- Company: Pivotal Group
- Players: Paul Hutton, Joel Stransky and Bruce Arnold
- What they do: Pivotal pioneered voice biometrics in the financial and telecommunications market. Over time, the company has grown to include nine divisions across multiple sectors.
- Launched: 2012
- Visit: pivotalgroup.co.za
How do you build a disruptive business while also focusing on growth? Disruptive ideas are by definition new and unknown to the market. They defy traditional and established solutions and ways of doing business, and they require the market to be educated before you can really onboard clients or even sell your product or service.
The answer is to build parallel solutions: Business units that bring in revenue while the more disruptive ideas are being developed and introduced to the market. Here are the four top lessons the founders of the Pivotal Group have learnt while building their business and pursuing disruptive opportunities simultaneously.
1. Know who your competitors (and potential competitors) are
Great ideas that are economically viable and solve a need that consumers are willing to pay for are few and far between. Great ideas alone are a dime a dozen, but if you’ve spotted a need, chances are someone else has as well. You then need to step back and critically evaluate why someone else hasn’t done this before; if they have done it and they’ve failed; or if you’re entering shark-infested waters riddled with competitors.
Once you’ve determined there is a gap in the market, you need to evaluate who your potential competitors are, and the impact if they suddenly started offering a similar solution to the market.
For Paul Hutton, Bruce Arnold and Joel Stransky, the founders of OneVault, competition was always a factor, particularly as a start-up, and given that potential competitors included Bytes and Dimension Data, this was a very real factor to consider. After careful analysis, however, the founders decided to go for it. Their differentiator was their business model. They wouldn’t be selling OneVault as a software solution, but as a service.
The idea had taken root while Paul was still CEO of TransUnion Credit Bureau. “I came across voice biometrics in Canada. There’s been a surge in identity fraud around the world, and I really understood the value of voice recognition as a verification tool,” he explains. “It can’t be faked, and it’s the only remote biometrics solution available, because you don’t physically need to be there to verify yourself.”
Paul had presented the idea to Transunion’s global board, and while they were intrigued, nothing came of it. “TransUnion’s model is to buy companies that are experts in their specific fields, not launch a new disruptive division from scratch.”
But this meant there was an opportunity for Paul to pursue the idea independently. Joel (former MD of Altech Netstar and CEO of Hertz SA) and Bruce (formerly Group CFO of TransUnion Africa and CFO at Unitrans Freight) were immediately interested in partnering with Paul. Both wanted to pursue entrepreneurship, although neither could do so immediately. The commitment was enough for Paul to get directly involved and start working on the business while he waited for his partners to join him.
In January 2011, Paul and Joel travelled to the UK and started investigating voice biometric solutions. “Voice biometrics was fairly new, but good technology was available, and there were global leaders in the sector,” says Joel.
It was important to choose the right product for the South African market, as this would form the basis of their offering. A contact at Dimension Data (one of whom became an investor in the business) offered this simple and straightforward advice:
When you’re choosing a technology partner, go with the company whose tech you’re confident in, and whose leadership is stable. You’re basing so much on this company and their longevity, so don’t disregard this criteria.
For Paul, Joel and Bruce, a US-based company, Nuance, ticked those boxes. But, from a competitive perspective, OneVault wasn’t the only potential player in the market. “Neither Bytes nor Dimension Data had gone into voice, but they had the potential to do so,” says Bruce. “The products were available to them through their partners.”
To mitigate this very clear risk, the founders made two critical decisions. “Our intention was to sell voice biometrics as a service, instead of a software solution that customers bought and owned, with the necessary infrastructure to go with it. The idea for OneVault was that there would be one place where your voice print lived, and different businesses could plug into our solution.”
The business model of large technology players in South Africa is to sell integrated software solutions, so OneVault’s business model was a differentiator. The next differentiator Paul, Bruce and Joel focused on was becoming specialists in their field.
“This is Paul’s baby,” says Bruce. “We’ve needed to build up a niche, expert team that specialises in voice biometrics. Because we aren’t generalists, 100% of our focus goes into this, instead of 5% or 10%.”
To attract the best in their fields, the founders needed a very appealing culture and a strong recruitment strategy. “We focused on what we wanted from our work environment, and then applied the same rules across the business,” says Joel. “Our goals were to drink good coffee, have no leave forms — ever; be able to take the time to ride our bikes and watch our kids play sports. If someone can’t make it work, or takes advantage without putting in the work, they come and go, but on the whole, we’ve had extremely low churn, and we’ve attracted — and kept — incredible talent.”
This differentiator would prove to be important for two reasons. First, two and a half years into the business, with investors on board and having pumped a significant amount of their own capital into the business, the team hit a major stumbling block. For a few weeks, they didn’t even know if they had a business.
“We had been operating on one major, and as it turned out, faulty, assumption,” says Paul. “We thought South African companies had the right telephony structure to implement our solution. We’d been building our solution on top of Nuance’s software, and were ready to start piloting the entire system with a few key customers, and we found out that in order to meet global voice biometric standards, the telephone technology had to be G711 compliant. South Africa was operating on G729.”
This was OneVault’s make or break moment. The team had six weeks to come up with a solution that ensured it met the necessary levels of accuracy. Without a highly skilled team this would have been impossible.
