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Maverick Innovator James Fisher On Getting Wildly Excited by Big Ideas

Zero start-up capital, Zero debt, R600 million order book. Here’s serial entrepreneur James Fisher formula for innovation and success.

Juliet Pitman

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Vital Stats

  • Founder: James Fisher
  • Company: Nautic Africa
  • Launched: 2008
  • Previous experience: Invented the Snakeboard while still in college; launched Cape Advanced Vehicles (CAV) to build GT40 race cars
  • Start-up capital: None
  • Current turnover: An order book of R600 million

Serial entrepreneur. Maverick innovator. Mastermind behind the Snakeboard. GT40 and Shelby Cobra racing car manufacturer.  Responsible for the first ships in their class to be designed and built in South Africa. Local boy made good.

James Fisher is all of these things.

But he’s also the man who has regrets about the way he listed his first company on the London Stock Exchange, the founder of another company that tanked badly and a businessman with many failures under his belt.

These days he’s a little bit more cynical, quite a bit older and a whole lot wiser. And he’s put past lessons to good use building Nautic Africa, a marine company started without a single cent, that has zero debt and an order book of over R600 million.

This is his story.

Inventing is in James Fisher’s DNA. As a youngster he’d consciously invest time in thinking about how to come up with a better version of an existing product, or better yet, an entirely novel product that would be ‘the next big thing’.

His efforts paid off when he invented the Snakeboard in 1989 along with school friend Oliver Macleod Smith. It was the biggest thing to happen to skateboarding since the skateboard and it made Fisher millions. The Snakeboard won the Popular Science Worldwide Product of the Year in 1992. Fisher and Macleod Smith listed the company on the London Stock Exchange, defying everyone who’d berated him for leaving university mid-degree to pursue what most saw as a harebrained pipe-dream.

He sold the snakeboard patents in 1995, the company in 1999 and moved on to his next venture – building GT40 racing cars locally in South Africa as part of Cape Advanced Vehicles (CAV), teaming up again with Macleod Smith and new partner Owen Ashley.

These days you’ll find him at the helm of Nautic Africa, a specialist maritime vessel design and construction company that supplies naval fleets and other vessels to customers around the world.

“I wouldn’t be so bold as to say I was born with business acumen. That’s not true. But if you are smart enough to learn the lessons early on, you will find yourself on the right track. It‘s a school of hard knocks but you do learn fast when you’re young and you’re prepared to go out there and try,” he says.

Fisher was nothing if not prepared to ‘go out there and give it a try’. He clearly remembers the family rumpus that erupted when he threw aside his university degree to follow his Snakeboard dream to the United States. “The move to the US at the time was not bought into by the whole family,” he jokes.

And being ready to get stuck in means he’s had his fair share of lessons. “Failure,” he says, “is – fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your take – a vital part of the learning curve.”

Related: Governance = Value Creation + Massive Business Growth

My most important lessons come from my two biggest failures

The first – surprisingly, given its meteoric success – relates to the Snakeboard.

Convinced by the market makers that they needed a prestigious board of directors when they listed in London, Fisher and Macleod handed over management control to a board that didn’t understand the product.

Fisher explains, “At the end of the day Oliver and I owned 51% of the company but we had no control over it. We handed everything over. Amongst other things we wanted to target the sports market and they felt it was more a cheap toy product to drive volume and revenue without consolidating the product, brand and integrity. The spirit we created wasn’t carried through and our stock price fell quite dramatically. Essentially, we lost our baby.”

The lesson was that you cannot hand over the reins of your company to people who don’t understand the intrinsic value and integrity of the product.

But he blames no one other than himself. “We managed it badly. We saw dollar signs and were happy to get some money out and float the company. It was enormously prestigious for youngsters in their mid 20s. We were on the front cover of the Financial Times in London. It was a great experience for us and I never regret it, but the failure for me was handing it over in such an inexperienced manner to people who didn’t understand the business,” he says.

Although he and Macleod retained majority equity, the experience raises questions many other entrepreneurs have about giving away ownership of a growing company. How much is too much?

Nautic-Africa-ship_Entrepreneur-Profiles_Success-Stories

“The question reminds me of something Raymond Ackerman said. He was in a position where he had to raise funding and his investors were very happy to put money into the business, but they wanted to take what would end up being majority equity. He convinced them that in fact they didn’t want that, because as his investors it was better for them if he was still in control of the business and driving it with passion that can only come from ownership. I think there is a lot of merit in that,” says Fisher.

