By Fiona Wakelin
Sweep South launched in 2014 and has become a South African success story – one of courage, belief and tenacity
1. You and your partner put everything into the tech-startup. What is the story behind risking everything? Was there a light bulb moment?
When we came up with the idea for SweepSouth, back in late 2013, we knew that we wanted to create a business in the technology space that would have a broad positive impact on South African society – something that would make people’s lives better while enabling us to live up to our potential. The idea for SweepSouth came about purely by chance. Our nanny was due to go away on holiday but finding a short-term locum turned out to be a long and protracted process. It was then that we gained an understanding of how difficult it is for many domestic workers in South Africa to reliably connect to potential employers. We saw this as an opportunity to not only help domestic workers but also the industry at large, which desperately needed an overhaul and modernisation. Positioning ourselves to be able to help even a fraction of these women was worth risking it all for.
2. How does Sweep South work? What is a SweepStar and how many people do you employ?
SweepSouth doesn’t employ domestic workers but rather operates as a booking platform service, where domestic workers can register themselves online and through the app to advertise their services and availability. Once registered, domestic workers become SweepStars, with their own profile and ranking, based on their clients’ or employers’ feedback. Employers can make repeated bookings with the same SweepStar, depending on their availability, or else choose someone new on an ad hoc basis. Over the past six years we’ve helped over 20,000 domestic workers find work opportunities. Through the COVID-19 crisis we’ve supported about 3,500 women who were active on the SweepSouth platform prior to the lockdown beginning. Typically, we have some 5,000 SweepStars working through the platform each month.
3. What characteristics do you feel entrepreneurs need in order to succeed?
I’d say definitely grit and determination, especially now during these continually challenging economic times. It’s also important to be innovative and opportunistic while being focussed at the same time. Most entrepreneurs also need to have a knack for working with a variety of different people, such as investors, cofounders, employees and customers. Being able to empathise with people from all walks of life is crucial to the success of building your business, which of course is one of your key objectives.
4. You were good at maths at school and completed a PhD. When did you know you were an entrepreneur?
I was actually quite average at maths at school. While I had no trouble grappling with numeracy, maths and science certainly weren’t my favourite subjects. So, as you can imagine, it came as a surprise to my family when I elected to pursue a BSc in maths and science at university. It was only towards the end of studying for my PhD that I realised I wanted to become an entrepreneur, so I enrolled in a UCT postgraduate business course with business and biotechnology at the forefront of my mind. However, the deeper I delved into business the more I wanted to build and contribute to a business of my own. I subsequently worked as a management consultant for two years, which is when I realised that I didn’t want to be a corporate employee or be employed by someone else. So my desire to become an entrepreneur came quite late in my tertiary education – it certainly wasn’t an ambition while I was growing up.
5. What were some of your highest highs and lowest lows over the last 6 years?
The highest highs included starting SweepSouth and seeing the business beginning to take off with interest from both customers and SweepStars. It was an amazing feeling and wonderful to see the business building. Receiving our first investment also came as wonderful validation for the business. It’s a humbling feeling when someone is willing to back your business with their hard-earned money and has faith in you to be able to execute. It was also incredible to see the ongoing growth of SweepSouth, registering the first 100 SweepStars, then the first 1,000 and knowing that you’re helping people to provide for their families through your product. Bringing together a team and having the buy-in from skilled individuals who want to be part of the mission you’re on was also a great feeling.
In terms of the lowest lows, a lot of sacrifices had to be made to get SweepSouth off the ground. Having to sell possessions and your home in order to plough capital into a business can be an extremely challenging and emotionally draining task. Similarly, fundraising and finding suitable investors is typically a long and uncertain process. Negotiating and finding common ground takes a great deal of time and evaluation on both sides, although it is ultimately worth the rigmarole. The other weighty low was disappointing a customer for the first time. Having to confront issues and apologise to a customer is always difficult, so we make sure to learn quickly from mistakes.
6. Small business and entrepreneurship is seen as a saving grace for the South African economy and yet the lack of funding and support could result in our country scoring an own goal. What do you feel could be done to fix this?
Lots of people start businesses in South Africa and I think the time to be innovative in the ways we support SME growth is long overdue. While there is a lot of funding available for small businesses more often than not funds are not channelled correctly. A great deal of bureaucracy and burdensome administration is involved in applying for support programmes, which are often hampered further by internal infighting, uncertainty and corruption. In order to fix this, I think there needs to be some consolidation of the many different agencies out there which offer support to small businesses. Furthermore, the government department and minister mandated to support small businesses must be far more prominent. In addition, I believe it’s vital for entrepreneurship to be taught in school along with the basics of how to start a business.
7. Sweep South is a tech start up – what opportunities do you see for growth in your business sector?
I think technology and its application within business is certainly the way of the future. Most businesses will need to readily embrace this fact if they’re to survive in the medium- to long-term. The COVID-19 crisis has identified and accelerated numerous tech-enabled business opportunities, which will help to shape the “new normal” in the world of work and lifestyle. E-commerce also has an increasingly large role to play.
8. How can technology positively impact on the number of women starting their own businesses?
South Africa has a relatively small number of women-run businesses, mentors and role models presently, but technology is enabling women to connect and access information more easily, particularly in terms of business and entrepreneurial activity. Women have so many responsibilities to juggle, especially at home, so technology is allowing more women to work virtually without needing to be physically present in order to roll out products and services.
9. How has COVID-19 impacted on Sweep South?
The COVID-19 crisis has been horrendously challenging. SweepSouth was unable to operate at all during the first stages of lockdown, which meant SweepStars were unable to work and earn an income. The situation has eased somewhat as the lockdown gradually relaxes and despite the difficulties it has brought the team closer together in a positive sense. We were able to successfully set up the COVID-19 SweepStar fund with the help of our investors and some of our customers, which has reinforced the fact that people care and want to play their part in supporting domestic workers during this financially devastating time. On a business level, like many companies, the COVID-19 crisis has shifted the way we interact as a team and work together in more cost-effective ways.
We’ve also made good use of this time to streamline our platform and work on product development. So we’ve emerged after 10 weeks or so with exciting updates to our SweepSouth Connect platform (including AI enhancements for better customer experience, and a much wider service offering) and much better versions of our core services (indoor cleaning and outdoor help), as well as a business cleaning and sanitisation offering that is gaining great traction.
10. What message do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs.
It’s vital to channel your efforts into work that you’re passionate about and surround yourself with people who compliment you well in terms of skills and personality. An important part of being a successful entrepreneur is to keep looking out for opportunities, in whatever form they may take. Also, crucially, it’s important to build a business with an infinite mindset, rather than with a short-term outlook.
11. How do you relax?
I like to relax by playing with my kids, reading and doing yoga. I occasionally indulge in some Netflix viewing but I also enjoy watching interviews and listening to podcasts by business leaders.