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Karl Westvig On Why Passion And Knowledge Drive Success (Together)

Starting a business is easy. You need a white board, a cool idea, and a small amount of cash to get you started. That’s Karl Westvig’s view of entrepreneurship.

Nadine Todd




“I’m a builder. I view business as a puzzle. I picture it, work out what needs to go where in terms of skills, capabilities and solutions, and then I put it together,” explains Karl Westvig, co-founder of Retail Capital.

In 1999, Karl was instrumental in launching and growing RCS, the Foschini Group’s consumer finance business. “We monetised Foschini’s store-card base by creating personal loan products. Once we’d proven the model, we offered third-party credit to the customer bases of others.”

Then, in 2005, Standard Bank acquired a 45% equity stake in RCS, buying out the management share, and giving Karl and his management team an exit. Karl had a three-year contract to work out, but by 2008 he had a decent bank balance, and a blank piece of paper to fill.

“I could have had a small retirement, but I really wasn’t ready for that. I was in my 30s, and I’d had too much fun building RCS. I wanted to build something new. I took a sabbatical to Lake Como in Italy, and set up an Angel investment fund, Como Capital. I wanted to look for interesting opportunities and build them out, but I didn’t want to be involved in the day-to-day operations.”

He invested in five different businesses over two years — and learnt a host of expensive lessons.

“Lesson one, if you don’t have a deep understanding of an industry, you’re unlikely to be successful,” says Karl. “The credit-related businesses I’m involved in are a success; others have been less successful. You can read extensively, but if it’s not your core industry, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

For example, one of the businesses Karl invested in is a self-service recruitment portal. “Our idea was to cut out the middle man — agencies — which made sense to us. We thought we’d revolutionise the industry with our app. But, good tech and great people aren’t enough if you don’t understand your industry. Recruitment is entrenched in corporates. We needed buy-in from people who didn’t engage with technology, and felt the value proposition of our offering threatened their positions. We couldn’t get traction. Plus, the most successful recruitment platform, LinkedIn, was already happening, mobilising people and data.”

Related: Striata Founder Mike Wright Gives Top Advice On Going Global

Karl’s second big lesson was that it’s easy to start one, even five businesses — but when they all need you at the same time, you have five failing companies. “Start-ups are fun,” he says. “You need a white board, you brainstorm cool stuff, you partner with great people and put some cash in. What’s hard is when things aren’t going well and the business needs you full-time.

“Some of the businesses lost money, one broke-even, one made money, and one’s a great business — that’s Retail Capital. The difference between it and the other four was that as a credit-related business, it was in my wheelhouse. My founding partner also came from a credit background. He spotted the opportunity and we launched together. I was very involved in the start-up — underwriting deals, policies and hiring people, but as the business grew, Dave handled the day-to-day operations. The company didn’t need two bosses.”

For Karl, a successful business needs two things: Passion and knowledge. “We had both. When Dave stepped down and I took over the reins, I knew that to continue feeding my passion as a builder, I had to view the platform we were building as a launchpad for other initiatives. Instead of being involved in other start-ups, I added other products by leveraging the Retail Capital brand, balance sheet and credibility. When you build a business, you create a credit history and a track record. If you leave, you start again from zero. That’s how I continue to tick my personal boxes.”

Karl continues to be a builder within the business. “There are always areas to improve and grow,” he says. “High-growth organisations have different needs to start-ups, but they are still puzzles that need solutions. That’s my focus. Finding ways to continuously build and improve this organisation, for the business and everyone who works for it or does business with us.”

retail-capital-logoIt’s all about the people: The Inner workings of Retail Capital

Here are the top nine lessons Karl Westvig and his team have learnt about motivating, retaining and managing employees.

1. Equity is a misnomer

People place more emotional than economic value on shares. A minority shareholding in a small or untraded business has limited liquidity. The only way you can get something out is if a big buyer comes along.

I believe it’s better to create a structure where top employees participate in the economics of the business and feel like shareholders, but they have an exit opportunity through share option schemes. If you’re using shares to reward or retain top employees, make sure there’s an exit plan.

