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Persistence Can Beat Any Odds Says The Founder Of Rebosis Property Fund

When Sisa Ngebulana left Mthatha to pursue his dreams he had high aspirations for himself. He didn’t know what path his career would take, but he did know he wanted to achieve greatness.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Sisa Ngebulana
  • Company: Rebosis Property Fund (listed in 2011)
  • Rebosis Consolidated group assets: R23 billion
  • Awards: The Entrepreneur of the Year Award (2006 — SA), Property Developer of the Year Award (2009 — SA), Pioneer Award (2014 — SA), African Business Excellence Award (2014 — UK House of Lords) and Global Leadership Excellence Award (2016 — Global Leadership Congress).
  • Visit: www.rebosis.co.za

When Sisa listed Rebosis Property Fund in 2011, it was the first black-managed and substantially held property fund to be listed on the JSE.

He is also the founder and CEO of Billion Group, a commercial and retail property developer that will spend in excess of R35 billion over the next ten years on its current projects.

It’s safe to say he’s achieved his goals and then some.

Related: How Bertus Albertse Overcame Adversity To Build A R80 Million Franchising Business

But success doesn’t come without a price. Sisa believes that adversity is the panacea of success.

Every victory has been hard won after learning a devastating lesson. Entrepreneurship is all about risk and reward — you can assess and mitigate as best you can but you have to accept there will be risks.

Take the hard knocks, learn the lessons they bring you and forge ahead with a positive attitude. That is the entrepreneurial way. That’s the real secret to success.

From adversity comes success

From adversity comes success. Remember that. When you are faced with insurmountable challenges, know that you are being honed for something great. Use the lessons and the pain and build something stronger than you were, smarter, more able to withstand further hardships.

This is a mantra Sisa Ngebulana lives by. It’s also a path he has walked numerous times. His first business caused him so much stress that to this day he believes it almost cost him his life. Yet he pushed on.

He has faced ruthless competitors, paid back millions in debt, weathered bad press, survived industry collusions attempting to freeze him out and halt his projects, and still, he has pushed on.

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Because he believes that this is the path of a true entrepreneur.

The higher the risk, the higher the rewards, and Sisa has always kept his eye on the rewards, no matter what life has thrown at him.

“Entrepreneurship is a risk; things don’t always go your way,” he says, “but when (not if) they don’t, use it and learn from it. What went wrong? What could I do better? Take these lessons as a strength and move forward.”

Lesson One: Even good businesses go bad

“My grandmother made us strong,” he says with pride.

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Born and raised in Mthatha by his grandparents after his father passed away in a trucking accident, Sisa was taught at an early age that while there is no guarantee of success, if you foster good habits and are disciplined, driven, self-reliant and able to take accountability for your actions and decisions, you have a much higher chance of achieving your goals.

“At any given time there were between 12 and 15 of us in the house, cousins, brothers and sisters, and we were all always working. Every day, my grandmother woke us up early and instructed us to find something to do. ‘You have two hands and two eyes,’ she’d say. ‘

You’re blessed. Now go and use them.’ She gave us the tools to make something of ourselves, but it was up to us to use them.”

It was this sense of accountability and personal responsibility that directed Sisa’s actions when his first business, a trucking and transport company, failed.

“I built the business up quickly while I was doing my articles at a law firm in Cape Town,” he says. “By the time I completed my articles I had nine trucks and decided to pursue business full time.”

The stress of an under-performing business can impact your health

The early successes did not continue though. Sisa struggled with bad debtors, and could not pay his creditors or the truck instalments to the bank.

Related: Entrepreneurial Powerhouse TBO Touch On How Success Is Built From Small Acts

His health started deteriorating. “I blacked out three times in a matter of weeks. The first time the doctors thought it might be kidney stones.

“The second time they decided the problem was my appendix, and scheduled an appendectomy. I was still recovering from the operation when I had my third blackout. It was at that point that my aunt, who is a doctor, told me that my problem was stress. It was clear: It was the business or me. I had to make a choice.”

Sisa chose his health. He still owed the bank R800 000, and he knew he needed to auction off his trucks and get a job to start repaying the loan.

“The bank didn’t want me to auction off the trucks — they wanted surety for the loan. Without the assets they just had my word that I would pay them back.”

Be persistent when negotiating with financiers

A skilled — and persistent — negotiator, Sisa convinced the bank to give him 36 months to repay the loan, and to let him auction off the vehicles to make the first instalments.

“I repaid the loan in 32 months. I didn’t declare bankruptcy and I didn’t walk away. The consequences of this business were mine. If you default on a loan you can carry on with your life, but you cannot get credit with a bank, and you cannot be the director of a company.

“Many people choose that path. It wasn’t going to be mine. There were too many things I wanted to achieve. I needed to do it right, deal with the challenges and get through them. Throwing in the towel would have prevented that. There will always be things outside of your control, but you need to own up to all the consequences of your actions — good or bad.”

This wouldn’t be the last time Sisa would face this decision. If anything, his next failed enterprise would make the trucking business and its problems pale in comparison.

Finding your feet and starting again when your initial plan doesn’t work out

When Sisa went off to university, he was one of five grandchildren heading off that year. His grandmother had saved enough to pay for one year for each of them. Thereafter it would be up to them to achieve good enough marks to secure bursaries or loans. Sisa took her sacrifice to heart.

Related: Quinton van der Burgh on Changing the Game

For the first time he was old — and mature — enough  to understand what his grandparents had done in supporting him and his four brothers and sisters, and giving them every opportunity they could. His school marks had been average. His university marks were not.

He worked harder than he had in his life, and graduated with top marks, enabling him to do his honours degree and take his pick of top law firms through which to complete his articles.

He then simultaneously studied accounting and economics through correspondence at UCT, after realising that most of his peers had legal and financial degrees. He was interested in finance and upskilling himself.

Develop skills so you can land on your feet if your business goes under

Those skills and degrees became important after his trucking business went under. “There was no shortage of job offers,” he says.

“But I needed something that paid my bills, enabled me to pay back my debt to the bank, but also furthered my career.”

That opportunity lay with Eskom’s legal department (specialising in finance). This further enabled him to complete his master’s degree at RAU. “Even though entrepreneurship was in my blood, I spent seven years at Eskom, and it proved to be invaluable experience that carries me to this day. I needed those foundations.

“Over the years, I have seen many entrepreneurs limited by their experiences — the ability to take their business to the next level eludes them.

At Eskom I learnt governance, delegation, HR, industrial relations, management and more importantly, treasury (having traded money and capital markets) — not just how to be a founder and owner, but how to successfully manage a large organisation.”

While the experience was instrumental in future successes, the salary was not enough to cover his debts, and so — with Eskom’s blessing — Sisa started investing in property. “I was upfront with Eskom about my debt from the beginning.

“My plan was to purchase land, build houses and flip the properties. Since I could have a building team doing the work with check-ins on weekends, my managers allowed it.” Sisa had experience in this area, as he’d started renovating and selling properties while he was at varsity.