Even as a start-up, the strategy had been to only bring the best of the best on board. “We didn’t interview,” says Bruce. “We approached people whom we knew. We approached the best in the industry, and convinced them to take a chance with us. There was risk, but there were also rewards.” One of those people was Bradley Scott, a brilliant engineer whom both Paul and Bruce had worked with at Transunion.
Today, OneVault is one of the most specialist companies in the world, and often asked to speak at events in the US.
Being the niche specialists paid off, and OneVault achieved the almost impossible. But this had its downside.
Once you’ve shown something can be done, the bar of what’s impossible moves. Competitors enter your space.
This was the second reason why being such focused, niche experts paid off. “We demo’d the solution for a large local corporate, they loved it, and then went to a ‘then’ competitor to implement it,” says Paul.
“We always knew this was a real danger. Players like Bytes and Dimension Data have solid, existing client relationships with the same companies we’re targeting.”
18 months later the project still wasn’t working. “This is deep specialist knowledge,” says Paul. “Knowledge we built while we created our offering.” OneVault won the contract, and developed a partnership with Bytes at the same time. Today, OneVault works with all the major software integrators in the market. “We’re a specialist service they can offer their clients, without needing to put the same time and energy we needed to put in to become the specialists.”
Through a focused strategy, OneVault has become a partner, rather than a competitor, of some of the largest players in the industry.
2. Understand the nature of disruption so that you can prepare for it
In today’s ever-changing and fast-paced business world, most business experts are in agreement that as a company, you’re either the disruptor, or you’re being disrupted. The problem is that disruption comes with its own set of challenges.
“Our entire business model was built around a subscription service. Instead of a company buying a software solution, installing it and running it internally, we would do all of that. We would carry the infrastructure burden, and the high upfront cost,” says Joel.
In theory, this sounded like a clear win for businesses that would benefit from a voice biometrics solution. The reality is never so simple, particularly when you’re a disruptor.
“The software is expensive, and so we thought this would be seen as an excellent solution,” says Paul. “Instead, we faced a lot of reticence over the cloud. Businesses didn’t trust it yet.”
On top of that, first movers are often faced with a lag in corporate governance guidelines. As technology becomes more sophisticated, so governance guidelines change — but it’s a slow process, and the lag can impede disruptors.
“You also can’t give proper reference cases, because it’s all brand new to your market,” says Paul. “The best we had was a case study of how well it had worked in Turkey.”
To compound matters, proof of revenue is essential for businesses wanting to trade with large corporates, but non-existent in the start-up phase.
So, what’s the solution? According to Joel, Bruce and Paul, it’s all about being patient, never giving up, building gravitas and getting a few clients on board, even if it’s free of charge to build up your reputation and prove your concept. Finally, you need to bring in revenue from more traditional channels to support your disruptive products and solutions.
“Disruptive solutions are by their nature new and different, which means change management for your customers. This makes the sales cycle long and complex, and you have to be prepared for that,” says Bruce.
Don’t stop laying your groundwork. While disruptors are ahead of the curve, you need to be ready for the uptake when it arrives. “We’ve now concluded a partnership with South Africa Fraud Prevention Services,” says Paul. “When an imposter calls we won’t only terminate the transaction but we will alert the identity being compromised in the attempt and we will actively prevent fraud by contacting Fraud Prevention. The ultimate vision is for every South African’s voice biometric signature to live in our vault, and we are already receiving imposter information.”
3. Cultivate additional revenue streams
So, what do you do while you are living through the extremely long sales turnaround time of your disruptive, game-changing solution? Bills still have to be paid and investment is needed to develop truly disruptive ideas.
First, the team realised that while an annuity subscription service was their ultimate goal and where the industry was heading, initially they needed to be able to sell and implement the software.
It’s worth noting that one of OneVault’s earliest customers who bought the software has since launched a new business, which is on OneVault’s annuity service model. The shift has just taken time. “The change is happening, but it’s been slower than we anticipated,” says Bruce. “We needed to accept that fact and sell the software to bring revenue into the business while we were waiting for the market to catch up.”
It’s an important lesson. You don’t want to get distracted from your vision, but you need to be bringing in revenue, even if that means your short-term strategy differs from your long-term goals.
“It took three years before we really started seeing a move towards hosted solutions,” he adds. “Outsourced and offsite solutions are opex environments, not capex. They are more cost-effective for customers, but they require a shift in thinking. It’s a move away from how things have always been done, and that takes time.”
But, while Paul, Bruce and Joel were learning the art of patience, they also needed to start bringing revenue into the business.
“It was clear that we needed to find other opportunities,” says Joel. The result is the Pivotal Group, a diversified holding company with different businesses that are interlinked and complementary.
The group’s first business outside of OneVault, Pivotal Data, was based on a large call centre contract Joel, Paul and Bruce secured. “You can’t be an expert in everything – when you specialise you will always be more successful. The trick is to partner with other experts,” says Joel. In this case, three entrepreneurs were opening a call centre — this was their area of expertise; they were absolute subject matter experts. What they weren’t experts in was technology or facilities management. Instead of doing it themselves, they were looking for partners.
“We manage everything aside from the people element,” explains Joel. “We found and leased a building, built the bespoke workspace, put in the technology, and managed the facility and IT on an opex basis back to them.”
The business immediately had a good anchor client, and Pivotal Data has built on that. The annuity income has supported further growth.
“This was a base for us, but we’ve acquired a few businesses on the back of this success, and created our own cloud contact centre solution — which also feeds into what we’re doing with OneVault,” says Bruce. “Our vision is to create a technology stack that’s world-class and provides a range of services that no other businesses provide as a single solution.”
