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The Midas Touch: Hina Kassam & Irfan Pardesi

ACM Gold’s story spans three continents, and almost a decade of highs and lows. This is the story of how one sibling who paid his way through school, and another who didn’t go to varsity, have built a business with a turnover of R400 million that’s worth more than R3 billion.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Hina Kassam and Irfan Pardesi
  • Company: ACM Gold
  • Launched: 2005
  • Turnover: More than R400 million
  • Profit: R350 million
  • Company Value: R3 billion
  • Awards: World Finance Best Broker Africa 2013
  • ARABCom Best Broker 2012 (Middle East and Africa)
  • Contact: www.acmgold.com

Irfan Pardesi has never seen his father have money. His brothers and sisters have, but as the youngest child, his experiences were of his father losing everything – twice.

It’s not typically the kind of household that an entrepreneur would emerge from, where entrepreneurship meant tough times and a family struggling to make ends meet.

Related: 7 Essentials for Making R10 Million From Scratch

But for the youngest Pardesi, it meant something else: Survival. Growing up in Pakistan and nearing the end of high school, the young Irfan could have dropped out. His family could no longer afford to pay school fees, and by working he could help to pay the bills.

Instead, pushed by his sister Hina Kassam, who was married and living in the UK, he decided stay in school – whatever it took. He was good at his studies, and he wanted to get his A levels. “I started selling mobile phones to pay for my school fees,” he says, and his path to entrepreneurship began.

Wanted: Resourceful spirit

The-Midas-Touch--Hina-Kassam-&-Irfan-Pardesi_Entrepreneur-Profiles_Success-Stories

Today, Pardesi and Kassam run ACM Gold, a forex trading platform that spans international markets, and has a group turnover of R400 million, with very impressive profit margins. Launched in Pakistan, the business’s head office then moved to Dubai, before settling in South Africa.

“South Africa has everything we’ve been looking for. It’s a beautiful country, the climate is ideal, its banking sector is well regulated and trusted, and it offers all the skills we need,” says Pardesi. “We’ve found our home, and we have big growth plans.”

Having lived on three continents, the brother and sister duo have a good understanding of what they’re looking for. Kassam grew up in Pakistan, spent time living in Uganda and Kenya, and settled in London before moving to Dubai to head up ACM in the bustling UAE capital. While Kassam was in Uganda, Pardesi finished his A levels and was looking for a way to study in London.

“I had negotiated with my school to let me finish my A levels in one year instead of two. I needed to save costs. We were broke, there was a lot of unrest in Pakistan, and loans were piling up. I wanted to get on with my future.”

Getting his A levels didn’t solve any of Pardesi’s problems though.

“I would be the first person in my family to get a university degree, and they weren’t having any of it. My father had borrowed a lot of money, and my extended family expected me to start working as soon as I was out of school to help pay off those loans. I didn’t have permission to leave Pakistan to study abroad.”

But this was a kid who had paid his own school fees and finished his A levels in one year. He was going to get to London. The problem was that global events didn’t agree.

“I finished school in June, and started getting ready to leave for the UK. I’d told my family that I was going to Uganda for business. And then September 11 happened, and the British embassy in Pakistan closed.” There was no way Pardesi was getting a visa. The London School of Economics had accepted him, but he couldn’t get to the UK in time for his first semester.

Entrepreneurs are nothing if not resourceful. Their greatest strength is seeing an opportunity in every challenge, and finding solutions where others would give up. If he couldn’t get a visa in Pakistan, Pardesi would fly to Uganda. “Hina was living there and she had a friend in the UK embassy. I arrived in Uganda and they had arranged a British visa so that I could continue on to London.” Kassam had taken a loan and was able to give her brother £730 over and above the £1 500 he’d already saved up for his first term’s fees and living expenses while he found a job.

Becoming a specialist

Entrepreneurship is all about making it happen. Pardesi wanted to get his degree, and he needed to pay his way while also sending money home. In his first week, he secured a job at Starbucks, working 40 hours a week. But this didn’t leave much time for studies.

