While some would eye Ponte Tower as a derelict and dangerous spot, Michal ‘Loopy’ Luptak decided it was as good a place as anyway to not only go to but also choose to live.
While working at Ernst & Young, 30 year old ‘Loopy’ took the crazy decision to move into Ponte Tower. His friends and family were more than a little concerned at the idea.
“The view out the 52nd floor was what sold me initially,” says Luptak. “When I moved in, I was the only guy on my floor. The building was pretty vacant and there weren’t many white people living there at all. The building was, at that stage in 2012, going through re-development.”
Opportunity favours the brave
While living at Ponte Tower he and his current business partner, Nickolaus Bauer noticed the vacant retail spaces that occupied the lower floors of the building. They had gone through an incredible revamped that had given their interiors a much-needed facelift. They realised a potential that most other entrepreneurs wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole.
“Ponte at one stage represented an icon of decadence in the 70’s, moved into the poster child for urban decay in the 90’s and now has become a beacon of hope in Johannesburg’s neglected areas,” Luptak describes. “The story was appealing enough for us to start investing in an idea.”
They initially toyed with the idea of a laundry and pie shop which thankfully, never materialised, before they identified an opportunity which emerged from the young children occupying Ponte Tower.
“We realised that there were between 300 to 500 children in the building with no safe place to play. Their parents were hesitant about leaving them to play in the streets where Johannesburg’s underbelly of crime was prevalent and a strong influence in their upbringing. So the idea of Dlala Nje (“Just Play” in isiZulu) was born.”
When Luptak and his partner opened up Dlala Nje they were both working in their corporate jobs, supplementing the running of Dlala Nje with their salaries. But after only a few months they were thinking of closing shop as the numbers weren’t showing much of a profit.
They were asked to give a talk at The Bioscope in Maboneng around living in Ponte and an audience member asked them whether they could take guests around on a walking tour through Hillbrow. Two weeks later they were called with a booking for 22 people to join the walking tour and these walking tours gave their organisation the legs to continue.
As the walking business grew Dlala Nje store became an exposure platform to an under resourced community of youth for development and empowerment.
Taking the plunge to full time entrepreneur
Then came the crucial decision, Luptak decided to quit his job at the world renowned audit firm.
“The decision came as a result of happiness vs money,” Luptak admits. “I couldn’t stand working with so many unhappy people at my previous job. They were all there for money, at any cost. I asked myself whether I wanted this for the rest of my life and the answer was simple, hell no.”
Luptak resigned and became a solo adventurer, motorbiking through Vietnam. When he came back to South Africa he hit the ground running with Dlala Nje, determined to grow the business.
“I lived off my credit card, ate canned food and borrowed money to keep my dream alive,” says Luptak.
But the young duo of Luptak and Bauer wanted to change perception by creating beauty in negative spaces and dispelling the often disparaging opinions of Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville, through their personal experience.
Something for people to talk about
People who came on their walking tours became brand ambassadors of the DlalaNje brand.
“We had never spent any money on advertising. We used the power of word of mouth to the best of our ability. We married the idea of experience and changing someone’s opinion.
“Our experiences were identified as a great form of leadership and diversity training for senior executives,” says Luptak. “The idea is to take them very much out the comfort zones and show them different perspectives so that they could develop a deeper understanding of the environment they live in.”
The business has started to show promise and Luptak and his partner decided to split the business and the foundation in a bid to grow the business
“We would like to create a pool of funding to attract volunteers in the store to do some cool work in the store. The funding cannot be reliant on the experience business anymore.”