2. Without net promoter scores, how can you know what’s going on in your business?

We spend a lot of time on our culture internally, and we use net promoter scores for staff and customers to ensure we’re on the right track. At the end of each month we phone every customer we’ve advanced to during the previous month and ask them if they’d recommend us to another company for funding. If we don’t score a 9 or 10, we ask why, and then immediately follow up. We have a full time CRM manager who visits customers to resolve issues.

We run a staff engagement survey biannually, including a net promoter score that asks whether staff would recommend us as a workplace. 9s and 10s are promoters, passives score 7s and 8s, and anyone who scores a 6 and below is a detractor.

Related: 4 Tips To Become A Team Whisperer (And Improve Your Employee Engagement)

3. We take employee experiences seriously

Net promoter scores aren’t just about gauging how happy your employees are. We implemented Gallup’s Q12 survey in 2015, and it’s helped us tackle challenges head-on. The questions are straightforward: Do you understand what’s required of you? Do you have a best friend at work? Do you have all the tools required for you to do your job? Do your peers do as good a job as you do? Have you received recognition in the last seven days from your manager and so on. These questions hone in on your business. We present the findings back to our staff — it’s completely transparent — but we’re also able to pick up on underlying issues that might otherwise be missed.

For example, one of our top sales consultants became a sales manager. Because he was so good, his team kept growing — until it outgrew him. Without this survey, we wouldn’t have realised he needed help until he left or we lost important members of his team. Instead, we were able to scale his team back and put him on a more controlled growth path. This also alerted us to the consequences of outpacing our own growth. There’s always a lag between growth and resources, but if we can see how this affects our employees, we can manage it.

4. Sales is a personal experience, support this

A few years ago, we implemented an ‘explorers’ programme by partnering one call centre agent with two sales consultants. Instead of cold calling, the explorers worked with their sales consultants to set up strategic meetings in specific areas each day, attending some as training. This enabled explorers to develop into consultants.

But something unexpected happened. The number of appointments booked doubled. We realised it was because instead of following a script, hitting a call quota each day and then starting from zero again, the outbound call centre agents were booking meetings for a specific person, and then receiving feedback. The loop was being closed, and it was highly motivating.

5. Think long-term

As we started growing, we needed managers, particularly in sales, and the natural inclination was to promote someone from within. Because we didn’t want to miss out on sales, we let our sales managers continue to sell, competing with their own teams. We soon realised that this was in conflict with the long term value they offered as the team’s support structure.

6. Create a higher purpose for everyone

It’s natural within a sales-driven organisation to have a big sales conference each year and ignore everyone else. We realised this was damaging the company’s morale, and driving a wedge between sales and back-office staff, who needed to work together.

People are scared of changing structures because they fear losing sales people, but by doing so, we reenergised the company. We turned the sales conference into a company conference, bringing everyone together. This led to a marked increase in commitment and overall performance.

When I first arrived, there was unproductive rivalry between sales and underwriting. Sales pushed deals and underwriting said no. By bringing them together at a conference, they started chatting to each other and understanding the process and what would and wouldn’t go through. It broke down barriers and helped deal flow.

As soon as you create a higher purpose, much of that kind of rivalry goes away, and everyone starts looking at the bigger picture, and how things can be achieved together.

7. Belief is half the battle won

We rebranded the business in March 2017. This was the culmination of a lot of changes, and we wanted to pull them all together and give everyone a sense of unified purpose.

Throughout the journey we kept talking about growth. At that stage we were growing at 15% per annum, and we said our aim was 50%. Our sales team said it wasn’t possible. It is, we said. Within two years, instead of doing R15 million a month, we will do R30 million. They still didn’t believe us, and then the metrics started ticking up because of all the other changes we’d made. As the metrics climbed, everyone started believing, and the metrics climbed higher. Belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Related: Why Innovative Employee Benefits Are Your Competitive Advantage

8. Anything is possible

Two years ago, it took five days to process a deal. I asked our executive responsible for underwriting why it couldn’t be one day. He said that wasn’t possible. ‘Of course it’s possible. Your task is to find a way. How long will you need?’ His response was two months. I told him he had one week, but he didn’t need to do it alone. ‘Gather everyone involved in the process into a room and map it out, then figure out what needs to be fixed.’