Related: Shark Tank’s Romeo Kumalo Weighs In On High-Impact Entrepreneurial Businesses

His first land parcel — in Kyalami Estate — cost R22 000. Because he couldn’t qualify for a loan with his outstanding debt, he found a colleague who was interested in a business partnership, and with a R350 000 bond they built and flipped the property for a profit within six months.

Take one step at a time until you reach success

Sisa used his profits to buy the next property and slowly, one plot after the next, he developed the whole street. He paid off the bank loan and began developing high-end clusters.

Related: How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

His ‘side’ business was booming, and even though he was still employed by Eskom, he had now amassed some personal wealth.

It was at this point that a listed coal mining company approached Sisa to help them save the business. Their largest subsidiary company was defaulting on its debts, and the entire group was in financial trouble as a result.

“I restructured their balance sheet and got new funding from the banks,” says Sisa. But these measures weren’t enough.

The company was involved in anthracite coal mining, and international prices declined so severely that the business was unsustainable.

Once again, Sisa restructured the balance sheet and approached banks for finance, outlining his recapitalisation programme. By now he was so involved in the company’s journey that he had invested his own personal funds in it.

Have skin in the game so financiers will take you seriously

“The banks were clear that they would not give a cent unless I was involved. I’d invested everything I had into the business. I needed to make it work, and I felt assured that if I resigned from Eskom and took on the challenge, the banks would come to the party.”

They didn’t. Three months after leaving Eskom and bonding his house, plots and remaining properties to keep the business afloat until the banks came on board, Sisa realised he needed to cut his losses.

He had personally signed surety for the company’s loans, not to mention his personal debts that were tied up in the business.

“I had to face the fact that I’d lost the gamble. The risk hadn’t paid off. Holding on to the business would have just sunk us into even more debt. Admitting defeat was painful — real physical pain — and caused immense stress. But I’d learnt to recognise that stress, and the toll it takes on the mind and body, and I think I handled it better.

“In times like this, there’s no point looking back with regret. I could have stayed employed. I was making good money developing clusters on the side. It was safe and comfortable. And now it was all gone.

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

I couldn’t even pay my kids’ school fees, and needed to ask the school for a five-month fee hiatus. But I needed to look forward. Regrets serve no purpose. Learn from the experience; that’s all you can do.”

Selling assets to settle to company’s debt

Sisa now needed to find a way to settle the company’s debts.

“Luckily we had some highly specialised low-seam mining machines that we could sell. India and Brazil have similar coal seams, and so I spent six months travelling back and forth until I sold the equipment for R200 million. I then negotiated terms for the remaining R30 million that we owed.”

Once again Sisa was in a position where he needed to find a way to personally pay back debt, except this time it wasn’t R800 000, but R30 million.

Employment wasn’t an option — it would never be adequate to pay back that much money. Instead, he returned to his core: Property.

sisa-ngebulana_qualifications_entrepreneurs-in-south-africa_success-stories

Dealing with R30 million debt

“I was lucky enough to have options on some land in areas like Hyde Park and Bryanston. I sold four units in Hyde Park off plan, and was able to hustle an overdraft based on those pre-sales.

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Black Entrepreneurs To Watch

From there I completed 21 clusters in Hyde Park followed by spec developments in Dainfern, Pecan Ridge and other high-end estates.” Sisa was putting into action a lesson he had learnt while watching his grandparents growing up — success is cyclical.

You can be abundant one minute, and have nothing the next, but if you keep moving forward, you can build that abundance again. You just need to get started and then build on each small success.

“The coal mining business was a financial blow, but it was also a blessing in disguise. It forced me out of employment. If it hadn’t, I might still be employed today, and I would never have achieved what I have through the Billion Group and Rebosis.”

Push yourself out of your comfort zone

Throughout his career, Sisa has consistently pushed himself out of his comfort zones. Residential development was going well, but he was up for the next challenge, and so he set his sights on commercial properties.

“You can’t let the fear of failure hold you back,” he says. “You also can’t let a lack of experience stop you trying new things and taking on new challenges.”

That challenge would take the form of an old commercial property in Pretoria that Liberty was selling.

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“Corporates were making the move from the old commercial CBD hubs to decentralised locations like Sandton, and they left some really nice buildings behind that could be picked up for nothing.

“The problem was that they carried a lot of risk. For example, Liberty’s building was selling for R60 million, but the bottom two floors in the basement were flooded, and all-in there was R120 million worth of work that needed to be done.

“In addition, I needed to start refurbishing floors before the deal went through so that I could attract tenants to the building, as I couldn’t have it sitting idle after Liberty moved out. I’d spent R4 million by the time the deal went through.”

Be persistent to achieve success

But getting the deal wasn’t easy. Sisa approached RMB five times to finance it, and each time they said no. “The reason for the ‘no’ changed each time I went back to them. To be honest, I don’t know why I kept going back, but I was determined to make it happen.”

On the sixth attempt, Sisa was told that unless he had R10 million to put up as collateral, they didn’t want to hear from him again.

“My response was that this was fantastic. They couldn’t understand my excitement. It was still technically a no. But I saw it as a yes; I understood what I needed to do now — I had a goalpost that I could work with, and would eventually do a deal with the bank.”

Related: Zuko Tisani Learnt These 7 Invaluable Lessons On His Path To Success

All-in the Liberty building cost R85 million to develop: R40 million to purchase the property, and R45 million for the construction. Contractors quoted Sisa R120 million to refurbish the building, and he used that to negotiate Liberty down from R60 million to R40 million.

However, the agreement with RMB was for R60 million, of which they would put up R30 million.

“I jostled together the rest, did the construction myself to keep costs down, which was why I was able to do the job for R45 million instead of R120 million, and I had my first commercial building.”

It was a 26-story building, and Sisa secured tenants up to the 18th floor and was then able to refinance the building. “Within 18 months it was valued at R180 million.” And just like that, Billion Group was in the commercial property sector, building and refurbishing properties in the Johannesburg and Pretoria CBDs.

The case for Regional Malls: Finding a new challenge

The interesting thing about success is that it’s actually quite boring, and Sisa soon realised that he loves a challenge. “The thing about properties, whether they’re residential or commercial, is that once you’ve sold the property or have a tenant in, you’ve done it. Money goes into the bank and there’s nothing really left to do.

“I wanted something in the property space that was a real challenge.” That something was regional shopping centres. “The risks were high, assessing and mitigating them is scientific. You need to do your homework properly, but the idea of sinking my teeth into that space was incredibly exciting.”

Even so, Sisa did not yet fully appreciate that a project of that scale can produce challenges from places you never expect them, and these can destabilise both you and the project.

“My first regional mall was Mdantsane City in the Eastern Cape. From the moment I secured the contract the challenges began. First, I couldn’t find a contractor that wasn’t R20 million over my budget.

It was my first real introduction to the reality that collusion does exist. I gave the earthworks contract to a separate company and began blasting the site while I continued to look for a building contractor.

mdantsane-city

“The site was almost solid rock, and needed 84 blasts to prepare for construction. Each blast is carefully planned, and signed off by the SAPS and bomb unit. On the 75th blast, someone died.