“I changed my schedule so that I went to university for two days, and worked five days a week. This meant skipping lectures that didn’t fit my schedule. I’d tried convincing the school board to change it for me, but they refused.”

Pardesi’s grades were good enough to qualify him for a scholarship in his second and third years though, and so when he graduated in 2004 he’d managed to not only save some money, but was living comfortably and still sending money home.

By this time, Kassam had moved back to London and was working in bank finance, and Pardesi secured a position at a boutique investment house that negotiated operational leases for aircraft.

“Our role was to find an investor, bank and carrier simultaneously, and then structure a deal. It wasn’t very complicated, but it was a highly specialised field that to outsiders looked scary and difficult. We were a boutique house, and yet institutions like Deutshe Bank and Goldman Sachs were asking us to value deals – and we could charge a premium price for our services.

Related: 9 Things Successful People Won’t Do

It was Pardesi’s first big lesson in business: Focus on what you know best. You don’t need to be a master of everything, you just need to know a lot about one thing. “We knew who we were, and we didn’t try to be anything else. It made us extremely good at what we did, and highly sought after in the market.”

It was also during this time that Pardesi was first introduced to currency. “We were advising our clients on currency derivatives and hedging of currencies, and an idea started percolating. I’d already learnt that as a specialised expert you garnered respect, and now I started thinking that as a ‘newbie’ if I wanted to launch something of my own, it needed to be in an area where my skills and knowledge were scarce, and I could make a difference.

“The obvious answer was an emerging economy.” Pardesi had saved $120 000 in bonuses and grown a seed fund as his idea continued to percolate, and then he suddenly found himself back at square one.

Reality check

“My father had a liability of $160 000 and my parents needed me to come home. The money I’d been sending helped with living expenses, but hadn’t solved their debt.” The seed funds went towards servicing that debt, and by early 2005 Pardesi found himself back in Pakistan looking for something to do.

“My sole goal was to accumulate as much money as quickly as possible to launch the business I really wanted,” he explains. “I did this in a number of ways. My father had started a small property valuations company that I got involved in. I understood valuations, and we were soon on a panel assisting Pakistani banks with property valuations.”

He also started importing mobile phones, and partnered with a local teacher to open an HR consultancy. “I was scrambling. None of these businesses had the scope I was looking for. They did well, and we made a profit on two of them when we sold them, but I knew they had limited growth potential. I was looking for something where the sky wasn’t even the limit.”

These businesses were fairly simple to set up and run, with low barriers to entry, but in the background Pardesi and Kassam were busy on a different project. “While I was still in the UK, Hina and I had developed a habit of visiting brokers and CEOs of trading houses to see what they were doing,” says Pardesi.

Kassam, in particular, was looking for an additional income stream. “I wanted to start trading forex so that I could leave the bank, but first I needed to learn as much as I could.” They made contact with a South African company, Global Trader, that was operating in the UK, and became introductory brokers (IBs), earning a commission if they introduced traders to the online platform.

By the end of 2005 both siblings were in a position to launch a forex trading company. Kassam was trading and doing well, and had made good connections in London. Pardesi had saved $22 000 in seed funding, and had sold the businesses he was involved in. His plan was to move back to London and launch the business. The plan lasted exactly as long as it took to book a ticket, move back to London, and turn right back around and return to Pakistan.

“I had no business plan; I just wanted to hit the ground running. And then I realised that the money I had saved wouldn’t even last two months in London. I immediately turned around and went back to Pakistan,” he laughs, recalling the shock of realising the miscalculation.

Kassam stayed in London with her husband and family. She would negotiate the platform deals in the UK and Pardesi would set up the business in Pakistan.

Lessons learnt, and improvements made

ACM-Gold_Success-stories

The launch of Accentuate Capital Markets (ACM) in 2005 taught Pardesi his second big lesson in business: You can launch a highly successful business with limited funds.

“After saving and losing my start-up capital, and then saving up again only to realise it wasn’t enough, we needed to find a way to bootstrap the business. My aim was still to reach for the stars, but first we needed to start building a brand, earning a good reputation and securing a client base. We needed to start small to become big.”

