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Striata Founder Mike Wright Gives Top Advice On Going Global

Mike Wright launched Striata in 1999 from his converted garage in Kensington, Johannesburg. He was 30 years old, with limited capital, and had resigned from his job as MD of a leading web design firm to follow his dreams. To get started, he rescheduled his bond and provisional tax payments, and started working on his big idea. These are his lessons in high-level growth, and the do’s and don’ts of international expansion.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Mike Wright
  • Company: Striata
  • EST: 1999
  • Turnover: In excess of $10 million (+-R120 million+)
  • Visit: striata.com

Striata is a R120 million+ business that operates across South Africa, the Americas, Europe from a base in the UK, and Asia. Launched in South Africa in 1999, founder Mike Wright reached a point where the only way he could grow the business further was to go offshore.

Expansion in the US has been extremely successful, and Mike moved to the UK with his family to spearhead European growth. The business’s efforts in Australia have been less successful however, and a second office has since opened in Hong Kong to service Asia Pacific. Here are Striata’s lessons on international expansion — what worked for them, what hasn’t worked, and how to approach new territories to guide your business’s success.

Learning from the ground up

Mike Wright’s first piece of advice to any entrepreneur looking at international expansion is not to rely on statistics. “In my view, statistics don’t work for the individual,” he explains.

“You can be successful and be doing the opposite of what the statistics say should work, or you can do exactly what the stats applaud and still be struggling.

Related: How Travelit Makes Travelling Affordable For Small Businesses

“If you’re thinking of expanding beyond your borders, hopefully you are already successful in your own market. We reached a level of success and maturity in South Africa that led us down this path. Along the way we’ve learnt that when you enter new markets that aren’t in the business landscape you know and understand, all bets are off. Past achievements don’t guarantee future success.

“You need to look at your business, what you offer, your differentiators, strengths and weaknesses, and use those to determine your go-to-market strategy, based on intensive research into the markets you’re entering. You need to know how and why people do business, and who they do it with, in all the territories you’re looking at.”

In each of the three territories they entered (Australia, the UK and the US), Striata sent pioneers — people they knew, who had worked with them or knew them, and who understood who and what the brand stood for — to spearhead the new international offices.

There’s a fundamental choice you have to make when you launch a division in a new territory: Employ a local with an entrenched network, or send someone that you know shares your values and company culture,” says Mike. The most obvious way to tap into an established network is to find a local partner, or purchase a local business. The downside to this strategy is culture. “The bedrock of a successful business is a shared company culture, but fundamentally you can’t change people. If you go the acquisition route, you need to be absolutely sure you have cultural alignment, and too often it’s only once you’re in business together that you realise you don’t.”

Striata opted for door number two: Supporting individuals from within the organisation to spearhead international growth and building networks on the ground.

“Building a network takes time. You need to attend conferences and networking events and make meaningful connections. We saw this in action in the US. Our pioneer was very good at growing his community and leveraging contacts. The US is a large, mature market, and no one cares where you’re from as long as you deliver. We had a product to sell, not just a concept, and a track record. The right person, market, timing and opportunity aligned for us, and our launch and subsequent growth was successful. We didn’t gain traction overnight, but there was a market for our services, which is the biggest hurdle.”

The strategy worked well in the US and the UK — but not that well in Australia. “We learnt the hard way that the Australian business market is built on long-standing relationships, and it’s a difficult market to break into as an expat.”

As a result, Striata invested more in the market that was working. From 2005 to 2008, US growth was a top priority. “We hired more people, attended conferences and ensured we had a good product with exceptional back-up support and account management. Not every decision will be a win — even when you’re accustomed to getting things right. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and focus on what is working.”

Pulling together the threads of success

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According to Mike, Striata’s South African success was based on a simple formula: To successfully run (and grow) a business, you need to keep moving forward — hire the next person, make the next contact, add new partners where applicable, run a good business with a good team that’s focused on execution. You also need a good product, back-up support and account management.

“The minimum level of all these parts working together allows you to service your customer. The maximum level creates a customer who loves you and gives you more business,” says Mike.

“There isn’t one secret to success. You need to get lots of little (and big) things right. A minimum level of service requires repeatability, a focus on service, references, and a good product. The problem is that when you think most of them are ticked, you end up finding one you ignored.”

