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Virgin: Richard Branson

Richard Branson – innovator, philanthropist and the ultimate entrepreneur – has developed a powerful business philosophy that generates opportunity from conflict and contradiction.

Greg Fisher

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Richard Branson of the Virgin Group of Companies

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, is the only person in the world to have built eight billion dollar companies from scratch in eight different sectors. One of those companies, Virgin Mobile USA, reached a billion dollars in revenue faster than any other company in history, faster than Google, Microsoft and Amazon. So how does he do it? What mindsets, tactics, strategies, practices and philosophies have enabled this extraordinary entrepreneur to build a privately held business empire of over 200 companies operating in over 15 countries and across multiple industries (travel, publishing, retail stores, gyms, telecommunications, entertainment, financial services, healthcare, beverages), all proudly carrying the Virgin brand?

 
This article draws on insights from three books: Losing my Virginity (1998); Screw It, Let’s Do It (2004) and Business Stripped Bare (2008) to unpack what makes Branson and the Virgin brand so successful.

Richard Branson was never educated in a business school or university; in fact he did not even finish high school. He learned his business lessons “on the street”. Action, experimentation and adaptation are central to his development of a powerful and practical business philosophy – a philosophy from which we can all learn a great deal. Central to his philosophy is his ability to deal with paradox – he has learned to become comfortable with ambiguity and he has developed a mindset that enables him to effectively develop innovative new businesses within the context of contradiction and uncertainty. Many people regard Branson as a flamboyant, attention-seeking prankster/adventurer billionaire with a high-flying playful lifestyle. Yet, when you examine more closely how he does things you soon discover that he is very deliberate and reasoned in the way he uses his time to maximise his impact in different areas of his business empire. He pays very close attention to detail when necessary; making copious notes about what needs to be improved. He is dedicated to execution and delivery and he still has an active hand in managing many aspects of his business empire. Thus, although he does some wild and crazy things that attract a great deal of media attention, these antics most often have a clear purpose and contribute effectively to the expansion of the Virgin empire. Here are seven specific paradoxes that appear to have contributed significantly to the business success of Branson and to the growth of the Virgin Brand.

The Branson mindset

  1. Be gutsy but protect the downside risk

Branson is nothing if not gutsy. Calculated risk lies at the core of what he has achieved as an entrepreneur. He has shown guts and bravado in the small things and the big. His idea to launch an airline came when he and his wife, Joan, were stranded in an airport in the Virgin Islands on route to Puerto Rico after an American Airlines flight was cancelled. “The terminal was full of stranded passengers. I had had enough,” he says. “I called a few charter companies and agreed to charter a plane for
$2 000 to Puerto Rico. I borrowed a blackboard, divided the charter cost by the number of people stranded, and wrote down the number. We got everyone to Puerto Rico for $39 a head”.  In addition to small nervy things he also did massive, sometimes scary things.  He took on a number of the world’s super brands, including Coke and British Airways. In some instances Virgin came out on top and in the other instances Branson was left licking his wounds. Yet he was never discouraged and has always been keen for the next big business adventure. He makes the point that “to be a serious entrepreneur, you have to be prepared to step off the precipice. Yes it’s dangerous. There can be times, having jumped, when you find yourself in free fall without a parachute. There is a real prospect that some business ventures will go smashing into the ground. It has certainly been very close at times throughout my own business life. Then you reach out and grab a ledge with your fingertips – and claw your way back to safety.”

Yet whenever Branson has taken on risk, he always sought to protect the downside and was clear on what he was putting in and what he was willing to lose. “What’s the most critical factor in any business decision that you will ever have to make?” he asks. “Basically, it boils down to this question: If this all crashes, will it bring the whole house tumbling down like a pack of cards? One business mantra remains embedded in my brain – protect the downside”. He protected the downside in every venture that he went into: when he bought his first plane he negotiated a deal with Boeing to sell it back to them in the first year if things did not work out; when he went into mobile phones, he used others’ networks instead of building his own to avoid the massive capital investment and when he went into cola he set aside what he was willing to spend (and lose if necessary) so that he would not be drawn into pouring more and more money into a venture with an uncertain future.


  1. Simplify things but appreciate complexity

Branson almost always seeks to understand and describe issues in their simplest form. Most people in business seek to make things more complex – consider the international accounting standards, or Porter’s Five Forces1, or a description of the reasons underlying the recent financial crises. All these things require a deep level of analysis and an examination of intricate detail just to understand what is going on. Yet, when Branson looks at a new business or a problem within an existing business, he always strives to explain it, for himself and for others, as simply as possible. He says: “It is vital to think clearly, reducing business to its essentials…Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make things more complex. It is hard to make things simple”.

