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Hello Group’s Initial Product Failed The Night Before Launch. Today They Are An Industry Disruptor

Hello Group is disrupting international calling, telecom distribution and low cost banking, but it took them a while to get it right. Co-founders Nadir Khamissa and Shaazim Khamissa share their invaluable lessons into the importance of creating a MVP and why you have to kill your own business to succeed.

Nadine Todd

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Vital stats

  • Players: Nadir Khamissa and Shaazim Khamissa
  • Company: Hello Group (includes Hello Mobile, Hello Distribution and Hello Paisa)
  • Est: 2005
  • Seed capital: R6 million quickly turned into R30 000
  • Growth: Hello Mobile: 718% turnover growth from 2010 to 2015 ; Hello Paisa: 1100% from March to October 2015
  • Visit: hellogroup.co.za

Creative destruction. That’s the cornerstone of everything Hello Group’s founders, brothers Nadir Khamissa and Shaazim Khamissa do. It’s how they’ve disrupted international calling, telecom distribution, money transfer and low cost banking across Africa and Asia.

It hasn’t been easy. R6 million in seed capital quickly turned into R30 000 after some early – and very costly – mistakes. But they persevered, and today Hello Group is changing lives at the base of the income pyramid, and the founders are having the time of their lives doing it.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We were all asked this at some point, and no doubt most of us have asked a child the same question. But the world is changing, and today, we ask: “What problem do you want to solve?”

That’s how Nadir Khamissa and his brother Shaazim Khamissa have approached entrepreneurship. It took them a while to get it right. Nadir has lost his life savings twice, but that hasn’t slowed him down.

Related: Meet The 40 Richest Self-Made Entrepreneurs On Earth

In 2015 the brothers were named Innovator of the Year and the Medium Business Entrepreneur of the Year at the Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. Next they nabbed the coveted EY Southern Africa World Entrepreneur Award 2015 in the Exceptional Category.

Hello Group is clearly doing something right, and it’s happening at the base of the income pyramid, that elusive market that so many businesses try — and fail — to access. So how are the Khamissa brothers doing it? The base of the pyramid is a huge potential market, but the economics of tapping into it are tricky. You need a price point that’s accessible for low income earners, but still turns a profit for the business. It’s all about low margins and high volumes.

The solution wasn’t immediate. It took time, a lot of hard work, and some tough lessons. Emblazoned on a wall at Hello Group’s offices is the Eric Reis quote:

“The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.” And that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Lesson 1: Never buy something you can’t afford

Nadir Khamissa loves numbers and the adrenalin associated with risk – high-risk deals, tackling new challenges head-on, being first movers in untapped, untried and untested markets. Shaazim is a coder; the tech backbone of the business. It’s why the brothers work so well together. Nadir is willing to dream big. Shaazim lays the tech foundations to make those dreams a reality.

Dreaming big is a major prerequisite for entrepreneurial success — especially for the business scope that Nadir and Shaazim have envisioned. But it can also land you in hot water, as Nadir discovered when he was 19 years old. “I was studying actuarial science when I discovered trading,” he says. It was 1998, markets were booming, and young Nadir had one goal: To buy a brand-new BMW M3.

“I borrowed R10 000 from my dad and started trading. I thought I was too smart to make a mistake.” For a while he was right. Everything he bought kept going up. He stopped going to university, read everything on trading that he could get his hands on, and in six months turned that initial R10 000 into R250 000. Forget the BMW; his new goal was a Porsche 911. His broker thought he was a prodigy and gave him a big credit line.

“The problem was that I had confused brains with a bull market. It had nothing to do with me.” There was an even bigger problem though. Nadir traded on leverage, which meant he had a line of credit with which to purchase stocks, and he only had to pay for them within seven days. For months everything he bought went up, so he’d already made a profit by the time he had to pay for the initial stocks. And then he made a costly mistake.

“I had read that Parmalat was going to buy Premier Foods. The announcement was imminent, and stocks were projected to rise by 30% to 40%. I bet the house on the deal: R1,5 million on leverage. Then Parmalat pulled out, stocks plummeted and I went from flush with cash, to R16 000 in debt. I was devastated.

