The all-woman entrepreneurial team behind South African niche PR company, Unorthodox, live up to their name as they take a unique approach to the corporate public relations, communications and partnerships they undertake. The dynamic duo of Sibabalwe Sesmani and Zuziwe Mkhwanazi work exclusively with corporates and differentiate themselves in the marketplace by dealing with "firsts" in their industry. They strive to create their own genre of public relations, one that specializes in corporates and thought leaders of industries.
LoA spent time with Sibabalwe and Zuziwe in the equally dynamic office surroundings of OPEN, a wonderful co-working space in the trendy district of Maboneng in Johannesburg, to find out more.
"What we do is concentrate on helping our clients to build their brands in their specific industry sectors and to position their leadership as thought leaders in the marketplace."
Tell us where the inspiration came from to start Unorthodox.
Actually, our founding of Unorthodox was not something we originally planned. I was actually working in the OPEN co-working space, but for a different company, and I was not happy there, in fact I left after two weeks. I got another job just 2 days afterwards but again didn't feel that I was in the right environment. So, whilst I was still there, I started taking a conversation with the MD of OPEN and asked him what they were doing in the social media environment to get the word out about this wonderful co-working concept. It turned out that they weren’t doing anything in terms of social media, so I saw an opportunity and offered to manage their social media for them. He asked me to prepare a proposal for the following Monday morning for consideration and after reviewing it, thought my ideas looked good and suggested we start immediately. So, whilst I was still working in my full-time job, I was also managing OPEN’s social media, which was much more interesting and much more financially viable. As a result, I quit my full time job and we started Unorthodox, managing the social media for OPEN in the first instance as our first client.
It was an interesting start to our entrepreneurial journey, as I was also unhappy in my full-time job at the time and when the opportunity for Sibabalwe and I to work together arose, I leapt at the chance. It seemed like the right thing to do at the right time, and we had wanted to work together for some time, so the fact that we were both unhappy in our jobs in the corporate environment created the ideal time to start something new together. Unorthodox was born out of that unique moment in time.
"As a small startup, it means that we work with our clients very closely, getting to know them well and growing with them as they and their corporate brands grow. It is a very synergistic relationship."
So, share with us what makes Unorthodox different from its competitors in the marketplace
We strictly do corporate PR, so we don't deal with individuals or artists, only corporates, what we do is concentrate on helping our clients to build their brands in their specific industry sectors and to position their leadership as thought leaders in the marketplace. We take very much a step-by-step approach to that positioning and brand building activity. Firstly, we look to get their brand names out there in their respective industry sectors and to build public awareness. Secondly, whatever industry or business fields those clients are in, we look to identify opportunities to position the brand and the leadership as market or thought leaders. Thirdly, as a small startup, it means that we work with our clients very closely, getting to know them well and growing with them as they and their corporate brands grow. It is a very synergistic relationship, and one that works well.
If we put a client company or brand out there in the marketplace, then we also look for opportunities to positively position the leadership of that company simultaneously, to make a personal connection with the market through that person as an industry thought leader. That is one of the key market differentiators of Unorthodox.
We strive to create our own genre of public relations, one that specializes in corporates and thought leaders of industries. We aim to formulate and perfect a strategy that acts as a base for corporates in South Africa and Africa, one that can be adopted by other PR companies and foreign investors when expanding into the country. We work in conjunction with our clients to establish them as thought leaders and pioneers in their respective industries. What makes us different is the amount of research we do into those different markets and countries, so that we can best understand the media dynamics and the demographics of each environment, and build our communications and PR activities to match. Also, being a small startup venture, we can afford to be agile and do so much more, with less. We can afford to spend quality time and energy on our clients because we don’t have massive overheads or time constraints. Being a smaller venture means that we are nimble enough to get to know our clients and their needs so much better, and respond according to those needs.
"If we put a company or brand out there in the marketplace, then we also look for opportunities to positively position the leadership of that company simultaneously, to make a personal connection with the market through that person as an industry thought leader. That is one of the key market differentiators of Unorthodox."
