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Maboneng Precinct: Jonathan Liebmann

An entrepreneurial spirit revitalises downtown Joburg.

Juliet Pitman

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Jonathan-Liebmann

Young urban entrepreneur Jonathan Liebmann is dispelling myths left, right and centre: Property entrepreneurs need to be older, more established. Wrong. Johannesburg as a hip urban centre is a thing of the past. Wrong. Businesses can’t thrive in the centre of town. Wrong. Welcome to Maboneng Precinct, which is breathing life back into Joburg’s CBD.

In downtown Johannesburg on the far east side of the city, a group of twenty-something-year-olds are running a neighbourhood that they’ve transformed from a no-go area into a hip, vibrant urban community. Take a walk down the street here and you’ll pass trendy restaurants and coffee bars.

Look up and you’ll see modern urban apartments and rooftop hangouts where young professionals, creatives and entrepreneurs take in the sunset over the city skyline. There are art galleries, collaborative work spaces, cinemas, and there is an eclectic mix of people on the street – international tourists and homecoming-revolution expats, business people, students and artists.

The pavements are clean and tree-lined and the area is well-maintained. It’s an equally far cry from the seedier areas of town and the high-walled, electric-fenced suburbs of the North.

This is the Maboneng Precinct and ten years ago its very existence would have been unimaginable. The east side of Johannesburg was seedy, crime-ridden and dilapidated. Much of central Johannesburg still is:

The Stock Exchange and big business had long-since moved out, making Sandton the new CBD. Respectable people didn’t want to drive through there; the suggestion that they live there would have been at once horrifying and laughable.

And then a youngster came home from a gap year overseas, and felt an aching longing for the urban lifestyle he’d experienced and come to love in cities around the world. Why, he asked, wasn’t the same thing possible in Joburg.

His name is Jonathan Liebmann and what’s remarkable about his story is that he has almost single-handedly breathed life into Maboneng. There are of course countless examples of urban renewal in cities around the world, but most of them required the intervention of a forward-thinking mayor or no-nonsense police chief to clean up the crime, and the strategic input and collective effort of a dedicated municipality – not to mention some kind of incentive scheme to entice business and people back to the city.

Maboneng has had none of that and yet it’s achieved what most people would have thought impossible. Not only has it attracted individuals, businesses, tourists and retailers, but it’s become sought-after, trendy, the place to see and be seen.

Visit Market on Main – the market in the Arts on Main block – on a Sunday morning and you’ll struggle to find parking. The hotels and apartments are all 100% occupied or sold. This is not a lone street that’s being doggedly occupied by some brave coffee vendors and a couple of urbanites wistfully trying to make-believe they’re in London/New York/Paris. This is a full-fledged neighbourhood.

People live, eat, work, shop, socialise and run businesses here. It has a beating heart and an energy all of its own.

And it exists because Liebmann and his team at Propertuity managed to sell a master vision of what the district could be – if people overcame their negative perceptions of the city, if the crime issue could be addressed, if a critical mass could be achieved to create a sense of a community. That’s a lot of ‘ifs’.

Collective communities

But Liebmann doesn’t like the suggestion that he is Maboneng. “The neighbourhood is the people who live, work and love it here: Its energy and personality comes from them. A place can never be about a single individual,” he says. He’s right, of course.

Maboneng’s success lies in the fact that it has taken on a life of its own, one that exists outside of Liebmann’s head.

But it was there that the precinct had its birth. Desperate to live some kind of urban lifestyle when he returned from overseas, Liebmann started looking for a place in the city he could convert into a work and live-in space. He had some experience in property, having purchased, renovated and sold a few flats, the first of which was in Waverely when he was just 18 years old.

“I found and converted a small factory space near 44 Stanley in Milpark and in doing so realised two things: Firstly, that these  old factory spaces had development potential to become new live-and-work spaces, and secondly that I didn’t want to just do my own apartment. It was then that I knew I wanted to become a property developer,” he says.

It was an important moment in his journey. Liebmann had run a number of entrepreneurial businesses, including a cleaning business and a mobile coffee enterprise, with varying degrees of success.