The lesson about handing over ownership has stuck with him. He hasn’t given away a single share in Nautic Africa. Key staff incentives are imperative and Fisher does reward his team commensurate with good performance.

Equity deals may be on the horizon for Nautic in future, but these will be driven by purely strategic reasons – to open doors, unlock opportunities, take the business to the next level. But not necessarily to raise funding.

“At some point you are going to need to give away equity and that’s okay if it’s for the right reasons, but my advice would be to hold on to as much as you can for as long as you can.  Investors – and I count myself among them – don’t need control. They should be investing in you as the entrepreneur, not trying to get you out of the way,” he adds.

That’s all very well but what do you do if you don’t have funding?

Well, here’s the thing. Nautic Africa was started without a single cent of Fisher’s – or anyone else’s money. It has been completely self-funded and to this day is 100% debt-free. And it’s not as if ship-building is a low capital requirement business. “It can take a year to build a ship and requires enormous amounts of money, so cash flow is always an issue,” says Fisher.

He got around the funding problem by leveraging off the back of an order and getting the  customer to do a pre-payment.

“I kept a contract from the marine division of CAV when we sold the company and this got me into the maritime industry on the leisure side, supplying small boats to Mercury in the US. But when the leisure industry started dipping following the recession, I realised that the commercial industry was still strong. I had a client who was looking for  a boat – I went and had it designed by a naval architect and outsourced the manufacture to a factory using the client’s deposit,” he explains.

Eventually an idea evolved in his mind to build more customised products for maritime customers. He got a couple of big orders and was able to set up his own facility, and has built the business from there to its point of success today.

But things weren’t always so rosy, and Fisher mentions ‘two’ big failures, so what was the second one? In answering that particular question, he’s unequivocal.

Related: Young Guns

The car business was a spectacular failure. I lost millions.

“You end up pouring money into it to keep it going. I will never do that again. When things aren’t working sometimes the best thing to do is to cut it, kill it, put it to bed and start again,” he says.

Disaster struck when the rand appreciated in value from R13/$ to R5/$ – a catastrophic turn of events for a business that was 100% export and 100% local manufacture. In a classic double whammy, revenue halved while costs soared.

“The lesson for me was that you need to aggressively hedge your business all the time and build up equity. You cannot be reliant on things always being the same going forward,” Fisher says.

Looking back he knows he should’ve done certain things differently but these are all the lessons you move forward with. “The two businesses are extremely similar – we manufacture locally and sell mostly into Africa but also globally. We are now hedged from a currency risk perspective because we import around 35% of components,” he explains.

Nautic has found its ‘sweet spot’ – Africa is growing, oil and gas are booming, the company has innovative products and the people to deliver a unique service that allows it to outstrip Chinese and Turkish competitors.

“Business is about getting the formula right. It’s not actually about the product but rather about the perfect business mix – the product, the people, the service, the timing, the environment, the cash flow,” Fisher says.

That said, people still want to know what the ‘key’ is to making a success out of a winning idea.

A lot of people ask me what the magic formula is for innovation.

Nautic-Africa-Boat_Entrepreneur-Profiles_Success-Stories

“They ask me to be involved in their business or innovation because they seem to think that somehow that will make it work. But that’s missing the point. I don’t have some unique secret. The secret is simply this – you can have the best product in the world, something that will turn water into fuel, but if it‘s marketed by the wrong person and there’s not a driving, singular passion behind it, it will die.”

It’s an interesting take from an ‘ideas man’ whose success has been built on innovative and ground-breaking concepts. But it‘s something Fisher sees often in his work with young innovators and inventors. The ideas that are driven passionately by dedicated entrepreneurs who have an abiding belief in their product are the ones that work. The rest don’t see the light of day.

“Everyone says it‘s about the idea but that’s just not enough. There are so many great ideas out there. The person pushing it makes the difference; in a lot of cases naïve enthusiasm is better than cynical knowledge,” he adds.

Passion is something Fisher talks a great deal about. But he balances this now with a dollop of cynicism borne of the knocks he has suffered.

“You almost have to develop cynicism so that you remain aware that failure could be just around the corner,” he says.