“My dad paid the debt, but only after he made sure I’d learnt the most valuable lesson of my life: Never buy something you can’t afford.” This lesson still drives Hello Group’s financial strategy.

“We’ve learnt to focus on cash flow first. A positive cash flow stream means you’re never over-invested in a new idea or business division and it’s an excellent indicator of whether you’re adding value to your target market. If people are willing to pay for your product, you’re on the right track. Cash in the bank should always be your goal. If that’s not happening, something is wrong with your value chain.”

Related: The Rise And Rise Of Skinny Sbu Socks

Lesson 2: Always start with a MVP

Ten years ago a revolutionary new technology hit the market: VoIP meant that you could convert an analogue phone signal into a digital signal, provided you had a switch to do so. Digital is much cheaper than analogue, which meant international phone calls across a VoIP line were a game-changer.

At the time, Nadir was working as a derivatives trader at Deutsche Bank in London, and Shaazim was finishing an accounting degree in South Africa. They were both searching for an entrepreneurial opportunity. For Nadir, this was it.

“I saw so many people constantly queuing at payphones in South Africa. The user experience of public phones is awful, but there was a bigger opportunity: Most of those calls were low-income workers phoning family in other countries. It was expensive, and we thought that we could offer a cheaper alternative.”

With his savings, Nadir purchased a switch and set it up in London, where regulations governing telcos were more amenable for new market entrants. He also reached out to a lawyer at local law firm, Safiyya Petel at Sonnenbergs, to assist him pro bono in securing a South African telco licence.

The business idea was relatively simple: The user would buy a call card, put it into a payphone, and dial a South African number. An automated response would ask the caller to hang up. The switch in London would then phone the caller back, ask them to enter a pin code and the destination number and connect the call.

On paper, it was perfect. But, there were problems. Nadir and Shaazim had tied themselves to a payphone by basing the entire business idea around a payphone calling card and it didn’t work.

“On the night we launched, we did a final test. We stopped at a payphone at a garage in Johannesburg and dialled the number. The automated response answered and asked us to hang up. Then the phone rang. It worked! We entered our pin and the number we wanted to connect to…. And then nothing. No connecting call, no additional prompts, just… nothing. It didn’t work.”

What the brothers were not aware of was that while they were getting their business off the ground, perfecting the tech and printing thousands of fliers, Telkom had changed the way public payphones operated, and this destroyed their business model in one swoop.

“We thought we were going to be millionaires. Instead, our very expensive switch became a large paperweight in a matter of minutes, and I lost 90% of my savings.”

It was a hard blow, but Nadir says it was also the best thing that ever happened to them in business.

“We learnt the value of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) then and there. Today our balance sheet is very different, but we still don’t invest in any new ideas unless we’ve tested them. Create an MVP and make sure your hypothesis is correct. If it’s not, tweak it until it is. MVPs allow you to keep refining an idea without betting the farm on whether your first idea is right — because it seldom is.”

The failure also helped the brothers to distil what it was they wanted to do. “We’d been so excited about the tech and its possibilities that we’d missed a crucial step: Who were we? What did we want the business to be? What problem were we going to solve? And what kind of business could we create based on those answers?”

Lesson 3: Create a partnership where everyone benefits

Hellogroup-house

So what do you do when your first business idea is a failure and you’ve lost all of your money? Go back to the drawing board.

“We needed to make sure we created value, differentiated ourselves and knew why people would buy our product,” says Shaazim. “This meant challenging all of our own ideas and making sure that only the best survived. It’s a process we still follow today and is part of our DNA.”

It’s not an easy process. You need to be able to critically evaluate your own ideas, admit when they’re flawed, listen to other people’s opinions and move on quickly when something isn’t quite right.

When Nadir and Shaazim started from scratch, the user experience of a payphone was poor, and the call back didn’t work. A solution was combining VoIP with GSM or cellular networks. An added bonus to using a WASP (Wireless Application Service Provider) was that you received a rebate every time the number was called. This meant a double revenue stream, and allowed the brothers to keep the call fee as cheap as possible for the user.

