‘It’s an itch that doesn’t go away.’ – Entrepreneur Aisha Pandor on starting SweepSouth

Profmed, South Africa’s largest restricted medical aid scheme for professionals, is producing an eight-episode vodcast series that explores how we can take care of today, while simultaneously building a positive vision of the future. The fourth episode features Aisha Pandor, the ‘Accidental Entrepreneur’ who co-founded SweepSouth – an innovative online platform for booking, paying for, and managing cleaning services for your home. Pandor explains how she and her husband sold almost all their possessions to take a chance on a new business idea, which, fortunately, grew into a major success. Her advice to budding entrepreneurs? If you have an itch, scratch it. – Claire Badenhorst

Aisha Pandor on her background:

I think there’s a lot of sort of fun to our journey and a lot of unexpected twists and turns. I sort of jokingly like to call the journey going from a PhD to cleaning homes, which is how my mom phrased it when I told her that I’d be leaving studies and sort of, you know, going to start a business. I started off as a science student, so, studied science at university. The sort of theme in my life has been that I’m just a very curious person by nature. Always want to know how things work. I was one of those annoying kids that always, always asked questions.

My dad eventually bought me one of those little chemistry kits and was like, you know, play with this and stop ruining everything in the house. So, you know, I’ve always just been curious, and that led me into going into science as a field. The funny thing is, I wasn’t actually that good at it at varsity. I sort of scraped through on a lot of my subjects. But once we started getting into subjects where you could do your own research, I really, really enjoyed it. I decided to pursue a PhD, and as I was getting towards the end of my PhD, I kind of thought, you know, what am I going to do after this? As an academic, what will my life be like? And I think more importantly, what will my contribution to South Africa be?

My parents were both teachers, so they were thrilled, you know, and very, very happy with the fact that I’d gone from sort of struggling, partying varsity student to now someone who was serious and was going to complete a PhD. I was looking at gene therapy for inherited blindness. So the genetics part was looking at inherited diseases, looking at what causes them, and then trying to figure out how to fix them, which I think has a lot of themes in common with entrepreneurship. Like you look at a problem, you try to understand the problem space, and then the entrepreneurship part is like actually, how do I solve that and make it applicable to hopefully a wide group of people?

On what she did after finishing her PhD:

So I made sure I finished my PhD, like I didn’t want the parents to kill me. So I was like, let me make sure I finish studying, and I studied business in the last year. Basically, I was writing up my thesis; I studied business, and I knew by that time that I wanted to do something that had a wider impact, wider sort of, I suppose, wider resonance with my own potential and what I wanted to do. I kind of thought of myself as this young South African girl, [I] have had a lot of opportunities, went to good schools. I went to a good university, went to a good sort of really academic school in Cape Town, and I thought, how do you put that sort of thing to use to actually benefit South Africans? So jumped straight into – from finishing my PhD – working as a management consultant. That was awesome in terms of just getting a really broad range of business experience and exposure to different types of businesses, but also like really big industries in South Africa.

I think it came with a little bit of arrogance. You know, you sort of come as a consultant and you look at these businesses and you go, how could you get this wrong? It’s so easy. So I did that for almost two years and figured out that I just was not really cut out to be employed. I think I’ve figured out by now that I’m pretty unemployable, so I decided to leave that.

The networking was great. I think more than that, though, the exposure to really solid professionals. You know, I could see what someone who’s really good at their job looks like. There were really good managers, both at the businesses that we consulted to, but also within the consulting firm. Just excellent at management and it gave me a good taste coming from an academic world where you sort of, you know, you’re working by yourself with your professor, to an environment where you’ve got a bunch of employees – you need to motivate them. How do you do that? And you know, what are the examples of good ways to do it and then ways where, you know, it’s not really working that well.

How SweepSouth came about:

So sort of towards the end of the two years thinking about, you know, this is not quite working. I feel like you have to do work that is aligned with your own values, your own purpose, and where you see yourself being in the future. If you’re not doing that, then you need to just, you know, take stock a little bit. So we resigned from our jobs. I resigned along with my husband, partner, co-founder in business. Same time, which also, again, wasn’t really perceived well by the parents, and we thought about different ideas and we liked the idea of technology businesses. We’ve always believed in the power of technology to really change the world at scale. We tried out a few different marketplace businesses and sort of came across the idea for SweepSouth by chance.

