30 July 2012

Clare Appleyard: Shine in your niche

Clare Appleyard, Katannuta Diamonds
Clare Appleyard had a simple dream – to escape her cubicle-bound desk job. With this in mind, she took a leap into entrepreneurship in June 2007, starting Katannuta Diamonds from a spare room in her home, with a R20 000 investment, manufacturing bespoke wedding rings, engagement rings and diamond and gemstone jewellery to order.

Have you always been entrepreneurial?
It’s something that’s grown over time. While I’d always harboured the dream to own a sports shop, going into business wasn’t a family trait, nor was it something that my family encouraged. It was a case of go to school, go to university and get a corporate job. So I did, but always felt there was something more to be achieved. 

What were you doing before starting your business?
I was working as a geologist at Anglo American, having moved from De Beers a year before that. A culmination of job dissatisfaction combined with some major life challenges forced me to re-assess and take the plunge. It was a challenging time, but ultimately leaving a corporate job has set me free in the truest sense of the word.

What kind of planning went into starting the venture?
Very little planning went into starting Katannuta Diamonds! I was that desperate to quit my job that I jumped with absolutely no safety net. The initial Katannuta concept was confused and complicated, as was our website and we had way too many “divisions” focusing on servicing different market needs. We never applied for funding, so were never forced to write a proper business plan. We hacked out a couple of plans, but never stuck to them and never updated them as our concept evolved. Ultimately, for us, a business plan was not necessary at all, but, if you need to apply for funding, it’s probably a necessary evil. If you’re boot-strapping your way, don’t bother.

How does a new entrepreneur find business leads and profit from them?
We spent a lot of time connecting with people on small business websites and going to networking events and we discovered that people on these websites and at these events were not our customers. You can’t ignore the power of social media nowadays, and a “Google friendly” website is absolutely critical. Word-of-mouth is tremendously powerful, so make sure all your friends and family know what you do. Our business leads are split between referrals and Internet-generated enquiries. We’ve found that advertising is expensive, over-rated and provides little or no return on investment.

How did you figure out what makes you unique from everyone else in your market and how have you leveraged that difference?
We spent an inordinate amount of time trying to be everything to everybody, and we learnt that if you’re marketing to everybody, you’re marketing to nobody. It took me a long time to find my niche market for Katannuta Diamonds and it was a well-timed question from a marketing friend that helped me realise I was on the wrong track. Look at where your best profit for the least effort comes from, and make that your niche selling point. Focus on what you are truly good at and develop that market. If customers are complimenting you on a particular aspect of your product/service, that’s probably your best indication of your unique selling point (USP).

How did you figure out what to charge?
If your product is something concrete – as in the case of jewellery, for instance – logically, you want to take your expenses for that item and add a particular profit percentage, perhaps in accordance with industry standards. I received a lot of guidance from my wholesale suppliers regarding mark-ups, what is an “acceptable” profit margin and what average retail mark-ups are. This has allowed me to gauge a standard mark-up that still allows me to beat retail prices. If your product is a service, it’s a lot tougher – because you’re investing predominantly time and you need to figure out what your time is worth.  Again, look at competitors and colleagues and use their guidelines if necessary.

What was your most epic fail in the early days?
Perhaps I’ve got my rose-tinted glasses on, but I don’t remember an epic fail. The biggest mistake I’d say, which stemmed from ignorance on websites more than anything else, was forking out R20 000 for a website which looked great, but wasn’t search engine optimised (SEO) and generated no traffic. Two years later we completely overhauled the website, for a fraction of the cost, and haven’t looked back since.

What are the two biggest/most common mistakes that new entrepreneurs make in their first three years of business?
Procrastination or lack of action and not being clear on what problem their business will solve.

How do you keep yourself motivated?
Knowing that there’s no way I could ever return to the traffic jams, 9-to-5s, policies and procedures, red tape and corporate bull that rules most people’s lives – the thought of that is motivation enough!

Did you have a mentor?
I started off with a mentor in the diamond industry in my very early days and he taught me the value of honesty, integrity and loyalty in the industry. Diamonds can be a dirty business and you’ve got to build solid relationships. Mentors can provide invaluable guidance and assistance if you find the correct person.

How long does it take for a venture to get off the ground, in your experience?
It’s almost impossible to say how long it will take. Ventures that have little capital investment can provide a return early on. Ventures that required a massive capital injection may take years to turn a profit. If you’re growing steadily – not necessarily turning a profit – you know you’re on the right track. One of my current mentors uses the phrase: “Pay attention. Get excited. Never quit.” I refuse to quit.

In your opinion, is it ever alright to give up on a dream?
Not at all. The only people who have ever made a difference in the world are those that have refused to quit on their dream. If you do, you’ve joined the ranks of the 97% of the population who are just moving through life in a comatose state. Make sure your dream is big enough to fire you up that you won’t ever want to quit.

If you could give yourself any advice back then, what are your top 5 wisdoms?
* Don’t wait for everything to be perfect – any action is better than no action!
* Find a mentor or person you consider successful as early on as possible to guide you.
* Identify your niche as early as possible and focus on being great in that area.
* Ensure that your website uses a content management system (CMS) that you have full control of.
* Identify your “income producing activities” from your “non-income producing” and focus on what makes you money.

Get in touch with Clare Appleyard via email: clare@katannuta.com, visit: www.katannutadiamonds.co.za on Facebook on Twitter: @clareappleyard and @katannutadiamnd, and on LinkedIn.

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