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5 Lessons From The Legal Legends On Pivoting

Sometimes an innovative idea can get everyone excited, but it still fails to monetise. When that happens, you can choose to keep plugging away at your business, or you can pivot. When their first business model wasn’t delivering, Kyle Torrington and Andrew Taylor chose to find a different solution to achieve the same goal. Here’s how they did it, and why they’ve seen 50% month-on-month growth ever since.

Nadine Todd

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Andrew Taylor and Kyle Torrington are the first to admit that it took them too long to pivot their business. “We believe in the lean start-up methodology,” says Andrew. “And if you believe in it, you need to live it.”

In fact, it took just six months for the co-founders to change their business model and rebrand the company from LexNove to Legal Legends. In the world of lean start-ups though, six months is too long.

Implementing lean start-up methods

“When we first launched, we completed the Ignitor Accelerator Programme,” says Kyle. “It was an invaluable experience, and it introduced us to lean start-up methodology and how to implement lean start-up principles in your business. It’s not just about the launch, it’s about the years that follow. It’s a set of principles that keep your business relevant and sustainable, but it also requires you to fail fast and adjust your model continuously in a ‘build-measure-learn’ feedback loop. The problem was that even though we understood and believed in the theory, executing pivots in a business is easier said than done.”

“We’d even recognised friction points and underlying assumptions we had around our business and target market that were proving incorrect,” agrees Andrew, “and it still took us a few months to act.”

Why? What prevented two smart entrepreneurs who understood their business, target market and what they needed to do, from acting immediately? It’s a dilemma that business owners will find all too familiar, and it starts with the original idea, and is compounded by industry experts falling in love with your innovative solutions — even though you’re struggling to monetise the business. Here’s how they pivoted their business and achieved 50% month on month growth as a result.

1. Recognise The gap between vision and reality

“The idea behind LexNove was to make legal services more accessible and affordable for SMEs,” explains Kyle. As lawyers, they were exposed to the reasons why legal services were daunting, and often unaffordable for start-ups and SMEs, and they believed there was a way to address those gaps.

Related: Why You Should Scrap Writing That Business Plan And Become a Lean Start-Up

They started by researching what was available globally, and discovered that in the US and UK, similar online reverse bidding sites existed that connected SMEs in need of legal services with law firms who bid for the business. In theory, this would create a more competitive environment and more affordable prices for SMEs. It would also take the uncertainty out of legal billings, which traditionally charged by the hour, and give a project a flat rate.

“There was nothing like it in South Africa, but the idea had already been tested and proven in other markets,” says Andrew. The co-founders contracted outside developers, resigned in late 2014, and launched LexNove in June 2015.

Be innovative, on-point and address a real market need

Experts and the media lauded it as the future of legal services. But it was proving very difficult to monetise.

“Our beachhead market was SMEs. We’d identified a disconnect between entrepreneurs and traditional legal services, but what we’d failed to really consider was the fact that start-ups and SMEs are very careful with their cash. If the choice is between legal services and survival, understandably they’ll choose survival,” says Kyle.

“Ask almost any established business owner what they wish they’d done differently in their start-up days though, and they almost always say they wish they’d had the right contracts, agreements and intellectual property protection in place. It’s far more expensive to fix later. But when you’re in that space, other costs take precedence.”

Developing a strong user base

Nevertheless, Kyle and Andrew managed to build a strong user base on the site — they’d contacted firms via LinkedIn and their networks to get the law firms on their site, and used Facebook and online advertising to bring users to the site. They categorised and collated bids and chased the legal firms to ensure they bid on contracts. But, getting users to convert was difficult, and it was only at this stage that LexNove received its percentage of the business. Up until that point, everything they did was free.

It was turning out to be a lot of effort for very small rewards. “Another problem was that deals that did convert introduced a business to a legal firm, and they did future business directly with each other — there was big platform leakage as the SME didn’t come back to the site. The legal world is a high-touch, high-trust environment — people want to know and trust their lawyers, and so even though we had provided a ‘matching’ service, once the match was made we were no longer the ‘go to’ legal provider for the SME,” explains Kyle.

“We thought people would keep coming back to the site. The reality was quite different.”

Most importantly, the site was failing to do what Andrew and Kyle had intended in the first place — it wasn’t bringing down legal fees. Because the site used outside legal practitioners and couldn’t control or even influence their fee setting, the price point remained aligned with more traditional firms instead of reducing to levels start-ups could afford.

