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Justin Stanford: 4Di Group’s Risk-taking, Convention-bucking Lunatic

From a high school dropout determined to take the tech world by storm, to the founder of his own start-up from a garage at 18, and today spearheading the seed funding VC revolution in South Africa, Justin Stanford has always lived his entrepreneurial dream – and now he’s helping other start-ups live theirs as well.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats:

Picture this. It’s the early 2000s, and Justin Stanford, known for his academic record, has decided he wants to drop out of school.

 

He’s in grade 11, and he’s terrified the tech wave will pass him by. He’s been following the Silicon Valley dot com boom (unusual for a kid raised on a fruit farm an hour outside of Cape Town), and he’s read about the young entrepreneurs who have sold Hotmail to Microsoft for a small fortune.

Related: Billionaire Buffett’s 2-List Success Recipe

He’s reading his future in the stars – via Alta Vista – and he knows it doesn’t start with him stuck in a classroom.

“I wanted to be a tech entrepreneur and I wanted to do it now,” he says. “I was obsessed with the idea and lost all interest in school. I went from the top to the bottom of the class, and everyone was worried about me. But I was determined.”

So what does he do? He does what any great entrepreneur worth his salt does. He negotiates. “I started with my dad,” he says. “I needed to get him on board first.” It took a while, but Stanford managed to convert his dad to his way of thinking. This solved nothing. “I was 17, I didn’t have a car – and couldn’t drive even if I did – I had no money, and no access to the Internet, which is what I really needed.

“I couldn’t launch my dreams from the farm, but I also wasn’t ready to move to Cape Town on my own.”

Enter his second round of negotiations with the principal of the college he’d just convinced his dad to let him drop out of. “I managed to convince him to let me stay on as a boarder, with a small office and Internet access. They moved me around wherever they had a small space for me, and in return I helped out the IT department.

For the next year, Stanford was free to pursue his own curriculum, which focused largely on furthering his coding skills, researching on the net and finding out as much as he could about Internet security.

Justin-Stanford_Entrepreneur-Profiles_Success-stories

Selling the dream

But let’s take a step back. It would be simplistic to think that Stanford woke up at age 17 wanting to completely disrupt his life. Like all game changers, it was a mix of attitude and circumstance that brought him to that point.

“From an early age, my path was preset,” he explains. “Like the Stanfords before me, I was enrolled in Bishops from the day I was born. I’d go to school, then university, then I’d establish a career. My mom wanted the best for us, and she pushed us to excel in academics. I had huge support from my family, which really shaped me when I was younger. But we weren’t at all spoilt, which meant anything I wanted I had to work for.”

These early lessons taught Stanford the value of delayed gratification and long-term investing, which he believes is essential in business. “I coveted a model airplane, but it cost R2 000. It took two years of painting fences and selling apple juice at school that I’d bought from my dad to buy that plane. Anything worth having is worth working for.”

Young Stanford’s first big move away from his preordained path was refusing to go to Bishops.

“I was preparing myself for high school when I caught wind of a proposed new school in Somerset West that would be fresh and forward looking. I was convinced the Internet was the wave of the future, and I wanted to be a part of it. I managed to get my parents on board.

“We eventually helped build the school with a small group of dedicated parents. It was a big risk – I gave up my spot at Bishops without even knowing if the college would be ready in time, but by then I’d learnt that some risks are worth it.”

When Stanford started his grade 8 year at Somerset College, there were 65 students, but the school had access to the Internet, and a tech focus. The young entrepreneur-in-the-making was in heaven. He also concedes this was the start of his downward slide into becoming a mad, risk-taking, convention-bucking lunatic.

And then tragedy struck. When the world changes it happens in snapshots. “I woke up with my head between my knees. The only two people who could move were me and my dad. I needed to get out of the car and find my mom’s bag, because that had the family cellphone, and we needed to call for help.”

The whole family was travelling on a back gravel road in the family SUV when the accident happened. Stanford was in grade 9. His younger sister died instantly. His mom passed away four months later after suffering paralysis from broken vertebrae. Stanford was left with a dad and a younger brother, and things would never be the same again.

“We were all changed, but in different ways. My mom had always been a driving force in my life. She pushed us to achieve great things. But naturally, this was through a more conventional lense. I was 14 and I started questioning everything. When you’re young and you have a strong, supportive family, the world is a safe and certain place. Sure, there are constraints, rules and regulations, but you don’t really question them.”

Justin-Stanford-on-Venture-funding_Entrepreneur-Profiles_Success-stories

 A life extraordinary

“The accident changed my perception of the world. It ripped up the rule book for me. Everything around me suddenly felt like a man-made construct. I started questioning what was real and what wasn’t.

“I looked at my life and knew I had to make a decision: Would I be a victim, or a survivor? I wanted to make something of my life. It marked a turning point where I started bucking convention. I wasn’t going to follow the path my mom had planned, but I would make her proud. I wanted to do awesome stuff and lead an extraordinary life.”

Fast forward a few years and Stanford’s a high-school dropout moving to Cape Town. His dad has bought him a Tazz, and he has R1 000 to his name. His dad has also arranged for him to live with family friends, supported by Erik van Vlaanderen, while he found his feet.

“I’m sure that all he asked of Erik was to help me fall softly,” says Stanford. “I think everyone thought I’d get my entrepreneurial dreams out of my system and return to the path.

“But I had plans. I was convinced that everything would eventually happen through the Internet. I aspired to be an Internet millionaire, I didn’t want to work for someone else, and I had patience. I also had my ‘big idea’: If the Internet was going to be huge, as I believed it would, then it would need to be secured. So I focused on Internet security.”

Things quickly came together. Van Vlaanderen didn’t just help Stanford with somewhere to stay, he also arranged for him to work out of his brother’s garage, and he gave him R20 000 in seed funding.

