Situated in the heart of Melville in Johannesburg at 27 Boxes, a shopping mall constructed from shipping containers, WoodiZ boasts fashionable eyewear, bow ties, backpacks, satchels, caps and cufflinks – all made out of wood.
The business was co-founded in mid-2013 by Damian and Angela Goliath, who wanted to take a much-loved international concept and adapt it for the local market. The duo started out as resellers for someone who sold wooden eyewear in Cape Town.
Then the manufacturer of the machine that is used to make the wooden frames offered to help them build their own machine in Johannesburg.
“That kicked off ideas to create new and exciting ways of creating fashion accessories with elements of wood that haven’t been done before,” says Angela, who handles marketing and branding, as well as aspects of the product development and the daily running of the store. Damian works mainly behind the scenes to ensure production and operations run smoothly.
“We had no idea how to manufacture wooden products, we knew nothing about wood. We just saw these products and had a deep desire to want to be part of it and wanted to know how to [make them],” explains Angela. “When he offered [help with our own machine], we saw it as a great opportunity to have our own brand.”
They rented factory space in Randburg to build a special machine for the manufacturing of wooden bow ties and eyewear frames.
But starting the business did not come cheap. They approached family and friends for start-up capital. Angela’s father took out a R150 000 loan from the bank, which helped get the business off the ground. Their products were selling well at markets and “people loved what we were doing, and [my father] could see the potential”, she says.
Even though they manufacture the wooden eyewear themselves, the polarised UV400 lenses are imported. They work with a local optometrist who shapes these lenses so they fit into the wooden frames. WoodiZ also makes prescription glasses and sunglasses for customers.
Their bow ties can be customised – customers can add clip-on fabric of their choice to the wooden bow tie frames.
At the end of 2015 they introduced watches with wooden faces, and in a collaborative effort added their own twist by getting a wrap scarf manufacturer Voilà Feel Beautiful to make wraparound straps for the watches.
The brand’s backpacks and caps incorporate traditional seshweshwe fabric (a traditional Sesotho printed fabric) and wood. WoodiZ products come with a 12-month warranty, says Angela.
Although their best customers are tourists, they do not limit their brand to a specific target market. “We really can’t put our brand in a specific box and say, ‘It’s for this or that subculture’…we [are] actually not surprised by who walks through the doors of our shop anymore. We have anyone from white-collar 50-year-olds walking in to purchase bow ties and cufflinks to 15-year-old girls coming through to purchase bags and watches,” says Goliath.
One of the biggest hurdles they faced in the beginning was getting retailers to believe in their unknown brand and sell their products, says Angela. “We had very little interest; we must have approached over 100 retail outlets but got very few bites.”
But they didn’t give up – they created an online store, beefed up their social media presence and made stylists ambassadors of their brand. They continued selling at various markets like Braamfontein’s Neighbourgoods market on Saturdays. On Sundays, they showcased their goods at Arts on Main in Maboneng.
“Eventually a brilliant opportunity came when we were approached to have a store in a new centre for young designers called 27 Boxes,” she says. “It’s crazy because those same retailers are now contacting us.”
Like with many local businesses, the depreciation of the rand has had a negative impact on the start-up. “We’ve had to increase our prices because the cost of importing polarised lenses and the lenses themselves has gone up quite a bit,” Angela explains.
“I’m happy we were rejected [by most major retailers] because the ones that were interested would say, ‘We want a 100% mark-up, but we don’t want to charge more than what you’re charging retail.’ And we wondered if it was worth it,” Goliath recalls.
She says the rejection worked in their favour in the end, because, had they collaborated with a big retailer, the business would have fallen apart.
The WoodiZ team are currently working on obtaining their import and export licence because people from the likes of Australia and France have shown interest in stocking their goods.
In future, they would like to open two additional stores in other parts of the country and eventually sell their products overseas.
Bamboo Revolution was co-founded in 2012 by Amy de Castro and a group of her classmates while they were studying towards a postgraduate diploma in entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town.
The course required that the class form teams who then had to launch a business in seven months. Over this period, she and her team of six had to conceptualise, design, manufacture and market a uniquely South African product that was sustainable and aimed at the student market.
“We were very naïve in that we set our minds on this watch idea and it was all learning-by-doing. We took a piece of bamboo and had a watch engraved and cut out to make a prototype, and then we needed to find someone to manufacture it. By that stage, we had only two months left to make it,” she recalls.
The students were forced to outsource the manufacturing of the face component of the watch as no one could do it locally. “We went to the Asian market to find someone to make the watch face for us,” she says.
In order to keep their product proudly South African, they decided to have the watch straps manufactured in Cape Town by a local factory using custom-made and hand-assembled leather pieces. This was then attached to the face of the watch by their in-house expert.
Where did they get seed capital?
De Castro says the university gave the group R50 as a novelty to start on the project; the team used their network to raise funds. They also approached a coffee brand for sponsorship and sold coffee to fellow students over two days. This effort helped them raise R21 000.
“That was our initial capital and because everything had to be paid upfront – especially in the Asian market – we put in about R2 000 of our own cash each to make that up,” she adds.
In August 2012 the product was launched. The watches, which were selling for R350 at the time, were such a hit that 100 were sold in the first few hours. The team was able to cover its costs on the first day.
De Castro saw this as an indication that the product had potential and, on completion of the course, she decided to continue developing it further. Today she is 100% shareholder and owner of Bamboo Revolution, which sells watches at about 30 boutique stores and stockists in major cities around the country.
Building a brand
Within six months of running the business, she says the business started receiving interest from overseas and today the Bamboo Revolution brand has a presence in seven other countries, including Germany, Denmark, Iceland and Australia.
She prefers to work with boutique stores rather than big retailers. “I have been approached by retail stores, both locally and internationally, and I’ve had to say no because I have never wanted for it to be a commercially produced product. I want more focus on the handcrafted personal touch of the product and I want [the business] to grow organically.”
Over the past few years she has focused her attention on being innovative in improving the quality of the watches, whose mechanisms have a one-year warranty. To date, Bamboo Revolution has sold 24 000 watches.
De Castro says the company’s online presence, word-of-mouth and tourists buying the products in Cape Town and taking them back home have played an important part in getting the brand exposure in international markets. This is the reason they have no immediate plans to open a physical store, and this model proves more affordable for them.
Instead of planning to expand the Bamboo Revolution range by introducing other products, de Castro says she would rather focus on improving the quality of their current product and launching a new design. And given the weak rand, she too is looking to grow the brand internationally.
This article originally appeared in the 7 April 2016 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.