2. Choose a new direction

legal-legends

It’s not always easy to let go of an idea that you’ve nurtured and worked on for so long, particularly when you’re lauded for it. But if you can’t monetise your idea, then it’s not a viable business. Andrew and Kyle could have continued to plug away. Perhaps if they’d waited long enough, the local market would have caught up to US and European standards, where the business model did work.

Instead, they took a step back, critically reviewed the business, and started implementing the methods they’d learnt around the principles of the lean start-up methodology.

First, they needed to understand why their target market wasn’t responding to the service they were offering. They were addressing a real need, so what was the problem?

Related: The 7 Culture Pillars That Will Skyrocket Your Start-up To Success

“The idea of online legal services in South Africa was new, but ecommerce isn’t,” says Kyle. “The problem is that users were expecting instant gratification. Instead, it took 48 hours to process bids. SME owners arrived on the site, and there were no prices, so you were still unsure what you’d get quoted. We realised that uncertainty around prices is a problem for a target market that isn’t well versed in legal services.”

“Even if the uncertainty had been cleared up, there was a secondary problem,” adds Andrew. “What an SME owner is willing to pay for certain legal services versus what law firms charge is miles apart. Services were just seen as too expensive.”

“Our key driver was still to make the law affordable for SMEs,” says Kyle. “We want to capture the 90% of the SME market that can’t afford traditional legal services by revolutionising the way law is done, while still offering quality legal services. LexNove wasn’t achieving this goal. We needed a new solution.”

This understanding, coupled with the challenges they were facing, led to one key question: What did they need from their target market? The answer was clear — they needed to capture and hold the full value of each client using their service, and they needed to offer that service at a price point SMEs could afford.

3. Shift the business model

The co-founders started by addressing their name. “We’d read somewhere that two syllable names were easier to remember, which was where LexNove (based on LexNova, which means new law), came from. But we’d fallen into an old trap. We chose a Latin name for a business that was supposed to be democratising legal services,” says Andrew.

“We needed a new name that was memorable, made sense, and told our customers exactly what we do.”

Legal Legends was born from a skunkworks project inside LexNove. Andrew and Kyle kept LexNove operational, and let existing customers and partners know they were trying out a new product on the side. A skunkworks project is developed primarily for the sake of radical innovation, so it allowed the co-founders to test their theories and the lessons they had learnt with LexNove without immediately shifting their business model.

Today, the tagline on the site reads, ‘Fixed priced legendary legal services for entrepreneurs’, immediately followed by a ‘shop now’ button that takes you to a fixed-price menu.

How to achieve your start-up goals

So, how did Andrew and Kyle achieve their goal? True to lean start-up principles, they did it with a lot of hard work, testing, measuring, adjusting and implementing. Working with outside developers meant long lead times, so Kyle learnt to code. They also paid careful attention to how their customers responded to their offerings. Once the business had pivoted as a result of lessons learnt from LexNove, it began to experience 50% monthly growth.

“Our goal was to achieve the creation of intelligent automated contracts, which are automatically curated based on user preferences,” says Kyle. “Our biggest challenge was how to bring our prices down and find an annuity income model.” The answer was automation and instalment payment plans.

In its new format, Legal Legends is actually a far more unique offering than LexNove was, but it’s also a familiar ecommerce platform that South Africans are more familiar with, and therefore more comfortable using. “We realised we were asking people to spend R10 000 on a reverse bidding site, with no credibility or track record,” explains Andrew.

Related: Game-Changing Lessons From Lean Start-Up Founder Steve Blank

“The new site has a menu with prices. There are no hidden costs or surprises. We started with 50 of our most common services, and listed them as products, the way you would see books listed on Amazon, or products on Takealot. We then advertised our products through online and other means. A user can purchase a product in under one minute, and then they fill out a digitised questionnaire. This information gives us the details we need to customise the agreement they have bought.”

Once Andrew and Kyle had a clear understanding of their value proposition, the rest fell into place. In the legal world, costs are directly related to time. Lawyers charge by the hour, so to reduce costs, you need to reduce the time you spend on a service or contract. “We also understood that we needed to communicate a price point and what you get for it upfront — this was essential,” says Andrew.