“It was a huge amount of money to me and I knew I had to make it last, so I used it to cover my meagre living expenses while I tried to build my business. But it was basically a disaster!”

Lessons learnt from mistakes

Like countless entrepreneurs before him, Stanford quickly learnt the difference between a great idea and a viable business model. “I did everything wrong. Everything failed, I battled for three years!”

Stanford’s first idea was to sell network hacking to companies. “It was an incredibly hard sell. First, it was very early. Yes, companies were starting to rely on the Internet, but security wasn’t yet a top priority in South Africa. Plus, I was 18. No one cared what I had to say. Second, I was selling time. It was a service-based model, and that’s incredibly hard to scale.”

Just scraping by, Stanford refused to accept failure. “All of my pride was staked on this. My mates were all studying and partying, supported by their parents. I was barely making ends meet, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. What I was doing wasn’t working, and I had to find something that would.”

So, he evaluated his business model critically. His three biggest detractors were his age, the product fit and state of the market, and his unscalable, hard to monetise service-based model.

“Once I realised what my problems were, I could start fixing them. First, I needed a product that was easily scalable, something based on IP. Software was the obvious answer. I then needed to craft a façade that elevated me from just a kid in a garage.”

Fake it ‘til you make it

It was the start of what Stanford calls ‘faking it until you make it’. He’d developed code for tools that helped his service model. Now he wanted to develop an entirely Internet based company. “I needed to create a website that clients could interact with, without seeing me.”

During this time he came across a small Slovak Internet security software developer, ESET. “I was doing research for my only client, testing security tools for them, and I came across this product. The user interface was bad, but the tech was phenomenal. It outperformed all established norms.

“I knew there was huge potential, and so I contacted them. Without mentioning that I was alone in a garage, I told them I was an Internet security firm in South Africa, and that I was really impressed with their tech. With some tweaks, I thought it could be a great fit for our market.

“They were a small company as well, and had someone living out of a car trying to get a foothold in the US. We weren’t a priority market for them, but they listened to my ideas. I wrote a business plan for them centred on the idea of an Internet-based business model and proposed that the product only be downloadable.

“Many in South Africa thought this was mad. We didn’t have the infrastructure to support downloadable software here. But we planned to use resellers to reach the market, who would have access to better-than-average Internet connections, and ESET was already thinking along similar lines.

“They gave me sole rights for sub-Saharan Africa, and I started coding an online platform that made it simple for resellers to login, download and instal the product for clients.”

Stanford quickly realised he couldn’t do it alone. “I went to Erik and asked him to join me. I needed more funds to get the business off the ground, and I knew I had a great platform with an excellent product that would sell itself if people tried it, but what I really needed was a business partner who knew what I didn’t. After three years of going it alone, I was aware of my gaps. I was into technology, I had a vision, drive and ideas, but Erik had the wisdom and experience that I lacked. He was older, had an accounting background, had been a senior partner in practice and had held CEO positions. He was now an entrepreneur running a successful fruit export business. We complemented each other. Convincing him to come on board made a huge difference, even though at the beginning he wasn’t full-time.”

Related: Loaning Start-Up Cash to Your Family Entrepreneur Makes You a Credit Provider

Despite additional seed funding from van Vlaanderen, the business still needed to operate as lean as possible. “We needed to get creative. We had great products and a simple-to-use web platform for resellers and customers, but they needed to know about our products first. We offered a month’s free product trial, and if I could get people to try it, I knew they’d buy it. But how to get them to test it?

“I had a friend who had started a marketing agency. We had no budget, but we worked out that we could use PR, which was very low cost but could gain wide exposure. I wrote compelling press releases, and he got them published. A lot of people were experiencing virus outbreaks, so we tapped into the conversation of Internet security. We offered pragmatic explanations in laymen’s terms. We made ourselves available at short notice, and soon I started getting calls. I slipped our web address into every conversation. We didn’t do a hard sell; rather we tried to add real value.

“We also made things as simple as possible for the resellers. They could sign up online, activate a licence and immediately download the product. We would only invoice them at the end of the month. It was a risk, and it meant that we spent a lot of time collecting on bills, but slowly the product started gaining traction.

“The fact that it needed to be downloaded was a problem, but, I didn’t have a warehouse, and I couldn’t produce discs and packaging. After a slow start, once we started growing, it happened in leaps and bounds.”

By this stage, Stanford was also able to hire an employee, Carey van Vlaanderen, who initially interned for free, and is now the CEO of ESET Southern Africa. They had a desk and a phone line, and a game plan to look much bigger than they actually were.

“We had a decent website, and all of our business was online. When we got a call, we would put the person on hold and put them through to the ‘department’ they wanted, which was really just me handing the phone to Carey.”

As the business scaled, they were able to afford office space, and van Vlaanderen joined the business full-time.

“Today we’re far from ESET’s biggest market, but our early successes provided some insights for them. They invited us to share our stories, tech and ideas with them, and we sit on on their advisory council. It’s a great relationship.”

The business has maintained its lean structure too. “We’re almost paperless. Everything is done online. 90% of the work is automated by systems. Our margins are high, and within a year we were profitable.

“We’ve had double-digit growth per annum ever since, which proves once you have the right product, a way of getting it to market and a service model that supports your offering, you can grow a profitable business.”

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Lessons for Growth

1. Never take shortcuts

We’ve always believed in playing the long game. There are no short-cuts in business, at least not if you want to build a long-term, sustainable and successful business. We bend over backwards for our resellers and our customers. Take the time to hear what they’re saying, solve their problems, and go that extra mile to delight them. In the long run, you’ll reap the rewards.