Because of this pivot into call centre management, a new opportunity has presented itself, and Pivotal’s ambition has grown to include a solution that calls, authenticates, and then analyses all the data that is collected during those calls.
“Through partnerships, my team has developed a predictive analytics system that gives contact centres deep diagnostic tools. We can predict why agents are having the conversations they have, and what to tweak to improve them. We see the agent’s problem before they do. This isn’t just value add, it’s a revenue generating tool if it improves lead conversion rates and customer service. It’s also all geared to lowering call volumes.
“We know we need to keep looking forward. OneVault is starting to gain real traction, but we need to be working on the next disruptive solution and model. We can’t sit back and relax,” says Bruce.
“Three years ago we said that’s it; no more start-ups or investing in pre-adoption phase businesses. From now on, everything we do will be revenue generating,” says Paul. “We’d stretched three years of runway to five years in OneVault, and we didn’t want to keep doing that. We wanted instant revenue businesses. And the very next thing we did was invest in a start-up. It’s a crazy space, but it’s also very rewarding.”
To sustain it, the group continues to grow, focusing on investing in businesses and entrepreneurs who are subject matter experts and therefore already know and understand the market, and then positioning each new business or service to plug into the current offering.
“Data is our golden thread — technology and the disruptive space,” says Joel.
4. Be open to new ideas and opportunities
Integral to the Pivotal Group’s positioning is Paul, Bruce and Joel’s focus on supporting other business owners whose offerings align with the group’s own growth goals, and who would benefit from joining a group.
“If your goal is to be disruptive, you need to be open to all kinds of new ideas,” says Joel. Some will be better than others, and the co-founders have made the decision to focus on the ‘jockey’ rather than the business as a result. Business offerings and ideas need to pivot. If you have the right partners, finding a solution is all part of the challenge.
Pivotal’s move into the world of artificial intelligence is due to one such partnership. “One of our clients approached us with a concept. But he needed a partner to develop it into a proper AI solution,” says Joel.
It’s an augmented intelligence solution that focuses on recruitment, talent management and career guidance. The solution screens, ranks and matches candidates against a job profile, or a number of profiles. It’s a multidisciplinary platform that predicts the performance of the individual in a role.
“Our partner is a former Accenture consultant and a leader in this field. His focus is on the IP and science of the product, ours is on the business component.”
The challenge is how to commercialise and scale the business in as short a time frame as possible. Like many disruptive products, the adoption process is a stumbling block. “We invest at the pre-adoptive curve — not at the revenue generating stage, which means a big focus is always on how we can take an idea and build it into a revenue generating business,” says Bruce.
The business uses capital selectively. “We want to invest in and drive our own agenda,” says Paul. “We’re in charge of our own destiny, but it’s not comfortable or simple. We came from corporate. Big machines that you need to direct and keep on course. This is an entirely different challenge and we are still learning.”
Listen to the podcast
Matt Brown interviews Paul, Joel and Bruce and discusses what it’s like to invest in pre-adoptive start-ups and staying ahead of the curve.
To listen to the podcast, go to mattbrownmedia.co.za/matt-brown-show or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.
The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.
In Touch Media’s Margie Carr Shares How She Made An Out-Of-Home Media Agency A Solid Competitor
Out-of-home media agencies are growing and In Touch Media’s Margie Carr is leading the way with an approach that embraces trust, simplicity and the power of networks.
- Player: Margie Carr
- Company: In Touch Media
- Est: 2008
- Visit: intouchmedia.co.za
With content playing an increasingly central role, out-of-home media agencies can no longer just be real estate companies. They must evolve to become publishers. That’s according to a recent article in US advertising trade publication Adweek.
It’s an approach that has worked for Margie Carr, owner and MD of In Touch Media, a business she has built over 20 years in a cutthroat industry. Having gone through several key growth phases, today the company has a level 2 B-BBEE rating, and is accredited with the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA).
Margie is positive about the future of out-of-home, thanks to the increasing digitisation of the media, consumer demands for responsive experiences, and an explosion of location data.
“Advertisers are fundamentally changing their perception of out-of-home advertising,” says Margie. “Where we have differentiated our services is that we simplify the entire process, from idea to execution, so that our clients can focus on managing their brands.”
When Margie started the business, she had experience as an account manager and copywriter. Initially she was ‘selling out-of-home stock’, but her passion for strategic campaign management got in the way, and the business evolved into a full-service out-of-home media agency. That shift required a change in mindset.
“To book, plan and execute an out-of-home campaign is a much more complex process than selling space,” says Margie. “It was a major adjustment. A tangible product is easier to sell than an intangible service.”
That’s because a tangible product can more easily demonstrate value, whereas with a service, you create a vision and sell the vision to the customer.
“Our promise to the client is that once they brief us, we do the rest. We handle the communication across all the teams contracted into campaigns, keeping clients updated on progress every step of the way. Out-of-home is an extremely complex medium, and knowledge of both buyers and sellers is critical. We have differentiated the business on our depth of knowledge and extensive experience in the market.”
Believe in your employees
Margie admits that one of her biggest challenges was learning to trust employees. It’s a common one for entrepreneurs. One of the key requirements of ‘learning to let go’ is showing your people what it means to walk in your shoes, and to avoid the temptation of trying to protect them from reality.