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A local mental hospital had been evacuated as per blasting standards, but one patient had returned to her bed without anyone realising. During the blast, a rock flew out in an unexpected direction, and went through the hospital’s roof, through the ceiling and hit the patient on the head.

“It was a freak accident, and the earthworks company was cleared of any wrongdoing — they had followed protocols to the letter — but there was a deep emotional impact. Someone had died. I shut down the site while we processed and came to terms with what had happened.

“Then, two months later, some kids cut through the fence to play on soil heaps that were being moved by the earthworks machines, and a child was buried alive. This time I shut the site down for six months.

When your path is tested, have faith to carry on

“I questioned everything: What I was doing, why I was doing it, my emotional state and our purpose. I was brought up in a devote Christian home, and my faith has always been a great source of strength to me. We had prayers over the site with pastors and churches.

“Eventually, we reopened. We had loans that needed to be paid, and the only way to do that was to build an operational regional mall that could generate income. And so we went back to work. By this stage we had fallen behind and needed to make up lost time.

“Retailers charge developers heavy penalties if malls don’t open on time. They need to order stock and hire employees, and so every day that a mall doesn’t open costs them money — which they pass on to the developer.

“I had found a contractor in Mthatha, but I realised his pace was too slow — there was no way we would finish on time at his current pace.” Even though he and his team had no experience in projects of this size, Sisa took over the construction of the project and managed to complete it on time.

Related: Can Being Deceptive Help You Build Your Business? It Worked For These 5 Entrepreneurs

While he was finishing Mdantsane, Sisa was already bidding on another parcel of land, this time in East London.

“The site was perfect; it belonged to Tsogo Sun, which had a casino on the property, but was looking to sell a section to develop a mall.”

When Sisa first bid on the property, it was R15 million; soon other bidders entered the fray, pushing the price up to R45 million.

Although Billion Group would ultimately win the project, the delay meant that three other developers with different sites around East London had been able to approach retailers, who had committed to the various projects.

“There was only room for one regional mall,” says Sisa. “Luckily, the big retailers were split over all three competing sites, which meant no one could yet declare their site the winner. If I wanted to build my mall, I needed to win over the retailers.” This is exactly what Sisa did.

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It wasn’t easy. They had already committed to other projects with much bigger, more established developers, and didn’t even want to meet with an unknown player who was new to the space. So Sisa camped out at their executive offices until they agreed to see him.

“I spent the whole day sitting in the reception of the CEO of one of the big five retailers,” Sisa recalls. “At 5pm he felt so bad that I’d been there the entire day that he agreed to give me five minutes.”

The pair hit it off, and two hours later Sisa promised to fly the retailer and his executives down to East London and put them on a helicopter so that they could view all three sites. “Ours was hands down the best location coming off the highway. I left it up to them to judge which site they wanted to be at, but the tactic worked. Within six weeks, all five major retailers were on board. This sealed our fate and destroyed our competition.”

For Sisa, the challenges were just beginning. None of the major construction companies wanted to work with him. They had JVs with other smaller contenders, and even though building Hemingways would be a lucrative R1,2 billion construction job, contractor after contractor said no.

Eventually, Sisa approached the management team of the top contractor in the sector and offered them all equity in a new entity. They turned him down flat. “So I started stalking the MD,” he says. “He called me and told me to stop talking to his friends and family, and showing up everywhere he went. But he agreed to discuss the job opportunity.”

Once Sisa convinced the MD, the rest of his team followed. The company received 17 resignations on the same day. “They were beyond furious with me. I received a call from the CEO, raging at me. I let him rage.

Related: Getting Into The Markets Is Tough, And This Success Story Is Going Unnoticed…For Now

I figured it was the least I could do. However, at the end of the phone call he told me that he would squeeze me out — no supplier in the whole of South Africa would do business with me after he had contacted them.

“Unfortunately, he had the power to do just that. We had to open within 26 months and I’d already lost two months. I needed to make a plan, and no one would work with us. We got shut out completely.

“We couldn’t get cranes, equipment, cement, shutters — even the concrete supplier refused to work with us. I flew with the team to Dubai to get our shutters, Austria for our cranes and Germany for our cement.

We batched our own concrete on site, bent our own steel — we did everything ourselves and we finished the mall in 24 months. It was one of our greatest achievements.”

Related: Watch List: 15 SA eCommerce Entrepreneurs Who Have Built Successful Online Businesses

Completing the development wasn’t the end of Sisa’s challenges, however. The construction ran R180 million over spec because everything had to be imported, and when the mall opened in October 2009, South Africa was already feeling the effects of the recession.

“The banks had tightened their belts and most of my small tenants, including restaurants and boutiques, couldn’t get funding nor pay their rent. I suddenly had a 15% vacancy, which accounted for 27% of my income. We had massive over-runs and I had to scratch around and sell assets to make ends meet.”

It was the second time in his life that Sisa’s health suffered as a result of a setback. Again, he recognised the signs and managed his blood pressure and overall health more effectively.

For Sisa, overcoming adversity in business and life had become a necessary skill. The attempts by big corporates to squeeze him out were just the beginning of his challenges in the sector. “Forest Hill was delayed in court for six years — up until one month before we opened we were in court against another developer who wanted to shut us down.

Related: Luthuli Capital Co-Founder’s Advice On How To Start When You Can’t Get Finance

“The Baywest site in Port Elizabeth was built as a JV after we finally decided to work with the developer of the site adjacent to ours, instead of continuing to fight each other in court for the development. It’s a very competitive industry.”

bay-west-mall

But with the right vision, guts and determination, it’s also incredibly rewarding. “When we built BT Ngebs, which I named after my grandfather, in Mthatha, everyone said I was crazy.

A regional mall would never work there. Not only has it been incredibly successful over the past two years, but we are now building our first four-star hotel and entertainment node that includes movies, a casino and restaurants.

In fact, Sisa’s appetite for risk and his continuous quest for challenges has led to Billion Group becoming a precinct developer. Regional malls and smaller centres form the catalyst for these precincts.

As with Baywest, first the mall is built, and then the entire precinct around it — including industrial parks, office buildings, hospitals and big automotive showrooms.

“We’ve reached a point where if we create the catalyst, they will come — we’re creating our own work as a developer.” In fact, in its current projects alone, Billion Group has R35 billion worth of development lined up for the next ten to 15 years. “And we always come in a few years ahead of target,” he says.

SA’s first black-managed and held company on the JSE

In 2010, Sisa consolidated his assets and formed a company called Rebosis Property Fund, which he listed on the JSE in May 2011. It was the first black managed and held property company on the JSE, as well as the largest IPO in the property sector.

Sisa kept his development assets in Billion Group, but moved the income assets into Rebosis. This included four commercial buildings and four shopping malls. The total value of assets was R3,6 billion, and the company had a market cap of R2 billion.

forest-hill-city

The IPO raised R1,6 billion, of which 40% to 45% covered debt still held by banking partners. Over the last six years Sisa has grown Rebosis into a R23 billion company that includes three malls in the UK.

Again in 2016, Sisa experienced major challenges as a consequence of market and financial media skepticism relating to the transaction between Billion Group and Rebosis.

