This is not a rags to riches story. It's a Proudly South African story.
Thesis Lifestyle is a clothing brand based in Soweto, West of Johannesburg. What sets them apart from other companies, regardless of industry vertical, is how culture and community, sustained inner-drive, discipline and an unwavering commitment to affect positive change has guided this operation to stand for something that inspires - that truly wows.
There are few local retail brands that accurately and positively reflect the culture and community in which they are started, but Thesis has got it down.
Co-creator, Wandile Zondo, describes how their group of friends used to play around with thrift shop finds; taking a pocket from here and putting it there, changing designs and creating unique pieces. Before the Thesis brand started in 2005, that’s how it was; guys with a creative eye who loved what they were doing, and other people loved it too.
Wandile describes how they started to sense an opportunity; "we tried to build a business idea around our passion, we found art was a tool to shift the youth into a positive space."
#1: Spotting an opportunity and acting on it
"Pre 1994, our country didn’t have an identity in terms of street culture, but after 1994 there was a boom," says Wandile. "Kwaito was getting started, everyone was just out there trying to express themselves . . . yet, by the time we started fooling around with fashions, there (still) wasn't any retail brand that reflected our community. . . which was something we set out to change."
They knew passion and an idea was only going to take them so far, so they wrote a business plan, did their research and applied for funding. With start-up capital provided by De Beers, they moved into Wandile’s mom’s garage, sewing machines in tow, and started creating their clothing brand.
By 2007, Thesis Lifestyle had moved from the garage to their own premises.
#2. Engage your community
Wandile details the expansion of Thesis Lifestyle into four distinct segments: the retail spaces, the clothing brand, events, and social impact.
As well as the Soweto store, they have opened another retail space in Kagiso, in the West Rand. There too they went about changing the face of the community; "it was a dump site, it wasn’t taken care of, we went to the municipality, we said we want the space and want to clean it up, so we put a container there, some decking and created a community garden, it’s now a fully off-the-grid, solar-powered retail space".
The Thesis space found itself becoming a creative hub in the community; musicians, photographers, artists, and DJs would all gather together. "We shared a lot of music in this space, and through music our brand grew into events, we started hosting a jam session, and so it became a platform for creative, like-minded young people to come together, chill and just enjoy."
The Thesis Social Jam Sessions started, hosted on the first Sunday of every month - expanding rapidly from 20 people attending at first to over 800 by 2010, eventually outgrowing the space.
All these elements impact on Thesis' core retail business.
"It’s more of an ecosystem, what the brand is all about, what we look after every day. Each branch of the business is an extension of who we are and the community we represent."
#3. Connect with your customers
Thesis Lifestyle has done what a lot of brands fail to do, and that is to achieve the ultimate degree of connectedness between a brand and its clientele.
When a brand is as authentic and integrated as Thesis is, loyalty and growth through word-of-mouth become beneficial by-products. "Kids would get their transport to drop them outside the store, we had people queuing out the door, it was so crazy, the business went boom," Wandile explains. On why he thinks this happened he says; "we tell a story, one that resonates with our customers, we are not just a business, like an in-and-out retail store in a mall. We build relationships with our consumers through the Thesis ecosystem and that makes our brand relevant."
#4. Keep working hard, nothing that's worth it is easy
On rising above the typical challenges that face entrepreneurs every day, Wandile says; "it’s also about being grateful and appreciating all the hard work that you’ve put in, and when other people start appreciating that, it overwhelms me. "You have to humble yourself and keep working hard, that’s what keeps me going and why I love sport so much - because in sport you always want to push yourself to do better."
Part of being a successful entrepreneur is identifying opportunities, having a clear vision of the way forward and having the work-ethic to get there.
Wandile acknowledges that there is no room for complacency, and that there is always more work to be done. "We have a way to go, as young South Africans living at this time, as much as there are negatives, it’s a great time in this industry and in this country, there is opportunity everywhere."
#5. DO SOMETHING. Make a change. Just start.
Wandile discusses the broken window theory, and how he believes it relates to the wider South African context, and the Thesis ideology in particular.
Simply put, the broken window theory states that signs of disorder, like broken windows, if left untouched it will give the impression that no one cares, and so will lead to more disorder. The broken window is essentially a symbol of unaccountability.
"Michael Bloomberg was the mayor of New York, the city was run down, there was a lot of crime, drugs, but he used this theory to turn it around, to not let small problems grow bigger, he aimed to change the city, and he did, not because of talk, because of action, and being accountable," explains Wandile. By changing the face of derelict spaces in their community, Thesis are not only holding themselves accountable, but are helping to create a positive space by raising standards and changing mind-sets.
"To move a city forward you have to be active and accountable"
humble Till takes special note of these upstanding entrepreneurs and citizens . . . we suggest you do, too.
Updated: May 10, 2018