For Striata, that has not been people. The company’s senior team are all veterans of the business. “A business becomes easy to run — and infinitely more scalable, especially across multiple territories — when your core management team have been with you for a long time. We value our team, offer the right rewards, create wealth for them and give them a career path, and we have the foundation of a phenomenal business.”

However, before you can get your people, systems, processes and service right, you need to start with a product and a business model.

“When I launched Striata I knew I wanted a business based on annuity income. I’d been MD of VWV Interactive, a web design company, and in my 18 months there I’d learnt that when your business is built around projects, you’re either snowed under with work, or scrambling for your next project. I did not want to pursue that business model.”

Prior to VWV, Mike was employed as an accountant at Coopers & Lybrand (pre- PwC), where he was part of their Computer Assurance Services. This was the beginning of computer auditing. “The Internet had come along, and we needed a website. I straddled tech and marketing, so this became my project. Next, we developed eTaxman, a form that calculated your tax return online. It went viral before the term viral even existed. I was on TV, at conferences and on the radio talking about eTaxman. Coopers was at the top of the game and experts in the ‘Internet’.”

The exposure brought VWV knocking. A team of brilliant young designers, they decided they needed more structure in the business. Being 28 and tech savvy meant Mike qualified for the position. “They were the best in the business in terms of creative design, but they needed to build a business around those capabilities as the market shifted to eCommerce,” he says. “It was a fantastic 18 months, but I realised I needed more — I wanted to build something of my own.” At the time, Mike was at the forefront of what corporates could do with tech, and how the Internet was changing the way companies did business and interacted with their customers. “I was looking for a gap, and concentrating on where there were — and weren’t — already players in the market.” Paying attention led the young entrepreneur to a key question: Who was handling corporate focused emails?

Related: 21 Inspiring Quotes About Success, Persistence And What It Means To Be An Entrepreneur

“Corporate South Africa caught on to email quickly — it was an excellent way for companies to communicate with customers and constantly tell them what they were doing, and how they were building a better online experience. The problem was that a corporate exchange server can’t handle 100 000 messages in a queue, particularly when that bulk message could delay the CEO’s very important email. We needed to provide a service that could deliver personalised bulk emails.”

With his idea in hand, Mike’s first move was to ‘take a loan from the taxman’ by delaying his provisional tax payments. “I spoke to SARS, acknowledging the debt, and they charged me interest. I wouldn’t recommend this avenue to everyone. You have to be extremely disciplined to pay it off as agreed, and the interest was high, but it worked for me.”

He also reached out to his network, and secured some corporate funding. It was enough to hire a techie who understood email. “We bought a license for ‘list-serving’ software that allowed for personalisation, and entered the market with our solution.”

Since pre-launch, Mike has consistently asked himself these two questions: What do we do/sell? Is there a market for that? “The secret to any business success is being able to take an idea or concept, put it together, connect the dots and get someone else to pay for it. Then you need to ensure you can repeat what you’ve just done, and that you have access to the resources you’ll need to do so. Build it, sell it more than once, and then iterate. That’s where you create value.”

The foundations of growth

There’s a second set of questions Mike asks himself, and these are the foundations for growth: Where are my constraints? What’s stopping me from getting to the next level? “Within our first year, it became clear that not being able to make changes to the licensed software was constraining us. We needed to be more flexible. If you have your own code, you’re in control. Ninety percent of competing software solutions do the same thing. It’s the 10% that gets you the job — you need that 10% to be exceptional, and you need to own it.”

In Mike’s own words, to create the complex and ground-breaking products that Striata is built upon, you need a ‘serious’ rocket scientist. Luckily, Mike knew where to find one — he just needed to wait out the one year non-solicitation he’d agreed on when he left VWV. The second it was over, he approached Nic Ramage to join the business.

“Start-ups generally can’t afford the top experts in their field, even with VC backing, so you need to get creative,” says Mike. “Nic was up for the challenge, but he also came on as a partner and shareholder. If you really want to attract top talent, you need to give them the right incentives.”

From year two Striata started making money. Mike says, “It may be ‘old school’ but whether you have funding or not — or perhaps even more importantly if you do — I believe you must pay your own way by becoming profitable as quickly as possible.” Trained as an accountant, and growing up with a parent in the financial services sector, Mike admits he’s no gunslinger. His approach to business is conservative, and he hates unnecessary risks. But he’s also very focused on growth. “You need to do the work, bill your clients, pay salaries and then put what’s left into R&D. As our development team grew we needed to fund this from normal operations. Perhaps this constrained our growth, but we built a stable base, which worked in our favour when we started focusing on international expansion.”

