Women's Month profile: Rapelang Rabana
Rapelang Rabana is just 26 years old, but has made great strides in the business world, and she's doing things her own way, too. She has some invaluable advice for any woman interested in starting her own business.
When she was only 23, Rapelang started her own business, and she has been named as one of "200 Young South Africans You Must Take To Lunch" by the Mail & Guardian.
This year the Research and Development arm of Swiss headquartered TelFree Communications, under its Global Head of R&D, Rapelang Rabana, launched the world’s first unified telecommunications hub which is now available on the Apple iPhone and the Apple iPod Touch.
What is TelFree?
The TelFree application, which is unique in that, unlike other iPhone applications, it functions even without the application being open all the time, provides one global flat rate to fixed lines, mobile phones and, even better, is free for registered TelFree to TelFree accounts.
It is a similar concept to that of Skype, in that it allows you to speak over the internet rather than using telephone lines. TelFree goes a step further, however, as it can be used on your smartphone and taken anywhere with you, and you don't need to sign in every time you want to make or receive a call.
What this means is that with TelFree, you can speak to your sister in London for the same cost as calling your husband at his office 15 km away.
Doing business differently
The story behind this innovative technology began with Rapelang's desire to do business differently.
"I didn’t want to go into a corporate environment. When you enter corporations, you have to subscribe to their systems of strategy. These have very masculine traits – it’s all about outwitting and outstripping your competitor. I didn’t want to go into something that was so against who I was – I didn’t want to spend the next forty years of my life in that kind of environment," she explains.
"I would have had to spend ten years just beating the system. Instead I wanted to start immediately on something that meant something to me."
Rapelang was well prepared to undertake this journey, with a background in Business Science, Computer Science and Finance from UCT. "I had a good degree and a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I was fortunate also to have two colleagues from university who started the company with me – without them I don’t think I could have done it. It’s easier with three people working together on something than just you on your own."
The need for cheaper communication
The inspiration for the TelFree application stemmed from what Rapelang and her colleagues saw as a fundamental need for cheaper communication. Having been students who couldn't afford to make prepaid calls as communication was so expensive, they saw a gap in the market in South Africa and the rest of the developing world for a more affordable mode of communication.
The road to success is never an easy one: "In the beginning we relied mostly on Google for advice!" says Rapelang. "We were only given funding for our initiative about a year later, so we had no advisors or experts to help us. Our parents helped us with food and accommodation. Everything, including how to register a CC was researched online."
The field the three work in was also not well established, so there were no textbooks on the subject – they are essentially self-taught.
Rapelang's advice on starting your own business
For women who want to start their own business or launch their own product, Rapelang has this advice:
"One of the biggest misconceptions about starting your own business is that the first thing you need to do is get funding. You shouldn’t actually take any money until you absolutely need it – and this should only be after about a year of hard work on your own," she says. "Starting out by working on your own computer at your desk at home, even on your bed, is the best way."
Identify your unique competitive advantage
She also suggests that you first identify the unique competitive advantage for your idea – what is going to make your business successful? What is going to sustain its success?
"You need to do a lot of research, engage people, join business networks and talk to people in the field about your idea. What makes your idea different?"
Rapelang advises that you shouldn’t be afraid of sharing your idea with people. "A lot of people think they have to keep it a secret or it will be stolen by a competitor – this happens a lot less frequently than it’s made out."
"The reality is that if you have a really simple, effective idea, even if you keep it under wraps until the day it’s launched, the very next day someone will launch their own product to compete with it."
This, she says, is why you need to have something more than just the idea going for you – "You need to have a competitive advantage, whether it’s in your personal relationships with people or your expertise in the field. This is what makes that initial period of research, networking and planning so important – that is what will make you ultimately successful."
For more information on TelFree, visit www.telfree.com
Image courtesy of Wired Communications
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