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Big Concerts: Attie Van Wyk

An accountant with musical aspirations talks to entrepreneur about how he built South Africa’s biggest live events promotions company.




Attie van Wyk of Big Concerts

It was Courtney Love who, perhaps in a rare and sober moment of clarity, said, “Rock is all about writing your own script; it’s all about pioneering.” She may not (yet) be one of the artists promoted by Attie van Wyk, but her statement couldn’t be more true or descriptive of his journey. It’s a journey that has seen an accountant with musical aspirations become a hit song writer, band member, music producer, tour organiser, and concert promoter extraordinaire. Wherever South African music and live concert boundaries were being pushed, Van Wyk – the founder and CEO of Big Concerts – was at the forefront. In the process, he’s built a business that’s gained the respect of the international heavyweights in music.

The story of Big Concerts started in 1992 when, after helping to negotiate the end of the cultural boycott against South Africa, Van Wyk brought out Paul Simon, one of the first international acts South Africa had seen for a long, dark time during Apartheid. But, to understand the success of Big Concerts, you need to look further back to when Van Wyk’s musical career started. It was here that the seeds of passion for making and promoting great music were planted, and where Van Wyk first started to prove that he could move obstacles and make things happen.

“Back in the 80s I was a songwriter for a band called Ballyhoo when I got an offer from the Dephon Record Company, which was part of the Gallo stable, to join them as a music producer. So I quit the band and joined them, producing records mainly for music targeted at the black market in those days,” he says. Between 1982 and 1992, Van Wyk produced over 120 albums, including many for Yvonne Chaka Chaka for whom he also wrote songs. “At that time, I realised that the only way to sell records was to put the artists on a touring circuit.” The fact that no one else was doing it at the time and that he knew precious little about live music tours and concerts didn’t deter him from, as Van Wyk puts it, ‘giving it a bash’.

“We went on tour and played all over the country on weekends,” he recalls, “but in the process I realised that I was paying a lot of money to sound and stage companies, so I figured I may as well go and buy my own staging system. I also ended up buying my own trucking to transport us all over the country while we toured.”

The tours worked and Van Wyk helped to shoot local artists to relative stardom. “Around that time I teamed up with another guy who had a lighting system. I had the sound, we both invested in staging and we started promoting shows,” he relates. Big Concerts was officially born in 1989. But, the cultural boycott prevented the company from securing international artists, so Van Wyk started out with music festivals that featured local talent such as Mango Groove, Johnny Clegg and Lucky Dube, teaming up with local radio stations to bring out a series of  ‘Big Birthday Concerts’.

And then came the tipping point. “I got a call from a guy by the name of Ray Phiri, a guitar-player for the band, Stimela, which played on Paul Simon’s Graceland album. He was in New York with Paul who he said was very interested in putting on a concert in Southern Africa, so I flew to New York to meet them and on my return, started working on getting the cultural boycott lifted,“ says Van Wyk.
His skills in diplomacy, now honed to a fine point after years of dealing with difficult artists and their agents, stood him in good stead during that time. “We did it through the Musicians’ Union and it involved a lot of negotiations with the ANC, Mandela, Pik Botha and the like, to get buy-in from all sides,” he relates.

Many will remember the Paul Simon concert as one that signalled the beginning of a new era for live entertainment in South Africa, but it was also one that lost Van Wyk a lot of money and got his offices bombed. “Hand grenades were thrown into our offices in Johannesburg to protest against the lifting of the boycott, and although Paul Simon said the show should go on, there were protests outside the arenas and people were afraid,” he explains. The show went ahead but tickets didn’t sell and Big Concerts took a R1,2 million knock – a lot of money in 1992.

The process was invaluable as a business learning experience, as Van Wyk outlines: “We were totally green and there was nothing to work from, no existing concert route and we had no idea what anything would cost. We didn’t even have a template for how to budget – we literally pulled figures out of the air and scribbled them down on pieces of paper. So the tour was nerve-wracking but it gave us yardsticks. At least we knew afterwards what things like sound, lighting, accommodation, transport and equipment would cost. And it was from there that the costing system and template we use today – which has over 150 detailed items – was developed. Now if an act comes to the country, we have both a budget template and a timeline template. In business you learn from your mistakes and we certainly learned from that early experience.”

When an opportunity arose to promote Chris de Burgh on tour the following year, Van Wyk was understandably nervous, but his fears proved unfounded. “We initially went on offer with 12 shows around the country and ended up selling 21 shows to 105 000 people. It was through the roof,” he says, smiling. Duran Duran followed and the floodgates to international talent opened, with the company promoting 12 to 16 international artists annually.

