I grew up in Sekhukhune in Limpopo, the third child in a family of seven – four boys and three girls. Our mother took care of us and we were supported by our father who was a migrant labourer in Johannesburg. We were poor and there were many hardships.
Our school was ten kilometres from where we lived, and every day we had to hike up and down rocky paths and through a river to get there. It was very difficult in winter when we had to wake up in the dark, at 4.00am, to make sure we got to class on time.
I know that my thinking as a child was different. From the age of about eight, back in 1973, I remember being concerned about taking care of the family. I was nine when I started getting temp jobs, either gardening or doing piece work at the local factories.
I would earn R20 and take it to my mother. Children usually think of buying things for themselves, but I bought curtains for the house at a jumble sale. I liked shopping at jumble sales because I saw that I could buy so much more there than at a regular shop. I bought clothes for myself which was a big thing for us because we would otherwise only get clothes once a year at Christmas, when my father came home with clothing and a school uniform for each of us.
Poverty was a strong driving force for me and it pushed me to work harder. I became committed to ensuring that somehow I would build a better future for my family and continue to be a giving person. In high school, I continued to do part-time work to help the family with the basic necessities.
I would give some money to the local bus driver when he was on his way into town. He bought boxes of apples for me which I sold at school for a small profit. These things started to help me develop a business mind over time.
A little later I started selling Putco bus tickets. I used to buy about five weekly tickets, as well as one for myself, and go to the bus stop before sunrise to catch the commuters who were going from Kwa-Ndebele to Marabastad.
The weekly tickets were convenient and good value for the bus passengers, as they were cheaper than the daily fare. I would find the commuters who needed only a single ticket, and would allow them to use one of the weekly tickets at the reduced price, but I would travel with them so that I could take my tickets back once they reached their destination. I would then do the same thing with commuters travelling from Marabastad to KwaNdebele.
I managed to earn about R800 a month this way.
Becoming a teacher
When I finished high school, my parents chose teaching as a career for me. It was a highly respectable profession at the time, and education was seen as a good field to go into. My parents had saved the money to pay for my tuition, but there was little left for anything else.
We had second-rate schooling, no facilities, and huge discrepancies between rural and urban education. In addition, the high fees made it almost impossible for people from my background to study. I became an activist and a student leader at college and I was committed to fighting the education system that was being imposed on us by the apartheid government.
I was fighting for equality and aiming to change the rules so that they could be more favourable to the needy. But I managed to keep focused on my studies too, and graduated with a secondary school teaching qualification.
I got my first teaching job in Tembisa in 1989, but I continued to be an activist and I helped to organise the operation of banned organisations in the schools. I paid dearly for that. At the beginning of the next school year, I discovered that the Department of Education had fired me from my position – I still remember it was post number 14.
They employed somebody else and no-one had bothered to tell me. I then discovered I had been banned in Gauteng, and in my home province of Limpopo. I remained unemployed for four months and I went into arrears on the payment for the first thing I had bought on my teacher’s salary – a bed from Price and Pride. Being unemployed led to numerous financial difficulties.
I lived on half a loaf of bread a day and a 5-litre bottle of Oros which would last me two weeks.
Luckily, there was a shortage of teachers in Mpumalanga at the time and I managed to get a job in KwaNdebele. But the salary was low; I was making R16 000 a year, and I needed to earn more money just to survive. I started selling insurance part-time almost immediately. I was selling to teachers who knew and trusted me and I did very well. Within a few months I became the top part-time rep in my region and I was earning 12 times my teaching salary every month.
The move to insurance
In 1992 I decided that enough was enough and I went into insurance full-time. I worked for Sanlam and soon became one of their top reps in Mpumalanga. A year later I moved back to Polokwane because I wanted to be closer to my family, but I continued to work for Sanlam until 1995.
In my time there I learnt that when you sell, you’re selling yourself first, and then the product. People are buying you, which is why it is so important to build good relationships and have strong networks.
In 1995, I took the leap and decided to open my own brokerage. By then, the ANC Government had been in place for a year. New opportunities became available to black people for the first time. It was a good time to take advantage of this business opportunity as Government was employing public servants across various departments and new public service organisations that had been established. This gave me access to a whole new market.
I also wanted to start my own business because when you are employed by a company, you can only sell their products – I wanted the freedom to sell other insurance products and I also wanted to be independent. I had done really well and I didn’t see the need to report to anyone else anymore.
My own business strategy was to target pensioners and the uninsured low end of the market who were not being serviced by the big companies. I financed the launch of a brokerage firm – Morethi Insurance Brokers – with the commission I had been making.
For that type of business, all you need is a desk, a laptop, four walls and a PA. I basically continued to do what I had been doing, just for myself. But there are major challenges involved in shifting from one gear to the next – I went from the security and recognition that comes with a big insurance company to a small independent brokerage.
That kind of move can really mess you up emotionally and financially. Cash flow needs required me to recapitalise the business from time to time, which was stressful. I was alone and I suffered for the first few months as I built my client base, but I was determined not to borrow money.