The partners worked out a way to launch with limited investment capital. “Hina approached Global Traders and negotiated a deal with them. She was already a client of theirs, plus we’d been IBs for their brand for over a year. They knew us, and we were always aware of how important relationships are in business, so we’d fostered the relationship we had with them.

“We told them we’d be trading in Pakistan and getting them new clients in an emerging market, but we needed their platform for free. Their model was to charge monthly minimums to businesses that used their platform, but we couldn’t afford those fees, so this negotiation was essential to the success of our start-up.

“All trades would still go through their offices in London, and they’d make the commission, of which we took a small percentage. We were working off low margins, but we needed the platform to get started, and eventually they agreed. We were in business.”

Once the deal was signed, Pardesi focused on securing great office space. “Our fees were small, so we needed to focus on volumes. This meant having a good office that people could visit, meet me and the dealers, and feel secure depositing their money with us. Our primary investment went into that first office and securing a few dealers.”

Pardesi had promised Global Trader 400 to 500 new clients each month, which was one of the reasons they had agreed to give them the platform without charging fees, and they now had to deliver. “We’d convinced ourselves (and them) that Pakistan was a new market with endless opportunities and no real
competition.”

The reality turned out quite different. Growth was extremely slow. Pardesi kept the business lean, and they achieved break-even in the first month, thanks to existing clients and contacts, but they were nowhere near their target of 500 clients.

Related: How to Never Give Up On Becoming an Entrepreneur

“I think one of the single biggest lessons I’ve learnt in business, and one we’ve carried through to every decision we’ve made since, is the importance and power of localisation,” says Pardesi. “Entrepreneurs are problem solvers. That’s what we do. But that doesn’t mean much if you’re trying to solve a problem that’s not your target market’s main concern.”

ACM was following the model of a broker based in the UK who does business online. It worked very well in the established UK, US and European markets, but not in Pakistan’s emerging market. “Online trading wasn’t embraced. Even though we had dealers that our clients could call, and white papers we distributed to educate our market, the model just wasn’t taking off.”And then Global Trader went bankrupt. It was completely unexpected as the business had been growing.

“We needed to regroup and re-evaluate what we were doing. It’s never nice to see a business go under, especially one you have a relationship with, but it did force us to change our model, this time with a much better understanding of our market guiding us.”

The secret of localisation

First, Kassam started negotiations with online platform providers that centred on a more holistic partnership. The reason was two-fold.

“Previously, we only hosted the platform and provided on-the-ground support. All accounts had to be set up through our UK partner, and approvals took up to a week and a half. This time delay meant people couldn’t start trading immediately. It also meant that they were essentially doing business with two companies – us and Global Trader, which could become confusing, and all trades were done in foreign currency.”

Kassam’s negotiations with a new online trading platform resulted in a very different business model. The platform was white labelled, so all trades were conducted through an ACM-branded site, which meant the client had only one point of contact. ACM also had power of approval, which meant they could approve new clients and get them trading immediately.

Their next big change was to localise trades. For the first time in the global trading environment, ACM offered a local trading denomination for gold.

“The subcontinent’s gold measurement is the tola. Around the world, gold is traded in US dollars per ounce. We allowed trades in rupees per tola, and did the conversions ourselves. It was a small change that Hina negotiated, with huge ramifications. No one had thought of localising trades. It wasn’t rocket science, or even difficult to do, but it meant our clients could trade in a denomination they were familiar with, and it made a huge difference to their confidence in their own trades, and our platform.”

The third big shift in the business model was focused specifically on how their clients traded. “Our dealers were extremely busy as clients would rather call them and have them make the trades than do it themselves online. They also liked dropping in to the office, and those who did so traded more frequently and for bigger amounts. They loved our environment.”

Armed with this knowledge, Pardesi made a decision that would never have worked in London. He cancelled his sales and marketing budget and redirected everything towards creating a physical trading environment that people wanted to be a part of.

“We had no sales consultants, but we did have three cooks, for example,” he says. “Clients could walk in day or night and order a drink, food – we even had staff who could run errands for them – all for free. We wanted them to feel at home. We were no longer trying to change the social behaviour of our clients; we were adjusting our model to suit their behaviour.”

