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AutoTrader South Africa’s George Mienie Knows Disruptive Innovation Is More Than Shifting Gears

Today, has grown its digital revenue to over R185 million, while being widely acknowledged as a disruptive tech leader. Here’s how disruptive innovation has become part of an ex-print publisher’s DNA.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

It was 2007. The recession had not yet hit and markets were booming. AutoTrader magazine sold 108 thousand copies each month, and it had so many pages that the company’s printers needed to import special equipment to bind it. Even then, the magazine was capped at approximately 1 000 pages.

Business couldn’t have been better. And yet CEO George Mienie and his management team decided to completely pivot from a print publication to a digital and tech business — against the advice of highly paid consultants.

It was a huge risk, but George knew it would be even riskier to rest on their laurels and do nothing. Truly innovative and disruptive businesses know that to survive and thrive, business models need to be continuously adapted to current and potential future market conditions. More than that, they need to lead the innovation curve.

Related: Avoid The Founder’s Trap And Learn From Propertuity’s High-Impact Growth

History is littered with companies, large and small that ignored this pivotal rule. AutoTrader South Africa wasn’t going to be one of them.

The road to Stasis

AutoTrader had been operational in South Africa since 1992, and George had joined the business in 2004. The UK holding company was completing its own transition into a digital business, but AutoTrader South Africa was still a print business. In fact, 2005 to 2008 was its boom period in print.

No one foresaw the recession, or the exponential change from print to digital. And yet, George and his team were looking to the future.

“We knew that at some point the market would shift, we just didn’t know when or how fast. We consulted our parent company at the time, who were invaluable in helping us with insights and resources from their more developed market.

But the UK wasn’t the same and we knew the South African market would be different, and it was. We decided to contract a consulting firm to give us their insights into our market and where we should be focusing in the future,” says George.

“They told us that print wasn’t dead, and that South Africa wasn’t ready for the Internet yet. Their advice was not to focus on a digital platform, but to grow AutoFreeway.

AutoTrader was a premium print product, with a cover price for consumers, and AutoFreeway was a free magazine distributed to consumers through retailers. The advice we received was that consumers wanted a free print model.”

It was expensive advice that George and his team luckily ignored. Why? Because even though South Africa wasn’t quite ready for the Internet in 2007, there would come a time when it would be, and AutoTrader could either have a market solution that was an industry leader, or be one more business behind the innovation curve and entering permanent stasis.

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

Changing the entire trajectory of a business and migrating its revenue model from one extremely successful product to an unknown entity is risky. But with high risks come high rewards, and for George and his team, doing nothing was by far the greater risk.

Market-leading mindsets


Today,’s online consumer base is exponentially greater than the size of its print readership at its height. The risk paid off. The business’s print revenue for the car marketplace has successfully transitioned to digital, and the company is now poised for growth in the digital market of buying and selling cars.

But even though George and his team knew the pivot was crucial, they couldn’t envision the scope that digital offered.

“We couldn’t conceive of being 20 times bigger in magazine sales because we were already so big. We needed a different model to achieve it. But even as we recognised the need to shift, we couldn’t imagine the scope.”

And that’s the secret to being ahead of the innovation curve — understanding the need for change, critically analysing a market and implementing the right changes — without fully envisioning what the future market will look like.

Get it right, though, and you become the market leader; determining the shape of your industry and adjusting consumer and customer perceptions of what’s possible.

“There’s a cliché that change is like boiling a frog. The water warms up so slowly you don’t notice it’s happening until it’s too late,” says George. “The only way to avoid sure market death is to get out of the pot, without jumping into the fire. That’s what we did.

Related: 10 Lessons From Andrew Brand On Shaping Organisational Success

It wasn’t easy, but today we’re an agile, disruptive tech business. We could have been an irrelevant print company that once used to be a household name. We got off the road that led to stasis, and got onto the road less travelled.” Here’s how they did it.

The art of the pivot

To pivot the business, two key areas had to be addressed. First, the team needed to determine how a digital business could potentially eradicate the limitations of print. Second, they needed to understand the customer and their needs, which would inform what AutoTrader’s new products should deliver.

“Print businesses offer limited strategic opportunity,” explains George. “A magazine is a one-dimensional brand. You can change its size, the paper stock, and the way it’s bound. You can determine where to sell it, and how much to charge to purchase it or advertise in it. But that’s it. There’s very little data you can extract from it.

“There are two ways of expanding with print: You can increase your readership in your existing geography, and you can expand your geographic footprint, which was what the UK business originally did when it began entering international markets.

“Our own magazine expansion had been capped at 1 000 pages and just over a hundred thousand copies sold each month. We were a successful print business, but there was no room for real, scalable growth.”