As a result, some of my credit accounts were compromised. Everything I was paying on instalments, like my house and car, was in arrears. The sheriff was threatening to attach all my possessions. But I knew that if I borrowed money from the loan sharks, I would then be threatened from both sides, so I paid what little I could when I could, and starved and suffered my way through. The determination not to borrow money became a fundamental part of my business philosophy. I said to myself, “I’m down now, but I’ll push to bring in the business and then I’ll be up again.”
And that’s what I did. Because insurance is about relationships, I would wake up at 3.00am, go to my office, and prepare breakfast for my clients with bread I had bought the night before. I packed the sandwiches in my car and spent the mornings on the road selling. I knew this would work as a value add because when people do not have a lot of money, they are hungry and food is received like a gift. By midday I would be back at my desk doing admin.
At the end of the day I went straight home and I would go to sleep early because I had to be up again before dawn. I travelled vast distances between Limpopo and Mpumalanga, Gauteng and the hinterlands of KwaZulu Natal. Challenging as it was, my efforts paid off. Within six months the business was doing well and I had proved my ability to sell once again by acquiring many new clients.
At this point, my vision began to unfold and I started believing that something really great was going to happen. I had been learning every step of the way and my hard work was starting to pay off. It was then that I knew I wanted to create a meaningful and sustainable business that would enable me to help lots of people in my community.
Building on opportunities
In 1996 I took advantage of Government’s drive to empower previously disadvantaged people and I established a company called Tebeila Building Construction, today known as Tebcon Developers, which does building projects in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West.
The provincial governments were faced with massive infrastructure backlogs that needed to be addressed. They invited companies to help roll out the development of government buildings and housing. As a result, between 1997 and 1998 Tebcon became the biggest black construction company in Limpopo.
I ran the business alongside the brokerage firm very successfully for a few years, but then I got bored and I started investigating opportunities to take on new challenges and find ways to contribute meaningfully to the mainstream economy. That was how I moved into the mining sector.
The new Government had started opening up the country’s mineral resources and the Mining Charter had come into being. The Limpopo provincial government was selling shares in Anglo Platinum. They called for bids and I put in an offer. In December 2002, I led Sekoko Platinum, a company that successfully bid for the acquisition of 480 000 shares in Anglo American Platinum through a public tender process. This laid the foundation for Sekoko Resources.
But I also realised that I wanted to find a sustainable way to create new wealth from resources, and not just to own shares. I saw that in mining when you buy into an existing opportunity, the interest is very high. I wanted to build my own Anglo American in a way that would enable local communities to profit too. I had courage because I had already become a successful businessman, and the time was ripe to seize the opportunities that were being made available.
I developed an interest in resources and started to read and learn about the industry. I still had many political connections from my days as a student leader and trade unionist, but I refused to build my business on political connections. I wanted to do it by taking advantage of my own talents, skills and credibility. I am a firm believer in the fact that a business is built on the strengths of its founder.
Learning some tough lessons
I decided that the best way forward was to buy my own mineral rights. To do that, I consulted a geologist who helped me to identify various areas in Limpopo. Because the construction business had been so successful, I had managed to save R100 000.
I used this to pay the geologist’s fees and to cover the cost of submitting the application. I then put forward my application for mineral rights to Government. Not all prospecting rights requests submitted were successful, however, and mine was rejected.
That day, I was devastated. It was all the money I had saved; I had worked very long hours for it and there was nothing left. I spent the day alone, locked in my office. But by the end of that day I had reflected long and hard and I was resolute that there was no way I was going to let everything go down the drain.
The process of putting the application together had taught me a lot, and I had been doing my own research into the mining and exploration sectors as well. I sat with my PA and we put together another application. This time it was successful, and I secured my first prospecting rights in the Soutpansberg.
Of course, once you have rights you have to use them or you lose them. But I had no money to develop the land I had acquired the rights to, so I went back to my community and I approached the local chiefs, women’s groups and disabled groups to become shareholders in the business.
We went on a two-day bosberaad during which we discussed ways to raise the money to enable exploration of the area I had secured. Within ten months, we managed to raise R1,5 million between us all, with me as the major investor and shareholder. The money came in dribs and drabs, a few thousand here and a few thousand there. But we got it.
Next, I appointed a consulting company to do the exploration. This is where I made the biggest mistake of my life. Money was so limited and as a new business I had no resources with which to do research into the contractors and their business history.
Needless to say, there was an internal dispute among the consultants and one of them disappeared overseas with the money I had raised from the community. To this day, he has never been found. It had been difficult enough for me to deal with losing my own money early on in the game, but now I had to go back to a group of vulnerable people who had invested everything they owned in the business and tell them I had lost their money. There was just no way I was going to admit defeat. I could not let them down.
Building a mining empire
By this time, I had become very hands-on in the business and I was participating physically in all the site visits and going to the labs.
I had collected all the lab test results and kept copies of them in my own files. These pieces of information turned out to be a lifesaver. I started meeting with prospective investors and showing them that although I had no formal reports, I had the test results proving that there were vast coal deposits in the area.
The first company to understand the value of what I was holding in my hands was mining operator, Coal of Africa, which invested R55 million in the business there and then, laying the foundation for growth for Sekoko Resources.
The investment was amazing because it not only enabled the company to begin exploration, but it also meant that we had the capital to start on other exploration projects too. Today we have projects on the go in the Soutpansberg, the Waterberg, Capricorn and the Eastern and Western Bushveld complexes in Limpopo. We have gone on to acquire the rights to vast holdings of the country’s rich coal, platinum and iron ore deposits.
