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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.”

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 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+.

Entrepreneur Profiles

Karl Westvig Of Retail Capital Shares His Insights Into A Year-On-Year Double-Digit Growth Business

Here’s how Karl has negotiated the many challenges of building a high-impact growth organisation that currently has a turnover of R150 million, which expects to double within the next three years.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Karl Westvig
  • Company: Retail Capital
  • Launched: 2011
  • Turnover: R150 million (2017)
  • Visit: www.retailcapital.co.za

Anyone who has successfully navigated a business from a R5 million turnover to R30 million, then to R100 million, and heading towards the billion rand mark knows that growth might be the goal, but it’s also where businesses stumble and fall.

When you’re on a growth trajectory, there will always be some areas of your business outpacing others. The trick is to hang on, and bring your customers, employees, investors and directors on your journey with you, improving the business each step of the way.

Here’s what Karl Westvig, co-founder of Retail Capital, has learnt along his journey, and why he’s continuing to enjoy year-on-year double-digit growth.

Differentiators determine market penetration

Retail Capital’s core product is a merchant cash advance. When the company launched in 2011, there was limited competition in South Africa, but Karl knew that would change. “South Africa is a high card-usage market, which is what you need for merchant cash advance products to work. You need to be able to track the monthly income of an SME to determine the size of cash advance they qualify for, and collect the loan repayments through POS (or point of sale) card machines.

“My founding partner, Dave Lewis saw the product in the UK, and believed it would work here, thanks to our high card penetration. That meant other competitors would soon join the field. The product itself wasn’t our differentiator, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a business worth pursuing.” In any industry, you need to evaluate competitors and whether the market is big enough for you. Karl and Dave believed it was, and that SME finance was under-served, but they also knew they needed a differentiator.

“We brought the concept to South Africa and built our own back-end. The way to differentiate is through channels and distribution, as terms and pricing structures are the same.

Related: Author Of The Little Book of Inspiration Gives Great Advice On Having Direction And Courage

“Our differentiator is our people. It’s about who we are and how we train. We have 40 sales consultants nationwide who conduct face-to-face visits with our customers. We don’t push product, we provide a solution. We work hard to understand each owner’s business, and whether they will get a return on investment from a cash advance. We evaluate what the money’s for, what the margin on it is, and whether it makes commercial sense. There’s no point taking money unless you can make more from it. For example, if it’s used to procure much-needed stock, or gain a large settlement discount from a supplier, that’s an opportunity. But, plugging a cash flow hole to pay salaries doesn’t make sense. You should always ask what the benefit of cash in hand is, and then determine if a cash advance makes sense.

“We’ve developed the tools we use to evaluate this in-house. We’ve gone from zero to 40 sales consultants and we’ve been testing our processes and learning from them throughout that journey. We manually underwrote our early deals, and tracked what the advance was used for, how long the terms were and whether there was a return.

“This process has been automated in recent years, and we now have a wealth of data available to us, but we also have consistency. This means our clients can walk their journey with us. They understand the cost of the money, why they are getting it and their ROI. By the time they deploy the cash, they understand exactly how they’re using it.”

Longevity is built on the right partnerships

point-of-sale-system

Retail Capital’s first product was a premium offering targeted at restaurant owners, franchisees and independent retail stores. “There are 200 000 POS systems in independent chains and single stores across the retail and restaurant sectors in South Africa, and 50 000 franchise stores,” explains Karl. “This was our target market.”

The offering suited the first segment of their market, but they struggled with franchise owners. “The independent space works for us. We’re almost like private bankers for SMEs. Our consultants understand the SME space — many of them have first-hand experience running a small business — and we work closely with our clients. We have business owners who have used us for seven years and have significantly grown their businesses over that time.”