Soon, clients started bringing friends. It was a lively, social atmosphere where everyone was pampered. “There was something about the energy of the trading floor that they loved. You walked in and you were immediately a part of something special.” Pardesi’s brother, who is a real people’s person, also joined the business, and the company finally started seeing the volumes it had hoped for in its first year, with turnover growing tenfold.

Spreading too thin

By 2007 Pardesi once again started feeling the itch for growth. Their office was doing well, so what was next? “We opened an office in Cyprus as our foothold into the European market, but we soon realised that while we understood the Pakistani market, the European market was very different. We just weren’t making any headway.”

In early 2008, a third office was opened in Dubai, which had a similar environment and structures to those in Pakistan, but real growth still evaded the brother and sister partnership. “We had lost sight of that key lesson: Localisation,” says Pardesi. “We were trying to branch out when we had a model suited to the market we were already in, based in a city of 21 million people! What about opening more offices in the area where we already operated, and had proven our model?”

Pardesi and Kassam now started actively concentrating on a model that had originally brought them into the industry – that of paying commission to local IBs who introduced new clients to the platform. “Each IB could open their own local office based on our model, work off our platform and use our systems. It meant owner-managers across the region were promoting and growing our brand, while building sustainable and profitable businesses themselves.”

It was the start of Pardesi’s realisation that their business model didn’t only help people trade, but also created wealth for local business owners.

“We’ve created many dollar millionaires over the past few years, and we’re proud of that. We don’t charge a minimum, because we got our start that way, and we share a percentage of the commission.” By late 2009 there were 277 offices spread across Pakistan all based on Pardesi’s model and using the company’s own system, which they built between 2008 and 2009.

“Building our own platform was the next logical move. We’d saved up the business’s profits and wanted to create a platform that had the capacity for thousands of simultaneous trades, was highly secure, looked good and was easy to use – and we could hire top international talent to help us do it.”

It was also a business that benefited from the recession. “This helped our growth in two ways. First, people wanted to be in control of their money, which made online trading desirable. Second, in a volatile market, gold prices go up. It’s seen as a long-term, stable commodity. We re-branded as ACM Gold, and focused on this market. Our trade in local currencies and denominations enhanced our success.”

By 2010 expansion was back on the cards. Dubai’s office was doing nicely, and ACM Gold now started eyeing India, which had a similar environment to Pakistan. Pardesi had also opened offices in Malaysia, Macedonia and Slovenia, and began the process of disinvesting from these markets.

“We wanted to grow, but recognised that these markets didn’t want the model that we were so good at. While we realised that we might have to change the model to reach our next level of growth because business is about adapting with the times, it wouldn’t be in those areas.” So where was the next opportunity? The answer was easy – Africa.

The move to South Africa

Pardesi and his wife had honeymooned in South Africa in 2008, and at the time she made him promise that they would return to the rainbow nation. Two years later, that time had come.

“We recognised the huge potential Africa had to offer. We’re suited to emerging markets, and we’d already learnt that localisation works. If we wanted to expand in Africa, we needed to operate locally. South Africa was the perfect fit.

“It has a well-respected Financial Services Board, is one of 11 countries that understands forex, and has a highly trusted banking environment thanks to strong regulations. We knew that people would be comfortable sending their money here, and trading through a local platform.”

Pardesi had also opened offices in Madagascar, Uganda and Kenya which readily accepted ACM’s tried and tested model – but South Africa didn’t.

“It was a big reminder that you can’t make assumptions about a market until you’re physically operating in it,” says Pardesi.

“We had country managers in our satellite offices around the world, and Hina was splitting her time between Johannesburg and Dubai. We had closed most of the Pakistan offices and had handed them over to local brokers. We had a big deal pending with the Pakistan Exchange, and we wanted to concentrate on our growth in Africa — but we just weren’t getting it right.” Then Pardesi realised their error. South Africa may be classified as an emerging economy, but it also resembles Europe. It needed a different kind of localisation.