Our shareholding, which includes the original members who continued to believe even after the loss of their R1,5 million, ensures that local communities in the area also benefit from the natural wealth of South Africa. This is a key consideration for me. Sekoko also promotes empowerment through preferred procurement and we work extensively with local businesses wherever possible. It’s vital to include local communities in this business so that they too can benefit.
My father is a priest and he taught us that on dry soil, no-one can reap a harvest. You have to provide people with opportunity if you want them to succeed. Our empowerment model was developed because I did not want the ordinary people living in and around the mining areas to be excluded from our mining empowerment transactions.
I never imagined that my life would turn out this way, or that I would be part of such a big mining company, but as the business opportunities unfolded my vision grew and I followed the dream. I am driven by a sprit of entrepreneurship and by my faith, both of which have enabled me to look beyond what people normally see. Eight years down the line, Sekoko Resources is well funded and has never had to borrow money from the banks.
It is often said that your job is your second home, and I like my staff to feel that this is their second family. I see myself as a father figure, and I want to be respected as such. I think I have proved that I am not just a businessman who wants to enrich himself alone. We employ 32 people, all of whom have shares in the business.
I believe it is critical for them to know that they have ownership in everything they do. We have created a friendly work environment. I encourage our people to respect and trust one-another. In addition to the permanent employees, we have hundreds of consultants in the field so we provide employment for many people.
In 2008 we entered into a joint venture for two Waterberg coal projects with Firestone Energy, a Perth-based exploration company listed on the Australian and South African stock exchanges. Sekoko is now the majority shareholder of Firestone Energy and I am a director of the company. The Waterberg coal joint venture is playing a major role in helping to alleviate poverty in Limpopo, which has a high unemployment rate.
We are now working on listing Sekoko on the London Stock Exchange. There is a huge appetite for coal assets in the UK. We have prospecting rights on 27 coal farms measuring nearly 36 000 hectares in the Soutpansberg, and on eight farms measuring about 8 000 hectares in the Waterberg. Considering the future fuel and energy requirements in this country and abroad, this is of great strategic value to the company.
I am a spiritual person and my faith is an important part of my life. Last year The Tim Tebeila Foundation donated R7 million for the building of a church in Sekhukhune, the first of its kind in a rural area. The foundation helps feed the needy, including pensioners, the disabled and children in Limpopo.
I also sponsor a number of students at various universities. I am passionate about human development and helping to fight poverty. We regularly hand out clothing and food parcels to people who need them. Whatever we get from life, we must plough back into our communities and it will be multiplied many times. I believe that if Nelson Mandela could give the best of himself to this country, who am I not to do the same?
Related: Adrian Gore – The Disrupter
Invest your own sweat
Make sure your principles are clear and established. Then, stick to what you know best to generate income and save money. Do not borrow from others, but learn to create your own wealth. It’s vital to build your income on what you know how to do best. That’s what I did when I was in the insurance business, and it’s a principle I continue to apply even now.
It takes time to make money this way – it’s not something that can be achieved overnight or without much hard work and personal sacrifice – but it can be done. You cannot depend on government handouts if you want to create sustainable wealth for yourself and your investors.
Being able to earn money is fundamental to operating a successful business. I was prepared to invest my own sweat and my own efforts, and I believe that is what convinced others to come on board. Also, if you are serious about your business, don’t spend money on cars and big houses. Don’t confuse working capital with profit. First you must make the business work, then you can develop expensive tastes.
Discipline is key
In addition to my teaching diploma, I have participated in many specialised courses in marketing, business management and mining over the past years, but I have learnt my most valuable lessons in the course of doing business. I don’t believe that the spirit of entrepreneurship can be taught, but I do believe you can learn the principles and then apply them in your business.
I draw a lot of inspiration from the stories of international entrepreneurs like Donald Trump. But I am also inspired by mining companies around the globe.
I am a disciplined person by nature, which is probably a result of the way I grew up. My wife Pollett and I married in 1998, and we now have four children. When I was single and focused on making money to survive, I worked solidly from Monday to Friday and kept any socialising strictly to weekends.
These days my free time is devoted to my family. I have also found it vital to spend time only with people who are positive. There are many negative detractors out there who do not have your best interests at heart. As a business person, it is advisable to keep away from them as their gossip brings nothing into your life. Surrounding yourself with children is a good way to ensure that you only hear optimistic stories.
A long and winding road
Tim Tebeila qualifies as a teacher and his first post is at a high school in Tembisa. At the end of that first year he is fired by the Department of Education for being an activist for change.
He finds work as a teacher in Mpumalanga and supplements his meagre income by selling insurance in the evenings and on weekends.
He leaves teaching and joins Sanlam where he becomes a successful broker, later moving back to Limpopo.
He leaves Sanlam and opens his own brokerage, Morethi Insurance Brokers.
Tebeila Building Construction is launched, carrying out building projects in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West. Between 1997 and 1998 it becomes the biggest black construction company in the country.
Tebeila starts to develop an interest in mining and resources and loses R100 000, his life savings, by making an application for prospecting rights that is rejected.