 
Making things as simple as possible allows him to appreciate the essence of an issue or a business model and to evaluate a proposal or a problem based on gut feel and intuition, without getting too wrapped up in numbers, analysis and calculations. His simple approach to business helped him make quick and efficient decisions when deciding on an approach to get into mobile telephony, when making decisions about setting up a consumer finance arm and when first making a call about setting up an airline. In all cases he merely considered key issues from the customer’s perspective and came up with simple solutions to solve a clear customer need. Yet, while Branson is all about simplicity, he does not shy away from complexity. Although he will often, in a humble way, try to describe himself as a simple person, he takes the time to understand the intricate key details of an issue when he realises that simplification will not give him the answers he needs. He has therefore educated himself on key, complex details pertaining to global warming. He has researched and tried to get into the gritty detail of the social and scientific factors driving the Aids pandemic and he educated himself on banking regulations in the process of trying to make a bid for Northern Rock (the massive banking institution first hit by the mortgage crisis in the UK). Thus, Branson is neither simple nor complex, he is both. He first tries to simplify issues and if that does not give him the solution he needs, he delves into the complex details, often with the help of experts.

    3.  Listen to experts but make your own decisions 

Branson has always surrounded himself with brilliant people. A large part of his success can be attributed to his uncanny ability to quickly and easily tap into the collective wisdom of those around him. He has never once been a specialist in any area where he has set up a business – he knew nothing of journalism and publishing when he first started a magazine called Student as a sixteen year-old school pupil yet he asked lots of questions of anyone in the know and hired people who had worked for a magazine before. After a few months of running the business as a high-school pupil, using the school’s pay-phones to call advertisers, he dropped out of school to focus on the business full time and continued to learn from others who were willing to share their business knowledge and insight with him.
 
When creating Virgin Atlantic he tapped into the experience and wisdom of Sir Freddy Laker, the founder of Skytrain, a no frills, low cost airline offering transatlantic flights that was launched in 1977 and squeezed out of the market by the major airlines in 1982. In 1984 Branson had meals with ‘Freddy’, called him numerous times and unashamedly asked him for help and advice. When making a bid for Northern Rock, he convinced Sir Brian Pitman, “the leading banker of his generation and a man of huge know-ledge” to become the chairman of the committee making the Virgin bid. This did not come easily, says Branson, “But I pestered him and eventually he relented. He would at least hear us out”. After hearing them out and agreeing to come on as chairman, Branson had the most knowledgeable and credible person possible to help him understand the risks and rules related to banking.
 
Yet, in spite of always looking for the best people to help provide information and insight, Branson is adamant that the final decision must belong to the person taking the risk. Entrepreneurs cannot outsource the important decisions and the development of big ideas. He says: “You need to flesh out your own ideas. You need to do your own research. You need to take responsibility for how you plan to turn an idea into action. That way when you approach the experts – the accountants and the legal brains – they have something to get their teeth into.” 

         4. Tackle adversity head-on but have a plan B

In the first week that Virgin Atlantic flights were flying from London to New     York and back again, Branson got a visit from the bank. Virgin was “insolvent” they told him. The company had used its three million pound facility and he was told he would need to shut the airline down and cut his losses. Branson spent an anxious few days literally hiding from his bankers while he put arrangements in place to extend his overdraft facility with another bank. He could see that Virgin was in a temporary bind yet others told him he had failed and should shut the thing down. If he had believed them we may never have had Virgin planes flying all over the world today. He says that in every one of his businesses there were moments of extreme challenge, where doubt set in and he questioned whether the initial grand idea would ever work. The true entrepreneur must be able to “distinguish between real and apparent danger… you need to understand the challenges to your enterprise and face up to them. Equally you have to resist the temptation to overreact at the first sign of trouble.” He goes on to say, “ If you’re hurt, lick your wounds and get up again.
 
If you’ve given it your absolute best, it’s time to move forward … as I write this the economy is deteriorating; it may be that some of you will be faced with this task in the near future.” Although Branson is a big proponent of persistence, he has also learned to recognise that it is important to have a plan B. One cannot just press on down a particular path if something significant changes. When Branson set up Virgin Records, his LP mail order business in 1970, he took out adverts in many music magazines to say that Virgin would be selling LPs via mail order. Everything was in place and orders were flowing in but a few days later “the post men and women of Britain began a bitter dispute for more pay. The strike lasted forty-four long and desperate days for us – and our business dried up. We needed to diversify the brand. Fast,” says Branson. “Here I learned another key fact about running a business: try to have a plan B.” A few days later they had secured a short-term rental on some retail space in Oxford Street and a few weeks later they had opened a music retail store, giving the company an alternative distribution channel.

