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Entrepreneur Profiles

Tasha’s: Natasha Sideris And Sivya Sideris

Two young entrepreneurs have been given the opportunity of a lifetime to expand their dream restaurant into a nationwide franchise

Monique Verduyn



Natasha Sideris And Sivya Sideris of Tasha's

Natasha Sideris is in high spirits. It’sday five of her new job – managing executive at Famous Brands – and she stillcan’t believe she’s here. The exuberant 33-year-old is the brains behind one ofJohannesburg’s hippest daytime eateries, Tasha’s.

Currently consisting of two restaurants,one in Atholl Square, Sandton, and the other in Village View Shopping
Centre, Bedfordview, foodies will be pleased to know that Tasha’s will beopening in Melrose Arch, Morningside and Pretoria early next year, with furtherexpansion set to take place in the course of 2009.

What makes Tasha’s different in the crowdedrestaurant sector is that it offers upmarket, casual daytime eating in a finesetting. That’s what caught the attention of Kevin Hedderwick, COO of FamousBrands. A regular at the Bedfordview store, he watched Natasha and her equallyhardworking brother Savva (28) in action. “I was fascinated by the energy ofthis young brother-and-sister team, so I asked them what their hopes and dreamswere. Natasha said she would like to turn the concept into a franchise. I wasdrawn by their passion and vigour, so I suggested we do it together.” In July this year, Famous Brands acquired a51% controlling stake in the business which has subsequently been convertedinto a franchise. Famous Brands is the largest quick service and casual diningfranchisor in
Africa and has over 1 500 franchise restaurants across a brand portfolio thatincludes Steers, Wimpy and Debonairs Pizza. “It was not a case of ‘I like it so let’sbuy it’,” says Hedderwick. “We are a commercial company and the purchase wasvery much part of a deliberate strategy to take us into the premium end of thecasual dining market where we have no representation at all. Added to this isthe fact that Tasha’s competes in a space of its own.”

With Famous Brands’ muscle behind it,Tasha’s is set for the big time. For a youthful, new business, the transactionbrings access to a finely-tuned infrastructure. Included in that is brandstewardship; the provision of a full turnkey service to the Tasha’s brand andits future franchise partners (including the drawing of plans, appointing ofcontractors and project management of all new restaurant openings, revamps andrelocations); manufacturing services; logistics expertise; development andprocurement expertise; and access to all “back of house” functions.While many of the franchise systems in theFamous Brands stable have around 300 restaurants nationwide, the plan forTasha’s is different. No more than 20 to 30 stores in premium locations areplanned for the next four years. Hedderwick says the company has no desire tocommoditise the brand. Where Famous Brands would normally find a concept, buyit from the creator and wave goodbye, the objective here is to grow thebusiness with the two young entrepreneurs and give them the systems to matchtheir drive.

“Without the capital and the businesssystems we provide it would take Natasha and Savva years to accomplish theirdreams for Tasha’s,” says Hedderwick. “At the same time, the quality and stylethat defines Tasha’s is dependent on their commitment to the ongoingdevelopment of the brand. There is perfect synergy between what they bring andwhat we have to offer. That is why we did not buy the business outright, butchose instead to partner.” Natasha and Savva concur. “Almost overnightwe have gone from yelling at waitresses to being a fully-fledged businesssystem,” says Savva. “We are excited about attending our first strategy meetingand budget planning session. Budgeting is something we simply had no time to dowhile we were running the restaurants.”An SABMiller veteran, Hedderwick points toa lesson that can be learnt from the beer giant. The public knows SABMillerlargely for its Castle Lager and Carling Black Label beer, but future growth in the beer business will come from brands likePeroni. Having identified this trend, SABMiller is actively investing inpremium beers.“It’s similar thinking that motivated ourinvestment in Tasha’s. Whether the economy is up or down, there are people whohave money to spend and lots of it. We see great scope for growth in upmarketdaytime dining.”

South Africa has many mainstream consumerswho want a bit of luxury but are often intimidated by upmarket environments.Tasha’s, says Hedderwick, manages to be exclusive without excluding, thanks toNatasha’s emphasis on creating a warm environment. He cites an interesting development withWimpy. “The brand became universally known for its frothy coffee, but with theglobal evolution of the café society, there were customers who wanted somethingmore exclusive. To maintain their loyalty, Wimpy upped its coffee offering withthe introduction of premium blend coffees which have proved to be a hit. In thesame way, Tasha’s makes it possible for people to have a more exclusive eatingexperience without having to go to hugely expensive restaurants.” Natasha, who comes from a restauranteurfamily, has been in the food industry for 14 years. “My dad opened Fishmonger’sin Rivonia while I was at varsity and I helped him with the launch,” sherecalls. “From that first night, I knew that this was the industry I wanted to be in. It’s a hard business, butit was in my veins.”

