Learning Curve | Taking plunge into sea of opportunity

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Former international swimmer and triathlete Kevin Richards grew up on the shores of the Eastern Cape and developed a love and close affinity for the warm Indian Ocean from an early age. Picture: Eugene Coetzee/The Herald THE BIG BLUE: Kevin Richards shows off one of his blu_smooth wetsuits at this weekend’s Ironman Expo in Summerstrand Competing extensively in SA and around the world, Richards has swum in numerous different oceans and open water locations. The Caribbean, Mediterranean, the Seine River in Paris, Sydney Harbour, lakes in Sweden, and Canada and even a brief swim in the mid-Atlantic are just some of the places he has swum. And now, he is the man behind blu_smooth wetsuits and accessories for those who love adventure and open water swimming. Can you give me some background on yourself and on starting the business? I was born and bred in Uitenhage and attended Muir College. I am a former Springbok swimmer and triathlete. I spent 10 years working abroad for a major sports brand and returned to SA about six years ago. I used the expertise I gained abroad, as well as my knowledge of open water swimming and triathlon, to launch my own swimming wetsuit brand. Where was the idea of the business born? While working abroad, I witnessed the massive growth worldwide in triathlon and open water swimming and I knew SA would be no different. This, combined with a few gaping opportunities in the market, convinced me to put my knowledge and contacts to good use and start blu_smooth on my return. What do you think makes your business unique? We are one of just two South African-based brands selling the products we do. If someone wanted to take one key lesson from your business model? Think big but don’t lose focus of the small things. Customer satisfaction is always key. What are some of the biggest inhibitors your business faced before even getting off the ground? There weren’t too many fortunately. Apart from wading through the unavoidable red tape, starting a new business is an exciting time. What are some of your biggest challenges in day-to-day business operations and your particular industry? Our main products are imported and the delivery takes quite a long time. Trying to gauge consumer demand in a fast-growing market and ensuring that we have sufficient stock is always a challenge. What is the best advice anyone have ever given you about success? I have read many books about successful people and it’s clear that success doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a lot of hard work. How do you measure or define success in your business? Success needs to be ongoing. We have certainly enjoyed some success so far and we are continuing to grow. However, we’re a young company and to call our business a success at this stage would be premature. I have many goals for the business and we are still working towards them. What are some of the best practices that have given your business a boost? I would say our interaction with our customers. It’s not just about selling wetsuits to swimmers. I am also a swimmer and put my money where my mouth is. I test everything I sell and if it doesn’t deliver, we won’t sell it. What kind of advertising do you do? We rely mostly on social media. However we also run printed adverts in targeted publications from time to time. What are some of the highlights of running your business? The highlight is seeing more and more people enjoying swimming in open water. Another one is knowing that our products have contributed and made it possible for many more people to enjoy this pursuit – which is very rewarding. How many people do you employ? We currently have three employees working for blu_smooth, including myself. How do you motivate staff? We keep the working environment pretty relaxed and all staff know they are trusted and valued. How did you acquire funding for the business? The business was initially selffunded. Once you had funding, what was the first step in actually launching the business? The initial steps were to design my first wetsuit, come up with a name for the brand, confirm agreements with suppliers, and then literally “take the plunge”. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from your business journey so far? Back yourself and trust your judgment. If you give anything less than 100%, your efforts simply won’t cut it. What have been the greatest challenges and advantages of running your business in a city like Port Elizabeth? The challenges of running a business in Port Elizabeth are no different to running a business anywhere else in the country. In our line of business, the advantages of being in Port Elizabeth are massive. We are a swimming wetsuit company and in all my travels, I’m yet to find a finer place to swim than our beachfront. On top of that, the support from the community has been fantastic. What are the three key traits of a successful entrepreneur? I’m still a work in progress. Hopefully in a few years’ time I’ll be better placed to answer!

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