      5. Be yourself but learn from others

In his most recent book, Business Stripped Bare, Branson is very explicit about his understanding of entrepreneurship: “It’s about turning what excites you in life into capital, so that you can do more of it and move forward with it. I think entrepreneurship is our natural state – a big adult word probably boils down to something much more obvious like ‘playfulness’. I believe that drudgery and clock-watching are a terrible betrayal of that universal, inborn entrepreneurial spirit.” Therefore, at its core, entrepreneurship is about being yourself and doing what you want to do the way you want to do it. But while Branson believes it is important to be true to oneself, he also embraces the opportunity to learn and borrow ideas and insights from other entrepreneurial legends. In the book he goes into great detail about what he has learned from Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, from Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, from Sergy Brin and Larry Page, the Google founders and from Nelson Mandela (no explanation necessary). He has carefully examined the mindset and practices of these people and adopted what he believes will work for him and for the Virgin group of companies.  

   6. Diversify but know what’s core

Branson points out that diversity of the Virgin Group is one of the brand’s key strengths. The diversity of revenue streams, industries and geographies will give it the ability to endure in the economic downturn. “Right now everyone in battening down the hatches and preparing for the twenty-first century’s first really big global recession. Virgin turns out to be ready for the storm as well, because its risks are spread; the failure on one part – even a major part – will not ruin the whole.” Although Branson sees this as a strength of the group, many times Virgin has been accused of being a disparate group of companies with no common core and no real focus. Yet, despite the group’s diversity, Branson is absolutely clear about the group’s focus and what binds its many companies together. He says: “Contrary to appearances, Virgin is as focused as any great company. Its oddness comes from what it focuses on. We might have hit upon the exception that proves the rule: our customers and investors relate to us more as an idea or a philosophy than as a company… Virgin’s success seems to contradict the wise rule that you should stick to what you love… I have never made any secret of what gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s the challenge. It’s the brand…. what gets me up in the morning is the customer, the idea of giving the customer a good time. ” 


  7. Be patient and observe but take bold action

Branson is most often depicted as a person who takes quick, risky decisions, many of which have paid off, making him very rich over time. Yet he explains that he and the managers in the Virgin group are often more watchful and cautious than depicted in the press. “This is the unseen part of the business,” he explains, “the part that nobody ever discusses because, to be fair, there’s not a lot to discuss. The secret to success in any new sector is watchfulness, usually over a period of many years. It’s hard to spin waiting and watching into a vibrant business lesson, but if there’s one thing you take away let it be this: that Virgin’s sudden emergence as a leader in cutting edge industries was decades in the making. You need a huge amount of sheer curiosity to make it in a new sector.” While being watchful one does need to come to the point of taking action and this is where one’s entrepreneurial inclinations play a key role.
 
Branson describes an entrepreneur as a person who has “the dynamism to get something started. They view the world differently from other people. They create opportunity that others don’t necessarily see and have the guts to give it a go.”

These seven paradoxes capture the healthy tension that any entrepreneur needs to embrace and Branson has done a remarkable job of recognising paradox and developing a business philosophy for making the most of conflict and contradiction. He is the ultimate entrepreneur and an inspiration and voice for other entrepreneurs, as reflected in this bold statement: “Entrepreneurship is business’s beating heart. Entrepreneurship isn’t about capital; it’s about ideas. A great deal of entrepreneurship can be taught, and we desperately need to teach it, as we confront the global challenges of the twenty-first century. Entrepreneurship is about excellence – not excellence measured in awards, or other peoples’ approval, but the sort one achieves for oneself, by exploring what the world has to offer. I wrote to someone recently who, like me, is dyslexic. I said that it is important to look for one’s strengths – try to excel at what you are good at. What you’re bad at actually doesn’t interest people, and it certainly shouldn’t interest you. However accomplished you become in life, the things you are bad at will always outnumber the things you are good at. So don’t let your limits knock your confidence. Push them to one side and push yourself toward your strengths.”

Branson: A man of many milestones

For Sir Richard Branson, getting the most out of life has come from a combination of business and pleasure–though this guy’s idea of pleasure tends to be a little warped. Hot air balloon crash landings in the ocean. Boats sinking out from underneath him. Fighting arctic wind and temperature in ’round-the-world attempts. What follows are the highpoints from Branson’s life–so far.

1950–Richard Branson is born in Blackheath, South London. No word on whether he was the first baby to leap from crib to crib on his way to a record.

1967–Branson set up a charity called Student Advisory Centre, which came on the heels of his first successful business, a magazine called Student.

1970–Branson, barely 20 years old, founded Virgin, which operated out of the trunk of his car for a time and then was established as a mail-order record business.

1977–Bucking other record labels’ conventional wisdom, Branson signed the Sex Pistols to his Virgin Records music label, which the budding entrepreneur had founded in 1972. Virgin Records is now part of EMI.

1984–In a move that led to a protracted lawsuit with British Airways, Branson founded Virgin Atlantic Airways. He eventually prevailed against British Airways and received a hefty settlement.

