I’m looking at the calendar as it marks exactly a year since my first truck got onto the road and oh my, what a journey it has been! From everything working like clockwork to things falling apart as Chinua Achebe wrote, I can’t help but give myself a small pat on the back for making it this far…and still going..(I say small pat lest I become like Icarus and fly too close to the sun.)
In the past year, I have worked with tautliners, flat decks, and side tippers moving goods ranging from alcohol, sugar, paper, maize, citrus, timber, cement, coal, and manganese to name a few. In the process, I have faced operational challenges from mechanical breakdowns (think diffs failing amongst other things), electricals behaving like they have a resident tokoloshe living in the engine, near fires from batteries, endless tyre replacements, equipment sabotage, and believe it or not a near goddamn hostile takeover!
The journey has been nothing short of tumultuous, but through it all, I believe I have come out on the other side as refined as rhodium. Through this transformation, I have ascended to higher levels of emotional intelligence that I never thought possible. We talk about being “resilient”, often decorating our CVs with this expression – I believe I have truly experienced what it means in this past year. I have also developed a higher sense of discernment, having the ability to know when someone is bullsh*tting me, the ability to tell apart genuine business partners whilst filtering out the posers (and trust me..there are a lot of these peacock-inspired fellas out there.) This transition has seen me shed some of that corporate praxis whilst developing my street smarts.
But before I launch into an elevator pitch about the new me and ask you to give me your moola so I can “double it overnight”, I’d like to share with you a few of what I consider my epic fails.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
As word started getting out about my career change, I started meeting up with people who are in the transport industry whom I could work with – this was to be my first opportunity to play “broker”. As the “LOIs” were piling in, I could already see my bank account overflowing and already building what would turn out to be sandcastles of my growing fleet. Through networking amongst my then newly found industry colleagues, I managed to get a fleet of six fuel tanker trucks to report on-site and ready for work stipulated in a contract that only the Lord knows how many other people were in the chain.
For two whole days (think lost revenue & travel costs equivalent to +/- R230 000) those trucks were parked, and the work never materialised. I felt absolutely humiliated, for, none of the LOIs or Contracts were worth the paper they were written on. Even as I write this, my heart is still sore because at that moment, the idiom “my word is my bond” meant absolutely f*ckal. So not only had I wasted people’s time and caused myself reputational damage at the time, I had genuinely lost another business money – a whole lot of money.
The lesson I took from this was that, if I am not the load originator or holding the contract from the cargo owner, I have no business trying to fit myself into an equation I don’t belong. (Feel free to hand me one of Mmusi Maimane’s certified Ls that he dishes out from time to time on the twitterverse.)
Another thing to look out for in this industry is payment terms. Trucking, particularly linehaul, requires a lot of cash, you, therefore, want to ensure that you have the shortest working capital cycle (WCC) – the shorter the cycle, the quicker it is for your business to free up cash (after all cash is king) and the longer cycles simply mean you will be tying up money without earning a return. A lot of brokers will lure you into their contracts with the promise of early invoice settlements. These usually vary from 50% on loading, COD, weekly payments or fortnightly. Let me just say that this is the cesspool of the industry. You rarely ever do get paid in those timeframes or when you do, you would have at least lost a couple of kilos “fighting” for your payment..(not a way of losing weight that I’d recommend.) And in some (quite common) scenarios, you will never see that money and trying to recover it becomes so emotionally draining you eventually write it off.
When Ambition meets Desperation
I recently finished watching Narcos: Mexico; a crime drama that explores the origins of Mexican trafficking. In one of the episodes, the Sinaloa cartel led by the infamous El Chapo is being thwarted by the Tijuana cartel led by the Arellano Félix brothers. In desperation of not wanting to be muscled out of the game, El Chapo and his men plan a last-minute attack during Benjamín Arellano’s birthday party in the hopes of annihilating the Arellano brothers. Needless to say, El Chapo’s plan did not succeed because his ambition was led by desperation.
In my next epic fail, I consider myself the El Chapo of the story. So after a certain period where I had faced the “luck” of Frane Selak (that is before he won the lottery), I came across a gentleman (not), that we will call “Mr Neihous”. I had been given Neihous’ contact details after I had shared the challenges of carrying the cost of diesel upfront when I was chatting with a random truck salesman (first red flag, I know, I know..) I got in touch telephonically with Neihous who was all but too enthusiastic to get me on board. Like the dancing bird of paradise, Neihous sleekly set out to impress.
He gave me the deets about his work – he was a subcontractor for some of the big cement companies here in South Africa. His business setup included issuing contracts to transporters like myself which we could, in turn, use to get funding from SEDA – one of his previous subs had already succeeded in securing funding (I’m thinking jackpot!). Neihous was also offering diesel on account which meant he would carry the cost of diesel up front (what a relief, as this had been my main pain point in the recent months) – my excitement grew. However, at the time of speaking to Neihous, I had been in pursuit of securing other work, so I had put the not-so-gentleman on the back burner. But as the relentless cunning fox that he was, the nearly daily phone calls to come and work with him became incessant. I eventually gave in, and the paperwork came flying into my mailbox at the speed of light.
Now at this point, I must mention that I had had an ill feeling in the pit of my stomach about this man; the sense of urgency he had about us working together was a little unsettling but the potential of the work on offer seemingly ticked off everything on the due diligence checklist. Long story short, having jumped into the proverbial bed with this bedrieër, the work on the ground was far from what was promised.