Franchising was a much tougher nut to crack. “We faced a lot of resistance from franchisors who didn’t understand why their franchisees would need to borrow money — particularly a premium, and therefore more expensive product. We realised there was a disconnect between franchisors and their franchisees. Franchisors saw the product as too expensive. Franchisees had experience in trying to secure loans when they didn’t have assets to borrow against, and banks lend against balance sheets, not cash flow. We realised we needed to stop fighting the franchisors and partner with them instead.”

Retail Capital approached a number of franchisors and explained the pricing structure of merchant cash advances, particularly that higher risks for them meant higher interest charges for their (Retail Capital) clients. “We said we could bring the price down if the franchisors could help us derisk their franchisees with pre-vetting, and letting us know who the good operators who used their cash reserves well were. We brought franchisors into the fold and could pass on better pricing because we were taking on less risk.”

Karl has taken a similar approach to the micro segment of the market. “There are 50 000 micro retailers in South Africa, but this segment is growing rapidly,” he explains. “Within the next five years that 50 000 will be 250 000.”

It’s a segment that also benefits from cash advances, but not at the price point of Retail Capital’s premium product.

“We watched the development of mPOS (mobile points of sale) devices overseas and found local producers like iKhoka and Yoco. Our approach is simple; they have the devices, we have the capital and the system to disperse funds. It’s too expensive for us to service this sector face to face. It needs to be a fintech play, which was why we partnered with companies that had the devices.

“There are three sides to a deal. The originator (the device), the capital and the operator. The data that runs through the devices allows us to pre-approve micro vendors for a specific amount over relatively short payment terms. The risks are higher, but we mitigate them with cost-free delivery of the loans.

The systems and processes to get the funding to a micro operator and collect payments is our area of expertise, but we recognise that the originators will also want to hold the book.

“Yoco for example is building scale. To truly grow they need to become lenders themselves. This is going to happen whether we like it or not. Our current joint venture model allows them to partner with us, and eventually we will just be the operator. Within this particular market, we’d rather have that than nothing, which is why we’re flexible.

“There are other business benefits for us. Our technology is our platform, and this can be used in many other ways. We’re operating in a minefield of opportunity, collecting risk data on industries across the SME sector that we will be able to apply to other products. You don’t need to own every channel of a value chain. Working with the right partners can be much more valuable, and opens doors to new opportunities.”

Related: Going The Extra Mile With Neil Robinson Of Relate Bracelets

Leverage existing platforms for growth

“The most exciting part of Retail Capital for me is re-imagining the business. Dave built a great business before he exited to sail around the world. It was profitable and well-managed, but with a single product.

“When I walked in I took a different approach. I started by asking what our customers were looking for, and listening to what they were telling us, instead of pushing them into nine-month products.

Whenever you launch a new product, you need to start with a profitability framework. For us, this meant asking what our return on capital requirements needed to be across three to 18 months. Once we knew that, we could build it and offer adapted products to the market.

“Adapted products require adapted training. Too often companies add products, but don’t walk their teams through the new offerings, and so everyone sticks to what they know.

“We also looked at what other markets we could enter, which led us to franchises and the micro segment.

“What you really need to understand is your core. Financial services are all about distribution. Can you give it out, and can you get it back? Everything else is the framework that supports this core.”

According to Karl, the question ‘can you give it out?’ is about creating a product that you deliver where customers want it, whether that’s on the phone, online, or through face-to- face engagements. “You need to give your customers touchpoints at places convenient to them. Great businesses build capacity around their customers. Understanding their routines and what’s convenient to them allows you to invest where it makes sense.

“By listening to our customers, we could give them what they were looking for. We built new products and extended existing products based on this data.”

The second question, ‘can you get it back?’, involves underwriting and collections, and this is where Retail Capital’s IP resides. “You need to be able to set different limits and risk levels for different industries. There’s no such thing as one solution fits all in the SME space,” explains Karl. “Fashion stores and restaurants can afford to repay 10% to 12% of their credit card turnover, but FMCG stores wouldn’t have cash flow if their repayments were that high. Industries have differing risk profiles and require different terms. This develops over time. The longer you spend in the market, the more you can increase your efficiencies and reduce risk.”