1986–No longer content solely with the buzz of starting new businesses, Branson unleashed his adventuresome side. In 1985, he made an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Atlantic by boat in world-record time. He had better luck in ’86, breaking the record by a couple of hours in the Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, successor to a waterlogged Virgin Atlantic Challenger.

1987–Eschewing the water for the air, Branson became the first human–and, presumably, the first creature of any kind–to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon, the Virgin Atlantic Flyer, the largest balloon ever.

1991–Not to be outdone–by himself–Branson crossed the Pacific Ocean in another, even larger, hot air balloon, establishing a record for some other adventuresome soul to chase.

1997–In a move that may seem odd to Americans and their car-centric culture but makes perfect sense to Europeans, Branson founded Virgin Trains.

1998–Branson made his last attempt to circle the globe in a balloon, coming up short with an unscheduled stop in Hawaii. (Even the guy’s letdowns lead to sunny places.)

2004–Not content to leave behind the trappings of sea and land, Branson founded Virgin Galactic, with plans to provide sub-orbital spaceflights for those willing to spend $200,000 or more to leave behind the trappings of gravity.

2007–The merger of several media companies with different media interests led to the founding of Virgin Media Inc., a provider of television, mobile phone, internet and land-line phone services.

Greg Fisher, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Management & Entrepreneurship Department at the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. He teaches courses on Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Turnaround Management. He has a PhD in Strategy and Entrepreneurship from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington in Seattle and an MBA from the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). He is also a visiting lecturer at GIBS.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

8 Codes Of Success That Helped Priven Reddy of Kagiso Interactive Media Achieve A Networth Of Over R4 Billion

It’s taken 12 years, but not only is Priven Reddy a self-made millionaire at the age of 36, he sits at the helm of five companies and 380 employees, and his companies have R4 billion in assets. Here’s how a kid from Chatsworth in Durban stopped blaming his fate on everyone else and took control of his destiny.

Nadine Todd

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priven-reddy

Vital Stats

  • Player: Priven Reddy
  • Company: Kagiso Interactive Media
  • Launched: 2006
  • Start-ups: Krypteum (launched 2017). Krypteum allows traders to buy a cryptocurrency coin and have their investment managed by artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities.
    • Dryvar (launched end-July 2017)
    • Shypar (launched January 2018)
  • Net worth including crypto assets holdings: Over R4 billion
  • Visit: www.kagisointeractive.com

As a kid growing up in the 90s, Priven Reddy had a rough childhood after the passing of his dad. “After my father unexpectedly died, my mom settled down with a man who later became an alcoholic. There were times when we wouldn’t have food to eat,” he candidly recalls. It’s a stark reality, but one that laid the foundations for the man Priven would become, and he doesn’t shy away from unpleasant memories.

Instead, young Priven soon figured out that he needed a paradigm of how he viewed the world or he would be consumed by it. Over the years he has built up a framework of eight codes that he not only lives by, but believes has shaped his success and more importantly, the mindset that has been instrumental in achieving that success. By adopting them he has turned his life around and then used them to rapidly climb the success ladder of the corporate world once his foundations were in place. 

Code 1: Find your inner drive and keep feeding it

For Priven, the pivotal moment that forced him to shift his attitude in life is still a fresh memory, despite the intervening years. “I was 20 and waiting tables at a restaurant at the Gateway Theatre of Shopping. One of my customers had finished eating and gestured over his plate containing some left over, half eaten pizza. ‘Here, this is for you,’ he told me with mistaken generosity. ‘Put it in a doggy-bag and take it home.’ His words were like a sucker punch to my dignity. I couldn’t believe it. Was this how our society treated its poor?”

It was the last straw in a series of blows that Priven had endured that day. He’d been rejected by a girl whom he’d asked out, on the basis that she wouldn’t date anyone who didn’t own a car. That morning his family had also once again shared their disapproval over the way he was living his life.

“They called me an embarrassment. It stung — and it stuck in my mind. To top it off, I arrived at work that day and the owner of the restaurant took me aside and told me that I had too much potential to be working as a waiter my whole life. He was thinking of firing me so that I would get out of my comfort zone and do something else.”

After his run-in with the customer later that day, Priven went outside the mall, reflecting on what had happened that day and his life in general. “It was like someone snapped their fingers and woke me from a bad dream. I would never let anyone belittle me or impinge on my dignity again. Then and there I made a decision: I would no longer be the victim of my own fate. I was going to be the master of my own destiny.”

Hungry to prove himself, the promise was more than just words for Priven. He knew that he needed to take matters into his own hands and start making some real changes. “Once I stopped blaming the world for everything that went against me, I started to grow. I began to see challenges as opportunities and I was able to channel that energy into a positive inner drive. I began to understand that things don’t happen to you, they happen for you. That shift changed everything for me.”

Related: 30 Top Influential SA Business Leaders

Code 2: The biggest opportunities are found where things are the most difficult

“The first principal I learnt is that in adversity lies opportunity. In a business sense this means being able to identify the challenges people have and create a solution that takes away these difficulties.”