By that Friday he reported back to me completely excited. ‘We don’t need to do all the stuff we’ve been doing that takes so long,’ he said. The exercise had revealed how many steps in the process were unnecessary, and they were able to cut deal processing down from five days to two days.

Within two months this simple change radically improved customer experience, gave more visibility to sales people who could understand the process, automated a lot of our business, but most importantly, it changed everyone’s mindsets.

When you have unrealistic expectations of people, it’s amazing how they surprise themselves — and then become the biggest advocates of that change.

This is why an organisation’s belief system is so important. You can have great people, but if they don’t believe, you’ll never have the business you can have. Once they believe, it’s amazing what you can achieve.

9. Foster an active culture

Every business either has an active or passive culture. In passive cultures, the business operates and people carry on. Within that environment, a person might be positively impacting those around them, or doing the exact opposite.  In business terms this is known as ‘white anting’, eating the ant’s nest from the inside out. It’s highly destructive. There will always be a passive majority. They don’t hold strong views about the organisation and they just operate. The active minority share their views. These can be positive or negative. If they’re negative in a passive culture, they start controlling the information flow and views within your organisation — like a cancer. But if you’re actively managing your culture, they get exposed.

You can quickly identify who doesn’t want to be there and who is disengaged. Sitting in their office, they won’t be noticed, but on an office breakaway you’ll see who is engaged and who isn’t. Once you’ve identified them you need to determine if you can convert them. These are people with views — if you understand why they are negative and can convert them, you can create a powerful positive influencer within the organisation, but if you can’t you need to exit them.

Whatever you do, foster an active culture. The passive majority will push back at white-anters if you manage your culture. They won’t tolerate negativity in their midst. If you don’t, they take over.

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

Lessons Learnt

Taking It To The Malaysian Market – Karl van Zyl Of Antipodean Café

Karl van Zyl approach has always been logical and simplified and he highlights three principles that he believes to be critical in the food and beverage industry.

Dirk Coetsee




Karl van Zyl has a 17 year history in the food and beverage industry in South-Africa and now applies his skills and knowledge in the extremely vibrant and competitive Malaysian market. I had a very interesting conversation with him to explore both similarities and differences of both markets and to share his accumulative learning of this industry to those entrepreneurs considering to open a restaurant or café.

He has a history working for the Mikes’ kitchen and Fishmonger groups in South-Africa fulfilling a range of roles from being a General Manager to Operational Manager. Currently he both manages an well-known Café called Antipodean and facilitates the opening of new cafes’ in Klang Valley, Malaysia.

Karl shared that his approach has always been logical and that applying sound basics has always served him well. Would you eat the food served at your restaurant and really enjoy it? Posing questions such as the aforementioned to yourself as a restaurant owner or manager helps you to be aware of the quality of your operation and to always keep the customer in mind when making decisions.

One of the key learnings that he shared was to get a very good and experienced team of waiters together that has previous restaurant or hospitality industry experience. He strongly advises quality over quantity when it comes to waiters and fondly remembers one of the waiters that he managed whom could take orders from a group of twenty people and remember each order from the top of his head.

It is not only about quality of service to the customer but also when there is a small but quality team of waiters operating then their earnings are much higher and they will feel valued and happy as opposed to a large group of waiters competing for relatively small rewards.

Related: What Comfort Zones? Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable Says Co-Founder Of Curlec: Zac Liew

Karls’ approach has always been logical and simplified and he highlights three principles that he believes to be critical in the food and beverage industry:

  1. Quality of food
  2. Quality of service
  3. Pricing.

He adds that in addition to the above principles your location should of course be in area with very good ‘foot traffic’.

When the entrepreneur venturing into the food and beverage market considers the right suppliers it is a critical factor to go and visit their facilities, thoroughly check their quality and enquire which other quality brands they are supplying in addition to buying at good prices.

In his view comparing the Malaysian food and beverage market to the South African market there are a lot more Malaysians eating at restaurants than in South Africa. One of the reasons for this is that there are a lot of ‘street café/restaurant’ options with quality food at a very low price due to the restaurant not being air-conditioned and making use of for example plastic chairs and tables.

