Incanda had humble beginnings. I grew up on a farm near Swellendam, in the Southern Cape and started the business directly after finishing my studies, selling “products” from the farm. This included porcupine quill and guinea fowl feather lampshades and some tanned Nguni cow skins.
Many people ask, so here is the quick story of the name: Incanda means porcupine in Xhosa, as porcupine quill lampshades were my flagship product in the first year of business. It is correctly pronounced by using one of the famous Xhosa click sounds. The c – click is made right in the front of your mouth – you already make this sound when you look down on your little brother doing something stupid, shaking your head and saying tut tut tut
From the quills and feathers start, I gradually migrated into the tanning and selling of all kinds of game skin like Zebra and Springbok and also bovine (cow) leather. After the second or third client asked me if I don’t know of anybody who can do the actual upholstery, I said “Yes, we definitely can!” and with we, I was referring to the wonderful people I was about to recruit feverishly to help me with this new endeavour. So in December 2003, after lots of blood sweat and tears and obliterated stitching machines (too long story to tell here) we delivered our first two couches… from a double garage…and delivered it on a little Bantam bakkie...one couch at a time...luckily the summer holidays were upon us and we could recoup a bit before hitting 2004. “Yes, we definitely can!”
The business grew rapidly and by 2008, with the onset of the financial crisis, we already produced around 70 – 80 sofas per month and had an additional re-upholstery division to also restore the settee inherited from Ouma. So, being a serial entrepreneur, an eternal optimist and suffering from the typical hubris of young entrepreneurs thinking all new ventures will inevitably be successful, I decided that we were going to “grow” ourselves out of the recession. What followed was a period of feverish expansion, where we tried our hand at an impressive list of new ventures: (In this instance, when I say we, I am referring to me, myself and I)
- We started our own mini sawmill to get our wood for our frames cheaper (nah…didn’t work)
- We started to buy in old furniture then zoosed it up and resold it under the label of “Incanda Uniques” (it was a very good idea, but a very bad plan, as the amount of work that went into these Uniques was too much to still sell at reasonable prices and it confused our clients on what we really offered)
- We allowed someone to set up an art gallery in our showroom (ooh, did that one end in a catfight!)
- We also started doing interior decorating and curtaining…because as Suzelle DIY says, anybody can! (We have a kick-ass decorating team at the moment, but I think it took us about four years to first learn how to do it properly and not like all the housewives who also happen to be brilliant interior decorators)
- We bought into a business installing peach pip floors. (The proponent of this idea was one of the most creative people I have ever met…and that is all I have to say about that.)
- Since we had such a lot of IT stuff to do, we decided to start our own in-house IT company called ThisisIT. (The IT is not pronounced as separate letters but as the word “it”. Let’s all agree, that was a very cool name!)
- We bought over a handbag business and started manufacturing handbags to better utilise our leather off-cuts. (what is the difference between a handbag factory and a wine farm…very little actually, both are very sexy to have and both are going to cost you a small fortune in losses)
- A week or two after buying the handbag business we decided to also buy over a woodwork factory. (The thinking basically was that since we are going to have disruption in the factory, we might just as well go big…OK, that was obviously not the thinking, but it was very definitely the FEELING afterwards)
- Building and renovations (really!…Yeah, we thought since we were already doing all the interior decorating, we might just as well try our hand at a bit of cement slinging too…even drawing up plans and the works.)
- Interior cupboards and shop fitting for big commercial projects (Ooh, did we learn a few things there. For instance, it is OK for the builder’s assistant to mix cement on your very expensive solid wood top that you just installed for the client as long as he wipes it off afterward, or the plumber is allowed to physically break open your newly installed sink cupboards because “there is something wrong with the pipes”)
By 2014 I was more or less healed from any remaining entrepreneurial hubris and we started focussing seriously on what we know we can do well: …making beautiful furniture! We did retain the interior decorating and curtaining part of the business. This is a hit with our clients as it provides the best possible settings for our furniture and add value to their purchase. We have had great success with our wooden furniture division and it now also forms an integral part of our product offering, but the other eight ventures, well… they are no more. I said Incanda had humble beginnings, but I think that is nothing compared with being humbled a few years in, after all the initial successes!
Even more humbling than realising that not all new ventures will be a success, was realising that managing 100+ people is WAY more complicated than managing 20 people. You have to have systems and policies and procedures and HR and all such kind of things. And worst of all, people don’t just telepathically know your wishes and viewpoints any more, you have to communicate it constantly.
So from 2014 onwards we have stuck to a much narrower, but crystal clear vision of becoming the market leader in upmarket furniture in South Africa. (Our range now includes: armchairs, sofas and corner units; dining room tables and chairs; ottomans and side tables; beds and headboards; plasma units, servers and wineracks; decor accessories and more) How are we busy doing that?
- By developing a truly South African inspired and designed range of products unique to Incanda
- By turning our factory into a world class operation in terms of production efficiency and quality standards
- By taking client service to another level and thus becoming the most loved furniture brand in the country
After a few years of intense focus on these three areas and not getting distracted by any sideshows (I must admit this part is very hard for a recovered serial entrepreneur like me), 2016 has so far really been the year of results for Incanda. Our production efficiencies are ever increasing, meaning we can offer better value for money to our customers. Our client satisfaction ratings are going through the roof. There will always be the odd mishap, but our motto is…it is not about making the mistake, it is about fixing it properly. A major milestone for us is the opening of our new flagship showroom in Menlyn, Pretoria. We believe we now have the production capacity and the systems backing to really become a major role player over the next few years. Our biggest (and most exciting) challenge over the next year or two is to bring all our new products online. We have a clear plan of where we want to go with our product range, but prototyping and getting a product retail-ready, whilst still maintaining normal production schedules, is an excruciatingly slow and expensive process, so we have to balance that with commercial realities. But all in all, I believe we are on the right track. As long as we keep having fun, keep being honest to ourselves and our customers and keep working hard because our jobs are also our passion, the sky is the limit.
Lastly, this “story”, although written by myself, is definitely not about me anymore, it is about the 100 wonderful people working here and the thousands and thousands of happy clients, who spend hard-earned money on our products, getting genuine pleasure and enjoyment out of living together with our furniture. So let’s all watch this space together.
Gerhard 2018 Update
As I sit here in January 2018, I must admit, the rest of 2016 and 2017 did not play out quite as I imagined. On the downside...the shenanigans of President Zuma and the subsequent economic turmoil was not good for business, especially for us in the furniture sector who is reliant on consumer confidence for sales. On the positive side we bought and moved in to a new 4000sqm production facility and will soon have doubled our capacity from beginning of 2017 Our aim is to bring our lead times down to three to four weeks on all furniture and sell more items directly off the floor.
I will also confess...we did venture into one tiny little extra business line in 2017...we have started an indoor plant range in our showrooms. We love the more tranquil and natural ambience it creates, but we also realised that plants can sometimes be ungreatful little buggers. They would even go so far as die on you, if they are unhappy with their treatment. So suffice to say, our fingers are now much greener than a year ago.