It was a lesson Priven was already learning in primary school. The school had a small tuckshop catering for over 1 000 kids. Long, frustrated lines meant many kids ended up missing their entire lunch break waiting to be served. The young entrepreneur immediately spotted a gap. “I borrowed some money and bought bags of chips and chocolates and sweets from a local wholesaler. I started at the back of the queue and sold to the kids one by one all the way down the line. I sold out quickly and made more profit than the tuck shop vendors because I didn’t have any overheads.”

The small business only lasted a few weeks before the school shut it down, but Priven took something away from the experience more valuable than some extra cash in his pocket — he’d found validation that his approach to business worked.

“How do you make things easier for people? Answer that and you’re making money. Difficulties can be found everywhere, regardless of class or creed. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. It could be a blue-collar factory worker at the end of the day not being able to go to the supermarket to purchase groceries because they’ll miss their taxi home. Or it could be wealthy early-adopters interested in investing in blockchain technology, but not having the time or know-how to manage their cryptocurrency portfolio effectively.”

Priven doesn’t let insurmountable tasks discourage him. “If it’s difficult, there are fewer competitors who will enter that field. It’s that simple. Most people are daunted by the challenge and find something else to do. However, that’s where the real opportunity lies. I believe the impossible is not unachievable — it’s just a niche market.”

This same philosophy has driven Priven to explore highly technical sectors, including augmented reality (which he began exploring over six years ago), and how to incorporate artificial intelligence into crytocurrencies.

“I love doing difficult things. That’s the space where a lot of money can be made,” he says.

Code 3: There’s no substitute for hard work

According to his close friends and family, Priven’s capacity for burning both ends of the candle is legendary. He’s proud that entrepreneurship runs in his DNA, a trait fostered by his late father, Christie Reddy, from an early age. The founder of a national logistics company, Christie owned a fleet of more than 100 trucks and boasted a client base of multi-national accounts when he was killed in a fatal road accident. A series of hijackings, theft and mismanagement quickly saw the company crashing into bankruptcy. Priven was just 11 years old and his world was ripped apart.

“My dad taught us the value of working hard from a young age,” he says. “My four siblings and I were always competing in entrepreneurial games. He even sub-divided the back garden into five small vegetable plots and gave us each a packet of seeds. The challenge was to see who could grow their own veggies and herbs and then sell them door-to-door. ‘After paying your mum and me for the cost of the seeds and fertilizer, the one who makes the biggest profit is the winner,’ he told us.”

For Priven the challenge wasn’t work though — it was fun. And that sense of fun has always persisted. To this day he says it’s not hard work if you’re having fun.

“I think my dad knew that by giving us these business principals, skills and tools at a young age, he was laying the foundations for our future independence. He knew this was more valuable than any trust fund he could set up.”

Today, all of Priven’s siblings are successful entrepreneurs operating their own businesses in diverse industry sectors, ranging from one of the leading app development companies in Africa and the Middle East to a large independent events management company, to South Africa’s only business consultancy for tech start-ups, to a niche organic farm in the Western Cape.

Code 4: Perseverance always pays off

Priven launched Kagiso Interactive as a web design agency 12 years ago in what he calls ‘the wild west days’ of the IT industry in South Africa. “I had learnt graphic design at my brother-in-law’s design studio and was making a little money doing a few below-the-line advertising projects for clients. I had a chance meeting with a guy in a coffee shop who said ‘You need to meet my brother — he does web design. Maybe you can work together.’

“Web design was still pretty new. We met, and ended up launching a small start-up from his garage, combining my graphic design and business skills with his web-building skills. We began attracting some clients and even employed a few people. But it was tough. The garage flooded every time it rained. We moved into an office block but we weren’t stable yet. After eight months my business partner left, along with most of our employees.”

For Priven, it felt like he was in a downward spiral. He was 24 years old and finally feeling like he was building something worthwhile. At this point, after everything he’d been through, quitting wasn’t an option.

“With only one employee left, I advised him to find a job at a larger company as well. It was a steep learning curve, but I hung in there. I wanted him to find security, but I was determined to make a go of it for myself.”

One of Priven’s customers, the owner of Tudor Hotel in Durban, offered him some space, furniture and equipment so that he could continue working, and told him he could start paying rent once he brought in revenue. It gave Priven the start he needed.

Related: Inspiring Entrepreneur Siyanda Dlamini Believes You Need To Back Yourself To Build Your Dreams

Code 5: Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone

priven-reddy-expert-advice

With his fledgling business downsized, Priven looked online for new markets. He registered his company’s services on eLance to broaden his market-base and tap into an international client-base.

“I met an IT entrepreneur who was based in India through an online platform. We became friends and spent a lot of time discussing our companies, our clients and troubleshooting any business problems we experienced. He planted the seeds of app development in my head. I remember telling him it was a ridiculous idea, but he wouldn’t let it go.”

