As an accounting student at Wits University, Sbahle Sithole was very much impressed by the stories her lecturers told of accounting graduates who are running companies as CEOs of big multinationals. It was during these lectures that she took a decision that would shift her life to another level; to be an entrepreneur and in the process, create jobs and make a difference. Her choice of product, brick manufacturing, was mostly sparked by her daily home drive while in Joburg passing by an informal settlement and it is in her dream and plans that her products could one day be used to create better living conditions for everyone. Sbahle hails from Newcastle, KZN, and regards her mother as the biggest inspiration. She is the founder of Smais Bricks based in her hometown, Newcastle.
On Being an entrepreneur.
To be honest I think I’ve always seen myself as a businesswoman and I believe that must have come from my mother being one. Growing up, my mother was an employee but still had her businesses and studied at the same time. She showed me that anything is possible and I carry that energy and inspiration with me every day. I come from a polygamous family (isthembu) and my father, who was very present in my life, was a leader in his own right and very big on education. He instilled timeless principles of hard work, determination, and self-reliance.
I started my brick manufacturing company, Smais Bricks, right after I graduated from Wits University. I, unfortunately, started it in the worst year ever which was February 2020. We needed a piece of land and we were happy to find one in a small backyard of a factory. We started operating with just one machine. We were fortunate enough to be able to keep our doors open post-COVID and the biggest highlight since we started has to be when we were internationally recognised by the Consumer Choice Awards Africa as The Most Promising Construction Company (start-up) 2022. Our plans for next year include opening up more branches and partnering with construction companies.
The challenges and lessons
- The challenges are there but we’ve been fortunate enough to learn as we go. The biggest challenge we’ve come across thus far was finding the right mixture for our bricks which results in a 7.1mpa for our Stock Brick and a 4.3 mpa for our M140 Blocks. These are the test requirements that are needed to confirm that we are making quality bricks. We are also working on catering for paving bricks and all types of bricks, to be honest.
- Hiring right – Because I am based in a different city it can be hard to look after the business 24/7 and the managers don’t give the business the same attention you would. I’ve had a fire at my brickyard and I’ve had several counts of theft. It can be taxing emotionally and physically, driving up and down from Joburg to Newcastle. I’ve also learned that with staff, money plays a big incentive. I am working on a payment method whereby they also know or are driven to sell more so that they can earn more. A win-win situation for all of us.
- Finances – Running a small business requires a lot of cash flow and sometimes I have to use the money I earn as a model and influencer to fund the business. But, there will be times when that is not going well and my family would help out. It’s not easy and I remember a time, well, it happened more than once, but I just remember the first time when I had to go to my nails because they were horrible and that same morning my manager called and said, “We’re out of cement”. I had to make the choice and buy cement and not go to that shoot.
- Mentorship – I never had one in this business. I didn’t have someone to guide me through it, speak to and reference in terms of what to do and what not to do. I taught myself everything that I know. Someone once told me when you start a business that you’re not sure of It’s almost like you just put yourself through business school. So, expect to lose money and take that as the school fees that you would have paid for business school.
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry
I’d say the challenging experiences that I’ve come across would, firstly, be not always taken seriously by men. It’s almost as if you’re not expected to know what you’re talking about since as a woman you should be in a “woman industry”. At times you need to prove yourself 10 times more in meetings or negotiations than the average man but I truly believe that the challenging factors are what make me want to thrive in this industry even more.
One more thing, is always being categorised as a certain type of woman because of my looks. I am beyond my looks. I have studied and my accolades speak for themselves. It’s not to say I don’t love my looks and I don’t want to use them and modeling and influencer business, but I am more than that. Doing business with men can be extremely exhausting because you hear statements like, “this would be easier if you were my girlfriend”. That’s not my story and I find it way easier to just walk away.
On principles she lives by
My mother always says – be true to yourself. In all that you do, be true to yourself. Let it be something that you are saying to yourself. Honestly, this is what I live by everyday.
My tattoo. It says – Always darkest before dawn. I believe life works that way.
Speak things into existence. It’s a real thing. I know I spoke about everything that I’m living now. It’s what I’ve always wanted as much as people around me always tell me to consider other careers like television, I see myself as a businesswoman.
3 books she would like to recommend
Outliers by Malcom Gladwell
What I learned the most from this book is that you need to be different. To be out of the box.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson
I’m an overthinker. I can take what’s happening now and think about its ripple effect. like, for a whole year or more. This book has assisted me to understand that not everything is as big as it seems. You have to learn to let go.
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki
It taught me that debt is not such a horrible thing when you use it the right way. To be smarter about money and to use credit wisely.
Sbahle Sithole is the founder of Smais Bricks