2. Always trade on integrity

We never compromised our integrity, even if it would have meant quicker, easier growth. We kept our eye on the long-term rewards, always putting our customers and partners first.

3. Understand the value of a team

Erik and I joining forces was the single best decision this business has made. We have different skill sets, we complement each other and we believe in a philosophy of partnership. I really believe that all great businesses are built around excellent people and relationships. You’ll never have everything your business needs. Don’t let ego get in the way. Find great partners.

4. Hire for culture fit

There are a lot of great people out there who are very good at what they do. That doesn’t mean they’re the best fit for your organisation. We always hire based on the right cultural fit. Sometimes, we hire someone because we see their potential, but we don’t necessarily have a position open for them.

We’ll bring them in, give them time to get a feel for the business, and then they’ll find what they’re going to do. Skills can be taught, but attitude is engrained. We believe in company culture and culture fit, and highly capable people who get things done. We remunerate well, and leave them to get on with their jobs.

5. Know when it’s time to fire yourself as CEO

A big thing I ultimately did was essentially firing myself as CEO. I love start-ups, that’s my passion. I love building new things. What I don’t enjoy is admin, and like it or not, admin and diligent management is what makes businesses grow and remain sustainable.

I needed to let go of ESET SA’s daily management in order for it to continue its growth trajectory, and that also freed me up to continue doing what I love, which is product development, starting up new ideas, and helping other start-ups through 4Di Capital, our VC firm.

From Garage to Global

Today, Justin Stanford’s main focus is on 4Di Capital, his seed funding VC firm. The name harks back to the first iteration of his business operating from a garage.

“I’d called it 4D Digital Security. It was just a play on 3D, like a further advancement on three-dimensional. Once we pivoted the business into selling ESET products, we changed the name to ESET Southern Africa because we thought it gave the business more credibility.

“Once ESET was running smoothly and growing into the six, seven and eight figures however, it was time for me to start looking at what I wanted to do next, and so we created the 4D Innovations Group (or 4Di Group), of which ESET was just one company.”

What was Stanford’s next move? “I wanted to create a Silicon Valley in South Africa, a tech start-up hub.” As Stanford’s success grew, he started getting more attention, particularly from young, hopeful entrepreneurs. “I was still in my mid-20s, and was proving that you could be a young, successful business owner even without a varsity education. The idea started gaining momentum, and people were coming to me wanting assistance with ideas, funding, or just general advice.”

By this stage, Stanford had enough money and stability that he could raise his head out of his own business and really look at the state of start-ups in South Africa. “I was also gaining a profile, and it didn’t take me long to realise what I wanted to do with it.”

Never one to shy away from big, audacious goals, Stanford teamed up with another young, local tech entrepreneur who had moved to Silicon Valley, Vinny Lingham. Together, they started Silicon Cape, an organisation reliant on industry involvement and geared towards creating a vibrant start-up community in South Africa that brings various investors together as well.

“By that stage I’d spent enough time in San Francisco to know that we have something special here too, but we were lacking a collaborative ecosystem. All the ingredients were right, we just needed to create a supportive community that works together, and we needed to have a Silicon Valley style seed funding engine to support local entrepreneurs.”

Silicon Cape is now an established organisation, and Stanford has turned his attention to the problem of early stage investing.

“I wanted to start a progressive venture capital fund. I needed an investor to prove that we can foster a vibrant VC industry in South Africa. We have great tech start-ups with amazing potential  — what they need is assistance.” That investor was Johann Rupert. A supporter of Somerset College, Rupert was aware of Stanford and his antics — enough to grant him a meeting at least.

“I was completely star struck. I couldn’t believe I got the meeting. He was a business idol.” As it turned out, Rupert, who is passionate about South Africa and a huge supporter of young entrepreneurs and the power of tech, was both willing and able to fund Stanford’s next big dream. This led to the eventual launch of 4Di Capital.

Laurie Olivier, a partner on the 4Di Capital team, opened the door to the fund’s next investor, the Oppenheimer family.

“Right now we all know this is still a big experiment. It will take ten years before we either prove it can work in South Africa, or if everyone who thinks we’re mad is proved right. But, we have ten businesses on board, and we’re helping them grow. They’re able to assist each other as well, and share their insights and lessons. Entrepreneurship can be incredibly lonely, and so this alone is already valuable assistance for them.”

While start-ups are an asset class that is almost impossible to raise funds for, Stanford has stuck to his belief that great partnerships go a long way to giving a business as much credibility and stability as possible.

Aside from the big names of Rupert and Oppenheimer backing his play, 4Di Capital has five partners on the team, including himself and Erik van Vlaanderen.

“We all bring something unique to the table, and we’re all determined to make this work.”

Of the partners, Olivier is an ex-pat living in the US, which is a powerful tool in 4Di’s toolbox, as it gives the VC firm a US office, and a link to the hub of VC funding and exits. Together, they’re a formidable team, and one investors are willing to talk to. At the time of going to print, Stanford had just closed a deal with the fund’s third investor, Convergence Partners.

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

7 Foundational Values Of Brand Cartel And How They Grew an Iconic Business From The Ground Up

Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren built Brand Cartel, a through-the-line agency, that delivers exactly what they wanted — and has grown exponentially as a result.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Marco Ferreira, Renate Albrecht and Dillon Warren
  • Company: Brand Cartel
  • Launched: 2013
  • Visit: brandcartel.co.za

“We’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do.”

When Dillon Warren, Renate Albrecht and Marco Ferreira launched Brand Cartel in 2013 they were in their early 20s with zero agency experience between them. The idea had started when Marco recognised that social media was taking off, but no agencies were playing in that space yet. It was a clear opportunity.

