As an art teacher looking for art supplies, Sarah Whitaker did what we all do - she asked Google. But she didn't get the answers she was looking for. "Between the big stationery stores and paid ads, I just couldn't find the small, specialised suppliers I wanted," she said. Happily, her network of art teachers filled the gap and she discovered a rich resource of small businesses that had exactly what she needed - but couldn't find online.
This was the inspiration for On South Africa (OnSA). Sarah realised that there was a host of small businesses offering products and services of real value - but unable to reach their target market. "I realised that being found online could make a huge difference in their sustainability and profitability, but most of them simply didn't have the resources and digital skills to make it happen." So, she set about creating a structure to help them do just that - without the high costs that usually accompany building a strong online presence.
Easy access to specialist small businesses
On South Africa is a website that links consumers to suppliers across twelve categories, with a dedicated website for each category. "For example," says Sarah, "if you were planning a function, you could go onto the OnSA Celebrate site and find everything you need - caterers, photographers, florists, venues." The OnSA categories include home, start-ups, social, "kidlets" and more. "Visitors get to search by province, they find suppliers relevant to them, and the small businesses have the chance to connect with customers in their local area."
For Sarah, one of the key issues is that when visitors click on a business, they go to a profile page and get to go behind the scenes and find out about the people running the businesses. "With small businesses, relationships are important, and site visitors can connect with people they relate to."
Sarah has also chosen not to allow any invasive or aggressive ads. There are no distracting pop-ups and no spam or click-bait on her sites. "It's just links to the websites of companies who can help you. You find out about the businesses who can give you what you need, and the people who run them. And we help them showcase their small businesses to people who are looking for their services, in their area."
Women bring warmth to business
Setting up On South Africa and its network of 12 websites, "so far", in 2017 was a major undertaking for a solo entrepreneur, and Sarah gives huge credit to her husband and friends and family who helped and supported her, "and brought me a constant stream of coffee".
"I've been surrounded by strong, independent women my whole life, particularly my mother and my sister, and they've been a huge inspiration to me. And my family and friends have been an enormous support to me as I've grown my business."
"I believe that women bring a warmth, and a more nurturing approach to business, and this can bring a different dimension to how we run our businesses. It's not that we need to behave differently than men in order to succeed," Sarah points out, "but often we just do."
Sarah admits she's not good at work-life balance. Married to her childhood sweetheart, and with three beautiful daughters, her family is central to her life and her happiness. "I'm ADD*, but when I'm immersed in a project I can really focus on it, sometimes almost obsessively. I still sometimes pull all-nighters to get things done." So she's grateful for the help she gets from friends and family - and she's aiming to get the balance right soon.
A strong believer that you can achieve anything if you believe in yourself, Sarah wishes she'd realised this when she was younger - because she would have taken on bigger challenges sooner!
"I want to make a positive difference and empower and uplift as many small businesses as possible, and this is only the beginning," says Sarah. "Yes, I'm proud of what I'm doing - and that I'm helping other entrepreneurs while supporting various charities too. Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself what I've achieved, because there's so much I want to do."
Highly creative, Sarah not only does all the web design herself, she's is also a well-established glass artist with impressive credentials, including a 100 metre original artwork (yes, one hundred metres!) on the façade of the Bridge City shopping centre in KwaMashu, incorporating drawings by children in the KwaMashu area.
On her LinkedIn profile, Sarah describes herself as the founder of On South Africa and creator of big dreams. Happily, her big dreams are also helping fulfil the dreams of other South African entrepreneurs.