“South Africans understand forex in a way that many other nations don’t. Everyone has grown up watching how the rand is faring. We quickly realised that South Africans don’t want to be involved in anything they don’t understand. They won’t trade unless they know how the system works and what they’re doing. If we wanted to do well in this country, we needed to cater to this specific need – we needed to educate our market.”

Where Pakistan and India were happy to trade with the advice of their dealers and wanted a social trading floor, South Africans are comfortable trading online, but want to be educated before they do so. As a result, ACM Gold invested in UFG (University of Forex and Gold), a training platform designed with the assistance of Adriano Tabasso, through which they could begin training people.

While this is steadily growing into a comfortable secondary revenue stream, its original mandate holds true: To create a market for ACM Gold by educating the public. “In many ways, South Africans are like Europeans. They don’t want to trade as a hobby, they want to trade full-time, and this takes a keen understanding of the market.”

The fact that ACM’s platform can be localised is a plus point, as all trades are done in rands and dealers can assist their clients in their own language. “We added Kruger Rands to our offering because South Africans understand and are comfortable with them,” adds Kassam.

Pardesi returned to his IB model. “I made a point of attending franchise expos and approaching local brokers. We needed to bring re-sellers on board, and we had a model that made sense. We’re based in South Africa – when you deal with us there isn’t a boss or platform that is operating overseas, everything is here, in local currency. Decisions can be made quickly, and all support is easily available.”

Consolidation for growth

By 2013, the market had grown and changed enough to warrant a relook at the original online model. “The Internet and consumer comfort with online models and trading has come a long way in the last seven years,” says Pardesi.

“We were buying back offices in Pakistan that we hadn’t already closed, and consolidating the business out of South Africa. We can have clients around the world trading through our online platforms now, so the local office model is no longer relevant.”

Today, there is only one small office in each of ACM’s regions with trusted local partners supporting the online trading platform. “If the market isn’t yet comfortable with online, we don’t look at it. We’ll wait two years and they’ll come to us via our online platforms, based in South Africa.”

Top tips

  • Focus on what you know best. The best businesses aren’t masters of everything — they’re specialists in one key area, and invaluable to their clients as a result.
  • Even big brands start small. You don’t need millions to launch a company. Make some strategic partnerships that everyone benefits from, start small and be patient.
  • Localisation is everything. You can be a big, multi-national company, but always take the current, on-the-ground clients into account. Design your business offering with their needs in mind. What works in one market won’t necessarily work in another.
  • Shift the business when the market changes. Don’t hold onto something because it worked well in the past — times change, move with them.
  • Don’t make assumptions. You’ll only understand a market once you’re actually operating in it. Launch your business or local office, but be prepared to shift your model as you learn about the market and what it wants.
  • If your business allows, build a network of re-sellers that believe in you and your products, and help them achieve their goals — you will automatically achieve yours.
  • If you want to get the best out of people, appreciate their efforts lavishly and give them a path to grow and prove themselves.  The bigger the dream, the more important the team.
  • If everything seems to be under control, you’re not going fast enough.

Trading + Gaming = Traming

Pardesi’s latest project is traming.com, an android app that merges trading with gaming.

“Traming.com has been created to give everyone easy access to the financial markets,” explains Pardesi.

“The concept emerged from the understanding that in this age of simplification, people are constantly looking for quicker, simpler ways of doing things, and in that vein, even online trading was still too time consuming. I wanted to develop an app that made trading fun, quick and easy.”

With Traming.com, users can decide what direction the market will take in an allotted time frame. Will it be up or down in the next 60 seconds? Get it right, and you’ll see up to 85% return on your investment — within 60 seconds.

“These trades are available on most global asset’s including currencies, commodities and shares,” concludes Pardesi. 

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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

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paul-hutton-joel-stransky-and-bruce-arnold-of-pivotal-group

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: 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.

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

pivotal-group

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

pivotal-group-south-africa-founders

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 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.

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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

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michel-m-katuta-and-thabo-mphate-of-afritorch-digital

Vital stats

  • 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.”

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

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Vital stats

  • 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.

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.

prommac

“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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