Printing flyers that said ‘Your social media is so last season’, Marco and Renate went from store to store in Sandton City, pitching their services. When Dillon joined them a few months later because they needed someone to handle the company’s finances, they had two laptops between them, R6 000, which Dillon had earned from a Ricoffy advert, and sheer will and tenacity.

“We shared a house to save on rent and split everything three ways,” says Renate. “At one point we hadn’t eaten in two days. My mom lent me R500 so I could buy Futurelife and a bag of apples for the three of us.”

The trio hired their first employee soon after launching Brand Cartel, and after prioritising salaries and bills, there wasn’t much leftover. “Dillon actually paid us R67 each one month,” laughs Marco. “That’s what was left — although I still can’t believe he actually sent it to us.” It was at this point that the young business owners realised they needed credit cards if they were going to make it through their start-up phase — not an easy feat when your bank balance is under R100.

Related: What Comfort Zones? Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable Says Co-Founder Of Curlec: Zac Liew

“Looking back, those days really taught us the value of money,” says Dillon

We spent a lot of time with very little, and we’re still careful with money today.” Through it all though, the partners kept their focus on building their business. “It almost didn’t work for a long time. We were young and naïve, but in a way, that was our strength. We didn’t have any responsibilities, and we’d never worked at agencies, which meant we had no idea how much you need to run an agency. We grew into it. It’s made us really good at what we do. All of our business has been referral business. It takes time, but we focused on being the best we could be and giving everything we had to our clients. Our differentiator was that we really cared, and were willing to offer any solutions as long as they aligned with our values.”

This is how Brand Cartel has grown from a social media agency into PR and Media Buying, SEO and PPC Strategy, Digital and Print Design, Web Development, Campaign Strategy and now an Influencer division. “It’s an incredibly competitive space with low barriers to entry, which meant it was easy to launch, but tougher to build a client base,” says Renate. “I’d sometimes cry in my car between sales pitches, and then walk in smiling. We had no idea if we’d make it.”

The perseverance has paid off though. Strong foundations have laid the groundwork for exponential growth over the past year, with turnover growing almost ten-fold in 2017 thanks to relationship-building, strong referrals and fostering an internal culture and set of values that has driven the business to new heights as a team.

Like many start-ups, Renate, Dillon and Marco have made their fair share of hiring mistakes, but as the business grew and matured, the young entrepreneurs began to realise that the success of their business lay in the quality of their team and the values they stood for.

This meant two things: Those values needed to be formalised so that they could permeate everything Brand Cartel does, and they needed a team that lived, breathed and believed in them.

“We’ve had some nasty experiences,” admits Dillon. “You should always hire slowly and fire fast, and for five years we did the opposite. We’ve hired incredible people, but we’ve also ended up with individuals who didn’t align with our values at all, and that can destroy your culture.

Dillon, Marco and Renate realised they needed to put their values on paper. “We did an exercise and actually plotted people based on a score grading them against our values, so we knew where our issues were. We knew what we wanted to stand for, and who was aligned with those values. We were right; within a few weeks resignations came in and we mutually parted ways.”

The team that stayed was different. They embraced Brand Cartel’s values, and more importantly, it gave the partners a hiring blueprint going forward.

“Values are intangibles that you somehow need to make real, so it’s important to think about the language you use, and how they can be used in a real-world work context,” says Marco.

The team has done this in a number of ways. First, they chose ‘value phrases’ that can be used in conversation, for example, ‘check it, don’t wreck it’, and ‘are you wagging your tail?’ Team members can gently remind each other of the value system and focus everyone on a task at hand simply by referring to the company’s values. “In addition, when someone is not behaving according to those values, you can call them out on the value, which is an external thing, rather than calling them out personally,” explains Dillon.

Related: How Matthew Piper And Karidas Tshintsholo Launched Their First Business From Their UCT Dorm Rooms

Second, all performance reviews are based on the values first. This means everyone in the organisation begins any interaction from a place of trust, knowing they are operating according to the same value system.

“When you’re in a production environment with jobs moving through a pipeline, there can be problems and delays,” explains Marco. “Instead of pointing fingers when something is over deadline or a mistake is made, our team can give each other the benefit of the doubt and work together. They trust each other, which creates cohesion. We all work as a team, which impacts the quality of our work and the service we offer our clients.”

The system is simple. Coaches will step in first if there is an issue before it escalates to the Head of Team Experience, Nicole Lambrou. If Nicole is called in, she will address the problem head on. “Inevitably it’s something fixable,” says Marco. “By addressing it immediately and in the context of our values it can be sorted out quickly. Ultimately, the overall quality of our team improves, and we are a more cohesive unit.”

The founders have seen this in action. “I recently arrived at a client event and three different people came up to me and complimented my team on the same things — all of which aligned with our values. Everyone at Brand Cartel lives them, internally and externally,” says Renate.

The value system has also shaped how the team hires new employees. “We used to meet people and hire for the position if they could do the job,” says Renate. “But then we started realising that anyone can hold up for an hour or two in an interview. You only learn who they really are three months and one day later.

“We need people who walk the talk, and we really only had a proper measurement of that once we articulated our values. Our interview style has changed, but so has what we look for.”

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Here are the seven values that Dillon, Marco and Renate developed based on what they want their business to look like, how they want it to operate, and what they want to achieve, both internally, and in the market place.

1. Play with your work

Our goal is for everyone on our team to become so good at what they do that it’s no longer work. Once that happens you love your job because you’re killing it. It’s why sportsmen are called players, not workers, and it starts with the right mindset.

2. Wag your tail

The idea behind this value stems from Dale Carnegie, who said ‘have you ever met a Labrador you don’t like?’ In other words, we all respond well to people who are friendly. It needs to be genuine though, so again, it’s a mindset that you need to embrace.

We live these values whether we’re at the office or meeting clients. If you go into each and every situation with joy and excitement, from meeting someone new to a new brief coming in, you’ll be motivated and excited — and so will everyone around you.

