Q&A Sessions: ‘I am a product of opportunities’ — Theo Baloyi

After completing your studies in accounting, you had a good job at PwC and were sent to work in Dubai. Why did you decide to leave to become an entrepreneur?

I am a product of opportunity. Throughout my life journey I have been awarded a series of great opportunities that have elevated me to the next level, from when I was studying accounting at Damelin and even when I was working. 

So throughout my corporate career, I was looking at my life and I was like, “Wow, it has been a series of great opportunities!” However, whenever I came back from Dubai with my nice car and I drove in the hood, I’d see that people are still suffering

And when you talk to majita ko kasi [youth in the townships] you realise that it’s not because they are lazy. If you listen to their stories, you’ll understand that it’s because they have not received the opportunities we did. So whenever I wanted to thank the people who opened doors for me, they would say, “We do not want anything from you; the only thing you can do is pay it forward.”

Looking at that, I thought: “How about I start a business that can create sustainable jobs?” At that time I used to buy a lot of sneakers and I had a valuable collection of limited [edition] sneakers. There is a saying: “If you buy too much of it, why not own it?” So I was like: Why not own a sneaker brand, because I spend so much on them?”  

This is not your first business venture. When did the entrepreneurial bug bite you?

When I was studying my undergrad in BCom accounting sciences. And you know how it works in varsity: you do not have classes every day. Sometimes you have lectures in the morning then nothing the rest of the day. So my best friend Andrew and I, ge re bloomile ko kasi, we thought that we had a lot of time on our hands and we did not want to just idle. 

So we had an idea to start a business on the side. Looking at the consumer behaviour and the lifestyle ko kasi in Alex, where I was staying, a lot of people like looking good and dressing up. But not everyone can afford the expensive stuff and cologne. So we thought about finding a supplier for good-quality, oil-based perfumes, but at a lower cost and we’d sell them. 

The way we started that business was quite genius because we did not have capital. So we knew someone who used to sell ties, cufflinks and pocket squares. They had a lot of stock. So we were like dude, “How about you give us this stock on consignment?” We’d add our markup, sell it and at the end of the month, we’d give him his cut and we take ours. 

That is how we raised the seed capital for the perfume business and it became a success.Then I learned a lot about the art of selling, marketing , brand positioning, how you retain clients and so forth. I enjoyed that part, and when I went to corporate, there was that foundation in me that this is where I want to end up. 

What is the first pair of sneakers you bought for yourself? 

I think it was a pair of Lacoste sneakers. I bought them in 2010 when we were selling perfumes. 

What is your favourite sneaker of all time, apart from Bathu

Nike. I’ve always been a Nike fan. This is because of its technology and designs. So I do not have a specific favourite pair, but whenever I am wearing Nike sneakers, I enjoy them. 

How do you make sure that Bathu is aligned with some of the best sneaker brands out there?  

In South Africa, some of the skills we have in the textile and craftsmanship industry are low compared to the rest of the world. So one of the things we try to do is to get the right sneaker technology, which brings comfort and the right design. 

What do you think makes a good pair of sneakers? 

The design has to be great. Then the comfort — this includes the cushion and the back of the sneaker. How it feels and how it affects your ankle and movements: that makes a great sneaker. 

When you started Bathu, how did you come up with the designs and what inspired them? 

When I started in 2015, I did about 18 months of research and product development. At the time, I knew very  much that if I wanted to tell a South African story, I needed to come up with products that are very different. 

There was a trend of colourful socks in 2015, mainly dominated by a brand called Happy Socks. Throughout my exploration, I saw that people showed their happy socks when they were sitting down or wearing shorts, right? So how about we develop a sneaker that is made  up out of mesh and its see through — and it’s also very happy and it has colours. The colours should embody the colors that we have in our national flag. 

I pitched the concept to multiple factories, they said no because they have never seen it. “Mesh is a soft material … blah blah … it’s not possible,” they would say. But I believed there was a way. I did my digging and found a mesh that is strong and can work for a sneaker; the factory okayed it. That was the biggest challenge. I was declined about 13 times because manufacturers could not believe that it could be possible. 

Why did you not give up?

My job at PwC helped — I had other things at that time that kept me going and motivated me. I think it would have been a different story if maybe I was just solely trying to push this. But because I had a job that I had to go to, I maintained my focus and consistency. I was busy with my job and travelling. And also, because that was a product, it’s one thing, but the vision was bigger. Whether they approved the mesh or not — I might have changed the mesh idea. I only quit my job in 2017. I registered the business in 2015 and  I was doing the research, development and behind-the-scenes stuff, but we were not trading. We officially launched the business in 2016.

You announced that you’ll be opening physical stores? Why? 

We did a study looking at the South African and African market and consumers. We realised that most of them still want to purchase their apparel at physical stores. Also, the beauty about our business and upcoming brands is that we have the privilege to build the synergy between e-commerce and brick and mortar, whereas big retailers missed the gap. In addition to this, we do not own the malls: we are tenants and if we incur losses, we can cancel the lease.

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Tshegofatso Mathe
Tshegofatso Mathe
Tshegofatso Mathe is a financial trainee journalist at the Mail & Guardian.

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