- Players: Sam Paddock and Rob Paddock
- Company: GetSmarter
- Launched: 2008
- The Deal: Sold to NASDAQ-listed company 2U for R1,4 billion
- Visit: www.getsmarter.com
How do you build a business that is not only the leader in its sector locally, but attracts the attention of an international, listed company, concluding in a R1,4 billion deal? Brothers Sam and Rob Paddock believe there’s a lot of luck involved in building a great business – but you need a clear strategy, great people and strong partnerships as well.
This is their story
Here’s the fascinating thing about truly successful businesses: Speak to founders that have secured investments, sold their businesses or built high-growth organisations, and you’ll notice they have two things in common. First, they have a strong purpose other than money motivating them. Second, their focus is on building a robust, high-impact business, and not on how they’re going to find a funder or sell their company. Interestingly, by not focusing on these factors and working on the business instead, funders, buyers and success are often the end result anyway.
GetSmarter is a perfect example of these laws in action. Co-founders Sam and Rob Paddock’s purpose is to improve one million lives through online education by 2030, and even though they’ve just concluded an incredible deal (believed to be the biggest in the South African edtech landscape to date), they actually had no intention of selling until Christopher ‘Chip’ Paucek, CEO and co-founder of 2U, contacted them in 2016.
“We’ve been approached by interested parties over the years, but we’ve never seriously considered selling the business,” says Sam, CEO of GetSmarter. “It’s flattering, but we were focused on achieving our internal goals, and didn’t see the value in selling some or all of the company.”
Related: How GetSmarter Got Smarter
So why was 2U’s offer different? In a nutshell, because the deal will actually help the brothers accelerate their objective of improving one million lives by 2030. In other words, it directly taps into their purpose — and it’s that purpose that made the business attractive to 2U in the first place.
“It was a chance meeting,” says Sam. “Chip was surfing Facebook and came across an advert for an MIT course we were running. It was our first international programme, and since 2U is in the online education space, he immediately wanted to know who we were. He called me, and when we realised how aligned our businesses and philosophies were, it kicked off a series of face-to-face conversations around what we could achieve together.”
“Both of our target markets are working professionals, but while we offer non-accredited short courses, 2U offers fully-fledged degrees,” says Rob. “So, while in many ways the businesses are almost identical, they are also not competing with each other. 2U offers degrees from highly ranked institutions such as Yale, the University of California Berkley and New York University. We offer short courses from UCT, Wits, Stellenbosch, MIT, Harvard, UChicago, Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics. We realised that if we worked together we could service both ends of the market, and our combined reach would be incredible.”
Sam and Rob have built a solid, sustainable business that has enjoyed incredible growth over the past few years, but what really attracted 2U was a shared sense of purpose. “
There’s real cultural alignment between our two businesses,” says Rob. “Culture has given us a real competitive edge, and it’s the guiding force behind the principle and values we’ve built the business on.”
The lesson is a simple one. If your values and purpose are clear, you’ll naturally attract like-minded people to your organisation, from employees to investors and even potential partners and buyers.
A shared sense of purpose gets the conversation started, but it doesn’t secure the deal. 2U is an international company that’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NASDAQ), and has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders to purchase businesses on more than an emotional whim.
GetSmarter had to go through a rigorous due diligence process before the deal was concluded. The foundations that Sam and Rob have put in place over the last decade have ensured that they’ve created more than just a vision: They’ve built an asset of value that isn’t dependent on its founders, and offers a strong value proposition to a listed business.
That value proposition began in 2008 when the brothers got their first partners on board: The University of Stellenbosch and UCT. The partnership with UCT started with Rob and Sam’s dad, Graham Paddock, one of South Africa’s top sectional title lawyers. Graham had collaborated with UCT’s Law Faculty to build an online course that could be accessed across the country, with a final in-person workshop component. The course was one of the most profitable activities that Paddocks, Graham’s law firm, was involved in.
Sam had designed a virtual campus while completing his degree in business science, and the success of Graham’s online course cemented the impression that there was a real business opportunity in online education that could also add real value to the South African market place.
“I love tech and marketing, Rob is passionate about education, and has a background teaching music, and Paddocks already had a great partnership with UCT’s Law Faculty,” says Sam. From the beginning, both he and Rob clearly recognised that the success of any online education venture lay with the partnerships they could secure.
