Three years ago Sakhile Maseko, a bright young 18 year old engineering student, received a harsh lesson in life when his university bursary ran out.
With no money for accommodation and far away from his home in Swaziland, he was forced to live in the University of the Witwatersrand’s library for months, eating precooked porridge.
“I had a sister living in Benoni, but I couldn’t afford to travel to and from university. Once a week a friend would let me use their shower, otherwise I was living there 24 hours a day.”
Maseko’s desperate circumstances led him to trawl the internet, available free in the library, for a solution.
“There were a bunch us of living under the same circumstances. I knew I had to get out of there and I didn’t give up on that dream.”
The answer came through Facebook, when he noticed students were looking to buy imported luxury watches.
“I convinced one supplier to send over a few samples of his product and I started selling those on Facebook. With the last of the money I had, I ordered some watches online. I still remember collecting them a few days later when they were delivered to the Matrix, the university food court. I sold them and pooled together around R3,700, selling the rest of my belongings, and ordered in a larger shipment.”
These days Maseko (now 21) is a long way from restless nights in the library halls. His company, Aumax, sells almost 500 watches a month in Durban, Cape Town, and Gauteng, employing 15 people and bringing in around R460,000 in monthly revenue.
“Even now, by far the largest traffic I get, is from message requests on Facebook,” he says.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. When he first started, his business nearly went under when he was slapped with an unexpected fine of R12,000 from customs duties, for not having an importers licence, and failing to insure the watches had been correctly priced on the invoice.
Demand continued to grow, and Maseko learnt from his lessons.
“It soon became clear that what many people wanted was the retail experience – being able to try something on before they purchased it. So, I looked to create that,” said Maseko.
What came from this was a "try before you buy" experience on delivery.
When you order a watch, a driver will arrive with the products you selected and a box of 20 other samples. You can then try them at your door. You pay for what you want, and if you don't like any of the products you don't pay anything.
Delivery happens in less than 24 hours after an order is placed. If you use the watch and want to return it you can, at a return fee of R150 – provided the watch is in its original condition. If the watch is faulty it can be returned free of charge.
“Most online retailers insist that you ship a defective good back to them at your own cost. At Aumax, we come to your home and replace any item, or give you your money back.”
The business model caught the attention of venture captialitst Silvertree Internet Holdings, the investment growth partner behind online start-ups Pricecheck.co.za, Faithful-to-nature.co.za, CarZar.co.za, which provided him with further capital to expand the business.
“Essentially, what Sakhile has done is work out how to source good products and how to deliver quickly. But he’s also found a way of effectively marketing his business on social media – something that very few e-commerce retailers in South Africa, and even very few globally, have got right,” said Paul Cook, co-founder and managing director of Silvertree Internet Holdings.
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