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Internet Solutions: Ronnie Apteker

Frenetic, intelligent, eccentric. These are some of the words used to describe South Africa’s youthful Internet pioneer Ronnie Apteker. Becoming a millionaire many times over has given the Internet Solutions founder the freedom to experiment.

Monique Verduyn

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Ronnie Apteker of Internet Solutions

The year was 1993. Schindler’s List was showing in cinemas, humans were cloned for the first time, the European Union was formally established and at CERN, just west of Geneva, the birth of the World Wide Web was announced.

In Johannesburg Ronnie Apteker and Thomas McWalter, two Wits University graduates, were dabbling with the Net and discovering how easy it was to access real time solutions to IT problems. The Internet was being used largely by academics to swap documents but Apteker believed it would become an important business tool. He began persuading South African companies to incorporate it into their business systems, and thus Internet Solutions was born. In 1994, Apteker graduated cum laude with an MSc in Computer Science. Technically, he and McWalter excelled, with Apteker’s knowledge and selling skills opening doors for him all the way. But their debt was rising, so Alon Apteker and David Frankel were brought in to turn the finances around. The company focused single-mindedly on providing corporate customers with Internet access, a factor which enabled IS to dominate the market from the beginning.

In 1996, when most organisations were embracing the concept of the corporate website, IS needed to grow, and it required the finance to do so. A deal was concluded with networking giant Dimension Data, which bought 25% of IS. One year later, Dimension Data bought the remaining 75% of the company, paying its directors Apteker, his brother Alon, David Frankel, Thomas McWalter and Andras Salamon R300 million. Today, IS provides e-business services to more than 80% of South Africa’s top 250 listed companies and has over 4 500 customers.

Entrepreneur: What was your vision for Internet Solutions?
RA: At that tender age we did not have a sense of purpose, but we wanted to do something magical with computers. We were involved with corporates from the start, but we first focused on dial-up home users. After six months we realised that we wanted a people-oriented business and you don’t get close to people when you have a mass consumer business like a dial-up Internet service provider (ISP). With corporates we could grow relationships and we could invest time and resources in building things like online banking, reservation systems, media archiving, payment gateways and complex security solutions.

E: How did you identify the market opportunity?
RA: It wasn’t so much about identifying the opportunity as it was about doing what we loved. We were crazy about technology and we knew the Internet would be something everyone would want to explore.    

E: How did you finance the company?
RA: We used furniture from home, our own computers and whatever we had lying around to set up the office. It was a tight and humble operation and didn’t need too much money to start. The biggest cost was the fixed line infrastructure from Telkom. Fortunately, Telkom supplies a service and only bills you months later which helped us from a cash flow perspective. Start-up finance for a new venture is largely about attitude. You can start a new business in your garage, or you can sign a five-year lease in some fancy building in Sandton and before you know you will be in the hole for a small fortune. Having fancy offices doesn’t make a company better.

E: What were the most difficult obstacles you faced as a start-up?
RA: We were all very young and didn’t know what it meant to lead people. As we grew we started getting older people on board who had more world and work experience and who were more set in their ways. The biggest challenge was to align everyone. On the business side, there was competition all around us. We had to be smarter than the rest, and we had to work harder to carve out more market share. And that we did. IS is still the dominant corporate service provider by far. The company’s culture plays a central role in this. There is a drive and a determination that goes back to the issue of alignment and purpose. We wanted to win, all the time. Complacency will kill any business and as a bunch of young leaders we were never satisfied. We always tried to stretch ourselves, month on month, and we never took “no” for an answer. This, coupled with chutzpah, a sense of humour, a love for technology and some sharp skills made for a selling and marketing tour de force.

E: Can you identify what your big break was?
RA: Our big breaks came from our first few customers who included Price Forbes (now known as Alexander Forbes), Sasol, Times Media (Johnnic), Q-Data, The Argus Group (Independent Group), ICL, IBM, Sybase and a host of others. As the virtual online community grew so we formed a critical mass of Internet users. Also, our timing was really good. We were there from the start of the global Internet phenomenon. Many people say we all got lucky, and yes, we all admit that we were there at the right time, with the right people. But luck did not make the venture work. Making IS work was about hard work, sacrifice and risk taking. There was competition all around us. We were selling people on e-mail, but, who were they going to e-mail? Well, I volunteered for the job. Yes, every time we got a new customer up and running, the majority of emails they would send and receive would be to and from their new IS friends. And so the online community grew.