“When I created and listed Rebosis, Baywest and Forest Hill were still vacant land, and were not included in the asset transfer. Rebosis is not a development business due to the higher risk associated with development.

“Once these properties were developed and opened after one-and two years respectively however, I sold them to Rebosis for R2,2 billion each. I also sold an asset management company and a property management business for an additional R560 million.”

There was huge pushback from analysts who questioned whether other shareholder interests were impacted by the fact that Sisa was the buyer and seller.

Related: Watch List: 20 SA Tech Entrepreneurs Making It Big In The Industry

“There was a lot of enmity in the market; distrust and unwarrented negative publicity. Numbers were misquoted and shareholders got nervous. It took a toll on me. Competitors, sceptics and some analysts worked tirelessly to sabotage the process; major shareholders instigated negative media publicity.

“It was incredible watching how vicious they became. This resulted in a share price drop, as two shareholders swopped shares with a competitor who was quietly planning a hostile takeover, and had put pressure on major institutional shareholders to swap

“You can view these challenges as a disaster, or as an opportunity. I went straight to my boards and shareholders to build back their trust. I had to work really, really hard, but I ended up in a stronger position than when this all started.

“Six months later we concluded the transaction with 88% shareholder approval, which is exceptional. Unfortunately, I’ve found myself with a 20% hostile shareholder whom I’m still dealing with to
this day.”

Share prices quickly stabilised however, and over the course of the last five years, Rebosis has enjoyed a minimum growth of 8% per year, peaking at 11% in some years. This is in line with the property sector, which has been the top performing sector in the last three consecutive years.

It’s just one more lesson on that perilous road to entrepreneurial success. But if you keep your head held high and face each and every challenge — the journey will always be worth the price.


Related: Head Of Audi South Africa Shares His Top Lessons On Weathering The Storm In Turbulent Times

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Entrepreneur Profiles

8 Codes Of Success That Helped Priven Reddy of Kagiso Interactive Media Achieve A Networth Of Over R4 Billion

It’s taken 12 years, but not only is Priven Reddy a self-made millionaire at the age of 36, he sits at the helm of five companies and 380 employees, and his companies have R4 billion in assets. Here’s how a kid from Chatsworth in Durban stopped blaming his fate on everyone else and took control of his destiny.

Nadine Todd

Published

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priven-reddy

Vital Stats

  • Player: Priven Reddy
  • Company: Kagiso Interactive Media
  • Launched: 2006
  • Start-ups: Krypteum (launched 2017). Krypteum allows traders to buy a cryptocurrency coin and have their investment managed by artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities.
    • Dryvar (launched end-July 2017)
    • Shypar (launched January 2018)
  • Net worth including crypto assets holdings: Over R4 billion
  • Visit: www.kagisointeractive.com

As a kid growing up in the 90s, Priven Reddy had a rough childhood after the passing of his dad. “After my father unexpectedly died, my mom settled down with a man who later became an alcoholic. There were times when we wouldn’t have food to eat,” he candidly recalls. It’s a stark reality, but one that laid the foundations for the man Priven would become, and he doesn’t shy away from unpleasant memories.

Instead, young Priven soon figured out that he needed a paradigm of how he viewed the world or he would be consumed by it. Over the years he has built up a framework of eight codes that he not only lives by, but believes has shaped his success and more importantly, the mindset that has been instrumental in achieving that success. By adopting them he has turned his life around and then used them to rapidly climb the success ladder of the corporate world once his foundations were in place. 

Code 1: Find your inner drive and keep feeding it

For Priven, the pivotal moment that forced him to shift his attitude in life is still a fresh memory, despite the intervening years. “I was 20 and waiting tables at a restaurant at the Gateway Theatre of Shopping. One of my customers had finished eating and gestured over his plate containing some left over, half eaten pizza. ‘Here, this is for you,’ he told me with mistaken generosity. ‘Put it in a doggy-bag and take it home.’ His words were like a sucker punch to my dignity. I couldn’t believe it. Was this how our society treated its poor?”

It was the last straw in a series of blows that Priven had endured that day. He’d been rejected by a girl whom he’d asked out, on the basis that she wouldn’t date anyone who didn’t own a car. That morning his family had also once again shared their disapproval over the way he was living his life.

“They called me an embarrassment. It stung — and it stuck in my mind. To top it off, I arrived at work that day and the owner of the restaurant took me aside and told me that I had too much potential to be working as a waiter my whole life. He was thinking of firing me so that I would get out of my comfort zone and do something else.”

After his run-in with the customer later that day, Priven went outside the mall, reflecting on what had happened that day and his life in general. “It was like someone snapped their fingers and woke me from a bad dream. I would never let anyone belittle me or impinge on my dignity again. Then and there I made a decision: I would no longer be the victim of my own fate. I was going to be the master of my own destiny.”

Hungry to prove himself, the promise was more than just words for Priven. He knew that he needed to take matters into his own hands and start making some real changes. “Once I stopped blaming the world for everything that went against me, I started to grow. I began to see challenges as opportunities and I was able to channel that energy into a positive inner drive. I began to understand that things don’t happen to you, they happen for you. That shift changed everything for me.”

Related: 30 Top Influential SA Business Leaders

Code 2: The biggest opportunities are found where things are the most difficult

“The first principal I learnt is that in adversity lies opportunity. In a business sense this means being able to identify the challenges people have and create a solution that takes away these difficulties.”

It was a lesson Priven was already learning in primary school. The school had a small tuckshop catering for over 1 000 kids. Long, frustrated lines meant many kids ended up missing their entire lunch break waiting to be served. The young entrepreneur immediately spotted a gap. “I borrowed some money and bought bags of chips and chocolates and sweets from a local wholesaler. I started at the back of the queue and sold to the kids one by one all the way down the line. I sold out quickly and made more profit than the tuck shop vendors because I didn’t have any overheads.”

The small business only lasted a few weeks before the school shut it down, but Priven took something away from the experience more valuable than some extra cash in his pocket — he’d found validation that his approach to business worked.

“How do you make things easier for people? Answer that and you’re making money. Difficulties can be found everywhere, regardless of class or creed. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. It could be a blue-collar factory worker at the end of the day not being able to go to the supermarket to purchase groceries because they’ll miss their taxi home. Or it could be wealthy early-adopters interested in investing in blockchain technology, but not having the time or know-how to manage their cryptocurrency portfolio effectively.”

Priven doesn’t let insurmountable tasks discourage him. “If it’s difficult, there are fewer competitors who will enter that field. It’s that simple. Most people are daunted by the challenge and find something else to do. However, that’s where the real opportunity lies. I believe the impossible is not unachievable — it’s just a niche market.”

This same philosophy has driven Priven to explore highly technical sectors, including augmented reality (which he began exploring over six years ago), and how to incorporate artificial intelligence into crytocurrencies.

“I love doing difficult things. That’s the space where a lot of money can be made,” he says.

