Between now and 10, 15 years ago, would you be surprised at where you are today? For Sne, it’s a definite yes. “I thought that my life would just be linear.” When she was in University, like most people there, she thought she would finish her Marketing and Communications degree, top it off with a postgraduate qualification in the same field, get a job in a marketing department somewhere and be set for a lifetime. “I did not see myself running my own business, I wasn’t even thinking that way,” she shares. Sinenhlanhla (Sne) Vilakazi is the founder and CEO of Vukawanele, a specialised digital marketing and strategic communications agency.
Keeping up with Marketing
10 years ago, digital marketing was a fairly new concept. “Marketing as a field is very old so digital became an area of speciality, which I decided to pursue. [But] because Marketing was such a saturated field I knew that it would be difficult to cut through the clutter.” Sne knows all too well how fast-paced and ever evolving digital marketing is. “If you’re still doing the same thing that you were doing 2 years ago [and] doing it the same way, it means you haven’t evolved and you are not current. When digital marketing had just emerged, I did a professional diploma in it. Two years later, the things I had learnt in class about algorithms, search engines [and] the internet had already changed.” Businesses in this environment must keep up or get left behind. “Vukawanele was founded in 2016 but we have had to adapt so much and offer services that we weren’t offering before. We leverage off the change. One the beautiful things about digital marketing is that it [levels] the playing field because technology is technology. It is about you learning what is new and what is required.”
The principle of company
We’ve heard the saying ‘no man is an island’ a couple of hundred times and it rings true every time we do. For Sne, the biggest challenge about being an entrepreneur was the feeling of being alone. “All of a sudden those connections that I had made when I was still working in corporate – when you reach out in those early days [of business] – those people disappeared. And that’s when you actually realise that you are on your own and reality really kicks in.” Nobody wants to be alone, especially in business. The goal, when faced with a challenge like that, often becomes finding like-minded people within your industry and networking with a purpose. “For me, what made all the difference was I joined a business incubator and that’s where I got business support and development. I got exposed to a network of people who became colleagues [and] a support structure. I got multiple mentors – one within the programme and others through personal relationships. That was the saving grace for me, I couldn’t have done it alone. No one can ever do it alone.” Sne stresses that you’re going to need people who are constantly cheering you on, willing to go the extra mile just to see you succeed and are able to open doors for you and connect you to the right people. To this day, she still sees value in mentors. “As it is, I still have mentors. There are different qualities in people that you can draw from and when you have more than one person telling you something, it provides confirmation. When there is that underlying thread, even though they might be speaking to different things, it gives you conviction when you apply the advice you are given.”
A proud CEO
Over the years, Vukawanele has worked with well-known and established organisations like the Trevor Noah Foundation, Brand South Africa and Sanral. “We were identified as being able to provide a service for those companies in the very early stages of business.” Sne reveals that the agency started as a side hustle and only became a fulltime agency in 2019. Today, Vukawanele employs a team of 5 and has gone on to work with more brand heavyweights.
To build a successful company
“I believe in self-discipline very much, nobody is coming to save you at any point. Having a strong work ethic and a culture of excellence, which is what I try to instill in my team, is everything. I want people to look at Vukawanele and no matter how small we are, they must think that we’re a big agency because they look at the quality of our output, they look at our work ethic and when they compare it to large and international organisations and audiences, they are still able to still say ‘wow’ when they look at the level of our work. I always strive for excellence no matter who the client is. I also believe in being teachable. I had to be in incubators and be mentored for a while, and even now. I had to absorb, learn and unlearn certain things, take criticism and try new things. [Finally] be surrounded by the right people, skilled people, capable people that you can trust to run with your vision at their level of expertise. Acknowledge that people are not like you and the reason why you have them onboard is because they come with something that you don’t have.”
For the aspiring entrepreneur
“You’d better be disciplined and [prepared] to knock on doors.” Sne’s journey with Vukawanele is only one of many stories that teach us that you’ll likely face disappoint and rejection and times when you’ll question and doubt yourself and the process. “You need to have conviction. You can’t be lukewarm when you go into business.” Like she has before, she further advises future CEOs to develop a solid support structure. “You cannot do it alone because business is a lonely journey, it’s very lonely. It’s only overtime as you grow that you [start to feel like you] have camaraderie when you have a team.”
And before you take the leap, plan ahead. “I made sure that I had reserves before I left corporate. I had two clients on a retainer which I knew [meant] I would have a buffer for up to a year to pay my bills. Make sure you have savings [and have] gauged the appetite for your offering and then just do it. Really, just do it, you’ll be fine. It’s scary, but you’ll be fine eventually.”