Our nanny was going to be going away on holiday. She let us know; we were busy trying to work on business ideas – very inconvenient timing – and in trying to find someone to replace her, we realised that there was a business opportunity here, that actually we could build something that helped busy people like ourselves get a quick replacement for a nanny or domestic worker, but in doing that would also be helping people who work in this industry who are unemployed or underemployed to find work opportunities.

On how they funded it:

So we bootstrapped first. We spent probably a year building the business and then funding it ourselves, in fact, a year and a bit – 15 months – and then eventually got seed funding from a group of angel investors who are former entrepreneurs. But yeah, like bootstrapped hardcore in the beginning. We sold our house to fund the business. We sold everything in the house, all of the furniture, cutlery, crockery, bedding, all of that stuff, everything went. And we just, you know, left with our clothes and one car, which we used to eventually drive to Cape Town and set up there.

On getting their first workers and customers:

We spoke to our nanny once she’d gotten back. She told a couple of people in the neighbourhood about, you know, this interesting idea that we had and we were literally flooded with people who wanted to apply. I remember coming back from fetching my daughter from preschool at the time and just seeing this long queue outside our house of women who wanted to apply to the platform. So there was obvious need there.

On the customer side, not so much, I think, because the concept was so new. You know, it was the first time that something like this had been built in South Africa, on the continent. Uber was still very new in South Africa as well. So the idea of booking a service online was just, you know, it was was unsafe. It’s a scam. And even the question of e-commerce in South Africa, this was in 2014, you know, does South Africa have enough credit cardholders to sustain e-commerce as an industry? Those were big questions at the time. So we had to do a lot of personal work to try and get people to book. We harassed our neighbour endlessly for weeks until he eventually just gave in and made a booking. Then we went out – this was obviously pre-Covid times – we were standing in Sandton City on the plaza trying to get people to sign up with a clipboard. We were, you know, standing in traffic trying to convince people who were driving home from work to sign up on our clipboard so we could email them and give them a free voucher to use it.

So very, very sort of incremental in the beginning, and like one by one getting customers to use us. But it was awesome. You know, one big sort of moment for us was the first time that someone who we hadn’t personally signed up or didn’t personally know made a booking and then after that booking went, wow, this is incredible. You know, I just went onto this website, booked this thing. The person arrived on time, on the day, you know, helped me out at home and then left and it was all sorted out. That was really cool.

On whether she ever wanted to give up:

No, never and I mean, we had incredibly difficult times, like, it’s easy to sort of tell in hindsight the linear story of, you know, and then we did this and then we did that and then that happened. But we had incredibly difficult times. I think sometimes founders romanticise bootstrapping a business. It’s really hard to sell a house to put behind a business that you don’t know if it’s going to work or not. It’s hard to uproot your family from a space where they’re comfortable. It’s hard to have worked and, you know, earned an income and finally get your own house as a young couple and then to give all of that up. And then running the business is super hard as well.

There’s a lot of uncertainty. There’s a lot that you’re learning on the go. I had never managed people before in any significant way and I was learning all of this for the first time. I was learning about tech, I was trying to do Python courses so I could understand the technology side of the business as well. So it was really tough, and we also had our first unhappy customer, which was crushing for us.

So it was really tough, but I think we had a strong conviction about the solution that we wanted to bring about. And actually, more than that, a strong conviction about the problem because I think we were more flexible about the solution. We started off with a website and there were a lot of iterations. We eventually built an app until we were comfortable enough to say, let’s commit what we’ve built to something that’s going to sit in an app store and we have to go through, you know, reviews to try and change it. And then it’s real and there’s a lot less sort of messing about. But we had high conviction in the fact that this problem around convenient access to home services was a real problem. More importantly, the problem around domestic workers and their access to work opportunities as people who really drive South Africa’s economy. We had high conviction that that problem existed and needed to be solved and that we were the right people to solve it.