Code 3: There’s no substitute for hard work

According to his close friends and family, Priven’s capacity for burning both ends of the candle is legendary. He’s proud that entrepreneurship runs in his DNA, a trait fostered by his late father, Christie Reddy, from an early age. The founder of a national logistics company, Christie owned a fleet of more than 100 trucks and boasted a client base of multi-national accounts when he was killed in a fatal road accident. A series of hijackings, theft and mismanagement quickly saw the company crashing into bankruptcy. Priven was just 11 years old and his world was ripped apart.

“My dad taught us the value of working hard from a young age,” he says. “My four siblings and I were always competing in entrepreneurial games. He even sub-divided the back garden into five small vegetable plots and gave us each a packet of seeds. The challenge was to see who could grow their own veggies and herbs and then sell them door-to-door. ‘After paying your mum and me for the cost of the seeds and fertilizer, the one who makes the biggest profit is the winner,’ he told us.”

For Priven the challenge wasn’t work though — it was fun. And that sense of fun has always persisted. To this day he says it’s not hard work if you’re having fun.

“I think my dad knew that by giving us these business principals, skills and tools at a young age, he was laying the foundations for our future independence. He knew this was more valuable than any trust fund he could set up.”

Today, all of Priven’s siblings are successful entrepreneurs operating their own businesses in diverse industry sectors, ranging from one of the leading app development companies in Africa and the Middle East to a large independent events management company, to South Africa’s only business consultancy for tech start-ups, to a niche organic farm in the Western Cape.

Code 4: Perseverance always pays off

Priven launched Kagiso Interactive as a web design agency 12 years ago in what he calls ‘the wild west days’ of the IT industry in South Africa. “I had learnt graphic design at my brother-in-law’s design studio and was making a little money doing a few below-the-line advertising projects for clients. I had a chance meeting with a guy in a coffee shop who said ‘You need to meet my brother — he does web design. Maybe you can work together.’

“Web design was still pretty new. We met, and ended up launching a small start-up from his garage, combining my graphic design and business skills with his web-building skills. We began attracting some clients and even employed a few people. But it was tough. The garage flooded every time it rained. We moved into an office block but we weren’t stable yet. After eight months my business partner left, along with most of our employees.”

For Priven, it felt like he was in a downward spiral. He was 24 years old and finally feeling like he was building something worthwhile. At this point, after everything he’d been through, quitting wasn’t an option.

“With only one employee left, I advised him to find a job at a larger company as well. It was a steep learning curve, but I hung in there. I wanted him to find security, but I was determined to make a go of it for myself.”

One of Priven’s customers, the owner of Tudor Hotel in Durban, offered him some space, furniture and equipment so that he could continue working, and told him he could start paying rent once he brought in revenue. It gave Priven the start he needed.

Related: Inspiring Entrepreneur Siyanda Dlamini Believes You Need To Back Yourself To Build Your Dreams

Code 5: Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone

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With his fledgling business downsized, Priven looked online for new markets. He registered his company’s services on eLance to broaden his market-base and tap into an international client-base.

“I met an IT entrepreneur who was based in India through an online platform. We became friends and spent a lot of time discussing our companies, our clients and troubleshooting any business problems we experienced. He planted the seeds of app development in my head. I remember telling him it was a ridiculous idea, but he wouldn’t let it go.”

It was 2009 and the Indian Government was largely investing in IT and mobile applications, two things that were virtually unheard of in South Africa. The Google Play Store was only launched in 2012. Priven wasn’t sold on the idea, but he eventually allowed himself to be convinced, largely because he just needed to sell it.

“I didn’t need to build up a team because I could outsource any development to India, so the risk was really low,” he says. “We’d basically do a web search and contact any companies we found who made money from their websites and we’d offer them an app. It wasn’t the easiest sell. We were trying to convince people that you could make money from a smartphone — a device that had just been launched in South Africa. We were telling them it was a computer in their pocket, which was true, except there was no iStore, Internet speeds were slow and mobile data was expensive.”

Once he starts something though, Priven sees it through, and so he stuck at it. “I was feeling a bit like a fish out of water, and kept asking myself what I was doing. But the more I did it, the more I learnt, until the idea of app development started to feel familiar.”

Because of that friend’s persistence, Priven ended up on the ground floor of mobile applications development. “By the time other companies recognised the value of apps, we had learnt a lot of lessons and really understood the space. Plus, our clientele was largely international.

Code 6: Believe in your product, always

Kagiso Interactive spent years outsourcing its work to India, which worked well because it allowed Priven to keep his overheads low while he built up the business. “I reached a point where I didn’t want to be a factory though,” he says. “I wanted to offer a lifetime warranty on the applications we built. Most apps only really start to show problems once you’ve scaled your users, and that takes 18 to 24 months, long after most warranties have run out.

“With this in mind, I started building my own team, upskilling and moulding them with a service-first culture. We don’t charge maintenance either. If you’re confident in your product, it shouldn’t need maintenance. We back ourselves.”

By 2014, when the Saudi Royal family contacted Kagiso, the company had built over 1 000 applications and had developed a strong reputation in the market. “Working with the Saudi Royal family has been a game-changer for us — a lot of our clients are based in Dubai — but none of that could happen overnight.

“We got into a space early, focused on becoming the best in our field, built a solid word-of-mouth and referral reputation, and ten years later started reaping the rewards.”

Priven is also fanatical about giving clients what they need, instead of what they ask for. “We’re here to build real solutions and we understand this space. It’s not always the popular move to tell a client that they actually need a different product to the one they’re requesting, but it’s the right move, and it will cement an excellent relationship.

“Over the years I’ve turned work down that wasn’t right for us, or if I knew the company couldn’t afford what they were asking for, or wouldn’t be able to take it to market. We also never tender for business. Our work should be on our merits alone.

“I also oversee everything — nothing is sent out without my final approval. This means I need to always be available, and respond to things quickly. As far as I’m concerned, that’s my job.

“It also fosters a culture of putting the client first. We need to respond to every single client within 15 minutes of receiving a call, email or message through our website. It’s an ethos that has shaped everything we do, and is the reason why it took ten years to build the foundations for a business that has accelerated in growth in the past four years. We live for this.”

Related: 6 Habits Long-Time Millionaires Rely On To Stay Rich

Code 7: Mindpower is real

“When you grow up in adversity you have two choices: You can either allow the negativity around you to consume you or you can focus on the positive and see the challenges as opportunities. Wallowing in self-pity will only make you bitter. You end up with a victim mentality — and that cripples you. I don’t like focusing on the negative, so I search for the rainbows in the storm instead.”

In 2010, Priven’s sister gave him The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. “It changed everything for me. I realised the power of thought and what it’s done for my life. Mindpower is real — picture it, really want it, and then focus on how to get it. You can attract people and things to your life. You just need to be able to visualise it and then go out and get it.

“That doesn’t mean it’s easy — you will still bang into walls and face challenges. But when you have a determined mindset, you can push through them to the other side. You can overcome anything. A positive mindset is a powerful weapon that you can use to transform your reality.”

Code 8: Never stop learning

Priven is an avid learner. It’s a secret he believes too few people take advantage of: There’s so much out there, so many free online courses, and so many ways to upskill yourself. So why aren’t you taking advantage of all of those resources?