“Our courses have been successful because they combine affordability with an attractive institutional brand that adds value to people’s skills and CVs,” says Rob. “We built partnerships with UCT, the University of Stellenbosch and Wits based on this ideal.
“In our sales and marketing collateral, the academic institution’s branding is front and centre, not GetSmarter’s. Our job is to give students the confidence and competence to advance their careers. We do this through high-touch courses that support them throughout the learning process. Those courses are designed with career advancement in mind in collaboration with our partners.”
“The real success has come in the value proposition we offer the universities we work with,” adds Rob. “Essentially, we take on the vast majority of the commercial risk. We take on all marketing and sales activities, course administration, learning technology, student support, technical support, but the courses are very much led by the university in terms of IP, and they have full quality control over the course at all times. The commercial model is that the university receives a percentage of revenue share.
“The biggest lesson we’ve learnt since launching this business is that you need to understand who you are partnering with and what their objectives are. The relationships we have with the universities we work with is at the heart of our business model. How we serve our university partners, students and employees is the foundation of our success — and pulling all three together is what creates an offering that the market both wants and needs.”
Success is the greatest precursor to further success
Building up trust doesn’t happen overnight. For Sam and Rob, it’s been a ten-year journey focusing on delivering exceptional online courses that add value to learners and their university partners. This dedication to creating the right formula for online courses has had two distinct results. It’s built solid relationships with the local academic world (and a valuable network that the brothers could tap into when they started investigating international partners), and it’s resulted in an 88% completion rate, which is exceptionally high in the world of online learning.
“We’ve very carefully structured and developed the high-touch style that differentiates GetSmarter courses,” explains Rob. “We focus on the holistic needs of our learners. They need to put in ten hours a week and to help them do that, and get the most from the course, we have success managers who guide them through the process, a 24-hour tech support team, and everyone is placed in small tutorial groups, which creates an intimate and personal learning environment, even if there are 1 000 students taking that particular course. Our learners constantly get the sense that their learning is being nurtured and facilitated. We believe it’s this level of support that has resulted in such a high completion rate.”
Compare this to the extremely low completion rates of MOOCs, often in the range of 3% to 15%. The New York Times named 2012 the Year of the MOOC. The world believed these Massive Open Online Courses would democratise learning, and render higher education institutions obsolete. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon, and some of the most revered names in the higher education space added their courses to the mix of content that anyone in the world could access for free.
And then two things happened. First, although the idea was to find a business model that could monetise MOOCs, while still allowing people free access to the content, this has not yet happened. And second, the completion rate of courses is incredibly low. People sign up for MOOCs, but they don’t finish them.
“We absolutely support the idea of free open content for the world to access,” says Sam. “But we don’t see MOOCs as fundamentally disrupting higher education. A vast majority of the people accessing MOOCs are already highly qualified individuals in the US and the UK.
“More importantly though, making content available gives people access to it, but there’s a big difference between starting a course and completing it. This has been a huge focus for us — how do we get people to complete online courses? These are working professionals with a lot of responsibilities, and our courses typically require an additional ten hours a week. We’ve found that a high-touch framework supports our learners in their journey, guiding them through the content, and resulting in our 88% completion rate.”
This was the value proposition that Sam and Rob were able to present to international universities when they started focusing on international growth in 2015. “Our local growth drives were to increase courses within the verticals we focused on, so that learners could keep increasing their skills, and to build on the number of courses we offer. The greater our portfolio, the bigger the market we can appeal to, across industries and professions,” says Sam. The next step was to go international. “When we started the process, we had a seven-year track record of success in partnering with the top three institutions in South Africa and a high completion rate. We also offer our university partners significant financial returns,” says Sam. “We believed that our proven capability to deliver high quality courses as well as financial returns was a value proposition that international partners would respond to.”
The brothers knew it wouldn’t be a simple process however. “There are a lot of start-ups in the edtech space. Harvard is approached weekly by companies claiming to be the future of education. We needed an additional ‘in’, and that came from the partnerships we had built in South Africa,” says Rob.
