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Yola: Vinny Lingham

In the middle of a global financial crisis that has everyone talking about how funding is impossible to get and how all you can do is focus on survival, one South African entrepreneur has landed a $20 million investment for his Silicon Valley start-up.

Juliet Pitman

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Vinny Lingham

“I grew up in a small town in South Africa, a boy watching movies like Wall Street and wanting to be something more. I always knew I wanted to run my own successful business, that I didn’t want to lead a boring life. It’s probably a fairly typical story of many entrepreneurs, but I guess what sets me apart from others is that I don’t fear failure in the same way that many do. Sure, I don’t want to fail, and I do everything I can to avoid it, but the fear of failure doesn’t prevent me from taking big risks. I think I have courage. And this willingness to take risks with my own money was definitely a big factor in landing the funding we did for Yola. I think it made a big difference that I had personally invested about R2 million of my own money into the business. It showed a willingness to put my own neck on the line, which showed a real commitment to making the business work. And I think that we had a great idea as well.

It all started in Cape Town. I was running one of my previous companies called Clicks2Customers, and we created website-building software for our own internal use to build websites faster for our customers. We realised there was a market for businesses to be able to build their own websites, instead of having to pay someone else to do it for them. The idea made a lot of sense, particularly in the mass market targeting small to medium-sized businesses.

Every business needs a web presence, but entrepreneurs often lack the capital to pay a company to create one for them. If we could give them the tools to create their own website for free, we would be on to something big. We also knew that the world was changing and that software was moving increasingly to the web, so the idea was to put the software online instead of selling it to people on a CD which they would then have to install. Taking the company online would also open up access to an enormous global market. With that, I decided to leave Clicks2Customers in 2007. I bought the technology and the intellectual property out of the company and spun off a new company, SynthaSite in March 2007 which is what eventually became Yola in April 2009.

I tried unsuccessfully for about five months to get funding in both South Africa and the United States. But the South African venture capitalists didn’t really get the business concept – they didn’t think it would work – and the US venture capitalists weren’t really looking to invest in a South African-based company. So it made sense to run the company from the United States. However that brought with it its own set of problems.

The funders wanted to know how I was going to get into the States, how I was going to organise work permits and the like. At the time I didn’t have any really good answers to those questions. I had to do research to find out about the visa process, and let me tell you, it’s complicated. The only way to really get into the US is to apply for what’s called an L1 Visa which means you have to work for a South African company and then get transferred to an associated company in the United States. So that’s what we did. We set up SynthaSite in South Africa and an associated US company, and then applied for visas. It took four months and a lot of paperwork, but we succeeded. I had given myself a timeline of three to four months to get funding, but it took me closer to nine in the end. Fortunately I had equity built up that I could draw on and I liquidated some shares I had in other companies in order to keep the company afloat.

In 2007, we managed to raise $5 million from Columbus Venture Capital, which at the time was part of Johann Rupert’s Richemont. Getting that initial investment was a big boost for us. It enabled us to set up offices in the United States and to keep paying salaries so that we could continue to work on developing and improving the product. Landing that initial amount wasn’t easy. Generally you need to have something to show funders before they are willing to invest. So firstly, we raised what’s known as a convertible note – a small amount of funding which was put in by family and friends just to keep the business afloat. This stabilised things and allowed us to get to the point where we had built something that investors might be interested in taking a bite out of. It’s easier to start with lower funding requirements and then build up to the bigger investment amounts.

The process involves paperwork and patience. The first thing you have to do is put together a short business plan – something readable that you can distribute to potential investors. This is the pre-funding business plan. It focuses on the core market, shows the opportunity and reveals why the business is scalable. It really speaks more to the ‘blue sky’ and the business model, while the post-funding business plan gets down to the nitty gritty of how you are going to make it happen. Part of writing a winning business plan is to understand the difference between the two. The first is a sales pitch; the second an execution plan. You put together the post-funding business plan once you have a term sheet from interested funders – it’s longer and shows the details of how you are planning to spend their investment to make the business work. I was very fortunate when we were writing the business plans to have a Harvard MBA intern, Brian Elliot, working in the company. This is one of the many benefits of being selected as an Endeavor entrepreneur. Endeavor is an NGO that mentors and grows entrepreneurs in developing countries, of which South Africa is just one. Having Brian as an intern was an enormous help in putting together the post-funding business plan.

Getting the initial funding is only the first step, however. If you’re hoping to attract more funding, as we were, you need to show investors that you can really run with the business and make a success of it. So we worked really hard at optimising the Yola product. The first thing we needed to do was make it easy to use. We’re technology people but we understand that most business owners are technophobic and that they’d only use Yola if it was simple. We developed it so that users can choose a template and then simply drag and drop text and images on to the site. You can add whatever capabilities you want and then you simply hit the ‘publish’ button and it goes live to the web. It can take ten minutes to build a simple site or a couple of hours to build something more complex.

So how do we make money from a free product?

It’s simple really. Users can choose if they want to have their own domain name, such as www.entrepreneurmag.co.za, or a Yola domain name like www.entrepreneurmag.yolasite.com. The Yola domain name is free but we sell the other domain names. This is one income stream and we’ve calculated that if one in every 30 people purchases a domain name, it covers the costs of the other 29 who choose the free option, and allows us to make a profit. As the ratio of paying to non-paying customers improves, so the business makes more money.