“I’ve never let the fact that I didn’t get a degree hold me back. We all have the potential to be great — you just need to be willing to put in the work. I taught myself design, then web development, then app development, and then AI and VR and how blockchain and cryptocurrencies work. The information is out there. You will also be amazed at how forthcoming people are and willing to share their knowledge.

“I hire experts, but I need to understand everything that we do within our business, and I need to know enough to see what’s coming and where technology will take us.

“I use the same philosophy when I hire. We do need senior engineers, but I also hire kids straight out of university. I learnt this from Google — you need a degree, but top companies don’t hire based only on that degree. We hire based on potential and attitude. What can you teach someone, and how much are they willing to learn?

“An individual who believes they should be promoted purely on their degrees isn’t the right fit for us. We want people who will seize any opportunity to learn and really better themselves. Those are the people who do well in our organisation.

“We live by what we believe in. The head of our Shypar team used to be our cleaning lady. I saw the potential in her right from the beginning. She was hungry to learn. Even as a cleaner she found time during her lunch breaks to learn on the computers in the office. She was given the opportunity because she never stopped learning.”

Priven’s philosophy is clear: Expose the right people to skills and they will grab that opportunity — and you will have helped them change their lives. “We don’t always get this right. We hire slow and fire fast. But I prefer to give everyone the best opportunity I can and to do that you have to start by taking a chance on them.

“I try to hire people who are better than me. I believe it’s important to surround yourself with people who are progressive and positive. They up your game. Negative people are energy vampires.

“In 2010 I had one employee. By 2014 we employed 188 people, and four years later we have 386 staff members. I’m incredibly proud of the skills we have built over that time.”

Related: 7 Pieces Of Wise Advice For Start-Up Entrepreneurs From Successful Business Owners


Lessons learnt

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Put the right foundations in place

That’s the real secret to growth. In the last three years I’ve really started focusing on other passion projects because Kagiso Interactive has grown to a point where it can bootstrap other start-ups and take some mitigated risks.

We’ve also been learning all this incredible tech that we can now put into action. Focusing on AI in 2012 gave us the know-how and technology we needed to build Krypteum, an AI platform that is going to change the face of AI and what it can do for business. It reads hundreds of thousands of lines of code and information in seconds. Krypteum is also the world’s first AI-powered investment cryptocurrency. If you put the right foundations in place, the sky is the limit.

Collaborate with key stakeholders

When we launched Dryver, a local ride-sharing app, we immediately started engaging with the taxi associations. We want to create a business that supports drivers and small business owners, and is branded and safe for everyone — drivers and customers alike. We knew it would be important to get the taxi associations on board — the right partnerships always enable growth.

Always put your users first

When we built Shyper, our delivery app, we focused on the drivers: What did they need? What helped them to deliver a good service? This was all important, but we ended up with a really complicated app that consumers found too difficult to use. We’ve now made the decision to rebuild the architecture from scratch. We’ve learnt a lot, and we can simplify the platform to make it a lot more user-friendly. Yes, it means losing money short-term, but long-term we will have a much more successful business.

In any sales discussion, make sure you have a solution for your client

Sit back, spot the problem and determine the solution. That way you’re having a discussion that focuses on a solution for a problem that you know needs solving.

Always treat people in the way that you would want to be treated

I’ve been on the other side of this, and it can be emotionally damaging. Be kind with your actions as they will ultimately define you.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Who Is Lyle Malander? – Winner Of The SAICA Top-35-Under-35 CA(SA) Competition

The daring and driven entrepreneur Lyle Malander launched Malander Advisory, a chartered accounting and financial advisory firm, in 2015. He has since also launched Malander Placements, a recruitment firm, and Malander Digital, an IT firm. And they just recently opened a branch in London.

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Vital Stats:

  • Lyle Malander
  • Age: 30
  • Designation: Director
  • Company: Malander Advisory, Malander Placements, Malander Digital, Malander UK
  • Visit: www.malander.co.za

At just 30 years, Lyle Malander is not merely a trendy businessman but a trailblazer whose ambitions are fuelled by making a difference and creating a legacy. The co-founder and director of the Malander Group of companies’ core focus is providing professional advisory and resource solutions to various large and listed entities. Lyle is proud to say that in 2,5 years the Malander businesses have derived revenue in excess of R40 million. His hard work and arduous hours have turned his dreams into reality.

Through the Malander Advisory business, Lyle oversees the team that provides managed chartered accountant and finance resource solutions to an array of clients in various sectors and industries and has created employment opportunities for over 70 chartered accountants and finance professionals.

Malander Placements is a team of trained professionals that provide recruitment solutions, particularly in the fields of finance, law and IT, to various clients. And pursuant to his keen interest in the technological environment and the ways in which it can enhance business operations, Lyle established Malander Digital, which provides temporary IT resourcing, IT outsourcing, and digital marketing solutions.

‘Lyle’s story of persistence, growth and vision is an inspiration to anyone who is daring enough to start their own business,’ says Dineshrie Pillay, one of the Top 35 judges.

Related: 10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets

‘I think as entrepreneurs, we are always looking forward and striving to achieve more and as soon as we reach a goal, we change the goal posts to want to achieve more,’ says Lyle Malander. ‘That being said, I wasn’t always fortunate enough to have enjoyed the luxuries life has to offer. I remember the struggles we faced as a family when I was growing up. I think what sets me apart is that I have always seen these struggles and challenges as a learning opportunity which fuels my desire to want to make a difference and create a legacy.’

Lyle humbly attributes the success of his businesses to his strong team with an aligned vision: ‘My co-director and team have all been pivotal to the growth of the business and their motivation and dream is what keeps us going on a daily basis,’ he says.

Lyle admits that growing up, he didn’t always have the most fortunate of circumstances. As a young coloured kid from Cape Town, he was exposed to his fair share of financial and social challenges. But he held on to his dreams to make a difference. Today he says that his perseverance and dedication has been a key factor in overcoming his challenges in life.

‘I remember a time when I was younger and wanted to become a doctor because at the time I considered it to be the only really “prestigious” profession I knew of. Later on, I realised that I couldn’t spend time in hospitals and fainted at the sight of blood. My mom then came across the CA(SA) profession in conversation with a colleague at work and proceeded to tell me about it. I then started doing some research,’ he says.

He liked what he found and avidly began pursuing his studies to be a CA(SA) at the University of Stellenbosch. But at the end of his honours year when he received his end of year results, he learnt to his shock and dismay that he had received the bare minimum mark of 40% required to get access to the final exam. He distinctly remembers his lecturer saying, ‘To those of you who have a 45% year mark, don’t worry, there have been people in the past who have ended up passing the year.’ Being in the unfortunate position of having a year mark lower than that, Lyle immediately had that sinking feeling that he might have to re-do honours.

However, when he chatted with some of the graduate recruiters at Deloitte, they encouraged him that it was still possible to make it through the year. He decided he wouldn’t be giving up as yet!

‘I managed to pass honours that year and since then, I have realised that giving up isn’t the answer. We should always continue to follow our dreams no matter what odds are stacked up against us,’ he says proudly.

