Two small business manage to stay afloat


Level three lockdown is intended, in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s words, for “most of the economy” to return back to work. But what if your business comprises of that unfortunate percentage that still needs to sit it out? We chatted to two small businesses that have innovated in order to stay afloat while their businesses pass the three-month mark of not being allowed to operate as usual. 

Virtual gymnastics 

For the past 15 years, former South African gymnast Tammy Lishman has run a burgeoning gymnastics school, which currently has more than 400 young participants. She employs nine coaches and rents a large warehouse-type space for her studio. 

 But in March, along with schools, gyms and sports clubs, TL Fusion Gymnastics had to close its doors for lockdown. “The whole of April, I was still in denial,” says Lishman. “I thought we would be closed for three weeks and then it would all be back to normal!” As the lockdown wore on, Lishman says she had to make a “huge mindset shift”. 

 “We were running out of weeks in the year,” she says. “I had this whole plan in my head and it wasn’t going to work anymore.” 

She had originally offered free online gymnastics classes to her students, simply to keep herself busy and keep her students fit and supple, but she realised that she would need to open this up as an income avenue. 

She charges half the fee for a Zoom class that she does for a regular one, and about 100 of her students have enrolled. So roughly speaking, she’s managed to maintain about 13% of her regular income through her online classes. This, Lishman says, has helped her mental wellbeing. “I still see the kids in front of me and that helps me a lot, because I thrive seeing their energy,” she says. 

Lishman negotiated a rental holiday with her landlord and put her car and bond payments on hold; anything she could to keep the business going. She has also widened her online offerings by introducing adult gymnastics classes. Although her following “isn’t huge” yet, she plans to keep online classes going post-lockdown and will continue to use Zoom for make-up classes.
“It’s been really hard, but I’ve not for one day thought: ‘okay, this is the end,’” she says. “I’ve heard of gymnastics clubs that have just closed their doors. But there is just no way that this is going to get me under.” 

Self-expression through face covering

Tiffany Cross, the owner of Tiffy Toffee Entertainment, runs a business that provides entertainment at events and parties: face and body painting, djembe drumming circles, arts, crafts and game activities. It’s not difficult to imagine the effect that lockdown is having on the company. 

With business at a grinding halt and unlikely to start up anytime soon, “I had to find a new approach to generate some form of income,” says Cross. “I stood in the kitchen one day, washing dishes and literally asked God to give me a different idea.” 

The idea that came to her was similar to what many others were doing, with a twist. 

Cross is now producing fabric-painting mask kits for kids, teens and adults. Each mask set contains a three-layered white cloth mask printed with a design chosen by the customer, a set of five paints, sealant, and a paint brush.

This past week they shipped off everything including masks quoting Psalms, Wonder Woman masks and masks depicting cartoon dinosaurs. 

Cross and her mother, who usually face-paints for the company, make the masks themselves, and a small local printer prints the images on the fabric. They’re now offering custom-designed T-shirts and a Father’s Day personalised “TV blanket” as well. 

Cross says that the income from the mask sales is “not anywhere close to the usual turnover”, but it helps with some of her day-to-day living costs. And it definitely beats having no income at all. Cross’s advice to other small business owners facing lockdown closure is to stay open to exploring new ideas.  

“Stay positive and be able to adapt to new ways,” she says. “If you have an idea, give it a go. You never know where it may lead.”

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

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Thalia Holmes
Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.

She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.

After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. 

The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. 

She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.     


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