“I’ve been running businesses since I was 15 but it wasn’t until I realised that I was passionate about property development that I really came into my own. Up until that point I’d been a bit scattered, looking and pursuing a range of opportunities. They were more or less successful but I think of that period as my school fees phase. I was learning important stuff about business and about myself. It all came together when I realised what I really wanted to do with my life. The passion I felt helped me hone my focus,” he says.

Start with a dream

Backed by his silent partner and financier, Liebmann turned his attention to finding a place where he could start to implement his vision. He purchased the buildings that would become the now-famous Arts on Main – a unique blend of studio, commercial and retail space that acts as a hub for creatives and artists.

While he was creating Arts on Main he started thinking more broadly. “That’s when the idea for Maboneng was born really.

I started thinking about the whole neighbourhood, the transformation of the whole east side,” says Liebmann.

Having the vision is one thing. Single-handedly creating a neighbourhood is another. So how did he do it? “I think there are a number of things that came together to bring about the success of Maboneng. In the early days I became completely and utterly immersed in the project. This was absolutely critical. I lived and worked in the space. I was construction, marketing, sales and financial manager.

I did everything. It became who I was and I think that level of passion must deliver results eventually,” he says.

He’d also identified the right initial target market: Arts on Main focused on creative people. “While travelling and in my time living near 44 Stanley I’d learnt that artists and creatives are often the best catalysts for change. They are the perfect first adopters. It’s not in any way unique to Arts on Main. It’s been proven in many cities throughout the world. It was important to get them in as they would become the foundation of the community,” he explains.

Turns out he was right. The influx of creative people helped to generate interest and curiosity in the media and general public.

“Maboneng was only going to be successful if we could reach a critical mass. You can’t have a vibrant neighbourhood of ten people – that’s a vibrant apartment block. We also needed to buy up stock in the neighbourhood so that the area would be sufficiently owned by us to justify the cost of upgrading all the infrastructure, the lights, the trees, the pavements, the security and the like,” he adds. The fact that Propertuity, not the City, has done all these things is remarkable in itself.

Another key success factor was brilliant design. “I think the most important thing about our company is that we are very good at design. That’s our differentiator and it’s my particular talent. If you asked what differentiated us from other property developers that would be it. We know how to design spaces. I have an excellent architect and together we’re a good team,” Liebmann explains.

The company also knows what it’s about when it comes to marketing. The design, marketing and sales teams work together very closely to sell the vision. “And because we keep executing on the vision, it strengthens people’s belief in it, and that in turn drives the growth of the whole venture,” he says.

Maboneng’s evolution included the development of Main Street Life, the first residential building in the portfolio with 194 apartments, a 12-room hotel and a cinema and retail on the ground floor. It was followed by the Main Change (45 office spaces), Revolution House (32 apartments and film and recording studios), and Fox Street Studios (a live-and-work concept where each floor is sold or rented to a different person).

It helps that the area is also extremely well-located in the middle of Johannesburg, which means it makes a lot of sense for a lot of different people and businesses to make it their base.

Integrated spaces

In every property the ground floor is always retail and restaurants, driving the neighbourhood’s unique engagement with the street. “Our portfolio is 60% residential, 20% industrial, 10% commercial, 10% retail. The idea is to have a complete and sustainable community that offers everything.

People want an integrated space where they can go downstairs, watch a movie, eat in a restaurant, walk everywhere and ride on a bicycle,” says Liebmann.

It’s no small irony that this is the stated wish-list of almost every person who buys into one of Johannesburg’s gated communities. Of course there is the unhappy issue of crime to discuss, and Liebmann is not a denialist when it comes to this most notorious aspect of Jozi.

“There’s no question – the crime in South Africa is out of control. However, the perceived crime in the city is not as bad as people think. Statistically, you have a higher chance of falling victim to crime in Sandton than you do in the city. So it’s been partly a matter of changing people’s perceptions,” he says.