4. Find a model that scales

scaling-a-business

To then deliver a quality product, the co-founders used the 8020 principle. “We determined 80% of a contract or agreement can be automated, and only 20% needs to be customised,” says Kyle. “We then designed questionnaires that would give us the information we needed to create the contracts, and developed customised software to automate the process.”

Legal Legends now uses in-house lawyers, contracting out to other lawyers when necessary. Through the questionnaires and automated process, the time taken to deliver a fully customised contract is made dramatically more efficient, and pricing is much lower. In many cases, customers are paying less than a third of traditional legal costs.

“We keep iterating by adhering to the ‘build-measure-learn’ feedback loop. Automation and the questionnaires take a lot of time upfront, but once they’re up, 90% of the work is done for each client who follows. It allows us to do the work in-house, charge less, and to earn annuity income, while maintaining the standard of service and expertise we’ve become known for.”

The result is far more repeat business, and a much higher level of comfort for first-time users arriving on the site.

Make it easier for businesses to work with you

A ‘build-measure-learn’ feedback loop has also meant that Kyle and Andrew are continuously looking for additional ways to make it even easier for SMEs to do business with them. One such solution is the introduction of interest-free instalment debits.

“The first instalment significantly de-risks our exposure and reduces our risk, but giving our clients the opportunity to pay for the service in regular debit orders also helps them carry a cost that they might otherwise forgo. We are now capturing the market we wanted in the first place,” says Kyle.

“We remain accessible, but we’ve automated as much as possible without sacrificing on quality, and offer skype meetings over meetings in person. We’re now the custodians of the relationships we build with users of the site, but have found ways to significantly reduce the amount of unnecessary time spent with each client, which has resulted in a completely new cost structure,” says Andrew.

“We wanted to be an Airbnb or Uber that connected the market with service providers. The high-touch, high-trust nature of law was an issue, and our solution didn’t reduce the price point of these services, which was the main focus of the business. To do that we needed to capture the full value of each client, and radically adjust how we do law. An automated free legal health check we’ve designed is a great tool to convert clients, and if we do convert them, we start with information in hand that reduces the time taken to develop the contracts or agreements they need.

“Plus, we can scale the business without increasing overheads — we’ve increased our own capacity and decreased time taken per transaction. That’s the definition of scale.”

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

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Lessons Learnt

(Slideshow) Top Advice From Local Entrepreneurs That Will Change Your Business In 2019

Here’s my collection of game-changing words of wisdom from top local entrepreneurs.

CEOwise

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If I had to summarise my own learnings since starting CEOwise, it would be these ten points:

  1. I need to know the critical numbers in my business.
  2. The magic number is two co-founders. Teams build entities, individuals might start them, but teams build them.
  3. Don’t be scared of failure, that’s how we learn.
  4. It’s better to earn 10% of a bigger pie than 100% of a smaller one.
  5. Businesses in the service industry should create products out of their services, or sell value and not hours.
  6. Stick to your core competencies and outsource the rest.
  7. Make small incremental changes everyday.
  8. Your team is your biggest asset.
  9. It’s cheaper to retain clients than attain new ones.
  10. If you’re worrying about paying too much tax, you’re not earning enough.

After each interview, there is generally one main word of advice that sticks in my mind, and which I ponder on for days afterwards. The following advice from local entrepreneurs may stay with you too:

  • Benji Coetzee, Empty Trips
  • Allon Raiz, Raizcorp
  • Joel Stransky, Pivotal Group
  • Gideon Galloway, King Price Insurance
  • Adriaan Rootman, Luxury Time
  • Brian Mills, New Concept Projects
  • Byron Clatterbuck, SEACOM
  • John Sanei, Global speaker and trend specialist
  • Ryan Kahan, CallCabinet
  • Regine Le Roux, Reputation Matters
  • Miles Kubheka, Vuyo’s brand
  • Eben Uys, Mad Giant
  • Mark van Diggelen, GameZBoost
  • Erik Kruger, Mental Performance Lab
  • Musa Kalenga, Public speaker
  • Marnus Broodryk, SME Africa
  • Rich Mulholland, Missing Link
  • Mike Sharman, Retroviral
  • Cairo Howarth, EFC Worldwide
  • Dinesh Patel, OrderIn
  • Andrew McLean, Cycle Lab
  • Albé Geldenhuys, USN
  • Ran Neu-Ner, The Creative Council
  • Nic Haralambous, NicHarry
  • Mark Sham, Suits & Sneakers
  • William Wertheim Aymes, Artemis Brands
  • Matt Brown, Matt Brown Media
  • Pat Pillai, Lifeco Unltd
  • Vuyo Tofile, EntBanc
  • Ian Fuhr, Sorbet
  • Colin Timmis, Xero
  • Felix Martin-Aguilar, ReWare
  • Fritz Pienaar, Advendurance
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Lessons Learnt

