaking to the two of you as it seems to me you have some sort of close relationship. What attribute in the other person do you think is vital in what you guys are trying to do?
BM - Resilience. Anyone can come up with a good idea; that is not the difficult part. The difficult part is 2 months before the launch when you're testing yourself in ways you thought you’d never test yourself and the only thing that keeps you going is the knowledge that the other person is just as driven as you are, if not more. Without that resilience you do not have anyone to fall back on or look to when you are feeling inadequate, or anyone to remind you why you are doing what you are doing.
TM - One of my favourite things about being involved in a project with Bongani is the moments where we've had to make difficult decisions; he's probably one of the most objective and rational people I know. I don't actually know anyone who is able to remove themselves from a situation and look at it objectively from a balanced perspective and say "Okay, we are going to do that". The way he rationalizes issues and his decisiveness.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
BM - From a personal perspective I think that I have self-esteem problems and quite a bit of anxiety. I am a very public person, but that does fan my self-esteem issues a lot and my constant need to live up to people’s expectations and not letting them down. I am very frank and open about my self-esteem issues and how they either drive me but also cause a bit of anxiety and break me down to a point where I sometimes regret the decisions that I have taken, especially to not go down the career route which is very secure but instead go down the entrepreneur route.
TM - I am not a people’s person at all, I hate people (laughs). That is definitely a weakness about me that I've never put out. but I'm definitely obsessed with the idea of impact and helping people like me, but in terms of micro-interactions and personal interactions with people I suck fundamentally at those.
What is something that I should have asked that I didn't?
BM - The first question that needs to be asked to entrepreneurs as a trending poll on social media is "entrepreneurs, are you okay?” The glamour associated with it masks a lot of personal pain. We enjoyed it of course but "Are you okay?", "Is your mental health okay?", "Is your physical health okay?", “Are you keeping up with your family?", "Are you feeling fulfilled?". Let us brush out the glamour a bit and look at the human being behind the entrepreneur.