“We sweated our networks hard. Luckily, the world of higher education is small and connected. Our networks were able to introduce us to the right people in the UK and the US, and then we worked harder than we ever have in our lives. We did a roadshow in 2015 where we had five meetings a day for three weeks in a row. I checked my passport recently — I travelled to Boston 19 times in 18 months. It takes time and energy to establish the right relationships. The introductions were just a foot in the door. We needed to take that gap and really make it work.”
In February 2016 GetSmarter’s first international course launched in collaboration with MIT. This was followed by courses with Harvard, Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cambridge. Today, GetSmarter’s team of 400 service a pool of learners in 140+ countries from their offices in Cape Town and London.
Using your differentiators to make a difference
Over and above the trifecta of systems, operational support and pedagogy that has made GetSmarter courses so popular in the market, is the strong sales and marketing focus that has been integral to the brand’s growth strategy since inception.
“We have a hybrid sales and marketing strategy that uses Facebook, LinkedIn and Google AdWords to generate inbound leads,” explains Sam. “Our target audience is in their mid to late 30s, midway through their career and upwardly mobile, and we reach them via their digital network. Our inhouse digital marketing agency uses analytics, maths and stats to understand who is likely to sign up for our courses, and what conversations we need to be having with them to make that happen.
“Once a potential learner has shown an interest, they are signed over to the sales team, who begin high quality conversations around whether the course is right for them or not. The process is high touch and very people focused.”
This same high-touch sales and marketing process has also helped GetSmarter to successfully enter international markets. “We’ve learnt a lot from marketing in Southern Africa,” says Sam. “Working professionals in South Africa, while culturally distinct, are similar to working professionals in the EU and US. Local guidelines are also working in those markets.”
The business’s acquisition by 2U will increase this reach even further. “We can now apply 2U’s advanced marketing analytic capabilities to understand how to reach a larger audience. The big markets for us are the US, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Middle East and of course South Africa, which is still currently our biggest market base, although this will shift in the future.” Interestingly, while the inclusion of international courses to GetSmarter’s portfolio has triggered international growth and the deal with 2U, South Africa’s growing appetite for international programmes is driving local growth.
“In a recent Cambridge business sustainability management course that we ran, 10% of the students were from South Africa,” confirms Rob.
Building on great foundations
The key factor behind the international growth and the acquisition, is the team Sam and Rob have built around them over the past five years.
“Culture has always been a competitive advantage for us,” says Sam. “Our people are GetSmarter’s life-blood. Four years ago, the business’s strategy lived in corridor conversations with ‘Sam and Rob’. We were the funnel that everything in the company ran through. If we wanted to achieve next level growth, that needed to change.
“One of the lenses we view business through is that human performance precedes operational performance, which precedes financial performance. That means in order to achieve any success, you need to first build a higher human capital base. We started by expanding our executive team, bringing people on board who were better than us in their respective portfolios.
By the time we were prospecting with international institutions they were running their divisions without our daily input. We were able to focus on international growth and strategies because we had the right team in place.”
“Without that foundation, none of this would have been possible,” Rob agrees. “We could focus on travelling and building international relationships — and even on the 2U deal and due diligence, because of our executive team.”
Over and above the executive team are 400 highly capable people based in Cape Town, serving students from around the world. “We work with awesome people,” says Sam, “and that’s helped us build this business and work towards achieving our purpose. You can’t impact one million lives by yourself. It takes a strong, cohesive team. We’ve built a company around that, and now we’ve joined an international industry leader based on the same principles.”
Choosing to Sell
How do you know it’s the right time, and what should you do if you’re considering the sale of your business? Sam and Rob offer the following advice:
- Make sure you like and respect the acquirer. Everything starts here. It’s a long, slow, complex process. You need to like each other.
- During the acquisition process, you need to rapidly develop a new set of skills, and that’s not always possible. You need a team of professionals to help you navigate the deal. This includes deal advisors and attorneys. Deals of this nature are complex, and you want to set everything up for potential success in the future.
- Make sure there’s real synergy between the businesses. What do you offer each other, and how will the acquisition help both businesses grow? If you can’t answer this, you probably shouldn’t be doing the deal.
Listen to the podcast
Matt Brown interviews Sam and Rob and discusses the strategies that have supported GetSmarter’s international growth and sale to 2U for R1,4 billion.