He raises R1,5 million from his own funds and from local community groups in Limpopo – who remain shareholders in the business to this day – to begin prospecting. The money is lost to an unscrupulous consultant.
Armed with lab test results, he secures R55 million in capital from Coal for Africa. This paves the way for the expansion of Sekoko Resources.
Sekoko enters into a joint venture for two local coal projects with Firestone Energy, a Perth-based exploration company listed on the Australian and South African stock exchanges. Sekoko becomes the majority shareholder of Firestone Energy.
4 Lessons From The Pivotal Group Founders On Growing And Disrupting All At Once
Here’s how they’ve built what they believe to be the foundations of a successful group of businesses in five years.
- Company: Pivotal Group
- Players: Paul Hutton, Joel Stransky and Bruce Arnold
- What they do: Pivotal pioneered voice biometrics in the financial and telecommunications market. Over time, the company has grown to include nine divisions across multiple sectors.
- Launched: 2012
- Visit: pivotalgroup.co.za
How do you build a disruptive business while also focusing on growth? Disruptive ideas are by definition new and unknown to the market. They defy traditional and established solutions and ways of doing business, and they require the market to be educated before you can really onboard clients or even sell your product or service.
The answer is to build parallel solutions: Business units that bring in revenue while the more disruptive ideas are being developed and introduced to the market. Here are the four top lessons the founders of the Pivotal Group have learnt while building their business and pursuing disruptive opportunities simultaneously.
1. Know who your competitors (and potential competitors) are
Great ideas that are economically viable and solve a need that consumers are willing to pay for are few and far between. Great ideas alone are a dime a dozen, but if you’ve spotted a need, chances are someone else has as well. You then need to step back and critically evaluate why someone else hasn’t done this before; if they have done it and they’ve failed; or if you’re entering shark-infested waters riddled with competitors.
Once you’ve determined there is a gap in the market, you need to evaluate who your potential competitors are, and the impact if they suddenly started offering a similar solution to the market.
For Paul Hutton, Bruce Arnold and Joel Stransky, the founders of OneVault, competition was always a factor, particularly as a start-up, and given that potential competitors included Bytes and Dimension Data, this was a very real factor to consider. After careful analysis, however, the founders decided to go for it. Their differentiator was their business model. They wouldn’t be selling OneVault as a software solution, but as a service.
The idea had taken root while Paul was still CEO of TransUnion Credit Bureau. “I came across voice biometrics in Canada. There’s been a surge in identity fraud around the world, and I really understood the value of voice recognition as a verification tool,” he explains. “It can’t be faked, and it’s the only remote biometrics solution available, because you don’t physically need to be there to verify yourself.”
Paul had presented the idea to Transunion’s global board, and while they were intrigued, nothing came of it. “TransUnion’s model is to buy companies that are experts in their specific fields, not launch a new disruptive division from scratch.”
But this meant there was an opportunity for Paul to pursue the idea independently. Joel (former MD of Altech Netstar and CEO of Hertz SA) and Bruce (formerly Group CFO of TransUnion Africa and CFO at Unitrans Freight) were immediately interested in partnering with Paul. Both wanted to pursue entrepreneurship, although neither could do so immediately. The commitment was enough for Paul to get directly involved and start working on the business while he waited for his partners to join him.
In January 2011, Paul and Joel travelled to the UK and started investigating voice biometric solutions. “Voice biometrics was fairly new, but good technology was available, and there were global leaders in the sector,” says Joel.
It was important to choose the right product for the South African market, as this would form the basis of their offering. A contact at Dimension Data (one of whom became an investor in the business) offered this simple and straightforward advice:
When you’re choosing a technology partner, go with the company whose tech you’re confident in, and whose leadership is stable. You’re basing so much on this company and their longevity, so don’t disregard this criteria.
For Paul, Joel and Bruce, a US-based company, Nuance, ticked those boxes. But, from a competitive perspective, OneVault wasn’t the only potential player in the market. “Neither Bytes nor Dimension Data had gone into voice, but they had the potential to do so,” says Bruce. “The products were available to them through their partners.”
To mitigate this very clear risk, the founders made two critical decisions. “Our intention was to sell voice biometrics as a service, instead of a software solution that customers bought and owned, with the necessary infrastructure to go with it. The idea for OneVault was that there would be one place where your voice print lived, and different businesses could plug into our solution.”
The business model of large technology players in South Africa is to sell integrated software solutions, so OneVault’s business model was a differentiator. The next differentiator Paul, Bruce and Joel focused on was becoming specialists in their field.
“This is Paul’s baby,” says Bruce. “We’ve needed to build up a niche, expert team that specialises in voice biometrics. Because we aren’t generalists, 100% of our focus goes into this, instead of 5% or 10%.”
To attract the best in their fields, the founders needed a very appealing culture and a strong recruitment strategy. “We focused on what we wanted from our work environment, and then applied the same rules across the business,” says Joel. “Our goals were to drink good coffee, have no leave forms — ever; be able to take the time to ride our bikes and watch our kids play sports. If someone can’t make it work, or takes advantage without putting in the work, they come and go, but on the whole, we’ve had extremely low churn, and we’ve attracted — and kept — incredible talent.”