Personally the author has found much more twenty four hour food options and countless varieties of food compared to the South African market. If you are awake and hungry at 3 am in the morning in Kuala Lumpur, no problem! You also will not be limited to only 24 hour fast food options, almost any type of food that you desire will be available that is if you know where to go off-course.

Related: Don’t Be ‘Outside Standing’ On Your Own Exponential Growth Says Serial Investor, Jimmy Phoon

As a matter of interest Karl regards the prices of restaurants in general in Kuala Lumpur to be better than in South Africa and holds the service levels in KL in higher esteem due to it being more ‘personal’ and customer orientated. He believes that South African food matches the quality of Malaysian food but that there is however much more variety of food available in Malaysia.

Karl pointed out that it is possible to have people from all five continents represented in one night at a restaurant as the food culture in Malaysia is very diverse and so is the cultural phenomenon in general in Kuala Lumpur.

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Lessons Learnt

What Comfort Zones? Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable Says Co-Founder Of Curlec: Zac Liew

Zac Liew was offered to be CEO and Co-founder of Curlec at the age of twenty six and took up the offer knowing that he would be engaged in a steep learning curve. Curlec is a FinTech company that is redefining the customer experience for Direct Debit.

Dirk Coetsee




Botanica Deli, Bangsar South, Malaysia a vibrant environment where a number of entrepreneurs and office workers go to meet and have great food and coffee. I walked into the Deli to meet a man that might just possess the ‘entrepreneurial gene’ if indeed that gene exists.

Zac Liew always wanted to venture onto the exciting yet challenging playing field of entrepreneurial ventures having his dad and mother as examples. His father a lawyer, whom ventured into property development and his mother whom started the first chain of liquor stores in Malaysia.

His parents’ ventures interested him from a very young age and helped to ignite the entrepreneurial fire in this very young CEO and co-founder of Curlec. Zac is a qualified lawyer whom also did a stint in the banking industry but at all times he had a burning desire to do something entrepreneurial and always had an interest in tech.

To him tech was always logical and simply made sense within this ever changing business environment within which we as entrepreneurs launch our start-up ventures. He also enjoys the challenging demands that the tech environment places upon his problem solving skills.

Related: Brian Tan Of – Bridging The Knowledge Gap Through Social Learning

The Creation of Curlec

curlec-malaysia-mobile-appZac Liew was offered to be CEO and Co-founder of Curlec at the age of twenty six and took up the offer knowing that he would be engaged in a steep learning curve. Curlec is a FinTech company that is redefining the customer experience for Direct Debit. They are the first Malaysian software company to enable online Direct Debit payments in Malaysia. One of the core principles that Curlec was founded upon is to Build great tech that solves a basic need.

Zac together with his co-founders Steve Kucia and Raj Lorenz found a simplified and effective solution to collecting money on a recurring basis. Normally recurring billing and collections is a big issue for SMEs’ and other options were exceptionally costly and timeous.

Zac pointed out that the size of the issue of recurring collections exceeded all expectations and that is one of the reasons that their start-up phase has been successful and gained very good traction in the market.

Curlec has a razor sharp focus on only two products which enables them to focus on giving a great service and customer experience. Curlec cuts through the normal levels of bureaucracy of big companies and has a laser focus on their customers.

How does this apply to start-up entrepreneurs?

Create a product or a system that is simplified, very user friendly, cost and time effective, and more importantly that solves a very challenging issue within the market place that adds great value to customers. Underpin this by being customer centric.

I asked Zac to enlighten me on the key learnings of his journey thus far and also share success principles that has served him well in business and in his life in general. He pointed out that he believes that every entrepreneur should get comfortable with being uncomfortable and venture outside the boundaries of their own comfort zones.

‘Be comfortable with making mistakes’ he says. Get feedback learn from it and integrate the useful feedback in your thinking and in practically applying solutions.’