To listen to the podcast, go to mattbrownmedia.co.za/matt-brown-show or find the Matt Brown Show on iTunes or Stitcher.
The Matt Brown Show is a podcast with a listenership in over 100 countries and is designed to empower entrepreneurs around the world through information sharing.
Lessons From The Rich And Famous: Manage Your Money Like Oprah To Avoid Going Into Debt Like Nicholas Cage
Have a plan in place for your money, no matter how much you earn.
Seven-figure pay cheques are enough to buy a lifetime of financial security, right? Well, not exactly. Despite making millions, seemingly wealthy celebrities often have a tough time keeping their heads above the financial waters.
Johnny Depp spending $3 million to fire Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes out of a cannon, or Nicholas Cage shelling out $150,000 for a pet octopus, are both prime examples of how lavish lifestyles can quickly lead to debt. The two A-listers are part of a long list of actors, musicians, athletes, etc. – including Floyd Mayweather, 50 Cent and Curt Schilling – who have all experienced financial troubles.
While there’s nothing wrong with celebrities enjoying their earnings, a little budgeting can go a long way. Just take a look at Tori Spelling. After failing to pay a balance of more than $35,000, the actress was taken to court by American Express. Another example is 80s movie star Corey Haim. He became so desperate for cash after filing for bankruptcy he tried to sell his own tooth on eBay for $150, which didn’t get any buyers.
Avoid falling into any of these situations by keeping a close eye on your spending. Regardless of how much you make, the following few budgeting tips promise to help you practice safe and responsible money management.
Put a plan in place
Nearly everyone lose sleep over their finances. Get a good night’s rest by figuring out where your money should be going long before it’s in your bank account. Spending without a plan, even if it’s only splurging on a one-time event, can have unintended consequences.
One example of this is former NFL star Vince Young – after dropping $300,000 on his own birthday party he was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Another example is Mike Tyson, who went into debt after overspending on Bengal tigers, 110 cars and a $2-million bathtub.
That doesn’t mean you can never treat yourself, but make sure you’re not spending money faster than you can earn it. Set up a series of “fun funds” each month to splurge on nonessentials. Depending on what else you have going on that month, each fund should be adjusted accordingly.
If, for example, you’re heading out to a friend’s wedding, there may be a little less left over for eating out. Stay up to date on your spending by downloading a budgeting app. The easier it is to see where you are for that month, the better chance you have of staying under budget.
Carry around some cash
Credit cards are becoming the most common payment method among consumers. The average American currently carries around three credit cards at any given time. While they may be more convenient, credit cards can easily lure consumers into a false sense of security.
After all, a simple swipe or tap is often all it takes to complete a purchase. However, it’s important to take time to research any costly items thoroughly and ensure you won’t regret them like Nicholas Cage. He learned this lesson the hard way when he blew $276,000 on a dinosaur skull that he was forced to return after it was discovered to be an illegal import.
Curb some of your impulse spending during a night out by bringing enough cash for the occasion. In addition to avoiding spending money you don’t have, you’ll also sidestep costly ATM fees at establishments that only accept cash.
Whether it means stopping by your bank on the first of every month or getting cash back at the grocery store, do whatever it takes to have a little bit of cash on hand. As you cut back on credit card purchases, your chances of falling into debt should begin to dwindle.
Lean on an expert
When it comes to your finances, take a lesson from the likes of Oprah, Tyga and Hugh Jackman, who invest in financial and life coaches. Many celebrities, including Oprah, attribute their success to their coaches helping put them on the right path. Even celebrities are human and can find it difficult to stick to budgeting goals.
Personalised features of a comprehensive coaching programme, such as daily check-in texts and bi-weekly budget reviews, promise to provide you with the encouragement needed to remain accountable even as the going gets tough.
Better yet, a financial coach can take your individual goals into account. Say you decide to start a family or need to make a cross-country move. Instead of wondering what that might mean for your budget, you can work with a financial coach to modify your spending habits and investments long before a change comes to fruition.
Budgeting goes beyond class. No matter how much you make, responsible money management has shown itself to be a necessity. Avoid following in the footsteps of celebrities who face serious financial trouble by keeping a close eye on where your money is going.