That said, however, he recognises that the divide between the rich and the poor will always lead to crime. “We have implemented a number of unobtrusive security measures such as private security guards, and we’ve worked hard to foster community interaction. It’s important in any neighbourhood for people to know each other. But this is also a micro-economy – we offer both affordable and high-end products, and in between our properties are people who are poor. Hopefully in time the upliftment of the area will bring greater opportunities to these people and, with our ethos of fostering and encouraging entrepreneurship, they will stand to benefit. This is a long-term solution to the issue of crime,” he adds.

With such a successful blueprint for urban renewal, Liebmann is unsurprisingly not short of offers to work the same magic in other South African cities, as well as those abroad. He’s a typical young entrepreneur in every other aspect except in his response to such interest:

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I don’t want to become one of those developers who talks about crazy expansion plans. For the next couple of years, I’m not doing anything that’s not Maboneng. Absolute focus is what has made this project successful to date and it’s a formula I intend sticking to. Sure the offers are tempting but I need to become a specialist in this area. There will be time in the future to explore opportunities to replicate the model elsewhere, but that time is not now,” he says.

From dream to reality

His business partner and financier has reinforced this position. “He’s been an inspiration to me,” says Liebmann. There are those who are quick to put all of Liebmann’s success down to the fact that he occupies the rare and enviable position of having someone bankroll his dream.

To such detractors his response is simple: “It’s true that getting finance means overcoming one of the big obstacles in business. But it’s worth remembering a number of things: Firstly, you don’t get finance because you were lucky. Winning the lottery is lucky.

Given how difficult everyone knows it is to get finance, you have to work incredibly hard to prove you’re worthy of finance. The individual who financed me has a philosophy of backing the entrepreneur, not the business. He backed me in previous ventures. What he’s looking for (and he’s not unique in this respect) is an entrepreneur with vision and the ability to implement and make things happen. I had to prove I had those attributes.

“The second thing is that getting finance does not represent the end-goal. You never have enough finance, even when you get private equity funding. At the moment I am looking for bank finance, so I’m in the same boat as other entrepreneurs.

“Lastly,” he concludes, “I believe that if you show a properly successful business model backed by your proven ability to implement, there is plenty of finance on the table.”

Liebmann might be called visionary by many, but those who give him this epithet miss his true gift. It lies in his ability to implement. Maboneng exists not just because someone believed it could, but rather because that person had the ongoing, relentless, indefatigable energy, determination, courage, fearlessness and business sense to make the vision a reality.

Liebmann’s advice to aspirant entrepreneurs

  • Persevere. Have patience and keep on trying until your vision is well received by the market.
  • Choose something you are genuinely passionate about. I’ve worked in other industries where I wasn’t as successful because I wasn’t as passionate about what I was doing.
  • Become the project. Immerse yourself in it. Live, breathe and dream it. And be aware that this means you’ll have to make many personal sacrifices.
  • Choose an industry that has the right kind of scale to suit your ambitions. I could never have been happy in a small or medium business. There are different types of entrepreneurs and it’s important that you know what type you are and what scale of venture you will be comfortable with.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

Entrepreneur Profiles

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

Twenty years after first wanting to own a business, Appanna Ganapathy launched ART Technologies, a business he aims to grow throughout Africa, starting with Kenya thanks to a recently signed deal with Seacom. As a high-growth entrepreneur with big plans, Appanna spent two decades laying the foundations of success — and now he’s starting to collect.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

Like many entrepreneurs before him, Appanna Ganapathy hadn’t even finished school and he was already thinking about his first business venture. A friend could secure the licensing rights to open Nando’s franchises in Mozambique, and they were very keen on the idea — which Appanna’s mom quickly dampened. “You can do whatever you want,” she said. “As long as you finish your degree first.”

Unlike many other entrepreneurs however, Appanna not only finished his degree, but realised that he had a lot of skills he needed to develop and lessons to learn before he’d be ready to launch the business he wanted.

“We launched ART Technologies just over two years ago. If I had started any earlier, I don’t think I would have been as successful as I am now,” he says.

Here are six key lessons that Appanna has learnt along his journey, which have allowed him to launch a high-growth start-up that is positioned to make an impact across Africa.