As business and life has a natural and general ebb and flow to it persistence is a key factor to your success. Accept challenges as they occur and realise that the mind of the entrepreneur should always have a problem solving focus. As a fan of combat sports, Zac shared the following quotes that resonates with him:

“The more you seek the uncomfortable the more you will become comfortable” – Conor McGregor


“I have been training under the dark lights so that I can shine in the bright lights’ – Anthony Joshua

Related:  Zac Liew Channeling The Fire Of Authenticity: Asia’s’ Top ‘YouTuber’, Joanna Soh

As a writer I have always been fascinated by the wisdom imparted by philosophers and masters of their respective fields. I am even more excited and hopeful for our future when I hear wisdom ‘rolling of the tongue’ of a twenty six year old entrepreneur:

‘Be idealistic in your ideas but be pragmatic in actualising them. If things are not working out do not be stuck in that. Take what you can learn from your experiences and move on.’

Tech has the inherent power to reach the far ends of the world seamlessly and when we have more and more tech entrepreneurs solving big consumer issues and thereby making this world a better place we can be more and more hopeful of a better future.

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Lessons Learnt

Don’t Be ‘Outside Standing’ On Your Own Exponential Growth Says Serial Investor, Jimmy Phoon

Serial investor Jimmy Phoon is proud of his and his team at Alps Global holdings in achieving a $300 million valuation.

Dirk Coetsee




It was a usually warm and humid afternoon in Malaysia as I walked into the foodbar at Fashion library in Kota Damansara, to meet a man who has a deep understanding of leveraging capital mechanisms in order to achieve exponential business growth.

Serial investor Jimmy Phoon is proud of his and his team at Alps Global holdings in achieving a $300 million valuation. He doesn’t speak to the ‘wrongs and rights’ of investments as he believes there are many ways in approaching an investment opportunity. He does however, firmly believe in the MOC (Miracles of Capital) organisations’ (of which he is a senior alumni member) approach to exponentially grow a company and having a clear exit strategy such as selling at a desired price or publically listing the company.

Jimmy enthusiastically highlighted the difference between them, as he names it a ‘feasible’ and a ‘bankable’ business investment. In offering a simple differentiation between the two terms he explained that ‘feasibility’ simply means that the business is making money, whilst ‘bankable’ means that the business is not only making money but that there is a clear succession plan and exit strategy in place.

As an experienced international entrepreneur and investor he recognises that a vast number of entrepreneurs are very well versed in the market mechanisms of their respective industries yet not equally adept at the capital mechanisms that underpins the exponential growth of companies. He points out that when a company has very good management in place, has a clear and attractive dividend policy to its shareholders, and in addition a well-defined and practical exit strategy it will increase the appetite of investors in general.

Related: Business Leadership – Learn How To Embrace Change

He describes the MOC to be an international platform to teach the mechanisms of Capital to entrepreneurs and investors. The MOC is the trifecta of business incubation, acceleration, and investment. One of the core principles of business investment that the MOC teaches and which Jimmy firmly believes in is collaboration between companies and entrepreneurs.

This means the willingness and openness to merge your unique skills as an entrepreneur, the unique offering of your company, profit and loss, with the skills, products and offerings of other companies with the end goal of exponential growth of a newly formed company. This approach can create a big win for all involved.

But what is ‘Outside Standing’?

The aforementioned discussion led to Jimmy sharing one of his favourite sayings:

“Be outstanding or outside standing” – a tongue in the cheek way of saying that by truly understanding and applying both the mechanisms of the market and capital you can experience the exponential growth of your company or alternatively by not fully applying both mechanisms it is then highly likely that you will be a witness from the ‘outside’ to the exponential growth of other companies and unfortunately not your own.

Jimmy’s’ accumulated learnings allows him to assist his team in building an ‘IPO’ compliant company that is formed with a collaborative approach towards a planned and well executed exit. That is part of his mind-set which is to do ‘big things’ and keep a distance from ‘small things’ for as an investor this man is always after exponential growth. He fosters a creation mind-set which is to create a bigger picture through leveraging and combining market and capital mechanisms.

One of the key ‘take always’ for me as an entrepreneur is to be much more open to collaboration in order to add value to others and in turn receive value such as exponential growth. Understanding the market mechanisms within your industry is not enough to multiply business performance, taking a keen interest in the capital mechanisms at play will take major strides towards actualising your bigger picture.

Read next: Entrepreneurship: How To Develop Your ‘Great Idea’

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