Sometimes it is an unexpected comment from a mentor that resets the course of a business. Fashion designer Pierre Cardin commented on Lesego Malatsi's menswear designs and wondered if he had seen them somewhere before.
For many South African fashion designers, this might be taken as a compliment. If they had produced work that looked similar to European designs at a lower cost base, this might open up a potentially very interesting market. But for Malatsi, it was clear that he had to produce something new and original, not just replicate other people's designs.
Malatsi grew up in Soweto and initially thought he would train as an accountant. But he had always been inspired by design, so enrolled at his local technical college. This only lasted one year, but he persevered and eventually graduated from a second college with a degree in fashion design.
His first retail job was with Woolworth's as a store manager but he could see no route towards designing his own clothes, so he left after a year to purse his own dream. Not having the resources to start his own company, he approached a group of women who had secured a sewing project and did a deal with them to provide machine time to generate garments from his patterns.
He was soon able to buy his own machines, and was invited to show his men's and ladies wear designs at a high profile fashion event sponsored by Volkswagen. This was attended by Cardin and his feedback inspired Malatsi to generate his own original afro-centric designs.
His vision was to take elements from the eleven different local cultures, modernise them and inspire a new generation of genuine, indigenous fashion design for both men and women. There would be the additional benefit of improving cross-cultural understanding both within South Africa and also abroad.
His early years had their inevitable ups and downs. He hired people before his revenues were secured, and had to leave his first set of premises, having underestimated the overheads required to run the business. Eventually, he set up an operation in his own flat, and after two years' hard graft was invited to show at the South African Fashion Week.
He learned the hard lesson that excellent reviews do not necessarily lead to firm orders and was soon struggling again until a big customer, who he now refers to as an 'angel', finally arrived with a substantial order.
But he was frustrated that his designs were being marketed under other people's brands, and in 2004 set up Mzansi Designs, as a vehicle for his own and other local fashion designers' work.
He was beginning to attract some large orders, including some blazers for the government and the national sports teams. This put pressure on his business operations so he approached the Branson Centre of Entreneurship in Johannesburg, which is supported by Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group.
His mentors included a South African entrepreneur, Howard Harrison, who set up the Knomo brand of laptop bags and accessories in London and an Indian finance expert who often visits Johannesburg on business. They provide their mentoring face-to-face or via Skype.
Malatsi has just presented his designs at London Fashion Week, has seventeen people working for him and has opened his own retail store. He explains that there is much local talent who share his vision to break the stereotypes and perceptions people have about Africa.
Starting a business is always the hardest part. Now he has achieved international recognition, perhaps one day Lesego Malatsi's name will be as famous as Pierre Cardin's.
Mzansi Designs can be found at www.mzansidesigners.co.za
Originally published in The Financial Times. Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon is the co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and a business speaker.