How 3 jobless women launched successful businesses in SA during lockdown

The nationwide lockdown, which brought several industries to a standstill, forced three women to leave their comfort zones in order to make ends meet. 

Clare Tennant – If the shoe fits… 

“Not having a job gave me the time to focus on turning this idea into a real business.”

Clare Tennant
Clare Tennant is the owner of Ten Feet, a lifestyle shoe brand

Prior to the nationwide lockdown, 32-year-old Clare Tennant was working for an events company which focused on event styling and decor for corporate functions and weddings.

“My role consisted of conceptualising and producing the decor and visual elements for each event,” she explains. “I had to come up with the ideas and then bring them to life.”

However, when Covid hit South African shores and the country entered a strict lockdown, Clare quickly found herself without a job.

“The event and hospitality industry was one of the worst affected. My contract was terminated immediately as the events we had planned and booked were cancelled almost instantly.”

In addition to spending quality time with her two-year-old daughter, Clare took the opportunity to focus on a lifelong dream. She is now the proud founder and owner of Ten Feet, a personal lifestyle shoe brand that allows women to choose from a selection of exquisite on-trend prints and pair them with different sandal styles in high-quality leather.

Ten Feet shoes are available in a variety of prints and styles

“I have always loved shoes! I can remember as a young girl looking into my cupboard and wishing I could create my own shoe that I had imagined and envisioned. So, this has definitely always been my dream,” says Clare. “Not having a job gave me the time to really focus on turning this idea into a real business. In fact, the time was a blessing. I could start small with a few ideas and concepts, and build on them daily until something concrete formed and I could start selling my idea.”

Starting your own business is never easy, of course, and it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “I learned early on that people are going to disappoint you. I had an experience with a supplier who really challenged me, but I look back and now know that if that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have found the suppliers I have now. Everything happens for a reason.”

“My advice for anyone in this position is: just start. You don’t have to have it all together. You don’t have to have anything together. Just start with one phone call, one email or one request for pricing to get the ball rolling. If you’re committed and you have a bold vision for where you want to take your business, then keep going with the small tasks everyday and you will see growth.”

So, what does the future hold for Clare and Ten Feet?

“I have A LOT of ideas and a grand vision for Ten Feet, and the ideas just keep coming! I plan to introduce new designs, prints, styles, and fabrics for the shoes. I aim to innovate as I go and listen to what customers are saying to better the brand and product continuously,” she says. “Watch this space!”

Read also: Success story: How Joburg restaurateur Larry Hodes changed his business to survive Covid-19

Jana Aspeling – Creativity takes courage

“I had to make a choice… sink or swim.”

Jana Aspeling started painting full-time during lockdown

From a young age, Jana Aspeling knew she wanted a career that would allow her to be creative. However, after completing her studies in Fine Arts at the University of Stellenbosch, she wasn’t quite ready to be a full-time artist. “I love interacting with people so I decided to pursue hairdressing,” Jana explains. “It offered me a creative outlet, and an opportunity to meet people and learn crucial business skills.”

Jana has been in the hairdressing industry for 18 years. She is a 40-year-old master colourist, stylist and the proud owner of a boutique salon in Parkhurst, Johannesburg – Sculpt Hair. However, her love for painting couldn’t be suppressed for long and after a 14-year break, she decided to pick up her paintbrush again.

“Initially, I just loved painting to unwind from the hustle and bustle of a busy salon, but slowly, my passion for painting – my first love – was reignited,” she says. “I enjoyed painting portraits but decided to switch to floral designs. Within an hour of posting it on social media, I sold my first floral painting. The response was just overwhelming.”

The timing could not have been better. Covid struck and South Africa entered a three-week lockdown – or so we thought. “It was a knock but when we thought it was only going to be three weeks, it wasn’t so bad. Then it got extended and we found out we’d only be able to open again on Level 1 lockdown – that was absolutely devastating,” she says.

“No one was prepared for what lockdown would do to businesses and of course, the hair and beauty industry was hit hard. As a business owner, it was crushing to think my business could only open its doors towards the end of the year. I had to make a choice… sink or swim. I placed my faith in God and decided to try and generate an income through painting.”

Jana says that in a strange way, the lockdown was a blessing. “It was a difficult time emotionally because I had to get into a space where I could create, despite feeling like the world as we knew it was changing forever. But I had no distractions or social responsibilities. I could become a full-time artist without the guilt of sacrificing my other business.”

As she focused on finally turning her dream into a reality, Jana’s paintings flew off the easel. Social media allowed clients all over the world to view her paintings and purchase them without leaving their homes during the pandemic. As a result, Jana was able to keep her salon open and she gained the confidence to pursue her passion full-time.