Lyle relocated to Johannesburg to complete his articles at Deloitte in 2012. He then went on secondment to Deloitte LLP in Chicago for three months before returning to join an accounting and advisory division at Deloitte South Africa. He worked on various clients including the Aveng Group, where he assisted in raising a R2 billion convertible bond.

‘I believe the training we get as CAs(SA) requires us to get an in-depth understanding of not only the finance environment but the business environment in general. Gaining this understanding of the mechanics of business and the importance of controls within business has equipped me for the entrepreneurial journey in the sense that I have had exposure to various operating environments and have garnered an understanding of what it takes to run any operation,’ he says.

‘I think great entrepreneurs are the ones who not only learn from their failures but also learn from those they are surrounded by,’ says Lyle. ‘As entrepreneurs, it is so easy to get consumed by our own ideas and vision that we forget to listen to the needs of those around us, and more specifically the needs of our clients, teams or employees. Great entrepreneurs not only identify these needs but also develop solutions to address them.’

Lyle has been instrumental in the companies’ recent expansion into the United Kingdom through the opening of a London office. This is pursuant to the companies’ expansion strategy to gain international exposure and the ability to service their clients with both their local and offshore financial advisory and resourcing requirements, as well as provide their finance and recruitment professionals with international exposure.

They have also recently started a programme called ‘Malander for Change’, which is aimed at providing technological resources such as laptops and Internet access as well as development training to institutions and organisations that need it most.

‘Our Malander for Change programme is aimed at providing training and guidance on not only how to find a job but also how to get access to resources to further education and training, as well as foster entrepreneurship, in the hope of contributing to a decline in the high rate of unemployment we face in our country,’ Lyle says.

Related: Funding And Resources For Young SA Entrepreneurs

Family life

Although Lyle admits much time is spent planning business, his free hours are spent with his girlfriend, family and friends. And when he has time, he also enjoys a good game of sport.

Lyle says his mom has always been the glue that held the family together and was a significant role model for him. ‘She was always the one that drove me to become somewhat of an academic, and I will always be grateful for that.’

His father, a serial entrepreneur, and his brother, also an entrepreneur, have taught Lyle many valuable lessons and he has drawn a large amount of inspiration from them.

Lyle’s describes his gran, to whom he is very close, as one of his number one supporters. ‘I think for any individual it is always important to have someone who believes in you and in everything you do. My gran has always been that person.’

‘Coming from a background where I was exposed to poverty and growing up in areas of poverty where I witnessed the imbalances in society, I believe that we as professionals have the ability, and potentially even a responsibility, to contribute to social change,’ he says.

‘The single greatest lesson that I have learnt so far is that nothing is impossible!’

What mantra do you live by?

Dream it. Believe it. Achieve it.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

I hope to lead the Malander Group to greater heights and growing it into a reputable brand within the South African and even international business environment.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

6 Lesson Gems From Appanna Ganapathy That Helped Him Launch A High-Growth Start-Up

Twenty years after first wanting to own a business, Appanna Ganapathy launched ART Technologies, a business he aims to grow throughout Africa, starting with Kenya thanks to a recently signed deal with Seacom. As a high-growth entrepreneur with big plans, Appanna spent two decades laying the foundations of success — and now he’s starting to collect.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

Like many entrepreneurs before him, Appanna Ganapathy hadn’t even finished school and he was already thinking about his first business venture. A friend could secure the licensing rights to open Nando’s franchises in Mozambique, and they were very keen on the idea — which Appanna’s mom quickly dampened. “You can do whatever you want,” she said. “As long as you finish your degree first.”

Unlike many other entrepreneurs however, Appanna not only finished his degree, but realised that he had a lot of skills he needed to develop and lessons to learn before he’d be ready to launch the business he wanted.

“We launched ART Technologies just over two years ago. If I had started any earlier, I don’t think I would have been as successful as I am now,” he says.

Here are six key lessons that Appanna has learnt along his journey, which have allowed him to launch a high-growth start-up that is positioned to make an impact across Africa.

1. You don’t just need a product – you need clients as well

Business success is the ability to design and execute a great product and solution, and then be able to sell it. Without sales, there is no business. This is a lesson Appanna learnt while he was still at university.

“I was drawn to computers. I loved figuring out how they worked, playing computer games — everything about them,” he says. “My parents lived in Mozambique, and during my holidays I’d visit them and a friend who had a computer business. I helped him assemble them and thought I could do this too while I was studying. I convinced my dad to buy me a car so that I could set up my business — and never sold or assembled a single computer. I delivered pizzas instead.”

So, what went wrong? The simple truth was that at the time Appanna had the technical skills to build computers, but he lacked the ability to sell his product.

“If someone had said, ‘I’ve got an order for 30 computers’, I would have filled it — but to go out and get that order — I didn’t really even know where to start.”

2. Price and solution go hand-in-hand

As much as you need the ability to sell your solution, you also need a market that wants and needs what you’re offering, at a price point that works for everyone.

In 2007, Appanna was approached by a former supplier whom he had worked with while he was based in Mozambique. The supplier had an IT firm and he wanted to expand into South Africa. He was looking for a local partner who would purchase equity shares in the company and run the South African business.

“I loved the opportunity. This was something I could build from the ground up, in an area I understood well,” says Appanna. The firm set up and managed IT infrastructure for SMEs. The value proposition was simple: “We could offer SMEs a service that they could use for a relatively low cost, but that gave them everything an enterprise would have.”

The problem was that although Appanna and his team knew they had a great product, they were competing on price with inferior products. “If we couldn’t adequately unpack the value of our solution, an SME would choose the cheaper option. It was a big lesson for me to learn. It doesn’t matter how good the solution is that you’re offering — if it’s not at a price point that your target market accepts, they won’t choose you.”

It was this understanding that helped Appanna and his team develop the Desktop-as-a-Service solution that ART Technologies now offers the SME market.

“While I was developing the idea and the solution, I needed to take three key things into account: What do SMEs need from an IT infrastructure perspective, what is the most cost-effective way to offer them that solution, and what will the market pay (and is it enough to cover our costs and give us a small profit margin)?”

Appanna’s experience in the market had already taught him how cost-conscious SMEs are, and so he started developing a solution that could deliver value at a price point SMEs could accept. His solution? A unique Desktop-as-a-Service product that combines all the processing power and Microsoft products a business needs, without any capex outlay for servers or software.

“It’s a Cloud workstation that turns any device into a full Windows computer,” Appanna explains. “We hold the licences, and our clients just access our service. A set-up that would cost between R180 000 and R200 000 for 15 users is now available for R479 per user per month.”

It took Appanna and his partners time to build the solution, but they started with the price point in mind, which meant a solution could be designed that met their needs as well as the needs of the market.

“Too many businesses set everything up, invest in the solution, and then discover they can’t sell their product at the price point they need. My time in the market selling IT and infrastructure solutions gave me invaluable insights into what we needed to deliver on, and what we could realistically charge for our service.”

3. Get as much on-the-ground experience as you can

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The time that Appanna spent building the IT firm he was a part-owner of was invaluable. “I started as a technical director before being promoted to GM and running the company for three and a half years. Those years were very, very important for me. They’re where I learnt everything about running a business.