1. You don’t just need a product – you need clients as well

Business success is the ability to design and execute a great product and solution, and then be able to sell it. Without sales, there is no business. This is a lesson Appanna learnt while he was still at university.

“I was drawn to computers. I loved figuring out how they worked, playing computer games — everything about them,” he says. “My parents lived in Mozambique, and during my holidays I’d visit them and a friend who had a computer business. I helped him assemble them and thought I could do this too while I was studying. I convinced my dad to buy me a car so that I could set up my business — and never sold or assembled a single computer. I delivered pizzas instead.”

So, what went wrong? The simple truth was that at the time Appanna had the technical skills to build computers, but he lacked the ability to sell his product.

“If someone had said, ‘I’ve got an order for 30 computers’, I would have filled it — but to go out and get that order — I didn’t really even know where to start.”

2. Price and solution go hand-in-hand

As much as you need the ability to sell your solution, you also need a market that wants and needs what you’re offering, at a price point that works for everyone.

In 2007, Appanna was approached by a former supplier whom he had worked with while he was based in Mozambique. The supplier had an IT firm and he wanted to expand into South Africa. He was looking for a local partner who would purchase equity shares in the company and run the South African business.

“I loved the opportunity. This was something I could build from the ground up, in an area I understood well,” says Appanna. The firm set up and managed IT infrastructure for SMEs. The value proposition was simple: “We could offer SMEs a service that they could use for a relatively low cost, but that gave them everything an enterprise would have.”

The problem was that although Appanna and his team knew they had a great product, they were competing on price with inferior products. “If we couldn’t adequately unpack the value of our solution, an SME would choose the cheaper option. It was a big lesson for me to learn. It doesn’t matter how good the solution is that you’re offering — if it’s not at a price point that your target market accepts, they won’t choose you.”

It was this understanding that helped Appanna and his team develop the Desktop-as-a-Service solution that ART Technologies now offers the SME market.

“While I was developing the idea and the solution, I needed to take three key things into account: What do SMEs need from an IT infrastructure perspective, what is the most cost-effective way to offer them that solution, and what will the market pay (and is it enough to cover our costs and give us a small profit margin)?”

Appanna’s experience in the market had already taught him how cost-conscious SMEs are, and so he started developing a solution that could deliver value at a price point SMEs could accept. His solution? A unique Desktop-as-a-Service product that combines all the processing power and Microsoft products a business needs, without any capex outlay for servers or software.

“It’s a Cloud workstation that turns any device into a full Windows computer,” Appanna explains. “We hold the licences, and our clients just access our service. A set-up that would cost between R180 000 and R200 000 for 15 users is now available for R479 per user per month.”

It took Appanna and his partners time to build the solution, but they started with the price point in mind, which meant a solution could be designed that met their needs as well as the needs of the market.

“Too many businesses set everything up, invest in the solution, and then discover they can’t sell their product at the price point they need. My time in the market selling IT and infrastructure solutions gave me invaluable insights into what we needed to deliver on, and what we could realistically charge for our service.”

3. Get as much on-the-ground experience as you can

appanna-ganapathy-art-technologies

The time that Appanna spent building the IT firm he was a part-owner of was invaluable. “I started as a technical director before being promoted to GM and running the company for three and a half years. Those years were very, very important for me. They’re where I learnt everything about running a business.

“When I started, I was responsible for sales, but I didn’t have to actually go out and find clients, I just had to meet them, compile quotes and handle the installations. Everything I did was under the guidance of the company’s CEO, who was based in Mozambique. Being the guy who did everything was the best learning ground for me. It set me up for everything I’m doing today. In particular, I learnt how to approach and deal with people. Without people and clients your business is nothing.”

Appanna didn’t just learn by default — he actively worked to expand his understanding of all facets of the business. “At the time I wasn’t planning on leaving to launch my own business,” he says. “I was a shareholder and I wanted to grow that business. That meant understanding as much as possible about how everything worked. If there was something I wasn’t sure of — a process, the numbers, how something worked — I asked. I took personal responsibility for any errors and got involved in every aspect of the business, including areas that weren’t officially ‘my job’. I wanted to really grow and support the business.”