She continued to help her father run therestaurant throughout her studies. On completing her degree in sociology andpsychology, which she says has come in handy on more than a few occasions, shejoined the Fishmonger head office group as operations manager.

From there, she opened her own fast-foodfranchise with the help of a financial backer. She describes that business as a“nightmare”. “Customer interaction is what really drives me,” Natasha says.“Being stuck behind a counter and having little opportunity to talk to peoplewas not at all enjoyable for me. It was, however, an excellent learningexperience.”

The willingness to experience as much aspossible is what has propelled her ahead of any potential competitors. Riddingherself of the fast-food store, she joined Nino’s and was instrumental inopening many of its Italian-style coffee shops. She then bought and ran her ownNino’s store for five years in Village View Shopping Centre.

It was during this time that she came torealise there was a massive gap in the local market for daytime eating. “Thereare loads of coffee shops where you can have cappuccinos, croissants andsandwiches, but I wanted to create a beautiful environment in which peoplecould have great, restaurant quality food,” she says. “It was during my thirdyear of owning the Nino’s franchise that the Atholl Square property developerscalled and offered me the opportunity to open a store there.” And that’s where Savva came in. An interiordesigner who had designed several Nino’s stores, he had also worked alongsideNatasha in Bedfordview, and had subsequently bought a Baron’s restaurant with hisfather, just down the road. Savva played an integral role in taking theTasha’s concept to fruition. The brother and sister team agreed that theywanted a brand that would be consistent, with a solid foundation. At the sametime, their aim was to develop something that would never be static, butconstantly evolving.

Natasha went to an interior designconsultancy and outlined the idea. “I asked them to give me something thatwould feel like our space; something that would not age or tire. We wanted amodern feel, but not so modern that it would have to be changed every year. Theidea was to create a vibe that was fresh and organic, with a feeling ofheritage underlying it.” The design team delivered, and the resultis a concept that allows food to be showcased. The Atholl Square store waslaunched in 2005, with the second opening a year ago. While the two existingstores are unique, they have in common a creamy colour palette that is warm andstylish. The atmosphere succeeds in being elegantly serene even though, asregulars will tell you, things can get quite chaotic at lunchtimes and onSaturday mornings when the queues stream out the door. One customer reportedlytold Natasha that being at the Atholl Square store was like floating in acappuccino.

Natasha says the plan is to ensure thateach new Tasha’s has a unique flavour to maintain the boutique feel that is somuch a part of the brand. Maintaining consistency and quality is key,and is not always easy to do in the transition from restaurant to franchise.Natasha is adamant, however, that nothing will change. “Tasha’s is aboutquality meals made on order. We do not pre-prepare our food, nor will we set upa central kitchen. Everything will continue to be made onsite by people wholove food.”

Ask Natasha how she originally financedTasha’s and her eyes widen. “With great difficulty,” she replies. Glibnessaside, she not only found a silent partner, but also ended up borrowing a lotof money from the banks. “One of the reasons why it’s so important to beabsolutely passionate about what you are doing is that you are in major debt inthe beginning.” However, she cautions, it’s vital to have agood knowledge of finance before you embark on any business venture. Like manyentrepreneurs, Natasha and Savva did not always have an easy time of it in thebeginning. “We were very good restaurateurs, but not great business people,”says Natasha. “It’s really important to hone your financial skills when youdecide to open your own business.

We had to deal with unexpected costs, likethe additional R50 000 that was required to complete the first store. Inaddition, our margins were low at first, and it took us time to determinewhether we had priced our menu properly.

Natasha points out that it’s not wise to gointo business if you have to live off the business while you are financing it,and you have no unencumbered cash. “It’s impossible to live like that. That wasone of the main reasons for bringing in a silent partner. We were alsofortunate enough to have a huge amount of help from my father; with hisexperience in the restaurant industry, he mentored us through the process.”

Perhaps it was the open air appeal ofAtholl Square that helped to attract customers. Tasha’s took off from day one,with word of mouth and good reviews the only marketing tools the Siderisesused. By the sixth month, they knew they had a winner and they had provedthemselves in the marketplace. Their success spurred them on to open theBedfordview location two years later.