As we’ve seen all too often, failing to do so can mean losing millions. Simple steps – including creating a spending plan, occasionally relying on cash and reaching out to an expert – can help you achieve financial security sooner rather than later.
And if you plan carefully enough, you might just end up with the funds you need for that pet octopus.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
The 5-Hour Rule Used By Bill Gates, Jack Ma And Elon Musk
The most successful people on the planet are also the people likeliest to devote an hour a day to reading and learning.
You just walked in the door from an exhausting day at work. You’re hungry and spent, just wanting to catch your breath for a minute. You grab something to eat and then veg out in front of the TV. Next thing you know, you’ve just binge-watched five episodes of “Jessica Jones.”
While that’s OK occasionally – we all need ways to decompress and shut down – this isn’t a healthy habit. That’s why the most successful people in the world spend their free time learning.
It’s not exactly breaking news. During his five-year study of more than 200 self-made millionaires, Thomas Corley found that they don’t watch TV. Instead, an impressive 86 percent claimed they read – but not just for fun. What’s more, 63 percent indicated they listened to audiobooks during their morning commute.
Productivity expert Choncé Maddox writes, “It’s no secret that successful people read. The average millionaire is said to read two or more books per month.”
As such, she suggests everyone “read blogs, news sites, fiction and non-fiction during downtime so you can soak in more knowledge.” If you’re frequently on the go, listen to audiobooks or podcasts.
Maybe you’re thinking: Who has the time to sit down and actually read? Between work and family, it’s almost impossible to find free time. As an entrepreneur and a father, I can relate – but only to an extent. After all, if Barack Obama could fit in time to read while in the White House, what excuse do you have? He even credits books to surviving his presidency.
President Obama is far from the only leader to credit his success to reading. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk, Mark Cuban and Jack Ma are all voracious readers. As Gates told The New York Times, reading “is one of the chief ways that I learn, and has been since I was a kid.”
Breaking down the five-hour rule
The five-hour rule was coined by Michael Simmons, founder of Empact. The concept is wonderfully simple: No matter how busy successful people are, they always “set aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) over their entire career for activities that can be classified as deliberate practice or learning.”
Simmons traces this phenomenon back to Ben Franklin. “Throughout Ben Franklin’s adult life, he consistently invested roughly an hour a day in deliberate learning. I call this Franklin’s five-hour rule: One hour a day on every weekday,” Simmons wrote.
For Franklin, his learning time consisted of waking up early to read and write. He established personal goals and tracked his results. In the spirit of today’s book clubs, he created a club for “like-minded aspiring artisans and tradesmen who hoped to improve themselves while they improved their community.” He also experimented with his new information and asked reflective questions every morning and evening.
The three buckets of the five-hour rule
Today’s successful leaders have embraced Franklin’s five-hour rule by breaking the rule into three buckets.
Self-made millionaires including Mark Cuban and Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, read between one and three hours daily. Elon Musk learned how to build rockets, which lead to SpaceX, by reading.
Besides expanding your knowledge, Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, says that “reading can give you a good head start; this is often what your peers cannot obtain. Compared to others, readers are more likely to know other industries’ strategies and tactics.”
Even if you can’t commit to an hour or more of reading every day, start with 20 to 30 minutes. I always have a book with me so when I’m waiting for a meeting to start or in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, I can read instead of waste time on my smartphone. You could also try audiobooks during your daily commute or when exercising.
So how do they find the time to read daily? They adhere to the five-hour rule.
Other times, the five-hour rule includes reflecting and thinking. This could be just staring at the wall or jotting down your thoughts. Jack Dorsey and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner are well-known thinkers, while entrepreneur Sara Blakely is a longtime journaler.
Focusing on the past gives you a chance to learn from mistakes you’ve made, as well as assess what you did correctly. As a result, you’ll be better suited to achieve your goals and improve your life. The University of Texas also found that mental rest and reflection improves learning.
Need help getting started? Schedule reflection time in your planner. I’ve found blocking out 15 to 20 minutes after lunch is ideal because I’m coming out of that post-lunch slump. But start small: Allocate five or 10 minutes per day, and then work your way up so you’re not overwhelmed.