AutoTrader’s pivot was driven by dual motivations. George and his team recognised that the market would be shifting, but he also knew that in its current format the business model did not support scalable growth. The second challenge was that any change to a business model must take its customers into account.

This means not only asking them what they want, but focusing on what they need. As in many cases, customers don’t know what they want until you give it to them. In the case of AutoTrader, the company has two distinct customer segments: Consumers (readers), and customers (car-sellers).

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

“Early on we defined ourselves as a two-sided marketplace; without our readers (now Internet users), we have nothing. Even though they don’t spend a cent with us, we have nothing to sell without them, and so we took most of our early lead from them. What did they need, and how could we ensure they found it?

As South Africa shifted onto the Internet, we knew it would be simpler for consumers to find information online. We had to have a product ready for them.”

But what were car sellers looking for? “There’s only one thing that’s important to the car seller, and that’s selling cars. Whether this is achieved through magazine advertising or online listings is largely irrelevant to them. Once we had an online product that delivered value to car sellers, we could transition our customers onto the online platform.”

From theory to practice


Step one was being able to track how buyers engaged with sellers in the printed product, and this was a challenge for AutoTrader. The print publication had for more than a decade targeted serious buyers — consumers who had already moved down the sales funnel, and were ready to make a purchasing decision.

“The magazine had a cover price, and we believed that this ensured it was purchased by serious buyers. Magazine sales are easy to track, and based on how many magazine’s were sold each month and advert positioning within the magazine and paper stock, sellers were charged different prices.”

But what’s the online equivalent of this model? There isn’t one. The metric is users, and comparing users to magazine readership is largely irrelevant.

A website can attract consumers anywhere in the car buying funnel: Browsers, people at the very beginning of the car buying process who are unqualified leads and in some respects still in the ‘tyre kicking’ stage, through to serious buyers doing final comparisons and actively looking for a vehicle.

The problem was that there was no way of determining which users were serious buyers. “This had always been our selling point — we connected sellers with serious buyers. The digital platform was different, and it presented a challenge for us,” explains George.

Related: How Jacqui van der Riet Went From Receptionist To Co-Owning A R230 Million Business

The answer took a large upfront (and ongoing) investment to build a value proposition that sellers would buy. “This was a long-term growth strategy, so we believed the investment was worth it. We saw it as a calculated risk. Yes, there were costs involved, but without them we couldn’t develop a successful digital product, which would be the new foundation of the business.

“We designed a call tracking system that we gave to all our car sellers for free, with one telephone number and a line that we paid for. That number was printed on their magazine adverts, so we could track which in-bound telephone calls were a direct result of an AutoTrader magazine advert.”

While this sounds reasonably simple, AutoTrader is one of the few companies world-wide that has successfully transitioned all of its clients onto a call tracking system. “This is now a way of doing business with us and in the market,” says George.

“Car dealers love this call tracking system. Besides tracking calls from the buyer to the seller, the system includes a number of other benefits that add enormous value to dealers. And it’s all for free.”

This solution cost AutoTrader millions every year, but it was an essential cost for the successful transition to a digital business. “Even today it holds enormous empirical value for the dealerships,” he adds.

“In those early days, 90% of consumers called dealerships if they were interested in a vehicle. Today the ratios between calls, emails and dealership visits have shifted in favour of dealership visits without calling or emailing, but it served its purpose.

Online and print ads ran different telephone numbers at times, and we were thereby able to track print versus digital telephone calls. By 2013 twice as many people as those buying the magazine were online, but the telephone calls between the two platforms were equal. Without this ratio, the transition between print and digital would have been damaged. We needed equitable measurements that made sense.”

Related: How Mark Sham Earned His Suits & Sneakers

The solution also served a dual role. As users grew on the digital platform, this ratio informed the business’s pricing model. This was the team’s introduction to clever leveraging of data.

Innovation and product development

The secret behind AutoTrader’s success is that it didn’t just place its magazine online. Specific products were developed for sellers (or customers) at different price points with different value propositions.

But that doesn’t happen overnight. George and his team needed a product that customers could use, and a plan to start migrating revenues from print to digital.

Bundling print and digital products would ultimately be the key to pivoting the business model.

This was achieved in two ways. First, all magazine advertisers were listed on the AutoTrader website for a minimal monthly subscription from 2007 to 2008, while the team developed its first iteration of online packages. Then, all advertising was converted to print and digital packages.

“We called this our multi-media product bundle. A print advertiser could choose print or a favourably priced multimedia option to encourage our advertisers to have an online presence.

“We maintained our print revenues while the transition was taking place and only unbundled the offerings in 2013 once the digital platform had reached a point where it could sustain the business.”

Second, to ensure that online advertisers on different packages received value, data was continuously collected and monitored and online packages adjusted to deliver the best results for buyers and sellers. It was a process, but the team accounted for it. “We couldn’t transition our buyers or sellers overnight.