This differentiator would prove to be important for two reasons. First, two and a half years into the business, with investors on board and having pumped a significant amount of their own capital into the business, the team hit a major stumbling block. For a few weeks, they didn’t even know if they had a business.
“We had been operating on one major, and as it turned out, faulty, assumption,” says Paul. “We thought South African companies had the right telephony structure to implement our solution. We’d been building our solution on top of Nuance’s software, and were ready to start piloting the entire system with a few key customers, and we found out that in order to meet global voice biometric standards, the telephone technology had to be G711 compliant. South Africa was operating on G729.”
This was OneVault’s make or break moment. The team had six weeks to come up with a solution that ensured it met the necessary levels of accuracy. Without a highly skilled team this would have been impossible.
Even as a start-up, the strategy had been to only bring the best of the best on board. “We didn’t interview,” says Bruce. “We approached people whom we knew. We approached the best in the industry, and convinced them to take a chance with us. There was risk, but there were also rewards.” One of those people was Bradley Scott, a brilliant engineer whom both Paul and Bruce had worked with at Transunion.
Today, OneVault is one of the most specialist companies in the world, and often asked to speak at events in the US.
Being the niche specialists paid off, and OneVault achieved the almost impossible. But this had its downside.
Once you’ve shown something can be done, the bar of what’s impossible moves. Competitors enter your space.
This was the second reason why being such focused, niche experts paid off. “We demo’d the solution for a large local corporate, they loved it, and then went to a ‘then’ competitor to implement it,” says Paul.
“We always knew this was a real danger. Players like Bytes and Dimension Data have solid, existing client relationships with the same companies we’re targeting.”
18 months later the project still wasn’t working. “This is deep specialist knowledge,” says Paul. “Knowledge we built while we created our offering.” OneVault won the contract, and developed a partnership with Bytes at the same time. Today, OneVault works with all the major software integrators in the market. “We’re a specialist service they can offer their clients, without needing to put the same time and energy we needed to put in to become the specialists.”
Through a focused strategy, OneVault has become a partner, rather than a competitor, of some of the largest players in the industry.
2. Understand the nature of disruption so that you can prepare for it
In today’s ever-changing and fast-paced business world, most business experts are in agreement that as a company, you’re either the disruptor, or you’re being disrupted. The problem is that disruption comes with its own set of challenges.
“Our entire business model was built around a subscription service. Instead of a company buying a software solution, installing it and running it internally, we would do all of that. We would carry the infrastructure burden, and the high upfront cost,” says Joel.
In theory, this sounded like a clear win for businesses that would benefit from a voice biometrics solution. The reality is never so simple, particularly when you’re a disruptor.
“The software is expensive, and so we thought this would be seen as an excellent solution,” says Paul. “Instead, we faced a lot of reticence over the cloud. Businesses didn’t trust it yet.”
On top of that, first movers are often faced with a lag in corporate governance guidelines. As technology becomes more sophisticated, so governance guidelines change — but it’s a slow process, and the lag can impede disruptors.
“You also can’t give proper reference cases, because it’s all brand new to your market,” says Paul. “The best we had was a case study of how well it had worked in Turkey.”
To compound matters, proof of revenue is essential for businesses wanting to trade with large corporates, but non-existent in the start-up phase.
So, what’s the solution? According to Joel, Bruce and Paul, it’s all about being patient, never giving up, building gravitas and getting a few clients on board, even if it’s free of charge to build up your reputation and prove your concept. Finally, you need to bring in revenue from more traditional channels to support your disruptive products and solutions.
“Disruptive solutions are by their nature new and different, which means change management for your customers. This makes the sales cycle long and complex, and you have to be prepared for that,” says Bruce.
Don’t stop laying your groundwork. While disruptors are ahead of the curve, you need to be ready for the uptake when it arrives. “We’ve now concluded a partnership with South Africa Fraud Prevention Services,” says Paul. “When an imposter calls we won’t only terminate the transaction but we will alert the identity being compromised in the attempt and we will actively prevent fraud by contacting Fraud Prevention. The ultimate vision is for every South African’s voice biometric signature to live in our vault, and we are already receiving imposter information.”
3. Cultivate additional revenue streams
So, what do you do while you are living through the extremely long sales turnaround time of your disruptive, game-changing solution? Bills still have to be paid and investment is needed to develop truly disruptive ideas.
First, the team realised that while an annuity subscription service was their ultimate goal and where the industry was heading, initially they needed to be able to sell and implement the software.
It’s worth noting that one of OneVault’s earliest customers who bought the software has since launched a new business, which is on OneVault’s annuity service model. The shift has just taken time. “The change is happening, but it’s been slower than we anticipated,” says Bruce. “We needed to accept that fact and sell the software to bring revenue into the business while we were waiting for the market to catch up.”
It’s an important lesson. You don’t want to get distracted from your vision, but you need to be bringing in revenue, even if that means your short-term strategy differs from your long-term goals.
“It took three years before we really started seeing a move towards hosted solutions,” he adds. “Outsourced and offsite solutions are opex environments, not capex. They are more cost-effective for customers, but they require a shift in thinking. It’s a move away from how things have always been done, and that takes time.”
But, while Paul, Bruce and Joel were learning the art of patience, they also needed to start bringing revenue into the business.