We also have plans to launch a template marketplace, which will provide a second income stream. We will buy templates from designers and sell them on to users who want them. It’s a bit like iTunes where the software is free but the content is paid for. However, users are still able to get a completely free website if they want – that’s our selling point. They will just have paid-for options as well, should they wish to choose those. In 12 months we’ve added more than two million users to our database. People embrace the product because it’s easy to use and we help them along the way. We’ve developed comprehensive tutorials and help pages so that people have access to as much assistance and information as they might need. There’s 24/7 email assistance and a community forum where users give each other help and advice.

We’re aiming to have four to five million users this year, which we believe is totally doable. Because we focus on the SME market, the economic downturn is actually really good for us. Small to medium businesses are looking for ways to save money and boost their businesses – and a Yola website can help them do both at the same time. Based on our initial success, we landed a further $20 million in funding from Reinet in February this year. The deal is based on an equity structure and although we can’t mention the percentage of equity they own, we can say that it is less than 49%. We always knew that we’d need visionary investors to back this business, because although we weren’t reinventing the category, the concept was new. Of course, we had to sell the vision to them. But by then we had established a track record based on the initial $5 million investment and what we’d managed to achieve with it. Reinet was created out of Richemont, so there was a connection there.

For investors, I believe the entrepreneur is as important, if not more so than the business concept. For this reason it’s essential that you are a person with credibility and a reputation for doing business in an open, transparent and ethical way. I don’t think you can build credibility; I think it’s something that you prove. You either have it inherently or your don’t and then you prove that you have it by the way you conduct yourself. I know lots of guys who have no credibility because of the way they do business. They’re unethical and no one wants to invest in someone like that. And make no mistake, once you’ve earned a bad reputation, it sticks. You’ll never get away from it. I can honestly say that I could have made a lot more money being unethical in the past couple of years but that’s not what it’s about. Doing unethical business is cheating, and you might make millions but you can’t call yourself a businessman. How you build your wealth and how you make your money is what’s important, not how much you make.

People often ask how they can get in touch with investors, and for me it came down to personal networks. I add everyone I meet to one of my social networks, either Facebook or LinkedIn and I’m in those networks every day. I am very ‘out there’ media-wise and I try to maintain a good media presence, although until fairly recently I didn’t have a PR agency. I blog and I also attend lots of networking events. My philosophy is that if I only meet one worthwhile person at an event, it makes that event worthwhile. I also try to be personal with people because I believe personal relationships make all the difference. And I genuinely like people so that helps as well. But ultimately the key to successful networking is to stay in touch with people, and to offer them something valuable rather than to look for what they can give you. So I don’t look for opportunities – I look for the opportunity to build relationships. I think it also helps to learn as much about your subject as you can so that people can rely on you as an expert. This means they will use you as a valuable resource and this in turn will raise your profile and help build your network further. When you spread yourself too thin and you try to be the ‘go to’ person for everything, you make a mistake. Add value, give back, be genuine, interested and interesting. That’s what I tell people when they ask about how to build the kind of network that’s really valuable.

Ultimately, though, the funding journey comes down to persistence. And persistence pays off. Many people look at me and say, “He’s so lucky to have landed such a big investment in his company” but honestly, it has nothing to do with luck. It’s purely about hard work. Success may look like it happened overnight but that’s very rarely the case in reality. You have to be prepared to put in long hours, take risks and make personal sacrifices. And ideally, the best time to make them is when you’re young, which is why I encourage young entrepreneurs to go for it. Understand that it’s tough out there, be prepared to be patient but keep chipping away at your dream. You’ll get there eventually.

Been There, Done It

Vinny Lingham is not new to the challenge of starting a business and raising funding. In fact, he’s something of an old hand. To get his previous Internet search marketing company, incuBeta, off the ground, he had to overcome the fact that potential investors simply didn’t understand the business or how it would make money. It’s a common challenge for start-ups in the IT sector, particularly those that are pioneering new models and ways of doing business. Banks wanted to “see stock” before they’d invest. “It was clear that they just didn’t understand what Internet Search Marketing was and how it could make money,” he said.

But resourcefulness and a willingness to take big personal risks are part of Lingham’s DNA. He sold his house in order to fund incuBeta. “I thought if I lost the house and the business failed then I’d just get a job and rent accommodation for the rest of my life. To me the thought of not owning my own business was worse than the thought of losing my house and never being able to buy another one,” he says. To the R125 000 from the sale of his house he added a further R75 000 funded from his credit cards.

As with Yola, taking a personal risk paid off. incuBeta made a profit almost immediately and attracted a R700 000 sum from an angel investor who took 13% equity in the business. In finding funding for Yola, Lingham might have been talking bigger figures to bigger players, but his philosophy has remained the same: before you expect someone else to fund your business idea, invest your own money in it and create something worth investing in.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

Entrepreneur Profiles

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

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

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Price and solution go hand-in-hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

appanna-ganapathy-art-technologies

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

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

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

4. Stay focused

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

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

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

Appanna chose his partners carefully with this goal in mind.

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

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

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

5. Reputation, network and experience count

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Start smart and start lean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Into Africa

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

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

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

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

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

Diana Albertyn

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

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

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

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Entrepreneur Profiles

30 Top Influential SA Business Leaders

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

Nicole Crampton

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

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

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

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