Christmas Eve 2002.Two strangers strike up a conversation in the back of a taxi. The young women, Thembi Ndimande and Neo Seale, chat about what they hope the New Year will bring, and find they have something in common: each wants to create her own wealth.
That chance meeting proved fateful: Ndimande and Seale are now business partners. Their events management company, NeoCell Events, boasts Engen, the Department of Trade and Industry, the National Productivity Institute, SARS, Umsobomvu Youth Fund and SAB among its clients.
Seale, who was already in the process of registering a close corporation, made her way to Ndimande’s house that very day, CC documents in hand. “I got her to sign as a member on the bonnet of my car,” she says. With Seale’s experience in public relations and Ndimande’s in corporate communications and events management, the partnership has worked from the outset. But setting up a business has not been a smooth ride.
Ndimande and Seale have had to work hard to rise above the many challenges that faced them. The most difficult of these was overcoming people’s prejudices about their age, race and gender. “We were only 20 and 23 when we started and people had doubts about how we could possibly pull off a professional event for them,” remembers Seale.
“When we came into the market, there was also a stigma about BEE companies that would win a tender and then spend the money buying luxury cars for themselves, so people were sceptical.” Ndimande adds, “People also thought we were just a fronting company. When we told them we were 100% black-owned and operating from Woodmead, they did not believe us.”
With no external financial backing, they used their salaries and savings to set up NeoCell Events. “We did not allow other people’s negative attitudes to restrict us. So we focused on making our company a success,” say the two women. But they also had to prove themselves. “We learnt to not go for the really big-budget contracts initially, but to take on smaller ones, do them excellently and prove ourselves to our clients.
Once we’d established a level of trust and confidence, they sent the bigger contracts our way.” Bigger contracts, and the growth they brought with them, presented yet another challenge: the need to focus on one area. Like many start-ups NeoCell initially took on anything and everything that came its way.
Then a mentor pointed out that the company was placing itself among thousands of competitors who were all pitching for the same contracts. Ndimande and Seale chose to focus on the area they were best at – retail events. “Initially it was difficult to turn work away,” remembers Seale, “but narrowing our focus has allowed us to become specialists.
Our clients know that if they need a retail events management expert, NeoCell is the place to come to.” The more focused approach also led to a clear definition of roles, with Seale focusing on management, finance and strategy and Ndimande handling sales and marketing. This prevents duplication and improves time management.
Dogged determination and a willingness to learn has led to bigger objectives. “We want to be the most respected retail events management company in the country, synonymous with innovation, creativity and trend-setting,” says Ndimande.