“It was clear that we needed to find other opportunities,” says Joel. The result is the Pivotal Group, a diversified holding company with different businesses that are interlinked and complementary.
The group’s first business outside of OneVault, Pivotal Data, was based on a large call centre contract Joel, Paul and Bruce secured. “You can’t be an expert in everything – when you specialise you will always be more successful. The trick is to partner with other experts,” says Joel. In this case, three entrepreneurs were opening a call centre — this was their area of expertise; they were absolute subject matter experts. What they weren’t experts in was technology or facilities management. Instead of doing it themselves, they were looking for partners.
“We manage everything aside from the people element,” explains Joel. “We found and leased a building, built the bespoke workspace, put in the technology, and managed the facility and IT on an opex basis back to them.”
The business immediately had a good anchor client, and Pivotal Data has built on that. The annuity income has supported further growth.
“This was a base for us, but we’ve acquired a few businesses on the back of this success, and created our own cloud contact centre solution — which also feeds into what we’re doing with OneVault,” says Bruce. “Our vision is to create a technology stack that’s world-class and provides a range of services that no other businesses provide as a single solution.”
Because of this pivot into call centre management, a new opportunity has presented itself, and Pivotal’s ambition has grown to include a solution that calls, authenticates, and then analyses all the data that is collected during those calls.
“Through partnerships, my team has developed a predictive analytics system that gives contact centres deep diagnostic tools. We can predict why agents are having the conversations they have, and what to tweak to improve them. We see the agent’s problem before they do. This isn’t just value add, it’s a revenue generating tool if it improves lead conversion rates and customer service. It’s also all geared to lowering call volumes.
“We know we need to keep looking forward. OneVault is starting to gain real traction, but we need to be working on the next disruptive solution and model. We can’t sit back and relax,” says Bruce.
“Three years ago we said that’s it; no more start-ups or investing in pre-adoption phase businesses. From now on, everything we do will be revenue generating,” says Paul. “We’d stretched three years of runway to five years in OneVault, and we didn’t want to keep doing that. We wanted instant revenue businesses. And the very next thing we did was invest in a start-up. It’s a crazy space, but it’s also very rewarding.”
To sustain it, the group continues to grow, focusing on investing in businesses and entrepreneurs who are subject matter experts and therefore already know and understand the market, and then positioning each new business or service to plug into the current offering.
“Data is our golden thread — technology and the disruptive space,” says Joel.
4. Be open to new ideas and opportunities
Integral to the Pivotal Group’s positioning is Paul, Bruce and Joel’s focus on supporting other business owners whose offerings align with the group’s own growth goals, and who would benefit from joining a group.
“If your goal is to be disruptive, you need to be open to all kinds of new ideas,” says Joel. Some will be better than others, and the co-founders have made the decision to focus on the ‘jockey’ rather than the business as a result. Business offerings and ideas need to pivot. If you have the right partners, finding a solution is all part of the challenge.
Pivotal’s move into the world of artificial intelligence is due to one such partnership. “One of our clients approached us with a concept. But he needed a partner to develop it into a proper AI solution,” says Joel.
It’s an augmented intelligence solution that focuses on recruitment, talent management and career guidance. The solution screens, ranks and matches candidates against a job profile, or a number of profiles. It’s a multidisciplinary platform that predicts the performance of the individual in a role.
“Our partner is a former Accenture consultant and a leader in this field. His focus is on the IP and science of the product, ours is on the business component.”
The challenge is how to commercialise and scale the business in as short a time frame as possible. Like many disruptive products, the adoption process is a stumbling block. “We invest at the pre-adoptive curve — not at the revenue generating stage, which means a big focus is always on how we can take an idea and build it into a revenue generating business,” says Bruce.
The business uses capital selectively. “We want to invest in and drive our own agenda,” says Paul. “We’re in charge of our own destiny, but it’s not comfortable or simple. We came from corporate. Big machines that you need to direct and keep on course. This is an entirely different challenge and we are still learning.”
Listen to the podcast
Matt Brown interviews Paul, Joel and Bruce and discusses what it’s like to invest in pre-adoptive start-ups and staying ahead of the curve.
To listen to the podcast, go to mattbrownmedia.co.za/matt-brown-show or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.
The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.
Afritorch Digital An Overnight Success That Was Years In The Making
By any standard, local start-up AfriTorch Digital has seen phenomenal growth and traction. But, while the company’s success might seem quick and effortless, there is a lot of hard work behind it.
- Players: Michel M. Katuta and Thabo Mphate
- Company: Afritorch Digital
- Established: 2017
- Visit: afritorchdigital.com
- About: Afritorch Digital assists research agencies in conducting market research through its in-depth knowledge of the African continent and its use of the latest digital technologies.
There is a saying that goes: It takes years to become an overnight success. While a company or individual might seem to enjoy sudden (and seemingly effortless) success, there is often more to the story. The results are usually public and well-publicised, but the years of hard work that came before go unnoticed.
Local start-up AfriTorch Digital is a great example of this. Since launching in May 2017, the business has seen excellent growth. “To be honest, we were very surprised by the level of success. Things progressed a lot quicker than we anticipated,” says co-founder Thabo Mphate.