“Giving employees the ability to see things from your perspective helps to make them feel more like partners, rather than staff who are in it for the salary at the end of the month. This makes it easier to establish trust, and a mutual commitment to the business and its long-term goals.”
Become part of a network
Margie also acknowledges that it’s important to have a professional network. For her, membership of the local chapter of Women Presidents’ Organisation (WPO), of which she is also a founder member, has been beneficial. It’s an organisation for female CEOs and managing directors, and the South African chapter, launched in 2008 by Anni Hoare, is the first to be established beyond North America. Margie credits the organisation with empowering her to grow her company.
“The WPO aims to accelerate business growth, enhance competitiveness, and promote economic security through confidential and collaborative peer-learning groups,” she says. “For me it has been a platform to learn from, and to be inspired by and work with incredible people who are determined to succeed.”
As an entrepreneur, she points out that you do not have a board that meets regularly. Instead you are expected to have all the answers. With a dedicated board, you have people who are focused on what you need to be successful, guide you on the risks you should take or avoid, and can help you to achieve your long-term goals and strategic objectives. Boards expand networks, promote accountability, and give a company a level of credibility that is reassuring for customers and employees.
“In the absence of that, membership of a powerful network can make all the difference. Having the ability to meet with fellow entrepreneurs once a month, to work through different sets of challenges together and come up with creative solutions, is a proactive learning experience that really helps you to grow as a business owner and leader. It’s an opportunity to come to grips with your own strengths and weaknesses, and to understand the value of high-level advice.”
Simplicity is the key to success
Ken Seagall, author and former Apple creative director, said ‘The most important thing we do is give people a simple solution, so they can do amazing things.’ The connection between simplicity and success has contributed to the success of In Touch Media. Keeping it simple has been a guiding principle for the business.
“We had to make changes to our systems to make them more client friendly as the out-of-home environment evolved. In some instances, clients are required to sign more than a dozen different contracts with diverse providers — we have streamlined our processes so that clients sign one agreement with us and we manage all the suppliers.”
The future is digital
Looking ahead, Margie expects ongoing change with the growth of digital out-of-home. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) valued South Africa’s out-of-home market — the biggest in Africa — at R4,4 billion in 2016, with growth of 2,7% forecast over the next five years. More than a quarter of the country’s out-of-home revenue is now sourced via digital screens. UK research has shown that digital out-of-home reaches 92% of Londoners.
“There are exciting times ahead. On average, out-of-home super-users increase profits by 26%. Consumer trust is a key element, and familiarity nurtures trust. A consumer passing your ad every time they go shopping will develop confidence in the brand. They see you are here for the long haul, and that you have confidence in your brand.”
The House That Moladi Built – How Challenging Traditional Building Empowers Local Entrepreneurs
Hennie Botes is a true entrepreneur — through a combination of passion and resilience, he has pressed on despite challenges, developing an unrelenting ability to sell his vision, and execute it. His goal has always been to use the technology he created — which challenges traditional building techniques — to empower other entrepreneurs.
- Player: Hennie Botes
- Company: Moladi
- Est: 1986
- Visit: moladi.co.za
South Africa has a housing backlog of between 2,5 million to three million and it’s continuing to grow. The country also has a persistently high number of unemployed people at 5,98 million, according to the latest numbers from Stats SA.
One entrepreneur who is committed to helping address both crises is Hennie Botes. A toolmaker by trade, the Port Elizabeth-based founder and designer of construction system Moladi developed this innovative building technology as a means to address many of the cumbersome and costly aspects of conventional construction methods, without compromising on the quality or integrity of the structure. The system replaces the bricklaying process with an approach similar to plastic injection moulding.
Founded back in 1986, when Hennie first realised how difficult it was for the poor to get good quality housing, his solution was the development of a whole new building system, which he named Moladi. The company has been in existence for more than three decades, and exports to 22 countries around the world.
“I built the first house based on the Moladi system in Benoni, in 1987,” Hennie says. “Substandard craftsmanship has resulted in South Africa’s poor living in inferior housing structures. I wanted to fix this problem, and I wanted to show people that the concept I had developed actually worked in real life.”
Like many truly innovative entrepreneurs, however, he discovered that a brilliant business idea is no guarantee of success. Converting an idea into a reality (regardless of the required investment of time and money) is never an easy task. In fact, it can be extremely difficult.
“I was naïve to think that a phenomenal breakthrough in the way we build houses would have people beating a path to my door, but academics and politicians speak different languages from entrepreneurs. I discovered that the saying, ‘Eat the elephant one bite at a time’ really does apply to entrepreneurship.”
Related: Construction Business Plan
Hennie learnt that you have to believe in yourself enough to handle the consequences of your decisions. “When you take on the responsibility of developing something that had not existed before, you become accountable. To turn that opportunity into a reality, you have to believe in yourself 100%. Great ideas fail because the unexpected challenges become more than you think you can handle, and the risk is that you lose the belief in yourself to see things through all the way to the end. In many ways, it’s like competing in a triathlon — you achieve one goal, and you have to move on straight to the next one.”
Hennie says his goal is not to enrich himself, but to use his technology to help empower other entrepreneurs. His methodology has been used to build thousands of houses all around the world — from Mexico to Sri Lanka. Today, Moladi exports to multiple countries, including Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, and Kenya. Moladi recently built a showhouse for a low-cost housing development in Trinidad and Tobago — the structure went up in 12 days. Another big win has been the construction of the 1 600m2 Kibaha District Courthouse in Tanzania. It was built in six months, at a cost of 4 250 per m2, which is less than half the cost of a conventional building. In Mauritius. the technology is being used to build 2 000 low-cost homes on 250 acres of coastline.