While Shaazim worked on the tech, Nadir focused on getting infrastructure in place. He sold his car for working capital, and started looking for a partner with functioning servers and links. A small business owner in Port Shepstone was identified and persuaded to allow them to use his infrastructure on a per minute fee with no fixed opex or capex.

“The idea was to test the product and generate cash quickly to start carrying the costs, so we looked for the low hanging fruit — a target market that we could tap into quickly to prove the tech and generate cash flow,” says Nadir.

What they found was the China Mall. “We had to be there at dawn, handing out fliers,” he recalls. “Our market was illegal immigrants who arrived early and were gone before the cops arrived. We knew they’d want to call home, but money was tight.”

They were right — growth was explosive. And then the cellular network decided to cut them off. “The WASP was the intermediary between us and the mobile network, and he told us he’d been instructed by the network to switch us off. It was massively anti-competitive, but South African telco regulation was in its infancy and could not prevent this from happening.”

Nadir and Shaazim scrambled for a solution. While Shaazim started switching the tech to a different network, Nadir convinced the WASP to give them the weekend before pulling the plug. They used the time well. “We recorded an automated message asking customers to dial a new access number,” says Nadir.

“All prompts on the new number were recorded in Mandarin Chinese,” laughs Nadir. “Because no-one at the network could speak Mandarin, they didn’t immediately realise what we were up to, which gave us the time to approach Cell C and negotiate a partnership.”

Nadir’s pitch was simple and straightforward: Cell C would benefit from their exposure to new markets at the base of the pyramid if they let the brothers plug into their network and collected a small fee on a very large volume of calls. Cell C agreed. “It was a game changer for us. There was no more subterfuge or worrying. We had a fixed Cell C access number with longevity, and we could focus on real growth.”

Related: How To Build Your Business Like A Boss

Lesson 4: Creative destruction, the cornerstone of growth

Hello-Group-awards

“I believe in creative destruction,” says Nadir. “An entrepreneur needs to constantly think of ways to kill their own business, because if they don’t someone else will. There is always something — a new product, service or innovation — that could destroy your current model. The trick is to be the first to spot it, and then to implement the change that would have been your downfall if you weren’t the one doing it.”

“In our case, the answer was one stage dialling,” agrees Shaazim. “At that stage, customers had to dial twice, our number and then the number they wanted to connect to. We always put the user experience top of mind: What’s the simplest, most affordable solution out there? That’s what people care about: cost and ease of use.”

The business needed a single-dialling solution, and so Nadir went back to Cell C with a new proposal: A single Hello Mobile branded SIM card that operated exclusively on the Cell C network. Local calls would be routed through Cell C, and international calls digitally through Hello Mobile’s system. While the background was tech-heavy and complicated, for the user it couldn’t have been simpler. In 2010 Hello Mobile SIM cards started hitting the market, with growth skyrocketing due to the single dial solution.

Lesson 5: Find solutions that suit your target market

Hello Mobile quickly grew to the point where the business needed a distributor. But when you’re targeting the base of the pyramid, price is always an issue. “We weren’t distributors so our first solution was to start negotiating with a large distributor that already had a distribution network. But the price point was unviable. We couldn’t pay them their asking price and still keep the product affordable for our consumer base,” says Nadir. The only solution was to do their own distribution, but they had to get it right.

“Adding value had become our mantra,” says Shaazim. “We weren’t going to launch Hello Distribution unless we could use the new division to actively add value to our market.”

What did that mean? “We had to ask ourselves what we wanted to achieve, and what our barriers were to getting it done. We had to evaluate the end consumer, but also who they would be buying from. Where should vendors be located? What hours were most convenient for our buyers? And where were they most comfortable?

“As we answered these questions, a pattern emerged. Vendors needed to be based in rural villages, townships and informal settlements and CBDs. They needed to trade before and after normal working hours, giving people enough time to buy Hello Mobile’s products, and be situated where typical base of the pyramid buyers were comfortable.” In other words, Nadir and Shaazim needed to form partnerships with Spaza shop owners and street vendors.