“All the goals we had hoped to reach in four or sixth months, we managed to hit in the first month. It was just amazing.”
Preparing to launch
While AfriTorch Digital has certainly seen quick growth and success, it would be a mistake to assume that the same is true of the two founders. For them, the creation of AfriTorch was years in the making.
“The goal was always to start our own business,” says Thabo. “I think we’re both entrepreneurs at heart, and we saw an opportunity to create a unique kind of business that offered an innovative solution to clients, but we also realised the value of getting some experience first. Without the knowledge, experience, network and intimate understanding of the industry landscape, getting AfriTorch off the ground would have been incredibly difficult.”
Entrepreneurs tend to dislike working for other people. They want to forge their own path. However, as AfriTorch Digital’s case illustrates, spending time in the industry that you’d like to launch your business in is tremendously useful.
“Finding clients when we launched AfriTorch was relatively easy,” says company co-founder and CEO Michel Katuta. “One reason for this, I think, was that we were offering potential clients a great solution, but the other was that we had established a name for ourselves in the industry. People knew us. We had worked for respected companies, and we had done work for large clients. So, when we launched, we were able to provide a new start-up with credibility in the industry.”
The Lesson: Becoming an entrepreneur doesn’t always start with the launch of a company. Spending time in an established business, gaining experience and making contacts, can be invaluable. Very often, it’s the relationships you build during this time and the knowledge you accumulate that will help make your company a success.
Solving a problem
Everyone knows that launching a successful business means solving a burning problem, but what does that mean in practice? Aren’t all the burning problems already being addressed? And how do you attempt this without any money?
Thabo and Michel identified a small group of potential clients with a burning problem. Crucially, it was a problem that no one outside of the research field could have identified. Having spent years in the trenches, they saw a massive gap waiting to be filled.
“A decade ago, researchers were still debating whether the future of the field was in the digital space. That debate is now over. Everyone agrees that online is the way to go. What once took months now takes days or hours, and the cost of research can be reduced by a factor of five,” says Michel.
“But researchers are not technology specialists. If made available, they are eager to adopt digital tools, but they aren’t eager to develop these tools themselves. That’s not their area of expertise.”
AfriTorch Digital stepped up to provide these tools. Katuta has a background in software engineering, so he could approach research problems with the eye of a tech specialist. Very soon, research agencies were lining up to make use of AfriTorch Digital’s services.
“We work with research agencies that conduct research on behalf of their clients. We provide the digital tools needed to conduct research online, and we provide the online communities. A big reason for our success is that we understand Africa. A lot of companies want to conduct research in Africa, but traditionally, this has been very hard. There was a lack of access and a lack of infrastructure that made research very hit-and-miss. Thanks to the continent’s adoption of mobile technology, it’s now much easier. If you have the technological know-how and an understanding of the environment, you can do amazing things,” says Michel.
The Lesson: Find a niche and own it. Research agencies might not have seemed like an obvious and lucrative market, but having spent time in the industry, the AfriTorch founders were able to identify clients who would be desperate for their offering. Spending time in an industry will help you see where the opportunities lie.
Before launching a business, get to know an industry from the inside out. This will give you an unparalleled view into gaps you can service.
Jason English On Growing Prommac’s Turnover Tenfold And Being Mindful Of The ‘Oros Effect’
Rapid growth and expansion can lead to a dilution of the foundational principles that defined your company in its early days. Jason English of Prommac discusses how you can retain your company’s culture and vision while growing quickly.
- Player: Jason English
- Position: CEO
- Company: Prommac
- Associations: Young President’s Organisation (YPO)
- Turnover: R300 million (R1 billion as a group)
- Visit: prommac.com
- About: Prommac is a construction services business specialising in commissioning, plant maintenance, plant shutdowns and capital projects. Jason English purchased the majority of the company late in 2012, and currently acts as its CEO. Under his leadership, the company has grown from a small business to an international operation.
Since Jason English purchased Prommac in 2012, the company has experienced phenomenal growth. At the time he took over as owner and CEO, it was a small operation that boasted a turnover below R50 million.
Today, Prommac is part of a diversified group of companies under the CG Holdings umbrella and alone has grown it’s turnover nearly ten fold since Jason English took over. As a group, CG Holdings, of which Jason is a founder, is generating in excess of R1 billion. How has Prommac managed such phenomenal growth? According to Jason, it’s all about company culture… and about protecting your glass of Oros.
“As your business grows, it suffers from something that I call the Oros Effect. Think of your small start-up as an undiluted glass of Oros. When you’re leading a small company, it really is a product of you. You know everything about the business and you make every decision. The systems, the processes, the culture — these are all a product of your actions and beliefs. As you grow, though, things start to change. With every new person added to the mix, you dilute that glass of Oros.
“That’s not to say that your employees are doing anything wrong, or that they are actively trying to damage the business, but the culture — which was once so clear — becomes hazy. The company loses that singular vision. As the owner, you’re forced to share ‘your Oros’ with an increasing number of people, and by pouring more and more of it into other glasses, it loses the distinctive flavour it once had. By the time you’re at the head of a large international company, you can easily be left with a glass that contains more water than Oros.