How Yoco Successfully Secured Capital And The Importance Of A Pitch

Yoco entered the market in 2015. In 2018, the founders raised R248 million in Series B Funding. Here’s how they’ve built a business that funders will back.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Players: Bradley Wattrus (chief financial officer), Katlego Maphai (CEO), Carl Wazen (chief business officer) and Lungisa Matshoba (chief technology officer).
  • Company: Yoco
  • What they do: Yoco is an African technology company that builds tools and services to help small businesses get paid, run their businesses better and grow.
  • Visit: www.yoco.com

From scrappy start-up to professional contender

Yoco launched in 2015 as a Silicon Valley-type fintech start-up (above). Today, the brand is an established business that wants to change the way SMEs are supported in the payment, funding and financial management space.

When Yoco went live with its card machines in 2015, it wasn’t just a late entry to market, it was a full nine months behind many other entries. The founders weren’t worried. They had a very specific business model and weren’t going to let a noisy market distract them from their vision.

In fact, instead of rushing, they spent the next year growing the business to 500 happy merchants. They were late to market, but getting the model right was more important than being fast.

Since late 2016, the team has closed Series A and Series B rounds of funding, totalling close to R300 million. Slow and steady has worked. That doesn’t mean raising capital was easy, just ultimately successful. Here’s how Yoco did it.

Starting with Angels

“In a strange way, we were lucky that we didn’t receive venture capital funds early on,” says Katlego Maphai, founder and CEO. “We had a funder pull out at the last minute, which was scary, but also a blessing in disguise. It meant we had only angel investors and family offices invested in the business, which gave us the capacity to think long term and not take shortcuts. We’ve since realised the importance of only taking on VC investment at the last possible moment. It’s imperative to have product/market fit before you chat to VCs, and we only really achieved that at the end of 2016.”

The team learnt this lesson in hindsight though, and like so many start-ups, did approach VCs too early. “We tried to raise VC in early 2015 when we started our beta programme,” recalls Katlego.

“In our minds, we’d been running the company for two years. We thought we had two years’ worth of traction. When we started talking to investors though, the conversations didn’t go as expected. As far as they were concerned, we’d only been operating for two months, and the valuation we were asking for just didn’t make sense.”

Related: Fitbit And Adidas Know Something That Venture Capital Doesn’t

Two years later, Yoco was in a completely different position. “From the beginning, we recognised that although tech is important, our business model would differentiate us. We needed to be fast, cheap, use digital channels to onboard clients and aggregate our merchants so that our banking partner has only one point of contact — us. This was what we were quietly investing into, removing friction for merchants who were onboarding themselves onto our platform.

“This was our big focus — to make the entire process as simple, efficient and low cost as possible. Merchants need to be able to onboard themselves, with no hand-holding. The problem in this market has always been one of distribution. How do you get to market in the cheapest, most efficient way possible, when the traditional people-intensive distribution model doesn’t work because it’s just not economically viable? Once we achieved that, the ability to manage merchants at scale became a reality, and that’s when we were ready for VC funds.”

In reality, Yoco only achieved product market fit and growth at the end of 2016. “By then, we’d grown ten times our size over the space of 12 months to 5 000 merchants, we had traction, incredible unit economics, and we’d built up infrastructure that allowed us to be efficient. We could really concentrate on growth. In particular, we weren’t worried about anything breaking or the system toppling over.”

It’s an important point for any start-up to consider. Often, the unit economics of businesses experiencing growth are out of kilter, as the business’s efficiencies struggle with the increased pressures of growth. By the end of 2016, Yoco was growing while remaining efficient, which was a big advantage when they started approaching investors again.

Teams and ecosystems

In the two years preceding Yoco’s official launch, the founding team, Katlego Maphai, Carl Wazen, Bradley Wattrus and Lungisa Matshoba, didn’t just research the technology to make card payments possible for merchants in the informal, rural and SME sectors, but were working on a business model that could achieve their business vision at scale.