It’s something that’s always at the back of his mind. “Business is a daily fight for survival – even when you are not on the verge of closing up shop, you need to think of it in that way.

“There is no room for complacency. The minute you stop checking that you are still buying at the right price, getting the best deal possible, that your customers are happy – you are lost,” he says.

He adds, “I find myself coming across far more cynically to young inventors because I know it‘s not a bed of roses out there. They need to understand that. It’s not to temper their enthusiasm, but rather to temper their expectations of what is going to hit them. They have to know they are going to need to push through many, many brick walls.”

But for all his talk of being more cynical, Fisher still admits to getting ‘enormously, stupidly excited’ about new ideas. So while much has changed, much has remained the same.

Related: Dreaming Big, Making It Happen: The Story of Interg8

 

 

Entrepreneur Profiles

The House That Moladi Built – How Challenging Traditional Building Empowers Local Entrepreneurs

Hennie Botes is a true entrepreneur — through a combination of passion and resilience, he has pressed on despite challenges, developing an unrelenting ability to sell his vision, and execute it. His goal has always been to use the technology he created — which challenges traditional building techniques — to empower other entrepreneurs.

Monique Verduyn

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Hennie Botes
  • Company: Moladi
  • Est: 1986
  • Visit: moladi.co.za

South Africa has a housing backlog of between 2,5 million to three million and it’s continuing to grow. The country also has a persistently high number of unemployed people at 5,98 million, according to the latest numbers from Stats SA.

One entrepreneur who is committed to helping address both crises is Hennie Botes. A toolmaker by trade, the Port Elizabeth-based founder and designer of construction system Moladi developed this innovative building technology as a means to address many of the cumbersome and costly aspects of conventional construction methods, without compromising on the quality or integrity of the structure. The system replaces the bricklaying process with an approach similar to plastic injection moulding.

Founded back in 1986, when Hennie first realised how difficult it was for the poor to get good quality housing, his solution was the development of a whole new building system, which he named Moladi. The company has been in existence for more than three decades, and exports to 22 countries around the world.

“I built the first house based on the Moladi system in Benoni, in 1987,” Hennie says. “Substandard craftsmanship has resulted in South Africa’s poor living in inferior housing structures. I wanted to fix this problem, and I wanted to show people that the concept I had developed actually worked in real life.”

Like many truly innovative entrepreneurs, however, he discovered that a brilliant business idea is no guarantee of success. Converting an idea into a reality (regardless of the required investment of time and money) is never an easy task. In fact, it can be extremely difficult.

“I was naïve to think that a phenomenal breakthrough in the way we build houses would have people beating a path to my door, but academics and politicians speak different languages from entrepreneurs. I discovered that the saying, ‘Eat the elephant one bite at a time’ really does apply to entrepreneurship.”

Related: Construction Business Plan

Hennie learnt that you have to believe in yourself enough to handle the consequences of your decisions. “When you take on the responsibility of developing something that had not existed before, you become accountable. To turn that opportunity into a reality, you have to believe in yourself 100%. Great ideas fail because the unexpected challenges become more than you think you can handle, and the risk is that you lose the belief in yourself to see things through all the way to the end. In many ways, it’s like competing in a triathlon — you achieve one goal, and you have to move on straight to the next one.”

Hennie says his goal is not to enrich himself, but to use his technology to help empower other entrepreneurs. His methodology has been used to build thousands of houses all around the world — from Mexico to Sri Lanka. Today, Moladi exports to multiple countries, including Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, and Kenya. Moladi recently built a showhouse for a low-cost housing development in Trinidad and Tobago — the structure went up in 12 days. Another big win has been the construction of the 1 600m2 Kibaha District Courthouse in Tanzania. It was built in six months, at a cost of 4 250 per m2, which is less than half the cost of a conventional building. In Mauritius. the technology is being used to build 2 000 low-cost homes on 250 acres of coastline.

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“Despite the housing backlog in this country, what has sustained my business over 32 years is the work we have done beyond our borders,” he says. “But that is changing. Earlier this year we were contracted by the Western Cape Department of Education to build four classrooms in Philippi, as well as a double-storey building with eight classrooms in Robertson. We completed these projects in a record four months, at a third of the price. Usually, the construction of just one classroom can take between four to six months. This kind of government project is exactly the foot-in-the door that Moladi is after. The Western Cape has to build 20 schools a year to provide for its growing population.”