I think entrepreneurship for people who choose this journey is sort of analogous to being in a long-term relationship. It doesn’t get easier, you know, different things come up. But you make this commitment and also you keep on, you get back. And so as much as it gets harder and the problems just get bigger and more sophisticated as you go along, if you’re building something that you feel really passionate about, you keep on going back to that. There almost is no other option.

You know, as I said, unfortunately, I’m not someone who works well in the corporate space. But I think even for people who are in the corporate space, I think the opportunity that we have in South Africa is that we have many, many challenges which can’t be solved by just government alone and can’t be solved by the current private sector. You know, employment, for example, is not meaningfully being impacted positively by the private sector. Most companies have the quota of employees that they will have. So our problems need to be solved by young, inventive people who think slightly differently about the challenges that you’re faced with in your ordinary day. You go about your day and something happens or something irks you. Entrepreneurs go, well, you know, is this something that I want to solve? Is this something that I could make a business out of? And I think once you get that bug and it bites you, it’s incredibly difficult to step back and say, you know, I’m not going to do this anymore or I’m going to go back to doing what I was doing before.

On how they dealt with lockdown in 2020:

Where I’m grateful is the fact that up until 2020, we’ve grown SweepSouth to the scale where, you know, we were operating in a number of different cities, in a number of different countries. We had about 25,000 service providers. So we were in quite a good place in terms of the traction that the business had gained, and what that allowed us to do during lockdown is to focus on how do we use this time when it’s very quiet, you know, and we can’t roll out the service to 1) look at really supporting all the service providers on the platform. So we put together a fund, a R12m fund to support SweepStars who wouldn’t be able to work during lockdown and even afterwards because there were lasting concerns about people meeting face-to-face in a home. That sponsorship lasted about seven months from April to October, end of October last year.

We also, as a business, sat back and reprioritised and used that quiet time to go, you know, what’s important for us for the next two to five years from a strategy point of view? And how do we use this time – when you almost have an excuse not to be just head down focused on growth – how do we use this time to realign our priorities? Look at the things that we need to do, the activities, the planning, the execution. What’s the team that we need to have to execute on longer term strategy?

On what is next:

We’ve launched in Kenya, we’re operational there in addition to South Africa, in Nairobi. We are also looking at a launch in West Africa, in Nigeria in the next month or so. Then we’re looking at North Africa as another interesting market as well. So really looking at rolling SweepSouth out in a Pan-African strategy. I think the problems that we’ve identified in South Africa exist in many other African countries, both on the customer side and then on the service provider side.

Then rolling out a number of different verticals. So started off in the home cleaning space because of the experience that we had but there are lots of home services that people need to get in a convenient and trusted way. Plumbers, builders. So we’ve launched all of that in the last year or so. So we have a platform called Connect, which works with plumbers, electricians, handymen, carpet cleaners. We’ve widened the range. We’ve got about 25 different services on that platform. We have tax consultants even, so any services – especially with people now working from home – that you might want to procure through an app. Then [we’ve] also branched out from the cleaning into outdoor services. So as much as we are helping primarily women who are domestic workers to find work opportunities, we also want to help men who work as – and this is, you know, stereotypically, but the numbers speak to it – men who work as gardeners, you know, pool cleaners, who do outside work.

On pursuing entrepreneurship:

I think it has to be the itch that if you don’t scratch it, it’s not going to go away. This is how I knew, you know, when I was working in the corporate space that this thing that was calling me just wasn’t going to go away. It was over a matter of months that, you know, just every day driving home, I would have the sense that there’s something else I should be doing. So I think that’s the one thing is that, you know, the itch doesn’t go away.

I think the other thing is alignment with purpose and values. And that’s something, again, that’s been very important for me. I come from a background with parents who were teachers but who were also anti-apartheid activists and so their work had a lot of meaning for them. So it’s important for me that that’s the same and in SweepSouth’s case, yes, we’re building sexy tech that’s connecting two sides of a marketplace together, but I think more than that, there are themes around impact, again, unemployment and underemployment and addressing that within the domestic worker community. Financial inclusion through helping people set up bank accounts, financial literacy, digital literacy. So I think if it is aligned with your values and it’s something that really speaks to what you feel is your purpose, helps you to look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and go, I’m doing OK, I feel good about what I’ve done today or the work that I’m doing. I think then you should definitely not ignore the itch.

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