"I stopped receiving an allowance officially at age 16 when I convinced my parents to allow me to get a job as a waitress," said Dubai-based South African expat Oreabetse Matlhare, 38, who comes from a family of educators.
Her grandfather and grandmother were both school principals, while her mother was a mathematics teacher who later also became a principal, and her father was a bank manager.
"Numbers and money were two things I was very familiar with, though the latter is not something we have always had. However, my family prided itself on and instilled in me the values of being disciplined and resourceful. Even though funds were limited, we still had a comfortable home, a good education and priceless travel experiences. So, I became an expert at bargain hunting and DIY [do-it-yourself].
"I recall I found a rental property in a highly sought-after neighbourhood in Cape Town, given that I was a student at the time. I convinced the landlord to let us move in before it was ready for the public. In exchange, I offered him help to renovate the apartment. It was a minor inconvenience for probably two months that saved us 50 per cent of the cost for the entire duration. And got us a home with fantastic views."
Numbers and money were two things I was very familiar with, though the latter is not something we have always had
Creative person turns entrepreneur, chartered accountant
She was exposed to arts and crafts early and found the skill helped her make money. "I joined a school organisation to sell handmade crafts and assorted gifts for special occasions, including hand-painted ornaments, chocolate confectionaries, and baked goods for charity."
Since then, she had started seven businesses, five of these, she stated, were failures, while two were profitable.
When it comes to persistence and work ethics, Matlhare recalled how it all goes back to when her mathematics teacher persuaded her to participate in a quiz when she was nine years old.
"My maths teacher told me all you have to do is study hard, and you'll win a prize. I learned relentlessly, got the top score, and won the quiz.
"From then on, the penny dropped, and I realised that if you put in consistent efforts, you can make things happen. I channelled that philosophy by constantly challenging myself and learning new creative or academic things."
Tip: If you make something people value, they will pay for it.
A couple of years later, Matlhare had self-learned how to make ornamental flower baskets, which became a hit at a mother's day fair.
She said, "It was a perfect solution and value to last-minute shoppers amongst my schoolmates and my first taste of entrepreneurship.
"I sold them for 5 South African Rand (Dh1) each, which was a pretty decent profit, fascinating for me considering that I had made and sold so many items, yet spent probably the cost of only one of them on ingredients."
These two became her lessons for life, developing her self-discipline and endurance, which she feels are her greatest strengths driving her in setting up and managing this business, she stated.
"You don't always know what products will sell or whether you have the suitable unit of economics, but when you persistently push through these unknowns, you will eventually get the correct answer."
I self-learned how to make ornamental flower baskets, which became a hit at my mother's day fair
Finding joy in numerical, logical challenges
From an early age, Matlhare found joy in anything that challenged her numerically and logically.
She considered a career in finance a safe route; accounting firms were dishing out bursaries, and her appreciation for numbers was deep-rooted.
Entrepreneurship has always been her calling, but she spent some time working in corporate to learn how to run a business as an in-house finance professional, not just as a consultant.
"I started my career at global auditing giant KPMG as a financial auditor and later as a forensic auditor. In 2010, I joined the Anglo-Swiss miner Xstrata’s finance team at an exciting time, as the company grew to over $3 billion in revenue in 3 years and acquired a historic deal in the commodities industry,” added Matlhare.
“Before starting ‘The Scalable CFO’, which is a community of part-time bookkeeping and finance professionals who assist in managing small businesses, I joined an SME (small and medium-sized business) in luxury consumer goods distribution to manage their finance operations."
She considered working with corporates exposed her to applying best practices at scale while working with SMEs taught her to work with owner-managed businesses.
She said, "The way money is perceived is very different between the two. In corporations, money is a commodity, and you can be moving millions of dollars in a day, so in a sense, it is desensitised. Whereas for an SME, money is very sensitive as it is the livelihood of the business owners."
Taking on part-time CFO roles to pay the bills
She started the above-mentioned finance community when her career was at crossroads and leaving her corporate job to focus full-time on an e-commerce setup. While working on that, she took on part-time CFO roles to pay the bills.
"I started providing part-time CFO services in 2017 when I was 33, I launched the CFO marketplace with over 6,000 professionals in 2019."
This way, she got introduced to Dubai's start-up and small business ecosystem. Through those experiences, she realised that smaller businesses were making big financial decisions about their future but were struggling to get the right finance expertise and have the proper systems and processes set up as they grew.
"As a professional, I faced challenges to find more opportunities and service small businesses. We first focused on the people problem and launched the business as a managed marketplace platform.
"Since then, we have expanded our business model to a subscription-based software model known as ‘SaaS’. We realise that to provide CFO-level oversight to any business (not just the privileged ones), we need to apply technology superpowers like AI to the problem. We are now preparing to launch a similar business with AI in 2023."
How did you fund the business operations?
Initially, Matlhare used her savings and provided part-time CFO services to fund the marketplace development. "At the very beginning, we focused on client delivery, so 70 per cent of expenses were towards labour, 25 per cent licence and office costs, 5 per cent website and marketing."
Then, her business raised pre-seed investment from early-stage venture capitalist firms (VCs). After that, the venture was funded by friends and family and some angel investors. "The total raised to date is Dh1.8 million [$500,000]."
Matlhare also explained how her current business enables small businesses to get the benefits of a CFO without the cost. "We help entrepreneurs to make responsible financial decisions by connecting them with the CFOs in the region, automating financial decision-making and managing cash. Our clients are SMEs, and most of them are owner-managed."
Tip: Understanding your relationship with money is essential.
"For some, it is rooted in fear of not having or losing money. However, during a financial difficulty having this awareness gave me a sense of peace and allowed me to shift my mind-set and focus from making money to creating value. When you create value, you are on your way to building wealth."
Matlhare was pretty risk-averse at the start of her career.
She said, "I opted for more traditional strategies, which included property and a savings plan (whose performance is based on a diversified portfolio of investment funds). The plan needed to be international to accept payments from anywhere in the world and to allow flexibility to withdraw without significant penalties. Once validated, I needed to access the funds to invest in a business at some point.
"In hindsight, I would have taken two savings plans: a medium-term plan to allow early maturity to start a business and a long-term plan, as long-term plans still have significant withdrawal penalties."
In hindsight, I would have taken two savings plans: a medium-term plan and a long-term plan
Tip: Saving is about reverse engineering your life.
"I always think about where I want to be regarding my net worth and then work backwards to see how much I need to save or how much value I need to create in my business to achieve that personal net worth goal."
Her transition from corporate to full-time entrepreneurship happened in the UAE. "I have lived in the UAE for 12 and a half years. While I was with KPMG South Africa, I had the opportunity to come on a 5-month secondment with KPMG Lower Gulf, in Dubai, and the fact that I am still here today says a lot.“
This is how Matlhare was able to build an extensive network which was important to starting her business.
"My income-savings strategy fluctuates, but I put aside at least 40 per cent where I can. I'm a start-up founder, so any excess typically goes to my business. There are times when I can't pay myself. But I keep my cost of living incredibly low and try to stick to a personal budget. It's not always perfect, and there are challenging moments, but for the most part, it helps keep me aligned with the bigger picture."
She holds key investments currently - property and her business. "The property gives me a safety net of slow but consistent value appreciation. In contrast, the business has more risk but can yield incredibly high returns and open the door for more investment opportunities on exit. Property is lower risk, while a business is a relatively high risk, so it balances out.
"All this goes back to reverse engineering. With my business, I work out what I need to do and which milestones to hit to increase the valuation. It's a calculated risk that if you get it right, you increase the value of the investment of not only my share of the business but all the shareholders."