It turned out that the loads were not guaranteed – often work being available at the close of business, meaning the trucks mostly moved at night (meaning costs of overtime were going through the roof). Standing times were so unpredictable with one cement plant ranging anything from 12 – 48 hours to get a single load. This did not matter much to Neihous, come the 30th of the month, he would expect his R30 000 commission regardless of how much revenue you generated (I’m not even talking net profit as yet) – this was not making financial sense for my business. The countersigned contract which I could have also possibly used to go and knock on SEDA’s door never came through as excuses upon excuses kept being given as to why it wasn’t being returned. After three weeks, I decided to jump ship. But remember, because I was ambitious and desperate to get back to work, I had ignored clauses around giving six months notice (an industry anomaly for nonguaranteed work), but I didn’t care at the time – I had been swayed by the super bird. This was to become my first experience of working and not getting paid, my DD had fallen shot.
The lessons I got from this epic fail were firstly from the obvious saying, “Not everything that glitters is gold.” Secondly, when you have a lawyer friend who has offered to help you, let them! As much as you are a Jack of all trades when it comes to the business, there are going to be certain areas you are not equipped to handle. Thirdly, do not create a tunnel vision around your problem to the extent that you think the first light you see, is an opportunity you must grab. And lastly, if you are uncertain about something, always trust your gut.
Hell, even Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his book, Blink. Supported by scientific research, he encourages us to ponder the role of instincts and how first impressions help us make the right decisions in some situations. Malcolm calls this our “blink” moment – the feeling or thought we get before we consciously think about the situation. Guess who had been reading this book at the time that all of this transpired?? I’ll take my NQF “L” Certificate thank you very much.
Also as a side note – getting funding or finance based on a subcontracted contract is as good as finding water in the desert. It’s not impossible, but you are damn lucky to come across that oasis before you perish.
Disability is not inability
When I decided to use the above subtitle, I was planning on telling a very different story, but alas, we all make plans but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.
Subsequent to the debacle with Neihous, I had decided to continue pursuing the previous work that I had wanted to do. As fate would have it, everything started falling into place, so much so, that I found myself with an extra trailer that I needed to put to work, but no horse. I put out word that I was looking for someone who wanted to either rent it or partner with me. I managed to get a few leads which resulted in me partnering with another woman who had a horse but no trailer. When we met for the first time I was caught off guard as I saw her being wheeled in, in a wheelchair. In the same breath, I immediately got excited about the potential of what we could achieve together as two black women trying to make it in the mining industry – more so with the other partner being disabled! (Jackpot!!)
Before we started working together, I had proposed we draft a contract (I wanted to ensure that she knew I wanted everything to be above board.) This woman wasn’t too keen at the time and proposed we run for a month and see how things work out first. Now, given the experience I had had previously, I wasn’t going to press for the contract as I was in charge of the work and I was going to get paid this time. We exchanged the necessary particulars and a gentleman’s agreement was reached. Lo and behold, two weeks into operating somewhat seamlessly, sis sends me a message that she was pulling out – zero complaints had been tabled, just a text that said, “I managed to get my own trailer and will be doing other work in four days.” It now made sense why she was never keen on signing anything. The nightmare of retrieving my trailer was about to unfold.
I requested she bring back my trailer to the yard in Johannesburg, however over a period of five days, I was given the run-around. This included, her driver being too tired to drive up to Joburg (a distance of 300km from where her horse and my trailer were being kept), my calls were now going unanswered, messages were being blue-ticked, and the exact correct location of my trailer was not being revealed. Because this was an additional trailer that would typically be hooked onto my horse, I had not installed a tracking device on it. This was a half-a-million rand asset that was about to go into the ether.
As much as it was insured, you simply don’t want to find yourself dealing with the whole admin of stolen property etc. I eventually had to pull out the one horse from where it was working to go and retrieve my trailer after threatening to call the police.
During this whole ordeal, sleep evaded me like the plague. I would lie awake in bed until the sun came up. I would get chills like I had a fever though my temperature was fine – I was sick to my stomach! The main takeaway from this experience was indeed disability does not mean the inability to be a swindler. Don’t ever let your guard down and ride solely on the wave of empathy. You will be bamboozled!
Return On Sacrifice (ROS)
The truth of the matter is building a business is hard; building a bootstrap business is even harder and building a profitable bootstrap business is the hardest.
You will outgrow people you wanted to grow with.
You will have unintended strained relationships.
You will lose money for you to make money (they say scared money doesn’t make money).
You will fail more before you succeed.
You will have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable for you to win.
You are going to be broke for a while, however, if you feel like you are losing everything, remember that trees lose leaves every year and still stand tall – every leaf lost is a promise of a new shoot.
This first year has been more about building my character. I can relate to Brené Brown’s words in her book, Dare to lead where she says, “I completely underestimated the pull on my emotional bandwidth, the sheer determination it takes to stay calm under pressure, and the weight of continuous problem solving and decision-making.” However, in it all, I have grown to be a lot wiser (and calmer) when it comes to anything lately, not much surprises me. A friend even said to me that my ability to suspend disbelief seems to have depleted over the years – this, after I had been poking fun at what I consider lame action scenes in the latest James Bond movie. But honestly, I think it’s because I’ve experienced real-life horrors (emotional and, or otherwise) that nothing phases me anymore. The motto I now embrace when I encounter any challenges is simply, “irris warrirris”, we keep it moving – literally!!
As I look toward the horizon, I now encounter new (encouraging) challenges which entail building capacity to fulfil the direct contracts that are now sitting on my desk – so if you want to make some money with me..holla!
HAPPY 1ST BIRTHDAY PDQ!!!