Know the questions you want to ask. Stick with just two or three questions focused on that specific day. For example, if you attended a conference, ask, “What were the key takeaways?” and “How can I apply this to my business?”
The third and final bucket is rapid experimentation. Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison became leading inventors and thinkers because of their experiments. We have Gmail because Google allowed employees to experiment with new ideas.
The reason experiments are so useful is because you have facts, not assumptions. Experiments show you what’s working. You can learn from your mistakes and obtain feedback from others. Best of all, experimentation isn’t that time-consuming. Most of the time, you’re testing through the same activities you’d perform without testing.
Jack Ma even recommends applying the knowledge you’ve learned to a real-life scenario. For example, after reading a book about collaboration and teamwork, you could take on new volunteer work to put that knowledge to use.
When you make learning a habit, you’ll be more successful and productive in life. By investing in a reading habit, you can ensure you’re growing yourself – and your company – every day.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
How Matthew Piper And Karidas Tshintsholo Launched Their First Business From Their UCT Dorm Rooms
Matthew Piper and Karidas Tshintsholo launched their first business in their first year at varsity. They found a niche, but they also realised it wasn’t as sustainable as they’d like, or solving a big enough problem. Their next start-up, KHULA, is through its proof of concept phase and proving that two young entrepreneurs can find big solutions for even bigger problems.
- Players: Matthew Piper and Karidas Tshintsholo
- Company: KHULA
- Launched: 2016
- Visit: www.khula.co.za
You don’t always hit your game-changing idea on your first take. In fact, most start-ups look very different after a few pivots and course corrections.
If you have a real sense of purpose however, and know that ultimately you want to build your own company and hopefully change lives in the process, each of those adjustments will bring you closer to a sustainable business.
Matthew Piper and Karidas Tshintsholo (both 24), have learnt these lessons first hand. The business they launched together while studying finance at the University of Cape Town is very different from the business they’re running today, but it’s the lessons they’ve learnt over the past five years that have helped them to bootstrap an 18-month pilot project proving their business model, and find a solution to a systemic problem that will hopefully change hundreds — and eventually thousands and even hundreds of thousands — of lives.
Matthew and Karidas launched their first business, Money Tree, from their UCT dorm rooms. “We recognised the realities of South Africa and that financial inclusion is one of the biggest barriers to any kind of growth facing our country,” says Matthew. The business partners met through the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, for which they had both been selected.
They wanted to start a business that would solve a real, endemic problem. As finance students, financial literacy seemed the best fit.
“We were both studying finance and interested in investing, and the business actually started out as a hobby,” says Karidas. “We wanted to share what we were learning in class and through our own research with anyone who was interested. We started a website and posted videos and content and shared it with other students.”
Once they had the platform up and running, the budding entrepreneurs strategised how they could take it to other universities and high schools. “We wanted to monetise what we were doing instead of just sharing insights,” says Matthew.
“So, we got our friends together and created a group of about 20 students from all over South Africa. Everyone went home for the December holidays, but universities go back a full month after schools. This gave us four weeks to go on a national roadshow, visiting 50 schools, sharing financial literacy lessons with their students and adding them to our network.”
Next, the young entrepreneurs met with a printing house, and convinced them to print a magazine without an upfront payment. “Our plan was to approach financial institutions who would sponsor the magazine, which was aimed at financial literacy for students,” says Karidas.
But, the magazines arrived before the funding came through, and Matthew recalls writing his first exam and returning to boxes of magazines at his door. “We started getting calls from lawyers and people wanting their money, but we didn’t have any funding,” says.
“We needed to go all out,” says Karidas. “We were calling everyone we knew and going to as many events as possible. At one of those events — hosted at the Reserve Bank — we met someone interested in investing in us. He put up our initial capital, which was how we were subsequently able to do more roadshows and build a network of universities and high schools. We ended up with an incredible network of ambassadors and a quarterly magazine, which ran for two years.”
Lessons learnt and changes made
It wasn’t smooth sailing though. The magazine’s margins were low, and the young entrepreneurs were aware that the concept was a hard sell: Students didn’t have money and the corporates that were able to pay did so from CSI budgets. “CSI initiatives tend to be project-based, and we didn’t want to base our whole business model on them. We knew it wasn’t sustainable,” says Karidas.