Do both of you come from a traditional PR background?
No, not at all. Between us, we have studied accounting and economics/econometrics as areas of specialism. Actually our friends in our networks tell us that we are best suited to the field of PR, as opposed to the subjects we originally studied.
I think in my case, I wasn't really interested in my subject area of economics/econometrics as a career choice, it was simply a case of how I selected the various modules of my undergraduate degree. I think that at the time of making my subject selections of what to study, I was too young to start thinking seriously about future career paths, so it was more a case of selecting subjects that seemed interesting on paper. However, I had always done marketing activity simultaneously with my academic studying, so that perhaps also eased my eventual path into the field of PR.
Where do you see the company growing in the future?
In the immediate future, it is about proving ourselves in the marketplace; it is about getting out there and showing our clients and the various industry sectors we find ourselves working in that we are the best at what we do. Going forward, our focus will be on perfecting our business model and our unique way of working in our industry and for our clients. We want to become the ‘go-to’ company in the marketplace for all corporates looking to position their brands and their leadership proactively and positively in their respective industry sectors and in the media.
Our long-term vision for Unorthodox is to gather a lot of information about our own country first in terms of understanding the dynamics of key industry sectors and marketplaces, and then branch out in terms of our understanding and expertise of the wider African marketplace. After all, we see the number of international companies and organisations wanting to come into Africa and to find new business opportunities, actually growing, and that represents new business opportunities for us as a company in the future. We feel confident that we can create genuinely and proudly African PR solutions, without the need to borrow or adopt ideas from the rest of the world - that is what Unorthodox aims to do.
".... we self-funded and worked within the confines of our finances. But, the fact is that we didn't let our lack of funding constrain us, we just went out and started our business with passion and huge amounts of energy."
As a young business startup, what have been the biggest challenges you have faced?
The interesting thing is that we have grown very fast in a short space of time, from working with our first client OPEN and basing ourselves in their co-working space, to having three additional clients that we are now servicing, all in our first 9 months. So perhaps our biggest challenge right now is capacity. Unorthodox is still just the two of us working as a partnership, although we now have a young intern who has just joined us.
Yes, capacity is definitely the biggest challenge in the early startup phase. We find ourselves working very long hours servicing our clients, whilst at the same time putting the essential corporate systems in place to make life and work easier and more efficient in the long-term. This is particularly helpful with project management and ensuring that all our clients’ needs are met, no matter how busy things are in general. Efficient corporate systems that manage projects, resources and deadlines are critical in ensuring that everything is managed well when you have a small team. So, putting a formal structure in place to help us to better manage is a huge help.
What entrepreneurial advice would you give to other young women startups in business?
Just take that big leap and do it. If you overthink things, you will never make that big move to becoming an entrepreneur, so just do it. Things will fall into place as you go.
Don’t get stuck thinking too much about the small stuff. If you have a really great idea, and are passionate about turning it into a reality, then just start - you will learn as you go along. It is not about having the perfect set of circumstances before you launch your business venture, or waiting until you are 100% equipped and financed to go to market - nothing will happen unless you just start. In fact, when we first embarked on our own entrepreneurial journey with Unorthodox, we self-funded and worked within the confines of our finances. But, the fact is that we didn't let our lack of funding constrain us, we just went out and started our business with passion and huge amounts of energy.
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Why LoA loves it….
In the world of corporate PR in South Africa, there may be a lot of players in the marketplace, but what differentiates the team at Unorthodox is their genuine commitment to getting to know and understand their clients at a personal level, and really caring for them and their brands. They work extremely hard to be part of the team and to see the bigger corporate picture, as well as delivering on the immediate and practical tasks at hand. The passion that Sibabalwe and Zuziwe show for the work they do is tangible in every project they undertake, no matter how small, and this makes a huge difference to the outcomes. The team at Unorthodox are definitely ones to watch on the PR scene, not just in South Africa, but in the months and years ahead, across the African continent. --- Melanie Hawken, founder and editor-in-chief of Lionesses of Africa