“Despite the housing backlog in this country, what has sustained my business over 32 years is the work we have done beyond our borders,” he says. “But that is changing. Earlier this year we were contracted by the Western Cape Department of Education to build four classrooms in Philippi, as well as a double-storey building with eight classrooms in Robertson. We completed these projects in a record four months, at a third of the price. Usually, the construction of just one classroom can take between four to six months. This kind of government project is exactly the foot-in-the door that Moladi is after. The Western Cape has to build 20 schools a year to provide for its growing population.”
Moladi provides training in the construction of its houses and licences people who finish the course to build Moladi houses. Training is free, but trainees need to pay for the moulds and admixture. Licensees are supplied with viable business plans to help them secure loans for their start-ups. Hennie has a vested interest in the success of the licensees, since poor outcomes reflect badly on the business. He also prefers working with cooperatives rather than individuals, as it means that people will check up on each other. This is especially important when it comes to cash flow. Many new entrepreneurs fail, he says, because they splurge on cars and cell phones instead of the must-haves required to make a business grow.
Hennie has kept his team small. Low overhead costs have enabled Moladi to remain profitable in the low cost housing market. Companies with high overheads simply cannot compete in this small-margin, big-volume space.
“The real market requires a vast amount of homes below the R500 000 range, and that’s where our focus lies. Also, I did most of the work alone for many years after I started the company. These days my daughters, Shevaughn and Camalynne, are key to the successful running of Moladi and they fulfil vital roles. We outsource work to keep overheads down and have very good relationships with various suppliers, building experts, engineers, town planners, architects, and funding institutions. Our biggest differentiator is the pride we take in our ‘land to stand’ approach’ — we are a one-stop-shop for home building.”
His goal now is to find ways to work together with organisations like the National Development Plan (NDP) and the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA). Hennie refers to his customers as partners, which forms part of his holistic approach to construction. Typical clients include private construction firms and property developers. Governments can often play indirect roles, as they would usually contract state-funded housing programmes through the tender process.
“I believe we need entrepreneurship that looks beyond spaza shops, hairdressers and car washes,” he says. “There is an enormous and pressing need to provide dignified housing for South Africans, and to address our appalling unemployment levels. What better way to begin to do that than by using accredited, affordable technology that can achieve both goals at an accelerated rate? Moreover, to fulfil the supply chain, work would be provided for painters, plumbers, electricians and roofers.”
The Moladi building system uses a removable, reusable, recyclable and lightweight plastic formwork mould, which is filled with mortar to form the wall structure of a house in only one day.
Hennie describes it as the ‘Henry Ford’ of mass housing. “We produce components and products that reduce the cost of building, and we work on a production-line basis, from production to homeowner, bypassing the middleman in the supply chain.”
The process involves the assembly of a temporary plastic formwork mould, the size of the designed house, with all the electrical services plumbing and steel reinforcing located within the wall structure, which is then filled with a specially formulated mortar mix to form all the walls of the house simultaneously.
All the steel reinforcing, window and door block-outs, conduits, pipes and other fittings are positioned within the wall cavity to be cast in-place when filled with the Moladi mortar mix. The mix is a fast curing aerated mortar that flows easily, is waterproof and possesses good thermal and sound insulating properties.
Swipe Successful – How Sureswipe Scaled To A R250 Million Turnover
Here’s how Sureswipe cornered a niche market with limited funding and continues to enjoy double-digit year-on-year growth.
- Player: Paul Kent
- Company: Sureswipe
- What they do: Sureswipe is one of South Africa’s first card Payment Service Providers (PSPs), established to make card payment acceptance easy and accessible to all independent retailers and service providers.
- Est: 2008
- Turnover: R251 million
- Visit: sureswipe.co.za
Four years ago, Paul Kent received a Request for Proposal (RFP) from a tier one retailer. He ran around the office high-fiving everyone. Sureswipe had made it. They were officially on the map.
Two days later, Paul and his COO, Richard Flack, turned the RFP down, choosing not to pitch for the business, even though it would have been a huge deal if they’d secured it. It took two brutal days to make the decision, but ultimately, Paul and Richard understood that sometimes you have to say no to business, particularly if it doesn’t align with your vision.
“I was so excited, but Richard immediately said, ‘let’s think carefully about this before making any decisions,’ and so we did. We went back to our vision to make card acceptance easy and accessible for all independent retailers. The more we thought about the RFP, the more we realised that we’re not geared to service tier one retailers. Our team has a deep connection with independents. That’s who we want to support and where our expertise lies. Our business model is geared to support that market sector. Extending our focus to tier one retailers would require a change in our business and a new division to service them. It wasn’t the right move for us.”
Paul learnt what many successful entrepreneurs before him have discovered: In business, what you say no to is as important as what you take on. The more focused you are and the better you understand your core customers, the more successfully you will service them. That’s the foundation of a sustainable, high-growth company.
It took Paul and his team five years to get 3 000 Sureswipe card payment machines into the market. They were growing rapidly by the time they received the RFP. Today they have 10 000 devices in the market, and expect to hit 30 000 within three years. The business has grown 30% in the last year alone.
Here are the lessons Paul has learnt since launching Sureswipe in 2008, from the leanest way to start (and run) a business, to minimising customer churn and maximising market loyalty.
