In 2016, Jan Badenhorst established Home Study Group (and also bought Skills Academy at the same time) with the help of his co-founder, Tabitha Bailey. They quickly identified that they made a great team, with Tabitha gifted in operations, systems, processes and people management, and Jan gifted in marketing, advertising and start-ups.
The two of them built a great business, right from the start. Together both Tabitha and Jan wanted to start a company that would make education affordable and accessible to the majority of South Africans who wish to further their education, no matter where they’re located, or their previous level of education.
Today they are just over three years into their new educational ventures. Skills Academy has grown to the critical mass needed to sustain itself. Tabitha is busy finalising the management team for Skills Academy – to free up her and Jan’s time to focus on the next college. Jan and Tabitha are now shifting their focus to develop the next distance learning college.
Did you bootstrap your business, or did you have funding?
My first business (College SA) was funded mostly by money my sisters gave me, an inheritance from my father, my home loan and several credit cards.
What it taught me was that you only learn how to make a business work, once the moneys run out. While you have the luxury to live on capital, you can avoid the tough decisions needed to make a business work. However, once the capital is all gone, you learn very fast.
That experience taught me that when I start a new business, and I have capital, to spend it as fast as possible. So that we can get to the point where we are actually learning how to make the business work.
Hopefully, over time we also develop gut instincts for how to spend this money in the most effective way possible.
Did you have any cash flow challenges? How did you solve these?
In both College SA and Skills Academy, early on I ran out of money. So, even though it was a start-up, I had to cut costs drastically and retrench staff very early on.
When the money runs out you learn three important things:
- Identifying what in your business IS working or can work fast, and focussing on that, as to make more money more quickly.
- Finding ways to keep going, even when you don’t have money; by doing things like negotiating with the landlord, courier companies, and other providers to the business. Getting loans, using credit cards, etc.
- There are no problems that a few extra sales can’t solve.
What was the biggest lesson in your start-up journey?
The biggest lesson I learnt was that it is the darkest just before the dawn. I had risked everything to create a business, and I had no option but to make it work, this task often seemed overwhelming and as a result I focused on the immediate issue at hand and finding a way to take just one more step towards my goal.
Through this experience I learnt to be comfortable with the idea of risking and losing everything and realised that to be a successful entrepreneur you need to be able to manage your fears.
Being willing to risk everything, impacted the business trajectory and resulted in rapid growth.
Part of the push for rapid growth was to develop product offerings that were radical and vastly different from that of our competitors. So, we developed “pay as you study” which was either madness, or brilliant.
What were some unexpected hurdles and how did you overcome them?
At INTEC (where I started my working life) we did mostly print advertising. However, by 2007 (when I started College SA) for a new distance learning college, that kind of advertising was not working, or not working fast enough. So, I sunk a lot of money into print advertising with little to no success.
Which meant I had to find a different way to reach customers, this path led me to internet marketing, specifically Google Pay Per Click. This strategy proved early on that for a distance learning college, online marketing was a better investment than paper advertising. And at the time there was not much competition in the online marketing space and so this avenue proved rather advantageous.
Another unexpected lesson I learn was how many people were ready and offering to help me when I was down and out. I would be in a very tough spot, and the phone would ring with someone I have not seen in a year or so. Invariably they would ask how they can help me.
I got millions in help from people I knew from my 27 years in distance learning. In the end it is a pretty small industry. I leant I have so much to be thankful for. I learnt that people are mostly good, and that business integrity and relationships are more important than we think.
If you could offer future start-up advice, what would it be?
It’s incredibly expensive to start a new business and we suffered with Skills Academy during the first three years. As an entrepreneur, I failed many times and in many ways before achieving success. Becoming an entrepreneur is not for those who give up easily.
For a long time, it can be a thankless job, but nothing in life worth having comes easy and you need to push your limits to achieve your dreams. My dream is to build the biggest and the best (for students, staff and owners) distance learning college group in South Africa.
Since I started my first business, I’ve had a clear picture in my mind of what success looks like for me and I will continue taking one more step towards my idea of what I believe success is, every day.
The example for me, is KFC founder Colonel Sanders. “KFC founder Colonel Sanders didn’t achieve his remarkable rise to success until his 60s. … The real Col. Sanders was an entrepreneur who didn’t become a professional chef until he was 40, didn’t franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was 62, and didn’t become an icon until after he sold his company at 75.”
Compared to him, I still have many years and many lessons ahead of me.
My advice? Never quit. Winners are people who are too stupid to give up.
How important is it to find the right business partner?
Finding the right business partners is impossibly difficult. When you luck upon the right people, do your utmost to treat them right and hold on to them.
Beware people with an over-developed sense of neatness! Start-up is messy.
An idea is worthless without execution – how have you found this to be true in your own business journey?
“Ideas are like buses… another one will be along shortly.”
I’m good at ideas and I come up with many, but I have never been good at executed them properly. Now I try and argue out the merits and feasibility of the ideas much more intensely, before decided which to pursue and as a result we pursue fewer ideas. But execute them brilliantly.
I aim to be in this kind of business for the rest of my life. So, I want to build quality businesses that offer quality products, as this is what builds your brands, reputation and creates a sustainable business.
It’s also a great feeling knowing that you are delivering on what you have promised your customers and that they are satisfied.