3. Check it, don’t wreck it

The little things can make big differences. Previously it was too easy to pass the buck, which meant mistakes could — and did — happen. Once you instil a sense of ownership and create a space where people are comfortable admitting to a mistake however, two things happen. First, things get checked and caught before there’s a problem. Second, people will own up if something goes wrong. This can help avoid disasters, but it also leads to learnings, and the same thing not happening again.

4. What’s Plan B (aka make it happen)

We don’t want to hear about the problem; come to us with solutions, or better yet, already have solved the problem and made it happen. We reached a point where we had too many people coming to us with every small problem they encountered, or telling us that something wasn’t working so they just didn’t do it.

That wasn’t the way we operated, and it definitely wasn’t the way we wanted our company to operate. We also didn’t want to be spoon feeding our team. It’s normal for things to go wrong and problems to creep in — success lies in how those problems are handled.

Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, so we embrace them instead, encouraging everyone on our team to continuously look for solutions. For example, the PR department holds a ‘keep the paw-paw at Fruit & Veg City’ meeting every morning, where we deliberately look for where problems might arise so that we can handle them before they do. We start with what’s going wrong and then move to what’s going right. You need to give your team a safe and transparent space to air problems though. We don’t escalate. We need to know issues so that we can collectively fix them, not to find fault.

Related: The 5-Hour Rule Used By Bill Gates, Jack Ma And Elon Musk

5. Put your name to it

It’s about pride in work and making it your own. When someone has pride in what they’re doing, they’ll not only put in extra time and effort, but they’ll pull out all the stops to make their creative pop, or go the extra mile for a client.

We need to find the balance between great quality work and fast output though. One way we’ve achieved this is by everyone reviewing the client brief and then committing to how long their portion will take.

When someone gives an upfront commitment, they immediately take ownership of the job. It took time for us to find our groove with this, but today we can really see the difference. Our creative coaches also keep a close eye on time sheets and where everyone is in relation to the job as a whole to keep the entire brief on track. If someone is heading towards overtime we can immediately ask if something is wrong and if they need assistance.

We also celebrate everything that leaves our studio. Every morning we have a mandatory 15-minute catch up session where we check in on four core things: How am I feeling (which allows us to pick up on the mood in the room and the pressure levels of our teams); What’s the most important thing I did yesterday; What’s the most important thing I’m going to do today (both of which give intention and accountability); and ‘stucks’, issues that team members need help with. We then end off with our achievements so that we can celebrate them together.

6. Keep it real (aka check your ego at the door)

We believe in transparency. At the end of the day we’re all people trying to achieve the same thing, but it’s easy for ego to creep in — especially when things go wrong. You can’t be ego-driven and solutions-orientated. If clients or team members are having a bad day, you need to be able to focus on the solution. Take ego away and you can do just that. It’s how we deal with stucks as well. We can call each other out and say, ‘I’m waiting for you and can’t do my job until I receive what you owe me,’ and instead of getting a negative, ego-driven reaction, a colleague will say, ‘sorry, I’m on it.’

7. Walk the talk

For us, ‘walk the talk’ really pulls all our other values together. It’s about being realistic and communicating with each other. If you’ve made a mistake or run into a problem, tell your client. Don’t go silent while you try and fix it. Let them know what’s happening and fill them in on your plan of action.

Walk the talk also deals with the industry you’re in. For example, if you’re a publicist, you need to dress like a publicist, talk like a publicist, and live your craft. In everything we do, we keep this top of mind.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

John Holdsworth Founder Of Tautona AI Shares 4 Disruptive Strategies That Are Changing The Insurance Industry

What can we do now that we couldn’t do before, thanks to changes in technology?

Monique Verduyn

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“Disruption isn’t just doing things in a different way which doesn’t resonate or go any further — it’s about changing the game. Being disruptive means taking a look at an industry and finding a way to do it differently, giving you an advantage over the incumbents.”

Vital Stats

  • Player: John Holdsworth
  • Company: Tautona AI
  • Est: 2016
  • Visit: www.tautona.ai

Disruptive innovation is the catchphrase that defines the last 20 years. New technologies, business models and media have disrupted the way we do just about everything. Conventional wisdom has it that the new kids on the block are the ones who are going to own the market at the expense of industry stalwarts, but this innovative South African disruptor is showing them how it’s done.

1. It’s the experience economy, stupid

Regardless of how the world changes, organisations that consider their customers’ emotions and experience first, win. That’s exactly what Tautona did. They put themselves in the customers’ shoes and asked one key question: ‘What’s wrong?’ Few industries are as ripe for disruption as insurance. When John Holdsworth co-founded cognitive automation business Tautona AI in 2016, he knew that there had to be a better way for insurers to handle client claims.

Tautona AI emerged out of a consulting engagement John had with a large insurance company. With a background in IT, he is a highly experienced technology executive and entrepreneur who has started a number of successful companies. He says he loves the energy and adrenalin associated with start-ups. He pioneered the use of digital signatures in South Africa, founded mobile payments company PAYM8, and converged voice and data provider ECN, which he sold to Reunert for R172 million in 2011. The experience acquired over this time meant he was ready to take on a massive challenge.

Related: 5 Key Areas Pratley Are Using For Current And Future Growth

“When a policyholder submits an insurance claim, that action should trigger an instant decision, with the outcome immediately communicated back to the policyholder,” John says.

“Customers want swift claims handling, communication, and compensation. They want the same instant gratification that they get from online banking. So that’s what we set out do — to revolutionise the entire claims process. We have made traditional claims processing a thing of the past by pioneering a cognitive solution that is making the claims process faster, smarter and more efficient.”