Moladi provides training in the construction of its houses and licences people who finish the course to build Moladi houses. Training is free, but trainees need to pay for the moulds and admixture. Licensees are supplied with viable business plans to help them secure loans for their start-ups. Hennie has a vested interest in the success of the licensees, since poor outcomes reflect badly on the business. He also prefers working with cooperatives rather than individuals, as it means that people will check up on each other. This is especially important when it comes to cash flow. Many new entrepreneurs fail, he says, because they splurge on cars and cell phones instead of the must-haves required to make a business grow.

Hennie has kept his team small. Low overhead costs have enabled Moladi to remain profitable in the low cost housing market. Companies with high overheads simply cannot compete in this small-margin, big-volume space.

“The real market requires a vast amount of homes below the R500 000 range, and that’s where our focus lies. Also, I did most of the work alone for many years after I started the company. These days my daughters, Shevaughn and Camalynne, are key to the successful running of Moladi and they fulfil vital roles. We outsource work to keep overheads down and have very good relationships with various suppliers, building experts, engineers, town planners, architects, and funding institutions. Our biggest differentiator is the pride we take in our ‘land to stand’ approach’ — we are a one-stop-shop for home building.”

Related: Engineering Consulting Business Plan Sample

His goal now is to find ways to work together with organisations like the National Development Plan (NDP) and the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA). Hennie refers to his customers as partners, which forms part of his holistic approach to construction. Typical clients include private construction firms and property developers. Governments can often play indirect roles, as they would usually contract state-funded housing programmes through the tender process.

“I believe we need entrepreneurship that looks beyond spaza shops, hairdressers and car washes,” he says. “There is an enormous and pressing need to provide dignified housing for South Africans, and to address our appalling unemployment levels. What better way to begin to do that than by using accredited, affordable technology that can achieve both goals at an accelerated rate? Moreover, to fulfil the supply chain, work would be provided for painters, plumbers, electricians and roofers.”

The Moladi building system uses a removable, reusable, recyclable and lightweight plastic formwork mould, which is filled with mortar to form the wall structure of a house in only one day.

Hennie describes it as the ‘Henry Ford’ of mass housing. “We produce components and products that reduce the cost of building, and we work on a production-line basis, from production to homeowner, bypassing the middleman in the supply chain.”

The process involves the assembly of a temporary plastic formwork mould, the size of the designed house, with all the electrical services plumbing and steel reinforcing located within the wall structure, which is then filled with a specially formulated mortar mix to form all the walls of the house simultaneously.

All the steel reinforcing, window and door block-outs, conduits, pipes and other fittings are positioned within the wall cavity to be cast in-place when filled with the Moladi mortar mix. The mix is a fast curing aerated mortar that flows easily, is waterproof and possesses good thermal and sound insulating properties.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Swipe Successful – How Sureswipe Scaled To A R250 Million Turnover

Here’s how Sureswipe cornered a niche market with limited funding and continues to enjoy double-digit year-on-year growth.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Paul Kent
  • Company: Sureswipe
  • What they do: Sureswipe is one of South Africa’s first card Payment Service Providers (PSPs), established to make card payment acceptance easy and accessible to all independent retailers and service providers.
  • Est: 2008
  • Turnover: R251 million
  • Visit: sureswipe.co.za

Four years ago, Paul Kent received a Request for Proposal (RFP) from a tier one retailer. He ran around the office high-fiving everyone. Sureswipe had made it. They were officially on the map.

Two days later, Paul and his COO, Richard Flack, turned the RFP down, choosing not to pitch for the business, even though it would have been a huge deal if they’d secured it. It took two brutal days to make the decision, but ultimately, Paul and Richard understood that sometimes you have to say no to business, particularly if it doesn’t align with your vision.

“I was so excited, but Richard immediately said, ‘let’s think carefully about this before making any decisions,’ and so we did. We went back to our vision to make card acceptance easy and accessible for all independent retailers. The more we thought about the RFP, the more we realised that we’re not geared to service tier one retailers. Our team has a deep connection with independents. That’s who we want to support and where our expertise lies. Our business model is geared to support that market sector. Extending our focus to tier one retailers would require a change in our business and a new division to service them. It wasn’t the right move for us.”