It was 2009 and the Indian Government was largely investing in IT and mobile applications, two things that were virtually unheard of in South Africa. The Google Play Store was only launched in 2012. Priven wasn’t sold on the idea, but he eventually allowed himself to be convinced, largely because he just needed to sell it.

“I didn’t need to build up a team because I could outsource any development to India, so the risk was really low,” he says. “We’d basically do a web search and contact any companies we found who made money from their websites and we’d offer them an app. It wasn’t the easiest sell. We were trying to convince people that you could make money from a smartphone — a device that had just been launched in South Africa. We were telling them it was a computer in their pocket, which was true, except there was no iStore, Internet speeds were slow and mobile data was expensive.”

Once he starts something though, Priven sees it through, and so he stuck at it. “I was feeling a bit like a fish out of water, and kept asking myself what I was doing. But the more I did it, the more I learnt, until the idea of app development started to feel familiar.”

Because of that friend’s persistence, Priven ended up on the ground floor of mobile applications development. “By the time other companies recognised the value of apps, we had learnt a lot of lessons and really understood the space. Plus, our clientele was largely international.

Code 6: Believe in your product, always

Kagiso Interactive spent years outsourcing its work to India, which worked well because it allowed Priven to keep his overheads low while he built up the business. “I reached a point where I didn’t want to be a factory though,” he says. “I wanted to offer a lifetime warranty on the applications we built. Most apps only really start to show problems once you’ve scaled your users, and that takes 18 to 24 months, long after most warranties have run out.

“With this in mind, I started building my own team, upskilling and moulding them with a service-first culture. We don’t charge maintenance either. If you’re confident in your product, it shouldn’t need maintenance. We back ourselves.”

By 2014, when the Saudi Royal family contacted Kagiso, the company had built over 1 000 applications and had developed a strong reputation in the market. “Working with the Saudi Royal family has been a game-changer for us — a lot of our clients are based in Dubai — but none of that could happen overnight.

“We got into a space early, focused on becoming the best in our field, built a solid word-of-mouth and referral reputation, and ten years later started reaping the rewards.”

Priven is also fanatical about giving clients what they need, instead of what they ask for. “We’re here to build real solutions and we understand this space. It’s not always the popular move to tell a client that they actually need a different product to the one they’re requesting, but it’s the right move, and it will cement an excellent relationship.

“Over the years I’ve turned work down that wasn’t right for us, or if I knew the company couldn’t afford what they were asking for, or wouldn’t be able to take it to market. We also never tender for business. Our work should be on our merits alone.

“I also oversee everything — nothing is sent out without my final approval. This means I need to always be available, and respond to things quickly. As far as I’m concerned, that’s my job.

“It also fosters a culture of putting the client first. We need to respond to every single client within 15 minutes of receiving a call, email or message through our website. It’s an ethos that has shaped everything we do, and is the reason why it took ten years to build the foundations for a business that has accelerated in growth in the past four years. We live for this.”

Related: 6 Habits Long-Time Millionaires Rely On To Stay Rich

Code 7: Mindpower is real

“When you grow up in adversity you have two choices: You can either allow the negativity around you to consume you or you can focus on the positive and see the challenges as opportunities. Wallowing in self-pity will only make you bitter. You end up with a victim mentality — and that cripples you. I don’t like focusing on the negative, so I search for the rainbows in the storm instead.”

In 2010, Priven’s sister gave him The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. “It changed everything for me. I realised the power of thought and what it’s done for my life. Mindpower is real — picture it, really want it, and then focus on how to get it. You can attract people and things to your life. You just need to be able to visualise it and then go out and get it.

“That doesn’t mean it’s easy — you will still bang into walls and face challenges. But when you have a determined mindset, you can push through them to the other side. You can overcome anything. A positive mindset is a powerful weapon that you can use to transform your reality.”

Code 8: Never stop learning

Priven is an avid learner. It’s a secret he believes too few people take advantage of: There’s so much out there, so many free online courses, and so many ways to upskill yourself. So why aren’t you taking advantage of all of those resources?

“I’ve never let the fact that I didn’t get a degree hold me back. We all have the potential to be great — you just need to be willing to put in the work. I taught myself design, then web development, then app development, and then AI and VR and how blockchain and cryptocurrencies work. The information is out there. You will also be amazed at how forthcoming people are and willing to share their knowledge.

“I hire experts, but I need to understand everything that we do within our business, and I need to know enough to see what’s coming and where technology will take us.

“I use the same philosophy when I hire. We do need senior engineers, but I also hire kids straight out of university. I learnt this from Google — you need a degree, but top companies don’t hire based only on that degree. We hire based on potential and attitude. What can you teach someone, and how much are they willing to learn?