2. Automating judgment tasks once reserved for humans

Tautona’s claims automation solution uses artificial intelligence to instantly approve or refer claims for further investigation. By using machine learning algorithms to identify patterns in the data, Tautona’s solution identifies fraudulent claims, enabling insurers to halve fraudulent claim losses.

Tautona also uses Robotic Process Automation to integrate to legacy systems, removing the need for traditional programming techniques. This means that Tautona’s claims automation solution can be implemented with minimal disruption to a business. By automating decision-making, communication, and compensation, Tautona enables insurance companies to take a major step towards becoming true digital insurers.

3. Ditch the legacy systems, start from scratch

Disruptive innovators invest in digital strategies so that they can find new ways of responding to their customers’ evolving needs. The founders of Tautona AI agree on several principles, but one that stands out specifically because it goes entirely against traditional thinking, is the importance of starting from scratch.

“You cannot take a non-digital business model and expect it to work online,” says John. “Instead of using old methods, you need to start from the beginning. Ditch the legacy systems, take a leader mentality and imagine the art of the possible.”

This iterative, modular approach typically begins with defining the strategy and programme plan upfront, delivering a core capability fast so it can provide benefits immediately, and then continuously improving with regular, incremental capability improvements to achieve the objectives of the strategy. It’s an approach that fosters closer collaboration between stakeholders, improved transparency, earlier delivery, greater allowance for change and more focus on the business outcomes.

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

4. Shaking up an industry

How do you launch new solutions and educate customers who are used to doing things the way they have always been done? John says resistance to change is inevitable. That’s why you need more than good technology.

“When you introduce something ground-breaking to the market, you encounter many different types of personalities asking diverse questions. That demands an approach that is client-centric and entirely customer focused. It also means you have to spend time developing a sound business case to present to decision makers.”

A solid business case documents the justification for the undertaking of a project. It’s the way you prove to your client and other stakeholders that the product you’re pitching is a sound investment. You need to justify the project expenditure by identifying the business benefits the innovation will deliver and that your stakeholders will be most interested in reaping from the technology.

“Essentially, it’s about proving you can deliver,” says John. “When you have an entirely new proposition, the only way you can hope to get your foot in the door is with a value proposition so profound that clients are forced to take a look at it.”

Tautona has convinced a number of South Africa’s top insurers to implement their AI-powered claims automation solution. The results to date have been ground-breaking, with insurers dramatically reducing turnaround times and processing fees. As a result, Tautona’s sales pipeline is full to the end of the first quarter of 2019.

“But there’s no rest for disruptors. Nokia and BlackBerry crumbled because they were slow to react to market changes, and they underestimated the challenge from Apple and Samsung. The only way to retain leadership is with relentless innovation, that is, a constant flow of new versions and features. That applies in any industry today.”

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Tim Hogins Started Out As A Security Guard, Today His Has A Turnover Of R150 Million And Has Self-Funded Three Huge Lifestyle Parks

As a poor township kid, Tim Hogins watched kids pile into buses heading to Sun City every weekend, knowing he couldn’t afford to join them. He was a youngster, but he made a promise to himself. One day he would build parks that anyone could visit — especially underprivileged kids like himself.

Nadine Todd

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tim-hogins

Vital Stats

  • Player: Tim Hogins
  • Company: GOG, formerly Green Outdoor Gyms
  • Est: 2012
  • Turnover: R110 million
  • Projected Turnover: R150 million (2018)
  • Visit: gog.co.za

“I’m a visionary, and I’m not scared to invest in my vision. I’ve lost millions, but I’ve made more because of that. Business is about making money, but I’ve grown beyond that – I want to employ people, develop them, push boundaries and see where we can take this.”

“Poverty can be a good thing, because growing up poor makes you creative, and that’s an incredible power if you know how to use it.”

Seven years ago, Tim Hogins drove out of an office park and pulled onto the side of the road because he was having a panic attack. His car was closing in on him, he couldn’t see and he couldn’t breathe. After months of hard work, it was all over. His dreams were shattered.

Tim isn’t the first entrepreneur to find himself here, and he won’t be the last. What separates him from countless other aspiring business owners is that despite a massive setback, he didn’t back down. He sat in his car, phoned his wife, and told her what had happened. Instead of telling him it was time to move on and find a job, she asked him how they were going to cobble together the money he needed to start again.

And that was the beginning of Green Outdoor Gyms, a vision Tim had been nurturing for almost two years. A business idea that had led to his retrenchment and was almost ripped away from him by his business partners and investors.

But he didn’t quit. He pushed on. And today his business has a projected turnover of R150 million and has self-funded three huge lifestyle parks that Tim hopes will impact the lives of thousands of underprivileged children while providing jobs for hundreds more.

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

The in-built art of tenacity

green-outdoor-gyms

To understand Tim, you need to understand where he came from. As a township kid growing up in Randfontein on the West Rand of Johannesburg, Tim always helped his parents to sell stuff. They were traders. His dad had a small café selling burgers and chips, and his mom baked. While other kids in the area piled into buses for Sun City on the weekends, or visited a local bird park, Tim had to work or the family didn’t eat.

“I matriculated in 1996, and even though I had an exemption, tertiary education wasn’t on the cards for me,” he says. “We just couldn’t afford it.” But Tim had a plan. His cousin told him about a free four-week course to become a security guard, and Tim aced it, securing a position at one of the firm’s top industrial sites.

Here’s the first secret to Tim’s success. Instead of seeing a dead-end job, Tim saw an opportunity. If he did his job well, he would progress to a driver, and then a cash-in-transit guard. From there the plan was management. Becoming a security guard wasn’t his fate because he couldn’t get a degree — it was step one to the rest of his life.

“I was raised to be the best version of myself. Everything is what you make of it. In primary school I was head boy, and in high school the head of the SRC. There’s always a way to grow and improve yourself.”