Paul learnt what many successful entrepreneurs before him have discovered: In business, what you say no to is as important as what you take on. The more focused you are and the better you understand your core customers, the more successfully you will service them. That’s the foundation of a sustainable, high-growth company.

It took Paul and his team five years to get 3 000 Sureswipe card payment machines into the market. They were growing rapidly by the time they received the RFP. Today they have 10 000 devices in the market, and expect to hit 30 000 within three years. The business has grown 30% in the last year alone.

Here are the lessons Paul has learnt since launching Sureswipe in 2008, from the leanest way to start (and run) a business, to minimising customer churn and maximising market loyalty.

1. Launch a solution, not just a company

sureswipe-machine

The idea for Sureswipe was born inside Healthbridge, a company that processed claims between doctors and medical insurers. It was the mid-2000s and medical aids were changing. Where previously doctors submitted directly to medical aids, co-payments and limited annual benefits compelled medical practices to start accepting cash and card payments.

Sureswipe was launched as a division that supplied card payment machines to support this shift. Paul, who was heading up the business development key account team at Healthbridge, realised that there was a much bigger market that needed a value-for-money, high service level card payment solution, and that was independent retailers.

“Growing up in the UK, I spent a lot of time in my grandfather’s fruit and florist store and in high school I worked weekends at a local clothing retailer. As a result I understood the challenges of retail, particularly the time-bound administrative burdens,” he says.

Paul researched the market and developed a value proposition based on two key factors. First, although paying for payments is a grudge purchase, particularly for small, independent retailers, cash-based businesses that adopt card payments typically experience a 50% increase in monthly turnover. Second, independent retailers with point of sale (POS) machines were paying a 5% transaction fee, while those that hadn’t adopted POS systems weren’t the core focus of banks. Paul found a frustrated customer base eager for an alternative service provider.

“Most retailers either thought that card payments were too expensive, or that they could only access POS machines through their banks. They’d often wait up to 30 days for a machine, and if it broke, it would be another week before a technician came to fix it. At that time, the large banks weren’t geared to service that market.”

With a clear value proposition in mind, Paul convinced Healthbridge to ring-fence Sureswipe and launch it as a separate business. In October 2008, Sureswipe opened its doors with Heathbridge as the majority shareholder. The business model had two core focuses: Converting cash-based businesses and switching independent retailers who already had POS systems but were dissatisfied with their current service providers.

“We were strategic in picking the right market, but luck also played a part,” says Paul. “When we entered this space, a similar company was launched to focus on tier one and two retailers. But, the banks were highly competitive in that market segment and new entrants found it difficult to compete. We targeted a market that was largely ignored and today, 70% of our business is from single-store owners.”

While they were fine-tuning their offering, Paul and his team found that their customers were so grateful for an alternative solution that they tended to forgive start-up wobbles as Sureswipe found its groove.

Related: If You Want Scale, Fail Fast And Learn Quickly

Stress-testing your business

In the early days, the Sureswipe team leveraged its relationship with Capitec Bank to secure meetings and make sales. “We’re not a bank, so we need a banking sponsor to help us meet regulations and operate within this market,” explains Paul. “When Capitec secured its licence to do merchant acquiring, they had no customers and were developing their product in-house. They were also looking for a distribution partner. We aligned Sureswipe with Capitec as our sponsor and provided them with a distribution partner and a solid footprint in the medical market — it was a perfect solution.”

When you’re dealing with people’s money, you need a strong level of trust, so the relationship with Capitec was essential while Sureswipe built its own brand. “It wasn’t always easy,” says Paul. “We had six people who went from retailer to retailer explaining who we were and what we did. At one restaurant, two off-duty cops heard one of our reps and decided it was a con. They arrested him and he called me from the back of the police van. I had to convince them that we were a legitimate business before they’d let him go.”

After five years, Sureswipe and Capitec found that they were competing with each other. When the contract came to an end, both parties decided not to renew it. But Sureswipe had 3 000 devices in the market, all of which were on Capitec’s technology platform. By not renewing the agreement with Capitec, Sureswipe needed to recontract all 3 000 of their customers. It was a massive project.

“It was also a huge lesson for us, and I’m glad it happened when we only had 3 000 machines in the market. We realised the risk in working with one bank, particularly because the technology that processed our customers’ payments wasn’t our own. We needed to licence our own technology and develop a dual sponsor system to mitigate this risk.”