“An individual who believes they should be promoted purely on their degrees isn’t the right fit for us. We want people who will seize any opportunity to learn and really better themselves. Those are the people who do well in our organisation.

“We live by what we believe in. The head of our Shypar team used to be our cleaning lady. I saw the potential in her right from the beginning. She was hungry to learn. Even as a cleaner she found time during her lunch breaks to learn on the computers in the office. She was given the opportunity because she never stopped learning.”

Priven’s philosophy is clear: Expose the right people to skills and they will grab that opportunity — and you will have helped them change their lives. “We don’t always get this right. We hire slow and fire fast. But I prefer to give everyone the best opportunity I can and to do that you have to start by taking a chance on them.

“I try to hire people who are better than me. I believe it’s important to surround yourself with people who are progressive and positive. They up your game. Negative people are energy vampires.

“In 2010 I had one employee. By 2014 we employed 188 people, and four years later we have 386 staff members. I’m incredibly proud of the skills we have built over that time.”

Related: 7 Pieces Of Wise Advice For Start-Up Entrepreneurs From Successful Business Owners


Lessons learnt

priven-reddy-of-kagiso-interactive-media

Put the right foundations in place

That’s the real secret to growth. In the last three years I’ve really started focusing on other passion projects because Kagiso Interactive has grown to a point where it can bootstrap other start-ups and take some mitigated risks.

We’ve also been learning all this incredible tech that we can now put into action. Focusing on AI in 2012 gave us the know-how and technology we needed to build Krypteum, an AI platform that is going to change the face of AI and what it can do for business. It reads hundreds of thousands of lines of code and information in seconds. Krypteum is also the world’s first AI-powered investment cryptocurrency. If you put the right foundations in place, the sky is the limit.

Collaborate with key stakeholders

When we launched Dryver, a local ride-sharing app, we immediately started engaging with the taxi associations. We want to create a business that supports drivers and small business owners, and is branded and safe for everyone — drivers and customers alike. We knew it would be important to get the taxi associations on board — the right partnerships always enable growth.

Always put your users first

When we built Shyper, our delivery app, we focused on the drivers: What did they need? What helped them to deliver a good service? This was all important, but we ended up with a really complicated app that consumers found too difficult to use. We’ve now made the decision to rebuild the architecture from scratch. We’ve learnt a lot, and we can simplify the platform to make it a lot more user-friendly. Yes, it means losing money short-term, but long-term we will have a much more successful business.

In any sales discussion, make sure you have a solution for your client

Sit back, spot the problem and determine the solution. That way you’re having a discussion that focuses on a solution for a problem that you know needs solving.

Always treat people in the way that you would want to be treated

I’ve been on the other side of this, and it can be emotionally damaging. Be kind with your actions as they will ultimately define you.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

Who Is Lyle Malander? – Winner Of The SAICA Top-35-Under-35 CA(SA) Competition

The daring and driven entrepreneur Lyle Malander launched Malander Advisory, a chartered accounting and financial advisory firm, in 2015. He has since also launched Malander Placements, a recruitment firm, and Malander Digital, an IT firm. And they just recently opened a branch in London.

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Vital Stats:

  • Lyle Malander
  • Age: 30
  • Designation: Director
  • Company: Malander Advisory, Malander Placements, Malander Digital, Malander UK
  • Visit: www.malander.co.za

At just 30 years, Lyle Malander is not merely a trendy businessman but a trailblazer whose ambitions are fuelled by making a difference and creating a legacy. The co-founder and director of the Malander Group of companies’ core focus is providing professional advisory and resource solutions to various large and listed entities. Lyle is proud to say that in 2,5 years the Malander businesses have derived revenue in excess of R40 million. His hard work and arduous hours have turned his dreams into reality.

Through the Malander Advisory business, Lyle oversees the team that provides managed chartered accountant and finance resource solutions to an array of clients in various sectors and industries and has created employment opportunities for over 70 chartered accountants and finance professionals.

Malander Placements is a team of trained professionals that provide recruitment solutions, particularly in the fields of finance, law and IT, to various clients. And pursuant to his keen interest in the technological environment and the ways in which it can enhance business operations, Lyle established Malander Digital, which provides temporary IT resourcing, IT outsourcing, and digital marketing solutions.

‘Lyle’s story of persistence, growth and vision is an inspiration to anyone who is daring enough to start their own business,’ says Dineshrie Pillay, one of the Top 35 judges.

Related: 10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets

‘I think as entrepreneurs, we are always looking forward and striving to achieve more and as soon as we reach a goal, we change the goal posts to want to achieve more,’ says Lyle Malander. ‘That being said, I wasn’t always fortunate enough to have enjoyed the luxuries life has to offer. I remember the struggles we faced as a family when I was growing up. I think what sets me apart is that I have always seen these struggles and challenges as a learning opportunity which fuels my desire to want to make a difference and create a legacy.’