Impactful growth doesn’t happen overnight

Two of the institutions that fund Retail Capital’s book are Ashburton and FutureGrowth, both large and established investment funds. “Today we are a rated business. Our returns are healthy. We’re a high-yield alternative investment,” explains Karl. “As our rating goes up, our interest rate falls, and we are able to pass that saving onto our customers. But that takes time.” You don’t go from being a start-up to funded by Ashburton overnight. You need a good track record, a professional and experienced team and stable loss rates. In short, you have to prove yourself in the market. Building something of value takes time and patience.

There have been challenges along the way, matching the balance sheet. “If you’re doubling the size of your business year on year, you need to be able to fund the growth of your book. The problem is that customers and money are seldom in balance. One is always stronger than the other. If you get funding, you need to find customers. If you suddenly have an influx of customers, you need funding.

“Then it’s down to distribution. You’re doing great, signed deals go up, your volume takes off, and now you need to run to your funders for more cash.”

Related: Executive Director Hasnayn Ebrahim’s 5 Rules For Strategic Growth In Your Business

Retail Capital doesn’t only have investment funds backing its book, but also equity investors. The management team owns 51% of the business, but various funders have been involved since the business’s inception.

“From a corporate perspective, growth triggers changes in a business, and those require investment. However, while we were experiencing rapid growth, our profits went backwards. People, systems and marketing are all significant costs, and they were all happening together. At the same time, I had to keep the confidence of my board and investors.

“As an entrepreneur, you sell your vision. Mine was that we would grow between 70% and 100%, and we weren’t hitting the numbers. It’s tough to keep the faith in a high-growth environment, and you really only get three strikes. How do you explain your vision, inner workings and full pipeline to a board that’s removed from your business, is risk-averse and doesn’t understand your sector? There was a six-month lag between where we were and where we said we’d be, but I knew we’d get there. However, confidence was waning because of the mismatch between the business and its investors.

“I realised I needed to find shareholders who understood where we were going. FutureGrowth was already funding our book. They understood our business, and we’d worked well together. They wanted a stake in the business, and they supported a management buy-out that would exit an investor who wasn’t comfortable in the business, and enable management to increase their stake.

“Ultimately, it all comes down to patience. Build the business that you envision, step-by-step. It takes time, but if you do it right, and lay strong foundations, the right people who share your vision will come on board.” 


CASH ADVANCES:

South Africa is a high card-usage market, which is what you need for merchant cash advance products to work. You need to be able to track the monthly income of an SME to determine the size of cash advance they qualify for, and collect the loan repayments through POS (or point of sale) card machines.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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

This is how an entrepreneur who is still under 30, and who launched Body20 from his living room when he was 24, has built a R80-million business that has just gone global.

Nadine Todd

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Vital stats

  • Player: Bertus Albertse
  • Company: Body20 Global
  • Launched: 2013
  • Franchised: 2014
  • Turnover: R80 million
  • Visit: www.body20.co.za

At 29, Bertus Albertse has built a R80-million franchising business that launched in the US a year ago. He’s been an over-achiever since school, and his approach to business has been no different. Over the past 12 months however, there has been a personal shift in Bertus’ life and mindset. Just over a year ago, he realised that his childhood wasn’t something to be embarrassed about or buried. In fact, the adversity he’s lived through is a big driving force behind a need for control and success.

“It was a part of myself I’d never shared. I didn’t discuss it in school, and once I started training people and then building a business, I didn’t talk about it either,” says Bertus. “

You’re focused on giving people the best customer experience possible, and that means putting your best foot forward, all the time. Admitting you aren’t always sure of what you’re doing, that you aren’t as confident as you look, or that you’ve struggled and needed to overcome real hardships — that’s just not part of the package.”

