In this series, we speak with people who know what desperate feels like. While now blooming into success, these founders share with us their deeply personal financial struggles and lessons learned on their way back to black.
For Wian van Blommestein, what began as a humble hobby—cooking up a beef jerky alternative known as biltong—simmered for over a decade into a carefully calculated decision: start a family business as a side gig. Then grow it large enough so that loved ones could join in full-time.
But sprinkle in interest-climbing student loans, along with some credit card debt, plus an emptied bank account, and you’ve got the other, less discussed ingredients behind his family’s start-up story for the Virginia-based Ayoba-Yo.
In Wian’s words:
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I would say everybody in my family did, except for maybe my dad, Steph, who’s a little reserved. But we were making biltong for ourselves as a hobby, and we realized that it was an improvement on beef jerky, and we saw that the beef jerky category continued to grow. So at the end of 2015, my brother, Emile, and myself sat down, and we said, “Look. One of us should take this opportunity and get it to the point where the other one can join.” So I decided to be the first one.
I was lucky enough to have a family member who allowed me to stay above their garage in a studio with my then-girlfriend.
I had a little bit of savings but not a lot. But I realized that this opportunity was very unique, and there wasn’t anything else like our family’s biltong available on the market. I decided to leave my full-time job, knowing that I wasn’t going to have a salary and that the only financial dependence would come from how hard I worked. Our goal was to just build a healthy company by increasing our product awareness, building our transparency, authenticity, and just offering a healthier snack to all of America that might not be familiar with biltong in general—and, while doing that, depending on our cultural attachment to South Africa as well.
Going off on your own is always a challenging decision to make. I had student loans that I was paying off already. I didn’t have a salary for the first two years. I was lucky enough to have a family member who allowed me to stay above their garage in a studio with my then-girlfriend. But we had to sacrifice a lot of fun: we didn’t travel much, we didn’t hang out with our friends often, and those sort of sacrifices. I wasn’t taking any money out of the company; all the money would go back into the company and then the credit cards were helping my cost of living but then also going towards growing the business itself. I grew it to the end of 2017, when my brother joined on board as well.
I wanted to make the best of the opportunity—and the risk my parents took by packing up their entire lives in South Africa.
But while the business is growing, the first few years, and even now, today, it’s still very, very challenging. We were going out to each location and convincing the buyer that what we have is better than jerky and that we would sell well in his store. And then we would support it with whatever social media post we could. At the same time, I was growing our online store at the time, and that’s actually what allowed us to get to the point that we are right now: being self-funded without having to raise capital. I didn’t have the capital to hire anybody to do demos in stores. All of the demos, support, all of the ecommerce posts, all the photos—everything had to be done either by myself, friends, family or essentially exchanging products for services.
It’s always both a blessing and a curse—working with family. Luckily we all get along very well and we’re very tight-knit, and that kind of comes from the South African culture in itself. But I was very reliant, and still am, on the whole family and their involvement. Back in the day, every weekend we’d have to sit around the table and place stickers on the bags—between 1,000 and 2,000 a month. Everybody was involved: my girlfriend (now wife), my brother’s wife, my mom, my dad, whoever we could find.
As a first-generation immigrant, I wanted to make the best of the opportunity—and the risk my parents took by packing up their entire lives in South Africa and leaving their family to give their children a better opportunity in the US. They certainly see the struggle, and they’ve made it clear that they would be more than willing to help. But I never wanted to put them under too much strain. We are definitely trending upwards, so the company is growing, and we very recently hired our first full-time team member in addition to my brother and myself. The goal between my brother and myself has always been to grow the company to a point where we can help our parents with their retirement.Illustration by German Gonzalez