E: How did you build your client base?
RA: We were relentless. We knocked on every door we could find. We also asked our customers to help us. We learnt that happy clients multiply. I remember in the early days asking a customer if they were happy. When their face lit up I would then ask them if they would help us get more customers. All corporates have partners: auditors, IT providers, advertising agents, furniture suppliers, landlords, bankers. We made it our mission to connect everyone in the chain, and so the virtual network grew. When you love what you do it is not work any more. When you love your products and services it is not a sale any more. We were simply out there evangelising with anyone who would give us five minutes of their time.     

E ;What are your views on leadership?
RA: A key thing we learnt at IS was “who works for whom”. Leaders work for the people they serve, not the other way round. When you hire 10 people, it means you have to work 10 times harder to grow and inspire these people. And of course, your ultimate job is to develop them into future leaders. We went on many leadership courses and we sought enlightenment all the time. We learnt that leaders command respect, whereas bosses demand it. We learnt that leaders lead through goodwill, where as bosses lead through authority. We learnt to say “we” instead of “I”. Another key and fundamental element we embraced early on was how to have fun. It is important to celebrate victories. Remember to laugh, often. Having fun is the most important aspect of any venture. If you are not loving it then something is fundamentally wrong.


E: What was your key sales strategy?
RA: Selling is about listening. I am not a good listener so this was an interesting realisation for me. We learnt that the more we listened the more we would get business. I remember going to a presentation at Edgars over 10 years ago. The CEO there loved to talk. I was the guest speaker at their corporate lunch. After a minute of my presentation I said “Sir, I would be more interested to hear your views on how you see the Internet playing a role at Edgars.” He perked up and started going on and on. After an hour he said that was the best presentation he had ever been to. I had hardly said a word, but while he spoke I wrote it all down. When we sent our proposal, they said that we seemed to know so much about their business and their strategic direction – of course we did, the CEO told us everything.

E: What is the most important lesson you have learnt about sales?
RA: If you are waiting to close a deal and it is not happening then one way to find out what the problem is, is to ask the customer “What do we need to do to get your business?” But then, also offer that prospective customer a set of answers, like a multiple choice exam. There are a bunch of reasons there could be a hold up. Perhaps they can’t afford the service. Or perhaps their budget cycle is six months away and they can only commit the funds then. Or perhaps the guy you are selling to needs to get sign off from the board. Yes, there are a bunch of common reasons that generally strike a chord when trying to close a deal. Then there is one big fundamental question: does the person you are selling to like and trust you? If you don’t know that answer then all bets are off.

E: What was your marketing strategy?
RA: Like our selling strategy, it was relentless. When we started IS we never had big budgets to spend on marketing so we had to be as vocal with limited resources. What emerged was a creative culture. The Internet was an intriguing place in the early 90s. We would get calls from people asking us why “they should Internet”. We weren’t selling IS as much as were selling the benefits behind networking technology in general.

E: How did you differentiate your marketing?
RA: We learnt to become story tellers. The more we made people feel comfortable, the more we established trust, and the more we did that the more the business grew. People were afraid of this new technology and what it would mean to their business. So we made them laugh. And we told them colourful anecdotes about people who would call us up and tell us that they wanted to buy the Internet. I have a friend whose husband thought he had broken the Internet. I remember people asking Dave Frankel and me for discounts. And we would say “I’m going to have to check with the board.” What we didn’t tell them was that we were the board. Of course, the board always said no. Paul Harris once told us that when they started RCI (Rand Consolidated Investments) they would call people and say “We are calling you from our Johannesburg office.” What they didn’t say is that there weren’t any other offices. The name of the company was also a big bonus. When Time magazine ran the first big Internet story at the start of 1994, with the word “Internet” in big letters on the cover, a lot of people thought they were writing about us.

E: What was your growth strategy and what it is now?
RA: When I was at the helm our growth strategy was to work seven days a week until we collapsed. We continually tried to find new leaders and we always empowered people to make their own decisions. In effect, my task was to work myself out of a job. I have done this quite a few times now in my life. Now I am quite removed from the running of IS. I am there helping out on a few ventures and cultural activities. The company is stronger than ever and the CEO, Gus MacRobert, is the greatest guy, with the biggest heart. The business is in a new and inspiring chapter in its history.

E: How do you develop your knowledge and skills?
RA: You learn by listening. I have developed my knowledge and acquired new skills by spending time with inspired people. A mentor is always an asset. I have been very privileged in my life to have had some humble and brilliant mentors share their wisdom with me. At IS we also bought a lot of books – on leadership, values, purpose, business, you name it. We loved sharing and swapping books. We also would organise a lot of team building events where people went on leadership courses. We were always looking to be provoked.