“The next question was: How could we add value to the vendors?” If we cared about adding real value for customers, we should do the same for vendors who would become our distribution channel.”

The answer was simple. Recruit people from within the targeted communities to become the sales people and account managers for vendors. “Our vision and philosophy is to maximise revenue for merchants. We needed to find a way to help them convert their time into money.”

Hello Distribution offers a business in a box which functions as Hello Mobile’s starter pack, including branding and simple accounting and payment solutions. “If you step into an informal settlement, you see us, Dstv and Coca-Cola; we’re the dominant brands,” says Nadir.

Creating and fostering strong relationships on the ground makes it easy for vendors to sell Hello Mobile goods for a profit, and for end users to access the products easily at times and in areas that suit them. Hello Distribution’s army of street vendors currently earn R30 million per annum in commissions.

“Our top seller went from unemployed to making R30 000 a month,” says Nadir. “That’s what we’re trying to achieve — a way to service our market by creating additional value along the entire supply chain.”

Lesson 6: Always ask ‘what else can we do for you?’

Hello-Group-call-centre

A widespread distribution channel to informal markets created a new challenge: How to pay commissions? “Business boomed, but we’d spend hours each week counting cash into hundreds of envelopes that then needed to be hand delivered,” says Nadir.

So Shaazim got to work building a mobile wallet for Hello Distribution’s vendors. “This sparked an idea, and we went back to the market and asked our customers what other problems we could solve,” says Nadir.

“Once you’re a trusted brand that delivers on its promises, your consumers are more comfortable sharing their challenges with you — particularly those they will pay you to solve.”

Related: 10 Successful SA Women Entrepreneurs’ Top Advice On Balancing Work And Family

As it turned out, transferring money home was almost impossible. “Southern Africa is the most expensive money transfer jurisdiction in the world,” says Nadir. “This dramatically affects the poorest of the poor. We spent two years talking to the South African Reserve Bank (SARB), World Bank and other global organisations, which wanted to see costs declining and low value money transfers being regulated.”

The solution, Hello Paisa, has been a collaborative effort by the SARB, which has designed a strategy to facilitate low value remittances, and the Hello Group, which secured a Financial Services Board licence and created a high-tech solution to bridge technological innovation with rural and informal markets. It’s a game changer.

“This is the solution we’re most excited about,” says Nadir. “If we hadn’t built Hello Mobile and Hello Distribution, we wouldn’t have the capital, on-the-ground know-how and tech platforms to design a solution that’s going to change lives on a global scale.”

Today, Hello Paisa can facilitate an international money transaction from a spaza shop in rural Eastern Cape to a rural village in Ethiopia in 2,8 seconds. “Of the $550 billion annual transfers, $40 billion occur in Africa, at an average transaction fee of 12%. Our aim was to reduce that price by a factor of three and still be profitable. At the base of the pyramid it’s a numbers game; low margins and many small transactions, so scale is important.”

Nadir and Shaazim Khamissa recognise that Africa is not the only continent that needs this type of solution. Millions of migrant workers and immigrants around the world work in one country and send money home to another. They created a global solution for a global problem, and are disrupting a 200-year-old business model in the process. Watch this space.

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

Lessons Learnt

The Daily Schedules Of 10 Famous Business Billionaires

Get inspired by the daily schedules of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey and other seven-figure leaders.

Entrepreneur

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What do some of the world’s most famous billionaire business leaders have in common? Clearly, they’re all intelligent, driven, hard-working and have lots of digits in their account balances, but the similarities mostly stop when you compare their daily routines.

If you want to know how long you should sleep, when you should wake up, how long and whether you should work out or other lifestyle choices, you won’t find a consensus among the business elite. What you will find is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of individuals who have more money than most of the people on Earth combined.

Click through the slides to read about the daily routines of billionaires including Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey, as gleaned from clues they’ve dropped throughout the years in interviews and speeches.

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Lessons Learnt

Critical Lessons Dan Newman Took From CEOwise Interviews And Applied In His Own Business

When I reached the point in my business where I realised I needed to make a change if I wanted to achieve real scale, I turned to other successful entrepreneurs. What I learnt has changed my business, and helped me launch new companies with stronger foundations.