Bertus is driven — he got good marks at school, was captain of any team he played in, and would train on Friday nights when everyone else was out having a party. This same drive has led him to learn as much as possible about business, and the more he read, the more he realised that one of the things top entrepreneurs have in common is the fact that they’ve shared their stories. Who they are and what they’ve been through are big contributing factors to their success.

“We’re made to believe that, to a large degree, our adversity is not part of what we project to the world. What do you tell a client that walks in, or a franchisee, or someone that has to be motivated on your team — do you tell them the worst part of your journey, or do you share something that will motivate them? This was always my approach. But the more I started accepting my story, the more I realised that the power of my story made me who I am today.

“Books like Simon Sinek’s, Start With Why, and A Storyteller’s Secret have had a massive impact on me. We shouldn’t ignore the fundamental things that have brought us to where we are today. Mindset, willpower, discipline, the ability to pick ourselves up when we fail — these are all critical success factors, and they’re all mental. If you want to build a strong business, you need to start with your mind. You need to know who you are, how you react to challenges, and why you are the way you are. Then you can harness your strengths, and hopefully work on your weaknesses — or at least be aware of them.

Related: The Wolf Within Bertus Albertse: Body20’s CEO

bertus-albertse-body20“Every time you solve a problem, it makes you realise there’s a bigger problem that you didn’t know you didn’t know. The things that you don’t know hurt you the most. This has been my biggest learning curve with franchising. You might know what it takes you to be successful, but what’s to say what it takes someone else to be successful? You’re now supporting other people who aren’t like you. The more honest you can be with yourself, and the more you can interrogate why you’ve been successful, and what lessons you can share with others, the higher everyone’s chances of success.”

It was within this context that Bertus realised the dangers of being placed on a pedestal. “When your success starts to grow, people naturally want to know more about you. What I found was that I’d been so busy putting my best foot forward, an assumption had grown that I knew everything; that I’d had everything in life, and that this had all been easy. The opposite was true. I knew that if I was going to inspire franchisees to believe in their own journeys, I had to let them into mine. Nothing comes easy. In fact, adversity can often be your greatest gift, provided you know how to harness it.”

With that understanding, Bertus started delving into his personal psyche, motivations, habits and the driving force behind his actions. It’s been an interesting journey, filled with pain and rewards. He now has a much stronger understanding of his personal motivations and actions though, and he’s sharing these lessons with fellow entrepreneurs.

From humble beginnings

Other than a good education, Bertus’s childhood years are characterised by having as little as you can possibly start with. His childhood is shaped by memories of the all-too familiar feeling of a car running out of petrol, or of his mother waking him and his sister up in the middle of the night, so that she could take them home for a few hours before returning them to their 24-hour créche before starting her next shift as a traffic cop. These were all factors that the future entrepreneur buried when he went to school, directing his energy into his studies and sports instead.

“There were so many things we couldn’t control growing up. My mother did the best she could do, but the reality was that we had very little. I realised that control was important to me, and that I could create my own success if I was disciplined, and so I focused on the things I could influence: My marks and how much I trained. I’d grown up watching a level of perseverance in my mom that influenced the way I viewed work as well.”

In fact, Bertus has a keen understanding of the various influences in his life and how they have shaped him. When he was nine years old, his mother married his step-father, and later, in his teenage years, he reconnected with his father. The men are vastly different in the way they view work and success, and yet Bertus learnt a lot from both of them — not necessarily to emulate either of them, but rather in what he wanted from life.

“Both the men in my life had started out without degrees. They worked and studied at night. They achieved success through sheer hard work — and they’d both been indoctrinated to work for someone else, because that gave you stability.”

For a kid who had known very little stability in his life outside of what he could personally control, working for someone else wasn’t very appealing, and his father agreed. “My father realised that if you truly want to be successful, you need to work for yourself. He really encouraged me to be an entrepreneur. One of the first things he taught me was ‘buy low, sell high, collect early, pay late’. That’s how you make money. It’s obviously not that simple, but it’s a good way for you to start thinking about business. I realised that if you’re good at something, don’t do it for free. That’s rule number one. Rule number two is understanding how you generate income and making sure that your income is higher than your expenses. But I didn’t know about assets and balance sheets and how to generate wealth at that point. I was just starting to think about what a business would entail.”