“Clients were more than happy to wait to receive their paintings until restrictions were lifted, and that motivated me to create more and more artworks,” she says.

lockdown artist Jana Aspeling
Jana’s love for colour is evident in her floral artworks

Now, Jana’s biggest challenge is trying to balance a thriving art business – Jana Aspeling Art – with family life and her salon.

“Fortunately, the salon opened in June, but I decided to do hairdressing once a week and to spend the rest of my week painting. Currently, I create commissioned artworks for the local and international market and am blessed to be fully booked for the next few months! The artwork range I created during lockdown has also evolved into a home decor, fabric, and furniture range – Birds and Blooms. The first products will be available this month and will be exported internationally next year. I still need to pinch myself sometimes.”

Jana’s advice for budding entrepreneurs?

“Growing up, my father always said, ‘Follow your passion, not your pension’. Those words never rang truer for me than during lockdown. My advice is: trust your gut and never give up – even when it seems impossible. And when the world changes overnight, be willing to change with it.”

Read also: How winemaker Ntsiki Biyela survived alcohol ban with exports

Claire Nicola King – You are all you need

“Creating a product and a design that I myself would have bought has been surreal!”

lockdown Claire King
Claire King is a lifestyle and wedding photographer

Claire Nicola King has been a full-time, self-employed wedding and lifestyle photographer in Cape Town for over a decade. The bulk of her business was generated from weddings and the event industry. Of course, when Covid brought several industries to their knees, Claire was one of the first to be affected.

“With gatherings and events being shut down for far longer than the majority of other sectors, and with almost everyone in this industry being sole proprietors who are not eligible for any kind of government or UIF funding, we were hit hard,” she says. “Some events were postponed, but just as many were outright cancelled.”

Many entrepreneurs in the South African wedding industry are funded by international clients who were suddenly unable to enter the country. “I soon realised that the work and income wasn’t going to be coming in, and potentially for a very long time.”

Claire decided to use some of the skills she’s developed over the years to pursue a slightly different form of revenue.

“My thinking was that I know how to market, I have the wherewithal to photograph any product well, and all I would need is to find something I could make. I’d been intrigued by the large amount of handmade candles on the market during my last trip to the US, so I decided to do some research to see if it was something I could potentially get materials for and do at home,” Claire explains.

Once she realised it was possible, it was simply a case of practising and working on developing the branding for her new product. “That’s been my favourite part, actually,” she smiles. “Creating a product and a design that I myself would have bought! It’s been surreal!”

And with that, Claire launched Koester in August. Each luxurious, fragranced soy candle is poured by hand into a stylish white ceramic cup and then wrapped in a drawstring bag made of natural fibres. There are currently three fragrances to choose from – Velveteen Berry, Botany Green and The Gentleman.

Koester candles lockdown
Koester soy candles are hand poured in the Cape Winelands

“I love minimalistic decor and I really wanted to create something that people could incorporate easily into their spaces. These candles are meant to be a subtle addition to your personal sanctuary, which is why I steered clear of excessive branding. It’s just clean lines and muted tones so the fragrance remains the hero.”

When asked what has been her greatest challenge so far, Claire simply laughs and replies, “Oh gosh – organising myself! I thought that being a small business owner for more than 10 years would have made this easier. Honestly though, the difference between the service and retail markets is huge. It’s been tricky to figure out how much of the raw materials to invest in without overcapitalising, while still maintaining stock for the demand. I’m constantly learning and trying to gauge it.”

Now that lockdown restrictions have eased somewhat, the photography side of Claire’s business is picking up. She hopes to find a sustainable balance so that she can continue running the two ventures alongside one another.

“I think the future is as clear for me as it is for anyone right now. This year has taught me not to assume, so I can’t say for sure what is on the cards. However, I’m aiming to find more retailers to stock my products so that I can hopefully get a more consistent idea of how I need to proceed with production. I’ll also be exploring some new fragrances for the candles and perhaps a new product or two to grow the Koester brand. I’m spending more time doing product and content photography now, so I might like to pivot the business slightly to incorporate more of that. It feels like playing, so attempting to expand would be great fun!”

Like Clare and Jana, launching a successful new business during lockdown means that Claire has some sage advice for others in her position.

“You really have nothing to lose by trying,” she says. “I prepared myself endlessly for the possibility that this wouldn’t work out. I didn’t want to be caught by surprise if I’d been wrong in my assessment of the market. I knew, though, that trying was the only way I’d know for sure.

“Start small – don’t take loans or sink all your worldly savings into something new right now. Do a little and see how it goes. In this age of social media and a movement towards sustainability and local buying, you can test the waters and then expand when you see how the market reacts. In a time where so many people are being retrenched and having salary cuts, I’ve been amazed at the willingness of others to support and uplift small local companies.”

Read also: Social media for social change: The Facebook post that fed an SA community

Got a business success story or an uplifting tale to tell? Write to [email protected]