But, bringing out bands like U2, Billy Joel, Sting, Robbie Williams, Michael Jackson and Phil Collins is not like promoting a local artist on a weekend tour. It requires
professionalism, savvy, extraordinary negotiation skills and a fine-tuned feel for how the industry works. Van Wyk had a lot to learn. “I worked in Swaziland on a concert with Eric Clapton, Joan Armatrading and Jonathon Butler, and there I met an international promoter called Andrew Zweck who today is involved in Live Nation, the biggest promoter in the world. He took me through the ropes and taught me a lot about the business, the line items, how sponsors work, what contracts need to be included and the like,” he says. But, while being a pioneer meant he had to learn everything from scratch, it had its advantages as well, one of which was that Big Concerts could take ownership of opportunities ahead of competitors. In this respect, Van Wyk has been smart. Today the company owns a substantial chunk of the live events value chain and derives additional income streams from merchandising and liquor sales at shows. What started out as a team comprising Van Wyk, his wife, Isa, and an accountant, has grown into a company with eight departments that source the talent, organise and promote the tours, manage the shows, secure sponsorship, handle production and technical issues, keep the artists happy while they’re here and negotiate offers with agents.

This last item is perhaps the most trying part of the business and one for which Van Wyk takes personal responsibility. “It involves a lot of negotiating, a great deal of diplomacy and occasionally having to bite your tongue,” he laughs. “While the artists are mostly lovely people, their agents can make impossible demands and you go back and forth with an offer, listening to comments like, ‘My artist won’t get out of bed for that money!’ and reworking things until it’s signed and everyone’s happy.”

But he’s quick to point out that he still makes mistakes. He gives a recent example: “We always put our artists up in five-star accommodation, but in the past we’ve not stipulated which hotel. It’s never been a problem before but I had one incident recently where artists wanted to be put up in a specific five-star hotel that costs four times what other five-star hotels cost. And offers are accepted subject to what’s known as an artist’s rider, which is a 50 page document that details, amongst other things, the fact that the hotel is to be chosen by the artist. I’m afraid I lost that argument. So you learn things all the time,” he says.

After the personal demands of artists, price is often the biggest point of negotiation, and something that in the past few years has caused Van Wyk no small amount of frustration. He explains how a competitor promoter, keen to make their mark by landing big name artists, regularly undercut his prices. The promoter in question has since become embroiled in concert disasters, breach of contract litigation and artists subsequently cancelling their acts – but not before they did some damage. “We’d get involved in negotiations where an agent would want to go with us, but would need us to match the price that the other promoter was offering. And the easiest thing is to go back to the spreadsheet and force-fit things, increasing the ticket price for example, to make the numbers work. On paper it looks great but then you encounter public resistance in ticket sales, which don’t go as well as they should. I did it once or twice because I wanted the business but it went against my gut feel and in the end with a recent act, I pulled my offer and walked away from the deal,” explains Van Wyk.

On that point, he adds how important it is to read the market correctly when determining the price of tickets. “It takes five things to pull off a successful event – a happy audience, acknowledgement from artists that the tour was successful and professionally run, sponsors who get a return on their investment, good media appraisal and last but not least, money in the bank for the promoter. There have been times when I’ve had the first four, but not the last one, and the reason is usually ticket sales,” he says. Sometimes the market is flooded, or perhaps the entertainment Rand is being spread too thinly between things like cell phones, casinos or the lottery. “You also learn that an older artist will attract a demographic that’s older, in a higher LSM bracket and therefore able to spend more money. Also, no artist has a fixed price because certain artists mean more in certain territories,” he explains.

Pulling off successful (and profitable) events time and time again has kept the big names coming back and Big Concerts has developed a reputation for excellence that means it can stand shoulder to shoulder with top-class promoters from around the world. The company was recently included in the Pollstar list of the World’s Top 100 Promoters, reaching position 21. No other African promoter features in this Top 100. The secret lies partially in being driven to deliver excellence at all costs and in partnering with the right people. “Over the years we’ve put a lot of pressure on the technical companies we work with to meet international standards and invest in state-of-the-art equipment. It’s been in their interests to do so because they get so much business from us, but it has also been an important factor in our own success, and the feedback we get from artists time and time again is that we are certainly on a par, but probably more slick than promoters in bigger countries,” says Van Wyk.

This undoubtedly has a lot to do with Van Wyk’s energy. He may be 55 but he shows no signs of slowing down. He can still party up a storm with the likes of
Enrique Iglesias (although he admits it wears him out) and he says his sons help to keep him in touch with who’s up and coming on the music scene. “I have all the latest stuff on my iPod,” he laughs, and then launches into rapturous praise for Muse’s latest live concert DVD filmed at Wembley. He knows too that the music industry is a rapidly changing one but like all pioneers, he’s got his finger on that pulse too.

Entrepreneur Magazine is South Africa's top read business publication with the highest readership per month according to AMPS. The title has won seven major publishing excellence awards since it's launch in 2006. Entrepreneur Magazine is the "how-to" handbook for growing companies. Find us on Google+ here.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Die Groot G Kol

    Jun 6, 2012 at 16:34

    He could have made a few extra thousand on the recent Moodies tour. I wanted VIP tickets. None where available, so they said. And a on arrival enroute to my ‘gate’ I had to pass the VIP entrance, where people were graciously welcomed. WHAT A SHAME!
    I did not want to be Grand, I only wanted to treat my family to an experience they would for certain never have the chance to see again.

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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




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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