How to turn your side hustle into a full-time gig

by Tracy Greenwood
What’s stopping you from turning your side hustle into your full-time hustle? In a recent networking event held on Henley’s Johannesburg campus, Melody Xaba sat down with Nonhlanhla Magubane, co-founder and director of premium fashion brand eYami Fashion and Lifestyle, to find out how she did it.

Visit Mall of Africa in Gauteng or Oceans Mall in KZN, and you will find eYami Lifestyle stores standing shoulder-to-shoulder with familiar giants on the South African retail landscape. The brand’s presence in shopping malls was always part of founder Nonhlanhla Magubane’s plan, and getting there represents the culmination of many years of hard work.

Running a premium fashion brand is incredibly challenging. It’s also a far cry from where Nonhlanhla started off. Raised in rural KwaZulu-Natal – "We had goats and had to walk to collect water" – Nonhlanhla’s natural curiosity led to her doing a BSc in chemistry at the University of KZN. Thereafter, she began her career as a chemist working in a laboratory.

"I soon grew bored. I realised that I was actually an extrovert and I wanted to work with people, not in isolation in a lab. So I started looking for jobs in sales and marketing and ended up in technical sales before moving into FMCG, where I remained for 18 years."

Laying the foundations

Having come from the highly specialised field of chemistry, Nonhlanhla wanted to diversify her skillset and completed a postgraduate qualification in marketing, followed by an MBA.

"The MBA changed my life and I found it truly empowering. It helped me realise that I needed to find something I was really good at – that turned out to be marketing – and something I was really passionate about – that turned out to be living a purpose-driven life and making a difference. I also realised that it’s much easier to make an impact when you have power of some sort. You need a voice and you need a platform to make yourself heard."

At the time – it was 2016 – the Africa Rising trend was huge globally and the market was flooded with African prints. Nonhlanhla began researching the available prints and found that many of them originated in West and Central Africa and were, for the most part, printed on hard, unforgiving fabrics. She imagined a different, more luxurious interpretation, one that tapped into the cultural consciousness of modern South Africa and decided to bring her vision to life.

Be clear on what you want to build

"There was a definite gap in the market," she says. "At the time, consumers looking for African prints had to either buy them on city streets or in the rural areas. I wanted to start a retail outlet offering high-quality fashion and lifestyle items inspired by the vibrancy and diversity of South African cultures. A brand that resonates with modern South Africans who still want to celebrate their heritage in an authentic way, but in a way that celebrates who they are in the modern context, and has global appeal."

In its testing phase eYami was online only, and garments were made to order. Transforming the business into a brick-and-mortar undertaking was, says Nonhlanhla, one of the biggest challenges of her life.

"My dream was to be at Mall of Africa, but that meant things needed to look and feel a certain way. I benchmarked myself against brands like Witchery and Trenery, and I wanted my customers to feel the same way walking into an eYami store as they did when walking into Woolworths, so I had a clear idea of what I wanted the store to look like.

"We planned everything down to a tee. The lighting and wall colours needed to complement the products, and even the fragrance of the space had to be perfect. I set out to create a candy shop of African things."

The current offering is a range of luxury clothing and accessories for men and women, with a more extensive men’s clothing range set to launch soon. ‘Our prints are largely inspired by the symbolism and vibrancy of Zulu beadwork and are a contemporary interpretation of traditional designs,’ says Nonhlanhla.

Taking the leap of faith

Launching eYami is the biggest achievement in her life, says Nonhlanhla. "I took an insight, transformed it into a big idea and turned that into a business that helps address South Africa’s employment challenges," she says. "We empower talented young black graphic designers to interpret our vision. All our generic fabrics are sourced locally, and our products are all manufactured at our Midrand facility."

Getting the business off the ground was hard and Nonhlanhla says she couldn’t have done it without her support system. "Opening the stores would not have been possible without the strong network of people who believed in me, and in the eYami vision. They literally chose to invest their hard-earned money in eYami, to help us bring the vision to life."

When the first store opened, Nonhlanhla decided to leave the full-time job that had helped her bankroll the business. It had been a juggling act made possible thanks to her tribe of family, friends and, most notably, her co-founder and business partner, Zonke Mashile.

"I had managed to hold onto my job until that point because although I am in the business of fashion, I don’t do the physical work. I can’t draw, nor can I design. I have a team of graphic designers and seamstresses who interpret my vision, which meant I didn’t have to be there all day. I would spend evenings and weekends at eYami and, initially, that was sufficient."

Stepping away from the safety net of full-time employment and joining the business full-time was the ultimate leap of faith.

It was a move of ownership that ties in with the very meaning of the word eYami. "It’s a Nguni word that means 'mine'," explains Nonhlanhla, "It’s about owning your identity, embracing where you are, while celebrating where you come from. I haven’t looked back."

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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