“When I started, I was responsible for sales, but I didn’t have to actually go out and find clients, I just had to meet them, compile quotes and handle the installations. Everything I did was under the guidance of the company’s CEO, who was based in Mozambique. Being the guy who did everything was the best learning ground for me. It set me up for everything I’m doing today. In particular, I learnt how to approach and deal with people. Without people and clients your business is nothing.”

Appanna didn’t just learn by default — he actively worked to expand his understanding of all facets of the business. “At the time I wasn’t planning on leaving to launch my own business,” he says. “I was a shareholder and I wanted to grow that business. That meant understanding as much as possible about how everything worked. If there was something I wasn’t sure of — a process, the numbers, how something worked — I asked. I took personal responsibility for any errors and got involved in every aspect of the business, including areas that weren’t officially ‘my job’. I wanted to really grow and support the business.”

4. Stay focused

Interestingly, while the experience Appanna has accumulated throughout his career has allowed him to build a high-growth start-up, it also taught him the importance of not wearing too many hats as an entrepreneur.

“I’m glad I’ve had the experience of wearing multiple hats, because I’ve learnt so much, but I’ve also learnt that it’s important to pick a lane, not only in what you do as a business, but in the role you play within your business. I also race superbikes in the South African Kawasaki ZX-10 Cup; through this I have learnt how important it is to focus in the moment without distractions and this is a discipline I have brought into the business.”

“If you’re the leader of an organisation, you need to let things go. You can’t be everything to everyone. When I launched ART Technologies, I knew the key to growth would be the fact that although I’m technical, I wasn’t going to run the technical side of the business. I have strong technical partners whom I trust, and there is an escalation framework in place, from tech, to tech manager, to the CTO to me — I speak tech and I’m available, but my focus is on strategy and growth. I believe this is the biggest mistake that many start-ups make. If you’re wearing all the hats, who is looking at where you’re going? When you’re down in the trenches, doing everything, it’s impossible to see the bigger picture.”

Appanna chose his partners carefully with this goal in mind.

“All the partners play a very important role in the business. Ruaan Jacobs’s strength is in the technical expertise he brings to the business and Terry Naidoo’s strength is in the support services he provides to our clients. Terry is our technical manager. He has the most incredible relationship with our customers — everyone wants to work with Terry. But there’s a problem with that too — if we want to scale this business, Terry can’t be the technical point for all of our customers.

“As partners we have decided what our blueprint for service levels will be; this is based on the way Terry deals with clients and he is developing a technical manual that doesn’t only cover the tech side of the business, but how ART Technologies engages with its customers.

“Terry’s putting his essence down on paper — a step-by-step guide to how we do business. That’s how you build a service culture.”

5. Reputation, network and experience count

Many start-ups lack three crucial things when they launch: Their founders haven’t built up a large network, they don’t have a reputation in the market, and they lack experience. All three of these things can (and should) be addressed during start-up phase, but launching with all three can give the business a valuable boost.

Appanna learnt the value of networks at a young age. Born in India, he moved to Zambia with his family as a young child. From there he moved to Tanzania and then Mozambique, attending boarding school in Swaziland and KwaZulu Natal. At each new school, he was greeted by kids who had formed strong bonds.

“I made good friends in those years, but at each new school I recognised how important strong bonds are, particularly as the outsider.”

Appanna’s early career took him back to Mozambique, working with the UN and EY on various projects. When he moved to South Africa, as a non-citizen he connected with his old boss from the UN who offered him a position as information officer for the Regional Director’s team.

His next move would be to the tech company that he would run for just over three years — also the product of previous connections. “Who you know is important, but how you conduct yourself is even more so,” says Appanna. “If your reputation in the market place is good, people will want to do business with you.”

Appanna experienced this first hand when he left to launch his own business. “Some key clients wanted to move with me,” he says. “If I had brought them in it would have settled our business, but I said no to some key customers who hadn’t been mine. I wasn’t ethically comfortable taking them with me.”

One of those multinational clients approached Appanna again six months later, stating they were taking their business out to tender and that they were hoping ART Technologies would pitch for it. “Apart from the Desktop-as-a-Service product, we also provide managed IT services for clients, particularly larger enterprise clients. Due to the client going out on tender and requesting for us to participate, we pitched for the business and won. The relationship with this client has grown, allowing us to offer them some of our services that they are currently testing to implement throughout Africa.”

“I believe how we conduct ourselves is essential. You need your own personal code of ethics, and you need to live by it. Business — particularly in our environment — is built on trust. Our customers need to trust us with their data. Your reputation is key when it comes to trust.”

Interestingly, although Appanna and his team developed their product based on a specific price point, once that trust is built and a certain standard of service is delivered, customers will pay more.

6. Start smart and start lean

Appanna was able to launch ART Technologies with the savings he and his wife, Kate, had put aside. He reached a point where he had ideas he wanted to take to market, but he couldn’t get his current business partners to agree to them — and so setting up his own business became inevitable.

Although he was fortunate to have savings to bootstrap the business, it was essential for the business to be lean and start generating income as quickly as possible. This was achieved in a number of ways.

First, Appanna and Kate agreed on a start-up figure. They would not go beyond it. “We had a budget, and the business needed to make money before that budget was reached.” The runway Appanna gave himself was only six months — highly ambitious given the 18-month runway most start-ups need. “Other than my salary we broke even in month three, which actually extended our runway a bit,” says Appanna.

Appanna had a server that he used to start with, and purchased a second, bigger server four months later. He also launched another business one month before launching ART Technologies — ART Call Management, a virtual PA services business that needed a PABX system, some call centre technology and two employees.

“I’d been playing around with the idea for a while,” says Appanna. “We were focused on SMEs, and I started noticing other challenges they faced. A lot of entrepreneurs just have their cellphones, but they aren’t answering them as businesses — it’s not professional.

“In essence we sell minutes — for R295 you get 25 incoming calls and 50 minutes of transferred calls. We answer the phone as your receptionist, transfer calls and take messages. How you use your minutes is up to you. For example, if you supply the leads, we can cold call for you. ART Technologies uses the call management business as a reception service and to do all of our cold calling. It’s kept the business lean, but it’s also brought in an income that helped us with our runway.” In 2017 ART Call Management was selected as one of the top ten in the SAGE-702 Small Business Awards.

The only problem with almost simultaneously launching two businesses is focus. “It’s incredibly important to know where you’re putting your focus,” says Appanna. “The call management business has been essential to our overall strategy, but my focus has been pulled in different directions at times, and I need to be conscious of that. The most important thing for any start-up is to know exactly where your focus lies.”


Into Africa

Thanks to a distribution deal signed locally with First Distribution, ART Technologies was introduced to Seacom, which has available infrastructure in a data centre in Kenya.

“It’s a pay-per-client model that allows us to pay Seacom a percentage of every client we sign up,” says Appanna. “First Distribution will be our sales arm. They have a webstore and resellers, and we will be opening ART Kenya with a shareholder who knows the local market.”

From there, Appanna is looking to West Africa and Mauritius. “We have the product and the relationship with Seacom gives us the foothold we need to grow into East Africa.”

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