E: What have been the key elements of your success over the years?
RA: Investing in people. Empowering people. Growing people. Trusting people. Listening to people. From the first day we were aligned. The original team were aware of their individual strengths and weaknesses. Entrepreneurs always surround themselves with good people. We never had to meet and have long discussions. We met to celebrate, to brainstorm and to discuss challenges and obstacles, but we never wasted time with politics and power struggles. There was a healthy respect for each other and there was a common set of values which bound everyone together. We also learnt early on about money and motivation. A motivated person is someone who is enthusiastic, happy, passionate, thrilled, excited, energised and inspired. Imagine I ask you to wake up tomorrow morning at 4:00am and to come to my house to clean my driveway. Imagine it is the middle of winter and I will be fast asleep as you do this uninteresting task. Would you be excited or enthusiastic? Would you be inspired or passionate? Of course you wouldn’t. Even if I paid you a million rand, you would do it in a flash, but you still wouldn’t be motivated. Money moves people, but it doesn’t motivate them.


How do you define innovation?
Innovation is about attitude.
It’s about changing the way we think.
It’s an emotional construct.
Innovation is about taking risks, and doing what is in your heart.
Innovative ventures involve the most fundamental things we know: chicken, soft drinks, fashion, watches, music systems.

Making movies
Someone once asked Ronnie Apteker how to make a small fortune in the movie business. He replied: “Start off with a big fortune.” He has spent over R80 million on films in the last seven years. Apteker pumped a significant amount of money into Purpose, the first film he produced, in 2002. In South Africa it earned R175 000, although it did earn much more around the world for its distributor. A movie set during the height of the dotcom boom, it has been said to reflect his own life. In 2005, he put $400 000 into the horror flick Reeker. That year also saw the release of teen flick Crazy Monkey, Straight Outta Benoni, a film which Apteker acknowledges was not to everyone’s taste.  The budget for that was R8 million and it made around R3 million at the box office. His latest venture, Footskating 101, had a budget of just R1 million and is said to have achieved the quirkiness Apteker and co were trying to capture in Crazy Monkey. It’s due for release next year.

The business of making a film can be a lot of fun, but that of selling it is another story altogether, Apteker says. “I stay motivated because I am still inspired, still excited, still enthusiastic. But I often get anxious about the money side of things.” He says, however, that his experience in the industry is starting to pay off;  for  the first time, he is making a return on his investment in Reeker. He’s had a lot to say about the local movie industry and its shortcomings, so it will be interesting to see what comes out of his stable next.

What is your key advice to anyone seeking to start a business?

  • Having a good idea helps, but starting a business is all about investing in good people. I would rather invest in a bad business with good people, than in a good business with bad people. Arrogant, lazy, obnoxious people can take the best plans and mess them up. But good, humble, enthusiastic, honest people can take the most arbitrary plan and bring you joy
  • Don’t ever abandon your sense of judgment. If something is not feeling right then you can place a bet that something is going to go wrong. We all suffer from pride; we all tell ourselves things like “the train has left the station”. Rather pull the plug on something before the wheels come off
  • Always stick to the fundamentals
  • Mean what you say, and say what you mean
  • Be tough minded, but don’t be hard hearted. Make small decisions with your head and big decisions with your heart
  • Listen, and you will learn
  • Always remember, luck favours the persistent

Apteker vottles the classifieds market

It was American computer scientist Vinton Cerf who said: “By placing intelligence at the edges rather than control in the middle of the network, the Internet has created a platform for innovation.” Ronnie Apteker continues to take advantage of that platform with his new concept, The Vottle Project. A free Internet service that allows people to interact via a virtual marketplace, it enables users to buy and sell goods and services, to engage on a social level, and to promote local arts and culture. Vottle also includes a crime watch facility where people can report on criminal acts in their areas. “We were inspired by Craigslist in America and we are trying to establish an online community here in South Africa where people can interact, socialise, and trade,” says Apteker. “Our goal is to build critical mass over time and then roll out further enhancements and value added services. If we ever do build that mass we will be in a strong position to leverage this for further online business activities.”

Craigslist is a network of online urban communities featuring free classified advertisements. It was founded in 1995 by Craig Newmark in San Francisco. By June 2006, Craigslist had established itself in approximately 310 cities across the globe. Its sole source of revenue is paid job ads in select cities, and paid broker apartment listings in New York City. Apteker says the online classifieds space is one of the fastest growing areas of the Internet. In South Africa there are almost a dozen websites focused on second hand goods. Vottle recently introduced a payment facility that allows eBucks members to pay with eBucks currency. “This is the first facility of its kind in South Africa,” says Apteker. “With Vottle we can now test and perfect micro payment solutions.” This in itself is an important development for the local market. Micro payments are means for transferring small amounts of money electronically. Since it is not practical – or cost-effective – for individual users to charge small amounts of money to a major credit card, this method of payment is needed for sites like Vottle where low-cost items are traded. It’s worth noting that Craigslist serves over five billion page views per month. Although the company does not disclose financial information, it is speculated that its annual revenue approached $10 million in 2004.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

In business, your offering is only as good as your relationships. Neil Robinson from Relate Bracelets explains how FedEx Express has helped the business grow into Africa and beyond.