1. Launch a solution, not just a company
The idea for Sureswipe was born inside Healthbridge, a company that processed claims between doctors and medical insurers. It was the mid-2000s and medical aids were changing. Where previously doctors submitted directly to medical aids, co-payments and limited annual benefits compelled medical practices to start accepting cash and card payments.
Sureswipe was launched as a division that supplied card payment machines to support this shift. Paul, who was heading up the business development key account team at Healthbridge, realised that there was a much bigger market that needed a value-for-money, high service level card payment solution, and that was independent retailers.
“Growing up in the UK, I spent a lot of time in my grandfather’s fruit and florist store and in high school I worked weekends at a local clothing retailer. As a result I understood the challenges of retail, particularly the time-bound administrative burdens,” he says.
Paul researched the market and developed a value proposition based on two key factors. First, although paying for payments is a grudge purchase, particularly for small, independent retailers, cash-based businesses that adopt card payments typically experience a 50% increase in monthly turnover. Second, independent retailers with point of sale (POS) machines were paying a 5% transaction fee, while those that hadn’t adopted POS systems weren’t the core focus of banks. Paul found a frustrated customer base eager for an alternative service provider.
“Most retailers either thought that card payments were too expensive, or that they could only access POS machines through their banks. They’d often wait up to 30 days for a machine, and if it broke, it would be another week before a technician came to fix it. At that time, the large banks weren’t geared to service that market.”
With a clear value proposition in mind, Paul convinced Healthbridge to ring-fence Sureswipe and launch it as a separate business. In October 2008, Sureswipe opened its doors with Heathbridge as the majority shareholder. The business model had two core focuses: Converting cash-based businesses and switching independent retailers who already had POS systems but were dissatisfied with their current service providers.
“We were strategic in picking the right market, but luck also played a part,” says Paul. “When we entered this space, a similar company was launched to focus on tier one and two retailers. But, the banks were highly competitive in that market segment and new entrants found it difficult to compete. We targeted a market that was largely ignored and today, 70% of our business is from single-store owners.”
While they were fine-tuning their offering, Paul and his team found that their customers were so grateful for an alternative solution that they tended to forgive start-up wobbles as Sureswipe found its groove.
Stress-testing your business
In the early days, the Sureswipe team leveraged its relationship with Capitec Bank to secure meetings and make sales. “We’re not a bank, so we need a banking sponsor to help us meet regulations and operate within this market,” explains Paul. “When Capitec secured its licence to do merchant acquiring, they had no customers and were developing their product in-house. They were also looking for a distribution partner. We aligned Sureswipe with Capitec as our sponsor and provided them with a distribution partner and a solid footprint in the medical market — it was a perfect solution.”
When you’re dealing with people’s money, you need a strong level of trust, so the relationship with Capitec was essential while Sureswipe built its own brand. “It wasn’t always easy,” says Paul. “We had six people who went from retailer to retailer explaining who we were and what we did. At one restaurant, two off-duty cops heard one of our reps and decided it was a con. They arrested him and he called me from the back of the police van. I had to convince them that we were a legitimate business before they’d let him go.”
After five years, Sureswipe and Capitec found that they were competing with each other. When the contract came to an end, both parties decided not to renew it. But Sureswipe had 3 000 devices in the market, all of which were on Capitec’s technology platform. By not renewing the agreement with Capitec, Sureswipe needed to recontract all 3 000 of their customers. It was a massive project.
“It was also a huge lesson for us, and I’m glad it happened when we only had 3 000 machines in the market. We realised the risk in working with one bank, particularly because the technology that processed our customers’ payments wasn’t our own. We needed to licence our own technology and develop a dual sponsor system to mitigate this risk.”
The entire project took more than six months to complete. “People in the industry were sceptical — a project of this scope had never been done before,” says Paul. “We started with a small, ring-fenced team. By the end of the six months every employee was working on the migration of customers onto the new platform.”
The lesson: There will always be challenges, particularly during growth phases. Stress-test your business as much as possible. The earlier you spot a potential risk or problem, the sooner you can address it and implement a solution, even if it means adjusting your business model.
To stress-test your business, ask yourself these four questions regularly: What happens if everything goes right (ie, we grow too fast)? If I remove one piece that’s central to the functionality of my business (this is what Sureswipe faced), what happens? Is my business valued (ie, do you know if your buyers love you and why)? What’s the worst that could happen?
2.Variable cost models keep businesses lean
One of Sureswipe’s success factors is that its product isn’t cutting edge — what the business does is not unique, and the technology is available to be licensed. Nothing had to be built from scratch.
This allowed Paul and his team to launch the business with a variable cost model, outsourcing sales, the call centre and even their technology.
“The biggest outlay was the initial investment into the product, funded by Healthbridge, but within a year we were cashflow positive,” says Paul. “We’ve been funding ourselves organically ever since.”
At the time, launching the business wasn’t a big risk because it didn’t involve a huge upfront investment. Healthbridge was happy to see where it went. Paul and his team of eight kept costs down and slowly built up the business to the point where it became bigger than its initial shareholder.
“It was the ideal business model to start with. Don’t try to build the biggest — do the minimum required and don’t use a lot of capital. If you use a lot of capital upfront shareholders will put you under immense pressure. We were under no pressure. We weren’t drawing anything; we were just a little side thing that may or may not work.