“We were a multi-disciplinary team that had come together wanting to make a real entrepreneurial play,” says Katlego, who brought the team together. Having grown up with Lungisa, Katlego met Carl while working for a telecoms advisory and investment firm in Dubai, and Bradley at an incubator for online businesses in Cape Town that hired ex-management consultants to assist 
start-ups.

By 2012, all four partners were living in Cape Town and had savings they could live off while they planned their entrepreneurial play. “We kept coming back to the payment space. I’d seen Square, a mobile point of sale system, in action in San Francisco in early 2011, and experienced a small restaurant business that would have been cash-based accepting cards. We knew how under-serviced SMEs were in South Africa, and that card payments presented opportunities to support them. We also knew we could build a suite of services to help our micro and SME clients run and grow their businesses once they were on our platform.”

The team didn’t focus on the tech — it existed elsewhere and could be outsourced. Instead, they focused on their business model. “We focused on why banks hadn’t traditionally serviced this sector,” explains Katlego. “Our business model needed to address those challenges and the pain points of our target market, and it needed to do so in a way that allowed the business to scale efficiently and cost-effectively.”

Yoco’s team came from the mobile space. “You walk into a mobile store, fill in forms, have a credit check, get approved, sign the agreement, receive your phone and sim card and walk out the store. You’re now a customer, and hopefully you grow in value and don’t leave the network. That’s what we wanted to do for the card payment space. We wanted to take a process that takes weeks and strip it down to minutes by applying mobile thinking and using ecommerce as 
a channel.”

Until that point, merchants would source card payment tech from providers, but sign the bank’s merchant agreement, and this was where many small and micro merchants struggled to access services: Banks were just not set up to validate small businesses. It wasn’t economically viable, mainly because it tended to be a high-touch process. It was also a lengthy process.

“We knew that for us to reach smaller businesses, we needed to be able to sign up, vet and onboard applicants digitally, limiting people in the process, as this adds time and costs. This was probably our single most important insight. Once we understood this, we knew we needed to aggregate merchants, so that the partner bank we signed with would treat us like a ‘super-merchant’ — they manage the risk with us, vet us, take us through a rigorous process, and then allow us to aggregate sub-merchants under our umbrella.”

There was just one catch — for any of this to work, Yoco needed a partner bank that would agree to them aggregating merchants. “We moved to Joburg, moved back in with our parents and spent a year lobbying our partner bank,” says Katlego.

Consider what that took — ex-management consultants who had been earning impressive salaries had to return to their childhood homes so that they could focus on building their business and securing the trust of a partner bank.

“Our backgrounds had taught us how to gather information, package it and present it in such a way that we could build credibility quickly and effectively,” says Katlego. “We also knew what we didn’t know, which in this case was the payments space.”

To fill that gap, the team built an advisory board and approached the ex-head of Visa Sub-Saharan Africa to join their board for an equity stake in the business. “LinkedIn gives anyone access to the experts in every field, and networking plays a part as well. We were asking the right questions, and ended up with a few introductions to the same person.

“From there, you just need a strong value proposition. This was a vital component for us. Not only did he coach and advise us on the payments space, but he had a strong network, and it helped convince the banks that if we could convince him that we knew what we were talking about, we were worth meeting. The same was true of funders. You need a strong team, and that includes domain expertise, which at the time we didn’t have.”

There was a challenge though: In order for Yoco to secure a licence from a partner bank, they needed to show they were capitalised, but to secure funding, they needed a licence from a partner bank, as this was core to their business model.

“It was a bit of a conundrum,” says Katlego. “We solved it by approaching investors and getting firm commitments based on the licence. With that, we could secure the agreement with our partner bank, which in turn enabled us to trigger the draw-downs with our investors.”

The entire process taught the team how to de-risk the business at every stage of the journey. “We learnt to always think in milestones, and each milestone increases the value of the business. For example, securing the licence was a stage of value. By the end of 2014 we had moved back to Cape Town and were certified by Visa and Mastercard. We launched our first early beta with 20 merchants. The next milestone was our first transaction.

Related: Is Venture Capital Right For You?

Securing funding

yoco-funding

The fact that Yoco’s founding team had four members with varied and successful backgrounds dramatically increased the business’s chances of securing funding, but they still needed to learn some lessons.

