As the founder of Ulanga Bar and Fat Cats football club, Lesiba Langa knows how to grow a small business.
Sometimes, certain habits and hobbies can transform one into a successful entrepreneur. Take Limpopo-born Lesiba Langa, whose love for football and being the self-appointed bartender at events has resulted in two fast-growing brands.
About five years ago, Lesiba launched Ulanga Bar – a mobile bar that provides alcohol and non-alcoholic cocktails at weddings, parties and food markets. “I was always the guy who had a cooler box at weddings and even funerals,” he says. “One year, three of my friends were getting married. In a township wedding, the alcohol is controlled by that strict aunt who won’t give you any booze if she does not like you. So I asked my friends to let me manage the bar for them. We started with a table and two kegs/draught machines.”
That’s how Ulanga Bar was born. It now boasts a number of mobile bars that can be spotted at different food markets and events around Johannesburg. The business is self-funded because getting funding proved to be difficult and limiting, says Lesiba, who left a corporate job to focus solely on Ulanga Bar.
“Initially, my salary went into building the brand and infrastructure,” he says. “Now the business funds itself. Whatever profit we make gets ploughed back into the business. We are now partnering with some big brands to ensure we’re sustainable. It was the best decision for the brand.”
Lesiba and his wife Keitumetse do most of the work, from administration to event planning. As a result, Ulanga Bar is growing steadily and now has a team of 12 bartenders, with two graduates appointed recently to assist in the office. “The brand is our number-one priority – we nurture it daily,” he says. “Apart from excellent service and well-trained staff members, we try to convey the ethos of the brand. It’s not just a mobile bar that makes fantastic cocktails – it goes the extra mile to ensure you have a fantastic event. Our brand objective is to create memorable experiences.”
The industry in which Lesiba operates has some exciting challenges. “It’s extremely competitive, so you really need to stand out,” he says. “You also need to evolve with the rapid pace set by the big players, which makes it even more exciting.”
With the rapid growth of the business, Ulanga Bar may one day open brick-and-mortar premises. For now, “We want to establish ourselves as a brand that pushes the envelope, that’s willing to take a risk, and that everyone is familiar with.”
Lesiba’s first foray into the world of business came 15 years ago when, together with friends, he launched the Fat Cats football club. It’s since gone on to record rapid growth in various sporting fields, including running, golf and cycling.
As the story goes, a bunch of football journalists wanted to start their own weekend team for fitness reasons. “In truth, we were playing for a team that kept us on the bench – and this prompted us to create our own club,” says Lesiba. Little did they know that, 15 years later, the club would record massive growth with more than 1 000 active members.
He explains that, initially, Fat Cats was all about football. But as some of its members got older and less interested in the sport, running and cycling became logical areas of expansion.
Fat Cats is a dynamic brand that speaks to the right market and audience. “The setup is easy to understand,” says Lesiba. “It speaks to the young, aspiring black professional who is trying to survive in the concrete jungle. We’re no longer just about and hanging out at nightclubs.”
The club also has an investment component; its aim is to ensure that members have something to help sustain it for another 15 years. “Fat Cats is a non-profit organisation, and relies heavily on members’ fees,” says Lesiba. “We get sponsors from time to time, and we realise we need to be more corporate-minded if the Cats are to ever compete with the likes of Vitality.”
Describing his entrepreneurial journey, Lesiba says building a brand and seeing people fall in love with it is very fulfilling. “Yes, you make money – but to have someone say they love your brand is incredibly satisfying.”
HANGING OUT WITH LESIBA
I LIVE IN… Ruimsig, Roodepoort, in the west of Johannesburg. It’s family-oriented. I have a young family, and everything the kids need is within a five-minute drive.
MY FAVOURITE PLACE FOR BREAKFAST McDonald’s! But I only have a McMuffin and an orange juice.
…LUNCH You’ll find me anywhere that sells braai meat and pap.
…AND DINNER The Wing Republic in Braamfontein. It has by far the best ribs and wings in Jozi.
THE BEST PLACE FOR BUSINESS MEETINGS The Rosebank Starbucks. I go there for the free speedy Wi-Fi.
MY OFFICE IS IN… My house. I’ve set up an office in the spare room, so I don’t have to sit in traffic every morning.
MY FAVOURITE PLACE TO SHOP Cradlestone Mall in Mogale City. It’s always empty… I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing!
…AND TO HANG OUT Sporo’s Cookout, the BrownSense Market or the Cookout Sunday in Soweto.
WORDS Thabiso Mochiko