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  • Who? Neil Robinson
  • Company: Relate Bracelets
  • Position: Managing Director
  • Visit: relate.org.za

Neil Robinson, MD of Relate Bracelets understands the importance of business relationships. While Relate is a non-profit organisation, it is run like a business. It does not rely on donors, but instead produces and sells a product.

For each bracelet sold, one third of the income goes towards the materials and operating costs, one third supports the people who produce the bracelets, and one third goes to the charity for which that particular bracelet is branded.

In order for the business model to work and be sustainable, Relate’s partners are incredibly important. These include the retail chains that stock the product and who provide prime point-of-sale positioning, the charities who Relate works with, and most importantly, Relate’s logistics service provider, FedEx Express.

“Retail is all about visibility and availability,” explains Neil. “A brand is a living, breathing thing. People can see it, use it, and comment on it, but if they can’t access it, it’s all for naught. And so, at the point of purchase, it’s both visible and available, or it’s not.

“Logistics is key. You need to get your product to the retailer on time, 100% of the time. The expertise and focus that FedEx displays in supply chain and logistics encompasses far more than just retail, they understand our specific needs, making them a strategic partner, rather than merely a supplier.”

Related: Zenzele Fitness’s Clever Tactics To Grow In Next To No Time

Building a relationship

The FedEx/Relate Bracelets relationship stretches back to 2009, when Relate Bracelets launched its first campaign with ‘Unite Against Malaria’ leading up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

“We did the first campaign in partnership with Nando’s,” says Neil. “Robbie Brozin was passionate about the cause, and he pulled in strategic partners to launch the campaign. Within two years we’d shipped hundreds of thousands of bracelets. FedEx was an incredible partner, ensuring the integrity of our product and time-sensitive deliveries, and we’ve worked with them ever since.”

As with all good B2B relationships, the FedEx and Relate Bracelets teams understand that regular strategy sessions and updates are important.

“FedEx understands the inner workings of our business,” says Neil.

“A successful campaign has multiple elements, from planning and strategy, to marketing support, pricing and distribution planning. Of these, distribution planning is the most critical. For us, the bridge between our brand and the consumer is logistics. FedEx have delivered beyond expectations. They literally and figuratively go the extra mile for us.”

Protecting a brand

FedEx has customers across different industries and each of their needs are different. In the case of Relate, who operate in the retail sector, buying patterns are important. “Retailers run a tight ship,” explains Neil.

“They have planning cycles and seasons. Besides the fact that penalty clauses are built into contracts, you can’t miss a deadline by two days, or you’re in the next cycle, and that might be two weeks later. Not only are you missing out on valuable shelf time, but this can affect an entire campaign. Lost sales can also influence the retailers’ buying decision the following season. FedEx has made it their business to understand our business, so they know what’s at stake and what’s important to us.”

Supporting growth

FedEx has also played an integral role in the overall expansion of Relate Bracelets, particularly into new markets. “As a global organisation, FedEx has been absolutely critical in supporting us to grow our business into Africa, the US, Australia, the UK, Western Europe, and now New Zealand. They play an enormous role in the delivery of our products, with sophisticated tracking systems ensuring that the quality and integrity of our products are maintained.”

Through the relationship with FedEx, Relate experiences the benefits of working with a globally recognised and credible brand. “When you work with quality, you get quality.”

Related: Entrepreneur BB Moloi’s Inspiring Story of Rise To Success Through Grit And Hard Work

The business

If you’ve ever bought a beaded bracelet that supports a cause (for example: United Against Malaria, Operation Smile SA or PinkDrive), chances are it was a Relate Bracelet. If you bought it at Woolworths, Clicks, Sorbet or Foschini, it most definitely was.

To date, Relate Bracelets has raised more than R40 million, which supports various charities and ‘gogos’, women living on government grants and supporting their grandchildren, and who desperately need the additional income Relate Bracelets provides.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Lichaba Creations Founder Max Lichaba’s Inspiring Journey To Entrepreneurial Success

Max Lichaba finished school with a Grade 10 and no prospects, except for a burning desire to do more with his life than become a miner like all the other men in his community. This is the story of how he started a jewellery business, lost everything, and painstakingly built it up from scratch again.