“Before Tasha’s opened in Bedfordview,people living in the east were forced to drive to the northern suburbs if theywanted a more elegant daytime venue,” says Natasha.Like its predecessor, the second restauranthas been a success from the start. “The conversion of the site took longer thanwe expected, and people would walk past and ask us when we were going to open.There was a huge amount of anticipation.”

How is Natasha adapting to the move fromhands-on owner to head office executive? It’s early days yet, but she says sheis enjoying the intellectual challenges involved in putting the business systemdown on paper. She also maintains that she will remain actively involved in thetwo stores on weekends. “Obsessive attention to detail, right down to checkingthat all the salt cellars face the same way, is what keeps customers comingback,” she says. “You are either five-star, or you’re not.” With the move to Famous Brands, she andSavva have had to put in place managers and measures to ensure the consistencyand ongoing success of the two stores. “We believe in giving people incentivesand in offering the right managers a share of the business,”

Natasha adds.“Your own success is often dependent on taking into account the hopes anddreams of others too.” The focus now is on the development of thefranchise system itself so that the team can hit the road running come Februarynext year when the three new stores are launched. The franchise joining fee hasbeen set at R200 000, which includes access to training and operations manuals,project management and design, basically equipping the franchisee with thewherewithal to run the business. The cost of each store will be dependent onsize and location, but is estimated at between R2,5 million to R3 million for aturnkey operation, right down to the table napkins and sugar bowls. Stores willbe sold only to owner-operators who have a passion for both food and customerservice.

Hedderwick points out that Famous Brandswas created by a family of entrepreneurs and the business embraces theentrepreneurial spirit wholeheartedly. “With my own background in the blue chipsector, I placed a huge emphasis on people and processes when I joined thebusiness. Today we have the best operational practices in place, all adapted tothe entrepreneurial environment.”

He adds one caveat. “I’ve entered into manytransactions and I’ve learnt that with the best will in the world, if thesynergy is not right between the partners, the relationship will fail. When thechemistry is not there, money becomes irrelevant.”

The negotiation process

It sounds too good to be true, but the dealbetween Famous Brands and Tasha’s was an easy one to conclude. “I suppose it’sbecause both parties knew exactly what they wanted,” says Natasha. “From ourside, we wanted the business infrastructure and resources that Famous Brandscould provide. I was also determined to ensure that the Tasha’s brand wouldnever be tampered with or commoditised.” For Famous Brands, the deal was aboutbuying a successful business that came along with the people who built it. Thiswill ensure that their creativity, individuality and love for the conceptendure throughout the growth of the franchise.

Despite the fact that it was such a simpledeal to close, Natasha insisted on legal representation and also consulted withher father – an experienced restaurant owner – to make sure she did not put afoot wrong.

The pay off                                                                                                                        

So what lies ahead for the Siderises nowthat they have sold 51% of Tasha’s? What’s interesting about this deal is thatit’s quite different from the norm for Famous Brands, which does not usuallyenter into joint ventures. “We retain 49% of the value of the business, andalong with that we are taken into the fold of the country’s leading foodservices company,” says Natasha. “We gain access to capital and resources.” Resources is a key word. Consider that ifthe Sideresis had gone into franchising on their own, the legal fees fordrawing up a franchise agreement alone would cost them in the range of R50 000each. “At the same time, our input into the brandremains the same,” adds Natasha. “It’s a win-win situation all round.”

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


Entrepreneur Profiles

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.

Nadine Todd




Vital stats

  • 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:

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.

Related: Which Of These 7 Personality Traits Do You Share With The World’s Richest People?

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.

Related: 8 Inspirational Quotes From Movie Mogul Steven Spielberg

“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.”

Related: Listen And Learn: Why Podcasts Aren’t Just For Start-up Founders

Listen to the podcast

Matt BrownMatt 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 or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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.

GG van Rooyen




Vital stats

  • Players: Michel M. Katuta and Thabo Mphate
  • Company: Afritorch Digital
  • Established: 2017
  • Visit:
  • 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.”

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

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.

Related: AutoTrader South Africa’s George Mienie Knows Disruptive Innovation Is More Than Shifting Gears

“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.

Take note

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.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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.

GG van Rooyen




Vital stats

  • Player: Jason English
  • Position: CEO
  • Company: Prommac
  • Associations: Young President’s Organisation (YPO)
  • Turnover: R300 million (R1 billion as a group)
  • Visit:
  • 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.

Jason English

Related: 5 Top Lessons From LAWTrust To Prepare For Super-Charged Growth

“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.

Related: Establishing The Wheels Of Change In Business

“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.”

Exponential growth

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.


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