Sonnika Coetzee: The Sweet Smell of Success

IMGP1309 (2)There is no such word in the dictionary, but Sonnika Coetzee calls herself an “Aromateur”. She knows, for example, that it takes about 9,000 pounds (4,000 kilos) of rose petals to make just 35 ounces of pure rose essential oil. It has taken Coetzee 16 years to turn her childhood love of fragrances and interest in science into a viable business, but today she is the owner of a successful aromachology enterprise.

“If I look back at the growing years I can see hours, days and months ticking away, developing products that never really brought in the money I expected. A lot of time was sacrificed that could have been spent with family or friends and spare cash that could have used to pay off car or home loans. But I’m a strong believer in not looking back at the business failures of yesterday lest you stumble over your successes of today. Keep moving forward.”

Born on a typical sunny Sunday in Johannesburg, South Africa, Coetzee spent her youth experimenting with oils and perfume. Her mother, a chemistry teacher, was an early influence as Coetzee sat in on classes and was riveted by all the mixing and blending. Outside the classroom, Coetzee’s mother had an interest in aromatherapy which her father, an Aviation Safety Manager with South African Airways, happily abetted by bringing home essential oils from Israel and America; oils that were impossible to find in the sanction-bound days of Apartheid.

“I made my first bath salt when I was in grade 2 and my first perfume a year later. I loved the smell of my mother’s oils and used to blend them all together. Always ‘impressed’ with my concoctions, she allowed me to mix all sorts of stuff. I nearly burned down the kitchen making my first soap,” Coetzee recalls with a laugh.

Her creative side flourished and, at the age of 11, she started a small business selling coconut ice sweets, handmade cards, and clay clowns baked in her mother’s Lavender de Provence Photo Shoot Oct 2014 059oven. But this entrepreneurial path was cut short on graduation from school.

“In those days, girls were not encouraged to study chemistry or science. I was an avid reader and had a great memory and thought information technology might be a good choice but was misadvised that this field was going nowhere. So, although it was not really what I wanted to do, I decided to pursue law.”

Clearly not passionate about the subject, Coetzee never completed her degree and opted instead to head straight for the labor market. Her first job was as a receptionist at a medical clinic for pilots and crew, where she later became a credit control clerk and technical project coordinator. From there, she moved to the South African Bureau for Standard (SABS) and, after many years on the job, was promoted to Rose of Persia Rangeoversee the Human Health and Environmental Consumer Protection division.

But ever true to her youthful leanings, Coetzee continued to make soaps, bath salts, oils and fragrances for friends and friends. It remained “just a hobby” until she made some soaps to support an HIV/AIDS fundraising campaign.

“Everything sold out and I received more orders. Eish – I was not prepared for that! People started asking me to teach them how to create their own body products as they couldn’t find anything like them commercially.”

Realizing this “hobby” was becoming so much more, she launched a small nights-and-weekends business blending fragrant perfume and essential oils – Aromahaus – while working full-time at SABS. Slowly she built up the business which was mostly financed from her own pocket.

But about ten years ago, a tragic shooting occurred at work, leaving two close colleagues dead. As respite from her sorrow, Coetzee dedicated her waking hours to Aromahaus and left SABS within months to pursue her business full-time.

“Ironically and honestly I have gained back some of the old me. I have all ways been a very happy person until the shooting. It broke my heart into a thousand pieces. Aromahaus took my attention away from this for many months and even years.”

There were some challenges along the way. It was really tough to source the right raw material on a small scale, and rigorous regulatory and safety requirements only heightened the stress of finding a trustworthy supplier. Coetzee also learned some tough lessons about intellectual property and mixing business with friendship.

Venetian Vanilla photo shoot Oct 2014 059“Jealously from some family members and ‘friends’ was an unfortunate surprise for me. Some wanted to copy my business ideas while others tried to snooker me into all sorts of business ventures. It hurt me a lot but I decided to learn from it.”

A turning point came in 2010 when she signed up for femTECH training, after which her “business really grew by a million per cent”. Her current client base is huge and growing all the time, despite the economic downturn in South Africa, as she expands to training, spa partnerships, parties, and even bridal showers and weddings.

Any regrets? “No, not at all! Nothing could have prepared me for this journey. It can be a very lonely place sometimes. But when I get stressed, I only have to walk out into my small holding’s lavender fields and enjoy the pure scent. Then I calm down and continue.”

Tips from Sonnika Coetzee
  • Starting your own business is sometimes a very lonely place to be. Only the person working day and night and investing every little bit of energy and resource into the business will understand that it is part of you – like an arm or a leg.
  • Try not to take criticism personally even though the business is very personal.
  • Be prepared to multi-task and put in long, long hours. Most people don’t appreciate the amount of work that goes into building a business from scratch. You can have dreamy ideas but nothing prepares you for the serious dedication and commitment it takes to be successful.
  • Don’t look back at business failures of yesterday, it will only cause you to stumble over your business successes of today.
  • There is a space for every small teeny tiny business but it takes a lion’s heart to make it a success.
  • Wear very strong deodorant because you’re going to need it for difficult business meetings

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