While his father was pro-entrepreneurship, Bertus’ step-father was the opposite. “My step-father is a careful man. He’s got a good job, but he’s also frugal. He doesn’t take risks, and he has no debt. He’ll buy a smaller car, but he’ll pay cash. That’s how he operates. He instilled extreme positivity in us, and always put family first, but watching him made me realise that I’m not risk averse. If anything, I have a high impulse and risk appetite. The combination of these traits can lead you to taking good risks, or bad risks — it’s all about where your focus lies. I’ve always been aware of that and tried to channel my energy into the good risks — areas of my life that I could grow, build on, and hopefully also create an avenue of wealth for others.”

For Bertus, the secret is discovering what motivates you. “I believe in living life to the fullest. I live freely. One of the first decisions I made when I started earning my own money was buying a car I couldn’t afford. This was 150% against the advice of both of my dads — but it motivated me and made me run. I ran for my life. I could have it easier, with less stress — I create stress for myself — but it keeps me focused and driven. There are so many influences around us all the time. You need to find what matters to you. Mostly it’s trial and error. That’s okay. Just keep looking for it — you will find the answers you’re looking for.”

A strong sense of self

Key to Bertus’ journey has been understanding, and to a degree mastering, his own triggers. This isn’t always possible — but the more you understand why you do what you do, the more you can learn to harness that energy.

“I grew up in an OCD household. It was always fine, because I’m also OCD — I didn’t realise how much until I got to hostel and discovered it wasn’t normal to never want to sit on my perfectly made bed, or to shower for 45 minutes or brush my teeth for two hours. Sharing a room with other boys forced me to get rid of some of those habits, and I needed to channel that desire for control elsewhere, so I shifted it to sports and academics.

“This level of discipline is still massive for me, even today. I measure my day on zero to 100 every day. And each new day I’m back on zero — it doesn’t matter how productive I was the day before, or how big a deal we closed. I feel a sense of urgency to make extraordinary things happen today, each and every day.”

Related: Join The Fitness Revolution

This sounds positive, but it has a dark side as well. “If I don’t wake up at 5am to start dealing with emails I feel like I’ve started on the wrong foot, which quickly makes me spiral and feel like a failure,” Bertus explains. “I’ve had to find ways to balance my OCD nature. I can be very disciplined, but if I start spiralling, I’m the most unproductive person on the planet. I need to keep myself in check.”

To find that balance, Bertus has learnt to choose his battles. “I can be very obsessive about one thing, and care nothing about something else. I can’t be obsessed about everything, so I have to choose where my obsessions will lie. I try and make these as positive as possible, focusing on training and supporting my clients and now franchisees.”

Bertus might be OCD, but self-discipline is a muscle just like any other — the more you work it, the stronger it becomes. “For me, it’s all about directing my energies to the right place. For other entrepreneurs, it’s choosing where they can make the greatest impact, and then being consistent in their efforts. Routine is everything.”

Bertus does have a caveat though: “Discipline alone, with no clear direction, can actually be a bad thing. You can easily become too focused on things that don’t drive success.”

24 And taking risks (to reap the rewards)

bertus-albertseBertus has never been employed. He started out self-employed while still at university. He chose to discontinue his studies and dive into entrepreneurship instead, opening a supplements store in Cape Town. “As an underweight kid I’d taken supplements to get my weight up. That, combined with training, was where my expertise lay.”

But Bertus knew it wasn’t enough. “I was just making ends meet. What I had wasn’t a wealth building mechanism at all. I wanted to make a bigger impact in my own life, and in the lives of my clients. I believed a more holistic approach focused on training was a way to do that.”