“In mid-2016 we went on our Series A road show, and it was a choppy start. First, we realised that we were thinking globally, and those were the conversations we were having, which didn’t match up with the conversations local VCs were having with us. You need to all be on the same page, and 
we weren’t.”

Once the team realised this key point, they started looking at international investors, but things still weren’t going smoothly.

“We started recognising that part of the problem was the way we were approaching the whole funding process,” says Katlego. “We’d just had an investor meeting that didn’t go well, and we weren’t feeling good. We knew we needed funding — our runway was almost out and our current funding model wasn’t sustainable.

“Instead of focusing on investors, we looked at ourselves. What were our objectives? What were we looking for? We ended up with six key objectives.”

These were:

  1. Completing an investment round that gives us at least 12 to 18 months runway
  2. Working with an investment partner who has experience growing a fintech business
  3. Working with an investment partner that backs the team, and understands that one of our core strengths is our ability to operate autonomously
  4. Taking on investors who have respect for our existing stakeholders, who had walked a long path with us when very few believed in what we were doing
  5. Arriving at a fair deal, with terms negotiated in the right spirit
  6. Having the Yoco founder group, organisation, and stakeholders coming out feeling energised and ready for the next phase after the round. The wrong terms and conditions can have the opposite effect, crippling our sense of self-belief and achievements to date. Something not to be trivialised for an organisation that is looking to win.

It was a powerful exercise. From that moment onwards, the team walked into meetings knowing what they wanted, which in many ways levelled the playing field. “We had more confidence and we asked more questions, which lead to richer discussions with potential investors. We could also walk away if we saw a key objective wouldn’t be met, which saved everyone time.”

Through this process, Yoco secured Series A funding from Velocity Capital in the Netherlands and US-based Quona Capital 
for $3 million in new capital and a further $1 million in secondary buyouts, allowing some early angel investors to exit.

Since launch, Yoco was run based on formal governance and structures, which also played a big role in securing investment. “When a business is run pristinely and the due diligence is based on well-organised numbers and data, investors have comfort that their money will be managed properly. Our advice is to run your business clean from day zero. Keep good books and don’t put any other expenses through the business. We learnt this lesson from a real estate developer who told us to always be ready for the exit. She didn’t mean selling the business, but rather that if someone took a look, within moments you could produce whatever they want to see. I can’t stress enough how this has helped us.”

Related: Venture Capital 101: The Ultimate Guide To The Term Sheet

Understanding your pitch

Yoco raised $16 million in its Series B fund, which closed in 2018, and although it was the same process, the focus of the pitch was very different. “Series A is often about survival. Series B is about how big this thing can become.

“During our Series A roadshow, a big part of our pitch was proving that there’s a market for people who want to accept cards, and that there was a new way to reach this market that is not people intensive.

“In the Series B round, we could show that we’d been able to grow our base to three times its size with continued good economics and a healthy, good payback. We also showed that the market is ready to be taken with the right type of capital.

“The message was simple: We’ve figured it out and we think we can win with additional capital. There’s a huge opportunity to build an entire SME operating system, bringing payments, software and capital into one home that can essentially look after a small business and build an ecosystem around them. This in turn allows third parties access to our distribution network.

“There’s an overarching need that we’re plugging into. SMEs lack access to tools, capital and payment acceptance. It’s a big gap that we want to solve, and we’re open to partnering with anyone who wants to help solve it. It’s an open commerce ecosystem.

“Our next step of growth was to democratise access to software, because software is where the magic happens. Our app allows small businesses to manage their business finances through what is essentially a mini ERP for micro enterprises and SMEs. We are making a deep investment into building this out, because we believe it’s where the stickiness and value of our product lies.

“Customers came to us for a card reader, but they’ll stay for a much wider service offering, including access to capital and a platform that they can run their businesses from. Up until this point Yoco has signed up innovators and early adopters. Now we’re taking the brand to the mass market.”

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Lessons Learnt

Danie Venter Saw A Gap In The Informal Segment And Grew Within Just A Few Months

Stoffelberg Biltong is a FMCG start-up that attracted the interest of Secha Capital. Here’s why.

Nadine Todd

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In 2014, Danie Venter lost his business. He owned a Spar supermarket, but the business wasn’t doing well, and he knew his only option was to sell it back to the franchisor. While his wife, Nikki, continued to run the store as the sale was finalised, Danie turned his attention to something else: Sourcing and selling fresh chickens to the informal segment in Mamelodi and surrounds.

