Updated: Oct 26
Isaac Mbatha’s strong entrepreneurial spirit led him to establish Sky Tents in 2015. His entry into the tent business began with washing and mending tents as well as, on a small scale, acting as a middleman in the tent hire business. The establishment of the tent manufacturing business was in response to the many requests from people who had done business with him.
People, said Isaac asked, “Why can’t he hire the tents out personally?” He recognised that there was much opportunity as the first black person in tent manufacturing as tents were often used for funerals, parties, weddings, etc. in township and rural areas. Although he was scared of failure, with the encouragement of his father, he decided to ‘go for it’, explained Isaac.
Sky Tents was the name chosen for his business venture as he said the name would encourage him to push his business’s growth as much as possible. Isaac explained, “There is nothing above the sky – there are no limits on the road to growth and success.”
While he had a business idea, Isaac had no finance. He was advised to go to an accountant to create a business plan, which he said was a new concept to him. Although he had expressed his dream on paper and despite his best efforts, his application for a business loan was turned down by the bank loan’s officer. That the bank did not see the potential for success, he found especially disappointing, especially as he believed that the bank had wasted his time over the application and rejection process.
But Isaac did qualify for a personal loan and his passion for his vision ensured that he did not give up on his dream and he accessed this finance. He used these funds and his credit card limit to purchase sewing machines and rent a business premise.
Isaac faced many tough challenges in the first year of operation including opposition from his competitors. As his profit margins were slim, each tent he made relied on the 50% deposit paid by the customer in order to purchase material.
He spent much time walking the streets and handing out flyers at robots, and in townships as well as sticking flyers on taxis windows in order to get his name out there and his business off the ground. This meant that, at times, Isaac was often alone in very remote areas where his personal safety was at risk.
Isaac hit his biggest challenge in 2015/16, when he felt that everything was going wrong, and he had accumulated a large amount of debt. He commented, “What you plan for in your head and what happens on your road to success are two different things.”
At that time Isaac hit rock bottom and he struggled enormously with stress, anxiety, and insomnia. He said, “I learnt that I had to be brave. There was only one way to get out of the predicament I was in and that was to pick myself up.”
Isaac had always enjoyed listening to Ukhozi FM radio station and he saw a means to both help people to change their lives and to get his name in the tent business known. He approached the head of Ukhozi FM with a plan to be the first radio station to give away businesses to aspiring entrepreneurs, which was a concept accepted by the station with much enthusiasm. During 2017, in what became a highly successful radio campaign, Sky Tents gave away 100 tents that could be hired out by entrepreneurs to create a business and an opportunity for their own success. Isaac said that helping people to change their lives was a highlight of his career.
As a consequence of the campaign, Isaac became the face of the Sky Tents brand and someone with whom people wanted to do business and to grow their relationships. People connected with his story and with him as a person, explained Isaac. The business growth is evident in the Sky Tents’ number of employees. The company started tent manufacturing with only three employees. In 2017 this number grew from six to 13 employees with the company now employing 79 people.
Isaac’s own entrepreneur spirit is apparent in that he makes sure that the business is constantly changing. He says, “I strive to get my people bubbling and asking what we are doing next.” As such he is a creator of new ideas that get people excited and he enjoys being a motivator. He said, “I resonate with people who want to be part of the Sky Tents journey.” However, he says that as the team leader he sometimes has found it difficult to delegate but is learning to ensure that his employees can take responsibility for their own roles and responsibilities.
The constant change is apparent in that while Sky Tents started with pole tents, the range of products has grown to include stretch tents, frame tents and dome tents amongst other products, for a wide range of applications.
In addition, Sky Tents services include the supply of tables and chairs, draping, mobile toilets, and mobile chillers. The company is now venturing into injection moulding.
Sky Tents has branches in nine locations in South Africa and has international clients in Namibia, Botswana, Nigeria, Algeria, Swaziland, Uganda, Lesotho, the Seychelles, Zambia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.
Isaac says his business philosophy is based on his belief that consistency is key to success. “My head has been down, and I have run my own race.” He added, “Tired rhymes with fired. You need to be on top of your game at all times. Clients are not just about buying your products; they are about your services. As a company, our clients value our service and our opinions so they will even often ask us for business referrals for unrelated products.”
For him one of the highlights of his journey to success has been being recognised by the Forbes Africa 30 Under 30 list in 2019. In 2022 in a further accolade, he won the Standard Bank KZN Top Business Entrepreneur award for resilience.
Isaac says he is constantly working on the business – reviving and polishing it. This leaves him little free time, but he does enjoy spending this time with his family and friends.