Related: Watch List: 50 Black African Women Entrepreneurs To Watch

The online product offering needed to be tweaked continually. Doing this while we still had strong print revenue allowed us to build a robust digital offering with revenues that increased at the same rate that print revenues decreased. We were able to transition to a digital and tech business where revenue was now coming from the Internet, which is a massive achievement.”

Key to this was understanding what a digital product should look like. “We did a lot of ongoing research to fill data gaps. This started with our core — you need to understand and define who you are. For us, this was a two-sided marketplace for buying and selling cars. Everything else was secondary.

“We were clear about the magazine’s consumers and where they were in their buying journey. We needed to understand online consumers, the best way to reach them and move them through the car buying journey.

For example, display advertising creates brand awareness and influences browsers at the top-of-the-funnel and this becomes important as a consumer becomes a more serious buyer. What have they been exposed to up until that point? What has influenced them.

“Over time, we have created our online offering to buyers (consumers) to tap into the different stages of the car buying journey. On the seller side, we created products to enable them to take advantage of the consumer offering by buying higher-end packages.

The higher the package bought, the more attention they get from the consumers, the more chance they have to influence the consumer to choose them, which means more value, exposure and consumer touch-points sellers receive on the site — leading to better conversions if the seller uses the online levers/influencers in the right ways.

While there’s a definite science to it, car sellers still have to influence car buyers to choose them no matter what package they’re on. This leaves a large part of the online selling up to the dealers in the way the vehicle is presented online, it’s pricing, descriptions, photographs and stocking the right cars for the dealers geographic and target markets.

Related: The 50 Richest People In The World

We constantly research how the packages are performing in aggregate, which means we can present listings and reviews to buyers in the best possible way, and we see better performance for dealers in our higher-end packages.”

The value of trust


An integral part of this journey has been creating trust between AutoTrader and its consumers.

“We’ve now become content creators as well — this was never our space before. The sellers understand that they have such incredible access to serious buyers because of us, and that’s because we offer a trusted motoring marketplace to the consumer.

We have a huge, easy to navigate platform of listings and we do unbiased car reviews, keep the consumers informed with the latest news and more.

Related: How I Rebooted My Career After Getting Fired — Twice

Our users know that they’ve seen everything when they come to us — they don’t have to go anywhere else to do additional online research. The only way to achieve this is through honest reviews (that are also humorous and entertaining).

“Our job — and success — lies in our ability to create online offerings that grab consumer attention first. This is the crux of how we’ve managed to transition our revenue — we’ve given the consumer market something it wants, and our upper-end dealers are willing to pay premium prices for the additional value we have to offer.

“It’s taken a lot of planning, ideating and changing. As a team, we meet weekly, monthly, quarterly to avoid developing silos within the business. If the marketing director doesn’t know what the product director is doing, that’s a problem for me. We work best together — it’s the only way to create products that offer the highest value to everyone involved.

“For two weeks each year we get together, analyse all the data we’ve seen and argue about what to do next, what mistakes we have made and what to change — what is the data telling us about the online consumer and dealer offerings and the challenges that they face?

The online offerings and changes are less drastic today than they were; we’re more established now, but you should never rest on your laurels. Always be tweaking, iterating and asking if you’re still relevant to the market.

“We define ourselves as an organisation that brings buyers and sellers together. How we do this will continue to change over time. Recognising this important fact keeps us relevant. For instance, Facebook is a potential future competitor — and we’re planning ahead.”

Disruptive innovation

“Successful disruption doesn’t lie in recognising you need to be disruptive, or even coming up with bold, innovative ideas — it’s all about execution,” insists George.

“I get bored in a room full of ‘ideas people.’ The world is full of great ideas and idea people. But successful execution is extremely rare — and it accounts for nine tenths of success. You can’t stay ahead of the curve without being an innovative organisation, and that all comes down to how well you execute your ideas.

“It’s an ongoing process. The moment you stand still, you become a template for others to follow. We are copied all the time, we change something and competitors follow suit. You grow, plateau, decline — that’s the innovation ‘S’ curve that business courses love to discuss.

But innovators understand that when one ‘S’ is declining, another is conjoined and on the upward swing. The trick is to recognise when you’re going to plateau so that you’re already planning for your next business model shift.

There’s a lull between the two. I call it the valley of tears. It’s painful. It requires serious change, and if you stay there your business is in trouble — but it also gives you the gift of time to re-engineer the business.”

Delivery is everything


Because execution is so important, the processes and team supporting innovation, and particularly business model adjustments, are crucial.

“Balanced scorecards play a big role for us,” says George. “When we began this process, top management had a vision that needed to be executed by the whole team.