“We were the first mover in this space in South Africa, but everything we do has been done somewhere else. The machines are sourced from a few companies in the world that manufacture them. The mPOS machine is licensed from a company in Iceland. Software is licensed. Everything Sureswipe needs exists — it’s just a case of sourcing it and building a solid service-delivery business around the tech.”
Without the burden of heavy research and development and other start-up costs, Sureswipe channels all internally-generated cash into finding ways to do things better and faster for their customers.
“Today fintech is a buzzword. Disruption within the financial services sector is expected. Ten years ago, fintech wasn’t even a word. Everyone thought you could only deal with banks.
“What we had going for us when we launched was our card machines. People understood them so we didn’t need to educate our market on what we did. We just needed to make them aware that there was an alternative to banks, and because we focused on an untapped market, there weren’t really competitors in the space. We weren’t trying to bring in new technology like mobile payments. The market wasn’t ready for that in 2008.”
Sureswipe launched with traditional stand-alone card machines, followed by Integrated payments for larger retail franchise stores, mobile MOVE card readers for businesses on the go, and Sureswipe POS LITE, an app-based point-of-sale software for start-ups and smaller retailers.
“When it came to mPOS, we were happy to be followers. We had a product ready to launch, but we made the decision to wait for the banks to launch their offerings and educate the market first. We were then in a perfect position to be fast followers — without needing to educate the market ourselves.
“It was a strategic play and it worked for us. We’ve also had good growth in our MOVE product and we’re doing the same with QR code payments. There have been trailblazers in the market who have done phenomenally well, but they operate on separate platforms. We can now offer a QR code that accepts almost any QR Wallet.
“On the other hand, a peer-to-peer mobile wallet was developed within Healthbridge that never gained the traction needed for success. It was too early for the market and deep pockets were needed to fund the business. The business had a great team that worked on the project and Sureswipe benefited from accessing them.”
Today, Sureswipe has integrated many functions that were previously outsourced. “Our variable cost-model allowed us to enter the market without huge financial backing, but where it’s made financial sense, or it offers us a strong competitive advantage, we have brought services or products in-house.”
3. Understand — and leverage — your competitive advantage
Since entering the market ten years ago, transaction fees have more than halved. This is good for retailers, but it makes the space more competitive for service providers who must maintain quality products and service as profit margins narrow.
Sureswipe’s value proposition is captured in one sentence: They come for price, they stay for service. “Everything we do needs to adhere to that,” says Paul. “We need to bring technology to market at a lower price point than incumbents are offering, and then secure customer loyalty with our superior service offering.”
Within an increasingly competitive space, Sureswipe is not always the most cost-effective solution in the market, but a focus on service and convenience means that retailers are willing to pay a premium if the offering is good for their business.
“Our focus is value for money, not price. Retailers want to be able to accept any legal currency from their customers. As a service provider, we needed to figure out a way to do that in the most cost-effective way possible, without increasing our administrative burden as the business grew. With its low margins, this business only works at scale. If our internal costs escalate with each new user, that’s not a scalable business.”
So, what is Sureswipe’s competitive edge? “We’ve always understood retailers,” says Paul. “Their biggest burden is time — they never have enough of it. If you have an unreliable product, or an administrative burden, you’re essentially losing time and revenue.”
This was the business’s entry into the market, but growth has been the result of continuously fine-tuning Sureswipe’s offering based on its knowledge of customer needs. “The more time we spend understanding our target market, the more we’re able to recognise their pain points. Everything we do is focused on simplifying the lives of retailers and helping them to grow their businesses.”
In a highly competitive space, you need to create an edge for yourself. Some businesses create a moat around the business with tech, but often there is a competitor who can do things faster and cheaper.
Successful companies find a different competitive edge, one that focuses on delivering value to the customer beyond the product.
Sureswipe has a two-pronged approach. First, convenience and simplicity are a must — if Sureswipe isn’t making the lives of its clients easier (and more convenient for their customers in turn), then the business isn’t living up to its core values. The second is keeping costs as low as possible. Sureswipe needs to be able to offer its products and services to the market at highly competitive prices. This is only possible if the business has lean operations and is scalable.
So, how have Paul and his team managed to offer exceptional service while keeping costs low? “You need to sweat the details,” he says. “This landscape has become increasingly competitive. Banks have caught up to us. An independent retailer can pick up the phone and the bank will send someone the following day to chat to them.”
To counter competition, Sureswipe focuses on service and cost to serve. It’s one thing acquiring a customer, it’s another keeping them, and this has been where Sureswipe’s team focuses their passion and energy.
“We’ve found that complex structures hinder service levels and so we’ve kept our structure flat. Our internal culture is extremely important for customer service. Hiring the right people who are passionate about retail and business means we are able to service our clients better. We care about their businesses. 86% of calls get resolved by our call centres. If they can’t solve the problem, a technician is sent to the store to fix or swap a faulty machine.”
From a cost perspective, Sureswipe needs to continuously get to market cheaper than before, while simultaneously offering products that are better, more seamless and more integrated into the business.
“There is always an initial cost when introducing a new product, whether it’s a device or an app. However, each new offering increases our clients’ revenue, which in turn increases our revenue. Scale is critical — we’re in the red until we achieve scale.
“We’ve had to be ruthless about achieving great service levels at low costs. We don’t believe in either low cost or good service — we need to deliver both. If something is too expensive for us or our clients, we either don’t do it, or we find a more cost-effective way to bring it to market.”