Striata has chosen to stay focused and niche. “We’ve built up domain experience. It’s tough to be a mile wide and a mile deep — you have to choose between being a generalist or a specialist. We’ve chosen specialist. But, this doesn’t mean we haven’t added new solutions to our overall offering.

“We recently introduced a secure document storage solution in the Cloud — like a document vault. Online archiving and storage is the second leg of our product set. Our differentiator has always been security. All documents we send or store (such as bank statements invoices and insurance policies), are encrypted and password protected.

“We’ve learnt to listen to our customers. That’s how we grew from emails to encrypted documents. Then we realised they needed a way to store documents, so we built a solution to that. We’re also clear on the fact that we do message delivery — not only email. Our model is being ready for the next mode of communication. We need to have solutions before our customers ask for them.

“Our value proposition is to enable communication as an efficient customer service and an engaging customer experience. There’s more interaction between companies and customers than ever before. The actual protocol might change (email, SMS, WhatsApp), but our product is communication. We can go deep within this niche area of expertise.”

Striata’s plan was simple: Develop the secure attachment market in South Africa, until it become a de facto standard. By focusing on a need and creating the right products to address it, while adding functionality customers could benefit from, this is exactly what happened.

“The first time we offered an encryption service was for Diners Club statements. Their parent company, Standard Bank, also liked the idea and issued an RFP.” And this is where Striata moved up a level — its competitors were IBM, who were going to build a similar solution, but hadn’t yet, and an international company, ACI, who had no track record in South Africa.

“We were ahead of the curve, and this secured us the Standard Bank project. We were local and we sold the hell out of our software and capabilities.” Today, Striata counts a number of South Africa’s top banks as clients.

Related: The Mindset Strategy From The “Rock Star” Coach Can Turn Your Beliefs Into Results

International expansion

From 2004, Mike aggressively sought growth avenues. His five-year-old business was established, and servicing much of corporate South Africa. “There are two ways to grow: Add a product to sell to your current clients, or look at new geographies. We did both.”

There are a few major points that work in Striata’s favour. “Our currency gives us a margin that international competitors can’t match.” That said, many other international tech companies, including Amazon, have set up development hubs in Cape Town to take advantage of local skills and the exchange rate.

Second, South Africa operates in the same time zone as the UK and Europe, so tech support is only a phone call or email away.

“When we started looking overseas, we were a relatively young software company that had a software as a service (SaaS) offering. We knew we had the capability to sell anywhere and everywhere, and we had a cost advantage based on the rand exchange rate. We had the ideal business model for international expansion, we just needed to gain traction.”

By 2008 Striata — and Mike in particular — reached a crossroads. The US was growing, the Australian business was struggling, and the UK presented a fantastic opportunity, yet many deals just didn’t close. “I realised I could make a difference in the UK market. South Africa had a strong, established team. I wasn’t needed there anymore to continue the day-to-day operations of the business.” Mike has spent the past nine years in the UK, and travels between all of Striata’s operating territories. “We’ve got a good base, but we’re just getting started. Communication is shifting so quickly; we have to stay on our toes to ensure we’re the ones spearheading new solutions and growing our markets.”

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

Lessons Learnt

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.

Christopher Tracy

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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

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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.

Related: 6 Money Management Tips For First-Time Entrepreneurs

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

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When it comes to your finances, take a lesson from the likes of OprahTyga 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.

Related: 15 Wise Money Quotes From Millionaires And Billionaires

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.

Related: 6 Habits Long-Time Millionaires Rely On To Stay Rich

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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.

John Rampton

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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.

Related: 6 Leadership Lessons From Bill Gates On His 60th Birthday

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

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Today’s successful leaders have embraced Franklin’s five-hour rule by breaking the rule into three buckets.

1. Read: 

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.”

Related: 20 Crazy Things We’ve Learned About Alibaba Billionaire Jack Ma

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.

2. Reflect: 

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?”

3. Experiment: 

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.

Read next: What Elon Musk Can Teach You About Getting Funding for Your Start-up

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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.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • 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.

Related: Watch List: 20 SA Tech Entrepreneurs Making It Big In The Industry

University start-ups

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

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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.”

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Black Entrepreneurs To Watch

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

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“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.”

Related: Student Investor Built Their Business By Burning Their Ships

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.”


Top Tips

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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