“The balanced scorecard was our link, our sounding board for execution. It takes a lot of work. You have to break up what you want to do into little parts to ensure people and activities are all working together. It’s particularly challenging breaking old, established silos apart, but we managed to do it.”

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Business Women To Watch

Innovation is not a once-off activity. It’s a process that needs to become entrenched in the organisation. Integral to this is the constant re-evaluation of what the business has that adds value to its customers.

“The business needs to view change as a constant, not just as a concept, but something deeply entrenched in our people’s DNA,” explains George.

Key Insights

Prepare for future market conditions

It’s taken AutoTrader ten years to complete the transition from a print company to a disruptive tech and digital business. If the team hadn’t been prepared to disrupt itself then, it would be struggling with a radically new market, instead of being the company shaping what that new market looks like.

Understand the need you’re solving

AutoTrader’s product isn’t print or digital — it’s connecting buyers with sellers in such a way that leads are converted. It took thought and focus to develop and tweak digital products that deliver what the magazine had previously achieved. This allowed the correct pricing models to be developed as well.

Understand what you have — and how it can increase your offerings

Moving onto a digital platform has opened up a wealth of data for AutoTrader, from where vehicles are more popular, to price points that are below or over market expectations. This has allowed the business to continuously improve its offering to customers, as well as launch additional products of high value to the market.

The Nuts and bolts of innovation


The internal culture of AutoTrader has played a vital role in the company’s transition from a print classifieds company to an innovative tech business.

This has been possible due to a few key adjustments:

1. Balanced Scorecards

Clear outputs allow teams to progress without being micro-managed. Implementing a balanced scorecard system takes time, and managing it takes effort, but the results outweigh the costs in time and effort.

Related: 6 Of The Most Profitable Small Businesses In South Africa

Organisations that follow a balanced scorecard system first develop overall objectives for the business. Departmental scorecards are then developed that link directly to what each department needs to achieve to deliver those objectives.

This is then broken down into what each team member needs to achieve. AutoTrader took two years to implement the system, but the benefits have been felt across the organisation.

The system gives employees accountability for their own time and workloads, which enables them to handle personal responsibilities during work hours and vice versa.

“Giving people personal and professional freedom encourages loyalty. Our employees and managers go to their sons’ rugby games for example, but voluntarily work nights and weekends to ensure projects are completed on time and to our standards. Acknowledging personal lives makes people more willing to give their all professionally.”

2. Open plan environments

The whole organisation is open plan. Different departments are encouraged to work and socialise together, ensuring no silos are created, and information and advice is shared freely. George and his PA sit at desks side-by-side in a communal area.

3. Tech innovation is embraced

Other than HR and finance, AutoTrader is a paperless office, embracing technology as a tech innovator should. Desks don’t even have drawers as each person is allocated a locker to store personal items. The company lives and breathes tech, ensuring tech solutions are at the forefront of everything it does.

4. Culture is more than just words

AutoTrader has five key pillars outlining the business’s ethos and culture.

Each employee has to be able to demonstrate how those pillars impact and inform their work — with specific examples — in each of their balanced scorecard reviews.

This keeps the cultural framework of the business a living, breathing thing, and managers quickly pick up if there’s discord between employees and the culture.

Related: Three Habits That Underpin Entrepreneurial Success

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

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




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


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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Entrepreneur Profiles

Kid Entrepreneurs Who Have Already Built Successful Businesses (And How You Can Too)

All over the world kids are abandoning the traditional notion of choosing a career to pursue until retirement. Gen Z aren’t looking to become employable job-seekers, but creative innovators as emerging business owners.

Diana Albertyn



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Do kids have an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to starting and building a company? It depends on how you look it. Juggling school, friends, family and other aspects of childhood and adolescence comes with its own requirements, but perhaps this is the best age to start.

“Being an entrepreneur means having to learn, focus, and connect to people and these are all traits that are valuable throughout life. Learning this when you are young is especially crucial, and will set you up for success and to be more open to other opportunities,” says billionaire investor, Shark Tank personality and author Mark Cuban.

Here are some of the most successful kidpreneurs who have cashed in on their hobbies, interests and needs to start and grow million dollar businesses borne from passion and innovation:

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Entrepreneur Profiles

30 Top Influential SA Business Leaders

Learn from these South African titans of industry to guide you on your entrepreneurial journey to success.

Nicole Crampton



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Entrepreneurship is said to be the answer to South Africa’s unemployment challenges and slow growth, but to foster entrepreneurship we ideally need business leaders to impact grass root efforts. Business leadership is vital to improved confidence and growth. These three titans of global industry say:

  • “As we look ahead, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates
  • “Leaders are also expected to work harder than those who report to them and always make sure that their needs are taken care of before yours.” – Elon Musk
  • “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” – Steve Jobs

Here are 30 top influential SA business leaders forging the path towards a prosperous South African future.

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