“I needed to find a way to pay the bills, and I recognised how under-serviced the informal sector was,” he explains. “Only frozen chickens were available to a community that didn’t have microwaves to defrost them. I knew there would be a market for fresh chickens.”

Danie was right. Within a few months the business had grown so big he was supplying chickens to other retailers in the area, and he approached Oom Stoffel, the owner of JC’s Meat Traders, to expand his product offering.

Over the next 18 months a friendship developed, which led to inevitable discussions around an industry they both knew well, and eventually settled on the idea of packaged biltong.

“It’s a fragmented market and none of us could think of a single brand of packaged biltong that we loved. Instead, we had local butcheries or suppliers that we bought from. We recognised there was a gap for a quality packaged biltong brand, and started working on it.”

From planning and designing the product and packaging to market took three months. Before the business launched though, Danie’s life changed forever. He was declared legally blind as a result of a condition called Optic Neuritis, and approached his business partner to say he could no longer participate in the venture.

“Oom Stoffel refused to accept the fact that I couldn’t participate in the business. His area of expertise was the product — the abattoir and ingredients — but mine was the trading side of the business. Together we could really make this brand work, and he didn’t believe my eyesight (or lack thereof) would get in our way.”

Oom Stoffel was right. Danie’s wife reads him his emails at night, but most of his business is done the old-fashioned way — over the phone or in person. Despite challenges, Stoffelberg Biltong launched and soon started securing a footprint.

Related: The House That Moladi Built – How Challenging Traditional Building Empowers Local Entrepreneurs

Leading a market

The business has a number of verticals and strategies to ensure cash flow and build cash reserves, but the primary vision and mission is a market-leading packaged biltong brand.

For example, Stoffelberg supplies other biltong outlets. While this may seem like Danie and Oom Stoffel are supplying their competitors, the reality is that in many respects, biltong is price sensitive and most retail stores will change suppliers from week to week. This results in a level of inconsistency when it comes to quality, the exact opposite of what Stoffelberg stands for through its branded products.

“We’re consistent, while most of our competitors are not. It’s a big, fragmented market. The current market leader only holds 6% of the market. We believe it’s important to build our brand, but we’re comfortable supplying others at the same time. It adds to our revenue stream, and more importantly, our positive cash flow.”

Going forward, the team at Stoffelberg also plans to open retail outlets and already has a kiosk. The company is also investing in continuous research and development.

“When everyone is offering the same products, you need to differentiate yourself. We want to think outside the normal verticals. When you own the entire value chain you can be innovative. If we want to try something, like chilli packets in biltong bags for example, we can do it and get immediate feedback. We’ve also launched a natural range with no preservatives or sugar for consumers with allergies, diabetes, or who just want a more natural product.”

Stoffelberg is a premium product, from its packaging to the product itself, but because of the vertical integration and the fact that the business holds the entire value chain, the brand remains competitively priced.

“Our goal is to reinvigorate a fragmented market,” says Danie. “That takes focus, brand building, a premium product and constant research and development.” It’s also taken an investment equity partner in the form of Secha Capital.

Equity deals

Within a year of launching, Danie received a call from Brendan Mullen from Secha Capital. “We weren’t too keen to discuss investments at that stage, primarily because we didn’t want to give away equity in the business,” says Danie. “We were supplying some Spar stores and we’d already begun chatting to Shoprite Checkers.

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Brendan continued to reach out and we realised that if we wanted to grow the business, there could be value in accessing capital to fund the growth we were experiencing.”

The initial meeting with Brendan revealed that although both Oom Stoffel and Danie are subject matter experts, there was a clear marketing gap that Secha Capital could help fill. In addition, as an FMCG and Agri-focused funder, Brendan and his partner, Rushil Vallabh, came with a network and connections that would be beneficial to the business as well.

“We had one of three game-certified abattoirs in the country, and we were Halaal, HACCP and export certified, but we needed to invest in a drying room and other facilities necessary for large-scale biltong production. Once we understood our needs and the value Brendan and his team could bring to the business from a growth perspective, the deal made sense. Giving away equity if it results in growth is worth it. But you need to make sure you’re selling to the right partners who add value beyond a capital contribution. It’s not just about the money.”

“Look for opportunities in fragmented value chains, where there are no clear brands in that specific section of the market. Find that, and you can find a slice of that value.”

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