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Celebrating National Women’s Day in South Africa with inspiring female entrepreneurs

Posted 10 months ago in Small business by Emma Izatt
Posted by Emma Izatt

National Women’s Month in South Africa pays tribute to the over 20,000 women who marched to Pretoria’s Union Buildings to ‘protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women’ on 9 August 1956 – now National Women’s Day. It’s an excellent opportunity to spotlight the women who are working hard and making a change around the world

In the spirit of National Women’s Day and National Women’s Month, we spoke to Erin-Lee Petersen, co-founder of Cape Town-based high-end, sustainable lifestyle brand, Research Unit. We discussed her business, the importance of females running their own business and how Xero software has benefitted Research Unit.

Selling phones for start-up capital

Erin-Lee’s journey to entrepreneurialism started while she was working in a luxury retail store. After noticing the quality of overseas products, she became dissatisfied by the quality standards of so-called “high-end” goods that South African manufacturers were producing.  “I decided to buy offcuts from a local leather shop and to start making my own leather goods. I used to scrutinize every high-end brand’s product, studying the versatile stitching methods, right down to the seams.” 

Erin-Lee’s eye paid off in 2012 when her and her husband Chad were chosen as emerging creatives at the Design Indaba. “We had no finished products available, only 5 samples to display and ended up with approximately 80 orders to fulfil.

They didn’t have enough funds to fulfil the orders, so the couple decided to raise some start-up capital. They took out a cell phone contract, immediately sold the phone at a profit and used the money to pay for the materials needed to create the orders. The plan worked, Using the money made from the sale of the phone, they completed the first batch of orders and this is when they discovered that their products were indeed sellable. 

Later that year, Erin-Lee and Chad decided to pursue a more formal route – entering the South African Breweries Kickstart awards, a programme that helps to spur business ideas. They were awarded a R750,000 grant, which they used to open their first workshop, buy their first machine and hire four employees. 

“It was extremely tiring because I still had a day job that required my full attention. Looking back, I realise just how challenging it was, but it was so rewarding. I’m proud to be a woman of colour running my own business.” 

The road to Xero

Erin-Lee admits that she didn’t know anything about running a business when she set up Research Unit. “I had no idea what balance sheets, profits and losses were. Starting this business forced my husband and I to become business people and to better understand our finances.” 

Research Unit hired a new accountant in 2017, who introduced the couple to Xero. “Our accountant, Carmen Dell told us about Xero, its integrated services and how easy it would be to manage our cash flow. I was really taken aback by the system – everything I needed was in one place.”

Xero’s integration with 700 + third-party apps has proven particularly useful for Erin-Lee. “I can connect Xero to the other apps that I use including Receipt Bank and Shopify. It means that everything is online, so nothing gets lost. I update my business plan every six months, which means I have to pull all finance records together. With Xero, I can access everything I need with ease.”

Prioritising work-life balance

Erin-Lee was forced to take a step back and implement some rules at home in order to maintain a comfortable work-life balance. “I had my first baby six months ago, so maintaining work-life balance has now become essential. My husband is my business partner and very often, the stresses of business, (dealing with staff, finances etc) can create stress in the workplace and spill over into your home. I pushed myself hard over the years and looking back I’d definitely say I didn’t a have balance. Now I prioritise carefully and allocate my time so I can be more available to my family in the evening and NO shop talk at home.” 

Xero gives small business owners like Erin-Lee the tools they need to get to grips with their finances. With cloud-based accounting software, small business owners can keep up with finances all at the click of a button, giving them more time to dedicate to their business and their lives outside of work. 

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