The entire project took more than six months to complete. “People in the industry were sceptical — a project of this scope had never been done before,” says Paul. “We started with a small, ring-fenced team. By the end of the six months every employee was working on the migration of customers onto the new platform.”

The lesson: There will always be challenges, particularly during growth phases. Stress-test your business as much as possible. The earlier you spot a potential risk or problem, the sooner you can address it and implement a solution, even if it means adjusting your business model.

To stress-test your business, ask yourself these four questions regularly: What happens if everything goes right (ie, we grow too fast)? If I remove one piece that’s central to the functionality of my business (this is what Sureswipe faced), what happens? Is my business valued (ie, do you know if your buyers love you and why)? What’s the worst that could happen?

2.Variable cost models keep businesses lean

One of Sureswipe’s success factors is that its product isn’t cutting edge — what the business does is not unique, and the technology is available to be licensed. Nothing had to be built from scratch.

This allowed Paul and his team to launch the business with a variable cost model, outsourcing sales, the call centre and even their technology.

“The biggest outlay was the initial investment into the product, funded by Healthbridge, but within a year we were cashflow positive,” says Paul. “We’ve been funding ourselves organically ever since.”

At the time, launching the business wasn’t a big risk because it didn’t involve a huge upfront investment. Healthbridge was happy to see where it went. Paul and his team of eight kept costs down and slowly built up the business to the point where it became bigger than its initial shareholder.

“It was the ideal business model to start with. Don’t try to build the biggest — do the minimum required and don’t use a lot of capital. If you use a lot of capital upfront shareholders will put you under immense pressure. We were under no pressure. We weren’t drawing anything; we were just a little side thing that may or may not work.

“We were the first mover in this space in South Africa, but everything we do has been done somewhere else. The machines are sourced from a few companies in the world that manufacture them. The mPOS machine is licensed from a company in Iceland. Software is licensed. Everything Sureswipe needs exists — it’s just a case of sourcing it and building a solid service-delivery business around the tech.”

Without the burden of heavy research and development and other start-up costs, Sureswipe channels all internally-generated cash into finding ways to do things better and faster for their customers.

 “Today fintech is a buzzword. Disruption within the financial services sector is expected. Ten years ago, fintech wasn’t even a word. Everyone thought you could only deal with banks.

“What we had going for us when we launched was our card machines. People understood them so we didn’t need to educate our market on what we did. We just needed to make them aware that there was an alternative to banks, and because we focused on an untapped market, there weren’t really competitors in the space. We weren’t trying to bring in new technology like mobile payments. The market wasn’t ready for that in 2008.”

Sureswipe launched with traditional stand-alone card machines, followed by Integrated payments for larger retail franchise stores, mobile MOVE card readers for businesses on the go, and Sureswipe POS LITE, an app-based point-of-sale software for start-ups and smaller retailers.

“When it came to mPOS, we were happy to be followers. We had a product ready to launch, but we made the decision to wait for the banks to launch their offerings and educate the market first. We were then in a perfect position to be fast followers — without needing to educate the market ourselves.

“It was a strategic play and it worked for us. We’ve also had good growth in our MOVE product and we’re doing the same with QR code payments. There have been trailblazers in the market who have done phenomenally well, but they operate on separate platforms. We can now offer a QR code that accepts almost any QR Wallet.

“On the other hand, a peer-to-peer mobile wallet was developed within Healthbridge that never gained the traction needed for success. It was too early for the market and deep pockets were needed to fund the business. The business had a great team that worked on the project and Sureswipe benefited from accessing them.”

Today, Sureswipe has integrated many functions that were previously outsourced. “Our variable cost-model allowed us to enter the market without huge financial backing, but where it’s made financial sense, or it offers us a strong competitive advantage, we have brought services or products in-house.”

Related: How to Build a Lean and Efficient Business Plan

3. Understand — and leverage — your competitive advantage

sureswipe-product

Since entering the market ten years ago, transaction fees have more than halved. This is good for retailers, but it makes the space more competitive for service providers who must maintain quality products and service as profit margins narrow.

Sureswipe’s value proposition is captured in one sentence: They come for price, they stay for service. “Everything we do needs to adhere to that,” says Paul. “We need to bring technology to market at a lower price point than incumbents are offering, and then secure customer loyalty with our superior service offering.”