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After running my agency, Druff Interactive for over 15 years, I came to the stark realisation that I should have been in a different position with my business. It should have been bigger, more successful. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a bad business — quite the opposite. But it could have been more.

Determined to become a better entrepreneur, I decided to start learning from the best. I figured the best way to access the knowledge, experience and lessons I was looking for was by interviewing successful entrepreneurs with the goal of implementing what I learnt in my own business. The result is CEOwise, a collection of interviews and videos that not only document my journey of learning, but lessons I can share with fellow entrepreneurs as well.

Living up to potential

I began my entrepreneurial journey in 2001 when I launched my web and design agency, Druff Interactive. From the very beginning I thought my business would grow organically. I believed my turnover would increase each year, as would my profits, and that I would keep moving forward, year on year, until I reached 40 and could retire comfortably. In this rosy future, I’d never have financial stress again. I couldn’t have been more off the mark.

Being an entrepreneur is like being a new parent. In the beginning, it’s all excitement and butterflies. But then you get home from the hospital and realise you’re living with much more responsibility on less sleep. Such is a new business, and the reality is that you just have to deal with it and make it work.

In our first eight years, Druff grew from just me working from a spare room in our townhouse to a staff complement of 11 by 2010. I was growing organically (as planned), but in a lot of ways, that was actually a risk, at least when it came to growth. Entrepreneurs who do experience organic growth often become complacent. Although Druff was a successful business, I wasn’t pushing it as much as I should have and we began to stagnate.

The very first entrepreneur I interviewed for CEOwise, Rich Mullholland, said that “Success is only important when measured on potential, and the company has not grown according to potential at all, therefore it’s a failure.” He was speaking about his own company, Missing Link, but the lesson really struck a chord with me. I too believed that Druff hadn’t lived up to its potential.

It was one of my biggest issues. When times were great I should have been innovating and pushing my business into different areas. Allon Raiz, founder of Raizcorp, says that he’s seen too many entrepreneurs take their foot off the pedal, become complacent and their success becomes the seed of their failure.

Related: How Dinesh Patel Pivoted OrderIn Into A Successful Food Delivery App

Focused on growth

These were lessons I only started articulating after I began CEOwise, but the truth of them was already becoming apparent to me before I launched the series. Between 2010 and 2016 we worked with great clients and built an awesome portfolio of work. I was proud of what we’d achieved. And yet I knew that after 15 years the business should have been in a different position.

In hindsight, another mistake I made was not having a proper sales force to bring in the clients. We relied mainly on word-of-mouth referrals and Google Adwords to bring in sales and grow organically. Adwords was great in the beginning and the cost per click (CPC) was cheap, but as more companies got on board, CPC became more costly and less effective. And yet I didn’t adjust my strategy. Allon also says that 10% of your team should be dedicated to sales full time. Mine was not.

By December 2016 I reached the decision to start making major changes in my business. I knew I needed to learn from the best of the best, which meant tapping into South Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs. I also realised that if I was in this position, perhaps many other entrepreneurs were too. CEOwise documents my journey of learning, but it also allows me to share it. My vision is to help more people become CEO ‘wise’, so they can become wiser CEOs.

My idea was never to have a boring sit-down, boardroom interview. When I started, I wanted each interview to be centred around an activity. I contacted my first entrepreneur, Rich Mullholland, whom I’d known for many years, and asked him if he’d go SCAD free falling with me, while doing an interview on all the insights on entrepreneurship he’s learnt over the years. He was in! We ended up suspended inside one of the Soweto towers, dropping 50 metres into a net, discussing entrepreneurship. It was a complete win. At the time, Rich was just about to launch his own vlog called ‘The Get Rich Quick Show’, which I still follow to this day (and suggest you do too).

Related: Benji Coetzee Never Worked In Logistics, Find Out How She Launched Empty Trips A Successful Logistics Marketplace

Finding solutions

Since launching CEOwise in March 2017, I have interviewed over 30 entrepreneurs, each with their own story and advice. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that there are many ways to solve a problem. This led to the creation of a segment called ‘CEOwise Advice’, in which I ask each entrepreneur to answer the same question. The variety of answers to the same question is fascinating, and proves that there are many ways to approach a situation. I’m now in the process of creating CEOwise Mentors, which asks five entrepreneurs the same question.