4. Stay focused

Interestingly, while the experience Appanna has accumulated throughout his career has allowed him to build a high-growth start-up, it also taught him the importance of not wearing too many hats as an entrepreneur.

“I’m glad I’ve had the experience of wearing multiple hats, because I’ve learnt so much, but I’ve also learnt that it’s important to pick a lane, not only in what you do as a business, but in the role you play within your business. I also race superbikes in the South African Kawasaki ZX-10 Cup; through this I have learnt how important it is to focus in the moment without distractions and this is a discipline I have brought into the business.”

“If you’re the leader of an organisation, you need to let things go. You can’t be everything to everyone. When I launched ART Technologies, I knew the key to growth would be the fact that although I’m technical, I wasn’t going to run the technical side of the business. I have strong technical partners whom I trust, and there is an escalation framework in place, from tech, to tech manager, to the CTO to me — I speak tech and I’m available, but my focus is on strategy and growth. I believe this is the biggest mistake that many start-ups make. If you’re wearing all the hats, who is looking at where you’re going? When you’re down in the trenches, doing everything, it’s impossible to see the bigger picture.”

Appanna chose his partners carefully with this goal in mind.

“All the partners play a very important role in the business. Ruaan Jacobs’s strength is in the technical expertise he brings to the business and Terry Naidoo’s strength is in the support services he provides to our clients. Terry is our technical manager. He has the most incredible relationship with our customers — everyone wants to work with Terry. But there’s a problem with that too — if we want to scale this business, Terry can’t be the technical point for all of our customers.

“As partners we have decided what our blueprint for service levels will be; this is based on the way Terry deals with clients and he is developing a technical manual that doesn’t only cover the tech side of the business, but how ART Technologies engages with its customers.

“Terry’s putting his essence down on paper — a step-by-step guide to how we do business. That’s how you build a service culture.”

5. Reputation, network and experience count

Many start-ups lack three crucial things when they launch: Their founders haven’t built up a large network, they don’t have a reputation in the market, and they lack experience. All three of these things can (and should) be addressed during start-up phase, but launching with all three can give the business a valuable boost.

Appanna learnt the value of networks at a young age. Born in India, he moved to Zambia with his family as a young child. From there he moved to Tanzania and then Mozambique, attending boarding school in Swaziland and KwaZulu Natal. At each new school, he was greeted by kids who had formed strong bonds.

“I made good friends in those years, but at each new school I recognised how important strong bonds are, particularly as the outsider.”

Appanna’s early career took him back to Mozambique, working with the UN and EY on various projects. When he moved to South Africa, as a non-citizen he connected with his old boss from the UN who offered him a position as information officer for the Regional Director’s team.

His next move would be to the tech company that he would run for just over three years — also the product of previous connections. “Who you know is important, but how you conduct yourself is even more so,” says Appanna. “If your reputation in the market place is good, people will want to do business with you.”

Appanna experienced this first hand when he left to launch his own business. “Some key clients wanted to move with me,” he says. “If I had brought them in it would have settled our business, but I said no to some key customers who hadn’t been mine. I wasn’t ethically comfortable taking them with me.”

One of those multinational clients approached Appanna again six months later, stating they were taking their business out to tender and that they were hoping ART Technologies would pitch for it. “Apart from the Desktop-as-a-Service product, we also provide managed IT services for clients, particularly larger enterprise clients. Due to the client going out on tender and requesting for us to participate, we pitched for the business and won. The relationship with this client has grown, allowing us to offer them some of our services that they are currently testing to implement throughout Africa.”

“I believe how we conduct ourselves is essential. You need your own personal code of ethics, and you need to live by it. Business — particularly in our environment — is built on trust. Our customers need to trust us with their data. Your reputation is key when it comes to trust.”

Interestingly, although Appanna and his team developed their product based on a specific price point, once that trust is built and a certain standard of service is delivered, customers will pay more.