Within an increasingly competitive space, Sureswipe is not always the most cost-effective solution in the market, but a focus on service and convenience means that retailers are willing to pay a premium if the offering is good for their business.

“Our focus is value for money, not price. Retailers want to be able to accept any legal currency from their customers. As a service provider, we needed to figure out a way to do that in the most cost-effective way possible, without increasing our administrative burden as the business grew. With its low margins, this business only works at scale. If our internal costs escalate with each new user, that’s not a scalable business.”

So, what is Sureswipe’s competitive edge? “We’ve always understood retailers,” says Paul. “Their biggest burden is time — they never have enough of it. If you have an unreliable product, or an administrative burden, you’re essentially losing time and revenue.”

This was the business’s entry into the market, but growth has been the result of continuously fine-tuning Sureswipe’s offering based on its knowledge of customer needs. “The more time we spend understanding our target market, the more we’re able to recognise their pain points. Everything we do is focused on simplifying the lives of retailers and helping them to grow their businesses.”

In a highly competitive space, you need to create an edge for yourself. Some businesses create a moat around the business with tech, but often there is a competitor who can do things faster and cheaper.

Successful companies find a different competitive edge, one that focuses on delivering value to the customer beyond the product.

Sureswipe has a two-pronged approach. First, convenience and simplicity are a must — if Sureswipe isn’t making the lives of its clients easier (and more convenient for their customers in turn), then the business isn’t living up to its core values. The second is keeping costs as low as possible. Sureswipe needs to be able to offer its products and services to the market at highly competitive prices. This is only possible if the business has lean operations and is scalable.

So, how have Paul and his team managed to offer exceptional service while keeping costs low? “You need to sweat the details,” he says. “This landscape has become increasingly competitive. Banks have caught up to us. An independent retailer can pick up the phone and the bank will send someone the following day to chat to them.”

To counter competition, Sureswipe focuses on service and cost to serve. It’s one thing acquiring a customer, it’s another keeping them, and this has been where Sureswipe’s team focuses their passion and energy.

“We’ve found that complex structures hinder service levels and so we’ve kept our structure flat. Our internal culture is extremely important for customer service. Hiring the right people who are passionate about retail and business means we are able to service our clients better. We care about their businesses. 86% of calls get resolved by our call centres. If they can’t solve the problem, a technician is sent to the store to fix or swap a faulty machine.”

From a cost perspective, Sureswipe needs to continuously get to market cheaper than before, while simultaneously offering products that are better, more seamless and more integrated into the business.

“There is always an initial cost when introducing a new product, whether it’s a device or an app. However, each new offering increases our clients’ revenue, which in turn increases our revenue. Scale is critical — we’re in the red until we achieve scale.

“We’ve had to be ruthless about achieving great service levels at low costs. We don’t believe in either low cost or good service — we need to deliver both. If something is too expensive for us or our clients, we either don’t do it, or we find a more cost-effective way to bring it to market.”

Related: Why Start-ups Like Uber Stumble When They Scale

4. Ensure you have a ‘stickiness’ factor

One of the dangers of a highly competitive market is that it’s simple for customers to switch service providers if they are only looking at price. If a retailer only has a POS machine with Sureswipe for example, it can be swopped out for another device. With this in mind, Paul started looking at value-added services that increase brand loyalty and reduce churn.

“We call it preventable churn,” says Paul. “If business owners have a POS device and take just one more product from us, the stickiness factor is exponential. This can include a cash advance product, or creating a gift and loyalty programme through our platform, or both. As a business owner you can still switch to another service provider, but it’s more complicated and you’re receiving a bundle of services that all add value to your business.”

To achieve this, Sureswipe has partnered with Retail Capital to offer its customers cash advance products, while a loyalty programme allows consumers to swipe their loyalty cards and gift cards at all Sureswipe terminals, accumulating points.

“We’ve seen a small increase in revenue since we added these offerings, but more importantly, our customers’ revenues have increased. For example, if someone has a gift card, they will generally spend a bit extra in-store as well. Our merchant discount fee means we offer these products to our customers at a low cost, but our churn rate has lowered by 70%.”

Everything Sureswipe introduces to the market is based on a long-term view. “We offer a commoditised product and so our success relies on scale and volume. As long as you can do that at the right cost, with the right returns, you have a sustainable business. These extra products reduce churn, solve pain points for our customers and in the long term will increase our revenue.”