Bertus wasn’t alone. He was 24 years old, and had a young wife and three children, one of whom was from his wife’s previous relationship. Given the risks involved in trying something new, many people would have stuck with the business opportunity that wasn’t a significant success, but that was paying the bills.

Bertus had different plans. “You need to run for your life,” he says. “That stress, the risks involved — they’re what drive me. I always tell our young trainers that if they really want to be successful, they need to move out of their parents’ homes. The most basic necessities should be at risk. There’s nothing like fear to motivate you.”

With this in mind, Bertus launched Body20 from his living room in 2013. He had

R85 000 in an Allan Gray investment fund that he’d started while he was still studying. He decided the time had come to draw that cash, but it still wasn’t enough. A friend had introduced him to Electro Muscle Stimulation (EMS) technology, and the whole set-up was R220 000. Luckily, this friend believed in the concept, and agreed to invest in Bertus’ business idea. “I paid the loan back within a year, but he was really investing in the purpose, and he and his wife received free training. It was exactly what I needed to get me started.”

Related: From Body20 Member To Franchisee Of The Year 2017

From the word go, Bertus understood a key element that would ultimately lead to Body20’s success: When it comes to EMS technology, the tech itself isn’t a differentiator. “There’s no exclusivity,” Bertus explains. “There are multiple tech providers available, and no one holds patents. There were also already competitors in the market, so I knew this wasn’t my competitive advantage.”

What Bertus also recognised was that the players in the market were focusing on their offerings as niche. He believed it could be a more mainstream addition to training programmes, working in conjunction with conventional gym sessions, and to help pro and amateur athletes prepare for big events. He went in with a different differentiator in mind: Service.

“At the time, I just wanted to move out of my living room and into a studio. I had no plans to franchise. I believed that my passion and willingness to serve would set me apart.”

And it did. “My clients saw how much I loved what I did, and they started asking me how I’d started out. They were intrigued by the lifestyle I lived — yes, success was growing, but I was also living my passion. That drew them.”

Slowly, Bertus’ clients started enquiring about franchising opportunities, and the idea started to take shape that not only was franchising an opportunity to scale the business, but it would help Bertus to share his passion with others, empower them and provide them a means to also build wealth.

The shift to franchising

Franchising has been an incredible experience for Bertus and Body20 has gone from strength to strength, growing from one studio in 2013, to franchising in 2014 and encompassing 38 studios in early 2018, including three studios in the US. But there have also been a multitude of lessons for the young entrepreneur to learn.

“Franchising as a growth strategy has never been about the capital — if that was the case, we could be a corporate that raises funds through investors. But this is a service business, and that means you need someone in the studio who is passionate about the business and their clients, and franchising enables that. We want to create opportunities for other people. This means supporting franchisees, and in some cases, even investing in the right operators who don’t have the capital to set up their own stores.”

The shift from studio owner and personal trainer to franchisor has not been without its own significant growth hurdles.

“The most interesting lesson I’ve learnt is that franchising is a completely different business model to operating your own business,” says Bertus. “That’s the problem; there’s no one bridging the gap for you. You can go to a franchise attorney to draw up your franchise agreement, but that doesn’t tell you how to operate your franchise. How do you suddenly put up an operational infrastructure to support other people to be as successful as you, when you don’t yet know what they need? It’s difficult to know what someone else needs in their business, even if it’s the same business that you were in.

“Everyone comes at business from a different perspective. We’re all indoctrinated in different ways. I had momentum in this industry. How do you carry that through to someone else who is a mechanic, an attorney, a teacher, or a CA? What do they each need? How do different studios operate in different areas? There are so many variables to consider, and we didn’t always get them right.”

Related: Healthy Body20 Franchise Leads To Happy Hearts

Bertus understood he knew nothing about franchising — but he had no idea of the lessons that lay in store for him until he took the plunge. “This is the biggest difference between corporate and entrepreneurship,” he says. “In a corporate environment, you get clarity first, before you take action. In entrepreneurship, you only get clarity through action. You only know where you’re going once you start moving — clarity comes from doing.