Nadine Todd

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I grew up living in the garage of a friend’s house in the small town of Virginia outside Welkom. My dad lived on the mines, my mom had five kids and nowhere to live, and he gave us a roof over our heads. It was a mining town, and I was expected to become a miner. But, my mom wanted us to have an education. She never blamed anyone for our situation — she just tried to make a plan. School was one of those plans. But, it needed to be a school close to home, and free — or as close to free as possible. That left only one option: A remedial school in Virginia.

Looking back, it had its pros and cons. I got to work a lot with my hands, and discovered I was really good at it. But the school ended at Grade 10, which meant I would never matriculate, and my maths and language literacy skills weren’t great by the time I left. I was never challenged, and an unchallenged mind doesn’t grow.

I’ve only recently completed some financial literacy courses so that I can run my books and understand my numbers. I’d left that to my accountants, and learnt it’s unwise — you have to be on top of your numbers. I didn’t have these skills from my youth, so I needed to go out and get them, ten years after starting my own business. But, if you’re serious about growth, it’s never too late.

By the late 1990s I was 16, helping my mom sell fruit and vegetables on the side of the road, and my school career was over — but then another opportunity presented itself. Harmony Gold owned the mines in our area and had developed the Harmony Gold Jewellery School to upskill the local community.

I wasn’t satisfied with my Grade 10 qualification. I didn’t want to be a miner, and I wanted more than selling fruit and veg on the side of the road. I knew I was good with my hands, and I saw the jewellery school as an opportunity.

Related: How To Build A Disruptive Attitude

I applied late, but that didn’t stop me. Every day I went to the school, and sat in the waiting room, determined to secure a spot if one opened up. There was one student who hadn’t pitched at the start. I pestered the registrations office to let me take her spot. I was relentless. One day I received the call: “Fine, the place is yours. When can you start?” I replied that I was on my way.

Everyone at the school had completed matric. I was the youngest person in the room with the lowest qualification — but I was good with my hands and hungry for success. Six months later I was one of the best in the class. I spent all my time there, practising and getting better and better at my new craft. I realised that I wanted to make beautiful things I could sell — I was already thinking about a small business.

As we were finishing our course, a local jewellery manufacturer, Regal Manufacturing came to the school and asked for two of their best students. I was chosen, which secured my first job in the sector. The company manufactured jewellery and exported it to South America. With 3 000 employees, it was a major employer in our community, predominantly of women. After nine months, I had the down-payment for my first car, and had just moved into my first flat, when we arrived at work to closed gates. Overnight, and with no warning, the company had closed down. We were all given a letter, stating that we would receive our salaries at the end of the week, and that the business had been liquidated.

Finding a light

max-lichaba-entrepreneurThe women around me — many of whom were the sole breadwinners in their households — were kneeling and wailing in shock. I was also in shock, coupled with a good healthy dose of anger. And then I started thinking. I had no dependants. No children relying on me to be fed. I was 19 and I’d find a job. But what about these women? I couldn’t help everyone, but there were four gogos I knew. In my community, gogos are the backbone of everything. I didn’t hesitate, I just said to them, let’s start something together. Let’s meet at my house tomorrow. We can make this work.

Here’s the problem. A machine costs between R50 000 and R100 000. We didn’t even have R5 000. We needed to start small. Putting our heads together, we realised that the simplest thing — and one we could afford — was beads. We needed to start bringing in cash, and this was the fastest, simplest way.

Between us we collected R1 000 to buy beads and start working from my flat. The local Nigerian market loved them, and then we had a stroke of inspiration — we approached church choirs, offering to make each member a unique set of beads that they could wear at competitions. This became a steady source of income.

We spent 18 months focusing on beads, and then I started looking at our growth opportunities. The business was very hand to mouth — we used our cash to buy more materials. There wasn’t room for expansion, and after a year and a half I wasn’t any closer to buying machines. So, what could we do?

Related: 20 Quotes On Coping With Change From Successful Entrepreneurs And Leaders

After researching SME support programmes, I found SAB’s Kickstarter competition and we entered. We won in our region, and with the R20 000 prize money were able to buy small machines. We didn’t have an innovative business, but we were operational. I believe that gave SAB faith in our business.

Start small, but start — that’s the key. I could have gone out and tried to figure out how to raise R100 000 for fancy machines. I didn’t do that. Instead, I focused on trading — bringing in cash to feed and support us.