Paul’s long-term focus is consolidation. “We’ve been in this space for ten years, we have a great customer base, and we believe that we can consolidate our market. Our long-term view informs any decision we make about acquisitions or mergers.”

In 2016, Sureswipe acquired Concord, a company running software that integrated banks with retailers’ till systems.

The acquisition enabled Sureswipe to reduce costs by offering customers one point of contact for their POS system, tills and the processing between the two. “It removes complexities from the value chain, reduces costs and reduces retailer admin.”

With new generation mPOS offerings encroaching on Sureswipe’s standalone devices on the one side, and Integrated payments on the other, Sureswipe is effectively cannibalising its own market, but as Paul is quick to point out — that’s the idea.

5. Always look to the future

paul-kent-sureswipe

Sureswipe’s potential is huge. With 10 000 devices in the market, the business will facilitate R10 billion in transactions this year alone, which accounts for only 6% of its target sector, 2% overall, and 1% if you consider that the biggest competitor to electronic payments isn’t other service providers or banks, but cash.

“Markets change and adapt, particularly in this space where there has been incredible innovation and growth over the past few years. We know that in the long run, if we want to sustain growth, we will need to cannibalise the stand-alone devices, which we’re already doing. Ultimately though, what we really want to bring to market are products that can compete with cash.”

According to Paul, everything comes down to two things: Convenience and cost. mPOS is a lower cost option; contactless payments are all about convenience. Sureswipe needs both — and to keep looking ahead to see what’s next for their market.

“In the UK this year, for the first time, there were more electronic payments than cash, thanks to the convenience of contactless purchases for small ticket items. This is a big driver for us.”

To stay ahead of the game, Paul focuses on the business’s capabilities, and his own. “I need to pay attention to what’s happening internationally and how we can adapt our product offerings based on international innovations, but I also need to continuously focus on personal growth.

“One of my biggest fears is that the business will outgrow me. It’s a common founder’s fear, and for good reason. Many founders are great at launching businesses, but they don’t possess the skills the business needs to grow.”

To avoid this pitfall, Paul has consciously developed his business acumen over the past 15 years, beginning with Wits Business School’s Management Advancement Programme in 2003, and completing his MBA in 2015 through IE Business School in Madrid.

“I think it’s essential for all entrepreneurs and business owners to keep the pencil sharp and learn as much as possible. If I reached a stage where I didn’t think I was the right person for this position, I’d step back. We’ve built a team to complement each other; I’m not a details guy, but someone who is can fill that role. Part of my journey has been working my way out of a job by bringing in someone who can do what I’m doing, and often they do it better than me.

Related: How To Scale Your Business Effectively


LESSONS LEARNT

Become an expert in a niche

Our focus on the independent retailer space has given us a deep understanding of our customers and their needs. We’ve had international companies that are interested in acquiring us state that companies in other markets don’t have our level of understanding for each element of the business.

Look at problems with fresh eyes

We were naive about banking and financial businesses; we’re more retailers than bankers. This meant we didn’t have legacy systems when we launched, which allowed us to look at the independent retail sector without preconceived ideas and ask: What does this market need and how can we service it?

Always seek to remove pain points from your customers, no matter how small

In our sector, as businesses grow, their owners go back to the bank each year to renegotiate their fees. We removed this administrative burden by signing them up on a sliding scale, and as they grow, they automatically move into new segments and their fees drop — both new entrants and incumbent banks have copied this pricing model.

Understand where you’re innovating and why

We knew we didn’t need to innovate on the tech side. Everything we needed existed, and it was far more cost-effective to licence products than build from scratch. Instead, we innovated around our business model and service offering.

Everything starts with your people

Our employees are friendly and helpful, even though we now have a staff complement of 139 people. We foster a passion for learning, promote from within, where possible, and champion a can-do attitude. We’re a service-based organisation, which means everyone’s visions need to align with our service goal.

Pay attention locally and internationally

Read a lot, find out what’s trending, be well networked and have associations overseas. For example, Mastercard and Visa let us know what’s happening in other markets. We’re not at the forefront of technology, but we need to know what’s happening with technology to be able to follow it.

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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

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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

priven-reddy-expert-advice

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

priven-reddy-of-kagiso-interactive-media

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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