Ubertech Meets Ubergeek: Stafford Masie isn’t Just Changing the Rules… He’s Changing...

Ubertech Meets Ubergeek: Stafford Masie isn’t Just Changing the Rules… He’s Changing the Game


Inventors make things that didn’t exist before they got there. It’s tough. It’s disruptive. It requires you to create an industry and change mindsets, without any data, analytics or best practices to base your decisions on. The troughs and the peaks are equally extreme.

Some days you have more than you could spend in several lifetimes, other days you’re wondering how you’re going pay for that next tank of fuel. You learn to accept and embrace failure because all it is is data, data that you execute upon to take the next step.

My biggest challenge hasn’t been spotting the gaps and visualising a new way of doing things, but running with the day-to-day operations of a business. That’s not my strength. I’m not a manager. It’s why I always seek diverse skills and a flat structure.

The only way things work in my companies is because I hire a specific human profile. I’m the conductor, I own the building, and I create a space where the most amazing music can be made by skilled musicians… hoping there are enough folk out there willing to pay to hear it… so we can keep making it.

I’m very careful about who I hire.

In thumbzup.com, a start-up we are currently launching which employs just over 30 people, we have recruited the alpha geeks from a number of industries.

Everyone is hired through a peer review process and recommended to us. I make sure the people who end up here are mature, opinionated, brilliantly competent in what they do, independent thinkers with the right attitude; people who want to have fun and learn with people who are smarter than them.

I follow this general principle: Choose insane passion, perpetual positivity, intermingled with integrity over any level of competency. We’ve hired PHDs, astrophysicists, a marine biologist but that was consequential. Not everyone is here working in their fields, but the collective knowledge base is helping us invent some very special new technologies.

We’re all about cross-pollination. That’s how magic happens. And because it’s a team of driven experts who want to be here as much as we want them, I don’t need to manage. We have a shared vision, goals and jointly established objectives. I don’t even have a designated office or desk. That’s not my role. I just keep pushing the envelope: ‘Okay, that’s great, but can we make it do this’.

I’ve surrounded myself with people much smarter than me, but I’m the dreamer. They tell me something’s impossible, and I argue that it’s not. I push them, and eight times out of ten they find a way. I promise potential new hires only two things: They will work on world firsts whilst surrounded by ultra smart colleagues, and we will always continue hiring smarter people.

Related: From the Frying Pan into the Fire: The Story of Ocean Basket

I choose the people I work with based on conviction.

This is as true of the entrepreneurs I’ve invested in as an angel investor, as it is of my business partners and staff. People who are only interested in the money they will make are missing the bigger picture of what it takes to create something new.

There must be an underlying conviction: We need to constantly be thinking ‘This will change people’s lives’. The rest will follow. Snowboarding was created because skiers were fooling around with a different way of doing what they loved. The Wright brothers didn’t want to sell planes or establish an aviation industry, they just wanted to fly.

The Internet grew because users who loved the tech were constantly searching for new things they could do and create online. That’s when true inventions and organic innovations happen — when people are having fun.

In every team I’ve ever built, I always have at least one ‘silverback’ on board.

Industries and tech are changing, but there’s no substitute for real-world experience. When I was younger, I bounced every decision I made off my father who had so much experience in life and business, I trusted his insight and advice. Make sure you’ve got experience in the team that’s seen the common mistakes and knows how to avoid them. Intelligence is valuable but not more so than experience.

I have a tendency to partner with people I’ve had public debates with.

We didn’t agree on what the industry needed, but we wanted to make things better. It’s that shared passion for change that is so important. You don’t always need to agree on how to get there, as long as you’re focused on finding a way and open to new ideas and ways of looking at things.

Another start-up we’re currently spearheading, Pamoja, has Seacom as its investment partner. Seacom’s founder, Brian Herlihy  and I ended up having a live debate at a conference about connectivity and content platforms in Africa.

That debate led to a discussion, which led to another meeting, and ultimately Pamoja was born. The same thing happened with thumbzup.com. I was an early supporter of open source in South Africa, but I was Novell’s country manager.

Professor Derek Keats believed Novell was contaminating the open source waters through its direct involvement. I naturally didn’t agree, but the debate sparked between us led to other ideas, brainstorming sessions and ultimately what we’re doing with thumbzup.com. We have since unveiled thumbzup.com with Absa, who I criticised publically about a year ago regarding its NFC payment initiatives.