Money Tree had also done some business with Government. “We waited 14 months to be paid.”
By that stage, the business partners had moved from Cape Town to Joburg and had dropped out of UCT. They wanted to focus on their business full-time, but they knew the model needed some serious work and adjustments. Although they would start studying part-time again to finish their degrees, they first gave their business their full attention to pivot it.
So, freewheeling everywhere because they couldn’t afford fuel — or food or rent — Matthew and Karidas took their business to pieces and examined it from every angle.
“The first decision we made was that we weren’t going to pursue any more Government projects,” says Matthew. “We wanted to remove the bad stuff from the business and keep the good stuff, and we needed to be brutal about which was which.”
The magazine had to go — it was a lot of work for low margins with no clear revenue model. The ambassador network that Money Tree had built up on the other hand had a lot of value. “We had two ambassadors at almost every university campus across South Africa, including SRC presidents and the heads of societies — all influential people on campus,” says Karidas. “We packaged that network and started approaching banks. Banks were always on campuses trying to speak to students, but they didn’t have our network. We built a relationship with the Banking Association of South Africa with their start saver programme and closed a deal with Old Mutual. We currently run the biggest funding show and education programme across South African universities.”
The deal wasn’t the ultimate game plan, but it brought money into the business, helped the entrepreneurs pay rent and salaries, and gave them the breathing room to start seriously thinking about what they wanted to achieve.
“We started thinking about our long-term play. Financial education is good, but we were still relying on the budgets and current strategies of banks,” says Matthew. “Instead, we started focusing on what had always been our core, and that’s financial inclusion. This is our highest value, and we wanted a business that solves this challenge for South Africans.”
While they were mulling over this problem, Matthew and Karidas secured a spot on an Ennovate programme to Israel. It was on that trip that they were exposed to the fact that Africa has 60% of the world’s arable land, and yet still spends billions importing food.
“There are many inefficiencies in agriculture,” says Matthew, “and yet half of Africa’s population is dependent on small-scale subsistence farming.”
Determined to learn as much as they could, the partners approached Due Crisp to conduct a project in Pretoria. “We’re just finance guys,” says Karidas. “We needed to understand how agriculture works — and we were shocked. When you actually take the time to look at it, the problems are glaring. There are so many emerging farmers in South Africa, and yet they’re excluded from the market. They can’t fill big orders, and so they have no access to market.”
Suddenly, Karidas and Matthew had a problem they could solve — and they knew the solution would be found through technology.
Creating a proof of concept
“If we’ve learnt one thing about agriculture, it’s that it’s impossible to solve one specific problem — everything is interlinked,” says Matthew. “Our main aim is to give farmers access to market, and we’ve developed a platform and app to help them do just that, but we can’t work in isolation.”
As a result, the entrepreneurs have partnered with the University of Johannesburg and the City Of Joburg and will continue to look for other partners who are as interested in solving this systemic problem as they are.
In the meantime however, they have launched their new business, KHULA, and self-funded and bootstrapped their pilot programme, proving their concept and solution.
“The farmers’ app can be downloaded on any phone that has whatsapp capabilities,” explains Karidas. “Most phones that can be bought for R100 or R200 work, and in our initial research we realised that farmers are pretty tech savvy.”
Farmers go to the app store, download the app and sign up. They then need to provide all their details: Who they are, where they are geolocated, what they grow, and when they expect to harvest different produce. Matthew and Karidas then do a site visit to verify
them and accept them onto the platform.
“Our pilot has been mainly focused on Gauteng and the North West, but we’ve driven 17 hours to Jozini,” says Matthew. “Some of these farms are incredible,” adds Karidas. “One of our farmers in Magaliesburg has this incredible farm in the middle of a dump site. You can’t even believe it’s there. No one knows about them though — which is exactly what we’re trying to solve.”
Through their partnerships, the system has been tweaked and honed throughout the proof of concept phase. “UJ has a farmers’ school that meets every two weeks, and they became our focus group for the app’s beta version,” says Matthew. “We had a focus group of 300 helping us fine-tune the look, feel and usability of the platform.”