The equipment took us to the next level, and I was able to look for our next opportunity, which was a programme run between the Free State Department of Tourism and the Dti that helped local manufacturers market their products overseas. There were many forms to fill in and our capacity to deliver if orders came in was checked, but eventually we were approved for the programme.

We were still in my flat, and we needed more space — but we couldn’t afford rent. We found a tiny shop and convinced the landlord to let us move in, if we agreed to start paying R500 per month as soon as we could. Always ask — you never know what the answer will be. If you’re polite and friendly, people often want to help you — or at least give you the benefit of the doubt.

When everything goes wrong

kwa-lichaba-founderWhile we were gearing up for our first foray into global markets, I concentrated on local growth — and that meant Joburg. I didn’t have a car, and couldn’t afford transport, so I hitched rides, wearing a suit and tie. I had a jewellery business and needed to look the part. I made sure I was always the smartest looking guy in the room. If you take yourself seriously and project where you want to be, others will take you seriously too.

I really struggled to get our jewellery into local stores, but we finished the dti’s six-month programme and were considered export-ready.

Step one was making the products. The African element was popular, so we focused on that. Our choir market had grown, and we were able to use the cash to manufacture more products for export from those sales. Our first trip was to Nairobi and we received immediate orders. Our second was to London, and we realised we were onto something.

The Dti gave us an incredible opportunity. They work on turnovers, and move you into different regions based on your level. We worked with them until 2015, and gained a foundation for growth. They also helped us build up our cash reserves.

At the time, we were exporting our jewellery successfully, we’d won Kickstarter and had deployed those funds into the business. But, I was looking for more. Success makes you feel invincible, and my experiences with the Dti had been positive. Then I found another opportunity: We could open a school, similar to the one Harmony had run, and give youth the opportunity I’d received. The Dti funds initiatives like this, which meant we could give back to our youth, with government support.

I achieved the NQF accreditations I needed, and set up the school at a cost of R900 000. We were told we’d be paid within 60 to 90 days of each student enrolling, and we took the plunge.

But harsh reality stepped in. I took my eye off Lichaba Creations to concentrate on the school at a time when we’d moved into new, bigger premises to handle our increased international orders. The first payments came through 12 months later than expected. Lichaba Creations was effectively carrying the school, and the result was that we couldn’t pay rent for the jewellery business.

Related: Successful People Always Chase the Impossible – Here’s Why

After two months our landlord told us he was locking our doors. I begged him for more time, promising I’d pay him soon. I kept hoping the Dti payments would come through, but they didn’t. I was in Joburg trying to get paid when I received a call from someone I thought was my friend — he was laughing. Our doors had been locked and all my equipment was being auctioned off. I raced back to Welkom but couldn’t stop it. I owed R30 000 and couldn’t pay it. I watched my machines get sold for R300, and I couldn’t even afford to buy them myself.

At the same time, I realised that as I’d built the business, I’d paid less attention to family, and more to friends — and I was learning that they weren’t very good friends. They’d laughed at my fate and told me that they hadn’t expected my good fortune to last. I realised I was surrounded by people who didn’t truly care about me, or believe in me, and some were even satisfied at my loss. It was time for change.

One of the toughest things you’ll ever do

Starting over is one of the hardest things in life. I had nothing, and worse, I’d failed the people I had wanted to protect. They were all jobless, my old ladies and my new staff. The younger staff who hadn’t been with me at the beginning were particularly angry and wanted their salaries. I was devastated.

The one light at the end of my tunnel was the support of my brothers, who came back to Welkom from Joburg to help me. It was a stark and humbling reminder of the value of family. I’d been open and shared my story, asking my friends for assistance. They all said no. I realised these were just ordinary people, and I’d put too much faith in them. My brothers were the opposite. They each took out a R3 000 loan that they couldn’t afford to help me pay my staff and settle some debt. And they did it in faith, believing I would make a plan to pay them back. I would never neglect my family again.

I needed to get back on my feet, and I no longer had a business, or the school. I started by reaching out to my old school — could I teach there? For six months, that’s what I did. I taught and saved every cent I could. I sold most of my furniture, and slept on a mattress on the floor. When I had enough cash in the bank, I started visiting all the pawn shops in Welkom. I knew my equipment was specialised, and I had a feeling that the people who had bought it wouldn’t be able to use it. I was right — I started to find my machines at different pawn shops. Piece by piece, I bought them back.

It took eight months, but I was able to get back up and running — at a very small scale. I worked from my flat, exporting to India and the UK. I was totally focused. I vowed I would never lose sight of my core business again, even if I pursued other ventures.

