“The past five years have not been easy for Cindy Malaza. She has learnt a few hard lessons on the way to building her business.”
Cindy Malaza can best be described as “flighty”, but in the best possible sense. The 35-year-old initially qualified as a chemical engineer but soon had what she describes as a “nagging feeling” that she wasn’t doing what she was supposed to.
So she took off, quite literally, to become a pilot. Cindy loved taking to the skies, but she quickly realised that her “newfound love was not cheap”.
The solution to fund her budding career as a commercial pilot came by chance when, on a whim, she decided to upholster a chair according to a very specific look she had in mind.
“I had no idea how to do it, so I watched YouTube for ideas and discovered the whole creative process. I’ve always had a knack for design and making things look pretty, so the rest just came naturally.”
What started as a whim soon grew into an obsession and, as orders came in organically, Cindy quickly outgrew the garage space lent to her by her landlord and rented a factory space.
“Furniture and decor was supposed to be a way to help me pay for flight school, but I was hooked. It became my new passion,” she says of the genesis of Timeless Opulence, her company that started out as a garage project in 2015.
Five years later, Timeless Opulence is a successful company with three divisions: bespoke furniture manufacturing; interior design and décor; events management. The company employs eight people and services hotels, corporates, architects, developers and private clients, including the décor of legendary South African producer and composer Lebo M’s home, which features in the reality TV show Lebo M Coming Home (now on Showmax).
A Baptism of Fire
On paper, it looks like a neatly packaged success story, but behind the scenes, the past five years have been a rough ride for Malaza.
“At first it was fun and I could make enough to sustain myself and pay for my flying lessons, but I soon realised that I was running my business like a spaza shop! In the beginning dealing with friends was easy, but when the ‘real’ orders started rolling in it got more complicated. I didn’t have any business knowledge or experience, so I had to learn the hard way.”
One of those “complications” was getting burned, bad. Cindy doesn’t want to go into details, save to say that “getting burned has proven to come in handy.”
The key lesson she’s drawn from this experience is that transparency in business is key. “That includes having clear and effective communication with employees, suppliers and clients, and always having agreements in black and white. Related to this, I’ve learned not to take things personally and to run the business as a business, not charity.”
The rands and cents part of running a business was a particularly hard-won lesson considering Cindy entirely self-funded her business and invested all initial profits directly back into the business – “I slowly built up the business to scale, getting in extra help and the necessary equipment over time” – which meant the start-up years were financially lean and stressful for her.
An optimist by nature, Cindy says these early baptisms of fire gave her the resilience needed to weather the storm that was 2020.
“Being a business that supplies other businesses heavily affected by the pandemic, it’s been very tough. However, I’ve come to realise that the lessons I’ve learned have made me strong enough to face unpleasant situations. I’ve remained positive, I’m grateful that I’ve kept on going and that I have been able to adapt to the situation.”
Another point of pride is that she’s been able to retain and develop her team: “Aside from creating employment, I can see that the company has instilled a sense of dignity in our team. After each project, they see what they are capable of and are often left in awe. They are buoyed in confidence by this and it gives me great joy to be able to impart lifelong skills to those who joined as general workers.”
The business’ success itself is another source of great satisfaction. “The journey has been a personal one; it keeps unveiling my character and resilience. I’m a better human being every day because of it.”
Ironically, the reason Cindy started Timeless Opulence – to finish flight school and get her pilot’s licence – is no longer the driving force of her business, yet flying high is still crucial to her on-going success: “When I need to relax, live in silence and be by myself, I go for a flight. It never fails to relax me and shift my perspective on things.”
About the Author:
Catherine Wijnberg is the CEO of Fetola, a leading provider of scalable, world-class entrepreneurial support programmes for African entrepreneurs. Helping people build businesses that last through scalable solutions that deliver social, environmental and economic impact. Fetola means “change” in Sesotho – and they aim to empower people by supporting the growth and development of sustainable, empowered and thriving small and medium enterprises (SMEs) at scale.
Thank you for reading this article. Catherine regularly writes about small business development, sustainability and circularity, and has a passion for effecting scalable impact at the ecosystem level. To receive updates, please sign up here.