The business has also partnered with government. “Government needs data on emerging farmers, but they collect it through extension offices, and it’s often old and irrelevant by the time it’s collated — our data is real-time, so this could make a huge impact to them.”
Key to the success of the platform is the ability to link farmers with customers, which is where KHULA’s key focus has been.
“We have 104 farmers on the platform, and 26 customers, including Rocomama’s, Munching Mongoose and the Michaelangelo,” says Karidas.
The solution is simple: Farmers can click on product and show exactly what they currently have available and what they will be harvesting and when. Customers can then either browse the produce, follow their favourite farmers, or put in orders that farmers can then elect to fill. In some cases, multiple farmers might fill a large order, which is one of the key solutions the aggregated platform offers, giving small-scale farmers access to large customers. In addition, KHULA has one of the biggest organic offerings available, and the platform offers complete transparency.
“Our customers love knowing exactly where their produce is coming from, and the fact that they are supporting small-scale local farmers,” says Matthew. “The entire system is geolocated, so you can put clear parameters in place. If your carbon footprint is important, you can select farmers within a 10km radius for example.”
The platform has also revealed how much high-end produce is locally available. “Elderflowers are niche and typically imported, and yet there are quite a few farmers in Joburg who grow them,” says Karidas. “Through KHULA, there is now supply and demand for this product.”
The market incentivises farmers to update their data weekly because they see orders coming in. “If they don’t update their data they aren’t able to contribute,” says Matthew.
Related: Khula SME Fund
Creating systemic change
During the pilot phase Matthew and Karidas handled packaging and collections and deliveries — going so far as to don jerseys and jackets and turn their Polo into a refrigerator with the aircon cranked up to ensure fresh deliveries.
Today they have partnered with a delivery and logistics service company on an uber-type basis. “Mospa Logistics has 30 trucks, but at any given time, ten are in the parking lot,” says Matthew. “We’ve created an app that triggers a pick-up when needed. The whole system is designed for a just-in-time service for both the farmers and our clients.”
In fact, the entire business is focused on finding solutions — for their clients, farmers, and in streamlining their solutions. “We need to mitigate the risk of non-delivery to ensure our clients are satisfied with the platform. We have had instances where a farmer has disappeared on us and we had to deliver, so we went out onto the network and another farmer in the area could fill the order. It’s important to have a large network to ensure this is possible.”
The solution is also based on a win-win-win model. Farmers, clients and KHULA all need to benefit from the platform. “From our side, we need to provide value. This means giving the farmers access to market, but also providing real value to our clients,” says Matthew.
“We have different types of clients and farmers, and it’s important to classify the produce they offer and are looking for. For example, Rocomamas chops up their jalapenos, so how they taste is far more important than how they look. The Michaelangelo on the other hand requires tomatoes that look perfect, while Spaza Sun is concerned with edible produce that is available at wholesale prices. These gradings and classifications give an added — and valuable — dimension to the platform.”
The pilot project has performed so well that in 2017 a large telco offered to purchase the platform for R5 million, but the entrepreneurs turned them down. “This is our business, and we want to see how far we can take it, and how many lives we can change,” they say.
In fact, the more time they spend in the market, the more solutions they are finding to endemic problems. “Emerging farmers often aren’t bankable because they don’t have track records,” explains Karidas. “Our system tracks everything; we send out invoices, collect payments and make payments to our farmers, which means they have banking records and a guaranteed market. This, in turn, makes them bankable.”
“Our system tracks everything; we send out invoices, collect payments and make payments to our farmers, which means they have banking records and a guaranteed market. This, in turn, makes them bankable.”
- There is nothing more important to a start-up’s success than word-of-mouth. Build your network — the more people who know about you and what you’re doing, the more people will share your story. This is particularly true if you’re solving a need. We would also suggest only relying on word-of-mouth at the beginning and not marketing — this will tell you if you’re on the right path. If no one is talking about you, you might need to adjust your business model.
- Partnerships lead to more partnerships. Most communities are small; the more you’re doing, the more people will hear about you. Every one of our partnerships grew from a previous partnership.
- Start by solving a problem. We didn’t start with an app — we started with an idea. We used paper to record everything and called farmers directly to get them onto our books. We had already traded close to R50 000 before we built the app, and by then we had some experience and knew what the app needed to include.
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