Lyle humbly attributes the success of his businesses to his strong team with an aligned vision: ‘My co-director and team have all been pivotal to the growth of the business and their motivation and dream is what keeps us going on a daily basis,’ he says.

Lyle admits that growing up, he didn’t always have the most fortunate of circumstances. As a young coloured kid from Cape Town, he was exposed to his fair share of financial and social challenges. But he held on to his dreams to make a difference. Today he says that his perseverance and dedication has been a key factor in overcoming his challenges in life.

‘I remember a time when I was younger and wanted to become a doctor because at the time I considered it to be the only really “prestigious” profession I knew of. Later on, I realised that I couldn’t spend time in hospitals and fainted at the sight of blood. My mom then came across the CA(SA) profession in conversation with a colleague at work and proceeded to tell me about it. I then started doing some research,’ he says.

He liked what he found and avidly began pursuing his studies to be a CA(SA) at the University of Stellenbosch. But at the end of his honours year when he received his end of year results, he learnt to his shock and dismay that he had received the bare minimum mark of 40% required to get access to the final exam. He distinctly remembers his lecturer saying, ‘To those of you who have a 45% year mark, don’t worry, there have been people in the past who have ended up passing the year.’ Being in the unfortunate position of having a year mark lower than that, Lyle immediately had that sinking feeling that he might have to re-do honours.

However, when he chatted with some of the graduate recruiters at Deloitte, they encouraged him that it was still possible to make it through the year. He decided he wouldn’t be giving up as yet!

‘I managed to pass honours that year and since then, I have realised that giving up isn’t the answer. We should always continue to follow our dreams no matter what odds are stacked up against us,’ he says proudly.

Lyle relocated to Johannesburg to complete his articles at Deloitte in 2012. He then went on secondment to Deloitte LLP in Chicago for three months before returning to join an accounting and advisory division at Deloitte South Africa. He worked on various clients including the Aveng Group, where he assisted in raising a R2 billion convertible bond.

‘I believe the training we get as CAs(SA) requires us to get an in-depth understanding of not only the finance environment but the business environment in general. Gaining this understanding of the mechanics of business and the importance of controls within business has equipped me for the entrepreneurial journey in the sense that I have had exposure to various operating environments and have garnered an understanding of what it takes to run any operation,’ he says.

‘I think great entrepreneurs are the ones who not only learn from their failures but also learn from those they are surrounded by,’ says Lyle. ‘As entrepreneurs, it is so easy to get consumed by our own ideas and vision that we forget to listen to the needs of those around us, and more specifically the needs of our clients, teams or employees. Great entrepreneurs not only identify these needs but also develop solutions to address them.’

Lyle has been instrumental in the companies’ recent expansion into the United Kingdom through the opening of a London office. This is pursuant to the companies’ expansion strategy to gain international exposure and the ability to service their clients with both their local and offshore financial advisory and resourcing requirements, as well as provide their finance and recruitment professionals with international exposure.

They have also recently started a programme called ‘Malander for Change’, which is aimed at providing technological resources such as laptops and Internet access as well as development training to institutions and organisations that need it most.

‘Our Malander for Change programme is aimed at providing training and guidance on not only how to find a job but also how to get access to resources to further education and training, as well as foster entrepreneurship, in the hope of contributing to a decline in the high rate of unemployment we face in our country,’ Lyle says.

Related: Funding And Resources For Young SA Entrepreneurs

Family life

Although Lyle admits much time is spent planning business, his free hours are spent with his girlfriend, family and friends. And when he has time, he also enjoys a good game of sport.

Lyle says his mom has always been the glue that held the family together and was a significant role model for him. ‘She was always the one that drove me to become somewhat of an academic, and I will always be grateful for that.’

His father, a serial entrepreneur, and his brother, also an entrepreneur, have taught Lyle many valuable lessons and he has drawn a large amount of inspiration from them.

Lyle’s describes his gran, to whom he is very close, as one of his number one supporters. ‘I think for any individual it is always important to have someone who believes in you and in everything you do. My gran has always been that person.’

‘Coming from a background where I was exposed to poverty and growing up in areas of poverty where I witnessed the imbalances in society, I believe that we as professionals have the ability, and potentially even a responsibility, to contribute to social change,’ he says.

‘The single greatest lesson that I have learnt so far is that nothing is impossible!’

What mantra do you live by?

Dream it. Believe it. Achieve it.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

I hope to lead the Malander Group to greater heights and growing it into a reputable brand within the South African and even international business environment.

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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

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

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Price and solution go hand-in-hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

appanna-ganapathy-art-technologies

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

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

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

4. Stay focused

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

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

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

Appanna chose his partners carefully with this goal in mind.

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

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

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

5. Reputation, network and experience count

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Start smart and start lean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Into Africa

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

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

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

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