He’s all fired up for business
Hard work, help from the Awethu Project and a loan from the Youth Fund helped Thulani Ntshuntshe grow his start-up into a successful and profitable company
When Thulani Ntshuntshe was 13, he would charge the girls 50c each and run to the school tuck shop to buy food for them so they could avoid the queues. Then he would buy his own lunch from the proceeds. The following year, this enterprising youngster upped his game and became a “loan shark” of sorts: he would go to his school in Johannesburg’s northeastern suburbs with a bag full of coins, and for every R1 he lent his school friends to buy sweets, he demanded they repay him R2.
“It was built on zero knowledge of interest rates – on both sides,” the 26-year-old entrepreneur chuckles today, more than 10 years later.
“But I managed to make more money from that than from my pocket money. I think that is where the entrepreneurship bug bit.”
Today, Ntshuntshe is CEO and co-founder of Five Star Fire, which supplies and maintains portable firefighting equipment for businesses in the greater Johannesburg area. The firm inspects and tests fire extinguishers, hose reels and hydrants to ensure they comply with safety regulations.
Operating from offices in the historic Constitution Hill precinct in Braamfontein, Five Star Fire’s clients range from owners of private residences to large corporates such as Nestlé.
This start-up was born thanks to the mentorship of the Awethu Project, a business incubator, as well as a R1.3 million loan from the Youth Fund – which was jointly set up by the Small Enterprise Finance Agency (Sefa), the Industrial Development Corporation and the National Youth Development Agency to ignite a new generation of business go-getters.
But it has not always been plain sailing for Ntshuntshe, though he maintains he is grateful for the pitfalls he has encountered along the way.
Born in Tembisa on the East Rand, he completed high school in Highlands North and enrolled to study human resources at the Tshwane University of Technology. But he dropped out in his first year, realising he was not cut out for it.
“I met someone from high school and we decided to do something entrepreneurial together. We ran a construction company for four years,” he recalls.
“We kept throwing money into it and it never took off, but the lessons we learnt were invaluable.”
Somewhat disillusioned but not bowed, his interest was piqued when Awethu invited him to attend a presentation – and even offered to reimburse his taxi fare.
Awethu eventually helped him set up a mobile eco-friendly carwash service in the basement parking of Constitution Hill, with R5 000 in seed funding.
“By the end of three months, we had expanded our services to Maboneng and I had five guys working for me.”
A year later, having confirmed that this young man had talent, Awethu helped him secure the Sefa investment to start Five Star Fire – matching his personality and skills with a crackerjack business idea.
The business started in April 2014. A year later, it had already quadrupled its monthly revenues – and now even has a mobile app.
Ntshuntshe currently has two permanent staff members and employs several subcontractors and part-time workers.
“To build a successful business, you need good leadership, which I define as a vision deeply rooted in purpose and conviction,” he says.
“It is also a result of the sacrifices that are made behind the scenes.
“I used to dream of having a posh house in Sandton, but now my sole purpose is to directly or indirectly enhance someone else’s life – to live for something that is bigger than myself,” he says.
“We are using this investment fund as a vehicle to build entrepreneurs, who will subsequently become role models to their peers and the younger generation.”
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BORN FOR IT Entrepreneur Thulani Ntshuntshe no longer dreams of a house in Sandton; he wants to ‘live for something that is bigger than myself’