Two years into his career as a security guard, Tim heard about another opportunity  — a free programming course teaching COBOL, a back-end system used by the financial services industry.

“I grew up 500 metres from Stafford Masie, who would go on to become the first head of Google South Africa and is one of our country’s greatest tech entrepreneurs,” says Tim. “I had zero programming experience — I’d never touched a computer — but I knew how valuable these skills were, and here was an opportunity being handed to me.”

It wasn’t quite as easy as Tim imagined. He failed the aptitude test and had to take it again. Once he was on the course, he failed that too — it was a programming course after all, and Tim needed a far more basic introduction to IT. He didn’t give up though. He’d quit his job and needed to make this work while he was still living with his father and didn’t have financial responsibilities, so he begged the course administrator to let him retake the programme. This time he passed, and found a job at a small IT firm.

Once there, Tim built up his IT acumen. Over the course of his IT career Tim worked for Dimension Data, EOH and SITA. In his final three years he applied for an account management position and moved into sales. His goal was to become a business owner, and so he diversified and learnt what he could about business.

He also paid attention to the world around him, looking for a business opportunity or problem he could solve. He dabbled with some ideas, but the one he kept coming back to was outdoor gyms.

“I saw kids in parks doing sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups on trees, and kept thinking there must be a better way than this for them. I knew that a proper solution would be good for the whole community — giving kids and parents a safe and free environment to play in and focus on their health. I focused on poorer communities, where gym fees weren’t an option, and kids needed safe places to play and keep out of trouble.”

The more Tim unpacked the idea, the more he began to believe in it. And then his employers found out, and made it clear that they did not like Tim’s attention divided between his job and his business idea. Despite this, Tim continued to focus on his entrepreneurial play, and within a few months he’d been retrenched, ostensibly due to a restructuring of the business, yet Tim was the only person let go.

It was October 2010 and Tim had no job, two-months’ salary and he was about to get married. But it was the best thing that could have happened to him. “That retrenchment catapulted me into business. From then on, my full focus became outdoor gyms.”

Winning and losing

gog-water-park

Tim had approached Joburg City Parks who where interested in the idea. He had also met with an engineer and they had begun to design the equipment. There was just one small problem: Money.

“I knocked on doors, approaching anyone who would listen. One investor laughed at me. He said I’d gone from IT to playing with steel — what was wrong with me? A contact at SITA said flat out that she wouldn’t help me. Looking for funding can be incredibly demoralising. I had an idea and a letter of intent from Joburg City Parks, and it still wasn’t enough.”

And then Tim was introduced to a group of investors who wanted to instal kids play areas in municipal parks. Tim had the City Parks connection; they had the funding. They entered into a business partnership and built a prototype together. This was when Tim’s wheels fell off.

“I was invited to a meeting by my three business partners, and when I arrived there were five people in the room — my partners and their two lawyers. We’d entered into the agreement as 50/50 partners, and they wanted us to all be 25% shareholders. I couldn’t agree to that. This was my idea, my connection, my baby.”

By the time Tim left the meeting, he had no funding, no partners and no prototype and he knew City Parks was getting impatient. All he’d done was create competitors — and they had a demo model.

Tim had spent most of 2011 looking for funding and then building the prototype once he found his partners. He wasn’t just back to square one, he was behind where he’d started months ago. Hence the panic attack.

It was a pivotal moment. Give up or push on? Tim chose to push on. That night, Tim and his wife, Rona Hogins, sat down and came up with a plan. They would sell one car and Rona would apply for a bank loan. Together, they managed to come up with R200 000. Tim approached a friend who was interested in a side business and they launched LXI, an importer of screens for media companies. LXI brought in enough to pay the bills while Tim concentrated on getting Green Outdoor Gyms off the ground.

Then luck stepped in. “I drove past a warehouse and saw some play equipment. Instead of driving on, I pulled in and pitched my business idea to the owner.” The owner, Neta Indig, agreed to build Tim’s prototype at cost, in exchange for a long-term partnership. Tim agreed. His R200 000 would be enough to get the business back off the ground. Green Outdoor Gyms was officially launched in February 2012.

Here’s the thing about luck though. Unless you’re open to opportunities, paying attention and willing to step out of your comfort zone, luck alone will get you nowhere. By the time Tim drove into Neta’s parking lot, he’d spoken to countless investors, had doors shut in his face, lost a partnership and his prototype, and was still willing to look for any opportunity that might present itself. Through sheer will and tenacity, he found it.

Related: The 5-Hour Rule Used By Bill Gates, Jack Ma And Elon Musk

Seizing opportunities

gog-exercise

After the first outdoor gym was installed, two things happened. The competition Tim had feared from his old partners didn’t materialise. It was Tim’s first real lesson in the power of passion. He’d doggedly pursued his idea for over two years. His partners, who didn’t share that passion, did nothing with the prototype they’d acquired. Tim was still — at that stage — in blue ocean territory.

The second was how quickly an idea can take off once the foundations are in place. GOG’s turnover was R3 million in its first year, and orders were flooding in from municipalities throughout South Africa.

Tim was invited to present his solution in parliament, and it was included in the National Development Plan. “Everything escalated faster than I could have imagined,” he says.

“The reality is that we’re an obese nation. It’s a real problem. On top of that, 90% of the country can’t afford commercial gym fees. Under the National Development Plan, every community was earmarked for an outdoor gym. Government saw my vision and they bought into it.”

Tim had to tender for each new site, but he had a first-mover advantage. By the time other players entered his space he’d already built up a track record. His team’s turnover times are impressive and the business doesn’t only design and instal the equipment, but can also overhaul a derelict park. The quality of his products ensures that equipment lasts at least eight years with no maintenance, although once an outdoor park is installed, the community takes ownership of it, cleaning it regularly and maintaining the area.