I finally got the cash I was owed for the school, and paid my gogos’ retirement packages. I then made my second biggest mistake. No matter what we did, we couldn’t get into retail stores in South Africa. There isn’t enough of a funnel for gold jewellery in the local market. But, we didn’t want to admit defeat, and so we opened our own stores in a Pick n Pay centre in Welkom, in Randburg, and in Orange Grove. The money we made overseas went into these black holes — and we did it for three years. Having a personality that won’t admit defeat has its pros and cons. It’s kept me going in the face of enormous adversity, but it’s also sustained me when I should have admitted defeat and moved on. We spent too much on stores for limited returns. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to admit a second defeat so soon after the failure of the school. Whatever it was, I held on too long.

But, you live and you learn. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and move on.

Starting over and pursuing passions

I wasn’t done trying new things though. I’ve always loved cars. When I was at school, we learnt to fix cars. I’d had this idea for a while: A luxury car wash where you could sit comfortably and eat chesa nyama and drink a beer while you waited. I thought the combination would attract more people. At that stage, we’d closed down two of our Lichaba Creations stores and only had one still operational. I bought a plot on Vilakazi Street in Soweto and started building my dream, brick by brick. It’s a big building, and it took my whole family a year to finish. It was funded through the jewellery business, so we built on and off, depending on cash flow.

I wanted to launch in December, so towards the end of 2013 we all put our backs into getting it finished. My brothers travelled from their homes in Vereeniging every day, and together we got it ready. We opened on 16 December and haven’t looked back.

Related: 4 Success Lessons From The Entrepreneur Who Quietly Grew Pinterest Into A $12 Billion Company

Kwa Lichaba gives us incredible returns. We chose to charge an entrance fee to attract a specific clientele. It was trial and error at the beginning, but slowly we’ve shaped one of the go-to venues in Soweto, with a vibrant, loyal clientele.

We realised we had something worth more than gold: Access to a captive, middle to upper-middle class black market. It took us a year to get traction with the concept, but we now host corporate-sponsored functions throughout the year, giving brands access to our clientele. It’s an incredible model, and one we replicated in Lesotho — my grandmother’s place of birth — in 2016, and this time we didn’t lay a brick ourselves.

Lichaba Custom Rides, a car customisation and sound business, followed, reflecting my passion for cars. We also opened a refinery to recycle precious metals ourselves, so that we can supply the gold we need for Lichaba Creations, which continues to do very well overseas.

I’m in a good place. I know that life — and business — have their ups and downs, and I have no doubt there are more lessons to learn on this journey. As long as I apply those lessons and keep picking myself up, I will always have something to show for my hard work, and a legacy to leave for my children and the people I love.

Lessons Learnt

kwa-lichaba-event

Know your numbers

This sounds so obvious, but I trusted people with my books for years — mainly because I wasn’t financially literate. I reached a point where I would no longer accept that I couldn’t run my own books, and so I upskilled myself. I took business management, bookkeeping and finance courses. It’s never too late to learn something new.

Education is everything

This is one area where I’m lacking. I’m filling the gaps as much as I can in my later life, and determined to give my children a better education than I had. I also want to help other children. Through the Lichaba Foundation, we close Kwa Lichaba on Wednesdays so that we can feed Soweto’s children and gogos in need once a week. We also have social workers and educators on site, to try and do as much as we can. Once a week isn’t enough, but it’s a start — and you always need to start somewhere.

Pay it forward

There are so many people who have helped me over the years. Never forget that you don’t achieve success alone. It always takes a village. I believe it’s our duty to give back if we succeed. We started out making boerewors rolls from the boot of our car and handing them out in townships. Today we have the Lichaba Foundation. We support the children of Soweto, have a magazine that supports local businesses and gives them free marketing, and the Miss Lichaba competition, an annual pageant for Soweto-based teens. The winner receives free university tuition, and is the face of all our businesses for a year. She is also expected to give back to her community, paying the idea of social awareness forward.

Work as a community

All of our businesses operate within a community — which is true of all businesses. You can’t operate as an island, and ignore those around you. And why would you want to? It creates goodwill, a vibrancy that operating alone could never achieve, and encourages everyone to work together towards shared goals.

Look for your own opportunities

When I look back at my life, it was tough as a kid. There was so much pain and embarrassment. Kids laughed at me because I sold fruit and vegetables at the side of the road and went to a remedial school. I was driven to prove myself. I’m a human being and a man. It’s my life, and only I can prove myself. I wouldn’t let my circumstances hold me back. I saw these things as challenges and obstacles I had to face, but also as opportunities. You need to look for opportunity. No one else will do that for you.


Listen to the podcast

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Matt Brown interviews Max Lichaba and unpacks his incredible journey from small-town kid to successful entrepreneur.