“Protecting and nurturing a company’s culture isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. Prommac has enjoyed excellent growth, and I ascribe a lot of that success to our company culture. Whenever we’ve spent real time and money on replenishing the Oros, we’ve seen the benefits of it directly afterwards.
“There have been times when we have made the tough decision to slow growth and focus on getting the culture right. Growth is great, of course, but it’s hard to get the culture right when new people are joining the company all the time and you’re scaling aggressively. So, we’ve slowed down at times, but we’ve almost always seen immediate benefits in terms of growth afterwards. We focus heavily on training that deals with things like the systems, processes and culture of the company. We’ve also created a culture and environment that you won’t necessarily associate with engineering and heavy industries. In fact, it has more in common with a Silicon Valley company like Google than your traditional engineering firm.
“Acquisitions can be particularly tricky when it comes to culture and vision. As mentioned, CG Holdings has acquired several companies over the last few years, and when it comes to acquisition, managing the culture is far trickier than it is with normal hiring. When you hire a new employee, you can educate them in the ways and culture of the business. When you acquire an entire company, you import not only a large number of new people, but also an existing organisation with its own culture and vision. Because of this, we’ve created a centralised hub that manages all training and other company activities pertaining to culture. We don’t allow the various companies to do their own thing. That helps to manage the culture as the company grows and expands, since it ensures that everyone’s on the same page.
“Systems and processes need to make sense. One of the key reasons that drove us to create a central platform for training is the belief that systems and processes need to make sense to employees. Everyone should understand the benefits of using a system. If they don’t understand a system or process, they will revert to what they did in the past, especially when you’re talking about an acquired company. You should expect employees to make use of the proper systems and processes, but they need to be properly trained in them first. A lot of companies have great systems, but they aren’t very good at actually implementing them, and the primary reason for this is a lack of training.
“Operations — getting the work done — is seen as the priority, and training is only done if and when a bit of extra time is available. We fell into that trap a year ago. We had enjoyed a lot of growth and momentum, so we didn’t slow down. Eventually, we could see that this huge push, and the consequent lack of focus on the core values of the business, were affecting operations. So, we had to put the hammer down and refocus on systems, processes and culture. Today Prommac is back at the top of it’s game having been awarded the prestigious Service Provider of the year for 2017 by Sasol for both their Secunda and Sasolburg chemical complexes.
“If you want to know about the state of your company’s culture, go outside the business. We realised that we needed to ‘pour more Oros into the company’ by asking clients. We use customer surveys to track our own performance and to make sure that the company is in a healthy state. It’s a great way to monitor your organisation, and there are trigger questions that can be asked, which will give you immediate insight into the state of the culture.
“It’s important, of course, to ask your employees about the state of the business and its culture as well, but you should also ask your customers. Your clients will quickly pick up if something is wrong. The fact of the matter is, internal things like culture can have a dramatic effect on the level of service offered to customers. That’s why it’s so important to spend time on these internal things — they have a direct impact on every aspect of the business.
“Remember that clients understand the value of training. There is always a tension between training and operational requirements, but don’t assume that your clients will automatically be annoyed because you’re sending employees on training. Be open and honest, explain to a client that an employee who regularly services the company will be going on training. Ultimately, the client benefits if you spend time and money on an employee that they regularly deal with.
“For the most part, they will understand and respect your decision. At times, there will be push back, both from clients and from your own managers, but you need to be firm. In the long term, training is win-win for everyone involved. Also, you don’t want a client to become overly dependent on a single employee from your company. What if that employee quits? Training offers a good opportunity to swop out employees, and to ensure that you have a group of individuals who can be assigned to a specific client. We rotate our people to make sure that no single person becomes a knowledge expert on a client’s facility, so when we need to pull someone out of the system for training, it’s not the end of the world.
“Managers will often be your biggest challenge when it comes to training. Early on, we hired a lot of young people we could train from scratch. As we grew and needed more expertise, we started hiring senior employees with experience. When it came to things like systems, processes and culture, we actually had far more issues with some of the senior people.
“Someone with significant experience approaches things with preconceived notions and beliefs, so it can be more difficult to get buy-in from them. Don’t assume that training is only for entry-level employees. You need to focus on your senior people and make sure that they see the value of what you are doing. It doesn’t matter how much Oros you add to the mix if managers keep diluting it.”
When Jason English purchased Prommac late in 2012, the company had a turnover of less than R50 million. This has grown nearly ten fold in just under five years. How? By focusing on people, culture and training.
- 3 Tips For Succeeding After You Fail
- South Africa Seeks Innovative Solutions to Payments Systems
- Tsogo Sun Entrepreneurs Takes On 30 New Businesses
- 2018 National Budget: What To expect?
- #SONA2018: Upbeat Address Offers Inspiring Message For South African Entrepreneurs
- LaunchLab Fellows – Great Opportunities For Aspirational Young African Students
- 9 Reliable Ways To Cultivate Creative Thinking
Start-up Industry Specific3 months ago
How Do I Start A Transport Or Logistics Business?
Upstarts3 months ago
10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets
Business Plan Advice3 months ago
Writing a Business Plan May Not Be Your Idea Of Fun, But It Forces You To Build These 4 Crucial Habits
Company Posts1 month ago
Enhance Your Entrepreneurial Flair With An Online Postgraduate Diploma From The University Of Pretoria