6. Start smart and start lean

Appanna was able to launch ART Technologies with the savings he and his wife, Kate, had put aside. He reached a point where he had ideas he wanted to take to market, but he couldn’t get his current business partners to agree to them — and so setting up his own business became inevitable.

Although he was fortunate to have savings to bootstrap the business, it was essential for the business to be lean and start generating income as quickly as possible. This was achieved in a number of ways.

First, Appanna and Kate agreed on a start-up figure. They would not go beyond it. “We had a budget, and the business needed to make money before that budget was reached.” The runway Appanna gave himself was only six months — highly ambitious given the 18-month runway most start-ups need. “Other than my salary we broke even in month three, which actually extended our runway a bit,” says Appanna.

Appanna had a server that he used to start with, and purchased a second, bigger server four months later. He also launched another business one month before launching ART Technologies — ART Call Management, a virtual PA services business that needed a PABX system, some call centre technology and two employees.

“I’d been playing around with the idea for a while,” says Appanna. “We were focused on SMEs, and I started noticing other challenges they faced. A lot of entrepreneurs just have their cellphones, but they aren’t answering them as businesses — it’s not professional.

“In essence we sell minutes — for R295 you get 25 incoming calls and 50 minutes of transferred calls. We answer the phone as your receptionist, transfer calls and take messages. How you use your minutes is up to you. For example, if you supply the leads, we can cold call for you. ART Technologies uses the call management business as a reception service and to do all of our cold calling. It’s kept the business lean, but it’s also brought in an income that helped us with our runway.” In 2017 ART Call Management was selected as one of the top ten in the SAGE-702 Small Business Awards.

The only problem with almost simultaneously launching two businesses is focus. “It’s incredibly important to know where you’re putting your focus,” says Appanna. “The call management business has been essential to our overall strategy, but my focus has been pulled in different directions at times, and I need to be conscious of that. The most important thing for any start-up is to know exactly where your focus lies.”


Into Africa

Thanks to a distribution deal signed locally with First Distribution, ART Technologies was introduced to Seacom, which has available infrastructure in a data centre in Kenya.

“It’s a pay-per-client model that allows us to pay Seacom a percentage of every client we sign up,” says Appanna. “First Distribution will be our sales arm. They have a webstore and resellers, and we will be opening ART Kenya with a shareholder who knows the local market.”

From there, Appanna is looking to West Africa and Mauritius. “We have the product and the relationship with Seacom gives us the foothold we need to grow into East Africa.”

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Kid Entrepreneurs Who Have Already Built Successful Businesses (And How You Can Too)

All over the world kids are abandoning the traditional notion of choosing a career to pursue until retirement. Gen Z aren’t looking to become employable job-seekers, but creative innovators as emerging business owners.

Diana Albertyn

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Do kids have an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to starting and building a company? It depends on how you look it. Juggling school, friends, family and other aspects of childhood and adolescence comes with its own requirements, but perhaps this is the best age to start.

“Being an entrepreneur means having to learn, focus, and connect to people and these are all traits that are valuable throughout life. Learning this when you are young is especially crucial, and will set you up for success and to be more open to other opportunities,” says billionaire investor, Shark Tank personality and author Mark Cuban.

Here are some of the most successful kidpreneurs who have cashed in on their hobbies, interests and needs to start and grow million dollar businesses borne from passion and innovation:

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Entrepreneur Profiles

30 Top Influential SA Business Leaders

Learn from these South African titans of industry to guide you on your entrepreneurial journey to success.

Nicole Crampton

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Entrepreneurship is said to be the answer to South Africa’s unemployment challenges and slow growth, but to foster entrepreneurship we ideally need business leaders to impact grass root efforts. Business leadership is vital to improved confidence and growth. These three titans of global industry say:

  • “As we look ahead, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates
  • “Leaders are also expected to work harder than those who report to them and always make sure that their needs are taken care of before yours.” – Elon Musk
  • “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” – Steve Jobs

Here are 30 top influential SA business leaders forging the path towards a prosperous South African future.

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