In six short years, GOG has installed over 1 000 outdoor gyms for local municipalities around the country, and there’s still room for growth. There are currently between 5 000 and 10 000 sites available, and while Tim doesn’t believe they will get all of them, the business will continue to expand. “I believe we still have a ten-year run with government-funded outdoor gyms, but this is no longer our core business.”

In fact, GOG has grown and changed considerably since that first outdoor gym was installed in February 2012.

“I’m an opportunist. I pay attention to developments around me and am always on the lookout for where we can add value,” says Tim. As a result, GOG is now developing its own sites and supplying equipment to the industry — across private and public sectors.

“You need to know that competitors are coming,” says Tim. “When we started out we had a niche with outdoor gyms and government, but someone will always want to eat your lunch. If you know that someone’s paying attention to what you’re doing and that everyone needs to diversify, you can stay ahead of your competitors.

“Our business is centred around health, fitness and family, and  this understanding has allowed us to grow into lifestyle spaces that support our core focus.”

As a result, GOG has expanded to the installation of play areas and outdoor gyms for hotels, private and public schools, beach parks and lifestyle estates, including Steyn City.

“We also have a registered landscape company,” says Tim. “We can take vacant land and transform it into a park with grass, trees, water and pathways. We have a Geotech division that does soil testing and environmental studies.”

None of this happened overnight. It takes time to build a reputation, but if you’re focused on four key things, you can build a sustainable business. “You need to diversify your product range, diversify your customer base, nurture relationships and push outbound sales,” says Tim.

Tim has geared the business for scale, which is critical in a production and manufacturing context. “We have always outsourced our manufacturing, first with Neta, and later to a Chinese manufacturer who has become integral to our success.”

Tim’s relationship with Neta was critical in the start-up phase, but after two years the manufacturer decided to focus on his core. “We were too big — it wasn’t a side project anymore, and Neta wanted to remain in construction,” says Tim. “I needed to either find another manufacturing partner, or move into that space myself.”

Tim visited manufacturing facilities in China and sourced samples until he found a plant that could handle GOG’s volumes and quality. “Chinese manufacturers value loyalty and they’ll do whatever you want at the price point you ask. If you want a cheap product, you’ll get it — and the quality to match. Good quality costs more. I have an excellent relationship with our supplier — so good that he flew out to South Africa to see our operations, because he was impressed with the volumes he produces for us.”

It’s this relationship and the capacity available to Tim that has allowed him to take the next step towards his ultimate vision for GOG: Lifestyle parks.

Living the dream

gog-exercise-park

GOG’s first lifestyle park stemmed from Tim’s need for a showroom and his life-long dream to give underprivileged children access to entertainment parks that he couldn’t afford when he was a child.

“We were manufacturing outdoor parks and I started thinking about other ideas in this space that aligned with our vision and niche. I needed a showroom that could showcase everything we can do, from ziplines to climbing walls, swimming pools to spray pools and outdoor gyms. A lifestyle park was the natural answer to everything I wanted to achieve.”

GOG Lifestyle was opened in November 2016 and is situated off the N14 near Lanseria Airport. It’s close to a number of townships, including Diepsloot and Cosmo City. “The revenue model is corporate team building events, family days and launches, which allows us to run specials for kids, the elderly, and CSI projects for schools and churches.”

The next lifestyle park, GOG Gardens, was opened in Soweto in December 2017. Bigger than the first lifestyle park, GOG Gardens caters for picnics, outdoor events and concerts. It’s a multi-purpose venue with seven venues in one, and also focuses on corporates, the general public and events, with CSI projects that support children.

“We have launched some smaller projects, such as GOG Kids at Chameleon Village in Hartbeespoort and a play area in Vilakazi Street, but our next big project is Happy Island, a 36 hectare water park off Beyers Naude Drive in Muldersdrift.”

Happy Island is GOG’s first joint venture with an investment partner, Tim’s Chinese supplier. Unlike the other lifestyle parks, which GOG self-funded from cash reserves, Happy Island is a multi-hundred million rand project with large capex needs. “The idea came to life when the chairman of our manufacturing supplier visited our operations in South Africa. There are no water parks in South Africa similar to those I visited in China. We are doing something completely new and exciting, and we broke ground in April 2017.”

All of GOG’s lifestyle parks have required high capex investments and have not yet reached break-even, unlike the smaller projects that will reach break-even within a few months. “Our projection for the lifestyle parks is three years, and five years for Happy Island,” says Tim.

“My long-term goal is to have ten lifestyle parks across South Africa, one in each region, and that’s what I’m investing in. We want to make a difference, give kids access to these parks and employ people.

“I’m here today because of my childhood experiences, but before I could invest in this dream, I needed to start small and build up my reputation and cash reserves. To achieve my ultimate dream will take a lot of investment, so that’s the focus.

“I’m a visionary, and I’m not scared to invest in my vision. I’ve lost millions, but I’ve made more because of that. Business is about making money, but I’ve grown beyond that — I want to employ people, develop them, push boundaries and see where we can take this. When someone says something is impossible, I want to know why, and then try anyway. That’s how you achieve great things. That’s how you realise your dreams.”

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

Next level

In 2016, GOG launched its first lifestyle park, GOG Lifestyle. Since then, two more lifestyle parks have been added, GOG Gardens in Soweto, and GOG  Kids in Chameleon Village in Hartbeespoort. The company’s biggest venture, Happy Island will soon be open to the public as well.

Healthy Living

GOG’s genesis was outdoor gyms, and the company continues to grow from these original roots: Catering to a growing focus on healthier lifestyles, from public parks to beaches, corporates and residential estates.

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