4. Ensure you have a ‘stickiness’ factor
One of the dangers of a highly competitive market is that it’s simple for customers to switch service providers if they are only looking at price. If a retailer only has a POS machine with Sureswipe for example, it can be swopped out for another device. With this in mind, Paul started looking at value-added services that increase brand loyalty and reduce churn.
“We call it preventable churn,” says Paul. “If business owners have a POS device and take just one more product from us, the stickiness factor is exponential. This can include a cash advance product, or creating a gift and loyalty programme through our platform, or both. As a business owner you can still switch to another service provider, but it’s more complicated and you’re receiving a bundle of services that all add value to your business.”
To achieve this, Sureswipe has partnered with Retail Capital to offer its customers cash advance products, while a loyalty programme allows consumers to swipe their loyalty cards and gift cards at all Sureswipe terminals, accumulating points.
“We’ve seen a small increase in revenue since we added these offerings, but more importantly, our customers’ revenues have increased. For example, if someone has a gift card, they will generally spend a bit extra in-store as well. Our merchant discount fee means we offer these products to our customers at a low cost, but our churn rate has lowered by 70%.”
Everything Sureswipe introduces to the market is based on a long-term view. “We offer a commoditised product and so our success relies on scale and volume. As long as you can do that at the right cost, with the right returns, you have a sustainable business. These extra products reduce churn, solve pain points for our customers and in the long term will increase our revenue.”
Paul’s long-term focus is consolidation. “We’ve been in this space for ten years, we have a great customer base, and we believe that we can consolidate our market. Our long-term view informs any decision we make about acquisitions or mergers.”
In 2016, Sureswipe acquired Concord, a company running software that integrated banks with retailers’ till systems.
The acquisition enabled Sureswipe to reduce costs by offering customers one point of contact for their POS system, tills and the processing between the two. “It removes complexities from the value chain, reduces costs and reduces retailer admin.”
With new generation mPOS offerings encroaching on Sureswipe’s standalone devices on the one side, and Integrated payments on the other, Sureswipe is effectively cannibalising its own market, but as Paul is quick to point out — that’s the idea.
5. Always look to the future
Sureswipe’s potential is huge. With 10 000 devices in the market, the business will facilitate R10 billion in transactions this year alone, which accounts for only 6% of its target sector, 2% overall, and 1% if you consider that the biggest competitor to electronic payments isn’t other service providers or banks, but cash.
“Markets change and adapt, particularly in this space where there has been incredible innovation and growth over the past few years. We know that in the long run, if we want to sustain growth, we will need to cannibalise the stand-alone devices, which we’re already doing. Ultimately though, what we really want to bring to market are products that can compete with cash.”
According to Paul, everything comes down to two things: Convenience and cost. mPOS is a lower cost option; contactless payments are all about convenience. Sureswipe needs both — and to keep looking ahead to see what’s next for their market.
“In the UK this year, for the first time, there were more electronic payments than cash, thanks to the convenience of contactless purchases for small ticket items. This is a big driver for us.”
To stay ahead of the game, Paul focuses on the business’s capabilities, and his own. “I need to pay attention to what’s happening internationally and how we can adapt our product offerings based on international innovations, but I also need to continuously focus on personal growth.
“One of my biggest fears is that the business will outgrow me. It’s a common founder’s fear, and for good reason. Many founders are great at launching businesses, but they don’t possess the skills the business needs to grow.”
To avoid this pitfall, Paul has consciously developed his business acumen over the past 15 years, beginning with Wits Business School’s Management Advancement Programme in 2003, and completing his MBA in 2015 through IE Business School in Madrid.
“I think it’s essential for all entrepreneurs and business owners to keep the pencil sharp and learn as much as possible. If I reached a stage where I didn’t think I was the right person for this position, I’d step back. We’ve built a team to complement each other; I’m not a details guy, but someone who is can fill that role. Part of my journey has been working my way out of a job by bringing in someone who can do what I’m doing, and often they do it better than me.
Become an expert in a niche
Our focus on the independent retailer space has given us a deep understanding of our customers and their needs. We’ve had international companies that are interested in acquiring us state that companies in other markets don’t have our level of understanding for each element of the business.
Look at problems with fresh eyes
We were naive about banking and financial businesses; we’re more retailers than bankers. This meant we didn’t have legacy systems when we launched, which allowed us to look at the independent retail sector without preconceived ideas and ask: What does this market need and how can we service it?
Always seek to remove pain points from your customers, no matter how small
In our sector, as businesses grow, their owners go back to the bank each year to renegotiate their fees. We removed this administrative burden by signing them up on a sliding scale, and as they grow, they automatically move into new segments and their fees drop — both new entrants and incumbent banks have copied this pricing model.
Understand where you’re innovating and why
We knew we didn’t need to innovate on the tech side. Everything we needed existed, and it was far more cost-effective to licence products than build from scratch. Instead, we innovated around our business model and service offering.
Everything starts with your people
Our employees are friendly and helpful, even though we now have a staff complement of 139 people. We foster a passion for learning, promote from within, where possible, and champion a can-do attitude. We’re a service-based organisation, which means everyone’s visions need to align with our service goal.
Pay attention locally and internationally
Read a lot, find out what’s trending, be well networked and have associations overseas. For example, Mastercard and Visa let us know what’s happening in other markets. We’re not at the forefront of technology, but we need to know what’s happening with technology to be able to follow it.
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