Over the past two years I’ve learnt even more than I hoped for. I’ve been inspired to make changes in Druff, and I’ve also started new businesses that I’ve brought my new-found knowledge into, with the goal to do things correctly from the beginning.

I’ve also fallen in love with learning, which is why I’ve read more books in the past year than I have in my entire life. I’m on a mission to become a raging success. I know I’m going to make mistakes along the way. That’s how we learn. But I’m also a better entrepreneur since I started this journey.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is not to be scared of competition, but to embrace competitors instead. When I met Gary Leicher, founder of Smudge, at a Suits & Sneakers networking event, I decided to put this particular lesson into action. Smudge had been a competitor of ours in the web design and development space for many years. Gary said he’d wanted to meet me for a while and I suggested we get together for a coffee the following week. We sat down for lunch and four hours later, after discussing the industry and processes we used, we swopped notes and left wiser than when we arrived. Don’t be scared of competition, embrace it. There is always something to learn from your fellow entrepreneurs. You just have to be open to the lessons.

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Lessons Learnt

Entrepreneur Erik Kruger On The Importance Of Clarity And Embracing Failure

Erik Kruger has walked his own personal development journey, and now he’s helping other entrepreneurs find their ‘best’.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

How does a physiotherapist who dreamed of touring the world with sports teams become a mental performance coach for high-impact entrepreneurs? Ask Erik Kruger and the term he’ll use is ‘accretion’, the process of growing and adding layers through experiences.

The point is key: No journey is ever a straight line from point A to point B. Most of us spend years figuring out what we want to do through a process of elimination. It’s by doing that we figure out what we like and don’t like; what ignites passion in us, and what we’re good at.

Erik’s journey began in physiotherapy. He graduated in 2007 and started his own private practice with a friend in 2009. He was quickly realising that his dream wasn’t aligning with reality though. “My goal was to be the physio who toured with the springboks. Instead, I was locuming at hospitals and travelling two hours a day to reach my private practice offices,” says Erik. “I couldn’t see my future in it.”

It’s an interesting lesson: Until you do something, you won’t always know if it aligns with your expectations and goals. But no experience is ever a waste. “Physiotherapy ended up allowing me to have a side hustle. I could pay the bills while I figured out my entrepreneurial journey, because I had no idea what I wanted to do when I started. I registered 45 domain names before I settled on Better Man, and Better Man led me to the Mental Performance Lab and my coaching business.”

Launches and lessons

While he was still in private practice, Erik met fellow entrepreneur and Shark Tank investor, Marnus Broodryk. “Marnus was still in his own start-up phase. We were at FTV and he was handing out business cards for his accounting business, The Beancounter, to everyone he met. I took one, but only ended up contacting him months later because I needed to set up a website, and I thought he’d be able to give me some guidance.”

The website was for the practice, and Marnus helped Erik via skype to set up his first WordPress site. In Erik’s own words, it was a terrible website, but the bug bit. From that moment onwards, Erik’s newfound love affair with the digital space began.

“I liked the idea that you could just create something and people would come,” he says. “I found out very quickly that’s not how it works at all, but by then I was playing around with as many website ideas as I could think of.”

Related: Erik Kruger Explains How You Can Become A BetterMan And What That Means For Your Business

Marnus and Erik played around with some ideas, and settled on directory sites. “The idea was that people would pay a monthly retainer to be on the website and that’s all you’d need to create annuity income. You also wouldn’t need advertising revenue, which requires ongoing sales.”

Because of his own area of expertise, Erik thought a directory for physiotherapists would work well — one of the regulating bodies disagreed. They viewed the monthly retainer as a kickback, which is illegal in the medical profession.

So, Erik moved on to his next idea. “I was doing everything over eLance and Odesk, from web development to graphic design. I started thinking that we needed a local freelance community that entrepreneurs could tap into. My brother agreed to invest in the idea and we hired developers from India to build the site. I directed them to a few sites I liked and briefed them on what we wanted.”

