A swimmingly good idea

After an intensive but unsuccessful search for caps that would fit and keep her hair and that of her daughters dry, Capetonian photographer Nomvuyo Treffers ordered some custom-made swimming caps. Less than a year later, she is selling her larger-sized caps to swimming schools, at Swimma’s business premises in Salt River and online. She shares some of the lessons she’s learnt from turning an idea into a business.  

What was the driving force behind Swimma?

My daughters, aged 10 and eight, love water and they would invite me in every time we go to a swimming pool or the beach, which is often because we live in Cape Town. I naturally made excuses for not getting into the water with them because I didn’t have a swimming cap that fits. When you have hair like mine, a cap is not only used for hygiene purposes but also needs to keep the hair dry as wet dreadlocks equals hours of drying.

t really frustrated me that I wasn’t able to join in the fun and swim with them. My girls are growing and I didn’t want to miss out on these precious moments with them. I searched everywhere for a swimming cap to cover my dreads and when I couldn’t find one, I sourced materials and decided to have some custom-made for my daughters and me.  

What motivated you to start a business selling swimming caps for big hair?

The biggest motivation was my children and realising that this problem is not unique to us. We live in a country and on a continent where the majority of people have dreadlocks, afros or weaves, which prevents them from swimming because there isn’t a proper swimming cap to fit their hair. I believe that big-sized swimming caps are a necessary and inclusive product.  

What did you do prior to starting Swimma?

I am a photographer and still run my own photographic studio. I have loved taking photos for as long as I can remember. I became the person who is asked to take photos at friends’ parties and weddings. I was about to travel when my small point & shoot camera broke in 2010 and I replaced it with a DSLR camera. I wanted more lenses and spending on camera equipment adds up.  

I thought if I had to invest in my hobby, I needed money to buy more equipment and that’s how I became a full-time photographer in February 2011. I opened my studio in November
that year.

I love people and I enjoy capturing special moments and freezing time. I do corporate photography, family portraits and weddings.

How did the name for Swimma come about?

The name came about because my first language is isiXhosa and it’s known that we sometimes mix English and isiXhosa words and add a tone to them. The isiXhosa word for swimming is
ukuqubha, but I decided to go with Swimma, which is how “swimmer” or “swimming” would be pronounced in isiXhosa. It’s basically a play on words! 

How did you make your first sale?

When our first stock arrived, I shared it on social media. This was picked up by my friends and followers who shared it with their friends and followers, who shared it with others. From there our online shop, which was put together very quickly in August 2016 to cater for the sudden interest, took care of the sales. 

Describe your journey with Swimma since then.

There certainly is loads of interest, online sales as well as walk-ins at our business premises in Salt River. Of course, not all interest translates immediately into sales but there has been a steady demand. The last few months have been busy in terms of putting a structure in place, tweaking the product specs, adding three additional sizes, new colours and getting a greater understanding of people’s challenges. Our margins vary greatly as we do also sell to agents such as swim schools and other outlets and we obviously need them to make a profit on it as well.

What have been the three biggest difficulties you have had to overcome?

 - Converting the idea into a business.
 - Finding the correct manufacturer who understood what I wanted.
 - Getting the sizes and colours right. 

What was the biggest lesson you have learnt?

Trust your instincts and take the risk. Of course this is very easy to say when something works out! The reality is that instincts and ideas do not always translate into a good business, but you will never know until you try. That said, doing your homework is important and one needs to gather as much information as possible to verify if your ideas are viable. 

How tough is competition in your sector, and what differentiates your product from others?

Swimming caps have been around for a very long time, but were not inclusive of different types of hair and hairstyles. I believe Swimma has not only filled a need but has also morphed into a brand that has an emotional affinity for those who have been affected by the lack of suitable swimming caps. I was a woman with a problem, who then set out to solve that problem and people have identified with that. 

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

Customer service, customer service and again customer service! We all know the frustration of dealing with organisations where customer service is sorely lacking. Making mistakes is unavoidable, but it is vital that they are kept to a minimum and when they do happen, to fix it immediately without putting the burden on the client. 

What was the most unexpected thing about
your business?
The response I have received to date. It hit a nerve with so many South Africans. I have received amazing responses and messages of thumbs up, love and encouragement. 

How do you stay motivated?

My family, people around me and many people I have never met who have sent kind messages of support constantly motivate me.

What are your non-work habits that help you with your work-life balance?

I try to make time for family and friends and have a balanced work/social life. Of course this is not always easy and I don’t always succeed, but it is important to make that effort. 

What is your three-year goal for your company?

I intend to launch other products that will fill a similar void. Unfortunately, I cannot share anything concrete around this yet.

This article originally appeared in the 18 May edition of finweek
Buy and download the magazine here.

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