To listen to the podcast, go to www.mattbrownmedia.co.za or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.

The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Co-Founder Of DataProphet Daniel Schwartzkopff Talks AI And How To Prepare For The Coming Change

Artificial Intelligence is set to change the way all companies do business, says Daniel Schwartzkopff of DataProphet. Those who don’t prepare for this inevitability right now run the risk of getting left behind.

GG van Rooyen

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Daniel Schwartzkopff
  • Company: DataProphet
  • Position: Commercial director and co-founder
  • Established: 2013
  • Visit: dataprophet.com
  • About: DataProphet is comprised of a diverse team of skilled computer scientists, statisticians, actuaries, engineers and mathematicians who deliver actionable Artificial Intelligence solutions to organisations.

Can you give us some background on yourself? What sparked your interest in the fields of AI and machine learning?

I first developed an interest in AI and machine learning when trying to build a system to play poker against humans and win in 2011. Subsequently, it has been proven that heads-up limit hold’em poker is a solved game, meaning there are now unbeatable AI bots in this variant of the game.

How did DataProphet come about, and what does the company do?

DataProphet started as a machine learning consultancy in 2013 after noting the lack of such businesses in South Africa. This was at the beginning of the machine learning renaissance — the advent of graphic processing unit (GPU) processing had enabled techniques developed in the 1950s (neural networks and deep learning) to finally become viable. The use of a GPU as opposed to the CPU to perform the calculations necessary for deep learning brought about a 100x increase in calculation speed. This allowed companies and individuals access to the technology that only a nation-state with a supercomputer would have previously had.

DataProphet developed expertise across many industries with a major focus on insurance, financial services and manufacturing and began to develop products. It is now primarily focused on the global expansion and distribution of its Omni manufacturing product that is able to massively reduce defect rates by optimising with machine learning. This software is in production at several global sites.

One of our clients, Atlantis Foundries, the largest foundry in the southern hemisphere has been using our software since the beginning of the year and has achieved a 0% defect rate on shipped parts for several months — a very exciting milestone for us.

Is there a difference between AI and machine learning?

This is a fairly contentious question and largely depends on who you ask. In my opinion, Artificial Intelligence refers to the broader concept of enabling machines to perform tasks that previously only humans would have been able to do. In some narrow applications machines can now perform these tasks much better than humans.

Machine learning is one way to enable Artificial Intelligence and refers to the idea that machines can perform as more than just calculators, essentially discovering the underlying patterns/equations that govern a system just by providing them with enough data.

These can seem like such high-level concepts, so can you give us concrete examples of how they can affect of a business?

All industries will use machine learning as a fundamental part of their operation in the future. For example, machine learning can provide more accurate pricing models for insurance. It can reduce defect rates in manufacturing by predicting whether a part will be faulty, and then adjust the operating parameters to produce less faulty parts in future. Netflix and Amazon use machine learning in their recommendation systems to provide you with content and products that you want and thereby increase sales.

Self-driving cars are entirely powered by machine learning. For retail, machine learning can predict what a customer will buy and generate personalised specials based on anchor items that will draw the customer back to the store. It can perform more accurate demand forecasting than any linear model.

The opportunities for implementing machine learning in business are vast and most of the S&P 500 either have in-house data science teams or are using machine-learning powered products already. The only requirement is data. Data is extremely valuable and generally enterprise-size businesses have the quantity of data necessary to build an effective model.

How will these two concepts disrupt the working environment?

Rules-based professions can and will be displaced entirely by AI systems. Lawyers, doctors, accountants and so on. Jobs requiring empathy and human interaction will be the last to go, along with engineers, programmers and other professions that have a design or management element.

How should companies prepare for the coming change?

Businesses should begin to aggressively store and utilise their data. Machine learning can significantly improve efficiencies in almost all businesses.

In 1965, corporations remained in the S&P 500 Index for an average of 33 years; by 2012 this had shrunk to 18 years. In a single year, Kodak’s net earnings dropped from $1,29 billion to $5 million. All they did was fail to act on a market shift with the introduction of the digital camera. Machine learning is having the same effect on other  industries. Uber’s core business model is based around machine learning and they are effectively shutting down the metered cab businesses in every city they operate in.

Taxi businesses faced no competition for decades and grew complacent and failed to innovate. Now some of the largest cab companies in the world have split up and filed for bankruptcy protection. Lemonade Insurance Company is disrupting the insurance industry with crazy growth figures and much lower pricing because of their use of machine learning and an app to radically change the status quo. This is not the distant future. The time to engage with machine learning is now.

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