Six months and R70 000 later, Erik received a cease and desist call from one of the big players in the freelance space. “He was furious. It turned out that the developers we had hired had copied his website, section for section, header for header. I had been focused on client acquisition, not the development of the site — I hadn’t even checked what they were doing. I’d only focused on the feedback from beta testing. Faced with being sued for infringement, we took the site down immediately. I was trying different things and failing miserably, but I was also okay with that.”

Finding a niche

erik-kruger

Erik didn’t let his failures deter him. “I was trying to figure out how to make money from digital assets. I registered 45 domain names, and for every one of them I built a WordPress site and developed a marketing strategy. I’d go to work, get home and just do digital for the rest of the day.”

To upskill himself, Erik also took courses on digital marketing, Facebook, Google marketing, WordPress and DNS set-ups. “I created a fitness website for brides-to-be, a mentor site for models and websites for girlfriends to help them run their businesses. Each website would be up and running for a few weeks, and then I’d lose interest, close it and move on.”

And this is where the foundation of Erik’s journey really begins. The fact that he hadn’t yet found what he was looking for was a lesson in itself. “Clarity is a process; I can see it with my clients all the time,” he says. “I didn’t know it then, but I can see it now. Clarity only really comes from wanting to find clarity, trying to find clarity. We often talk about evolution in entrepreneurial circles, but the reality is that evolution can only happen when something already exists, which means you have to be out there trying new things to find your purpose, or big idea.

“When I started coaching, what I was doing with my clients back then versus now is vastly different. No matter how much I read about coaching, thought about what coaching should be like, or listened to different coaches and how they do it, I would never have reached the point I’m at now, if I hadn’t been doing it myself. That’s how we learn and evolve.”

For Erik, the 45 websites he created led him to Better Man, and that’s where his journey started to pivot. “Better Man was the idea I stuck with. Up until that point, I’d been looking for things to do and ways to monetise them, but they were all external and not what really came naturally to me. There’s no such thing as a lightning bolt idea that hits you and that’s it. Amazing, masterful ideas are the result of trial and error.

“People think clarity is a switch, illuminating everything. But it’s actually like striking a match, and that match keeps burning, and you strike another and another and another, and slowly the room fills with light. Even then, you have clarity for a moment, and then the matches burn out, and you have to start again.”

In the case of Better Man, Erik was tired of trying to find something that would work, and instead decided to create something for himself. “I’ve always been into self-development and the idea evolved from there. I decided to create a website based on interviews I’d do with successful South Africans — I’d learn from them, and share the interviews online.”

Erik’s first interview was with Maps Maponyane, followed by Tim Noakes. The site wasn’t getting a lot of traction, but Erik was having fun. “It was the first thing I’d done where I didn’t have any real plans to monetise the site. I was just doing something I enjoyed and figuring it out.”

Erik did want to grow a community though, and so he concentrated on Facebook and email marketing to build up a Better Man database.

“I wanted to experiment with different mediums of communication,” he explains. “The two things that really moved the needle were the group, which was 18 000-strong, and the daily emails I started, which quickly reached 16 500 people.”

Through the community he had built up, Erik then found a way to monetise the business through events. “I was sharing content and ideas that struck a chord with me, which meant they were valuable to other people. That’s how I built up a community, and from there I could offer access to that community to brands.”

For 18 months, there were regular Better Man events, all sponsored by top lifestyle brands. The business was doing well, but through the platform and the community, Erik discovered a new direction: Coaching.

“Once I’d built up the community, I played around with a few different ideas, looking for ways to monetise the platform over and above events. We launched a fitness eBook, an apparel line and partnered with brands for events, but the one thing the community kept asking for was coaching. The events worked as marketing platforms — the next morning I’d sign up clients — and even though I hadn’t known that this was where Better Man would lead, I discovered it was a direction I wanted to explore.”

Related: Fear As Foe And Friend: How To Master This Important Relationship

Focused direction

Up until that point, Erik had been trying a lot of different avenues to see what stuck. He also admits he had shiny object syndrome — even with Better Man. “I was too responsive to every question and query. You can’t just jump around and hope you’ll find success; you need focus and direction.”

