OpenTenders And The Art Of The Pivot

OpenTenders And The Art Of The Pivot


Vital stats

  • Players: Mnive Nhlabathi, Sivu Maqungo and Madoda Khuzwayo
  • Company: OpenTenders
  • Est: 2013

How did the idea for OPENTENDERS come about?

Like most business ideas, it was the product of our own frustrations. Joburg is very competitive, especially for hosting companies and branding; you’re competing against major players and agencies.

We wanted to find markets where we would be the only company pursuing the business; areas where resources were scarce. The problem is that you never know what tenders are available. They get posted on notice boards at municipalities, so there’s a lot of driving involved. In 2006 we put 120 000kms on Madoda’s car, which completely messed up the motor plan. That’s how much we drove.

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The whole time we kept thinking that there had to be a better way to access tender notifications, and that there were probably a lot of companies that would love access to those lists. And the idea for OPENTENDERS began to take shape.

What was the big idea?

National departments have to tender any jobs that are worth more than R500 000, municipalities R200 000, and state-owned entities like Transnet generally tender jobs above the R2 million mark.

Anything less than that and it’s a simple quotation system. That was the bulk of our business – smaller quotes, but more of them. You’d know within seven days if you got the job, and all of your eggs weren’t in one big job. The problem was finding out about the work.

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We knew there had to be a better way. After years of driving around the country, we knew how the system worked, we’d built up great contacts across the country, we knew how to build websites and we understood branding and marketing. What did that amount to? There are 660 entities in South Africa all doing their own thing. What if they were all in one place, on one website? And that’s how OPENTENDERS started.

Did the idea immediately gain traction?

It took eight months to build the first platform, and as soon as it was live we realised that some of the key assumptions we’d made were wrong. Our first idea was to create the website, get all calls for tenders and quotes onto it, and charge SMEs R500 per month to access it. It didn’t work. Entrepreneurs don’t like spending money. It’s that simple.

So what was your response?

We needed to learn from our market and adjust our product accordingly. We pivoted, and our second iteration was a subscription model of R99 per month. Now we had a new problem – you wouldn’t believe how many debit orders bounced – and that cost us money.

We went back to the drawing board and evaluated what we had. There were SMEs on the site, and we knew from our own experiences that we looked for smaller opportunities as well as bigger ones. SMEs are other SMEs’ best opportunities. What about a business-to-business social network?

A place where smaller businesses could market to each other? Madoda created a social network platform where business owners could set up a profile, explain what they did, ‘friend’ each other, and potentially do business.

The site now has two layers: A tender portal and procurement opportunities, and a business social network. It’s also a freemium model. As a business owner you can sign up for free.

How do you make money?

We realised that the real value in the site was how many people we could get signed up and creating profiles. We’d learnt that the only way to build a large community was to make access to the site free. However, as it grows, it becomes an incredibly valuable database, and so our revenue model now focuses on advertising.

To create a profile you need to fill in exactly what you do and the industry you’re in. Our algorithms are targeted. So, for example, an insurance company can target construction companies only, if they so wish.

We also send out notices every time a tender comes up, and those have an advert on them as well – push notifications that are tailored to your industry sector. It’s targeted, niche and automated. We’ve also made the rates affordable enough for SMEs, and because they are so targeted, you can choose exactly who you spend your 1 000 or 10 000 impressions on.

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How have these pivots helped the business?

We’ve had between 80 and 100 new members per day since we switched to the freemium model. It’s been an incredible lesson in the lean start-up methodology. In start-ups it’s all about what works and what doesn’t work, and often you’ll only know the answers to those questions once you’re out in the market, testing your product.

You learn and unlearn things at pace in a start-up. You need to be shifting and pivoting all the time, learning from and responding to the market.

How else has the business offering grown?

We now have four key channels to the business. The first is our original core offering – a place to access all tender information; the second is funding – Sivu is involved in an investment house that funds between R70 000 and R2,5 million on a per-project basis.

The third is a B2B social network, and the fourth is training. We’ve developed a six-month online course that SME owners can complete in their own time. We noticed a big gap for many SMEs was a lack of business skills. We’ve created a ‘business in a box’, with training and all the templates SMEs need.

A meeting of minds

Madoda Khuzwayo was always good at maths. So good that it landed him an Eskom bursary to study electrical engineering.

“I was a rural boy, and so the first time I ever touched a computer was my first semester at varsity. It changed my world.”

From that moment he wanted to switch degrees, but Eskom didn’t need IT professionals, and Khuzwayo needed the bursary. As soon as he finished his degree, he packed his bags and headed for London. His plan was to work and save enough to study IT.

“I arrived willing to do anything, from picking potatoes to working at Tescos. I eventually found my way to Oxford, where I got a job as a dishwasher. This was the worst job I’d ever had, but my English wasn’t good enough to be a waiter, and I couldn’t understand British accents. It was me and a Serbian guy in the kitchens.”

And then he saw a sign for engineers wanted at the local BMW/Mini plant. “My engineering degree got my foot in the door to study IT. It’s funny how these things work out.” For the next few years, Khuzwayo worked weekends at the plant and studied during the week.

“By 2003 I had my IT degree and I was ready to come home. We’d won the bid for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and I thought there’d be some great business opportunities around the event.”

Khuzwayo’s idea was simple: Tourists would need accommodation, and locals had rooms to rent. He designed a website that matched prospective rentors with rentees. “The idea won me the Gauteng SAB Kickstarter title, but by then FIFA had changed the rules, and all accommodation had to be accredited.”

Undeterred, Khuzwayo looked for a way to pivot his idea. “I’d been working on a free mail plugin for the site, and realised this was a business in itself. I called the business MyNextMail and began focusing exclusively on that.”

Mnive Nhlabathi has been an entrepreneur since age 22. “I’ve only worked for someone else for three years of my life,” he says. “My background is IT and brand development, and in 2006 I also entered the Kickstarter competition with my branding agency.”

That was to be the year Khuzwayo won, and although Nhlabathi didn’t walk away with the prize money, he’d made a new friend. “We worked from coffee shops together, and gradually the idea grew that we should be working together.”

Yet another pivot

Khuzwayo was working on MyNextMail — a hosted email solution — but he was hitting brick walls trying to secure funding. “We both believed that in the future, IT would move from the work place into the cloud, but MyNextMail was competing with Yahoo and Gmail.” Gradually, the idea developed that together they could offer website and hosting solutions, as well as branding solutions.

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Joining forces, they targeted municipalities — not in main centres, but off the beaten track.

Sivu Maqungo joined the team immediately upon being approached by Khuzwayo with his idea for OPENTENDERS. A lawyer who had closed his practice to join the Department of International Relations, Maqungo had wanted to travel the world from a young age. When the opportunity to do so presented itself, he grabbed it with both hands. By the time Khuzwayo and Nhlabathi met him, he was back in South Africa running the East Africa desk, which consisted of 14 ambassadors.

“There’s a high level of appreciation for South African products and talent across Africa. Few companies realise this, so I started running seminars. I’d invite ambassadors from various countries, and they would pitch to local companies about the opportunities available in their countries.”

Khuzwayo attended one such event, introduced himself to Maqungo and explained OPENTENDERS. Maqungo was the third partner they’d been looking for: He was involved in an investment company that funded SMEs, he had contacts across Africa, and he understood training and SME needs. For Maqungo, here was an opportunity to re-enter the entrepreneurial world. With his desire to travel sated, he was ready for the next chapter.

Nadine Todd
Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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