Related: A Well Oiled Machine

We’re at our most creative when we do what we love, without objectives.

Those can come later. Steve Jobs said that you can’t connect dots forward, only backwards. I’ve found that if you always choose to do what you love, the dots will naturally connect. One thing leads to another, particularly if you’ve consciously made the decision to grow your areas of interest and knowledge-base.

Each career move I have made expanded my understanding of the tech industry, while also giving me insight into mergers and acquisitions. So while I was learning about industries, I was also leaning how to critically evaluate a business.

Today, I follow my interests; I look for ways we can change the world. But everything I know stems from the broad experience I’ve accumulated over the years. We’re the sum of all our parts, and we never stop learning and moving forward. But, you can only learn and move forward if you are doing what you truly love.

Whenever we start creating something new, the first question is: What do our clients really want?

Do they want a better way to pay you, or do they want a way to walk into a coffee shop and walk out with the coffee and muffin without having to worry about payment at all because it’s just happened in the background without them having to do anything?

While most sites were making prettier shopping carts, Amazon removed the shopping cart entirely. Consequentially, by licensing Amazon’s 1-Click, so did Apple’s iTunes. Once you’ve set up your profile, you can get what you want without worrying about paying.

And that’s why these brands are world leaders. They understand what their customers really want; they want the book, the song or the movie and not a better way to pay.

Google maps changed the way we interact with the world. The next step isn’t better GPSs though. It’s the Google car, which won’t just show where to go, it will take a blind person there. Because that’s what GPS is for — it takes us to our destination.

We don’t care about the actual device or interface, we care about the outcome. If you want to create something new, always focus on the outcome. The future of technology isn’t evolving the visual experience, it’s the embedding and disappearance of it.

So, we’re going to try and apply these crazy principles to payment and see what happens. I’m not building thumbzup.com to compete, I am building a business whose sustainability is utterly dependent on making things simpler for its users, with a team as naïve as I am that will inflict positive change globally.


Thumbzup is the product of a single experience for Masie. While getting his plumbing fixed he needed to run to the airport. He was gone for a few weeks, and when he returned, he realised the plumber had spent weeks looking for him, and had ended up paying R1 000 trying to collect on a R2 000 bill.

“It was a crazy situation. If I had been able to pay him before leaving for the airport I would have, and instead it turned into an ordeal for a small business owner just trying to balance getting paid with getting the work done.

“I realised that the single biggest challenge small business owners face is payment. What could I do to solve this?”

The result of these musings? A small, über-secure device that plugs into any smartphone and instantly turns it into a card machine. Imagine, Masie’s plumber could have pulled out the device, attached it to his phone, and swiped Masie’s credit card there and then, payment complete.

The Pebble is thumbzup.com’s first product, but the company’s team of alpha geeks, as Masie has coined them, are busy designing a number of other products that will revolutionise the industries they are targeting.

Absa has come on board, and all Pebbles (which will soon be available to the public) are Absa branded.

The future

“I want to kill PayPal’s present value proposition,” says Masie. “PayPal was created to ensure secure online transactions. It exists because transaction enablement on the Internet is flawed. I want to take transaction enablement off the Internet.

I want to create a world where you become the secure transaction, where you are PayPal, and your device of choice can be a point of sale for whatever method of payment you choose. Imagine everyone has a Pebble and you can sit in your car, hear about concert tickets on the radio, mobile search a keyword mentioned, plug your Pebble into your phone and do a credit card or debit card transaction there and then to buy five golden circle tickets.

Imagine walking into a store, taking what you want and secure payment just occurred. A world where the visual and physical experience of payment has died. None of us wants to pay better, we just want the book and the result of paying for it is instantaneous and invisible.”

Connect: thumbzup.com; info@thumbzup.com

  • mattcrox

    Why would you need a Pebble to do mobile payments over the internet? Surely the Pebble only exists as a physical mechanism to get the credit card details into the phone quickly and securely. If I have the credit card details saved in my phone (by entering the details manually, as a one time, setup event), and stored in an app, the purchase of Golden Circle tickets could easily be as simple as Amazon’s 1 Click functionality, provided that merchants are on board with the payment mechanism.

  • Luke

    I think it is a good idea, there is definitely potential for this device. I like the way Masie thinks,he has good ideas and lots of passion.