Interestingly, even coaching didn’t offer that at first. Erik tried group coaching and Mastermind groups before realising he needed to really focus. It meant stopping the events and even pulling back from the community he’d built, although his daily emails continue, and all group members are the first to hear about workshops and seminars.

“Finding my path required me to sit down and take a long look at what was — and wasn’t — working for me personally. You can try and figure out what people want, and that’s important, but you also need to understand your personal drivers, or you’ll never stick with something long enough to make it a success.

“I was trying out mentor calls through the Better Man community, and I realised that they weren’t working for me. They felt superficial; like I wasn’t driving results. When I spoke to someone, I’d get off the call and I wouldn’t feel good. I’d feel like I’d just spent time telling someone what to do, but where were the results?”

Once Erik made the decision to be a coach though, his focus shifted to being the best coach in South Africa. It was that decision and direction that made all the difference. “I went out and bought every book I could find on coaching. Then I wrote all the models that spoke to me up on white boards and started creating my own coaching framework.”

From there, Erik, signed up for his Master’s Degree in Management, with a focus on business and executive coaching. By 2017 he was coaching full time.

“I had to build up my confidence, which is evident in my early pricing models, but my masters has been the biggest game-changer for me. It shifted a few fundamental things for me, from my coaching approach to developing better listening skills. Ultimately though, internal drive is the biggest differentiator. I want to be the best coach I can be, and that’s making all the difference.”

Because of that drive, Erik has also found his niche. “I want to have a big impact on the world, which means I need to help people who in turn impact the lives of others. CEOs and entrepreneurs are my focus area. My influence and impact are amplified when I’m coaching a CEO of 500 people.”

Since finding his niche, Erik has worked with a number of high-calibre clients, including some of South Africa’s top executives and entrepreneurs.

Action, not words

Better Man gave Erik the platform he needed to launch his coaching business. Although the journey has been organic, once he made the decision about what he wanted to focus on, each step forward has been far more intentional. “I believe in visualisation and intention. Intention is determining where you want to go and then breaking that down into goals. My intention is to become the most sought-after speaker and coach in South Africa. Everything I do works towards that goal.”

In line with this goal are Erik’s own experiences. “Everything we do and think is the culmination of our experiences. In my case, it’s personal experiences as well as what I learn from my clients. Coaching is a gift for me. I can spend time with the CEO of a multi-national and come up with solutions and insights that I can then share with the owner of a 30-man business. With an outsider’s perspective you can start seeing patterns. Coaching is practical, and it draws on the human experience, even in a business context.

“It’s easy to believe that you’re too busy for a morning routine for example. When I see someone who does have the time and still isn’t following a routine, I ask why. What is the deeper value or belief that they aren’t tapping into or living? What experiences of highly busy people who still find the time can I draw from and share? Every experience that is shared broadens our collective exposure.”

Personally, Erik follows many of these practices himself. “I learn about them and implement them. It makes me a better coach. We’re all human, but at the top of the business ladder, we need to perform optimally. There’s a metrics side to business, and a human side, and you can’t ignore either.

“Founding the Mental Performance Lab has been about developing a high-performance state of mind. It’s not just about smashing metrics, but functioning at an optimal level. You need to do the right thing at the right time, and to achieve that, mindfulness is key. You can function flat out, always racing ahead, stressed and busy, or you can function optimally. That’s my focus.” EM


acta-non-verba-book

Read This

Acta Non Verba: The Playbook For Creating, Achieving And Performing At Your Highest Level

Erik Kruger’s first book is a collection of 160 thoughtful reflections on what it takes to live a life of action and not words. Acta Non Verba’s purpose is to get people moving, creating, and generating an unstoppable drive in both their business and personal journeys.

This is not a book to read from cover to cover, in one sitting. Each day there is a new chapter waiting to be read. Put this book on your bedside table, and read a new chapter with your first cup of coffee every morning. Each message is short so you can read it quickly, in the moment, and then reflect and act on it for the entire day. It’s a book that demands action.

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