“When you start taking action, you’re already on the path to finding answers — you’re hitting the problems you’re going to encounter, which gives you the opportunity to find the solutions you need to keep moving forward. You won’t always get it right — the path to successful business is littered with failures, but you can’t overcome obstacles unless you’re encountering them.”

One of Bertus’ biggest learnings has been that effort alone isn’t enough to carry you through. “I used to believe that effort equals success in battle,” he says. “This was my guiding mantra — that if you worked hard enough, anything was possible. Franchising took me from being a sole operator to a business owner, and I now know that effort equals a lot of work and a lot of lessons learnt, but that you’ll still get nowhere if you don’t have a solid strategy in place.

“Success equals strategy plus effort. Busyness and success are not the same thing, nor are busyness and effectiveness. Effectiveness happens when you’re busy with the right strategy. This has been huge for me — finding the balance between strategy and effort.

“In 2014 I used to receive no less than 100 phone calls a day. I had to deal with clients, solve franchisee problems and be available for all the people looking for me hourly. I used to think ‘how do you upscale from this?’ I couldn’t take any more calls and I didn’t have a second of the day to think about anything other than getting back to people. I knew I needed to have those problems — if you don’t, you’re not on the right wicket, but how do you upscale from taking a hundred calls to five calls?

“I once had someone tell me that the day would come when I wouldn’t receive a single call. I just thought they didn’t understand my business. After all, my primary role is sales and marketing — how could I not get that many calls? I still believed that effort equalled income. The moment I started focusing on strategy though, this started shifting. With a focus on strategy came systems, processes, well-documented operations. These all empowered people, and the ‘busyness’ started to fall away. I started to find the time to work on key areas that would drive the business forward. My phone didn’t ring as much, because there were systems and processes in place that meant the entire operation was starting to flow. I’ve learnt that the more successful you are, the less busy you’ll be. This doesn’t mean you work less, just that you do less busy work. It’s replaced with focused, strategic work. When you’re busy, you’re just dealing with what’s in front of you. A strategic focus is looking at three, five and ten years down the line.”

Going Global

Body20’s next big growth move has been into the United States. “Like any growth strategy, we’ve had highs and lows, and we’ve needed to learn a lot of lessons,” says Bertus.

“The interest and uptake has been incredible, not just within the US, but from local entrepreneurs looking to expand into international markets as well.”

At the time of going to print, Body20 had already sold three franchises in Florida, with another four in the works. These have brought strong capital contributions into the business as a whole, but not everything has been smooth sailing.

“On the one hand, the first store broke even within four months, when our projected time frame was eight months,” says Bertus. “That’s incredible. But we’ve also learnt that no two markets are the same.

“South Africa is geared for business. We love it here. We sell a lease and the studio can be open within three weeks. There’s no permitting, no inspections, none of that exists here. The US on the other hand is an extremely regulated environment. For example, we signed a lease in February 2017, expecting to be open in June and excited about a great leasing deal that gave us four months’ beneficial occupation to set up the store. Except it took us nine months to get up and running.

“In South Africa, this would have taken us under a month. It was an expensive lesson. Not only were we burning through cash, but the franchisee needs to stay motivated while you wait. The project flow and milestones are inherently different.”

From a franchisor perspective, operating across two continents also has its challenges. “We’re essentially selling our time. This is a services business, and our clients are our franchisees. What we didn’t take properly into account when we started was the incredible travel times involved in doing business in the US. It took us 20 hours just to get to Miami, and a further six to California. You have to factor in all that time when you’re planning your schedules. It’s been a huge adjustment.”

That said, it’s also clearly been a rewarding one, and Body20 is still only just getting started.


TOP TIPS

  • Clarity comes from action. You need to start to figure out what you need to do next.
  • Success is the result of effort plus strategy. Effort alone won’t get it done.
  • Systems and processes are essential if you want to move from ‘busy’ work to strategic work.

 

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Company Posts

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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